Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Just Because You Think It…

…doesn’t mean it is true.

OK, be honest about this question:  How often do you think to yourself “this person doesn’t know what he/she is talking about.”?  How often do you KNOW that the other person is wrong?  Yes, you know the truth here, you think it a lot!  So do I, frankly.  We’re always assuming we’re right and the other guy is wrong.

Now, think about it this way: How often does somebody hear what you have to say and think “this person doesn’t know what he/she is talking about”?  Ha!  Got you there.  Just as often probably.

I think it is natural that we assume that if we think it then it must be true.  In a way we’re programmed to believe ourselves.  But how often do you hear someone else and realize they’re wrong, and try to correct them?

Just because we think something doesn’t mean it is true.  Letting go of that assumption is liberating; I am no longer trapped by my automatic thoughts and prejudices.  I am free to regard my thoughts as mental events occurring in my brain that can be witnessed, understood, and accepted for what they are, and nothing more (and nothing less).  When I am free to believe or disbelieve my own thoughts, I am free to exercise that greatest of human capacities, the ability to reason.  If I can exercise the ability to reason, then I can make my next choice based on the wisest action, which may or may not conform to how I was thinking automatically about things.  Combining mindful observance of thoughts with mindful observance of events, my reactions become responses as I exercise reason.

Let go of your need to be correct.  Use your reactions wisely as an indication of what MAY be going on, but see each situation with clarity, as it presents itself to you, and consider all of the possibilities for a wise response.

Mindful living invites us to observe the flow of our thoughts, without drowning in them.  This act of humility weakens the grip of ego on our actions.

One last thought.  If you habitually doubt your ability to reason, consider the possibility that your doubtful thoughts are wrong, too!

Peace,

Jim

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Mindfulness Meditation

Relax Your Body!

Being mindful means being fully present in the moment, not dwelling in memory of the past or anticipation of the future, without judgment.  Being mindful leads to a pleasantly relaxed body state, which is the heart of the stress reduction aspect of being mindful.  But, as they say, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there’s more than one way to become mindful.

Working with our mind to slow down the pace of mental objects by focusing on breath is a great way to relax the body, but there are more direct ways to relax our bodies.  I have found that when I do a “body relaxation practice,” my mind slows down subsequent to the bodily relaxation.  If you think about it, this accomplishes the same stress reduction goal as mindfulness meditation.  In mindfulness meditation, I slow the pace of activity in my mind and experience bodily relaxation as a result.  In bodily relaxation practice, my body relaxes and, secondary to the relaxation response, my mind slows down.  At the end of either exercise, the mindfulness meditation session or the bodily relaxation practice, I find myself experiencing the sanity of a still mind and a relaxed body.  I’m completely in favor of either approach.

Last Wednesday night I had the pleasure of working with seven Practicum students who are in the midst of the highly-stressful first semester of working as an intern and conducting counseling sessions at a variety of community mental health agencies.  On Wednesday night we focused on three practices: a brief awareness of breath meditation, an extended Progressive Muscular Relaxation session, and a short Diaphragmatic Breathing exercise.  I’m posting the recording of each here for anyone’s benefit:

Awareness of Breath Meditation: Mindfulness Meditation

Progressive Muscular Relaxation: Progressive Muscular Relaxation Practicum

Diaphragmatic Breathing: Diaphragmatic Breathing 2

One other note.  Meditation has a historical connection to religious practices across all religious denominations.  For those of us who follow the via negativa, becoming still, in both mind and body, is an invitation to experience ultimate reality.  As un-spiritual as it may seem at first glance, I believe deeply that body relaxation practices are an essential part of spirituality.  Try working strictly on relaxing your body (I recommend the Progressive Muscular Relaxation practice as a great starting point).  Be still, and know….

Peace,

Jim

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness: State and Trait

Being mindful.  That’s the challenge, isn’t it?  How can I BE mindful?  When I sit to meditate I notice how active and wandering my mind is at that moment.  I do the work, redirect the wandering attention, and, in time, it slows down.  My mind becomes quite still.  My body relaxes.  I feel peace inside.  Problems that seemed to be Gordian knots dissolve, becoming recognizable and non-threatening.

“Being” mindful is the work of meditation, but if that was the entire story then I would be focused on meditating all day.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a lot on my plate!  As much as I love a good sitting session, I don’t have the time or the inclination to make that my primary activity for the day.  Mind you, I do love going on a meditation retreat, and it is a great pleasure to have the space to spend 10 or 12 hours a day in some form of formal practice, but unless I plan on joining a monastery, an idea Mrs. Walsh objects to, I won’t be spending that kind of time in my daily practice.  Twenty minutes this morning will have to do!

But, for me, spending my day in sitting meditation is not the point of “being” mindful.  Rather, the point of the sitting meditation is to deepen my capacity to “be” mindful throughout the day.  Mindfulness is a “state” of mind that I can practice when I sit, but it is also a “trait” of mind, an “enduring characteristic,” that can become a part of my basic temperament.  In a way, “mindfulness” is an aspect of personality, much like extraversion or agreeableness.  And it is an aspect of personality that I can develop in two ways.  First, I can “deepen” my mindfulness, reshaping my personality so that I am more awake in the moment and non-judgmental.  Second, I can “broaden” my mindfulness, remaining focused on “being” mindful throughout the day, and not only when I remember to be mindful.  By intentionally committing myself to BE mindful throughout my day, I strengthen my “trait” mindfulness.

I think it is important to be able to recognize whether your “state” mindfulness, your periods devoted to formal practice, are facilitating development of your “trait” mindfulness.  But how do you know if your mindfulness has become a trait of your personality?  I recently watched a music video of a VERY mindful man.  In the song he was singing he made three statements that, to me, embody trait mindfulness.  He talked about growing thoughts in the “garden of your mind.”  He reminded us that “every person you meet is different.”  Finally, he told us that it is “good to be curious.”  Your mind is a garden where thoughts grow (and YOU are the gardener!), every person is different (stop living your conditioned responses and experience the grand diversity of life!), and it is good to be curious (every moment brings something new and fresh to behold).  This very mindful person is one of my heroes, Fred (Mr. Rogers) Rogers, and here is the link to a marvelous musical video: 

I hope that you enjoyed watching and hearing Mr. Rogers once again.  He was a gentle soul who touched millions of lives, young and old.  And I hope that you’re able to recognize how being mindful moment to moment, throughout the day, is an invitation to live in the garden of your mind, recognizing the diversity of spirits, kindred and otherwise, that you meet during an ordinary day.  Yes, it’s very good to be curious, and our mindful awareness makes that quality second nature to us.

Peace,

Jim

PS In case you have trouble opening the YouTube video I inserted, here’s the URL for it:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFzXaFbxDcM&sns=em

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Judicious or Judgmental?

Probably safe to say that every mindfulness teacher emphasizes the non-judgmental quality of mindfulness practice.  “Be awake in the present  moment; notice; do not judge; if you find yourself judging, do not judge the judging, just notice it.”  I’ve probably said that or something similar thousands of times, to my students and to myself.  It’s the heart and soul of mindfulness work.

But being non-judgmental does not mean that we suspend our capacity to make a judgment.  What we are sacrificing is the personalization of the judgment that we felt inclined to make.  There must be hundreds of moments every day in which I have to exercise judgment concerning the events unfolding before me.  In those moments in which I must make a decision, I am called to be judicious, that is, to exercise wisdom concerning the best path to follow.  If I personalize that event by making it about myself, then I cloud my judgment with my point of view about the other person.  Let me give an example from my clinical practice.  This example IS NOT about any particular client, but is a typical scenario that I encounter as a counselor.

A man comes to see me needing help in his marriage.  His wife berates him about his habits, which he finds difficult to change.  His habits are not life threatening, but they are not healthy either.  When he thinks about his habits without taking his wife’s criticism into consideration, he realizes that he’d be better off exercising self-discipline around his lifestyle.  But when he thinks about his habits AND his wife’s criticism, he becomes angry at his wife (judgmental, that is; she is WRONG! to be so critical of him, he thinks) and his personalization of the bad habit issue clouds his judgment.  In therapy, my role is to gain his trust through empathy, authenticity, and my own non-judgmental attitude, and then begin the process of seeing  his lifestyle habits AND his wife’s criticism with clarity.  If I was seeing his wife concurrently we would work on her anger about her husband’s unhealthy habits, wondering if there was some fear about his health behind all that anger.  If I am somewhat successful as a therapist my client (the husband) would be able to exercise judgment concerning his bad habits once he has stopped being judgmental about his wife.  I would also hope to be able to help his wife stop being judgmental about her husband, and instead see his bad habits as evidence of who HE is, not evidence of anything concerning her character.

When I am mindful I am less inclined to judge the people I’m with and more inclined to exercise judgment.  Being judicious allows me to make wise decisions, to be sagacious (a cool word if there every was one!).  When I am not personalizing what is happening in this moment I see the events with clarity and the next right action becomes apparent.  Though I can’t be in sitting meditation all day, what emerges from that sitting meditation is the mindset that accepts what is happening, makes no judgment about the person or persons involved, and then is free to exercise the best judgment about what comes next.  One thing I can say about this mindset is that it makes life a lot simpler to navigate.  God only knows how much stress life can bring to you on its own without me adding any drama by being critical and judgmental about the people in my life and the ones I meet along the way.  I like the simple life!

So, let your mantra be “Judicious (Sagacious!) today, not judgmental.”  And have a simple day!

Peace,

Jim

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Counselor Identity Lecture

Once again I’m using this website to post information for my students in my Internship Group Supervision.  Again, it’s not related to Mindfulness.

For my students who were unable to attend class on Wednesday, June 20, here’s the lecture you missed: Counselor Identity

And here are the PowerPoint slides that accompany the lecture: Counselor Identity

Please note that I did not lecture on the last few slides that concern the process to obtain LPCMH status in Delaware.  We will review this information in a subsequent class.

Thanks,

Jim

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Meditation and Mindfulness

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

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

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

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

Peace,

Jim

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Self Compassion and Mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,

Jim

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Let It Be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Mindfulness Meditation

Humility

The word humility comes from the same Latin root word for “humus.”  That is, the word humility essentially means to be fully grounded.  Humus is the earth between our fingers; our humility is our self firmly held.  To be humble is to be grounded.  Grounded in reality, in an honest and accepting assessment of my strengths and my weaknesses.  The humble person knows himself, without any delusions, without any additions or subtractions.  The humble person knows that she is strong in one area while being weak in another, and it’s all OK.  The humble person yields to his vulnerability, knows that it is acceptable to be weak and to need help.  The humble person yields to her strength, knows that it is acceptable to be strong and to offer that help to another person.  In our humility we become real.  You cannot be humble and be phony.  To be humble is to be strong, chiefly because I know and accept that I have permission to be weak.

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Mindfulness Meditation

A Simple Truth

It may take years to realize, but one does not have to do everything one is asked to do.  Many opportunities arise.  Many elicit excitement upon being perused.  It is in the moment of arousal that great risk emerges, side by side with great opportunity.  This moment, a sort of crisis in its own way, demands discernment.  Appraisals fill the mind.  Does this concern me?  Can I do this well?  The answer to these questions may well be “yes,” but still more discernment is required.  Mindfully, one must remember that just because one might be able to do something well, one still has the option to not do that action, even if it IS important to do.  It is worth repeating: Just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you MUST do something.  Many stress related illnesses and deaths may have been avoided had this simple truth been heeded.