Mindfulness in General Essays

Introduction to the Blog on Mindfulness (First Essay)

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!

Meditation Issues

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 co-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!

More Meditation Issues

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

Even More Meditation Issues!

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!

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!

Mindfulness and Compassion

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.

Day to Day 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:


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!

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