Alstroemeria on a Saturday

I met my first Alstroemeria yesterday.  Here she is, resplendent in pink!

Our group sat yesterday as we do every month in Magdalena’s home.  Once again we were graced with beautiful Ikebana as a centerpiece to our small community.  Alstroemeria, or “Lily of the Incas,” is a hardy perennial, growing in its native Andes.  It needs at least 6 hours of sunlight daily, but can survive to temperatures as low as 23 degrees F.

The work of mindfulness needs similar care.  Like our friend Alstroemeria, there are certain qualities that must be attended to in order for our practice to survive and thrive.  We must have intentionality if we are to be mindful.  That is, there’s a need to bring focus to each day, each hour, and eventually each moment.  Our formal practice helps us to look into the nature of our minds, learn how it works.  Am I distressed by events, or is it the thought I am having about an event that is distressing me?  Not all events that lead to distress are actually distressing; it’s good to know the actual source, so we can respond with skillfulness.  With the intention to be mindful throughout our day firmly established in formal practice, we are ready to bring the equanimity of a compassionate observer to each moment of the day.

Another quality that our practice needs in order to survive and thrive is our attitude of radical acceptance.  My first reaction is often to have aversion to what life is presenting to me in this moment.  I find it so difficult to allow my body and mind to wrap around reality as it is occurring and commit myself to work with it as it actually is, rather than rail against it because it isn’t what I KNOW it should be.  And thus I suffer, until my practice restores my acceptance.

This sitting, such a simple act, always available in the moment our intentionality and acceptance are restored, becomes our life.  Like the Alstroemeria our lives abide moment to moment if we are open minded and open hearted.  I felt tremendous joy yesterday gazing at the Alstroemeria.  It needed nothing.  There’s was nothing I could say or do that could make it better, or change it in any way.  It was sufficient, just like each of us are sufficient, if only we have the intentionality and acceptance to realize it.

Off to run now.  Good morning sit, a good run, maybe a good book.  What a great day it is!

Peace!

Jim

PS  I also learned that Alstroemeria are very commonly used in bouquets, especially at weddings.  So this is probably not the FIRST Alstroemeria I’ve ever met (literally), but it sure felt like it!

Weekend All Day Retreat Part II

What a lovely week!  I think I’m still feeling the after-effects of spending many hours meditating within the group last Saturday.  Many blessings to all who shared in the day’s meditations.

My previous post posited this question: “If meditation is the tool and mindfulness is the result, what other tools might be available for us to cultivate mindfulness?”  It’s a good question.  It’s easy to think of this work as trying to achieve some end that’s “out there,” but the end we’re moving toward is already “in here”!  Let’s discuss this a bit.

As stated previously, when we practice meditation it’s with the intention to cultivate a very natural state, that of being mindful.  To be mindful simply means to be aware in the present moment of exactly what is happening without judgment.  No bias, no yearning, no wishing the situation to be anything other than what it is.  It’s easy to not judge the present moment when things are going smoothly, but are we also awake in those moments, noticing and, perhaps, savoring them?  If the answer is yes, then we’re being mindful.  And that’s a good place to start your work of everyday mindfulness, work that is not “formal sitting meditation” but, rather, a very naturalistic effort that pays enormous spiritual dividends.

As it turns out any moment in which we are awake to actual events, both internal and external (though all events are internal, but that’s another subject!), without bringing judgment into the situation is a mindful moment.  ANY effort we put into our everyday life that leads to being mindful makes that moment a tool to cultivate stronger mindfulness.  So I can be strengthening my mindfulness when I’m walking the dog, taking out the garbage, listening to a piece of music, running trails, reading a book, sipping coffee, gazing out a window, writing a letter…..   There’s no end to the list because there’s no end to human activity.  Remember, mindfulness is not a special “state” that is in any way “more than natural.”  It’s a most natural state that can become more prevalent with practice.

The practice par excellence is formal meditation.  There’s no better “brain exercise” than simply sitting, aware of breath, aware of perceptions, aware of sensations, aware of thoughts, aware of emotions.  It doesn’t matter where your attention rests, because when you direct your attention non-judgmentally you’re establishing a mindful state.  The formal practice allows for the greatest concentration and practice of lovingkindness for your self, your internal experiences, and all beings.  But don’t overlook the 10,000 opportunities that your life offers to you to be practicing.  Bring intentionality to each morning, afternoon, and evening.  The moment you realize you’re being mindless make the shift, commit again, notice, breathe with it, accept.  And you’re back!

One last item to enjoy.  I found a brief article (link below) about the use of mindfulness to help men and women in the army avoid Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of their combat experiences.  Fascinating reading.

Mindfulness Military

Peace!!

Jim

Weekend All-Day Retreat

Yesterday marked the 10th time that I have had the pleasure of facilitating an all-day retreat as part of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program.  We had 14 participants, including four members of our existing “MBSR Alumni.”  It also marked the second time that I c0-facilitated the all-day retreat; Bill McCracken and I have been working together for over a year now as co-facilitators of the MBSR program.

During the retreat an important problem was raised and discussed.  Though formal sitting practice is an essential part of the training, what should we do when we just don’t have the space in our schedule to apportion the time necessary for a meaningful meditation session?  The reason that most of us were drawn to Mindfulness in general and MBSR in particular is because we’re so stressed out from the demands put on us by our jobs, families, and general manner of American living.  If we had time to meditate, we might not be all that stressed out in the first place.  It’s a difficult and paradoxical problem.

Bill and I had somewhat different takes on the problem as posed.  Bill stated the need to “make time” no matter how difficult.  He has a good point there.  He went on to say that many times when we believe we’re too busy to meditate, it’s actually that the meditation would raise awareness of difficult issues, ones we’d rather avoid facing.  The option to procrastinate and then to abandon the commitment to sit becomes very attractive; seductive, in a way.

I agree with Bill, to a point.  But there truly are occasions when there’s not the time to settle in for a good period of practice.  Not all decisions to “not meditate today” are open to psychological interpretation; sometimes the urgency to get on with our schedules and forego our meditations is just that, an urgency that cannot be denied.  I think that those of us dedicated to following this path have to carefully discern our motives when we put off our meditation practice because of a demanding schedule.

However, that doesn’t mean we cannot cultivate mindfulness.  Let’s not forget that meditation is a practice that we follow with the intention to cultivate mindfulness.  To meditate is to be mindful, but the point of the meditation is to strengthen our mindfulness for the demands of even an ordinary day.  If meditation is the tool and mindfulness is the result, what other tools might be available for us to cultivate mindfulness?

I’d like to address this question in my next post.  For now, I’ll leave you with these thoughts.  First, mindfulness is a  natural mind-state; we all have it to one extent or another.  Second, the degree to which a person is mindful fluctuates throughout the day.  Third, a person can learn to remain mindful through most if not all of the events of the day, but it does take practice.  Fourth, the mindful state is defined as the felt sense of having focus, being alert, and, most importantly, not judging the objects that come into one’s awareness.  With these thoughts in mind, how might the overly taxed person cultivate deeper mindfulness despite being so pressed for time each day that maintaining a formal practice becomes difficult, if not impossible?  More on this later, but your ideas would be greatly appreciated.  Thanks for reading!

Guided Meditations

Here is a group of guided meditations that might be helpful for you.

The first is the 3-minute breathing space.  It’s simple and something that you can use to take a “breath break” any time during the day. 

In addition to the 3-minute breathing space I am adding a 6 minute meditation that is breath based, but includes mindful use of the hands to feel the breath and, toward the end, to hold the upper part of your body.  This meditation helps to feel safe and held:  

Next is an 11 minute long meditation, focused on the breath.  

Here is an 18 minute “Breath Meditation.”  It’s very simple and a great starting point for lengthening your meditation.  Breath Meditation

Body based Meditation is so important!  Here is a Mindful Progressive Muscular Relaxation that I recorded while leading a group at the Boys & Girls Club of Delaware.  It is 18 minutes long:  

If you want to get started with some body-based meditation, here is a “Yoga Meditation.”  You don’t have to be terribly flexible to do this one!  The essence of yoga is to be aware of your embodied mindedness (sounds a bit fishy to put it that way, but if you listen, it makes sense).  Yoga can serve many purposes.  Here, it’s just another way to strengthen your mindfulness in movement.  Again, it’s a little less than 20 minutes long. Yoga Meditation

Finally, for more body-based work, is the “Body Scan Meditation.”  This is a longer meditation, about 27 minutes.  In the Body Scan one is focusing on different parts of the body meditatively, with no intention to relax or change anything.  Just notice.  Just become adept at being aware of bodily sensations; making room for them, whether pleasant or otherwise. Body Scan Meditation

Feel free to use and comment.  Suggestions are appreciated.

Mindfulness

The purpose of this blog is to promote conversation about mindfulness.  My practice of mindfulness is an important part of my clinical work as a Pastoral Counselor.  Mindfulness is an ancient idea that describes a very natural state of mind: being focused, alert, relaxed, non-judgmental, and open.  Babies are very mindful!  Each of us can be too, it’s just a matter of instruction and practice.

The Buddhist traditions have the most to say of all of the religions about mindfulness.  You’ll find a lot of inspired literature across all religions of course, but the Buddhists seem to have it best.  Cognitive psychology has discovered mindfulness and the synergies between the two are strong.  I teach Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which is an eight week program (developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical School; most often associated with Jon Kabat-Zinn) that integrates instruction in meditative techniques with insights from cognitive therapy.  Of all of the therapeutic styles that I’ve employed in my work, MBSR is easily the most powerful and life-changing.

My hope for this blog is to bring useful materials to anyone seeking to learn more about mindfulness and to begin or sustain a practice.  I also hope to find fellow meditators who might enjoy online discussion about this life giving practice.  Welcome to my blog!