Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

First Lesson

The first time I taught Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was during the summer of 2006.  I had just completed my mindfulness teacher training at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness a month earlier.  I was confident in my skills, having worked as a therapist for several years and become comfortable with discomfort.  At the same time I was nervous about this first class, mostly driven by my concern to provide a helping experience.  In addition, the only guided meditations I had led to that point were in my teacher training, and all of the “students” I was “teaching” were experienced meditators.  So this first class was a leap into the unknown.

I had managed to recruit 15 attendees, and rented space at a local Catholic retreat center called Jesus House.  The owners, Chris and Angie Malmgren, created a safe, quiet, pastoral setting that was clearly Catholic in culture but not overwhelmingly so.  The room I used was a stand-alone small building facing an open field with lots of windows and light streaming in from the west.  In the early afternoon the room was resplendent, truly a peaceful place to meditate and address stress related issues.

After introductions were concluded we started our first meditation, which was a sitting meditation lasting 15 minutes.  None of the attendees had any experience with meditation; all expressed concern that they “wouldn’t be any good at it,” a pretty typical reaction from most non-meditators.  After assuring them that all they had to do was sit and follow the sound of my voice as I directed their attention in a mindful way, we commenced that first meditation.  The room became quiet; perhaps better to say the room was enveloped in stillness.  Everything felt right.

Five minutes into that first meditation the landscaping crew arrived and began their work.  Four large mowers, the kind that one rides standing on the back portion of the blade housing, were moving at a quick pace around the grounds immediately outside of our room, engines roaring in unison.  The sound was deafening; I nearly had to shout to be heard above the din.  I began to feel panic; this ruined everything!  I took a breath, noticed my body’s reactivity, noticed the sounds, noticed my mind.  With no application of reasoning power or logic, I heard myself say:

“Continuing to follow the rhythm of your breathing, seeing if you can also be aware of the sound from the mowers alongside the sensations of breathing.”

I let go of my need for silence in the room.  I kept breathing, noticing.  I heard myself say:

“Noticing if you’re having feelings about the mowers’ sounds.  Perhaps being OK with those feelings.  Then gently returning your mind’s attention to your breathing.”

I let go again.  I was breathing, noticing, accepting.  I heard my mind’s voice say “Noise is just noise, there is no ‘good meditation’ or ‘bad meditation.’  There is no ‘good noise’ or ‘bad noise.’  Are you awake right now?  Are you breathing?”  Then I heard myself say:

“In a few moments we’ll bring this meditation to a close.  Using these remaining moments to be completely present with your body, your breath, your mind.  Noticing whatever is present and seeing if you can be OK with all of it.”

I sensed how calm I felt.  In control.  I sensed how powerful this short meditation had been for me.  I had let go of the “necessary” outcome.  I had just let myself be present.”

After everyone returned their attention to the room, with the mowers still at work, I asked what it was like to use their minds that way.  The summation of responses was clear:

“When the mowers arrived I thought “well that ruins everything!”  But I learned to just notice what is happening in each moment; to be ok with whatever comes to my awareness.  Every moment, it turns out, is worthwhile.”

At that moment I knew that I could teach this skill.  I am so grateful to those landscapers!

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When I tell people that I teach meditation the most common response I get is “Oh, I’ve tried to meditate.  I can’t do it; I’m terrible at it.”  This response makes sense in the context of how meditation is represented in the popular press and media, but it misses the point.  There is no “good meditation” and “bad meditation.”  Either you are meditating or you are not.  Actually, I prefer to say either you are mindful or you are not.  When I choose to meditate in a formal way my mind becomes focused and non-judgmental; in that moment I am meditating.  A few seconds later my mind wanders into “story land,” or perhaps I may feel a judgment arise about myself or someone else or some thing that comes to my mind.  In those moments I am not mindful; I am not meditating.  Then I notice I am in story land and take a breath; I’ve begun to meditate again, and will continue until the next time my mind wanders back to story land.  It can go on like that for quite a while, but the more intention I bring to my meditation session the longer the mindful periods persist and the more able I become to notice when I am not mindful.  This is a skill that can be developed with intentionality and discipline.  That’s up to you.

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So you might want to try this simple way to introduce mindfulness to your day-to-day experience.  At the beginning of your day commit to the intention to ask yourself this question from time to time:

“Am I breathing right now?”

It’s a pretty simple question to answer.  If your answer is “no,” then you have bigger problems than meditation can resolve!  Your answer, of course, will be “yes” most of the time.

When you stop to ask yourself this question, you’ve become mindful.  “Yes, I”m breathing.”  Now in that mindful moment look around, perhaps within your body/mind or perhaps around you.  Notice something: a pleasant feeling or taste, a relaxed body, the breeze on your face, the feeling of sunshine, a friend or a friendly face, the laugh of a child…..  The list of possibilities here is endless.  In that moment that you’ve said “Yes, I am breathing” take another moment to notice something else, staying fully present with whatever it is.  Maybe for a few seconds, maybe even a full minute.  Or, if you’re feeling radical, just stop whatever you’re doing, put away your phone, push away the keyboard, lay your pen on the table.  Stop and stay present with whatever you found when you noticed you were breathing.  And when you’ve fully embraced that moment of wakefulness do something really radical: Smile!  Now notice how that makes you feel.  Then let go of the smile and return your attention to the events of the day, until the next time you notice your mind wondering “Am I breathing right now?”

Who knows, you may find the experience to be so pleasant, so helpful, that you begin to set aside time to do this simple exercise.  And then your response to the next meditator you meet will be “Me too; I like to take time to be mindful as well!”

Peace!

Jim

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Retreats

Sometime back in 2005 I went on my first mindfulness retreat, though it wasn’t the first retreat I ever attended.  That first retreat happened when I was in 11th grade at an all-boys Catholic High School.  My first two years there had been painful; looking back I was likely in a depressive episode.  I had a life-changing traumatic experience shortly before starting 9th grade and I did not really begin to recover until that retreat in 11th grade.  But I’ll save that story for another time.

My next retreat did not occur until I was in my mid-30’s and I was the retreat co-leader, not simply an attendee.  In hindsight I realize that I did not really know what I was doing, but fortunately my co-leader did, and we pulled off a good retreat.  From that event in 1989 until 2006 I either led or was the co-leader in four or five retreats per year, all to support people making a religious conversion to Catholicism.  These retreats were good experiences for me as well and clearly instrumental in my decision to leave my corporate sales career and begin graduate work towards an MS and PhD in Pastoral Counseling starting in 1995.

After I completed my Masters in June of 1997 I was preparing to begin my PhD work when my mentor at Loyola College in Maryland, Dr. Joe Ciarrocchi, handed me a copy of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book “Full Catastrophe Living.”  He smiled his quiet smile and said “You might like this.  I’m not into this Buddisty stuff, but I know you are.”  I devoured the book and concluded that mindfulness training, the topic of the book, would become an important part of my clinical work both as a therapist and, a few years later, as a counselor educator.  Mindfulness also had a tremendous impact on my spiritual journey, and continues to be an important part of daily living.

I spent a lot of time and energy learning to teach mindfulness along with cultivating a regular practice.  An important part of this training was attending meditation retreats.  The second mindfulness retreat I attended, seven days of guided silence and stillness at the Omega Center in Rhinebeck, NY in 2005, led to an important realization resulting from an unexpected experience, which is the initial subject of this essay.

The first full day of the retreat began on a warm summer morning at 6 am in a large meditation hall filled to capacity with about 90 people.  We spent six hours in a combination of sitting meditation, walking meditation, yoga/stretching meditation, and lying on the floor doing body scan meditation.  As my mindfulness practice was pretty new to me it was a demanding morning.  At noon we were instructed to remain in silence for the next two hours, including while in the dining hall.  Our silence was to include “modesty of the eyes;” that is, avoiding making eye contact along with avoiding all speech.  This didn’t phase me, though, as I had begun to truly cherish the silence of our meditations that morning and the inner stillness I was experiencing.  However, I was about to learn that the retreat you expect is not always the retreat you get and, perhaps, need, and my teacher was an octogenarian whose husband of many decades had recently died.

Barbara was a psychologist practicing in a large mid-Atlantic city.  She was short; actually she was small in stature, someone you might miss in a crowd if you didn’t look carefully.  Tastefully dressed, noticeably so for a meditation crowd, she walked up to me as the crowd filed out of the meditation hall as if she already knew me.  It was a very intentional approach, or at least it seemed to be.  I felt her presence immediately; she was strolling alongside me, close enough that we could have held hands.  After only a few steps she looked up and said softly “hello, my name is Barbara.”  I think if it had been anyone else in the crowd breaking the silence I would have reacted in some way, but for reasons forever unknowable to me I did not react at all, except to look down toward her face, smile, and say softly “hello, I’m Jim.”  We did not speak again while walking the short distance to the dining hall, but we walked together and I understood that we would be sitting together.

After going through the buffet line and finding a table Barbara began to tell her story.  She had spent the better part of her life working as a therapist and had never retired in the formal sense of the word, only slowing down in her later years.  Her husband had died a few months ago; her grief felt overwhelming.  She was nearly whispering to me throughout that long lunch together.  Her husband, also a psychologist, had been her lover, the father of their children, her work colleague, her best friend.  I thought of a quote from Montaigne: “One soul in two bodies.”  It was that kind of relationship.

We were back to the meditation hall by 2 pm and moved our cushions and mats to be next to each other.  Each day we meditated in close proximity, and at each meal we told our stories to each other, always in hushed tones out of respect for the intention of the retreat to practice silence and stillness.  Gradually during the week we were joined by others, who listened and told their stories as well.  This small, emerging group shared intimacies, many joyful, some sad, all meaningful to each of us.  Our shared stories were illustrations of our humanity, and naturally a deep connection was formed, one brimming with affection.  Oddly none of us felt in violation of the retreat strictures, though clearly we were.  Looking back I suppose that we were committed to a sort of quiet authenticity that simply felt congruent with the intention of the retreat.

After six days the silence of the retreat was broken.  It felt as though the 90 attendees filled the meditation and dining hall with peace and joy, which spread throughout the pathways and open areas of the retreat center.  Barbara and I now laughed out loud together, and joined a group slurping ice cream cones at the convenience shop on campus.  The next day we said our goodbyes without pretending that we would stay in touch.  What we shared needed the context of a retreat, and we both were returning to the lives and circumstances we had left behind just one week earlier.
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Two nights ago, roughly 16 years after meeting Barbara, I went walking in the dusk hours of a late autumn evening.  It was cold and breezy.  I’ve grown to love my afternoon and evening walks.  In the morning I walk and trot for exercise; aerobic activity feels good to me and is likely good for my health.  But later in the day, especially in the late fall and winter, I walk without any particular purpose.  I stroll along; the French word flâneur comes to mind, usually translated as a “stroller, a loafer, or a saunterer.”  Naturally, since it is a French word, it has additional connotations, including being seen as “an ambivalent figure in an urban setting, wandering as if detached from society in order to be a keen observer of contemporary life.”  I’ll admit to the intention to be a keen observer, however neither detached nor ambivalent.  I suppose I just like the sound of the word.

In any case I wandered on the grounds of a nearby high school campus, walking slowly and enjoying the feeling of the cold air on my face and the soft light of the early evening.  Autumn light has a milky quality to it; the low angle of the sun throughout the day refracts through the clouds, which seem to be smeared across the sky, hanging lower and darker than summer clouds.  The light is comforting to me, more of a glow than a shine, and when the moon is out its reflected light creates an aura that veils its visible contours and edges.  I want to walk slowly in this chilled air, this softened light; I want to be able to remember it for days afterward.  If life presents moments of loss and despair, and with them feelings of isolation, it also offers us moments of transcendence and fulfillment, with feelings of deep interconnectedness.  These walks present this possibility to me: that the moment of connectedness is now.

There is a hill on this property.  From this hill, looking east, the lights of a long suspension bridge many miles away shine.  Further south you can see a refinery at work; not a pleasant place but its lights are still an attraction and draw the eye.  Standing on this hill the breeze became the wind, and the coldness stung but also made me more aware of how pleasant the warmth of my insulated jacket felt; there are  always reminders of the inherent balance in all lived experiences.

As I walked through the north parking lot of the school, having turned west with this hill behind me, my eye was drawn upward by a movement framed against the orange tinge left by the already set sun.  It was a bird, a large bird, flying low with wings fully outstretched but quite still at the same time.  At first I thought it might be an owl or a hawk, but there was no way to tell as it was only seen as a blackened outline against the night sky.  The tips of its wings were like outstretched fingers; though it was gliding quickly there was a complete stillness of its body at the same time.  It seemed to float.  It moved quickly above and past me toward the east, toward the hill and the lights of the bridge and refinery.  As it reached the break of the hill it moved its “fingers” ever so slightly, as if gesturing softly and silently, to effect a slight change in direction.  It flew on into the night.  I stood and observed as keenly as I could.

Then my mind resumed activity; my first thought was “how exhilarating it must be for that creature to soar aloft on the breeze, into the night sky, unfettered by gravity and time.”  But that was an error on my part, for to be exhilarated requires some element of novelty, perhaps even the occurrence of something unexpected.  For me, soaring into the sky on a commercial flight is exhilarating, but walking along slowly, though pleasant, was not.  Could it be that the familiarity of the experience of soaring flight for this bird had taken away any semblance of exhilaration for it?  Perhaps this bird looked down at me and thought “look at how smoothly that creature strolls along, how quickly and easily he masters bipedal movement.  If only I could do the same!”  I realized this all in a moment while standing in the parking lot, and when I resumed walking I noticed my walking with new eyes, and for a moment I knew what it takes to be a flâneur of the inner world.  My mindset had shifted from passively noticing my surroundings to actively noticing and embracing what if felt like to walk, as if I had never walked before.  This “walking for the first time” experience was, in a way, exhilarating.  I can’t remember when I’ve felt more connected to all that is within and outside of me than that moment.

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Thomas Merton began his spiritual classic “Seeds of Contemplation” with these words:

“Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.”

As I walked toward home two nights ago I began to think about meeting Barbara so many years ago.  I had been reminded of that meeting when talking with my sister earlier that day.  She had just completed a retreat and had experienced the “retreat you need, which may not be the retreat you expect.”  Like my time with Barbara, my sister had spent much time with a beloved friend and though neither of them maintained the silence of the retreat, they found the inner stillness they sought in the communion of their hearts.  Hearing my sister’s story brought back the memory of my retreat years ago and the communion of hearts that Barbara and I had experienced.  The feeling of that connectedness with Barbara was waiting for me in the moment of experiencing that soaring silent bird, and then my own strolling, silent walking.  These moments appear spontaneously, as Merton points out.  These moments are waiting, but not waiting for our arrival, but rather waiting for our awakening.  And that awakening is not only the awareness of what is happening, but it is awareness in the mind filled with curiosity, openness, and acceptance.

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Today I walked again.  The air was cold, but it was my morning walk and my intention was task-oriented.  I walked quickly, elevating my heart rate and breaking a sweat.  It felt good.  Later today I will walk again.  I will not be looking for any birds flying along or another meditator waiting to join me in my strolling.  I will not be looking for anything, but I will be open to seeing everything and practicing this art of “seeing with new eyes.”  And whether I notice them or not, in each moment of my walk, indeed in each moment of my life, “germs of spiritual vitality” will be present.

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A final thought to share.  If you look up the definition of “retreat” you’ll find a curious collection of meanings.  First, it is both a noun (“the retreat of the army was well organized”) and a verb (“the army retreated rapidly in the face of strong opposition”).  It has a military connotation, as evidenced above, but also a spiritual connotation.  Isn’t that curious?  While a “retreat” can be an escape to fight another day, it can also be withdrawal into a quiet or secluded space for prayer and meditation.  In either case one is renewed and fortified after retreat.  In the case of the army in retreat, the soldiers are rested and ready to fight anew.  In the case of persons on retreat, they return rested and ready to engage the world with openness and compassion.  Quite a range of meanings for one word!

What would be the effect in your life if you looked at each day as having opportunities to be on retreat?  Could a short walk at lunch be experienced with “new eyes,” noticing the “germs of spiritual vitality” that are omnipresent for us?  Might a quiet lunch, consumed alone, become a time of solitude and thoughtful prayer?  Is it possible to quietly meditate on the breath while driving home or even sitting on the bus?  What is possible in your one short amazing life?  The germs of spiritual vitality await your awakening!

Peace,

Jim

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

About Gifts

When I was a sophomore at Fordham University, all of 19 years old and able to drink legally for the first time because New York’s drinking age was only 18 when it was 21 pretty much everywhere else (this was in 1973), you could hear Bruce Springsteen in any hallway in any dormitory at nearly any time of day or night.  For a kid from north Jersey going to school in the Bronx, hearing Bruce everywhere was a gift of the gods, or perhaps a gift from “a God,” Bruce that is.  “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle” had just been released and most of us were in a Bruce-induced mania.  “Rosalita, jump a little higher.  Senorita, come sit by my fire.”  Or “…Sandy, the aurora is rising behind us. This pier lights our carnival life forever.  Oh love me tonight, for I may never see you again.”  I was that kid singing those songs in that hallway, yearning for Rosalita or Sandy to please love me tonight.  God I was lonely; I was a teen.

By fall of 1975 I was a student teacher in an uptown High School on the east side of Manhattan riding the subway and the bus to get there on time every morning.  Plastered all over town, on every mode of transportation and on billboards, were images of ultimate cool: Bruce Springsteen, rock god.  This poster, advertising his Born to Run album, was the best, at least for me.  I mean really, who wouldn’t want to be this man, especially when the one doing the wishing was 21 years old and trying to figure himself out?

At the time I never realized what a gift Bruce was giving us, in giving us this image that seemed to declare that he knew his pathway lay in a particular direction.  To me it screamed self-assurance, something I didn’t yet have. This picture told me that with a leather jacket and a good pair of sneakers anyone, even me, could be an object of desire.  But what I didn’t know I learned years later in his autobiography “Born to Run:” Bruce suffered, and likely was suffering in 1975, from depression and anxiety.  For a guy in a leather jacket writing about “Racing in the Streets” it was hard to imagine that he didn’t have a driver’s license because he was too anxious to drive.  I am glad that I didn’t know this in 1975; I wasn’t ready to discern the difference between facts and truths yet.  I learned the facts about Bruce’s suffering in 2016, the year he released his autobiography.  Afterward I recalled a famous line from John Ford’s film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:” “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  Thank you, Bruce, for letting us embrace the legend back then, but having the courage and authenticity to give us the facts later on.  And I believe firmly that the legend that Bruce gave us in the early 1970’s held a deeper truth about himself, one that he could hardly imagine until much later on in his life: that there is indeed something legendary about the willingness to be candid and vulnerable about your own suffering.  If you read between the lyrics you can find Bruce’s authenticity about his suffering in those early songs.

Working as a psychotherapist for the past 25 years I have been in the business of finding something deeply true amid the facts of a person’s life.  I’ve heard story after story, some very painful and some quite funny, silly, or sometimes even deeply spiritual.  I never knew on any given day what I was going to learn about someone.  Over and over again I heard people struggling to find their own truths in the midst of the facts of their lives.  This process can be so difficult to follow, especially when memory struggles to reconstruct facts.  Traumatic events and the powerful stress hormones they release damage memory formation.  We build our truths from those narratives; how difficult it is to do this work when the narratives are so painful and so poorly remembered.

When I first started my practice 25 years ago the first challenge was to decorate my office.  The furnishings I chose were pretty simple: lots of earth tones, some greenery and “soft corners,” a lesson I learned from a feng shui master.  After the furniture came the walls.  I found a watercolor of a vineyard that captured those earth tones perfectly.  Then a Japanese floral print; another match, but so far my office seemed too impersonal, warm in a way but still somewhat sterile.  On the one hand therapists should not have items that make the room a sort of biography of themselves.  We stay away from family photographs, drawings made by our children and grandchildren, even our bowling trophies don’t make the cut.  But at the same time it’s good to have something in the room that tells my client something about me, something that gets to what might be true about me, if not getting at my facts and narratives.  After much contemplation I resolved the issue by hanging that poster of Bruce, the one that was hanging around all of the subway stops and MTA buses in New York City back in 1975.  That would let people know something true about me, without having my life story get in the way.

Bruce hung on my office wall for the better part of 25 years.  Occasionally Bruce would become a focus of a conversation.  “Yes, Bruce has suffered from depression too.  You’re not alone.”  Or “who wouldn’t want to BE Bruce Springsteen now and then?”  One day speaking with a client struggling with yearning, wanting desperately for his life to be something, anything, other than what it was, and knowing that this client loved Bruce’s work too, this quote from “The River” felt reassuring, maybe to both of us:

But I remember us riding in my brother’s car

Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir

At night, on them banks, I’d lie awake

And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take

Now those memories come back to haunt me

They haunt me like a curse

Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?

Or is it something worse?

Bruce offered no easy answer, no answer at all, about what to do when your dreams have died and you’re filled with remorse, regret.  But just the knowing that we’re not alone in heartache, in yearning, to know that the man in that picture suffered too, gave hope.  And I’m grateful for that gift from Bruce, the gift of authenticity and willingness to bare a hard truth.

I retired from my private practice earlier this year, just five weeks ago, actually.  My truth at this point is that retirement is not easy.  The facts are that I’m 67 years old and planning on focusing my time and my energy on “the greater good,” whatever that turns out to be.  I’m fortunate that I no longer need to be concerned with creating income.  My wife and I live a frugal life, no frills really.  But it’s difficult to walk away from so many people that I’ve tried to help, and in the helping come to know their facts but more importantly their truths, at least as best as we could figure them out.  And it’s in hearing the stories, in making sense of them and finding some truth that we come to love one another.

We find this emerging love in Jesus’s all-time greatest story about the outcast (the Samaritan) who came to help the privileged one (the Jewish man coming down from Jerusalem).  Jesus’s narrative speaks strongly to the need for unconditional compassion, but it leaves out something important I think.  The Samaritan could see easily the facts of the matter: the robbery, the beating, the dying man in the dirt on the side of the road.  So could the lawyer and the priest who walked by and ignored the needs of the man.  But I think the truth here may be that the Samaritan saw the man and knew “this could be me; this IS me.”  The story tells the Samaritan’s truth about compassion, but not how he came to know his truth.  I suppose it was from his own suffering, perhaps the same suffering that made him a Samaritan, an outcast.  But it turned out his truth created love without boundaries.

I tell that old and glorious Gospel story because my work has been to hear stories and tell stories and help people tell their own story.  The crux of our work as therapists is in our capacity to hear, receive, and tell stories that find meaning and truths. Throughout these 25 years I’ve tried to keep my own facts to myself; it wasn’t my therapy after all.  And I have tried to allow our shared truths to result in love, just as I think the Samaritan had a story that allowed love, rather than prejudice, to emerge.  This kind of love is perhaps best understood as agape, a Greek word usually translated as “fellowship” or “charity.”  Once I know your story, and can reflect on my own story and how it informs me about our shared truths, then something happens that is helpful to my client, and maybe to me, as well.  Whatever it is that happens that is helpful inevitably is in the context of love, agape, emerging.

There was always that Springsteen poster hanging there in my office, and it always suggested something of my own story, both the facts and the truths.  It always reminded me that the stories, the facts, should always lead to the legends, the truths.

This morning I opened a package sent to me from two of my former clients, a married couple, who I’ve known for about a decade.  Inside the package was a framed picture that looked like this:

It’s difficult to put into words how grateful I am for this gift.  What makes this such a perfect gift is it speaks to being known, to my truths being known, by these lovely and loving people whose lives I’ve been involved in for so long.  When I think about gifts, I come to realize that this is the greatest gift any of us can give: to have our truths known and acknowledged to each other.  In their note accompanying the picture were the words “maybe we were born to run.”  Right on, Mike and Sue!  Never stop telling your stories; never stop finding who you were born to be and what you’ve been born to do!  And thank you for your lovingkindness.  That is the greatest gift!

Peace,

Jim

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Endings…and Beginnings

On April 1, 2020, in response to the COVID pandemic, I began to host twice-weekly drop-in meditation sessions for anyone who cared to take the time to join in. Those twice-weekly meetings continued through August, 2020, when I changed the schedule to once per week. After nearly 18 months of meeting online every week with some of the kindest people you can imagine, I’ve decided to bring these “Take a Break From Stress” meetings to a close. No, the pandemic isn’t over yet. The Delta variant has seen to that! But this year has been a year of endings for me, and it felt right to bring this to an end as well.

What sort of endings? I decided to retire my private practice after 25 years of pastoral clinical counseling. I have met so many wonderful people over those years! In my private practice I’ve provided many hours of counseling and clinical supervision, and enjoyed it all. I’ve been hard at work for nearly 50 years now, and with my 67th birthday approaching decided late last year to take some time to collect my thoughts and my spirit to discern “what’s next?”

There have been other endings for me and my family this year. In December of 2020 a close friend died, followed by the mother of another close friend in January of 2021. Then in April a second close friend died, and then in May my mother passed after many years of suffering from Alzheimer’s. The context of my endings includes saying goodbye to people I love both in my clinical practice and in my personal life.

In a way we are all dealing with societal level endings over these past two years. Gone are the days when we were not sure if climate change was coming or already here. The extraordinary extremes of weather turn out to be the leading edge of our changing climate. The pandemic and its power over our lives has ended any illusions that humans can conquer and control our relationship with nature. Finally, the past political year has ended any hopes that the impact of easy mass communication through the internet and social apps would not prove to have so much potential to be malignant.

Many endings for me; many endings for all of us. But the thing about endings is that if you lean into them, truly see and feel exactly what they are; if you yield yourself fully to all of the consequences of all of these endings, you find something beginning as a result. I’ll soon be without my private practice, but that free time begs me to reach out with new ideas and activities for the greater good. Dear friends have died, which only serves to make me cherish all the more the friends I have, whether I’ve met them yet or not. And my mother’s death fills me with anguish, but reminds me that I have such lovely family still with me, including my sister who was such a compassionate and dedicated presence in our mother’s life right until the end. These losses inspire me to pay attention all the more to the good friends and family that I have been blessed to have with me.

So today I post the video and audio from the final drop-in meditation session. I’ve posted many of these sessions over these past 18 months, but far from all of them. Over the coming months I’ll work on posting this backlog and maybe, just maybe, finally get around to actually organizing my website! Thanks for not complaining!

When I bring mindfulness to a group I like to cite poetry or some reading that I think captures something of this wonderful practice. For my final Take a Break session, I decided to go to a “greatest hits” list, or at least a few of my favorites. All of them are from books by Thomas Merton.

Today’s Quotes:

When I speak, it is a demand that others remain silent so I alone may be heard.  When I am silent, I hear my true self and reach my soul. When I am silent, I hear with a caring heart. Silence teaches us to know reality by respecting it where words have defiled it. If our life is poured out in useless words, we will never hear anything because we have said everything before we had anything to say. . . . .

If a (person) is to live, he must be all alive, body, soul, mind, heart, spirit.

Ask me not where I live or what I like to eat . . . Ask me what I am living for and what I think is keeping me from living fully that.

— Thomas Merton, from “Thoughts in Solitude”

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . I suppose the big problem is that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.

— Thomas Merton, from “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander”

Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.

— Thomas Merton, from “New Seeds of Contemplation”

Here is the video of today’s meditation:

Here is the audio:

Peace!

Jim

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Grieving Our Loved Ones

In my most recent post I wrote about my mother’s death and the subtle but essential influence she, and other elders and ancestors, have on me and my family. As I continue to grieve this loss I find myself re-experiencing mom every day. Maybe it’s a memory that arrives spontaneously, seemingly out of nowhere. Maybe it’s a taste, smell, or sound that evokes an image or a thought. Mostly it’s intentional thought, simply deciding to think about mom, what she meant to me and our family, her good, bad and ugly (yes, let’s be real; we ALL have some ugly), and I smile or even laugh and then get back to the business of the day. For what choice do I have? Or you, for that matter? Life is for the living; like Auntie Mame said, “life is a banquet!”

My wife pointed out a passage from Tiffany Schlain’s book “24/6,” which I’ve reprinted below. The “Tech-Shabbat” she refers to is the essence of her book, the intentional practice of turning off our devices for a day every week and living an analog life. In this passage she’s musing about the impact of her father’s death on her own living. It’s quite good and informed my grieving and perhaps might help yours. The reference to “Blooma,” by the way, is to her then-newborn daughter of that name.

From 24/6 by Tiffany Schlain

In my father’s last months, I repeatedly asked him, what did he think was the meaning of life?

Here is what he eventually said to me:  “Appreciate beauty.  Plant gardens.  Enjoy sunsets.  Help people less fortunate than you.  Think big.  Nothing is more important than family.  Be present.”  Much later, I would realize these are exactly the things we do on our screen-free days.

I started doing Tech-Shabbats after the intense period when I lost my father and had Blooma within days.  It was as if life grabbed me by the shoulders and stared into my eyes and said, Figure out what’s important!

Here’s the thing that’s most fascinating to me, nearly a decade after my father’s death: he is now infinite to me.  While we are all human, fallible, imperfect beings who are all works in progress, if we attempt to live meaningful and purposeful lives and are present for those we love, we can live forever.

Someone once told me: whenever you are doing something that the person you lost loved to do, you bring them back.  So while I write this book in the darkness of five a.m., when my dad also loved to write; clap through tears at the end of a fantastic film in a packed theater; thrust my own finger in the air and say “Tradition!” while eating a bagel, lox, and cream cheese; or appreciate the family sitting around the table — all things he loved — he is with me.

Here is the video of that day’s guided meditation:

And the audio of that day’s guided meditation:

Peace!

Jim

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

The Second Music

During our lives we connect repeatedly with people, and some of those connections become quite deep. Using music as a metaphor, we can think of the attraction that begins a relationship as the “melody,” the most apparent part of the music of connection. So, in a way, that is the “first music,” the music we hear most readily.

However there is a “second music” in our relationships, of which we may or may not be mindful. Again, using music as metaphor, think of this second music as the bass line and drumming in a pop song. A song that comes to mind for me is “Something,” George Harrison’s ballad from the Abbey Road album. The melody is sublime, and communicates clearly the feeling of passionate love that his lyrics express. But if you listen closely you can also hear a wonderful rhythm just beneath the melody, a rhythm defined by Paul McCartney’s skillful bass playing and Ringo Starr’s subtle drumming. If we heard this song without that “second music” we would have a lesser experience.

The same is true in our most intimate and important relationships. While it is the outward signs that attract us there is that second layer, something that is constant and rhythmic, that keeps us connected. As a therapist I recognize that the issue or story that my therapy client tells me is that first music, while the client’s history and emotions and world-view constitute that background and underlying second music.

My mother passed away very recently. She died after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for many years. The early loss we experienced was the first music, as her memory deteriorated; short-term memory at first, then gradually long-term memory. In the beginning of her illness she was still mom in character; the second music was still playing. But as long-term memory faded and was lost, so was the feeling of my mother; the underlying rhythm was gone as well.

What stimulated this line of thought in me was a poem, “The Second Music,” reprinted below, that was sent to me by a dear friend shortly after mom’s death:

Today’s Quotes:

The Second Music

Now I understand that there are two melodies playing,

one below the other, one easier to hear, the other

lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard

yet always present.

When all other things seem lively and real,

this one fades. Yet the notes of it

touch as gently as fingertips, as the sound

of the names laid over each child at birth.

I want to stay in that music without striving or cover.

If the truth of our lives is what it is playing,

the telling is so soft

that this mortal time, this irrevocable change,

becomes beautiful. I stop and stop again

to hear the second music.

I hear the children in the yard, a train, then birds.

All this is in it and will be gone. I set my ear to it as I would to a heart.

“The Second Music” by Annie Lighthart from Iron String

With this idea in mind, I will pay closer attention going forward to this second music in my relationships and in the world. I think sometimes we pay attention only to the most obvious parts of our friendships. With the gradual loss of my mother, I’ve come to appreciate how much that second music means. Perhaps the next time you’re with your friend, your spouse, your partner, you’ll notice that subtle rhythm that defines the longest-lasting part of the person you love.

Here is the video of the meditation today:

And here is today’s Audio:

Peace,

Jim

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Beauty

It is too easy to forget that we live in a world where Beauty is manifest so vividly and extravagantly. I have two quotes today. One is from a 15th century Italian humanist and scholar. The other is a poem written by a then-5th grade student, which I published on this website several years ago. But reading the quote from Ficino, the scholar, reminded me of this lovely poem. I hope you enjoy.

The internal perfection produces the external.  The former we can call goodness, the latter beauty.  For this reason, we say that beauty is a certain blossom of goodness, by the charms of which blossom, as by a kind of bait, the hidden internal goodness attracts beholders. But since the cognition of our intellect takes its origin from the sense, we would never be aware of and never desire the goodness itself hidden in the heart of things if we were not attracted to it by the visible signs of external beauty.

Marsilio Ficino, 15th century scholar, Catholic priest, and humanist of the early Renaissance

Waves

You slowly

look up and the

Sunset sets your

eyes as

beauty, your

feet are hard

and cold, with

the rough sand and

the cold salty water.

You can see boats

slowly moving, the

clouds forming together

to hide the sun and

bring out the moon.

And still…All you

hear is waves~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Atzallana Quintana

Today’s Video:

Today’s Audio:

Peace,

Jim

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

On Friendship

My friend Julius died not long ago, leading me to reflect on his life and mine, and our decades-long friendship. I’ve written a reflection about Julius, a sort of eulogy I suppose. If you’d like to read it you’ll find it below the Audio and Video of this meditation.

Reflecting on friendship led me back to a favorite poem:

Red Brocade by Naomi Shihab Nye

The Arabs used to say,

When a stranger appears at your door,

feed him for three days

before asking who he is,

where he’s come from,

where he’s headed.

That way, he’ll have strength

enough to answer.

Or, by then you’ll be

such good friends

you don’t care.

Let’s go back to that.

Rice? Pine nuts?

Here, take the red brocade pillow.

My child will serve water

to your horse.

No, I was not busy when you came!

I was not preparing to be busy.

That’s the armor everyone put on

to pretend they had a purpose

in the world.

I refuse to be claimed.

Your plate is waiting.

We will snip fresh mint

into your tea.

Here is the video of today’s meditation:

And here is the audio:

For Julius by James M. Walsh

It was a cold autumn night in 1973 and I was walking across the Fordham University campus, likely heading back to my dormitory after playing pick-up basketball in the gymnasium.  I remember that night: cold and crisp air, clear sky, the lights in the buildings – university and residence halls – shining brightly.  Along the way I picked up with a fellow walker, my friend Paul, though he was really more a friendly acquaintance, someone who lived with a friend and whose company I always enjoyed even if we saw each other infrequently.  Paul was rather stout, with orange-red hair and a bushy beard, kind of a Santa Claus look in the way that tells you this person is kind and generous.  Well, at least Paul was, so I was happy to have him join me for the walk home.

After we greeted each other Paul asked me if I could help him, which I agreed to do of course.  I think the willingness to help someone, or not, is baked into a person early in life by a parent or parents who know how important kindness can be.  Paul told me that he needed help with a Boy Scout Troop.  Specifically, he was the Scoutmaster and he needed Assistant Scoutmasters, an idea that I immediately rebelled against.  I had been a Cub Scout as a very young boy but never a Boy Scout; I always had imagined I didn’t like Boy Scouts, but I had no rational reason to believe that of course.  Paul went on to explain that the Boy Scout Troop was special as it was sponsored by the New York Association for Brain Injured Children, or NYABIC, as they liked to call themselves.  This was Boy Scout Troop 666 and, despite the “devilish” number, the boys were great young fellows who needed companionship more than training in scouting skills and lore.  At the time I was thinking of adding a concentration in Education to my degree area of Biological Sciences, thinking seriously of becoming a High School science teacher, so helping with this Boy Scout Troop seemed a good thing to do, not just for the members but for me to see if I liked working with adolescents.  I said “yes, I will,” and agreed to come to the next meeting.

Later that week, on another cold autumn evening, I walked into Hughes Hall of Fordham University where the Boy Scout Troop meetings were held.  As I walked down the long entrance hallway I encountered a six foot three inch, 250 pound, 14 year old Boy Scout in full uniform regalia.  I asked him “where is the Scout meeting?” and instead of answering me he asked “why do you want to know?”  I told him I was there to help Paul and he reached around me in a bear hug, lifted me six or eight inches off the ground and said “welcome brother!”  This was my first meeting with Julius.

My final three years at Fordham were largely focused in two areas: my studies to be a High School science teacher and my weekly evenings with Troop 666.  I can honestly say that I do not remember anything from the Boy Scout manual, but I do remember how much fun we had at those meetings.  I remember that the parents of these boys found companionship and camaraderie in their gathering space down the hall from the meeting room.  I remember that the six or eight of us who were university students found companionship and camaraderie in our shared commitment to being with these boys, a commitment that translated for many of us into careers as educators and helping professionals.

But mostly I remember the companionship and camaraderie of the boys.  There were anywhere from ten to fifteen boys, some Cub Scouts and some Boy Scouts, at most meetings.  Paul always had a planned activity and taught them the fundamentals of what it means to be a Boy Scout.  Every meeting began with a recitation of the Scout Oath: “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight;” followed by the Scout Law: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”  Though most of Paul’s recruits had no history of having been a Boy Scout (half of us were women at a time way before there were girls in the scouting program; most of the men had been scouts), we all worked hard to live up to the Scout Oath and Law, and helped the boys to connect their behavior with one another to the aspirations of these ideals.

I say all of this so you can picture those meetings, and now picture Julius, all of Julius, at these meetings!  He towered over everyone, including the Fordham students, and his height was only matched by his good-natured, gregarious way with all of us, from the youngest Cub Scout to the eldest of the parents.  If the little boys were playing “Duck Duck Goose” then Julius was in the middle of the game, scampering joyously in pursuit of whoever had tagged him as “Goose.”  If it was time for music then Julius would stand tall and in his booming baritone voice lead everyone in song.  When one of the boys became frustrated it was Julius who would speak softly, speak calmly and bring that Scout back to the meeting.  Julius was a joy to be with, and I liked him from the moment I laid eyes on him.

It was the following summer when I invited Julius and one of the other scouts, Tommy, on a camping trip to an upstate New York State Park.  The three of us piled into my Ford Pinto, which was not much vehicle for someone like Julius to squeeze into!  We got to the the park and found a good campsite, one with some privacy but not too far from the park’s amenities.  We pitched our tents and built a campfire and made dinner, which was probably hot dogs and a few burgers.  After dinner Julius announced he was going to take a walk, which was his way to avoid helping with the cleanup.  Yes, he was a good guy, but he was known to duck out from doing the dishes now and then.  Tommy and I did the work, and as it began to get dark we set out to find Julius.  Soon the dusk was becoming darkness, and I began to panic.  I was responsible for his safety, of course; he was sixteen and his mother was depending on me.  I remember thinking “how will I explain losing someone as big as Julius?”  We called his name and scoured the area, to no avail.

Just as we were about to give up finding him we spotted another campsite with a fire and a circle of people sitting and chatting.  Above all of the other voices we heard Julius and headed in that direction.  When we arrived he laughed and told the group that “it looks like my ride is here,” and said his goodbyes, and they all said their goodbyes to him.  As we walked back to our own campsite I asked him about that group and he said “oh, they’re friends of mine.”  I laughed out loud and said “what are the odds that a guy from the Bronx would come to upstate New York, to a forest no less, and run into friends?”  But nothing would surprise me with Julius as he was just the kind of person who would have friends everywhere.  Then I asked him “so how long have you known these folks?”  He looked at me like I had missed something important and said “about an hour.”

“About an hour.”  That phrase struck me, woke me up.  And then I realized exactly who Julius was, I came to clearly see his way of being in the world.  For when you met Julius you met someone who thought of himself as your friend, and thought of you and me as his friends.  Not a potential friend, an actual friend.  And he treated you that way from the moment you met until the moment you parted.  That bear hug he gave me that night at Hughes Hall?  It wasn’t just me who got that bear hug; whether literally or figuratively everyone got a bear hug from Julius.

These events happened over forty seven years ago.  Julius and I have been the best of friends ever since.  As a matter of fact, my entire family has been friends with Julius.  My wife and children, and now their spouses, all love and were loved by Julius.  My sister became close friends with him as well, and after she married and had four children of her own they all came to know and love Julius.  He was a fixture at many of our family functions, a valued and much loved guest.  But most importantly, always the best of friends.

I write about Julius today because he passed on a Friday morning earlier this month.  He died of a heart attack.  Julius suffered much over the last years of his life.  His legs always had poor circulation, probably part of the birth injuries he suffered.  His heart was also damaged, and in the final years of his life he was diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure.  Gradually his kidneys failed, then he could no longer walk, and finally he could barely speak.  I do not intend to idealize Julius in this reflection; in those final years he could be very unpleasant, but forgiven for being so as his suffering, and how it limited his quality of life, was awful.  When I heard the news of his death from his wife I was relieved and grieved; I spent the day quietly feeling some melancholy and some joy.  That night for dinner I had some comfort food (mashed potatoes; I’m Irish after all) and a glass of wine.  And I thought about my friend, and told stories about him to my friends and family.

Julius used to kid me about having a doctorate and still not being able to do things he could do, like fix a doorbell or whip me in a game of backgammon.  Julius did not graduate high school; rather they gave him a certificate for successfully completing his four years there.  But Julius had a doctorate in humanity and lived that doctorate to the full.  I miss him terribly, and will always feel deep gratitude for the universe connecting us.  I can still feel in my imagination that bear hug, still hear that sonorous voice saying “Jimmy you’re educated by not real smart,” and then laugh and let me know that he was glad to know me.  You see Julius was a friend, and he taught me how important it is to be a friend to everyone.  Sometimes I imagine what my life would be like if I was as skilled at being a friend as Julius was.  I miss you Julius; I hope you’ve been able to cast off the travails of that body that failed and are living with a smile on your face and a bear hug embrace for whoever happens to pass your way in that life eternal to come.

Peace,

Jim

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Springtime Awareness!

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.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Here is the video of today’s meditation:

Here is the audio from today’s meditation:

Peace!

Jim

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Leaning in

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,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems, 1992

Here is the video of today’s meditation:

Here is the audio of today’s meditation:

Peace!

Jim