Let’s keep it simple today: it’s spring! Whether practicing focused concentration or open awareness, let’s simply pay attention to the returning life and beauty of this world. Here’s a poem that perhaps can put you in the mood:
The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
There are times in any life that are very difficult. Perhaps we are struck with a dreadful illness, or chronically painful condition, or severe job/career loss, or overwhelming financial calamity, or societal injustice, violence, defeat. All of us face times of tremendous trial.
During these times of trial there is the inclination to escape. These times in our lives bring a chronic state of bodily stress, that can wear down the body, mind and spirit. We reach a point where we turn away from our difficulties and say “enough!” “I can’t take this anymore!”
In these times of trial I have seen many relationships fray around the edges, sometimes even deteriorating to the core. In our suffering we lose patience, and with it our capacity to express our love. The same is true for caregivers witnessing the suffering of a loved one. Anger, fear, shame and guilt, sadness. All of these emotions overwhelm, and quickly we can say and do hurtful and regretful things.
Our mindfulness practice teaches us a counterintuitive and somewhat paradoxical response to times of trial: leaning in. Rather than avoiding the difficult, the uncomfortable and unpleasant, the painful, we lean into these trials. In so doing we intend to form a new relationship with our suffering. Yes, it may sound unusual to put it that way, but you and I both have a relationship with our suffering (as well as with our joy!). This relationship with our suffering is one based on the attitude we choose to have with pain and difficulty. Often, as if on autopilot, our attitude toward our suffering is antagonistic. Noticing our suffering and our attitude, we can form the intention to bring acceptance, receptivity, and equanimity to our relationship with our suffering. And that can change everything!
Today’s meditation is a body scan. I can only speak for myself, but every time I do the body scan I inevitably come across parts of my body that are tense, uncomfortable, or painful. And that is where I get to practice “leaning in.” You can do that too! Using your breath as your anchor, your foundation, turn to those parts of your body that hurt in any way, and see what you can learn from them. You might be surprised what they have to teach you.
So here are some words of wisdom from Pema Chodron. Below that is a poem from Mary Oliver. It’s a very pleasant poem filled with very pleasant images. Sometimes we need a little food for the journey, especially when the journey is difficult.
When Things Fall Apart (Excerpt)
Generally speaking, we regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for practitioners or spiritual warriors, people who have a certain hunger to know what is true, feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we are holding back.
They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.
Most of us do not take these situations as teachings. We automatically hate therm. We run like crazy.
We are use to all kinds of escaping — all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it.
There are so many ways that have been dreamed up to entertain us away from the moment.
— Pema Chodron
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
Oh the effort we put in to “changing our selves”! Think of the time and money wasted on New Year’s resolutions, magic diets, fad-fueled workout regimens, and miracle cures to problems that may not even be problems. We strive for our version of perfection, usually an illusion, usually another way to squander a perfectly fine day.
Yet at the same time we feel pulled toward something greater than our selves. When we sit in meditation there are moments that feel serene, during which a sense of mental clarity absorbs us. If we strive for these moments, they are elusive. If we settle into our posture, into our breath, body, and mind with the intention to simply be present, receptive, and aware, then these moments may arise. I am not sure exactly what is meant by the word “enlightenment” when used in the context of meditation and a spiritual point of view. But if it means to “see more clearly” (i.e. with greater mental light) and to feel less of a burden in life (i.e. to have our mental load “lightened”), then perhaps enlightenment is a momentary awareness, a guest dropping into the guest house of our mind. And perhaps just the memory that this guest is always invited and always welcome can make each day feel even more full and alive.
Here are two poems I really like, and which I used in today’s guided meditation:
Forget About Enlightenment
Sit down wherever you are
And listen to the wind singing in your veins.
Feel the love, the longing, the fear in your bones.
Open your heart to who you are, right now,
Not who you would like to be,
Not the saint you are striving to become,
But the being right here before you, inside you, around you.
Our mindfulness practice opens up a world of possibilities. Sitting, listening, noticing, not judging; always receptive, never rejecting anything, endlessly curious as to our own experiencing. And what a world our inner being presents to us! Fleeting yet seeming to be solid and permanent, always a new thought and a new drive, yet coming back to the breath, mind and body feels like a homecoming to something old each time.
Wisdom and delight can be found in so many places. Having grandchildren has introduced me once again to the wisdom and delight of the very young child. It has been a joy to become reacquainted to that wise old sage, Winnie the Pooh. Today I offer to you a few wise quotes from Winnie and friends in the Hundred Acre Wood:
“Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”
“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”
“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”
“Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.”
“Love is taking a few steps backward maybe even more… to give way to the happiness of the person you love.”
On Your Self Worth and Dignity:
“The things that make me different are the things that make me me.”
“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
“Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.”
And on how to be patient with the other guy!
“If the person you are talking to does not appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in this ear.”
Today’s meditation is a modified body scan. I hope it helps you to reestablish the delight that is available to us each moment of every day.
From the materials furnished to me years ago from the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, as part of the teacher training I received in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction:
WHAT IS STRESS?
“Stress is the nonspecific response of the organism to any pressure or demand. A Stressor is any stimulus, whether in the external or internal environment, that produces the body’s stress response. For example: An overwhelming stress response (caused by prolonged starvation, worry, fatigue, or cold) can break down the body’s protective mechanisms. This is true both of adaptation which depends on chemical immunity and of that due to inflammatory barricades. It is for this reason that so many maladies tend to become rampant during wars and famines. If a microbe is in or around us all the time and yet causes no disease until we are exposed to a stress, what is the “cause” of our illness, the microbe or the stress? I think both are – and equally so. In most instances, disease is due neither to the germ as such, nor to our adaptive reactions as such, but to the inadequacy of our reactions against the germ.”
– Dr. Hans Selye
Exposure to Stressors → Stress Response (release of Cortisol)
Over a period of time chronic stress, initiated by a chronic stressor, can take on a life of its own as the mind stays in a state of hyper-vigilance, causing the body to go into a stressful state even when the chronic stressor is no longer present.
We often try to escape this stress cycle by trying to think our way out of it. This usually fails, absent doing the work of bringing the body back to a relaxed state. Today’s meditation is a hybrid of the classic body scan and a technique called Progressive Muscular Relaxation. The intention is to teach a tool that can be used to help us recognize when the body is being held with stressful tension, and having an easily applied antidote to relax the body and the mind.
Can finding contentment be so simple: find more light every day. Without light there is no life, at least not life as we know it. Light warms and energizes ourselves, our planet. If “to love” is to hold dear, to cherish, to nourish and care for, then perhaps light is the most primal manifestation of “loving” that we experience.
Our practice of mindfulness is quite simple, in a way. We learn to notice what is happening in this present moment, and we notice it openly, honestly, authentically, and, most important, without judgment. To be mindful is to be receptive. Looked at from a different perspective, to be mindful is to form the intention to love life as we experience it, moment to moment.
What could be simpler than to notice the light, both literally and figuratively, that surrounds us every day? And in doing so mindfully, we love the light in return; love after love.
Today’s meditation includes some brief quotes:
Excerpt from The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman
When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade.
We’ve braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
Excerpt from Lights in the Windows by Naomi Shihab Nye
Years ago a girl handed me a note as I was leaving her proud town of Albany, Texas, a tiny, lovely place far in the west of our big state.”I’m glad to know there is another poemist in the world,” the note said. “I always knew we would find one another someday and our lights would cross.”
Our lights would cross. That girl had not stood out to me, I realized, among the other upturned, interested faces in the classroom. How many other lights had I missed? I carried her smudged note for thousands of miles.
To me the world of poetry is a house with thousands of glittering windows. Our words and images, land to land, era to era, shed light on one another. Our words dissolve the shadows we imagine fall between.
Whether we choose to head toward the light or the darkness, the light always moves with us. Light never stops; never loses faith that we will turn and embrace it, even when we choose to embrace the dark and turn away.
What are you doing with your one, true life? You can choose to embrace the light, the love, that is waiting for you, the light that is always willing to hold you in its warm embrace.
Here’s one way to embrace the light. On February 1st, 2021 in northern Delaware there were 10 hours, 12 minutes, and 26 seconds of daylight. Today, February 2nd, there will be 10 hours, fourteen minutes and 34 seconds, over two more minutes of light. By February 28 there will be 11 hours, 17 minutes and 7 seconds. If you form the intention, you can choose to notice this daily delivery of additional light into our lives! Have Hope!!
Thinking more about the light, I’d like to turn to Barry Lopez’s wonderful book “Arctic Dreams.” After meditating on the light in the Arctic, which is a special and unique light, and comparing it to the light in the great cathedrals of Europe, a light which seems to see into infinity, Mr. Lopez wrote: “There is a word from the time of the cathedrals: agape, an expression of intense spiritual affinity with the mystery that is ‘to be sharing life with other life.’ Agape is love, and it can mean ‘the love of another for the sake of God.’ More broadly and essentially, it is a humble, impassioned embrace of something outside the self, in the name of that which we refer to as God, but which also includes the self and is God. We are clearly indebted as a species to the play of our intelligence; we trust our future to it; but we do not know whether intelligence is reason or whether intelligence is this desire to embrace and be embraced in the pattern that both theologians and physicists call God. Whether intelligence, in other words, is love.”
During the meditation I read an excerpt from Mary Oliver’s poem “Poppies.” Once again, we consider the light in our lives:
We live in difficult times, but times made difficult by the machinations of people. Greed, hatred, and ignorance drive us to living in delusion, always wanting more, or at least something other than what we already have. Take the time to stop and notice the actual world, still present despite the suffering we create on our own. Grasp the beauty and wonder of nature, and the solace and healing of love. Do not do so to escape the present turmoil, but to renew your faith that this is a world worth saving.
Today’s quotes are from Barry Lopez’s book “Arctic Dreams.” Mr. Lopez died on Christmas Day, 2020. His book is a reflection formed while visiting the Arctic regions. It is at once a lesson in history, archeology, anthropology, and spirituality. It is a wonderment!
“Whatever evaluation we finally make of a stretch of land, however, no matter how profound or accurate, we will find it inadequate. The land retains an identity of its own, still deeper and more subtle than we can know. Our obligation toward it then becomes simple: to approach with an uncalculating mind, with an attitude of regard. To try to sense the range and variety of its expression—its weather and colors and animals. To intend from the beginning to preserve some of the mystery within it as a kind of wisdom to be experienced, not questioned. And to be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know the land knows you are there.”
“Lying flat on your back on Ellesmere Island on rolling tundra without animals, without human trace, you can feel the silence stretching all the way to Asia. The winter face of a muskox, its unperturbed eye glistening in a halo of snow-encrusted hair, looks at you over a cataract of time, an image that has endured through all the pulsations of ice.
You can sit for a long time with the history of man like a stone in your hand. The stillness, the pure light, encourage it.”
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.