Meditation and Mindfulness

Meditation is a formal practice.  When I meditate I choose to take time in a reserved place to engage my mind in mental exercise.  The exercise requires much exertion; I direct and redirect the wandering mind to my breath, to the sounds and other perceptions around me, to the stream of thoughts passing through my brain like boxcars in a train, or perhaps allow my direction to be choiceless, just noticing, not judging.  The formal practice of meditation is necessary if one is to become mindful.

Mindfulness is an experience of being awake moment-to-moment non-judgmentally.  When I meditate I cultivate deeper mindfulness.  When I have been meditating regularly then my capacity to be mindful in my day-to-day routine is enhanced.  Mindful in my waking moments, I remain calm and focused, centered and relaxed.  No matter what happens, I yield to the experience of the moment, able to work with arising reality with greater skill and compassion.

Bhante Gunaratana is a Buddhist monk and renowned teacher from Sri Lanka.  My good friend Scott Caplan recently forwarded this video of Bhante G. discussing the nature of meditation.  It is a good reminder of how meditation can change your life, and a good reminder that meditation is a daily task to be taken seriously.  The fruit of meditation, mindfulness, is precious.  Enjoy Bhante G.’s wisdom in this five minute video:

Here’s the link to the video in case you’re having trouble opening it directly from my page: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWsHoanB7pw

Peace,

Jim

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Self Compassion and Mindfulness

A local church asked me to address their assembly at a time later this year on the topic of “Self Compassion.”  I have to admit it’s not something I’ve thought a lot about, either personally or philosophically.  I’ve thought a lot about Compassion, though, as part of my personal journey and my professional activity.  But the idea of extending Compassion to myself just hasn’t been on my radar.

Compassion, as defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, is “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”   That certainly seems like a reasonable definition, and an excellent starting point for my mental meandering.  Let’s take a close look at this definition.

First, you can’t help but notice the word “sympathetic” here.  To have sympathy (going back to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary) is to have “an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other.”  “Consciousness” we’ll take to mean awareness, which leaves us with the object of our Compassion: “others’ distress.”  Well, so far, we have three key words (Compassion, sympathy, and others) that are about someone else, not me.  You can’t help but be struck by the paradoxical nature of the phrase in question, “self Compassion.”  Is it even possible to have such a quality?

The answer is yes, but only if we twist our definitions a bit.  We’ll start by looking at sympathy:  Is it possible to have a relationship in which you notice what you, yourself, are feeling, so that some aspect of “you” is affected by another aspect of “you”?  Next up is “others.”  Again, is it possible for a person to regard him/herself as an “other”?  The only way that I can fathom that these questions can be answered “yes” is from the perspective of mindfulness practice.  Let me explain.

When we sit mindfully we begin to notice things.  Generally we start with our breathing.  That’s a good place to start; if you’re not breathing then you have bigger problems than this blog site can possibly address, so we can assume that there is a breathing process ready to be noticed.  As we mentally observe our breathing we begin to  notice that our mind wanders, rather easily as it turns out.  Quite suddenly we may find ourselves remembering aspects of our day, picturing some place we plan to visit, hearing a good (or bad) song in our head, making a grocery list, planning an event, the possibilities are endless.  So the meditation teacher gently reminds you that a wandering mind is typical and not to get worried about it, simply keep returning the wandering mind back to focus on the breath over and over again.  So far so good.

But after a while the meditation teacher hears statements like this: “OK, I just spent several minutes with my mind noticing my breath.  Then a thought arose, and my mind simply noticed the thought.  Then a memory arose, and I simply noticed the memory.”  Those statements are usually followed by a question that goes like this:  “OK, ‘I’ am watching ‘me.’  So, who is this ‘I’ and who is this ‘me’?”  Now, THAT is an interesting question.  Clearly, there’s only one “me” sitting on the meditation cushion, but at the same time there is clearly an observing consciousness that is experienced as somehow having a bit of separation from my immediate, direct experiencing.

This is a philosophical rabbit hole that I’m not going down in this post.  But it IS an interesting phenomenon, isn’t it?  In my mindful moment I’m “noticing” my own, personal reality.  And when I’m mindful I find that my “personal reality” is simply something that “I,” whoever or whatever THAT is, am having, and I become very free to choose (hopefully) a skillful response.

Which brings me back to “Self Compassion.”  One thing we know for sure is that life brings events that precipitate painful feelings, emotional or otherwise.  One thing I’ve noticed about pain (maybe you have too) is that when I’m in any kind of pain it feels relentless, as if it has permeated me totally.  It is very easy, when in pain, to become convinced that the pain is the new “me” and the old “me” is no longer available.  Now, I think that’s a fundamental thinking error but the fact remains that when a person is in pain, it’s hard to separate any sense of “self” from the felt pain.  The mindfulness meditator knows something about pain, however, because regular practice cultivates great skill at sitting with pain, making space for pain, abiding with pain, and being at peace with pain.  In a nutshell, the mindful person has established a “relationship” with pain, a relationship that accepts pain as a typical part of life.  You may be seeing where I’m going with this: the attitude of mindfulness tells me to become conscious of, feel, and accept “my” own pain (sympathy for my “self”).  This seems to cover the first half of that definition of Compassion cited above:  “sympathetic consciousness of others’ (in this case the “personal reality” that my mind observes) distress.”  Now I’m feeling better about this idea of Self Compassion.  But there’s still another aspect of Compassion to consider.

“With a desire to alleviate it.”  It is not enough to become sympathetically aware of my own distress, I have to want to bring relief to the pain that I am observing in my personal reality in order for this to be Compassion.  And, moreover, I would like to add that a person’s capacity for Compassion, for others or self, may or may not be skilled.  I have met well intentioned people who try to alleviate someone’s distress and, frankly, just are not very skilled at it (that’s pretty much what I talked about in the “Let It Be” post).

There is another potential problem that I see with this.  How engaged should I be with relieving my own pain?  I sense that one can become over-engaged, become preoccupied with relieving one’s own pain.  It seems self-centered, and just doesn’t seem right.  Being over-engaged with finding relief may distract me from seeing what’s going on around me; it may diminish my capacity to feel Compassion for others.

On the other hand, being under-engaged in relieving my pain seems a bit masochistic.  History is filled with martyrs, but the martyrs we admire have allowed their own pain for the relief of the pain of others (think Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Steven Biko).  I have to admit to having little patience with people who COULD bring relief to themselves but continue to live in great pain (and love to tell everyone about it!).

Clearly there’s a middle path to follow here.  Pain is not necessarily an enemy.  Sometimes pain is necessary.  Anyone who has ever raised rebellious teens, only to see them mature into adults who appreciate the standards and values of their parents, knows what I mean.  My mind goes back to acceptance; that is, living with pain as an inevitable part of life.

I think the key word we need to invoke here is “healing.”  When my intention is to relieve my pain by regaining health, healing, I believe that I find the middle path between self-centeredness and masochistic martyrdom.  To heal is “to make sound,” to restore to previous functioning, or, if restoration is not possible, to find the” new normal,” and accept a new reality.  When we heal we may not look or think or feel like we once did, but usually the healed wound, scar tissue and all, is actually stronger and more durable than the skin (or relationship) that has been replaced.

And that, to me, is Self Compassion.  It starts with an attitude that accepts pain as normal.  It proceeds to investigate the potential for healing.  Self Compassion leads me to seek healing, but invites me to consider emerging changes in my situation, and to embrace new realities.  When I extend Compassion to myself I truly seek to relieve my suffering while accepting my pain.  And I know that I’m the wiser for it, and probably more adept at extending Compassion to others.  When I seek healing rather than restoration, I learn the lessons of acceptance, and gain clarity of mind and vision.  My capacity for “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it” becomes more deeply engrained; I become more fully  human, to myself and to those around me.  I become mindful.

Peace,

Jim

Let It Be

I attended a funeral service on Saturday.  Toward the end of the service the presider, a Catholic priest operating well “outside the box,” asked those assembled to begin an a capella version of the Beatles’ song Let It Be (the lyrics were printed in the program for the funeral).  Fortunately, a talented singer (my wife!) was able to get everyone started, singing deeply and with great clarity those lovely opening words:  “When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, Let It Be.”

Times of trouble come easily some days.  Mostly those times of trouble are tolerable, times when things go wrong or there’s too much to do in the day, or a project we planned on did not pan out.  We feel stressed out, maybe a bit overwhelmed, but with practice, some mindfulness and acceptance, and patience, we’re usually able to dig ourselves out of the hole.  But it doesn’t always happen like that.

Sometimes the times of trouble are not tolerable.  We learn that a beloved parent has cancer.  Or we learn that our child is ill.  Or someone has died.  We did not get the job we hoped for; perhaps the job that we needed.  A friend has a positive test for a terrible illness.  Another loved one has died from AIDS and its complications.

Sometimes the times of trouble are threats to our own integrity, whether physical, spiritual, or emotional.  We’ve received a terrifying diagnosis.  Or realized that we have aged or grown ill and lost an ability.  A friend or an ally turns against us in an hour of need.  Or we open the paper and learn that our spiritual leaders have compromised their own integrity, again and again.  Another person has died in a suicide bombing, or another drone attack has sparked riots against America.  The Koran is burnt in a country far away, and we watch images of rage across our screen.  Or a teen, walking in his father’s neighborhood, wearing a hoodie, has died needlessly.

These worst times of trouble usually don’t have any quick fixes.  Mostly they seem to have no fixes at all, only duration, suffering, and aftermath.  As I was taught years ago by the wisest 11 year old I ever met, “you don’t get over these things, you just learn how to live with them.”

But there are people who are skilled at helping us through our times of trouble.  VERY special people.  Today I had lunch with a very special person, one who has endured and continues to endure a time of trouble.  She shared openly with me how difficult her time of trouble has been, and in her sharing we both realized something important.  The people who escort us across the expanse of our time of trouble may not be the ones we expected them to be!  That was unsettling to consider, at first.  After all, should it not be my closest friends and confidants who can best help me, know me, be with me?  But then we realized that we do not choose our friends based on their capacity to tolerate our darkest times of trouble.  I’ll say that again in another way: we choose our friends for a lot of very good reasons, but usually not because they have demonstrated any particular ability to be able to help us to tolerate our times of trouble.

And here’s another truth that we realized together:  It may be someone you never expected, someone you don’t even know that well, who comes into your life and travels through those times of trouble by your side!  Consider this possibility.  Some people are better able than others to remain with us when we are suffering.  Some people just have that skill, an ability to experience your pain and their own felt sympathetic pain and not run away, whether figuratively or literally.  I’ve met people like this, people who remain still and silent on the inside, while I’m sharing with them my fear or remorse or anger or shame, or whatever suffering has come my way.  People with this internal stillness are rare, but stillness is a quality that can be cultivated.

But there are people who stays present with you even in the midst of their own flood of emotions: the fighters among us.  And this is a mark of courage, to be able to stay present even when it hurts to do so, because it is the right thing to do.  The feelings may overwhelm these people, but they stay with us, nonetheless.  They may not feel that stillness inside, but somewhere deep within them lies the conviction that the difficulty of remaining present does not matter; someone else’s well being is more important, in this moment, than mine.  Like the person with stillness within, these people are a treasure.

I believe that the quality of mindfulness is the essence of the stillness of the compassionate heart AND the fighter determined to remain present.  Mindful people recognize the upwelling of emotion within a moment of its initiation, and, no matter how unpleasant the emotion may be, make space for it.  Accept the pain.  Observe it with great neutrality; simply experiencing it as emotional pain that is telling me something important, something I NEED to know in this moment: that this person with me is suffering and needs connection, needs my compassion.  Lacking this mindful awareness, one quickly becomes terribly overwhelmed by the flood of emotions, a flood that tells every fiber of my being to flee, to get safe, to find a way to neutralize these feelings.  I cannot find fault with any person who cannot tolerate these feelings.  It is hard to choose to stay when your body says “go!” so strongly.

Each of us can cultivate this quality, but it takes practice.  That’s why we sit, every day if possible.  A baseball player has to take batting practice over and over again, just as a musician must repeat the lessons learned from a lifetime of diligent study.  But more than the practice in the formal setting, we must practice everyday mindfulness if we are to become adept at staying with “what is,” instead of escaping to “how we would like it to be instead.”  And if you find this capacity to remain present growing, don’t be surprised at who you are called to sit with.  In the same way that you may be surprised at who is able to sit with you when you are suffering, you may be just as surprised to find yourself sitting with someone suffering who you barely know.  But it may be you who is most able to remain there, compassionately helping that person through those times of trouble.  And if it does turn out to be you who can remain still with the suffering soul, take Sir Paul McCartney’s advice to heart: Let It Be.