Today is my 66th birthday. I like my age! At this age I find it easier to discern decisions, speak my mind, and notice what matters the most. I think I know my values and virtues by now. I try to live them intentionally, one day at a time. I have learned that when I live my values and virtues everything else seems to fall easily into place.
On my birthdays I take the time to revisit books that have meant a lot to me. Don’t get me wrong; I worked today! But in between appointments I recollected many of the ideas that I found useful and profound over the years. I was drawn to Thomas Merton’s Asian Journal, which influenced me in ways difficult to describe, and still informs me today. Reading again his description of his experience at Polonnaruwa on Sri Lanka, I couldn’t help but think of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experiences and his four conditions for an experience to be “religious:” ineffable, noetic, transient and passive. Merton certainly was able to check those boxes that day!
On January 27, 2014 I published an essay on this website titled “Wanting….Needing….” (https://jamesmwalshpastoralcounseling.com/2014/01/27/wanting-needing/) In that essay I referenced Merton’s religious experience on Polonnaruwa as well as a recent visit my wife and I had made to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA. After going back to read from Merton and James, I went back and reread my essay on wanting and needing. It seemed relevant to me personally again, and perhaps is relevant to the times we live in.
Today’s meditation includes a reading of that essay with display of some photos from that webpage. Here are the video and audio recordings of today’s meditation:
“The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories—in short, out of our heads and into our hearts.”
Difficult times seem to bring out our best or our worst sides. Much of our response to difficulties is dependent on our attitude toward difficulty itself. To be avoided? Denied? Or to be faced squarely, accepted. Willing to work with it? Or not? We can say “it’s not fair” but, after all, the road is always messy the way real life is always messy.
If we’re going to do the work of being mindful then our first lesson is to practice acceptance. Acceptance is often mistaken for an attitude of “everything is fine; don’t worry.” But that is not true; sometimes everything is not okay.
You’re in a convenience store; an alarm blares; you smell smoke. Employees are panicking, running out of all the doors as you hear a siren in the distance. EVERYTHING IS NOT OK!
Perhaps a more relevant situation would sound like this:
A child I am serving comes to school agitated. He lashes out easily; can’t sit still. He’s ready to fight. The room is tense. Other children in the room are getting agitated now. And I don’t know what to do.
When we practice acceptance we commit ourselves to seeing each moment of our life as inevitable, given what has come before. As a result we’re rarely surprised, though we still may feel startled. When I practice acceptance I form the intention to notice what is happening, not taking it personally, not judging anyone involved. As acceptance becomes a felt experience, I notice strong emotions forming and arising, but they are events I am experiencing rather than the experience itself. And with acceptance, I can notice a space between the event and my response, a space that contains my freedom to act with skill rather than with impulsiveness or defensiveness, without my anger or fear getting in the way. And calm returns quickly to me, and that calm becomes contagious.
A few good quotes:
First, from an interview with Dr. Laurie Santos of Yale University in the NYTimes:
Question: What does the research say about how happiness is affected during Covid?
Answer: The message I’ve seen from the current research is that Covid’s not great for well-being; symptoms of depression and symptoms of anxiety tend to be going up. And those are systematically worse in more vulnerable populations. So if you look at, say, African-Americans right now, the effects of that stuff is worse. If you look at lower-income individuals or folks who don’t have child care help — all the folks who would normally be getting a well-being hit — it’s worse in the context of Covid.
Question: So how can we achieve happiness in chaos?
Answer: Try not to run away from those negative emotions. As parents, when kids are expressing uncertainty, your instinct is to just deny it or pretend it’s not there, to “power through it.” But uncertainty, fear, frustration, anger, jealousy — all of those negative emotions — they’re not going away. You need to give them space. One technique is to use meditation, where you really try to recognize and accept those emotions. In particular, RAIN: recognize, accept, investigate and nurture.”
Second, some wisdom from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (page 417):
And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation – some fact of my life – unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.
And the video and audio from the October 13, 2020 meditation session:
Stoic philosophy is sometimes mistaken for pessimism. It is anything but that. Instead it is realistic, noticing reality without judging it, and it is radically accepting, always teaching us to be aware of the worst fault you find in others, as it may be the fault you most fear in yourself. In our mindfulness practice we follow this same philosophy closely. In these pandemic days it is easy to fall into the trap of pessimism, but our mindfulness practice guides us into seeing reality as it is, and our practice of acceptance allows us to respond with skill and with vigor. Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations reminds us of these timeless principles. In today’s meditation I have used some quotes from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The video and audio of this session can be found beneath the quotes.
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”
“You have the power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?”
“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”
If you would like to join one of these sessions in real time, here are the details:
11:50 am Zoom Meeting site opens (11:50 EDT [USA]; 15:50 GMT)
12:10 – 12:15 A Brief Talk from Dr. Walsh: Lessons we can learn from Mindfulness
Once again, drawn to Mary Oliver. I was thinking about faith this morning, so Googled “faith Mary Oliver.” In doing so I found a poem of hers, published in 2015, titled “Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way.” It struck me as instructions for whoever gets to compose an elegy for her. Perhaps even an elegy for herself?
What will your elegy say? How do you want to be remembered? More importantly, how will you live your life today that will inform whoever it is that gets to write your elegy?
Today’s meditation was centered around a mindful reading of this poem. Beneath the video and audio you’ll find the poem itself.
With mindfulness practice we learn to live in the zones between comfort, where tension is found. But in coming to terms with tension we can negotiate a newfound peace, and we find a very creative and even safe place to be emotionally and spiritually. In order to find this place it is important to embrace the dialectic; to not hesitate.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed necessary tension and its potential to be a catalyst for growth. This document’s relevance today is as meaningful as it was in 1963, when Dr. King composed this letter while incarcerated for the “crime” of engaging in a peaceful protest of white supremacy and racial injustice. America continues to be plagued with white supremacy and racial injustice; we need to embrace the tension created by civil disobedience and protest in order to find the creative growth to form a truly civil society.
As nourishment for our hearts and souls on this journey we have Mary Oliver’s poem “Don’t Hesitate.” Her conclusion that “joy is not made to be a crumb” is one that I believe Dr. King would have embraced as well!
Martin Luther King, from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth (italics added). Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
Mary Oliver, “Don’t Hesitate”
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
The video and audio found below are guided meditations (with some introductory remarks) appropriate to the themes addressed above.
During the pandemic I’ve been concerned about my tendency to value doing over being, which makes sense in the context of my work as a counselor and teacher. There are needs of others to attend; focusing on my own needs for stillness and solitude can feel selfish.
But there is great value in contemplation. Finding stillness within; spending time observing rather than intervening; knowing that sometimes the best thing you can do is what you don’t; each of these may open into a perception with greater clarity. With clarity comes a calmer way of seeing and understanding the world as it is at present.
This meditation is intended to help with the experience of stillness, and includes recitation of two poems by Mary Oliver. You’ll find them just beneath the video and audio.
Today by Mary Oliver
Today I’m lying low and I’m
not saying a word
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.
The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.
But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.
Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.
The Notebook by Mary Oliver
the small, pond turtle lifts its head into the air like a green toe.
It looks around.
What it sees is the whole world swirling back from darkness:
a red sun rising over the water, over the pines,
and the wind lifting, and the water-striders heading out,
and the white lilies opening their happy bodies.
The turtle doesn’t have a word for any of it—
The silky water or the enormous blue morning, or the curious affair of his own body.
On the shore I’m so busy scribbling and crossing out
I almost miss seeing him paddle away through the wet, black forest.
More and more the moments come to me: how much can the right word do?
Now a few of the lilies are a faint flamingo inside their white hearts
and there is still time to let the last roses of the sunrise float down into my uplifted eyes.
Surviving stressful times means attention to self-care of the body, mind and soul. Exercise, healthy eating, social connecting, prayer and meditation are all helpful. But don’t overlook the importance of casual connections, and see what impact you make on those who need your casual connection.
On Thursday, August 3 2020 Jane Brody, in her weekly “Personal Health” column, described the impact of social connections on well-being, especially on stress management during the pandemic. As you would expect, maintaining social connection with those closest to us is very important, but maintaining social connection with so-called “weaker ties” (i.e. acquaintances) also predicts a lot about well-being. Here is an excerpt from her column:
“Katherine L. Fiori, chairwoman of undergraduate psychology at Adelphi University who studies social networks of older adults, has found that activities that foster “weaker ties” than are formed with family and close friends foster greater life satisfaction and better emotional and physical health.
“The greater the number of weaker ties, the stronger the association with positive feelings and fewer depressed feelings,” Dr. Fiori said in an interview. “It’s clearly not the case that close ties are all that older adults need.”
And not just older adults, all adults. Dr. Fingerman said research has shown that, in general, “people do better when they have a more diverse group of people in their lives.” But as Dr. Fiori observed, “Unfortunately, Covid has severely curtailed our ability to maintain weaker ties. It can take a lot more effort to do this online.”
Dr. Fingerman’s research has also shown that people who are more socially integrated are also more active physically. “Being sedentary kills you,” she said. “You have to get up and move to be with the people you run into when exercising.” Consequential strangers also help your brain, she said, because “conversations are more stimulating than with people you know well.””
From “The Benefits of Talking to Strangers,” Jane Brody, NYTimes, August 3, 2020
You can find this article in full at this link:
At our August 4, 2020 “Take a Break From Stress” online meditation meeting, I recorded this video (audio-only can be found directly below the video) that is based on this theme:
The “Take a Break From Stress” meetings have been ongoing for nearly four months as of today (July 27, 2020). Because of changes and demands in my professional responsibilities, I am revising the schedule of our “drop-in” meetings.
First, there will be no meetings during the week of July 27, 2020. That means that there will not be meetings on Tuesday, July 28 or Thursday, July 30.
Second, beginning the week of August 3, 2020, we will be meeting only on Tuesdays. This means that our next drop-in meeting will be on Tuesday, August 4, 2020.
Third, because of an “outlier meeting” on my schedule on Tuesday, August 11, 2020, there will be no meeting on that day. Instead, I’ll be holding a meeting that week on Thursday, August 13, 2020.
After that, we’ll be meeting every Tuesday, beginning on August 18, 2020, at least through the end of the calendar year.
Each meeting will continue to be documented and video recorded. You can find all of these meeting documents and recordings under the “Videos Available for Download” link in the menu bar.
The logistics for these meetings remains the same:
11:50 am Zoom Meeting site opens (11:50 EDT [USA]; 15:50 GMT)
Noon A Brief Talk from Dr. Walsh: Lessons we can learn from Mindfulness
Once you have reached the zoom.us/join site, enter the Meeting ID:
Meeting ID: 154 883 178
So please join us for a time to sit back, take a breath, and reflect a bit so that you can return to the activities of the day and the stress you are experiencing with a calmer and more grounded mindset.
In the middle of a stressful day, or maybe even in the beginning or end of a stressful day, we can help ourselves with some very simple stress relievers. I recently had the pleasure of working with a group of elementary school teachers and demonstrated a few easy and quick stress relievers. As a result of that I am posting five short audio recordings that walk you through how to do each of these simple maneuvers.
Taking Your Seat: As simple as this sounds, a correct and attentive posture matters. Remember, when you are doing a formal mindfulness practice you are training your mind to focus in a non-judgmental way. That focus is not just a mental activity, it is a full body activity. So sitting properly, relaxed but attentive, matters. I suspect that after listening to this recording one time you’ll not need to listen again. Here it is:
Forehead and Sinus Massage: Take a few minutes to relax the muscles of your face and help your sinuses to flow a bit more evenly. You may even find yourself getting relief from a tension headache! Simple and quick:
Neck Stretches Part 1: These simple stretches, done in a sitting posture, loosen up the neck muscles and are very refreshing:
Neck Stretches Part 2: More of the same, involving the shoulders as well:
Face Squint Tensing Relaxing: When we are holding muscles with great tension we activate the body’s stress system. Simple noticing tensed muscles and relaxing them intentionally can not only ease the body’s burden but actually slow down activity of mind, helping you to get better perspective on the issues of the day. This recording gives you guidance for tensing/relaxing facial muscles and the muscles of the hands and arms. But you can do this with any muscle group in your body:
Body Relaxation Practice: This 7.5 minute exercise is a quick way to bring down your body’s stress and tension level. Very simple, and if you do it regularly you’ll find it an invaluable practice to do in a difficult moment:
You can do all of these activities in about 8 to 10 minutes! And if you do these regularly, you’ll even condition your body to relax quickly with just doing the barest of these exercises. If you would like to download any of these recordings please contact me at my email address, email@example.com, and I’ll connect you to my DropBox account for easy download. Enjoy!
“Tell me about yourself when you’re at your best.”Jon Kabat-Zinn uses this opener teaching mindfulness, and so do I.My response is always the same: “When I’m teaching mindfulness!”
This week I had the pleasure to teach a group of dedicated professionals from Communities in Schools in Delaware (CIS-DE; http://www.cisdelaware.org) on behalf of GIFT (www.moremindfulworld.org), a non-profit focused on bringing mindfulness to underserved populations.CIS-DE works with our children and adolescents who are at high risk for dropping out of school, developing relationships with at-risk youths in hopes of empowering them to complete their education.It is difficult work, stressful at times, and our intention at GIFT is to help the helpers with stress reduction training, at the same time teaching the helpers simple ways they can share mindfulness practices with the population they serve.
The first meditation I guided for the CIS-DE group was simple body and breath awareness that lasted about 12 minutes.The response was immediate: that was SO long!Several members of the group, being new to meditation, expressed how difficult it is to not be doing, and instead focus on simply being.A few mentioned how relaxed they felt afterwards, and one, who we’ll simply call “L,” acknowledged that she struggled with nodding off into sleep.All of these responses are typical of the first exposure to a meditative practice.
The second meditation I guided was the classic “raisin mind” meditation (if you want to try this yourself go to this link for a guide: https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/raisin_meditation).This time we worked for about 15 minutes, and at the end, as is usual, I asked “What was it like to use your mind that way?What happened?”The first person to respond was L.As I am recalling this from memory that is three days old, I will have to paraphrase:
“At first I thought that this didn’t make any sense.All I could taste was coffee!I had a cup of coffee shortly before we began.You said to ‘notice the raisin on my tongue’ and all I could notice on my tongue was the taste of coffee.Then you said something weird: ‘notice the feeling of the taste of the raisin.’I thought ‘the feeling of taste?’That was strange to me.Taste isn’t a feeling.But when I thought of taste as a feeling I was able to find the taste of the raisin on my tongue.It was a small taste, but it was there.Then I thought ‘if I could miss a small taste on my tongue because I have coffee tongue, then what other small things do I miss during the day because my mind is focused on something else?’In a way my mind can be just like my ‘coffee tongue,’ and I miss the raisin in the room.When people look at these children we’re helping, do they see the sweet raisin in them or just taste the residue of coffee in their own minds?”
This is a remarkable insight, and one that all of us can benefit from.How often does my mind become a “coffee tongue,” unable to recognize and experience another taste, especially a small taste like a raisin?Do I truly see the other?Or do I see the other only through my own mental filter, an analogue to L’s coffee tongue?And isn’t it the raisins that are most important to see?A teen comes into the room, and he fits a stereotype that brings up my own conditioned responses, my own prejudices.I just can’t get past my coffee tongue to taste the sweetness of the raisin in front of me.
The next time you’re in an experience or an event that is unpleasant for you, consider the possibility that your own mental filters are preventing you from seeing what matters the most.It happens to me all the time; there’s no shame in this happening to you.If we are dedicated to forming the intention every day to be mindful then we can recognize our own coffee tongues with greater skill.Going into the day with the intention to notice the raisins can only make our own lives better, and at the same time enable our fundamentally human gift of compassion to emerge easily and naturally.
By the way, after the second meditation, longer than the first, a few of the group said “thank you for doing a shorter meditation.It was easier when it was not so long.”When I told them how long it actually had been we had a good laugh, and then proceeded to an even shorter meditation of twenty five minutes!