Being mindful is not a passive state of observation and musing. Rather it is an active awareness, a commitment to connection, and an obligation for the one living mindfully to speak to the truth. Now more than ever mindful people are needed to prophetic witness.
How do we respond to turmoil? To hatred, displayed publicly or in a private conversation? Paraphrasing Pema Chodron, we have to ask ourselves whether we prefer to grow up and relate to life directly, or choose to live and die in fear.
Our mindfulness practices are not intended as an escape from the turmoil and suffering of the world. Rather, this practice prepares us to be ready to face these difficulties with equanimity, able to choose responses wisely.
It is not a time to retreat. We must confront hatred and suffering when and where they exist. But to do so with mindful curiosity, openness, acceptance, and maybe even compassion will help each of us to suffer a little less, and may even get the attention of someone steeped in hatred and suffering.
In today’s meditation I read this poem, which captures the feeling that I’m trying to get at. I hope you enjoy it.
Difficult year, 2020 has been. In the northern hemisphere it is the time of winter solstice. Darkness in the daytime cycle is dominant, but that is about to change. The planet is about to tilt its northern half back toward the sun, and the light will begin to dominate. It is a good time to be mindful. Recognizing that everything changes and nothing is permanent, once again learning to let go, we bid farewell to the darkness and realize the light. And as we do so, mindfully, we realize that all of living can be embraced and accepted, even the Difficult.
But what is Being Mindful? Roger Keyes give us the gift of “seeing” life through the eyes of an elderly artist who has seen through shadows and disguises; who now simply “sees.” At least that’s my interpretation. It’s a good poem, and I’ve chosen to read it as part of the meditation. Here it is, if you’d like to read it as well.
In our last meeting we focused on staying present with our inner experiences, whether pleasant or unpleasant. This time of year is marked for most of us as a time of lower energy, maybe even lower mood resulting from the shortening of the daylight hours. By staying present with our inner experiencing we can come to terms with it, learn how to work with it, and find contentment no matter the feelings.
In the same way our mindfulness practices call for us to stay present with the experiences around us, especially the experiences that flow from our way of being with all living beings, not just other people. Today we focus on noticing how we affect the world around us.
How does my presence affect this person I have encountered? What is the impact of my smile? My frown? My way of being?
So often during the course of a normal day we do things that make the lives of other people a little bit better. Yet do we pay attention to this? Do we allow ourselves to have the pleasant feeling of having brought joy, peace, safety, or acceptance to another?
This is part of our self care. To not only have the intention to be an instrument of peace, but then to notice that peace, share in it, and find ourselves somewhat healed in the process.
Here are two poems by Naomi Shihab Nye that speak to us of noticing how we affect the world. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.
The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.
The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.
The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.
The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.
I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
— Naomi Shihab Nye
So Much Happiness
It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records . . .
Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.
Naomi Shihab Nye
And here are recordings, video and audio, of a meditation session on this theme:
Back in May of this year I began a meditation with this question: “What kind of life are we called to have during the pandemic?” I noted that ” Zen Master Dogen tells us that ‘Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken! Take heed, do not squander your life.'”
I decided to reconsider this question in December to address an issue in addition to the pandemic. This is the time of year for Seasonal Affective Disorder, known as SAD, which is felt by many people. SAD happens in degrees. For some, it’s simply a time to be a little slower, more restful, perhaps put on a few pounds as the food we eat in the winter tends to be richer and the levels of exercise and activity tend to diminish. For others, it is a time of risk for cycling into a full blown depression. And for others there is very little if any change in mood or emotions.
As we continue to lose daylight every day, it is a time when we should be especially focused on self care. Whenever I’ve taught on the topic of self care with mental health professionals there is a response that is typical: “No, not another thing I have to do! All of this time I’ll be spending doing self care is stressing me out!” Well, that’s not I have in mind.
Self care is a moment to moment experience. It begins with being mindful in each moment of what is happening in my mind and body. Noticing the changes, the reactions, the feelings I’m having. Most of these changes are quite mundane, but occasionally one rises above the surface of awareness and demands more attention. With a mindfulness practice I’ve committed to noticing these arisings, not judging them, even if (especially if!) they’re unpleasant. Whatever change comes into my attention, I have to wonder if I can make space for it, be OK with it, see what exactly it is trying to tell me. In that way I can “own” the change, rather than it “owning” me. And still the change may be unpleasant, but somehow it seems less powerful.
Prior to today’s meditation I read an excerpt from “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Thich Nhat Hahn, followed by the Zen night chant. Both provide food for thought about this idea of staying present in all moments. The opening paragraph, below, is paraphrased from “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Thich Nhat Hahn. The following paragraphs are quoted from the same work.
“After sharing dinner with his friend, the writer Jim Forest, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn rose to wash the dishes before the two of them would share an after-dinner cup of tea. Jim, the polite guest, insisted on doing the dishes himself as an act of gratitude for the lovely dinner Nhat Hahn had just served. Nhat Hahn replied:
“There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes. While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash the dishes.’ What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either…The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.”
Jim replied, “I choose the second way — to wash the dishes to wash the dishes.””
And the Zen night chant:
Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken! Take heed, do not squander your life.
In 1994 Tony Hicks, a 14 year old gang member whose mother was living on the streets and addicted to crack cocaine, shot and killed Tariq Khamisa, a 20 year old college student working to deliver pizzas, in a botched holdup. Though he was a juvenile, he was sentenced as an adult to 25 years in prison. The father of Tariq Khamisa, Azim Khamisa, visited Tony in prison and found that there were victims “on both sides of the gun.” Choosing the path of being a forgiving person liberated Azim from a lifetime of anger and grief. You can find his story at this link:
In this brief video Azim explains how powerful it can be to be a forgiving person:
On Thursday of this week we celebrate Thanksgiving Day in the United States, a day to “count your blessings;” in a word, a day to feel gratitude. Yet I think it can be very difficult to experience the feeling of gratitude while carrying resentments toward people who have hurt us. Anger, hatred, even grief are strong impediments to feeling grateful. Our journey to gratitude may first require a journey to being forgiving. It’s a long journey, this being forgiving business, but just being on the journey may be a relief in and of itself.
If you have resentments and old angers that get in the way of your gratitude this week, consider forgiveness, keeping in mind that it’s a process, not a single-point decision. It takes time, and over the years old resentments you thought you had released will return, just less powerful, less of a preoccupation.
Today’s meditation is a stress reliever, focusing on simple massages of the facial sinuses and muscles. I find it helpful to have a relaxed body if I am to get to a more peaceful mind. Perhaps you will too. Here are the video and audio of today’s meeting.
And I decided to read a poem at the end of the meditation. Here is the text of that poem:
When we think of emotions what words come to mind? Sadness, Joy, Fear, Excitement, Anger, Gratitude, Shame? There are a lot of emotion words, but one emotion we often overlook is Anticipation, an emotion we feel throughout the day as events, predictable and otherwise, ensue.
Let’s consider the power of Anticipation. First, it’s a bodily phenomena; you feel it in your face, your neck & shoulders, your belly. Your heart beats more powerfully, you breathe faster. Your body recognizes that something is about to happen. But all emotions have two aspects: a bodily response unique to that emotion, and that emotion’s typical mindset. In the case of anticipation, there are two mindsets to consider.
Are you optimistic in the moment your body senses something is about to happen? That is, do you have a positive cognitive spin in the moment of anticipation? Then you will likely name what you are feeling as “hope.” On the other hand, if you are pessimistic in that moment, if you are putting a negative spin about what is about to happen, then you are likely to name what you are feeling as “dread.”
Hope and dread are two sides of the anticipation coin. But there are two questions you might consider when you feel either hope or dread. First, is this feeling useful for me in these circumstances? Second, is there data that supports my cognitive spin?
Both hope and dread are legitimate feelings depending on the circumstances. But if we fall into dread too easily when we might be experiencing hope, then we run the risk of falling prey to unnecessary fear, which can be debilitating. It turns out that optimists are not as accurate in their assessments of their present reality as pessimists, but they also turn out to be overall happier people. Pessimists are more often better realists, but they pay a price in their well being.
How often is your dread the result of automatic ways of thinking about things that assume the worst will happen? Sometimes those automatic negative thoughts become self fulfilling prophecies, which not only become causal to a poorer outcome but then serve the purpose of reinforcing the automatic negative thought. Having a positive outlook, finding the possibility of goodness in each moment, disrupting negative assumptions from their capacity to take hold of your mind; all of these cognitive skills promote the experience of hope and enhance better well being.
One of my favorite books is a 17th century travelogue by the Japanese poet Basho titled “Narrow Road to the Interior.” I find his opening paragraph to be an exemplar of Anticipation transformed into hope. I hope you enjoy it. Today’s meditation is a short exploration of “chair yoga;” quick ways to relax and energize the body. The video and audio can be found below a few words from our friend Basho.
“The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. From the earliest times there have always been some who perished along the road. Still I have always been drawn by windblown clouds into dreams of a lifetime of wandering. Coming home from a year’s walking tour of the coast last autumn, I swept the cobwebs from my hut on the banks of the Sumida just in time for New Year, but by the time spring mists began to rise from the fields, I longed to cross the Shirakawa Barrier into the Northern Interior. Drawn by the wanderer-spirit Dosojin, I couldn’t concentrate on things. Mending my cotton pants, sewing a new strap on my bamboo hat, I daydreamed. Rubbing moxa into my legs to strengthen them, I dreamed a bright moon rising over Matsushima. So I placed my house in another’s hands and moved to my patron Mr. Sampu’s summer house in preparation for my journey. And I left a verse by my door:
Even this grass hut
May be transformed
Into a doll’s house.”
Matsuo Basho; 17th Century Japanese poet; from “Narrow Road to the Interior”
Pandemic. Election and divisive politics. Red States v. Blue States; Us v. Them. This is not healthy. We have forgotten that we have so many more reasons to come alongside one another than we do for pushing apart.
On Saturday night (Nov 7 2020) in the United States the NBC television network broadcast Saturday Night Live, with the comedian Dave Chappelle as the guest host. His opening monologue was brilliant, and captured many of the thoughts and feelings pervading the American public. You can find it easily on YouTube if you’d like to watch; it’s worth taking the 16 minutes to do so.
Today’s NYTimes published an excerpt of his monologue, which I’ve reproduced below. You can read the entire article at this link:
— Nearing the end of his monologue, Chappelle struck a more sympathetic tone. “For the first time in the history of America, the life expectancy of white people is dropping — because of heroin, because of suicide,” he said. “All these white people out there that feel that anguish, that pain, they’re mad because they think nobody cares — maybe they don’t.”
But let me tell you something, I know how that feels. I promise you, I know how that feels. If you’re a police officer and every time you put your uniform on, you feel like you’ve got a target on your back. You’re appalled by the ingratitude that people have when you would risk your life to save them — ooh man, believe me, believe me, I know how that feels. Everyone knows how that feels. But here’s the difference between me and you: You guys hate each other for that, and I don’t hate anybody. I just hate that feeling. That’s what I fight through. That’s what I suggest you fight through. You’ve got a find a way to live your life. You’ve got to find a way to forgive each other. You’ve got to find a way to find joy in your existence in spite of that feeling.”
People are not the enemy; hatred is the enemy. The people I fear are not the enemy; fear is the enemy. Anger is the enemy. Can I live with these feelings, but not be owned by these feelings? It is natural to feel these ways; what can I learn from each feeling? That I am afraid? That I have been violated? If so, then how can I make my space safer; more just?
Wisdom is found when people are willing to notice without judging. Observe deeply, and then intervene. Accept that each of us feels strongly, and still treat each other with respect and dignity.
If you find yourself in a situation in which another person is driven by fear and anger, find that place inside yourself where there is stillness. It never goes away; it just becomes more difficult to find in agitated moments. But if you are willing to find that still point within, over and over again in your daily meditations, then the pathway will be well worn and easy to follow. Agitation met with agitation becomes a catastrophe. Agitation met with stillness and equanimity can become a dialog, maybe even a conversation. And from these conversations may come wisdom, but that will only happen when at least one person in the room is willing to do the work of locating that still point and inhabiting it.
Here is today’s meditation video, with the audio only found below.
The difference between feeling “hope” and “dread” depends upon how you choose to think about today, tomorrow, and all the days that follow. Marcus Aurelius, 2nd century ruler of the Roman empire and Stoic philosopher, wrote that “the happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” We should heed this wisdom in this time of chaos.
The American election is fraught with hope and dread. With our mindfulness practice we do not seek to diminish either experience. Rather, we notice and accept this activity of the mind/body, and in so doing come to “own it” rather than “it owning us.” In today’s meditation I chose to bring to mind a few words of wisdom to remind us of the relationship we have with our thoughts and feelings:
“We don’t meditate to improve ourselves; we meditate to end our compulsive striving to do everything better.”
Chris Germer, in The Mindful Path to Self Acceptance
“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable is manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”
Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers
During the meditation I chose to read a reminder from Hafiz, 14th Century Persian poet, that there is only one moment to live: now.
Today, for me, is a day for “being” much more than for “doing.” Waking up to a scratchy throat, stuffy nose, and lower energy than is usual, I choose to rest and take care of myself. I am fortunate that I am able to do that; many cannot afford that luxury.
Revisiting literature that is eternal and universal, I picked up Thoreau’s “Letter to a Spiritual Seeker,” and sought out my favorite quote from his letters to Harrison Blake:
“I am grateful for what I am & have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite – only a sense of existence. Well anything for variety. I am ready to try this for the next 1000 years, & exhaust it. How sweet to think of! My extremities well charred, and my intellectual part too, so that there is no danger of worm or rot for a long while. My breath is sweet to me. O how I laugh when I think of my vague indefinite riches. No run on my bank can drain it – for my wealth is not possession but enjoyment.”
– Henry David Thoreau; “Letters to a Spiritual Seeker”
In a way it may be easier to be contented “with nothing definite – only a sense of existence” when not feeling very well. Illness reminds us that we can only live one day at a time. Why not cherish each day? How often do we consider how life “should” be, rather than seeing the beauty and the good in this day, in this moment, as life actually is, even when this moment isn’t terribly pleasant.
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: