Hypocrisy at its Best

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of hypocrisy is “the practice of claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case.”  I can only speak for myself, but I think it is very difficult to avoid being a hypocrite!  Imagine a world where everyone claimed that their standard of behavior or belief was only as lofty as their actual behavior.  I like the idea that we claim higher ideals than we’re able to accomplish.  It makes me think of one of my favorite words, aspiration.

When I think of the way I would like to be as a person I am considering my aspirational self.  That version of me is quite wonderful!  He is thoughtful, generous, kind, amusing, erudite, well read: in other words, quite perfect!  But I fail over and over again to live up to this aspirational image as I go about the business of each ordinary day.  I fail over and over again, and regret that I cannot quite meet these standards I set for myself.  And I’m in good company.  No less of a man that Saul of Tarsus, St. Paul to Christians, said “for I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans, 7:15).

I have a theory on this that I believe makes sense.  I think that the root of hypocrisy begins, ironically, with aspirational thinking.  I have come to believe that in general people are kindhearted and have a motivation toward “the good.”  At our best we have a strong knowing, maybe even a felt experience, of who we can be at our best, and we want to be at our best, especially with the people we most love.  But we fail for so many reasons.  I think the most common reason is simply fatigue.  We get tired physically and emotionally, and fail to meet our standards.  We get discouraged by life and its many setbacks, sometimes of our own making and sometimes seemingly at random.  And, again, we fail to live up to our own standards.  The fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous cites an acronym associated with addiction relapse: HALT, or H(ungry), A(ngry), L(onely), T(ired).  Indeed, when any of these conditions are present, we are more likely to fail to live up to our aspirational self.

But we absolutely should set aspirations!  For in the setting of an aspiration we may fail repeatedly, but the intention to live in a loftier way alone lifts the level of our lived experience.  For it is my aspirations that inspire me to be kind, generous, and thoughtful.  It is my aspirations that give me the extra energy at the end of a long day to make one more phone call to offer comfort to someone suffering or advice to someone who feels lost.  My aspirations alone help me to be a better man.  Those same aspirations that sound like accusations in the midst of my failure are the same voices whispering in my ear to persevere in hard times, go the distance, be the best man I can possibly be.

Which brings me back to your mindfulness practice.  If mindfulness is new to you, and you are struggling to find the time and the place to practice mindfulness, do not despair because of your failure to do so.  Continue to aspire to be mindful!  The aspiration alone lifts you up, makes you aware that you could, perhaps should, be engaging the practice, and those thoughts will linger and remind you to take advantage of every opportunity, no matter how small, to reengage the practice.  The intention to be mindful alone will change your way of being.  If you aspire to have a strong mind and gentle heart the pain of your hypocrisy as you fail to be strong and gentle will bring you back to your practice over and over again.  Don’t be afraid to be a hypocrite in the best sense of the word: it is simply your way of living your aspirations.

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A Walk in the Woods

My wife is taking the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program.  As a mindfulness instructor I’ve avoided trying to influence her to do so and I’ve resisted the temptation to ask her “how is it going?”  Yesterday was her all-day retreat and I did ask afterward what she thought of the training.  She answered that it was quite helpful, and she was grateful for getting the instruction.  She complained mildly, however, about the walking meditation.  “I just don’t care for it because my mind wanders a lot.”

Ironically walking meditation is my most favored form of meditating.  Each meditator tends to have a favored form of meditation and, to some extent, our own way of being mindful.  As a teacher I know that meditation is a simple practice, but also that it is difficult to convey to people what exactly it is we are doing in the moment that we are being mindful.  Since it is a felt experience rather than a cognitive construct, mindfulness instructors turn to metaphors and analogies, always giving guidance and encouragement to our students to persist in the practice.

It is simple to instruct a student in walking meditation if you only focus on the form.  “Walk slowly, deliberately.  Notice all of the sensations.  Start with your feet.  Notice how they feel when they touch the ground and when they balance as you very slowly roll from heel to toe…..”

Today I spent an hour walking mindfully on a path near my home that winds its way through a wooded area.  The trees were festooned with garlands of orange and yellow and green autumnal beauty.  The sweet smell of organic matter decomposing and rotting filled my senses, and made me yearn for my walk to be slower and even more attentive.  Then, with great swiftness and surprise, a flash of white brought my attention to the periphery of my vision.  I stopped and peered through the trees and spotted a white-tailed deer, a doe, about 40 yards from me.  She, too, had stopped and was gazing at me, equally attentive.  I lowered myself to a squatting posture, and returned her gaze.  Our eyes were locked together, and all I could feel was a desire to be as non-threatening to her as I could be, in hopes that she would feel as calm and mindful as I felt.  Our locked gazes lasted for a minute, and then she lowered her head and began to forage in the brush for food.

I began to walk again, still very slowly, but my walking took on a renewed intention.  I was walking in a direction parallel to the doe, as she walked slowly, continuing to forage.  I began to walk with the spirit of ahimsa, the Sanskrit word usually translated as “non-injury.”  I wanted each step to convey to the doe that I was no threat to her.  I wanted my breath and my pulse to be calmed, my heartbeat filled with compassion and warmth.  I wanted to walk as if I could approach her in a clearing in the woods, and she would know I presented no threat, and would only help her if she needed help and I could do so in some way.  As I walked I could feel every fiber of my body, in a way of my being, having the sincere desire to be a source of safety and compassion for this doe in the woods.

After a few minutes she trotted off, probably to find another area with more abundant feed.  I continued to walk, noticing the residual of feeling in my body from my experience of caring for this lovely creature.  And I realized that when we walk in meditation we should imagine that we are walking toward some person or some being that we treasure, who needs to know that we present no threat.  We need to walk with hearts filled with felt-compassion for all creatures, intending to be a source of ahimsa for the world.  If you walk in this way your meditation will bring great peace to your heart and mind, and your life will be filled with great comfort and ease.

Peace,

Jim

It’s Not What the Teacher Says…

It’s what the student hears.

It was a short mindfulness session.  About 20 people showed up for one hour of instruction.  What is mindfulness?  Why would I want to practice this?  How do I do this?

So we started with a simple breath meditation.  Not long, maybe 8 or 10 minutes.  Allowing eyes to close if you’re comfortable with that.  Or just gazing downward a bit, relaxed focus.  The bell rings softly.

Sitting with intention.  Paying attention to the body breathing.  Not changing anything.  Just letting the body breathe the way it does on its own.

Breathes in.  Breathes out.  Notice how the body pauses, takes a short rest.

Mind wanders; that’s what minds do.  That’s OK.  Just notice it.  If it helps, say in your mind’s voice “that’s OK, that’s OK.  It’s just what minds do.”

Notice how your body feels sitting like this.  Feeling supported by this chair.  By this floor.  By this earth.  Letting the chair and the floor and the earth do the work.  And breathing.  No effort.

Just being present.  No task to accomplish.  No “good mindfulness” or “bad mindfulness.”  Just noticing, accepting.

The bell rings again.  Attention returns to the room.  What was it like to use your mind that way?

Nobody speaks at first.  Encouragement is offered.  Maybe that was pleasant, maybe unpleasant.  Doesn’t matter.  What was it like for you?

A young woman speaks first.  Very unpleasant.  My leg itched.  I think a hair caused it.  And you said “don’t move” so I couldn’t move, and it bothered me.

Except for one thing:  I never said “don’t move.”

I smiled before I responded.  She clearly heard “don’t move” yet it wasn’t my voice she heard, it was her own.  The voice that tells a story that explains the events unfolding.  Perhaps she heard “this is meditation.  It is very important, very sacred.  You must behave properly.  Don’t move!”

Or maybe she heard “there must be perfect silence and stillness in the room for this to work.  If I move then I might disturb someone and they won’t get the great results you get from meditation.  Don’t move!”

Many moments of our lives bring events and people that place demands on us, and these demands can be very stressful.  Sometimes we have stories that explain these events, these people, these demands.  These stories make it easier for us to react quickly, and most of the time the story is true, or at least true enough, to get us through any situation.  The problem with these stories is that they’re all preconceived, based on past experiences, and never capture what is actually happening with complete accuracy.  These stories are a kind of conditioned response and they are often ways to keep us safe, to keep us from being hurt.

Being mindful helps us to notice our stories as they arise.  We have a chance, when we’re mindful, to avoid going into our personal story-land and instead work with what actually is happening, instead of our story about it.  But we can’t make this correction if we don’t know there is a story that needs correcting.  By working with out minds in the way that we do when we sit and collect our breath and direct our minds with acceptance, we come to know the stories that we tell, the stories that are typical for each one of us.  And then, with acceptance, we can laugh a bit at our own folly and just live in the moment, live in truth, live in peace.

I never said “don’t move,” and in hearing her own story, perhaps my student for that hour learned a little bit more about the voice she actually heard, the voice of her conditioned learning.  Maybe hearing her story as “just a story” will help her to recognize other stories and live in authenticity and acceptance.  And, really, this is the only way to really live: knowing that each moment of our lives, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant, is worthy of our attention and presence.  Our commitment to live with this level of authenticity allows us to have life, and have it abundantly.

Peace,

Jim

The Cocktail Party in my Mind

Lately I have been happily reading “The Undoing Project” (Michael Lewis, WW Norton & Company, 2017), a book which details the collaboration between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and their groundbreaking work which created the field of behavioral economics.  That may sound a little bit like off-center reading for a pastoral counselor and mindfulness teacher, but Kahneman and Tversky’s work has changed the way the field of psychology understands how people perceive reality and make judgments.  It was in this book that I read about a principle in psychology known as the “cocktail party effect.”

So, what is the cocktail party effect?  I’ll paraphrase from Lewis’s book.  The cocktail party effect is the ability of people to filter out a lot of noise from the sounds they wish to hear – as they do when they listen to someone at a cocktail party.  On the evening of the same day that I read Lewis’s account of the cocktail party effect I happened to go to a cocktail party, where I settled into a conversation with my good friend and neighbor Dave.  I love to talk to Dave, as we both appreciate each other’s sense of humor.  It’s good, once in a while, to talk to someone who truly thinks you’re witty whatever the actual truth may be!

In any case, as I tuned in to what Dave was telling me I could still hear all of the voices and noise in the house, which was filled to capacity with nearly 50 senior citizens.  Occasionally my focus on Dave’s voice wandered a bit, especially when a word that meant something to me broke into my awareness.  Someone said “baseball” and my mind shifted attention in that direction.  Someone else said “Jim” (there were at least 4 men there named Jim) and off went my attention again.  Someone said “dessert” and you know what happened next.  But all in all my attention stayed fixed on Dave and what he was saying, and as usual we enjoyed each other’s company.

I think you can see where I’m going with this.  The cocktail party effect, our capacity to focus on an object of attention despite the background noise, is a wonderful metaphor for mindfulness meditation.  In our meditation we shift our focus to some mental object, usually the breath, but maybe body sensations, sense perceptions, thoughts, feelings….; it doesn’t matter where we focus our attention, so long as we do so intentionally and without judgment.  As we do so we get distracted by some mental object that gets our attention, such as remembering that we have yet to make our grocery list, or the image of someone we like comes to mind, or an aroma from the oven wafts through my senses and now I’m focused on feeling hungry.  Now my attention shifts away from my primary focus of attention, and without judging myself or the mental object I’ve shifted attention to, I return my focus to Dave….I mean to my breath.

There is a cocktail party in my mind!  When I sit to meditate there is so much background noise!  And whenever the background noise throws something up to my attention that is interesting, my mind wanders yet again.  But I return to my breath, without judging, over and over again.  In time the background  noise largely subsides, as if the guests at the cocktail party have said to one another “hush, Jim’s trying to focus now.”

This is our practice: to stay present, to be aware of all of the noise in our minds, and without passing judgment.  Our practice trains our minds and bodies to stay fully present with “what is,” with an attitude that knows clearly and succinctly that each person, each event, and each moment are worthy of our noticing.  Sometimes the moment is unpleasant, even painful, and at other times quite pleasant, maybe even pleasurable.  It does not matter to the mindful person; all moments are ready to be fully experienced.  Only then can we gain the wisdom to understand fully, and the capacity to respond with compassion unconditionally.

Peace,

Jim

Mindfulness is an Act of Love

Whenever I introduce mindfulness meditation to a group of people largely unfamiliar with the practice there are certain types of responses that are pretty typical when I ask the question “What was it like to use your mind that way?”  Some will say “relaxing,” some will say “awful,” and others will say pretty much everything in between.  Occasionally someone will tell me that “I’m not very good  at this,” and I think that’s the most important response of all.

What does it mean to be “good” at mindfulness meditation?  I hope that someone can tell me, because I surely don’t know!  I’ve been meditating for quite a while and I don’t think I’m particularly “good” at it either if I were to apply the standards that people seem to use.

At a recent gathering I led a brief breath meditation for a group of mostly non-meditators.  After I asked what it was like to use your mind that way a woman I’ll call “Deb” told me she wasn’t very good at meditating, and as she did so she looked down at the floor, in a way that seemed to me to indicate that she was embarrassed at her “failure.”  I asked her what she meant and she said “my mind kept wandering off throughout the meditation.”  I asked her “did you notice it wandering off?”  She said she did, every time.  “And then you returned your attention to your breath, and then it wandered again?”  She said “yes, over and over again.”  Then I asked her “when you noticed it had wandered, did you think “I’m awful at this” or did you think “that’s OK, that’s OK Deb, that’s just what minds do”?  She answered the latter, that she had told herself it was OK to have a wandering mind.  I asked her how it felt to tell herself it was OK to have a wandering mind, and she said “it felt good.”

After this exchange I smiled broadly and exclaimed “Deb, you’re an expert meditator!”  “I am?”  I said “of course you are.  You noticed your wandering mind every time, and returned it to your breath every time, without judging yourself.  That’s what it means to be mindful: to notice the activity of mind in the present moment, without judging yourself.  That was hard work, but you persisted.  Well done!”  Deb looked happy, relieved, and, frankly, hopeful.  I asked her what it would be like to practice for 10 or 15 minutes every morning and every evening, training the mind to be present and not judging.  She said that might be a good thing to do, and she might give it a try.

In that moment, as Deb looked at me feeling at ease, I asked her “who is your harshest critic, Deb?”  I asked her that because she had shown such a shame response earlier when she told me that she wasn’t very good at meditating.  Deb looked away from me, toward the floor, and said “I am.”  I looked around the room and so many faces were looking down, and I realized how self shaming so many of us are.  I turned back to Deb and asked her if training her mind to say “that’s OK Deb, that’s OK” might be helpful to her.  Crying softly now, Deb told me that she never thinks like that, in a self forgiving way, but that she would work on this and maybe become less self shaming, gentler with herself.  She smiled and said “maybe if I trained my mind to be kind to myself I’d be kinder to other people too.”

Imagine that.  Imagine training your mind to be aware in the moment, but always with the intention to accept and forgive.  In other words, imagine having a strong mind and a tender heart.  Imagine that when someone is unkind to you or antagonistic or angry, if instead of feeling defensive or ashamed of yourself, you were able to stay present with that person (strong minded) and wonder “what has happened to this person?” (tender hearted) instead of “what’s wrong with this person?” (hard hearted).  I’ve come to the conclusion after many years of observation that the unkindness or antagonism or anger of another person is not about me, and is evidence in the moment of their suffering.  Imagine having a compassionate response in those moments.  How would that affect your relationship life?

Practicing mindfulness is an act of love.  In our formal practice we cultivate a deep feeling of compassion toward ourselves, a gentleness to our own suffering and anguish.  In so doing, we are able then to practice metta, or lovingkindness meditation, in which we allow ourselves to feel deep compassion for the people in our lives.  Having brought compassion to the deepest parts of our own being, we become more deeply compassionate in a world that is thirsting for love and forgiveness.  As our capacity for love strengthens, we truly come to understand what Gandhi meant when he said “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  For as our gaze becomes compassionate, and our neighbors feel our compassion, you’ll notice more often than not compassion is returned.  Your love returned for love, your love returned for hatred, love simply returned in every moment.

This may seem unlikely to you, but take time to gaze at a newborn infant.  Notice how it returns your gaze, and how its gaze has nothing but attention and love in it.  Then you’ll know that lovingkindness is not earned, it is our birthright.  And with a mindfulness meditation practice, you’ll come back to your original self, back to the loving being you were born to be.

Peace,

Jim

Watch Me Pop Pop, Watch Me!

On Thanksgiving Day my wife and I traveled to visit our daughter and her husband, but most important of all, our grandson Ian.  Ian is about two and a half years old, and I don’t think I exaggerate when I say he’s the cutest and most wonderful two and a half year old boy on the planet.  He is witty and wise, adventurous, always curious, and most of the time very gentle.  Spotting a band aid on my finger that day he looked mournfully at me, pulled my finger to his lips and kissing it said “I a little sad.  Pop pop has a boo boo.”

So on that Thanksgiving Day, while waiting for the massive turkey our son in law was roasting, my wife (mom mom) and I took Ian into his yard to run off some energy and have some fun.  We ran and played and enjoyed a delightful autumn day.  But then Ian got serious, pointing out all of the acorns on the ground under an oak tree and telling us that “the ‘quirrels like to eat the acorns.”  It should be noted that Ian hasn’t yet figured out how to say the letter “s” when it begins a word.  So you may think he is looking for his “tool,” but he actually wants his “stool.”

In any case, Ian went on to say that “the ‘quirrels are hungry” and that if we picked up the acorns and put them in a pile then “the ‘quirrels will be very happy.”  Ian then directed his mom mom to go “over there” to pick up the acorns.  When I volunteered to do the same Ian put up his right hand, very dramatically, in the universally recognized sign to “STOP,” and said with great firmness, “NO, pop pop, you stay here and watch.”  This led my wife to retort “once again the women work while the men watch,” a charge I accept as likely to be true.  So I stayed in my place, and waited to see what would happen next.

After making sure that I was in exactly the right spot, Ian proceeded to say with great exuberance “watch me pop pop, watch me!” and then ran toward the acorn gathering spot.  Halfway there he stopped and turned, and I smiled, clapped, and waved, to which he grinned broadly and continued to run, turning to look back to make sure I was still watching.  It was then that I realized something so simple that I overlook it again and again: how much we all yearn to simply be seen.  Ian wanted to be seen, that’s all.  He took such delight each time he looked up and saw me watching him, and saw the delight in my gaze as he gazed in delight back at me.

We all have some basic needs.  Abraham Maslow, in his hierarchy of needs, noted that physiological and safety needs were foundational, but that our need to be loved was paramount to both.  And, in a way, the foundation of loving is simply being willing to see the other person, and the fulfillment of being loved is in knowing that we are seen in return by those who mean the most to us.  Ian’s world of beloved people include his mama and dada, his grandma and grandpa, and his mom mom and pop pop.  For Ian, being seen means everything, and I think simply being seen means everything to each of us.

Safety and being seen.  To those of us who are therapists we know how important these two qualities are.  No therapy client can do the hard work of psychotherapy without feeling safe, without feeling seen.  Safety and seen-ness are felt experiences; the person whose presence transmits these qualities is a very special person indeed.  And it may be that once a person truly feels safe and seen one’s psychic and emotional wounds begin to heal spontaneously.

I am writing this post in mid-December, a time of year called Advent to the billions of Christians around the world.  Many people mistake Advent as “pre-Christmas,” a time to shop and buy and visit Santa Claus at the Mall and go to parties and drink egg nog.  I’m not against these sorts of things; I enjoy them myself.  But from the spiritual perspective Advent is a time of waiting and watching, a time of anticipating the emergence of the Divine in a material world consumed with the mundane.  Who is it that we wait and watch for?  We can answer in religious ways, saying “the baby Jesus” or the angels announcing his birth and sing versions of Handel’s Messiah and feel quite content.  As for me, I’m waiting and watching for the Divine in the form of my neighbor.  And who is my neighbor?  Ask that of Jesus, and you’ll get a story about the outcast, the despised person, a lowly Samaritan.  In this Advent, your Advent, whether you are Christian or not, you may want to ask yourself this question: who is it that you truly watch for?  Who is it that you truly see and make safe?  Your answer to those questions will tell you what it means to you to be spiritual in this world.  Answer carefully, as we live in a day and age when it is dangerous to be the outcast and the despised, and dangerous to be a person seeking to see and make safe the outcast and the despised.

Mindfulness: the intention to “see,” both literally and metaphorically, the entire bandwidth of phenomenal experience.  Not judging what we see, accepting everything that comes within the range of our gaze.  All Ian wants is to be safe and to be seen.  Will you do that for the people you meet today?

Peace,

Jim

PS Here’s a photo of Ian with his Pop Pop getting on “the BIG train!”

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A Simple Solution

A few weeks ago I led a short retreat for a group of people in our Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program along with my teaching partner, Shannon Ayres.  It was a gorgeous November day, a bit blustery and cold but fueled by the inner warmth of our shared spiritual journeys.  We were joined by our current students and by old friends as well, which made the day very special.

During the course of the day one of the current MBSR students described her version of “monkey mind,” an affliction we’ve all experienced.  She said that when her mind wandered repeatedly she discovered a scolding voice that told her “you should stay focused, you should stay focused” over and over again.  With a small smile she described it as “shoulding on myself,” and we all agreed that we’ve done some “shoulding” too.  Then one of our veteran meditators in attendance, Kristen, offered sage advice.  She told us that when she finds her mind wandering she discovers her voice that states “a kinder phrase such as “oh, what an opportunity to be mindful,” turning the criticism into an attitude of curiosity and acceptance and maybe being more likely to to notice that opportunity in the future.”

To me this seemed like such a simple intervention but also a very powerful one.  In our mindfulness training we learn to be focused, and there are tremendous benefits to this focus.  But of equal importance, and maybe even more important, is that we train the mind to be gentle, forgiving, and accepting.  Kristen’s remark reminded me that having monkey mind is actually a benefit, in that we get to be gentle, forgiving, and accepting over and over again, each time our minds wander away from the simple breath that keeps us alive.  By noticing and responding to the wandering mind with Kristen’s gentle voice we become skilled at being gentle, forgiving, and accepting.  Living in a world consumed with being dominant rather than gentle, punitive rather than forgiving, and judgmental rather than accepting, Kristen’s gentle voice is a true antidote to our suffering.

Another simple intervention for our wandering minds is to find your voice that can say “that’s OK, that’s OK” whenever focus is lost.  In the moment we notice our minds are adrift a simple reassurance like this helps us to regain our mindful state and to cultivate a deep state of compassion and caring for ourselves, and ultimately for each other.

By the way, isn’t it wonderful to teach!  My students become my teachers, and leave me in a state of awe when I witness their wisdom.  In an email exchange with Kristen about our recent retreat she went on to share with me her point of view about the phenomenon of shared mindfulness practice in a group setting.  She told me that mindfulness “provides a sense of connectedness, not only to humans but spiritually as well.  Which, for me, provides a sense of hope.  In times of stress or struggle I am able to sit and reconnect with the greatness we are all born from and know that this greatness is bigger than any challenge I am facing.”

There’s nothing I can add to Kristen’s wisdom except to consider how blessed I am to have students who become my teachers.

Peace,

Jim

Daniel

In the fall of 1995 I was in the first year of a Masters degree program, intending to become a Pastoral Counselor.  I was in the last year of my corporate management career, and at the same time doing volunteer work for a local non-profit hospice.  That’s where I met Daniel, an 8 year old boy whose mother was dying slowly and painfully.

The hospice asked me to be with Daniel on Saturdays that fall.  His father was consumed by care taking for his wife and by the two jobs he held in order to make financial ends meet.  Daniel was lonely, and Daniel was angry.  He refused to visit his mother in the bedroom in their home where she had been confined for several months.  She was near death, and Daniel would not see her.  His father was in great distress over Daniel’s anger, but the social workers at the hospice counseled him to give Daniel the space he needed.  I entered into this family during the worst days of their life.

Daniel wanted to do one thing: play baseball.  Yes, it was November and cold and rainy but that didn’t matter to Daniel.  So for six consecutive Saturdays we went to a local baseball field where I pitched and Daniel batted, and then I chased.  Balls were hit into the outfield, into foul ground, under the grandstands, over the fence.  It didn’t matter to Daniel where the balls ended up, as long as he could hit them as hard as he possibly could and run the bases in triumph as I ran and ran to retrieve his latest hit.  He always won the race to home plate; he scored a home run with every strike of the ball.

During that same autumn I knew that I needed to spend time with my own son, who was then 11 years old.  We would take long walks in a county park nearby that was left natural, deeply wooded with old growth trees, with only a few trails snaking through the countryside.  On one of our walks we found an area, maybe 3 or 4 acres in size, where the old growth trees were flattened to the ground, not cut cleanly but toppled by some force of nature, as if a small tornado had touched down a powerful finger which pushed these trees flat to the ground.  My son called this “the land of the fallen trees” and we enjoyed sitting there and wondering what might have happened.

One Saturday in early December I asked Daniel’s father for permission to do something different that day, to take Daniel on a long walk in these same woods.  By then this family had grown to deeply trust me, and his father consented.  Daniel and I hiked in the woods for an hour before coming to the land of the fallen trees, where we sat and contemplated together for a while.  I told Daniel my son’s name for this area, and after a long pause he said that he didn’t think that was the actual name of this place.  Rather, he said, “it’s the tree burial ground.  It’s where the trees go when they die.”  After a longer pause he looked up at me and said “it’s a good place, isn’t it?”  I said that it was, put my arm around his shoulder, and we continued to sit together and contemplate.  Then Daniel told me it was time to go, and we walked out of the deep woods and into the clearing where my car was parked, and Daniel went home.  Later that day his father called to tell me that when he got home Daniel crawled into his mother’s bed, slipped beneath the covers, curled up alongside her and cried.  That day was my last visit with Daniel.

I’ve thought often about this experience.  It’s memory came back the other day when a dear friend talked about the word “numinous,” a word I have to admit that I do not use very often, if at all.  Numinous refers to those felt experiences of “the mysterious,” experiences which inspire awe and inform us that there is more to life than just matter.  A numinous experience is filled with wonder and beauty, and can fundamentally transform a person if the person is receptive and open.  Numinous experiences are central to religious traditions, and can only be described with metaphor and analogy, as they are qualities rather than quantities.  In the midst of this awe one realizes that separateness is an illusion, that all beings and all things are interconnected.  Thomas Merton described this experience with great eloquence in his Asian Journal, when he visited the ancient Buddhist ruins at Polanaruwa barefoot and as a spiritual pilgrim (see the essay “Wanting…Needing” on this website for an excerpt of Merton’s narrative).  In the midst of a numinous experience one is a witness to the grandeur and beauty of being alive.

The numinous experience that we shared that day transformed Daniel’s anger, and the terror he felt about his mother’s dying, into deep sorrow, healthy sorrow.  This numinous experience also transformed me.  Up until that day I thought I was “learning to do Pastoral Counseling.”  But on that day I discovered that I was “becoming a Pastoral Counselor,” an entirely different idea.  I learned that day that waiting and watching, in essence not-doing, can be the best things to do.  I learned to just sit and be present.  I learned that God is always present, if only we can prepare ourselves to be receptive.  I learned how to just “be.”

Peace,

Jim

A Strong Mind and a Tender Heart

Several years ago I put my energy into learning about the psychology of forgiveness.  This search led me to the research of Everett Worthington of Virginia Commonwealth University and Robert Enright of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  Both Drs. Worthington and Enright have published extensively in this area, both in the scientific and popular presses.  Both of them also appeared in the powerful film “The Power of Forgiveness,” released in 2007, which you can still find on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C1-BDwAqaPg).

In The Power of Forgiveness Dr. Enright’s wife, Jeanette Enright, while working with children and educators in Belfast, Ireland, described the mindset of the forgiving person as “being tough minded but tender hearted.”  That phrase really struck me at the time I first heard it in 2007 and has stuck with me ever since.  Working with people as a Pastoral Counselor over the years I’ve heard stories of horrible perpetration, sometimes sitting with the victim/survivor of perpetration, sometimes with the perpetrator.  Except for rare instances, the people I’ve spoken with have grown tired of seeking justice through punishment or compensation for their losses.  Even people who have been compensated or seen their perpetrator punished have told me that it’s an empty outcome, that there’s no real payoff.  What I’ve learned is that healing comes when the heart grows tender once again, and punishment or compensation does nothing to soften one’s heart.

I believe in being tough minded, though I prefer to say strong minded.  I believe that a mind that is strong is one that can withstand disappointments, tolerate emotional and physical discomfort, bend but not break.  I believe that a strong mind sees each person and each event as worthy of attention and acceptance.  I believe that a strong mind is able to respond with compassion whether witnessing the consequences of suffering or the causation of suffering.  I believe that a strong mind is able to be as compassionate to the perpetrator as to the survivor.  The strong mind sees through what is most easily apparent to what is beneath, never judging, always ready to love.  The strong mind is able to notice the current of emotions as they flow, make space for them and honor them, and then respond in ways intended to resolve strong feelings and restore loving relations.

A participant in the MBSR class I’m leading along with my teaching partner Shannon Ayres asked us what having a mindfulness practice is all about.  It was a good question, and not one with any sort of standard answer.  Actually, it is a question that can be answered any number of ways, largely depending on the need and intentionality of the questioner.  But it seems to me that what we’re developing when we practice mindfulness, both in a formal sense and in an informal, moment to moment everyday sense, are strong minds and tender hearts.  We strengthen our minds through the cultivation of steady focus, the mindful gaze upon our breath, our bodies, and our minds.  We soften our hearts through our acceptance of each moment, never judging our thoughts, our distractions, our sensations, our selves.  Each time I sit with the intention to be mindful I am exercising the attention and compassion muscles of my mind.  My intention is to bring this capacity to be fully present and compassionate, cultivated within my own mind, out into the world and to the minds of each person I encounter.

One final thought arises in me.  Another person who is just learning to be mindful complained about her “monkey mind;” that is a mind that is filled with all kinds of distractions.  “I just can’t get it to stop!”  We processed this a bit, and then I wondered if there was a great benefit to having monkey mind sometimes when we sit to meditate.  When my mind is so active, so wandering, it gives me so many chances to notice the wandering mind, thus becoming mindful again, and forgive myself for not being able to focus on my breath.  Over and over I’m able to say “that’s OK Jim, that’s OK” as I gently escort the wandering mind to the simple breath that keeps me alive.  When I have monkey mind I have to exercise those focusing muscles so many times, they have to be getting stronger.  And each time I lose my focus is another opportunity to speak gently to myself in my mind’s voice.  Yes, the power of forgiveness cannot be understated.  Sometimes it is so difficult to forgive ourselves for the dreadful things we imagine we do.  Just think of how your life, and someone else’s, would change if you could easily say to yourself “that’s OK, that’s OK,” and easily say the same to another.  As Louis Armstrong sang so beautifully, what a wonderful world!

Peace,

Jim

PS If you want a treat, here’s a link to listen to Louis sing about that wonderful world:

Warming Up for the Practice

I was teaching a workshop last week about cultivating a mindful classroom, and I had an interesting question posed to me by one of the attendees.  I had just led an introductory meditation.  Nothing fancy, following the breath, some body awareness, making space for whatever sensations found in a simple awareness meditation.  As is typical in such a setting, there was a mixture of experienced and novice meditators in the room, and several people who had never meditated at all.  After we were done the floor was opened up for discussion so people could talk about what it was like to use their minds that way.

One gentleman stated strongly that it was rather a waste of time.  “Nothing happened” he said, “it didn’t work.”  So we began to process what had actually happened when he heard my meditation guidance, but he interrupted me to ask this question: “Why didn’t you have us do preparation to be mindful before we did the meditation?  If you had done that then maybe it would have worked.”

At first I was a bit taken aback, as the teachings I was sharing were making clear that mindfulness isn’t something that “works” in the way he he seemed to mean.  But then I considered his actual question, his wondering if there’s something I should have done, in essence, to “warm up for the practice,” and I thought “what an excellent question!”

What do we do to prepare for a formal mindfulness practice, whether it’s breath-based sitting meditation, mindful yoga, walking meditation, or any number of the mindful practices available to us.  I began to think of my own preparation for a formal sitting session, and realized that I actually do prepare for meditation.  But the preparation is so implicit in my routine at this point, that I no longer notice it.  So I thought I would share how I prepare for meditation, in hopes that it might give readers some ideas as well.

When it’s time to get on a cushion, or walk mindfully, or do some yoga (my three preferred ways to engage in formal meditation), I become focused on my awareness that I am about to do the practice.  In becoming mindful of the intention to be mindful, I begin to slow down a bit.  The simple process of walking up the stairs to the meditation room is done with intentionality, placing attention on the sensations of stepping, climbing, the exertion of it all.  As I enter the room my mind is drawn to awareness of my breath, if it isn’t there already.  Steps are taken slowly; the cushion is placed carefully before my small shrine, or the yoga mat is put in place.  If I am walking through the gardens surrounding my home I begin by lacing my shoes or pulling a sweater over my head or striding toward the door with great focus.  In all cases, the moments leading up to the formal sitting become intense, with great moment to moment mindfulness.

I also have the great honor of leading different groups of meditators, most notably our group that meets monthly and shares deep fellowship founded in our mindfulness practices, and deepened by our conversations and communal meals (especially the meals!).  When preparing to meditate with this group, most of whom were meditation students with me at one time or another, I’ll often read literature that is directly about mindfulness or invokes a mindful quality.  Sometimes poetry, sometimes prose, and sometimes a podcast interview with a great teacher.  All of these resources are inspirational, and a great “warm up” again to leading our formal practice as a group.

I suppose what I am saying is that we can begin our meditation practice by becoming mindful moment to moment.  And the moment to begin being mindful is…..now!  The moment I rise from my cushion or mat or walk away from my garden, that is the moment to be mindful, and, in a way, that becomes the moment in which I am preparing for my next period of formal meditation.  What a beautiful way to live!

The issue, then, comes down to this:  It’s not “when do I start to warm up for my next formal practice period” but rather “why would I ever STOP warming up for my formal practice!”

So go out there and get ready to be meditative, be mindful, in every moment of every day.  Set the intention to live this way.  And learn from our friends in Alcoholics Anonymous who say “we seek progress, not perfection.”  We all get mindless from time to time, but as long as your intention is true, you will find your mindless times shorter and shorter in duration.

Peace,

Jim