Mindfulness Meditation

Ego Strength and Mindfulness

Any meditator will tell you to be very cautious about putting the words “ego” and “mindfulness” in the same sentence, unless there’s a negation wedged between them!  So it is with great caution that I proceed, acknowledging the spiritual contradiction of working to enhance ego strength while supporting and deepening a mindful spirit.

What does it mean to have “ego strength”?  It’s a tricky idea, in my opinion, because of rampant narcissism.  To have a “strong ego” may imply that somehow my needs are more important than yours.  We see this in many ways, some ridiculous (think the recent Kardashian wedding), some mind-boggling (think of athlete’s salaries), and some tragic (think “Penn State football”).  But having a strong ego in the narcissistic sense is really a rather weak way to live.  The narcissist can only see his/her own situation, has little if any perspective taking skills, and cannot form a true and meaningful relationship.  What a way to suffer.

Ego strength, on the other hand, refers to being resilient.  The resilient person says “I can bend but I won’t break.”  The brittle ego is rigid and snaps under pressure; the resilient ego is flexible and adjusts to the ebb and flow of demands.  Resilience is a state (“I get it together again after a rough day”) and a trait (“I stay calm, cool, and collected even when things get really rough”).  The resilient person bounces back with skill after losing equilibrium (i.e. goes easily from ego depletion to ego replenishment) AND, at times, does not lose equilibrium even in the face of great adversity (i.e. able to sustain ego strength).

Here’s a video from ABC news that makes a great case for meditation as a way to build ego-resilience:

ABC News Report on Meditation

I love the little boy in the video who says that his sister is screaming, mom is cussing, and he’s meditating!  But what’s truly impressive is that with even a little practice, the meditative brain functions differently, in ways that strongly suggest that the mind comes to a state of comfort and ease more readily, even in difficult situations.

I hope this series on ego-depletion, ego-replenishment, and ego-resilience has been helpful.  I’ve enjoyed going back and reading this literature again, and have taken away several “lessons learned” for myself.  First, I’m going to run out of “mental” gas sometimes; accept it, it’s natural.  Second, if I can recognize when I’ve run out of gas AND accept it, then I can mindfully decide to “cease and desist” in further activity, and give my mind the rest that it needs.  And if resting in that moment isn’t possible, at least I can be mindful in guarding against a total meltdown that might offend or hurt someone I love.  Third, I know the antidotes: rest, nutrition, and fun.  Fourth, I have a great tool to build up that “mental muscle” so that ego-depletion is minimized.  Any activity that allows me to practice self-regulation, no matter how trivial, builds up my strength.  Finally, my meditation practice gives me the insight to be aware, accepting, and able to act to replenish and strengthen.  And the more I meditate the more my brain is readied to be aware and accepting.

The spiritual paradox in this practice of mindful ego-strengthening is that with this resilience comes the realization that what I conceptualize as my “self” is very transient.  There’s an abiding “sense of self” but the actual activity of a “self” comes and goes, and changes so easily.  As I let go of clinging to this “self” I find something that lasts within, something that is hard to define, but is there through each moment.  I don’t know what to call it.  I suppose “sense of self” will have to do for now.  Perhaps that “sense of self” is transient also; I don’t know.  But there’s strength and peace in the realization that I don’t have to cling to an ego that demands that life conform to my perceived needs in this moment.  This painful ego state has happened before and will happen again, but it’s not permanent.  It has flowed; it will ebb.  In that moment I can have clarity that my “sense of self” remains untouched; this painful ego state is not about “me,” whoever or whatever that is.

Happy Thanksgiving!  I hope that you’re able to experience deep gratitude this week and throughout the coming holiday season.


Mindfulness Meditation

Ego Resilience II

Life is challenging.  Is it just me, or have you noticed that too?  Things go really smooth for a while, then things fall apart.  Just when you think “I’ve got it all figured out,” the banana peel of life slips under your foot and you find yourself flat on your “you know what.”  The only antidote to life’s inevitable pratfalls is persistence.

In June of 2006 Zina and I travelled with our friends Andi and Keith to beautiful Santa Fe, NM.  Serene, artistic and ancient (by American standards), set between the majestic Sangre de Cristo mountains to the east and the Jemez mountains to the west, Santa Fe is a desert sitting at 7000 feet above sea level.  The awe one feels surrounded by cascades of burnt color with a backdrop of Alpine forests co-mingles with shortness of breath in that rarified atmosphere.  And those mountains?  Another 5000 feet above Santa Fe they loom, calling for these aging legs to make the climb.

And climb we did, or at least tried.  Confident in my lungs, accustomed to running long distances (but at sea level!), Keith and I began a 2000 foot ascent with the certainty of two rather ignorant fools!  Two hours later, gasping for air and parched with thirst (yes, we didn’t even bring hydration for a desert hike!), we came to our senses and descended quickly.  Five days later we were successful, having acclimatized to the altitude, starting the climb very early in the day, bringing sufficient energy bars and, yes, a good supply of water.  Here we are at the top of a 9200 foot summit, tired, sore, but VERY happy:

We flew home a day later and embellished the accomplishment with skill and delight.  The story became more bold and intrepid with each telling, but anyone who knows us just laughed, rolled their eyes, and humored us.  Such is the fate of men married to women who know them all too well!

Now, the main reason we traveled to Santa Fe was to visit our son Phil, who was completing a Masters degree in Eastern Classic Studies at St. Johns College in Santa Fe.  Unlike his elders, Phil kept himself in great shape and had done much biking and climbing during his year at this altitude.  His graduation was coming up just 6 weeks after our visit and I decided to go, solo, to his commencement exercise.  Before we left from our June visit Phil suggested that on my return we climb Deception Peak, starting from the parking lot of the Santa Fe ski basin (elevation approximately 10,000 feet) and ascending to about 12,200 feet.  I decided to do it, and began preparing as soon as we returned to Delaware.

For the next 6 weeks I ran daily on the David English Trail in White Clay Creek State Park.  It’s only about 2.5 miles long, but it ascends sharply, about 160 foot, in less than a mile.  Day after day, two laps, three laps at a time, up and down that steep hill.  Twice a day sometimes.  Taking care to hydrate regularly (this was during July and August), eating a diet rich in protein to help build muscle mass, replacing lost electrolytes and carbs, until I could cover that distance comfortably.  Off to Santa Fe in mid August; joyfully watching my son receive his degree; then rising early to climb.

We made it to the top of that peak!  Phil and and his best friend Doug had hardly a change in their breathing.  This old man?  Breathing hard, but making it all the same.  Stronger from the persistence of practice.  Experiencing the felt sense of resilience.

Resilience.  To be able to endure, to bend, to sustain.  Ego resilience, not losing our sense of self in the midst of intense challenge.  How can we build this resilience?  It’s simple, but it’s difficult.

If we are to build ego resilience we must choose tasks that require persistence.  We must organize those tasks, set schedules, understand limits, but endeavor to exceed those limits.  Persistence is a virtue, a gift that we can cultivate through disciplined inquiry, commitment, and action.  Every act of persistence forms a deeper and firmer foundation of ego strength.  It doesn’t matter if the persistence is physical, as in exercise, intellectual, as in education, emotional, as in extending compassion to another’s suffering, or behavioral, as in establishing or breaking a habit.  ANY act of persistence builds ego strength, and enables us to bring greater endurance to future events that challenge.

Back in 2008 I organized my life around building physical resilience for a difficult challenge.  When I returned in mid August it was to a world in which my father was living his final 6 weeks.  The work I had done preparing for that climb turned out to have also strengthened my spiritual and emotional resilience.  With the loving support of my wife, my children, my family and friends (especially my fellow meditators), I sustained and endured.

What projects can you take on that will build ego resilience?  Any endeavor that requires persistence will do.  Here’s an easy one to start with: sitting meditation.  Committing yourself to 10 minutes, and when the wandering mind says “enough,” redirect your attention again to breath, to living, and persist mindfully to the end.  Here’s another: listen.  The next time someone natters on and on and you don’t think you can remain present and patient, redirect your attention to that person, and persist mindfully to the end.  Every day of every person’s life presents opportunities to direct our attention in a way that demands persistence, and each act of persistence “strengthens the muscle” of ego resilience.

Well, just going this far reading this material about ego-depletion, replenishment, and resilience is an act of persistence!  See, it’s that easy!  There’s one more point to make about building resilience, and that will come in a few days.  I hope these reflections have been helpful.  I know that re-learning this material has helped me tremendously, and I wish the same help for you.



Mindfulness Meditation

Ego Resilience I

As implied by the Roman numeral in the title, this will be the first installment to considering this idea.

So far, we’ve taken a look at the conditions that lead to “ego depletion.”  It’s really very simple: throughout the course of a typical day we have to self regulate our feelings and our thoughts.  You can’t act on every intention or desire that arises.  You have to do something with each impulse that doesn’t seem reasonable at any given time.  That takes effort.  When you have a day with too much need for self regulation, you get tired.  But not just physically tired, you get mentally tired.  That’s ego depletion.  It feels like a bit of brain glue.  You’ve reached your limit.  It’s time to shut down for the day.

Which leads us to “ego replenishment.”  How do we retrieve our energy and our clear-mindedness?  It’s not that complicated.  First, if we can recognize the ego depletion, then we can recalculate our involvement in our activities and prevent a worsening of the mental and physical situation.  Then replenishment can start.  And it’s really quite simple: rest, a good meal, and some positive affect.  When we’ve been worn down, stop doing.  Enjoy a warm, nutritious meal.  Share some laughs, or some smiles.  Prepare your body for sleep.  Take a nap if you can.  Natural processes are restorative; let your body heal, it knows how.

Which leads to “ego resilience.”  If we’re comparing ego strength to a muscle, then how do we exercise that muscle?  It’s a good analogy.  When the muscle is overused (too much self regulation) we get tired (ego depletion).  Rest the muscle and it’s ready to go again.  Exercise the muscle regularly and it gets stronger.  I’ll start off today with one approach to building ego resilience, with more to follow.

Every year I teach an “Addictions Counseling” class to our Masters degree candidates at Wilmington University (MS Counseling program).  And every year, for the duration (4 – 5 weeks) of the course every student must give something up.  And it has to be something that they enjoy, something that  brings them some modicum of pleasure.  The usual suspects are donuts, sweets, coffee, cigarettes (the more adventurous students), even getting on Facebook.  It has to be something that they enjoy AND that they do daily.  If I was doing this exercise (and I’m not!  I’ve had to do this before!) I’d give up my morning cup of Earl Grey tea.  Every year the students curse me out a bit (and not always under their breath) but by the end of the period of abstinence they pretty much have all learned some important lessons about what it takes to “give up.”  They have to go to a 12 Step meeting also, to begin to understand the universality of this “giving up” process.

But perhaps the most interesting outcome from this annual experiment is that students report they become more self controlled in other areas of their lives.  The simple act of restricting themselves from a simple pleasure seems to make their “willpower,” the colloquial name for “self regulation,” stronger in most if not all areas of their lives.  This is consistent with the research done by Roy Baumeister, the American psychologist I’ve cited previously.

So, if you want to build up your ego resilience, your ego strength, practice self discipline in some simple area that is pleasurable for you, but not entirely necessary.  Try going a day without eating anything sweet.  Pour a bowl of plain Cheerios instead of Honey Nut Cheerios.  Or  a glass of water or unsweetened coffee/tea instead of a latte or a soda (including diet sodas; no sugar, but plenty sweet!).  Turn away from those donuts near the coffee machine at work; have a light snack instead.  Don’t eliminate fruit, though; just avoid the hyper-sweetened foods that the food industry foists on us.

Try something simple like this on a day that you know will be a typical day, not the day that you will be facing a lot of difficult demands.  Consider it a little exercise for that ego muscle.  You’ll be delighted with the results but remember that it takes a steady dose of exercise to build up a muscle’s endurance.  And more is coming in Ego Resilience II: break out the exercise equipment!



PS Your ego strengthening results will be enhanced by mindful acceptance of the impulse to eat the sweet.  And mindful noticing of the impulse’s emergence and decline.  Yes, increasing self regulation strength can be a spiritual exercise!

Mindfulness Meditation

Ego Replenishment – Applying The Antidotes

Last night my wife and I had dinner with our dear friends Larry and Pat.  What a great night!  We ate at a local tapas restaurant, with tastings of many small dishes and a few flavors exotic to our palates.  A little wine, a lot of stories (mostly true, many embellished),  and deeply satisfying friendship.  I think I can speak for each of us when I say we left the scene rested and recreated.

For me this is the best way to replenish the depleted ego.  The laughter and love that was shared for four hours lightened all burdens and reminded each of us that it’s in the giving that we receive.  Later that night, a bit earlier than usual to bed, a quiet sleepy long rest, and rising early to enjoy the stillness of the new dawn.  Feeling like a new man, venturing out into a world with its demands and stressors, but ready, willing, and able to face them all.  Replenished, fatigue forgotten, energy renewed.

Depleted ego mind feels like a glue factory between my ears.  I know the feeling.  And now that I know what it is, and know that it happens naturally as the result of a tired brain with diminished energy, I can let go of any shame or embarrassment over my somewhat impaired mental state.  I can more easily accept the limitation, and apply the antidotes.  Let’s talk a bit about the correctives to the depleted ego mind.

First, a good meal.  Solid research by Roy Baumeister (great psychologist; much research and originator of the idea of “ego depletion;” much more information on him at: has shown that the ego-depleted brain lacks glucose.  A healthy meal, even an unhealthy meal, begins the process of restoring needed energy to the brain.  I keep a pack of peanut butter crackers or an apple or an orange or some pretzels with me most of the time.  Every morning around 10 am and every afternoon around 3 pm I have a light, carbohydrate based snack whether I feel hungry or not.  I’ve been doing this for decades, and it seems to help, though not as much as a few plates of good Spanish tapas!  According to Baumeister’s research, I’m right about this.

Second, rest.  If you can’t make a decision and you feel like you want to sleep on it, turns out you’re right.  A good night’s rest restores the brain, in a sense “reboots” it.  When you wake up after a good sleep (naps count, too!) your capacity to decide returns.  It’s not that the problem is any simpler, it’s that your ability to decide has returned.  And then things SEEM simpler.

Third, laugh.  Or, more broadly speaking, experience some happiness, joy, excitement, pleasure.  It turns out that “positive affect” (psychologists’ way of saying “feeling good”) also replenishes our mental storehouse of strength.  Last week, the day after my meltdown, still feeling some mental lassitude, I took a 15 minute break and turned on the movie channel (TCM).  A classic Laurel and Hardy movie, “Way Out West,” was on.  My God!  I had forgotten how funny they were.  I laughed out loud watching them.  If you want a good laugh right now, here it is:

Any positive feelings will help with your personal restoration project.  That’s where using your support network comes in, too.  Feeling the concern of a loved one for our predicament, or having a pleasant conversation with a friend about something OTHER than our problem.  Don’t forget your intra-personal support network; that is, indulgence in your hobby, or a good book, some exercise, perhaps some music that brings you back to a great place (for me, a little Cat Stevens or Richie Havens!).  Any of these and more that can bring some pleasant feelings will help.  But the bottom line is that a simple “feeling good” time helps to restore our minds.  Don’t discount the power of a good laugh at a silly movie!

There’s nothing that I’ve mentioned that doesn’t boil down to some good, old fashioned common sense.  Perhaps your mother or some other source of wisdom has already told you this kind of advice.  I think the most important thing to remember is that getting ego-depleted in stressful times is normal, inevitable if the demands are great enough, and resolvable with some simple solutions, but solutions that take some time and acceptance.

One final thought.  Baumeister’s research has shown that sometimes people, when experiencing ego-depletion, can rise to another challenge despite their fatigue.  He’s found that with the proper incentive, people can go the extra mile.  He’s hypothesized that we naturally hold a little of our ego-strength in reserve in case another demand arises that we can’t ignore.  The incentive could be material but often it is found in the urgency of the new demand.  So when you’re feeling a bit down and out, don’t doubt that you have anything left, because you probably do.  Just don’t demand that you find it and use it unless you  must.  Give yourself a break.  Eat a healthy meal.  Rest.  Relax.  Have a laugh, enjoy the company of a friend, or take time to be still and silent.  Let your brain work its own magic and heal.  Come back another day to play hard again.

Next post: Ego-Strengthening.  How do we make the “muscle” of mental control stronger, so we’re less prone to ego-depletion.  As you might guess, this is where mindfulness practice will come in!



Mindfulness Meditation

Ego Depletion

A few weeks ago I had a very long work day.  Started at about 8 a.m.  Drove to Milford DE and did 3 hours worth of teaching (workshops on managing stress and integrating spirituality into the therapeutic process).  Drove to New Castle and taught a 5 hour class (Classification of Psychopathology).  Got home at 11 p.m.; just your basic 15 hour work day.

The next day was better, only about 10 hours long, but capped with a drive to have dinner with my mom, my sister and her husband, and my nephew and his wife.  We had an excellent dinner and a lot of table camaraderie, but the reality of my mother’s deteriorating mind as she slips slowly into dementia is always upsetting.  I teach about this disease, and I understand it fully, but that doesn’t temper the emotional impact of hearing your mom say “and who are you?”

I got home that night just in time for the results show of “Dancing With The Stars.”  It was about all I could handle.  I was calm emotionally, but for the life of me couldn’t figure out who was most likely to be voted off the show!  I know, it’s such a trivial thing, but it felt like my mind was encased in glue.  I had a true case of “brain freeze,” and not the kind you get from eating your ice cream too fast!

That night I had great difficulty sleeping despite my exhaustion.  The next morning, after making a pretty simple but careless error that resulted in a broken vase, I had a meltdown.  A few hours later, pondering what happened, I remembered a psychological construct that I used to study closely, but that had fallen out of my awareness.  I realized that I had just experienced “ego depletion.”

Ego depletion occurs following any effort to self-regulate; that is, any effort to curb an intention, a desire, or even a thought you don’t particularly care for.  Humans are constantly experiencing emotions and thoughts and desires that make us feel like we must act RIGHT NOW.  Some we follow, but when we don’t it’s because we’ve done something psychologists call “self regulation.”  Self regulation is one of the most human of actions; it’s simply the effort we put into preventing that RIGHT NOW action.  Every time we close the refrigerator door WITHOUT noshing on that leftover mac & cheese we’ve self regulated.  Every time we go back and reposition the drapery hooks that turned out to be an inch too low (oy vey, what a project that was last Saturday!), we’ve self regulated.  The hardest circumstances are when we have conflicting motivations: cake tastes great (pleasure motivation) but my waistline has expanded lately (self appraisal motivation).  Self regulating in these circumstances is depleting; actually, it’s ego depleting.  And once we’re ego depleted we’re less capable of the next act of self regulation.

Self regulation is a fancy name for what we call “willpower,” and exercising willpower takes energy.  It turns out that willpower, the ability to self regulate, can be understood metaphorically as a muscle. Use it too much and it gets tired.  With fatigue comes languor, a lethargy that says “I don’t think I can make one more decision.”  In a word, we feel lost, as if we can’t make one more decision.  We’re out of gas, there’s no more RIGHT NOW in us.

Has this ever happened to you?  I’m certain it has.  We’ve all worked impossibly long days.  We’ve all had to make too many hard decisions, worried endlessly about someone we love, felt overwhelmed by a torrent of bad luck in our lives.  There’s a lot we can do in the area of ego replenishment (next post!), but it’s helpful to recognize and name “ego depletion” when it happens.  Naming what’s happening is helpful. Naming it doesn’t fix it, but naming it gives me a handle on what is going on in my body/mind, and now I can begin to consider solutions.  And knowing that it’s a phenomenon that occurs naturally, and is not an indication of some defect in me, helps me to better abide the fatigue.  In my next post I’ll talk a bit about how our body/mind recovers naturally, and how we can help it along.  But in the meantime, keep a (metaphorical) eye on your self, notice when you’ve become ego depleted, and give yourself a break.  That simple act of self compassion, of not thinking less of yourself because you’re weak (and we are ALL weak at times), is a great beginning to ego replenishment.



PS I know that the Buddhists in the crowd use the word “ego” to denote the illusion of a self that doesn’t exist.  I’m using the word a bit differently here, the way psychologists refer to the energy within that unifies our conscious awareness.  I know, I know, sounds like a lot of jargon.  But trust me, I’m not feeding into any illusions!

Mindfulness Meditation

Acceptance and Depression

This is a hard one.  How can someone use those two words together?  It seems antithetical to our purpose: to eliminate depression.  Yet those who suffer from this illness know that elimination is tricky business.  Depression lingers in the background.  Even when it’s absent it seems to lurk.  The dread of a relapse into a depressive episode often precipitates the next event.  It’s a conundrum, a terribly difficult problem, one steeped in paradox and nuance.

This is a bit of a tangent, but it will come back to the topic at hand.  I love baseball.  I love the slow pace of play.  I love a pitching battle.  I love a slugfest.  Watching a pitcher like Roy Halladay work a batter, baffle him with the way his ball moves first one way, then another, at different speeds, different angles.  Never knowing what will come next.  It’s an art form.  At its best baseball provides ample opportunity to find metaphors for the way we live.  And baseball, all of sports for that matter, provides a metaphor in the simple expression “playing hurt.”

Playing hurt means that the injury is painful but does not fully prevent the athlete from competing, if not up to the usual high standard s/he sets, then up to an acceptable standard.  When an athlete “plays hurt” s/he can still play well, still contribute, still offer help to the team.  But it’s not easy, and may be downright painful.  At the end of the game there’s icing down to do, analgesics to take, perhaps a massage or a heating pad.  Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation (RICE) tonight; play hurt again tomorrow and more RICE.  The athlete who can play hurt is an exemplar of tenacity; s/he perseveres.

Acceptance is an attribute of the spiritual warrior.  To accept that the “noonday demon,” Andrew Solomon’s pithy depression metaphor, has arrived, has caused injury, and is the source of great hurt, is an act of courage.  One must clear out all traces of denial, look with clarity at the situation of living, and live radically.  To state with willingness, perhaps even with some measure of alacrity, that this disruptive guest has arrived once again, and I am ready to “play hurt,” willing to be a part of humanity in the midst of my suffering, is an act that is deeply paradoxical to the way this illness makes us feel. But it may be the only way out of the suffering.  Playing hurt, playing as well as I can and accepting that I will play more poorly than I would like, and that it is acceptable to play at this moment in this condition.  Playing as part of my team, part of my cadre of friends, family, co-workers.  Playing for the sake of playing.  Playing without preconceived notions of success or failure.  Playing because it is my birthright to play.  And playing each day to the full, even when that “full” feels empty.  But knowing that I must play, even when playing hurt.

When I play hurt I win, even when I lose.  When I play hurt I conquer my self, my needs, my desire for things to be other than they are.  Each one of us knows what it means to play hurt; we’ve all been there in the deep pit of physical injury and emotional despair.  But when we’re willing to play hurt we accept that this deep pit may hold me but it cannot contain me and it certainly cannot define me.  And then even in our imprisonment we are free.  And being free, we are fully human, fully ourselves.

Believe me, I have no illusions about how difficult it is to play hurt.  I have failed to rise to those occasions many times throughout my life.  But when I’ve practiced acceptance and been willing to play hurt, I’ve always had the experience of transcendence, knowing that I’m part of something more important than myself.  It doesn’t come at once, it may take weeks or months, even years, to realize, but it’s there.

If you struggle with depression consider the possibility of playing hurt.  A few years ago a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, Curt Schilling, did just that.  Remarkably, with blood streaming from his injured ankle, he led the Sox to their first World Series win since 1918 when their #1 starting pitcher was Babe Ruth.  His courage and perseverance were inspirational.  I invite you to learn more about Schilling’s courage by watching this link to YouTube:

Listen for two statements he makes: “It wasn’t gratifying until it was over” and “I can be a very good pitcher regardless of my velocity.”  I think there’s wisdom for us all, if only we’re willing to “play hurt.”



Mindfulness Meditation

Communication, Of Another Kind

On the CNN website today there’s an article about people who experience communication with a loved one after they’ve died.  The article describes these communications as “crisis apparitions.”  Here’s the link if you’re interested in reading about this:

In May of 1995 I had this experience.  I had been visiting Jack, a patient of Delaware Hospice in his final days (dying from brain cancer), since early February of that year.  We visited weekly and had grown close.  Our primary topic of conversation was the Vietnam War, during which Jack had flown on “Huey” helicopters as a medical specialist.  He had seen a lot of brutal combat, and had witnessed the suffering and death of many soldiers who were picked up in the midst of battle and med-evac’ed out.  He had strong and painful memories, which he needed to narrate and process.  We formed a strong team.

The night he died I was preparing to go visit when I heard a sighing sound as I walked out of the closet with my shoes.  I turned around to see my favorite tie drop from the tie rack, and the thought “Jack’s dead” flashed loudly through my mind.  It was like a voice, in a way.  I drove to his house immediately and found the hospice nurse doing her death pronouncement; his time of death coincided exactly with the time that I had the crisis apparition.  Later one of the hospice social workers told me that this was a common experience for hospice workers and volunteers who formed close relationships with the patients.  For me it was a comfort and a kindness.  I felt that Jack was OK and was flattered that he took the time to say goodbye to me.

The CNN article offers a variety of suggestions as explanations for this phenomenon.  I offer one: deep empathy.  When you really get to know someone, you experience very strongly how they’re thinking and feeling.  Strong empathy is uncanny; how many times have you had a good laugh with a best friend or loved one when you started to say the same thing at the same time and it had an “out of the blue” quality to it?  Neuroscience is demonstrating how similar brain activity becomes in two people with an empathic bond.  Quantum physics has postulated and shown for decades that reality has a “non-local” quality to it.  Perhaps when we’ve grown so close that our brains begin to mirror one another we remain “local” to those people we connect with most deeply.  Perhaps the energy that drives a mind can have one last biological phenomenon with those people it is most in tune with.

Sometimes I think that I might have had a hallucination so many years ago, but mostly I accept the reality of that experience.  And I believe strongly it was about empathy.  Empathy is what makes us most human, and the animals we love best have it, as well.  Our mindfulness practice ultimately is about empathy.  The capacity to notice our own experience, without judgment.  The capacity to notice the experience of another, without judgment.  The ability to name our experience, and respond to it with skill.  The ability to name the experience of another, and respond to it with skill.  With empathy comes compassion, and with compassion comes wisdom.  When two are gathered in a mindset of deep compassion and shared wisdom, perhaps the bond that is created persists, even beyond death.

Mindfulness Meditation

Communication, Briefly Considered (just before teaching a class)

“How our words are understood doesn’t depend just on how we express our ideas.  It also depends on how someone receives what we’re saying.  I think the most important part about communicating is the listening we do beforehand.  When we can truly respect what someone brings to what we’re offering, it makes the communication all the more meaningful.”

“We speak with more than our mouths.  We listen with more than our ears.”

Both quotes are from Fred Rogers, “Mr Rogers” of children’s television fame.  Both speak to our mindfulness.  Some will tell you that meditation practice is “quietism,” a chance to “disappear” and “dissociate” from life.  A chance to “get away from it all.”  It’s not!  Meditation is the work we do that allows us to speak and listen with our hearts, with the compassion that simply awaits your recognition.  Meditation awakens deep compassion, and makes it so much easier to truly listen, and speak truly.  God bless Mr. Rogers, may he rest in peace!



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”



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

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.


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!