There are days in our life that can be remembered with one word.  For me, say “69 Mets” (OK, two words) and I’m transported to Linden Street in my home town, literally dancing down the street after hearing the last out recorded in the 1969 World Series, clutching my little transistor radio in my hand knowing that my beloved “Miracle Mets” had just pulled off the biggest reversal of fortunes in the history of baseball.  More tragically, say “Lennon” and I’m transported back to that terrible morning when we all awoke to learn that the “smart Beatle” had been shot down senselessly.  The best of times and the worst of times are often punctuated with a singular memory, a lone word that brings back all the images and thoughts and feelings.

For me, “Hamantaschen” has become one of those words.  In October of 2010 we lost a beloved man, my father in law, Tom.  I met him for the first time when I picked up my wife-to-be for our first date.  I knew I was getting into something special; he treated me like another son (he already had two) from the beginning.  He worked hard, helped anyone who needed a hand, took his faith and his family to his heart and never let go.  He lived with us for several years when his health began to decline, and when he died we all grieved deeply.

Hamantaschen are the sweet, triangular cookies traditionally eaten during the Jewish holiday of Purim.  I’m not Jewish, but when I learned about Purim I wished I was!  What a joyous holiday and what a story.  Esther and Mordecai, King Ahasuerus, Haman, who ends up on the gallows, and the Jewish people are delivered from annihilation.  Purim sounds like a blast, and I hope someday I’m able to partake in the festivities.

When my father in law died we were overcome by the outpouring of love from the community.  The viewing was held in the church of his home parish on the morning of his funeral Mass.  Hundreds of people came out to honor this man who died in his early ‘90s.  Middle aged men cried remembering their old Little League baseball coach.  Elderly parishioners recalled how many times Tom had shown up to help them, never claiming any special credit for his charitable nature.  Tears and celebration flowed all morning.

And then my good friend and fellow meditator, Judy, walked up the center aisle of the church with a box in her hands and a smile of comfort on her face.  “Here,” she said, “these are for you and your family.”  Hugs all around, and I opened the box and found Hamantaschen!  “You need something sweet in a time like this” she said.  And as quickly as she came up the aisle she was gone.

My wife and our family savored those cookies.  To this day all I have to say to her is “Hamantaschen” and we both break into a smile that says it all: dad has died and we miss him and we mourn him; but life is good and is filled with loving and comforting.  When I think of Judy and of Hamantaschen I am transported back to a sad time of celebration, indelibly recorded in my heart and soul.

You probably have words like these too.  Savor them; learn from them; allow yourself to be transported back to another time and place.  Some words will bring up great pain, unrelieved by any joy or love or satisfaction.  Sit with those feelings, learn from them, make sense of them, and allow that word to be just a word once again.  Some words will bring up great joy; savor the feeling, sit with it and allow that joy to become a deeper part of who you are.  And some words will bring up a mixture of joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, happiness and sadness.  Words like Hamantaschen will do that to you, allowing you to own and embrace your memories, no matter how they make you feel.

This is our practice.  In mindfulness we are aware, awake, accepting.  All feelings can be learned, lived with, and let go if need be.  Sometimes all it takes is a word, mindfully recalled, to begin the practice once again.  For me, Hamantaschen is a great start to a period of meditation.

Thanks, Judy!



Active Acceptance, Part II: Embracing and Forgiving

Acceptance.  Seeing phenomenal reality, as it emerges, with great clarity.  Acceptance.  Letting go of our mental interpretations about emerging phenomena and choosing, intentionally, to experience each moment directly.  Acceptance requires self-knowing; we must be able to recognize the workings of the mind, understand which of those workings are based on true experience and which result from whatever residue of clinging remains after the hard work of our sitting meditation.  Acceptance.  Am I able to perceive the moment as it unfolds, know my own mental baggage, let go of that baggage and respond to the moment with the greatest of skill, based on my insight into what is happening and the degree of compassion that accompanies that insight.  Acceptance.

With the practice of acceptance comes great equanimity.  The emotional roller coaster ride begins to smooth out and slow down.  With acceptance we find ourselves becoming quite steady, at times rather unflappable.  Like a great mountain we endure when we practice acceptance.  Acceptance becomes the fertile soil that sustains my life.

Acceptance is a state of mind that we can cultivate with our sitting meditation, and it is a trait of mind when it is practiced persistently with intention.  In becoming a trait, our acceptance permeates all of our days and all of our affairs.  It becomes a vital aspect of our identity, and is experienced by others as empathy and compassion.  It is the foundation of love.

I prefer to think of trait acceptance as active acceptance.  Too often I have heard acceptance described as a passive state, but it is quite the opposite.  To live in acceptance is to embrace life with great vigor, working unceasingly, but always working “with” life rather than “against” life.  For example, when in the midst of evil the person practicing acceptance can see clearly what s/he is facing, without denial or defensiveness, maintaining inner calm.  In this state of mind the right view about the nature of the evil emerges, and from that right view emerges right actions.

In the example I used in my previous essay a gentleman I called Fred encountered an unpleasant situation with a colleague who has lashed out verbally, seemingly unprovoked.  Fred recognized, in meditation, that his colleague’s outburst was evidence of suffering, suffering with deep roots emerging from his colleague’s experiences as a bullied child.  Fred let go of his own anger and recognized compassion emerging, and allowed himself to abide in this wave of compassion by practicing metta for his colleague.

The challenge for Fred, as it is for each of us, is what happens next.  What happens when Fred sees his colleague again?  How does he operationalize his compassion, make compassion an emerging phenomenon in his relationship with his colleague?  This is the work of active acceptance, since it is quite possible that Fred’s acts of kindness toward his offended colleague will be rebuffed or, worse, seen as patronizing.  Yet it is essential that Fred form the intention in his mind and heart to act with kindness toward his colleague, allowing himself to be vulnerable as if he had, indeed, offended this person.

This work is the work of Forgiveness, a form of lovingkindness that is powerful, perhaps the most powerful force within any relationship.  Active acceptance means we turn toward the difficult person or difficult situation with kindness, perhaps being careful to maintain needed boundaries in the case where the person or situation presents a threat to our welfare or another’s, but the firmness of the boundary is surrounded by the softness of our compassion.  The act of forgiving, which I see as the active part of acceptance, requires great insight, mindful acceptance, willingness to let go of retribution (to which we may have a right), and, in time, acts of kindness, if appropriate and safe to do.

More on that in my next post.



Active Acceptance, Part I

I’ve posted on Acceptance on three occasions (twice in June, 2011, and once in October of 2011); I think it’s an important topic, and an integral part of mindfulness practice.  Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness captures this perfectly: “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”  In summary, mindfulness is attentional, intentional, immediate, and accepting.  The first three can be learned through practice; the fourth, the acceptance, is more difficult.

Acceptance can only occur if we can perceive present moment reality with clarity.  Our meditation practice allows us to notice all aspects of mental activity, both the immediate phenomena that occur (i.e. sense perceptions, body sensations, thoughts and emotions) and our tendency to interpret those phenomena.  Our acceptance work begins with those interpretations; we have to notice them and realize which are distortions of the actual phenomena and which are not.  Once we’ve worked through the interpretation layer, we can then simply be in a state of attentional control, noticing the immediate arising of perceptions and sensations, not judging, just aware.

The work we do in our meditation practice enables our minds to become quite strong in their capacity to pay attention with intention in the moment without judging.  But what use is this capacity unless the internal process is manifest in some way externally?  Allow me to explain by example.

A person (we’ll call him Fred) feels anger toward a colleague who lashed out at him, unprovoked, while Fred was telling a story about a game of basketball he played a few days ago.  When Fred sits in meditation later that day he calms himself with a clearing breath, and begins some simple breath counting to focus his mind.  Within a short period he finds his attention to be sharp, and breath-centered.  He then begins to practice open awareness, allowing sensations and perceptions to be noticed, with breath awareness continuing as a backdrop.  So far, a pleasant meditation.  As his mind is relaxed his feelings of anger return, and he notices those feelings, both as angry thoughts and angry body sensations (tightened chest, increased breathing rate…).  He makes meditative space for these thoughts and sensations, not judging them, breathing and noticing.  Then a thought comes into Fred’s mind: “that guy is a jerk.  He had no business talking to me that way.”  Fred immediately recognizes his interpretation (“that guy is a jerk”) and his own hurt reaction (“He had no business talking to me that way.”).  Having had good meditation instruction, Fred refrains from judging his own judgmental thought, makes space for it, breathes with it, and notices its strength diminish in the process.

As his meditation proceeds Fred notices that the image of his colleague arises, and a memory flashes through his mind: his colleague had once confided in him that he was bullied by the “jocks” in his high school.  Suddenly Fred has the insight that his colleague views him as a jock, and hearing him talk about playing basketball might have triggered some old memories and some thoughts and feelings that really weren’t about Fred at all.  Fred feels compassion for his colleague, and practices metta (lovingkindness meditation) for his colleague.

Wow, what a great meditation!  I wish all of mine were so fruitful!  But when I contemplate this scenario I realize it’s not enough.  Fred has used acceptance during his meditation as a way to allow his mind to make sense of the events of the day and to let go of his interpretations.  As a result of his acceptance he experiences compassion, which is good for him but not really helping his colleague very much.  Fred has experienced mindful acceptance; but he must take that further, with the practice of active acceptance.  More on that in my next post.