Mindfulness Meditation

Stress and Lawyers

The Journal of the Delaware State Bar Association recently published an article I wrote for them titled “Stress and Lawyers.”  It is longer than what I usually post here, and quite technical in its approach to stress and stress management.  But I thought it had some useful information so I am reposting it here.  The DSBA requires this language in any reprints of their articles:

This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of The Journal of the Delaware State Bar Association, a publication of the Delaware State Bar Association.  Copyright © Delaware State Bar Association 2017.  All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

In the twelve years that I have been teaching Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction I have only had three attorneys take the program.  This does not strike me as unusual given my experience working with attorneys as a Psycho Forensic Evaluator, mostly working on homicide cases.  The attorneys that I’ve met are driven to succeed, very goal directed, and proud of their capacity to take on more and more work without showing any signs of stress or strain.  But what is missed in the driven, high stress culture of the practice of law that I’ve observed is that, as famed Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk has noted in working with stressed out and traumatized people, the body keeps the score!

Let me explain what I mean by describing the activity of the autonomic nervous system.  In order to survive your body needs to maintain a steady balance between stimulation and relaxation.  When your body’s senses perceive any kind of stimulus the sympathetic nervous system (one branch of the autonomic nervous system) activates and increases your heart rate, blood pressure and respiration rate while suppressing the digestive and immune systems.  In this condition, the stress response, you feel awake and aroused.  Once the stimulus is removed from your perception your body activates the other branch of the autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, and the relaxation response begins.  Now your heart slows down, your blood pressure and respiration rate return to their baseline levels, your digestive and immune systems return to normal, and you begin to feel relaxed, and more likely to be able to fall asleep.  Both of these responses are sensitive to levels of stress hormones in your blood, particularly cortisol.  An increase in stress hormones activates the sympathetic nervous system, a decrease in stress hormones activates the parasympathetic nervous system.

Neither the stress nor the relaxation response is inherently more valuable than the other, but for a body to remain healthy there must be a balance between the two.  When the preponderance of activity is the stress response, serious medical and psychological consequences will ensue.  Medically, people living in chronic stress have much higher rates of heart disease (e.g. hypertension, heart attacks), illnesses of digestion (e.g. ulcers, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disease, Colitis), obesity (stress hormones increase fatty deposits, especially in the abdomen), insomnia, and headaches.  Psychologically, people living in chronic stress have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and addiction.  Since I am a mental health professional, I’ll focus on the psychological consequences of chronic stress as it affects attorneys.

A report in the Journal of Addictive Medicine published early in 2016 screened a sample of 12,825 licensed, employed attorneys and found that a tremendous level of distress and impairment is widespread.  On the mental health side of the issue of attorney stress, 61% of the sample reported diagnoses of anxiety disorders during their legal career.  Depression diagnoses were confirmed by 46%, and 11.5% reported suicidal thoughts experienced during their legal career, including high rates of self-injurious behaviors and prior suicide attempts.  On the addiction side of the issue, nearly 21% of the sample reported problematic drinking, with 36% reporting hazardous drinking styles (e.g. binge drinking).  About 75% of the sample reported using stimulant drugs, half acknowledged using sedatives, nearly one third reported marijuana use, and more than 20% reported using opioids.  About 25% of the sample reported patterns of use consistent with some level of drug misuse.

A 2017 report in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior surveyed 8,243 attorneys from Canada and the United States and found that rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and overall poor medical health were far higher in attorneys than the general population, and much worse in the United States than Canada.  This study looked closely at measures of perceived status and found that attorneys working for high prestige law firms suffered disproportionately compared to peers in mid-level or small firms.  Rates of stress-related illnesses, both medical and psychological, were highly elevated in high status, young attorneys, with very low levels of overall life satisfaction.  The predictive factor?  Extraordinarily high levels of work hours and little time for personal activities.  In other words, these attorneys have no work/life balance, and are slowly killing themselves through carrying a tremendous stress load in their bodies.

I am happy to report that there are two antidotes to this problem: managing your body’s stress load through intentional activation of the relaxation response and/or cutting back on the amount of work you’re doing.  In this article I’m not going to try to fight the battle of work load, so instead I’ll focus on stress management skills.

Remember earlier in this article when I said that “the body keeps the score”?  The first principle I want to express is that stress is a biological phenomenon, not a failure of the mind or the will!  Too many people, including people in my field of mental health caregiving, act as if their body’s stress load is the result of being weak minded.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  The body reacts moment-to-moment as stressors appear.  You can’t stop that from happening, but you can recognize when it is happening and engage in practices that give your body a necessary break.

Which leads me to the second principle I want to express: there are simple things you can do to help your body to reduce its stress load.  Take a walk, meditate, do some yoga or exercise, watch a funny movie.  All of these activities lower stress hormone levels in the body.  What you will notice each of these activities has in common is that they all involve focusing the mind on fewer objects of attention, and allowing the mind to stop making decisions and judgments.  The body’s stress response is absolutely proportional to the number of mental objects it must keep in awareness (think “multi-tasking” here) and how demanding each mental object is to you.  A phrase you can use to describe the state of mind in which you keep your mind focused on a single object of attention in a non-judgmental way is “being mindful.”  Fifteen minutes of mindfulness practices will go a long way to bringing your body’s stress level back to a baseline level.  And, ironically, taking a break to become mindful and relaxed actually increases job productivity!  In other words, you’ll get more done in less time if you allow your body to stand down for fifteen minutes a few times a day, every day.

A third and final principle I want to express is that stress-related impairment in the work place is called burnout, and it is preventable.  More and more corporations are now incorporating stress management opportunities as part of their corporate culture, and not just in Silicon Valley.  Old line companies like Proctor & Gamble, Aetna, General Mills, and Deutsche Bank have meditation and yoga programs built into their corporate fiber.  In fact William George, the former CEO of Medtronic and current Harvard Business School Professor, has meditated since 1974 and now counts mindfulness as a key element to business leadership.  The emerging generation of lawyers expect that their employers will seek to help them maintain a work/life balance, and value the accommodations that can be made in the workplace to help manage stress load.

There is no honor in being stressed out.  There is only poor health and mental diminishment that can lead to broken relationships, broken careers, and broken lives.  Self-care is not a sign of weakness.  Stressed out people are simply less able to be fully available to the people they serve, and in any profession with fiduciary responsibilities, like the practice of the law, you can’t afford to allow a high stress load to impair your judgment.  Taking care of yourself is the same as taking care of your clients.  Self-care is a sign of commitment to the highest standards of ethical practice.


Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness Matters

The following essay was published recently in the Delaware Business Times, and can be found at DE Business Times.  In this essay I reference the Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware, an important agency that helps underserved populations in Delaware.  You can read more about the Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware at Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware.  Finally, this essay also references a non-profit dedicated to spreading Mindfulness training in Delaware and worldwide, the Global Investment Foundation for Tomorrow, or GIFT.  You can learn more about GIFT at GIFT.  I have been helping GIFT as a paid contractor in Delaware since January of 2017.

If you’ve ever gazed at a very young baby, say about five months old, you’ve likely been gazed at in return.  You’ll notice in that gaze that there is no judgment, perhaps a little joy, maybe some irritation if the baby’s belly is empty or bottom is soiled.  You’ll notice how simple it is to respond in the moment, and in your simple response how easily you feel connected to that young life.

When we talk about “being mindful” we hear all sorts of definitions, and, frankly, a lot of hype sometimes.  But mindfulness is really something quite simple:  paying attention in the present moment without judging.  While it is a very simple construct, its application in our lives is quite a bit of work, at least for adults.   It turns out that children take to this practice easily, because being mindful is a mindset with which they are still familiar.  As adults we turn our attention again and again to the past and the future, often at the expense of noticing the present moment.  And sometimes, when we notice the present moment, we allow our memories or anticipation to cloud our perspective of what is happening right here, right now.

Boys and Girls Clubs of Delaware(BGCDE) serves over 40,000 kids annually.  During spring 2017, I had the pleasure of introducing simple mindfulness practices to a group of full time employees, through the GIFT Initiative.  Each of these dedicated staff recognized in their mindfulness practices the simple child-like innocence of the mindful state.  The result, staff are finding ways to help the kids they serve to experience being simply present, paying attention on purpose, and not judging.

Why does this matter?  When a business invests in their staff’s development and overall wellness, it has a trickledown effect to the services it provides.  In the case of Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware, informed and trained staff in mindfulness are able to implement strategies and practices into their services to young people, ultimately creating a safe, less stressful environment for kids to be who they are meant to be while exploring opportunities to enhance themselves.

Of course it’s not just children who benefit from mindfulness training.  Most research in this area concerns the impact of mindfulness on adults.  It turns out that mindful adults experience reduced stress, improvements in hypertension and memory, and lower levels of depression, anxiety, and addiction.  Workplace studies have demonstrated that mindful employees are more cooperative in their dealings with other employees, and that the time they take to practice meditation during the workday, typically about 15 minutes, greatly enhances their focus and productivity.  In fact, the list of major corporations that make mindfulness part of their corporate culture is long, and not limited to Silicon Valley high tech firms like Apple, Google, and Facebook.  Companies like General Mills, Aetna, and Proctor and Gamble have meditation and yoga programs.  William “Bill” George, former CEO of Medtronic and current Harvard Business School Professor, has meditated since 1974 and now counts mindfulness as a key element to business leadership.  George states that “mindfulness enables leaders to be fully present, aware of themselves and their impact on other people, and sensitive to their reactions in stressful situations”.

Delaware, with the support of 150+ statewide stakeholders from public and private sectors, is on course to become the First Mindful State.  Mindful school children will find it easier to focus their attention and regulate their emotions.  Mindful teens will be more likely to be self-disciplined and ready for higher education.  Mindful adults will suffer from fewer stress-related illnesses, lowering overall healthcare expenses.  Mindful leaders will have greater calm and clarity making important decisions about the people and corporations they serve.  When a person is mindful there are no more “zero sum” games, only situations in which we all can advance and improve in our lives.

Mindfulness Meditation

Hypocrisy at its Best

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of hypocrisy is “the practice of claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case.”  I can only speak for myself, but I think it is very difficult to avoid being a hypocrite!  Imagine a world where everyone claimed that their standard of behavior or belief was only as lofty as their actual behavior.  I like the idea that we claim higher ideals than we’re able to accomplish.  It makes me think of one of my favorite words, aspiration.

When I think of the way I would like to be as a person I am considering my aspirational self.  That version of me is quite wonderful!  He is thoughtful, generous, kind, amusing, erudite, well read: in other words, quite perfect!  But I fail over and over again to live up to this aspirational image as I go about the business of each ordinary day.  I fail over and over again, and regret that I cannot quite meet these standards I set for myself.  And I’m in good company.  No less of a man that Saul of Tarsus, St. Paul to Christians, said “for I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans, 7:15).

I have a theory on this that I believe makes sense.  I think that the root of hypocrisy begins, ironically, with aspirational thinking.  I have come to believe that in general people are kindhearted and have a motivation toward “the good.”  At our best we have a strong knowing, maybe even a felt experience, of who we can be at our best, and we want to be at our best, especially with the people we most love.  But we fail for so many reasons.  I think the most common reason is simply fatigue.  We get tired physically and emotionally, and fail to meet our standards.  We get discouraged by life and its many setbacks, sometimes of our own making and sometimes seemingly at random.  And, again, we fail to live up to our own standards.  The fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous cites an acronym associated with addiction relapse: HALT, or H(ungry), A(ngry), L(onely), T(ired).  Indeed, when any of these conditions are present, we are more likely to fail to live up to our aspirational self.

But we absolutely should set aspirations!  For in the setting of an aspiration we may fail repeatedly, but the intention to live in a loftier way alone lifts the level of our lived experience.  For it is my aspirations that inspire me to be kind, generous, and thoughtful.  It is my aspirations that give me the extra energy at the end of a long day to make one more phone call to offer comfort to someone suffering or advice to someone who feels lost.  My aspirations alone help me to be a better man.  Those same aspirations that sound like accusations in the midst of my failure are the same voices whispering in my ear to persevere in hard times, go the distance, be the best man I can possibly be.

Which brings me back to your mindfulness practice.  If mindfulness is new to you, and you are struggling to find the time and the place to practice mindfulness, do not despair because of your failure to do so.  Continue to aspire to be mindful!  The aspiration alone lifts you up, makes you aware that you could, perhaps should, be engaging the practice, and those thoughts will linger and remind you to take advantage of every opportunity, no matter how small, to reengage the practice.  The intention to be mindful alone will change your way of being.  If you aspire to have a strong mind and gentle heart the pain of your hypocrisy as you fail to be strong and gentle will bring you back to your practice over and over again.  Don’t be afraid to be a hypocrite in the best sense of the word: it is simply your way of living your aspirations.

Mindfulness Meditation

A Walk in the Woods

My wife is taking the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program.  As a mindfulness instructor I’ve avoided trying to influence her to do so and I’ve resisted the temptation to ask her “how is it going?”  Yesterday was her all-day retreat and I did ask afterward what she thought of the training.  She answered that it was quite helpful, and she was grateful for getting the instruction.  She complained mildly, however, about the walking meditation.  “I just don’t care for it because my mind wanders a lot.”

Ironically walking meditation is my most favored form of meditating.  Each meditator tends to have a favored form of meditation and, to some extent, our own way of being mindful.  As a teacher I know that meditation is a simple practice, but also that it is difficult to convey to people what exactly it is we are doing in the moment that we are being mindful.  Since it is a felt experience rather than a cognitive construct, mindfulness instructors turn to metaphors and analogies, always giving guidance and encouragement to our students to persist in the practice.

It is simple to instruct a student in walking meditation if you only focus on the form.  “Walk slowly, deliberately.  Notice all of the sensations.  Start with your feet.  Notice how they feel when they touch the ground and when they balance as you very slowly roll from heel to toe…..”

Today I spent an hour walking mindfully on a path near my home that winds its way through a wooded area.  The trees were festooned with garlands of orange and yellow and green autumnal beauty.  The sweet smell of organic matter decomposing and rotting filled my senses, and made me yearn for my walk to be slower and even more attentive.  Then, with great swiftness and surprise, a flash of white brought my attention to the periphery of my vision.  I stopped and peered through the trees and spotted a white-tailed deer, a doe, about 40 yards from me.  She, too, had stopped and was gazing at me, equally attentive.  I lowered myself to a squatting posture, and returned her gaze.  Our eyes were locked together, and all I could feel was a desire to be as non-threatening to her as I could be, in hopes that she would feel as calm and mindful as I felt.  Our locked gazes lasted for a minute, and then she lowered her head and began to forage in the brush for food.

I began to walk again, still very slowly, but my walking took on a renewed intention.  I was walking in a direction parallel to the doe, as she walked slowly, continuing to forage.  I began to walk with the spirit of ahimsa, the Sanskrit word usually translated as “non-injury.”  I wanted each step to convey to the doe that I was no threat to her.  I wanted my breath and my pulse to be calmed, my heartbeat filled with compassion and warmth.  I wanted to walk as if I could approach her in a clearing in the woods, and she would know I presented no threat, and would only help her if she needed help and I could do so in some way.  As I walked I could feel every fiber of my body, in a way of my being, having the sincere desire to be a source of safety and compassion for this doe in the woods.

After a few minutes she trotted off, probably to find another area with more abundant feed.  I continued to walk, noticing the residual of feeling in my body from my experience of caring for this lovely creature.  And I realized that when we walk in meditation we should imagine that we are walking toward some person or some being that we treasure, who needs to know that we present no threat.  We need to walk with hearts filled with felt-compassion for all creatures, intending to be a source of ahimsa for the world.  If you walk in this way your meditation will bring great peace to your heart and mind, and your life will be filled with great comfort and ease.



Mindfulness Meditation

It’s Not What the Teacher Says…

It’s what the student hears.

It was a short mindfulness session.  About 20 people showed up for one hour of instruction.  What is mindfulness?  Why would I want to practice this?  How do I do this?

So we started with a simple breath meditation.  Not long, maybe 8 or 10 minutes.  Allowing eyes to close if you’re comfortable with that.  Or just gazing downward a bit, relaxed focus.  The bell rings softly.

Sitting with intention.  Paying attention to the body breathing.  Not changing anything.  Just letting the body breathe the way it does on its own.

Breathes in.  Breathes out.  Notice how the body pauses, takes a short rest.

Mind wanders; that’s what minds do.  That’s OK.  Just notice it.  If it helps, say in your mind’s voice “that’s OK, that’s OK.  It’s just what minds do.”

Notice how your body feels sitting like this.  Feeling supported by this chair.  By this floor.  By this earth.  Letting the chair and the floor and the earth do the work.  And breathing.  No effort.

Just being present.  No task to accomplish.  No “good mindfulness” or “bad mindfulness.”  Just noticing, accepting.

The bell rings again.  Attention returns to the room.  What was it like to use your mind that way?

Nobody speaks at first.  Encouragement is offered.  Maybe that was pleasant, maybe unpleasant.  Doesn’t matter.  What was it like for you?

A young woman speaks first.  Very unpleasant.  My leg itched.  I think a hair caused it.  And you said “don’t move” so I couldn’t move, and it bothered me.

Except for one thing:  I never said “don’t move.”

I smiled before I responded.  She clearly heard “don’t move” yet it wasn’t my voice she heard, it was her own.  The voice that tells a story that explains the events unfolding.  Perhaps she heard “this is meditation.  It is very important, very sacred.  You must behave properly.  Don’t move!”

Or maybe she heard “there must be perfect silence and stillness in the room for this to work.  If I move then I might disturb someone and they won’t get the great results you get from meditation.  Don’t move!”

Many moments of our lives bring events and people that place demands on us, and these demands can be very stressful.  Sometimes we have stories that explain these events, these people, these demands.  These stories make it easier for us to react quickly, and most of the time the story is true, or at least true enough, to get us through any situation.  The problem with these stories is that they’re all preconceived, based on past experiences, and never capture what is actually happening with complete accuracy.  These stories are a kind of conditioned response and they are often ways to keep us safe, to keep us from being hurt.

Being mindful helps us to notice our stories as they arise.  We have a chance, when we’re mindful, to avoid going into our personal story-land and instead work with what actually is happening, instead of our story about it.  But we can’t make this correction if we don’t know there is a story that needs correcting.  By working with out minds in the way that we do when we sit and collect our breath and direct our minds with acceptance, we come to know the stories that we tell, the stories that are typical for each one of us.  And then, with acceptance, we can laugh a bit at our own folly and just live in the moment, live in truth, live in peace.

I never said “don’t move,” and in hearing her own story, perhaps my student for that hour learned a little bit more about the voice she actually heard, the voice of her conditioned learning.  Maybe hearing her story as “just a story” will help her to recognize other stories and live in authenticity and acceptance.  And, really, this is the only way to really live: knowing that each moment of our lives, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant, is worthy of our attention and presence.  Our commitment to live with this level of authenticity allows us to have life, and have it abundantly.



Mindfulness Meditation

The Cocktail Party in my Mind

Lately I have been happily reading “The Undoing Project” (Michael Lewis, WW Norton & Company, 2017), a book which details the collaboration between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and their groundbreaking work which created the field of behavioral economics.  That may sound a little bit like off-center reading for a pastoral counselor and mindfulness teacher, but Kahneman and Tversky’s work has changed the way the field of psychology understands how people perceive reality and make judgments.  It was in this book that I read about a principle in psychology known as the “cocktail party effect.”

So, what is the cocktail party effect?  I’ll paraphrase from Lewis’s book.  The cocktail party effect is the ability of people to filter out a lot of noise from the sounds they wish to hear – as they do when they listen to someone at a cocktail party.  On the evening of the same day that I read Lewis’s account of the cocktail party effect I happened to go to a cocktail party, where I settled into a conversation with my good friend and neighbor Dave.  I love to talk to Dave, as we both appreciate each other’s sense of humor.  It’s good, once in a while, to talk to someone who truly thinks you’re witty whatever the actual truth may be!

In any case, as I tuned in to what Dave was telling me I could still hear all of the voices and noise in the house, which was filled to capacity with nearly 50 senior citizens.  Occasionally my focus on Dave’s voice wandered a bit, especially when a word that meant something to me broke into my awareness.  Someone said “baseball” and my mind shifted attention in that direction.  Someone else said “Jim” (there were at least 4 men there named Jim) and off went my attention again.  Someone said “dessert” and you know what happened next.  But all in all my attention stayed fixed on Dave and what he was saying, and as usual we enjoyed each other’s company.

I think you can see where I’m going with this.  The cocktail party effect, our capacity to focus on an object of attention despite the background noise, is a wonderful metaphor for mindfulness meditation.  In our meditation we shift our focus to some mental object, usually the breath, but maybe body sensations, sense perceptions, thoughts, feelings….; it doesn’t matter where we focus our attention, so long as we do so intentionally and without judgment.  As we do so we get distracted by some mental object that gets our attention, such as remembering that we have yet to make our grocery list, or the image of someone we like comes to mind, or an aroma from the oven wafts through my senses and now I’m focused on feeling hungry.  Now my attention shifts away from my primary focus of attention, and without judging myself or the mental object I’ve shifted attention to, I return my focus to Dave….I mean to my breath.

There is a cocktail party in my mind!  When I sit to meditate there is so much background noise!  And whenever the background noise throws something up to my attention that is interesting, my mind wanders yet again.  But I return to my breath, without judging, over and over again.  In time the background  noise largely subsides, as if the guests at the cocktail party have said to one another “hush, Jim’s trying to focus now.”

This is our practice: to stay present, to be aware of all of the noise in our minds, and without passing judgment.  Our practice trains our minds and bodies to stay fully present with “what is,” with an attitude that knows clearly and succinctly that each person, each event, and each moment are worthy of our noticing.  Sometimes the moment is unpleasant, even painful, and at other times quite pleasant, maybe even pleasurable.  It does not matter to the mindful person; all moments are ready to be fully experienced.  Only then can we gain the wisdom to understand fully, and the capacity to respond with compassion unconditionally.



Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness is an Act of Love

Whenever I introduce mindfulness meditation to a group of people largely unfamiliar with the practice there are certain types of responses that are pretty typical when I ask the question “What was it like to use your mind that way?”  Some will say “relaxing,” some will say “awful,” and others will say pretty much everything in between.  Occasionally someone will tell me that “I’m not very good  at this,” and I think that’s the most important response of all.

What does it mean to be “good” at mindfulness meditation?  I hope that someone can tell me, because I surely don’t know!  I’ve been meditating for quite a while and I don’t think I’m particularly “good” at it either if I were to apply the standards that people seem to use.

At a recent gathering I led a brief breath meditation for a group of mostly non-meditators.  After I asked what it was like to use your mind that way a woman I’ll call “Deb” told me she wasn’t very good at meditating, and as she did so she looked down at the floor, in a way that seemed to me to indicate that she was embarrassed at her “failure.”  I asked her what she meant and she said “my mind kept wandering off throughout the meditation.”  I asked her “did you notice it wandering off?”  She said she did, every time.  “And then you returned your attention to your breath, and then it wandered again?”  She said “yes, over and over again.”  Then I asked her “when you noticed it had wandered, did you think “I’m awful at this” or did you think “that’s OK, that’s OK Deb, that’s just what minds do”?  She answered the latter, that she had told herself it was OK to have a wandering mind.  I asked her how it felt to tell herself it was OK to have a wandering mind, and she said “it felt good.”

After this exchange I smiled broadly and exclaimed “Deb, you’re an expert meditator!”  “I am?”  I said “of course you are.  You noticed your wandering mind every time, and returned it to your breath every time, without judging yourself.  That’s what it means to be mindful: to notice the activity of mind in the present moment, without judging yourself.  That was hard work, but you persisted.  Well done!”  Deb looked happy, relieved, and, frankly, hopeful.  I asked her what it would be like to practice for 10 or 15 minutes every morning and every evening, training the mind to be present and not judging.  She said that might be a good thing to do, and she might give it a try.

In that moment, as Deb looked at me feeling at ease, I asked her “who is your harshest critic, Deb?”  I asked her that because she had shown such a shame response earlier when she told me that she wasn’t very good at meditating.  Deb looked away from me, toward the floor, and said “I am.”  I looked around the room and so many faces were looking down, and I realized how self shaming so many of us are.  I turned back to Deb and asked her if training her mind to say “that’s OK Deb, that’s OK” might be helpful to her.  Crying softly now, Deb told me that she never thinks like that, in a self forgiving way, but that she would work on this and maybe become less self shaming, gentler with herself.  She smiled and said “maybe if I trained my mind to be kind to myself I’d be kinder to other people too.”

Imagine that.  Imagine training your mind to be aware in the moment, but always with the intention to accept and forgive.  In other words, imagine having a strong mind and a tender heart.  Imagine that when someone is unkind to you or antagonistic or angry, if instead of feeling defensive or ashamed of yourself, you were able to stay present with that person (strong minded) and wonder “what has happened to this person?” (tender hearted) instead of “what’s wrong with this person?” (hard hearted).  I’ve come to the conclusion after many years of observation that the unkindness or antagonism or anger of another person is not about me, and is evidence in the moment of their suffering.  Imagine having a compassionate response in those moments.  How would that affect your relationship life?

Practicing mindfulness is an act of love.  In our formal practice we cultivate a deep feeling of compassion toward ourselves, a gentleness to our own suffering and anguish.  In so doing, we are able then to practice metta, or lovingkindness meditation, in which we allow ourselves to feel deep compassion for the people in our lives.  Having brought compassion to the deepest parts of our own being, we become more deeply compassionate in a world that is thirsting for love and forgiveness.  As our capacity for love strengthens, we truly come to understand what Gandhi meant when he said “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  For as our gaze becomes compassionate, and our neighbors feel our compassion, you’ll notice more often than not compassion is returned.  Your love returned for love, your love returned for hatred, love simply returned in every moment.

This may seem unlikely to you, but take time to gaze at a newborn infant.  Notice how it returns your gaze, and how its gaze has nothing but attention and love in it.  Then you’ll know that lovingkindness is not earned, it is our birthright.  And with a mindfulness meditation practice, you’ll come back to your original self, back to the loving being you were born to be.



Mindfulness Meditation

Watch Me Pop Pop, Watch Me!

On Thanksgiving Day my wife and I traveled to visit our daughter and her husband, but most important of all, our grandson Ian.  Ian is about two and a half years old, and I don’t think I exaggerate when I say he’s the cutest and most wonderful two and a half year old boy on the planet.  He is witty and wise, adventurous, always curious, and most of the time very gentle.  Spotting a band aid on my finger that day he looked mournfully at me, pulled my finger to his lips and kissing it said “I a little sad.  Pop pop has a boo boo.”

So on that Thanksgiving Day, while waiting for the massive turkey our son in law was roasting, my wife (mom mom) and I took Ian into his yard to run off some energy and have some fun.  We ran and played and enjoyed a delightful autumn day.  But then Ian got serious, pointing out all of the acorns on the ground under an oak tree and telling us that “the ‘quirrels like to eat the acorns.”  It should be noted that Ian hasn’t yet figured out how to say the letter “s” when it begins a word.  So you may think he is looking for his “tool,” but he actually wants his “stool.”

In any case, Ian went on to say that “the ‘quirrels are hungry” and that if we picked up the acorns and put them in a pile then “the ‘quirrels will be very happy.”  Ian then directed his mom mom to go “over there” to pick up the acorns.  When I volunteered to do the same Ian put up his right hand, very dramatically, in the universally recognized sign to “STOP,” and said with great firmness, “NO, pop pop, you stay here and watch.”  This led my wife to retort “once again the women work while the men watch,” a charge I accept as likely to be true.  So I stayed in my place, and waited to see what would happen next.

After making sure that I was in exactly the right spot, Ian proceeded to say with great exuberance “watch me pop pop, watch me!” and then ran toward the acorn gathering spot.  Halfway there he stopped and turned, and I smiled, clapped, and waved, to which he grinned broadly and continued to run, turning to look back to make sure I was still watching.  It was then that I realized something so simple that I overlook it again and again: how much we all yearn to simply be seen.  Ian wanted to be seen, that’s all.  He took such delight each time he looked up and saw me watching him, and saw the delight in my gaze as he gazed in delight back at me.

We all have some basic needs.  Abraham Maslow, in his hierarchy of needs, noted that physiological and safety needs were foundational, but that our need to be loved was paramount to both.  And, in a way, the foundation of loving is simply being willing to see the other person, and the fulfillment of being loved is in knowing that we are seen in return by those who mean the most to us.  Ian’s world of beloved people include his mama and dada, his grandma and grandpa, and his mom mom and pop pop.  For Ian, being seen means everything, and I think simply being seen means everything to each of us.

Safety and being seen.  To those of us who are therapists we know how important these two qualities are.  No therapy client can do the hard work of psychotherapy without feeling safe, without feeling seen.  Safety and seen-ness are felt experiences; the person whose presence transmits these qualities is a very special person indeed.  And it may be that once a person truly feels safe and seen one’s psychic and emotional wounds begin to heal spontaneously.

I am writing this post in mid-December, a time of year called Advent to the billions of Christians around the world.  Many people mistake Advent as “pre-Christmas,” a time to shop and buy and visit Santa Claus at the Mall and go to parties and drink egg nog.  I’m not against these sorts of things; I enjoy them myself.  But from the spiritual perspective Advent is a time of waiting and watching, a time of anticipating the emergence of the Divine in a material world consumed with the mundane.  Who is it that we wait and watch for?  We can answer in religious ways, saying “the baby Jesus” or the angels announcing his birth and sing versions of Handel’s Messiah and feel quite content.  As for me, I’m waiting and watching for the Divine in the form of my neighbor.  And who is my neighbor?  Ask that of Jesus, and you’ll get a story about the outcast, the despised person, a lowly Samaritan.  In this Advent, your Advent, whether you are Christian or not, you may want to ask yourself this question: who is it that you truly watch for?  Who is it that you truly see and make safe?  Your answer to those questions will tell you what it means to you to be spiritual in this world.  Answer carefully, as we live in a day and age when it is dangerous to be the outcast and the despised, and dangerous to be a person seeking to see and make safe the outcast and the despised.

Mindfulness: the intention to “see,” both literally and metaphorically, the entire bandwidth of phenomenal experience.  Not judging what we see, accepting everything that comes within the range of our gaze.  All Ian wants is to be safe and to be seen.  Will you do that for the people you meet today?



PS Here’s a photo of Ian with his Pop Pop getting on “the BIG train!”


Mindfulness Meditation

A Simple Solution

A few weeks ago I led a short retreat for a group of people in our Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program along with my teaching partner, Shannon Ayres.  It was a gorgeous November day, a bit blustery and cold but fueled by the inner warmth of our shared spiritual journeys.  We were joined by our current students and by old friends as well, which made the day very special.

During the course of the day one of the current MBSR students described her version of “monkey mind,” an affliction we’ve all experienced.  She said that when her mind wandered repeatedly she discovered a scolding voice that told her “you should stay focused, you should stay focused” over and over again.  With a small smile she described it as “shoulding on myself,” and we all agreed that we’ve done some “shoulding” too.  Then one of our veteran meditators in attendance, Kristen, offered sage advice.  She told us that when she finds her mind wandering she discovers her voice that states “a kinder phrase such as “oh, what an opportunity to be mindful,” turning the criticism into an attitude of curiosity and acceptance and maybe being more likely to to notice that opportunity in the future.”

To me this seemed like such a simple intervention but also a very powerful one.  In our mindfulness training we learn to be focused, and there are tremendous benefits to this focus.  But of equal importance, and maybe even more important, is that we train the mind to be gentle, forgiving, and accepting.  Kristen’s remark reminded me that having monkey mind is actually a benefit, in that we get to be gentle, forgiving, and accepting over and over again, each time our minds wander away from the simple breath that keeps us alive.  By noticing and responding to the wandering mind with Kristen’s gentle voice we become skilled at being gentle, forgiving, and accepting.  Living in a world consumed with being dominant rather than gentle, punitive rather than forgiving, and judgmental rather than accepting, Kristen’s gentle voice is a true antidote to our suffering.

Another simple intervention for our wandering minds is to find your voice that can say “that’s OK, that’s OK” whenever focus is lost.  In the moment we notice our minds are adrift a simple reassurance like this helps us to regain our mindful state and to cultivate a deep state of compassion and caring for ourselves, and ultimately for each other.

By the way, isn’t it wonderful to teach!  My students become my teachers, and leave me in a state of awe when I witness their wisdom.  In an email exchange with Kristen about our recent retreat she went on to share with me her point of view about the phenomenon of shared mindfulness practice in a group setting.  She told me that mindfulness “provides a sense of connectedness, not only to humans but spiritually as well.  Which, for me, provides a sense of hope.  In times of stress or struggle I am able to sit and reconnect with the greatness we are all born from and know that this greatness is bigger than any challenge I am facing.”

There’s nothing I can add to Kristen’s wisdom except to consider how blessed I am to have students who become my teachers.



Mindfulness Meditation


In the fall of 1995 I was in the first year of a Masters degree program, intending to become a Pastoral Counselor.  I was in the last year of my corporate management career, and at the same time doing volunteer work for a local non-profit hospice.  That’s where I met Daniel, an 8 year old boy whose mother was dying slowly and painfully.

The hospice asked me to be with Daniel on Saturdays that fall.  His father was consumed by care taking for his wife and by the two jobs he held in order to make financial ends meet.  Daniel was lonely, and Daniel was angry.  He refused to visit his mother in the bedroom in their home where she had been confined for several months.  She was near death, and Daniel would not see her.  His father was in great distress over Daniel’s anger, but the social workers at the hospice counseled him to give Daniel the space he needed.  I entered into this family during the worst days of their life.

Daniel wanted to do one thing: play baseball.  Yes, it was November and cold and rainy but that didn’t matter to Daniel.  So for six consecutive Saturdays we went to a local baseball field where I pitched and Daniel batted, and then I chased.  Balls were hit into the outfield, into foul ground, under the grandstands, over the fence.  It didn’t matter to Daniel where the balls ended up, as long as he could hit them as hard as he possibly could and run the bases in triumph as I ran and ran to retrieve his latest hit.  He always won the race to home plate; he scored a home run with every strike of the ball.

During that same autumn I knew that I needed to spend time with my own son, who was then 11 years old.  We would take long walks in a county park nearby that was left natural, deeply wooded with old growth trees, with only a few trails snaking through the countryside.  On one of our walks we found an area, maybe 3 or 4 acres in size, where the old growth trees were flattened to the ground, not cut cleanly but toppled by some force of nature, as if a small tornado had touched down a powerful finger which pushed these trees flat to the ground.  My son called this “the land of the fallen trees” and we enjoyed sitting there and wondering what might have happened.

One Saturday in early December I asked Daniel’s father for permission to do something different that day, to take Daniel on a long walk in these same woods.  By then this family had grown to deeply trust me, and his father consented.  Daniel and I hiked in the woods for an hour before coming to the land of the fallen trees, where we sat and contemplated together for a while.  I told Daniel my son’s name for this area, and after a long pause he said that he didn’t think that was the actual name of this place.  Rather, he said, “it’s the tree burial ground.  It’s where the trees go when they die.”  After a longer pause he looked up at me and said “it’s a good place, isn’t it?”  I said that it was, put my arm around his shoulder, and we continued to sit together and contemplate.  Then Daniel told me it was time to go, and we walked out of the deep woods and into the clearing where my car was parked, and Daniel went home.  Later that day his father called to tell me that when he got home Daniel crawled into his mother’s bed, slipped beneath the covers, curled up alongside her and cried.  That day was my last visit with Daniel.

I’ve thought often about this experience.  It’s memory came back the other day when a dear friend talked about the word “numinous,” a word I have to admit that I do not use very often, if at all.  Numinous refers to those felt experiences of “the mysterious,” experiences which inspire awe and inform us that there is more to life than just matter.  A numinous experience is filled with wonder and beauty, and can fundamentally transform a person if the person is receptive and open.  Numinous experiences are central to religious traditions, and can only be described with metaphor and analogy, as they are qualities rather than quantities.  In the midst of this awe one realizes that separateness is an illusion, that all beings and all things are interconnected.  Thomas Merton described this experience with great eloquence in his Asian Journal, when he visited the ancient Buddhist ruins at Polanaruwa barefoot and as a spiritual pilgrim (see the essay “Wanting…Needing” on this website for an excerpt of Merton’s narrative).  In the midst of a numinous experience one is a witness to the grandeur and beauty of being alive.

The numinous experience that we shared that day transformed Daniel’s anger, and the terror he felt about his mother’s dying, into deep sorrow, healthy sorrow.  This numinous experience also transformed me.  Up until that day I thought I was “learning to do Pastoral Counseling.”  But on that day I discovered that I was “becoming a Pastoral Counselor,” an entirely different idea.  I learned that day that waiting and watching, in essence not-doing, can be the best things to do.  I learned to just sit and be present.  I learned that God is always present, if only we can prepare ourselves to be receptive.  I learned how to just “be.”