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Mindfulness Meditation

Coming Back

Hello out there!

I’ve been remiss since late June.  I’ve had a lovely summer, including a visit to our daughter and son in law in Germany mid-summer, many days spent running trails in White Clay Creek State Park, one trip to the Jersey Shore, and many hours spent converting a storage room into a guest bedroom on our second floor.  I’ve also done some teaching this summer, working with our new interns and a group of recently admitted students to the Wilmington University Clinical Mental Health Counseling program.  It’s been a full agenda!

But now it’s time for “coming back.”  I think that knowing how to go about “coming back” is a great skill, one that we can strengthen with our meditation practices.  And I think that “coming back” can be looked at on grand and mundane levels.  Let me give a very mundane example of “coming back.”

In late July Zina and I went to the beach.  Actually, we went to the Jersey shore; anyone from this area will tell you that it’s the “Jersey shore,” as opposed to the “Delaware beaches.”  In any case, Zina and I made it down on a beautiful Sunday afternoon to Ocean City, NJ.  I dropped her off at the pavilion on 59th Street and drove off to find a place to park.  If you’ve ever been in Ocean City on a beautiful weekend day you know the problem I ran into.  I had to park nearly a mile away.  So, being in reasonably good running shape, and having my running shoes on anyway, I proceeded to trot at a pretty good pace back to where I had left Zina.  As I came down the final stretch of Central Avenue, and was no more than 50 yards from Zina, I crossed from the street to the sidewalk.  The curb could not have been more than 3 inches high, but being a rather clumsy person my right big toe caught the side of the curb and down I went.  But not down enough, because I awkwardly was able to briefly catch my fall by hyper-extending my left leg.  This gave me one very flat footed step before I did hit the pavement, cutting up my right knee pretty severely (the first dip into the salt water was interesting!).  That awkward step cost me, however.  I felt something pop in my upper left leg, pretty near to the hip, in the back.  It was pretty sore.

Being a male (i.e. not exercising good judgment on a regular basis), I went for a nice, long, slow run the next day on the trails.  At first my left leg, upper and to the rear, hurt, but as I ran the endorphins kicked in and it felt great.  This continued for the next few weeks until I realized it was time to shut things down for a while.  It didn’t really hurt when I ran lightly, but sitting for lengthy periods was getting worse and worse (literally a “pain in the butt”).  We had begun a new project in mid August, the conversion of our upstairs storage room into a bedroom, so I devoted my “running time” to working on the reconstruction.  I’m happy to report that my leg is feeling much better.  Two days ago I took a long walk on the trails with our son Phil and felt no discomfort at all.

In this case “coming back” required retreat, rest, and recreation.  I had to fall back for a while, retreat to safety.  This is so important but something that our egos can sometimes make very difficult.  Retreat can feel like failure, but it’s not, at least in the big picture.  If General Lee had retreated after the first or second day at Gettysburg, the south may have prevailed in the Civil War.  Wiser men, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., knew the power of accepting powerlessness from time to time.  They willingly retreated to a safe place.  Retreat provides a haven for rest, allowing for relaxation of body and, at times, our minds and spirits.  Rest is another underrated quality.  So often we associate rest with indolence, laziness, unwillingness to exert effort.  But without rest at night we can truly get crazy!  And without periods of rest and relaxation we tax our resources to the point where our capacity for resilience evaporates and is impotent.  With rest comes the opportunity for recreation, a chance to play (in one sense of the word), and a chance to become new again (in another sense of the word).  Play is essential; I learned this working with grieving children over the years.  When the feelings of grief overwhelm them I’ve seen countless children simply pick up a toy, alone or with a pal, and begin to play.  Playing allows our minds to rest a spell, take a load off, and then come back to our concerns, whatever they may be.  With play comes arousal of a new perspective, a different way of seeing things each time we return to the problems that were troubling our minds.  We emerge from retreat, rest, and re-creation renewed in body, mind, and spirit.

So my little misadventure on the Jersey shore (sorry, Snooki wasn’t involved in any way!) led to a period of retreat, rest, and recreation that has allowed me to begin, slowly, coming back to my usual running practice.  But how often do we have to practice “coming back” in the course of the day?  How do we respond to the difficult times of a workday, or a even a vacation day?  Pema Chodron has pointed out so poignantly that…

“we can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe.  But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty and fear.  So the central question is not how we avoid uncertainty and fear but how we relate to discomfort.  How do we practice with difficulty, with our emotions, with the unpredictable encounters of an ordinary day?  When we doubt that we’re up to it, we can ask ourselves this question:  “Do I prefer to grow up and relate to life directly, or do I choose to live and die in fear?”” (from her book “The Places that Scare You”).

Our “coming back” has to be a letting go of our wish and, at times, our demands for how things should be.  So often I have feared this letting go, thinking that my pain could be ignored, my suffering denied despite the obvious consequences.  But I find my power in my powerlessness; when I let go of how I want things to be the pathway opens again.  I can see the retreat, rest, and recreation that beckon me back to good health.  The painful leg reminds me to let go and allow for a coming back to take place.  The difficult exchange with a friend, loved one, co-worker, reminds me to let go of what I want (or believe I need), and consider retreat, taking time to rest, and allow re-creation of self for the coming back.  And it’s in the coming back that I can thrive once again, older, a bit different, maybe wiser, but renewed and ready.

So go sit for a while.  Let your mind settle on your breath; on the sounds that surround you; on your bodily sensations; on the thoughts and feelings that arise and careen like an insane ping pong ball trapped inside your head!  Notice.  Don’t judge.  Mind wanders and judges; notice that.  Keep coming back.  To your breath, your body, your environment, your self.  And see how little that self actually needs, how easily satisfied one can be with very little.  I’ll close with a quote from Thoreau that captures this thought more gracefully than my words could ever hope to do:

“I am grateful for what I am & have.  My thanksgiving is perpetual.  It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite – only a sense of existence.  Well anything for variety.  I am ready to try this for the next 1000 years, & exhaust it.  How sweet to think of!  My extremities well charred, and my intellectual part too, so that there is no danger of worm or rot for a long while.  My breath is sweet to me.  O how I laugh when I think of my vague indefinite riches.  No run on my bank can drain it – for my wealth is not possession but enjoyment.”

– Henry David Thoreau; “Letters to a Spiritual Seeker”

Peace,

Jim

PS Enjoy some Ikebana from Magdalena!  Sorry that my iPhone photo does not do it justice.

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Mindfulness Meditation

Acceptance Part II: Ride the Road You’re On

What a week!  Sometimes life gives you a lot to do, and sometimes life piles a lot more to do on top of that!  I have to admit I’m a bit tired tonight, but I want to return to the topic of Acceptance.

I’ve had the blessing to be a part of two MBSR groups lately.  Both groups combined for a total of about 35 people, and, as always, there was much wisdom in the room.  Perhaps the wisest of the wise was a young man, who shall remain anonymous, who explained acceptance to me.  He’s going through a bit of a rough stretch and there’s not much you can do with that except persevere and cultivate your capacity to be resilient in the face of difficulty.  Realizing that neither he nor I would come up with any particular solutions to his difficulties, other than working with them as well as possible seeking the best outcome available, I suggested to him that he might try practicing acceptance.  Now, one must be careful when making such a recommendation, because it can sound like resignation, as mentioned in my previous post.  But it isn’t surrender in the dishonorable sense of the word, but rather retreat, an honorable and time tested strategy in any war, whether combative or spiritual.  After much verbosity on my part, the idea clicked.  Here is what he told me:

“It’s like riding your motorcycle.  There’s nothing like riding your bike on a beautiful, sunny, dry day.  Seventy five degrees, no humidity, light breeze.  On a country road.  Lots of turns, all banked in the right direction, good pavement.  Best experience in the world.  You can ride it fast, letting the wind rush against your face.  But you can’t ride the road that way when it’s rainy.  If you do you’ll end up in a tree, which is what happens to some people.  They ride the road they wish they were on instead of the road they’re actually on.  That’s acceptance.  To ride the road you’re actually on.  You may not get the thrill you want but you won’t end up in a tree, and you’ll get where you need to go.  The opposite of acceptance is denial; trying to ride the road you wish it was, making believe you can handle something that nobody can handle.  Ride the road you’re on; that’s what you’re telling me to do.  I can do that.”

It’s really that simple, but it’s not easy to do of course.  Those rain-slicked roads require tremendous concentration; one might even say that one must be very mindful on a treacherous road.  But with perseverance and determination those roads can be traversed and the sunny, dry days and thrilling rides can return.  Not always the way we’d like them to, of course; sometimes those old storms leave behind a lot of damage.  But when we accept the challenge of living life as it’s coming at us, riding the roads we’re on, then the living of it can be a thrill unto itself.  But a bit tiring, as I’ve found out this week!

Thanks for reading.  Would love to hear more ideas about Acceptance.  Blessings and peace to you on this summer afternoon.

Jim

PS One of the guilty pleasures that Zina and I are indulging in these days is a band called Pink Martini.  They’re really great!  Here’s a link to their first video from 1997; enjoy!

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Mindfulness Meditation

Acceptance Part I

Acceptance is a tricky word.  If you meditate, you know that you are exhorted to practice acceptance, typically beginning with your awareness of breath, body sensations, perceptions.  In effect, you’re asked to observe all mental phenomena without judgment, simply to work with the contents of your mind in the moment.

The problem I’ve run into, both as a meditator and as a meditation teacher, is the idea that acceptance is equal to resignation.  To intend to accept everything sounds like giving up.  Or worse yet, it can sound like going along with anything, whether good, bad or ugly.

As most of my students know, I spent years in sales both as a sales representative and as a manager running sales organizations.  It was working in sales that first introduced me to the idea of acceptance, as it is intended to be used in meditation.  Over the 17 years I spent in sales I don’t think I ever made one sale that was 100% along the terms that were originally offered by myself and the company I represented.  Nobody wanted to pay list price!  Nobody wanted products delivered exactly the way the companies I worked for wanted to deliver them.  It was maddening, at times.  People love to haggle for a bargain, and it was very rare that customers would want to put effort into shifting their systems to accommodate the needs of my products.  So we would negotiate around our needs, and in the final analysis we (myself and my employer) would have to decide whether or not to ACCEPT the offer that was made.  We were always free to reject it, but usually making some money was better than making none.  Acceptance, in this context, was the willingness to work with what was offered, even though it wasn’t exactly what you would have chosen.

I think that acceptance in meditation is similar.  The life we have may or may not be exactly the life we’ve chosen.  The Buddha’s First Noble Truth speaks to this, with its insight that Life is Dukkha. Typically the First Noble Truth is translated as “Life is suffering,” but my understanding of the Sanskrit word “dukkha” is that it is getting at the unsatisfactoriness of life.  We easily feel discontented, just not satisfied with the way things are.  The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth, The cause of Dukkha is Tanha, reveals his insight that our sense of unsatisfactoriness is the result of Tanha, selfish craving.  We seem to always want things to be OTHER than they are, which is the suffering of life.  It’s odd, we think of the things that have gone wrong in our life as the cause of our suffering, but the Buddha thought differently.  He believed that suffering is caused by rejecting the way things are, no matter how painful they might be.  In a word, he was telling us that if we practice acceptance of the way things are we will still have pain (when things are unpleasant), but we won’t suffer.

In my life I have found this to be true.  I’ve been blessed to have a very satisfying life, but like all lives it has had its share of pain.  I’ve learned that things go wrong in a host of ways unimaginable until the events actually happen.  Illness, aging, and death come at you pretty quickly!  The anguish you feel when someone you love is hurt or dying feels unbearable at times.  The only way through it, I’ve found, is acceptance.  It’s not the deal I wanted, but it’s the one life handed to me.  Like a good salesman I could reject the deal and live in a fantasy world of denial and projection and all the other crazy defenses that Freud named for us, but the evidence strongly indicates that the pain of living in an illusion is even worse.

There’s more I’d like to post on Acceptance but for now I’m going to head for out to the trails and accept that this 56+ year old body can’t run as fast as it used to.  I can deny that and selfishly crave that it run long and fast, but the collapse somewhere in the middle of White Clay Creek State Park would be most unpleasant!  Later on I’d like to talk about Acceptance the way it was explained to me by one of my students, who, it turns out, understood it much better than me.

Peace!

Jim

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Mindfulness Meditation

Alstroemeria on a Saturday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace!

Jim

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

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Mindfulness Meditation

Weekend All Day Retreat Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mindfulness Military

Peace!!

Jim

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Mindfulness Meditation

Weekend All-Day Retreat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mindfulness Meditation

Guided Meditations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feel free to use and comment.  Suggestions are appreciated.

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Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness

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

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

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