Rocky Mountain Insight Rocky Mountain Insight

January, 2014

The Art of Presence

by David Brooks JAN. 20, 2014, NY Times

Tragedy has twice visited the Woodiwiss family. In 2008, Anna Woodiwiss,
then 27, was working for a service organization in Afghanistan. On April 1,
she went horseback riding and was thrown, dying from her injuries. In 2013,
her younger sister Catherine, then 26, was biking to work from her home in
Washington. She was hit by a car and her face was severely smashed up. She
has endured and will continue to endure a series of operations. For a time,
she breathed and ate through a tube, unable to speak. The recovery is slow.
The victims of trauma, she writes in a remarkable blog post for Sojourners,
experience days “when you feel like a quivering, cowardly shell of yourself,
when despair yawns as a terrible chasm, when fear paralyzes any chance for
pleasure. This is just a fight that has to be won, over and over and over

Her mother, Mary, talks about the deep organic grief that a parent feels when
they have lost one child and seen another badly injured, a pain felt in bones
and fiber.

But suffering is a teacher. And, among other things, the Woodiwisses drew a
few lessons, which at least apply to their own experience, about how those
of us outside the zone of trauma might better communicate with those inside
the zone. There are no uniformly right responses, but their collective
wisdom, some of it contained in Catherine’s Sojourners piece, is quite

Do be there. Some people think that those who experience trauma need
space to sort things through. Assume the opposite. Most people need
presence. The Woodiwisses say they were awed after each tragedy by the
number of people, many of whom had been mere acquaintances, who
showed up and offered love, from across the nation and the continents. They
were also disoriented by a number of close friends who simply weren’t
there, who were afraid or too busy.

Anna and Catherine’s father, Ashley, says he could detect no pattern to help
predict who would step up and provide the ministry of presence and who
would fumble. Neither age, experience nor personal belief correlated with
sensitivity and love.

Don’t compare, ever. Don’t say, “I understand what it’s like to lose a child.
My dog died, and that was hard, too.” Even if the comparison seems more
germane, don’t make it. Each trauma should be respected in its uniqueness.
Each story should be heard attentively as its own thing. “From the inside,”
Catherine writes, comparisons “sting as clueless, careless, or just plain

Do bring soup. The non-verbal expressions of love are as healing as
eloquence. When Mary was living with Catherine during her recovery, some
young friend noticed she didn’t have a bathmat. He went to Target and got a
bathmat. Mary says she will never forget that.

Do not say “you’ll get over it.” “There is no such thing as ‘getting over it,’ ”
Catherine writes, “A major disruption leaves a new normal in its wake.
There is no ‘back to the old me.’ ”

Do be a builder. The Woodiwisses distinguish between firefighters and
builders. Firefighters drop everything and arrive at the moment of crisis.
Builders are there for years and years, walking alongside as the victims live
out in the world. Very few people are capable of performing both roles.
Don’t say it’s all for the best or try to make sense out of what has happened.
Catherine and her parents speak with astonishing gentleness and quiet
thoughtfulness, but it’s pretty obvious that these tragedies have stripped
away their tolerance for pretense and unrooted optimism.

Ashley also warned against those who would overinterpret, and try to make
sense of the inexplicable. Even devout Christians, as the Woodiwisses are,
should worry about taking theology beyond its limits. Theology is a
grounding in ultimate hope, not a formula book to explain away each
individual event.

I’d say that what these experiences call for is a sort of passive activism. We
have a tendency, especially in an achievement-oriented culture, to want to
solve problems and repair brokenness — to propose, plan, fix, interpret,
explain and solve. But what seems to be needed here is the art of presence
— to perform tasks without trying to control or alter the elemental situation.
Allow nature to take its course. Grant the sufferers the dignity of their own
process. Let them define meaning. Sit simply through moments of pain and
uncomfortable darkness. Be practical, mundane, simple and direct.
Ashley and Mary went to Afghanistan a few months after Anna’s death.
They remember that as a time out of time. They wept together with Afghan
villagers and felt touched by grace. “That period changed me and opened
my imagination,” Ashley recalls. “This thing called presence and love is
more available than I had thought. It is more ready to be let loose than I ever

Ruth Denison Quotes on Dukkha

Dear Sangha,

Here are some quotes from Ruth Denison, one of our lineage teachers who is still alive and teaching today, about dukkha. We offer them for your contemplation:

Dukkha is the pain of wanting things to be different, other than they are.

Suffering comes from feeling the unpleasant, wanting things to be other than they are, and then pushing away the unpleasant.

Right understanding starts with dukkha- dissatisfaction with ourselves and others.

When we accept dukkha, compassion arises.

The key to wisdom is to get deeply in touch with dukkha. Then the selfless nature of our being emerges.

My dukkha creates dukkha for others.

Bow to the difficulties of the day. Feel and accept the dukkha and the discomfort.

Looking at dukkha is painful, but actually it is an act of kindness towards ourselves.

If you don’t look at dukkha it will continue to bother you.

Needing to be right is a tremendous source of suffering.

Attachment to opinions and defending them is a tremendous source of dukkha.

Having felt your own pain deeply, you can feel the pain of others.

Dukkha only goes away with our practice of seeing the truth beneath the superficial.

Thank you Ruth.

Ben Mikolaj

Associate Spiritual Director

The Practice of Patience – Part 2

This post is Part 2 of 2. Read the first post here »

In the big scheme of my life, these are minor. I can do a few basic repairs, and of course, call my handy man for the really complicated stuff. Thank God for my handy man! I can say, “This is such a little thing. What does it have to do with the rest of my life?” It is connected. It’s a window of awareness into the major things involving impatience in my life.

And so I ask “how many other things…more important things…am I impatient with? And then I notice my impatience in driving or eating or during a conversation. Wanting someone to be different than they are or a situation to be different or myself to be different than I am. This degree of irritation causes me suffering and those around me, robbing myself and others of happiness. My experiences then, of course, become strained and unrelaxed and certainly not much fun.

So as I notice and identify conditions of impatience, I am cultivating how I can do these things more patiently, such as being with my yoga practice just as it is that day, or not setting myself up to rush around by over-scheduling, trying to cram all that I can into my day, really listening when a friend needs to talk, and allowing people and myself to be just who we are in the moment.

As I cultivate patience, I am noticing that it gives rise to both wisdom and compassion. I tend to see things a bit more clearly and be kinder to myself and others. And from this, arises more generosity….all out of this simple but deep practice of patience.

We are cultivating the quality of patience every time we meditate…sitting or walking. Every time we become aware of our breath and bring our monkey mind back to our breath, we are cultivating both patience and mindfulness. And this invitation to ourselves to be more open, more in touch, more patient with our moments naturally extends itself to other times in our lives as well.

We come to know that things unfold according to their own nature and we can remember to let our lives unfold in the same way. Kabat-Zinn says it wisely: “We don’t have to let our anxieties and our desire for certain results dominate the quality of the moment, even when things are painful. When we have to push, we push. When we have to pull, we pull. But we know when not to push too, and when not to pull. Through it all, we attempt to bring balance to the present moment, understanding that in cultivating patience lies wisdom, knowing that what will come next will be determined in large measure by how we are now.”

I’d like to end by sharing two poems that touch on the quality of patience.

The first is by Rainer Maria Rilke.

“I beg you….to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search right now for the answers, which could not be given to you, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without ever noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

And the second by Walt Whitman from Leaves of Grass.

I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware, I sit content.
And if each and all be aware, I sit content.
One world is aware, and by far the largest to me,
and that is myself.
And whether I come to my own today or in ten thousand
or ten million years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness,
I can wait.

Car Break-Ins at RMI

Dear Sangha,

This past Wednesday, 8 January 2014, three cars were broken into in the RMI parking lot during the evening meditation. Two laptops, a backpack, and some medication were stolen.Both our sangha members and others were affected. Despite our silent meditation practice, no one heard anything unusual. We would like to remind everyone that you are welcome to bring your valuables into RMI with you rather than leave them in the car.

Here is a link from some tips on preventing car break-ins:


Our hearts go out to those who were affected. Thank you to all who stayed to support both our sangha members and the others who were impacted. It was a cold night and it took over two hours for the police to arrive. During this time RMI was a welcome warm refuge for all.


This is an excellent opportunity to practice metta for everyone involved.




The Practice of Patience – Part 1

A metaphor often used in Buddhist teachings is a pond of water. The Buddha likened a pond to the mind….when it is clear, we see things as they are and struggle less. When there is craving in the mind, the pond has been filled with dye. Most of life is this dance, back and forth, between seeing things clearly and then being cloudy in our understanding of not only what is true but when and how to act during this process. One of the most helpful practices of bringing skill to this dance is the simple but deep practice of patience. Lao-Tzu captured this sentiment in his poem from the Tao-te-Ching:

“Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?”

Certain attitudes and mental qualities support meditation practice and provide a rich soil in which mindfulness can thrive. Patience is one of these attitudes. We are actually tilling the soil of our mind so that with patience as a foundation, the seeds of other wholesome and ethical qualities emerge….right understanding, right thought, right speech and right action, and right livelihood.

If one cultivates patience, one can’t help but cultivate mindfulness. After all, if you really aren’t trying to get anywhere else in the moment, patience takes care of itself. It is remembering that things unfold in their own time. Seasons come and go and along with them, leaves and plants bud and bloom and then die and grow dormant until the spring comes again. All of this can’t be hurried.

This simple fact and experience reminds us that our being in a hurry usually doesn’t help, and in some cases, can cause a great deal of suffering…sometimes in us and those who are around us.

This is a practice I am intentionally cultivating right now since my habitual way of being in the world has often been impatient, which in its deepest sense is not wanting things to be the way they are. Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book Wherever You Go There You Are says “Scratch the surface of impatience and what you will find lying beneath it, subtly or not so subtly, is anger. It is this strong energy of not wanting things to be the way they are and blaming someone, often ourselves, or some thing for it.”

One of my more typical impatient scenarios is trying to fix something mechanical that has broken or even worse, assembling something—changing a tire, fixing my lawn mower, attaching a new latch on my fence gate, etc. Really very simple things that keep my life running smoothly, and yet….not so simple for me. Whether there is truly a mechanical ineptitude in terms of visual-spatial skills in me or whether there is a mental/emotional obstacle because of lack of experience, or probably both, I get really impatient in performing these tasks or even just thinking about them. Oh yes, and then there is the computer. I won’t even go into that.

I notice the aversion arising, the tendency toward avoidance, and the absolute irritation of definitely not wanting it to be broken. I sometimes think and even say out loud, “Why are you being so difficult? Don’t you know that this is not one of my strengths? Why can’t you just cooperate and get fixed easily and quickly? Or how dare you break in the first place?

Well, we know that’s not how physical things work. Of course they break down. I know that! Why am I so impatient and getting so irritated? Ahh…wanting it to be different and all the old associations and mental formations I bring into that.

This is Part 1 of 2. Check back soon for Part 2!

Words of The Buddha: The First Noble Truth

Hello wonderful Sangha.

I hope everyone’s new year is kicking off to a great start. I’d like to just post a few quotes from the suttas about the 1st Noble Truth. These are excellent for contemplation and (if you are really inspired) memorization. Several teachers I have studied with have stressed the importance of the words of the Buddha and that great merit is generated by memorizing his words. At the very least, becoming familiar with the suttas helps direct our mind towards the Dharma. So here are a few quotes regarding the 1st Noble Truth. Feel free to share them!

“Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.” -Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta

“‘Dukkha should be known. The cause by which dukkha comes into play should be known. The diversity in dukkha should be known. The result of dukkha should be known. The cessation of dukkha should be known. The path of practice for the cessation of dukkha should be known.’ Thus it has been said.” -Nibbedhika Sutta

May all realize the end of dukkha and find happiness and peace.

Ben Mikolaj
Associate Spiritual Director and Dharma Leader
Rocky Mountain Insight

Monthly Dharma Practice Themes 2014

Welcome to 2014 everyone! Happy New Year!

This new year brings many wonderful changes and innovations at RMI. One of the most visible new elements is the introduction of monthly Dharma Practice Themes. That’s right, every month our Sangha will have a unifying theme for practice and study. You will see blog posts, Facebook updates, and teachings centering around or touching upon the monthly theme. We at RMI intend the monthly Dharma Practice Theme to act as a unifier and harmonizer for the Sangha: when you incorporate the theme into your practice you will be joining in the shared energy of the practice of the Sangha. Like flocks of geese who can fly further in formation than any individual could alone, through the shared practice of our Sangha we will be supporting each other to deepen each individual’s practice of Dharma.

As noted in our newsletter, this year’s themes will be:

January: The First Noble Truth

February: The Second Noble Truth

March: The Third Noble Truth

April: The Fourth Noble Truth

May: Right Understanding

June: Right Intention/Thought

July: Right Speech

August: Right Action

September: Right Livelihood

October: Right Effort

November: Right Mindfulness

December: Right Concentration

May RMI grow as a community of mindful harmony and support the practice of all beings in their journey towards happiness and awakening!

Ben Mikolaj

Associate Spiritual Director and Dharma Leader

Rocky Mountain Insight