A NEW YEAR: WAIT A MINUTE

Have you got started on your New Year’s resolutions yet?

You know the list is usually the same every year for most folks.  To the gym, diet, no gossiping, budget better.

For me, it’s less sugar and alcohol.  It’s been 5 days already and I’m feeling great!  (I was being facetious right there!)  photo_3664_20090119

But have you noticed that we often start off these self improvement projects with great enthusiasm and that enthusiasm dwindles as daily life takes over and so do our habitual reactions to stress, coupled with the real hard work of substantive change sets in?

Maybe it’s because we set ourselves up to fail by announcing these sweeping changes without getting ourselves ready, really ready, in this very moment.

For instance, If we don’t like our weight and we don’t feel OK about ourselves in the body that’s here right now, we already have a level of tension in the body and mind that we are carrying around with us.  This seems like a solid impetus for change.  But actually it makes change harder.

cartoon runningWe are beginning our journey with an assumption that who and where we are right now is not acceptable.  Yet acceptance is the key.  I am not saying that you don’t have goals of better health and weight loss and work towards them.  But bring a kindness to yourself as you would to a loved one.  Being aware of what is here and accepting things as they are, because that is what is actually happening.

Then, we can begin our resolution with an open awareness and perhaps a bit more ease. If our usual course of action  when we have had a difficult day is to relieve those uncomfortable feelings by eating “comfort food,” the pull to do so will be strong.  If we “give in,” often times comes the barrage of harsh judgments (worst enemy kind of stuff), “we are weak”, “this is hopeless”, fill in the blanks, basically I am talking about unhelpful self-loathing.

But with being mindful in the moment of accepting ourselves, we go a little more gently.  We forgive ourselves and begin again.  Maybe we ask ourselves if we could see the triggers and perhaps see if we can bring a little more ease into our day and our responses so that we can make better choices towards our goal.  We make more progress with a little patience than with a boat load of enthusiasm.  At least, that’s been my experience.  Check it our for yourself.spring sunset

I included this poem as it’s apropos to this post:

BE STILL IN HASTE          BY WENDELL BERRY (1962)

How quietly I begin again

from this moment looking at the clock, I start over

so much time has passed, and is equaled by whatever split-second is present

from this moment this moment is the first

NOTICING

Have you ever noticed that a lot of the time you are just not noticing? For instance, you are driving to the grocery store or to work (both of which you have done a million times), and not remembering when you arrive how you got there.  Just traveling on auto pilot, or absorbed in a phone conversation, you have missed the ride. Perhaps you think, “I’ve done this trip so often I could do it in my sleep!” And guess what? In a very real way, you are!  Conscious but not truly awake. 090514a127_2780 (1)

Our daily tasks of necessary repetition and ritual, whether it brewing the coffee, throwing in another load of laundry, walking the dog, become so automatic that these activities become the things we do between the times we actually are doing something that we are fully engaged in and are aware of.  The unfortunate thing is, if we add up all of these moments each day, we are actually “checked out” for a solid portion of our life.

You may recall the internet sensation a few years ago, where participants were asked to watch for how many times three white shirted basketball players came onto a scene. A shocking fifty percent missed seeing a person in a gorilla suit sauntering in, pumping his chest.  Even when looking right at him!  This phenomenon, coined “inattentional blindness” has been demonstrated time and again.

In Smithsonian (Sept. 2012), psychologist Christopher Chabris and journalist Mark Strauss set up an experiment where participants were told to jog behind a man and record how many times he touched his hat. As they jogged, they ran by a staged fight where two men were savagely beating a third man.  In broad daylight, 45% missed the altercation entirely and at night, that number rose to 65%. trapeze artist

We become so focused on what we think we need to see or so confident of what we know is there that nothing has the ability to enter.

While anthropologists posit that there is indeed an upside for why we have this ability to filter attention–specifically the benefit of being able to disregard distractions while trying to focus on a task, it appears we have become too proficient.

The limitations of inattentional blindness are felt everywhere. Complicating this issue is the overloading distraction dumping at all times.  The myriad forms of instant communication continuously clamoring for our attention, leaving us breathless…and mind (less).

We feel the effects of our inattention in automobile accidents, addictions, rises in ADD/ADHD, and the rampant sense of isolation that occurs with the breakdown of intimacy and congeniality in all manners of relationships.  The lack of simple presence of attention leads to misunderstanding and disconnection, and this includes our relationships with ourselves.

But there is a way out, and it starts today, in the here and now.  The only time there is.  We can begin in this moment to begin to purposely notice.  We can purposely and voluntarily take mini breaks from our devices throughout the day.

We can pay attention to our breath and body as we enter our car on the way to the grocery store. We can take stock of our surroundings while driving.  We may discover a beautiful old home along the road that we never knew was there, all these years on this same path.  We could discover the cool breeze or warm sun on our face with our windows opened just a bit. Or we can simply marvel at how this car of ours gets us safely from one place to another .

In other words, there is nothing that is unworthy of our noticing.  All parts of our days can be enriched by our very presence.

photo_12481_20100214Gary Snyder, in his work The Practice of the Wild points powerfully to this:                                  

”All of us are apprenticed to the same teacher that the religious institutions originally worked with: reality.  Reality-insight says…master the twenty- four hours.

Do it well, without self-pity.  It is as hard to get the children herded into the car pool and down the road to the bus as it is to chant sutras in the Buddha-hall on a cold morning.

One move is not better than the other, each can be quite boring, and they both have the virtuous quality of repetition.

Repetition and ritual and their good results come in many forms.  Changing the filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dipstick–don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits.

Such a round of chores is not a set of difficulties we hope to escape from so that we may do our “practice” which will put us on a “path”- it is our path”.

 

 

 

 

FOLLOWING YOUR INTUITION

This summer, I went out to Northern California to attend a silent retreat for a week at the Spirit Rock Center.  There was a lot of guffawing from friends and family back East, about me being silent for a whole week.  I am a talker! A shamelessly fast talking flamboyant one at that….at times.  But I wanted to deepen my daily meditation practice, shake off the daily dust that was gumming up the works in my mind.  Image

Have you ever had that experience with records (yes, I’m dating myself), where something almost invisible to the naked eye gets caught in the grooves, the needle gets stuck, and you keep hearing the same few lines again and again?  Well, the daily little things of life were like those mites, stanching the flow of my inner voice, so I was only hearing it in bits and pieces. Hard to trust a voice with the annoying habit of repeating itself mid-sentence, with occasional volume amplification.

There were some persistent “gut feelings” I had been experiencing regarding major decisions on a particular work issue and the direction of a couple of close relationships. And it should be noted that I am an intuitive type, who has often acted on the sheer intensity of my perceptions. Still I wasn’t clear on how to respond.

In other words, I wasn’t sure if I could trust my intuition. I mean, what is intuition exactly?  Carl Jung said that intuition was “perception via the unconscious.”  He called it the right-brained ability to understand something immediately without the need for conscious reasoning (left-brained activity).

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Checking one half of your brain at the door while making some of life’s most important decisions doesn’t seem, well, logical, right?

Well, not so fast. This is only partially correct.  They are different ways to know things and many kinds of knowledge. The knowing I was seeking was not why moths are attracted to light or why is it that my washing machine is shrinking everything lately, but self-knowledge and perhaps with that, wisdom.

All the great spiritual traditions, as well as the latest findings in the areas of neuroscience, have consistently demonstrated that awakenings or the ability to “see” clearly, occur during long periods of meditation and consistent daily meditation over a long period of time.

Thomas Merton, a 20th century Contemplative who sought to bridge Western and Eastern philosophies, said, “Without realizing it, life without (daily) meditation desensitizes us so that we can no longer perceive grace, listen to our inner voice, or receive intuition.”

After about day 3 into my retreat, sitting and walking and working in silence, my own innate capacity to glean right action was reawakened, reactivated. Through the task of ‘just’ being present in every moment (simple but not easy), clarity bubbled up naturally, without effort. The solutions I had struggled for meant great change and serious vulnerability for me. (Perhaps this was part of the reason for my reticence in looking deeply?)

This is what I “know.” We all have this intrinsic ability.  While we learn much about the world around us by others, this we discover experientially. Intuition is a combination of empirical data and a heightened sense of observation.  And while speculation and deduction have vital roles in many of our everyday decision making process, so does intuition.

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Abella Arthur said, “Intuition is like a slow motion machine that captures data instantaneously and hits you like a ton of bricks”. She called it, “Cutting through the thickness of surface reality.” It is the Sherlock Holmes approach to mindfulness. Others can share their opinions or guide us, and they can be valuable. Yet we do have the ability to know valid solutions to problems and decision-making. Our direct intuition will rarely fail us if we are tapping into a reservoir of experience combined with a conscious awareness. Trust yourself.

In the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (6th BCE), “At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.”

FEEDING THE RIGHT WOLF

A Native American grandfather was speaking to his grandson about violence and cruelty in the world and how it comes about.  He said it was as if two wolves were fighting in his own heart.  One wolf was vengeful and angry, and the other wolf was understanding and kind.  The young man asked his grandfather which wolf would win the fight in his heart.  And the grandfather answered, “The one that I choose to feed.”

I think this is the spiritual work for all of us, the challenge for me, anyway.  So many of my reactions are automatic and cause me to unwittingly feed the wrong wolf.  Just last week, I made a commitment to myself to not respond in the same predictable ways with my boundary pushing-prone 17-year-old son…to pause before engaging with him in any ‘discussion’ about consequences, truth-telling, accountability.  Yet it was only minutes later that there I was, at it again.  Quick with a comeback,  not fully engaged in listening in a way that invites conversation, having already made up my mind, keeping us stuck in a loop of frustrating dialogue.

It just reminds me of the vigilance required to notice which wolf I am feeding in the first place.  As Budddhist nun Pema Chodron points out in her book, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears: “The first step in this learning process is to be honest with ourselves.  Most of us have gotten so good at empowering our negativity and insisting on our rightness that the angry wolf gets shinier and shinier, and the other wolf is just there with its pleading eyes.  When we’re feeling resentment or any strong emotion, we can recognize that we are getting worked up, and realize that right now we can consciously make the choice to be aggressive or to cool off”.

Pause, pause, pause.  Just the slightest turn towards remembering myself, a hiccup really, brings my reflexive thoughts, feelings, and actions briefly into clear focus; it reminds me I am the one doing the thinking, feeling, and acting . From there, I’m in a better place to choose.  A sense of humor is vital, the journey really impossible without it; with myself and others.  Taking yourself too seriously on the spiritual ascent is deadly, killing both the spiritual and the ascent!  Realizing that the pull to be busy in a thousand different ways is really just a distraction that gets me caught up again.  Recognizing how I get twisted up in my own story, some crazy yarn being fabricated out there in the recesses of my mind.

Potent fantasy most often, that’s what’s usually going on in my private movie while these two howling hounds are duking it out for primacy.  Ruminating about what she’s going to do, about what he’s thinking, about what’s going to happen to me next week, next month, next year. Taking things personally as if that were ever really true, especially seeing as everybody is busily building their own twisted tale of good and evil, villian and victim.  I can choose to say “No thank you” when someone pours me their ‘poison’ and asks me to drink.

Instead the low growls and the sharp bites of a fearful wolf; I can pick the wolf of warmth.  I can welcome a stranger or one estranged from me back into the pack.  I can howl at the moon in search of company.  And I can lick my wounds, trusting that healing will follow.

If I can do this for a few moments today and today and today, there will be more peace. 

A WHIRLING DERVISH

Lately I’ve been feeling like a whirling dervish…except that I’ve been getting dizzy.  If you’ve ever since those Persian/Turkish dancers with their high hats, loose slacks, and robes spinning in unison, you may think, well, of course they’re getting dizzy.  But the aim is ironically the opposite; they’re surpassing dizzy.

Dervishes are like Christian Orders.  Among the Catholics, there are Franciscan Friars (which I would have been if I had been male), Dominicans, Jesuits, Paulists, and Benedictines.  The Sufis (the mystics of Islam) have their fraternal orders as well and these are called Dervishes.  Among some of the more important dervishes are the Qadir, Rifa’i, Shadhili, Suhrawardi, and the Mevlevi.  Like their Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist (known as sadhus) counterparts, individuals within the discipline of a dervish are practicing asceticism or a chosen simplicity and poverty, what the Sufis call tariqa (the path, the way to God).   

All dervishes do not whirl.  Each order follows the practices of its founder.  The Franciscans follow St. Francis of Assisi,  (the charismatic nobleman and soldier who gave up everything save God), wearing rough, plain garments, they live completely by alms, and serve the poorest of humanity and the needs of animals.   In Egypt, the Qadiryya dervish, also live humbly and give to the poor, but what sets them apart, is they are mostly comprised of one profession, they are fishermen.  Interesting to note, the more we are different, the more we are the same.  There was another famous fisher of men in Galilee, a Jesus of Nazareth, whose apostles were also fishermen. I guess you could say in some ways, that Jesus was the founder of his particular dervish.

But the dervish that whirls is the Mevlevi dervish. Founder Mevlana Jaladdin Rumi (1207-1273), the renowned mystic and prolific poet included the trance-like dancing as part of his practice of tariqa.  Rotating in a precise rhythm, the dance is part of a sacred ceremony.  The dancer represents the earth revolving on its axis while orbiting the sun.  The purpose of the ritual is to empty oneself of all distracting thoughts. Entering a meditative state, the body conquers dizziness.

There is intention.   When I am spinning my wheels, with a to-do list that is attacked like putting out a fire, tangled up in a lengthy fire hose, un-intentionally wrapped around myself like a boa constrictor; I have not entered the dance mindfully, but rather stumbled onto to the dance floor befuddled.  “Music is to develop the consciousness, poetry is wisdom”, said the prophet Muhammad.  Music, an essential accompaniment to whirling, is repetitive and rises to a crescendo of spiritual oneness, the blurring and blending of the material and cosmic worlds.

It is also about the breath.  It is bringing the body and mind just to the present.   

One of the many reasons that Rumi is known and loved across faiths and cultures is that his prolific writings speak to the timeless life of the Spirit. His message speaks of NOW:

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi or Zen.  Not any religion, or cultural system.  I am not from the East or the West, nor out of the ocean or up from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not composed of elements at all.  I do not exist, am not an entity in this world or the next, did not descend from Adam and Eve or any origin story.  My place is placeless, a trace of the traceless,  neither body nor soul.  I belong to the beloved, have seen the two worlds as one and that one call to and know. First, last, outer, inner, only that breath breathing human. (Rumi Poem, Only Breath).

Always, a returning, a turning back, no matter how many times one has strayed.

Wherever You Go There You Are

Continuing on our theme of mindfulness, our title today is taken from a book of the same name by ground breaking author and founder of the University of Massachusetts Stress Reduction Center Clinic (1992), Jon Kabat-Zinn.  The book (long since dog-eared and worn by its continual use by me as an invaluable personal instruction manual), reflects “his major research interests which include mind/body interactions for healing, clinical application of mindfulness meditation for people with chronic pain and stress-related disorders, and the societal applications of mindfulness.”

We all at times change our circumstances, changing jobs, spouses, home locales, and some of it necessary. Likewise, it is the rare individual that doesn’t love to take a vacation.  Vacating your life for a while, whether for a week, a month, or even a long weekend, has a way of pushing the refresh button on our spirits.  We all log in so much information and activity every day and the amount we delete never seems to really clear our head of it all. 

Planning a trip is half the fun, cruising the internet for the best deals and unexpected finds, purchasing travel books and magazines on places you are getting ready to visit or are dreaming of going to some day hold future promises of enjoyment, instilling  joy in us  just in the thinking.  Shopping for the right attire and gear also occupy us happily. Even when are lives are currently rife with crisis or a season of grief, a holiday can bring a welcomed respite and the chance for perspective that can arise from being pulled from our everyday surroundings.

Concurrently, whatever problems you have, whatever inner turmoil, doesn’t necessarily or even likely cease just because you have gone somewhere other than your daily haunts or made significant life changes.  If you have been struggling with sadness, anger, anxiety, or resentments before you left or altered your lifestyle, chances are there will be moments while you are away that these emotions still arise.  You can keep changing a whole lot of outside circumstances and still feel like something is missing, like it will be better around the bend. But wherever you go, there you are.  As I have mentioned before, there are a million ways to escape our lives for a time, but they all have a way of catching up with us.      

So, what to do if we can’t take a vacation, or if the vacation didn’t take, or most vitally,  if we want to live our days in a way where we can experience moments like those we do on some of the more memorable, exceptional times away?

We need to learn the art of non-doing. As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, “The flavor and joy of non-doing are difficult for Americans to grasp because our culture places so much value on doing and on progress.  Even our leisure tends to be busy and mindless.  The joy of non-doing is that nothing else needs to happen for this moment to be complete.   The wisdom in it, and the equanimity that comes out of it, lies in knowing that something else surely will.”

We are not just doing nothing, but consciously noticing what’s going on right now. In Thoreau’s Walden, he explained it like this:

I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise to noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time…I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works.”

It is the opposite of busyness.  While practically speaking, we need to get stuff done, can we carve out five minutes, or better yet, twenty minutes to just be?  Our efforts during our times of doing will be enhanced.   This is what Zinn calls the paradox of non-doing.  You do things of value when you don’t care about whether they will be worthy or not, but whether they act in concet with your efforts at non-doing and letting go of outcomes.  Then the ego and its tendency towards self aggrandizement are pushed aside, creativity and insight become natural byproducts. Your work gains a purity and satisfaction that has no puffed up identity attached to it.  It fulfills. 

So, if today finds you sitting with your daughter, don’t put in another load of laundry, don’t answer the phone (I know it’s calling and the impulse is to move), but  just be with your daughter, whether talking or in silence, be consciously present to this moment which will never come again in the exact same way. Choose to be here, right now, you are anyway.

Mindfulness…Just Do It

Last fall, I took a refresher course, attending an eight week mindfulness workshop at the First Parish Church in Concord, MA.  About 20 years ago, I had completed a similar course and for several years after that was somewhat of a devotee.  To say that practicing mindfulness is life changing would be true, to the degree that I actually practice its tenets, that I show up each day with myself/for myself for a half hour or so.  While daily prayer and meditation are the unequivocal spiritual powerhouses, necessities to deepen our soul and to share the best of who we are with others, I still like to take a day or two or three off sometimes.  Hence the need for a tune up and a reminder to begin again…and again…and again.

Why do we struggle so with those things we know are better than good for us? We humans just seem to have a penchant for desiring the shinier, easier, faster approach in any given moment instead.  Prayer is simply not glitzy and meditation does not usually provide immediate results.  The same holds true for exercise or a healthy diet or raising a child.  So can you hear the voice?  You know the one, “I think I’ll have a cup of tea and cookies instead this afternoon.  After all, that’s relaxing too.” Or, “Suzy just called and I hadn’t talked to Suzy in so long, and you know, by the time I got around to meditating, it was time to make dinner.”

Every perennial dieter knows the slippery slope when a day or two of indulgence leads into weeks or even months of a return to bad habits. The same goes for prayer. Do you ever save praying for bedtime and fall asleep in the middle of it or before you get started? I present it like this, because I am a gal with varied interests. I am not a plodder. I do not like the same breakfast food every morning. But like every one of us, I am also a dichotomy.  While I adore novelty, I need routine.

I work out 5-6 times a week (mostly running and some light weight training) and have since I was a freshman in college.  I must admit that I feel more than a bit off kilter without it.  Also, I am fiercely loyal, loving the enduring quality of old friends, and looking  forward to our long standing weekly lunches. In fact, a major part of my spiritual journey has been learning to let go, having had the tendency (very much a mixed blessing) to hold on and hope in relationships until hit with an anvil of mammoth proportions.    

So mindfulness brings balance to these occasionally oppositional impulses, knowing when to let go, when to persevere, harmonizing my desire for variety and my need for certainty.  

When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I would dutifully find a chair or mat each day and allow my thoughts to drift on by, like words on a series of passing clouds.  I wrestled with monkey mind, the term which simply refers to the mind’s tendency to jump from one thought to the next…the on-going to-do list, last night’s argument with your significant other, where to go on winter vacation, can we afford to go on winter vacation, yada yada yada. The attending emotions to these thoughts gradually loosened their hold on me over time.

Clarity would be granted (not for long stretches of time, mind you, and not the imagined perfect bliss), but a quiet soul sigh. I used to tell my kids when they were little that you don’t get clean, strong teeth if you only brush your teeth 3 or 4 times a week, you need to do it every day.  Spiritual health holds to the same principle of consistency just as physical health does. Half hearted attempts avail us either nothing or only partial benefits.  A reasonable consistency, mind you, is the hallmark of all positive life shifts.  Notice I say reasonable.  Those of us prone to impulsivity or compulsion (me) also tend to be pendulum swingers.  Just do it, routinely but flexibly. And don’t worry, no matter how you’re doing, you’re doing it right.

Book Pick of the Day: The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh

Quote from the Book of the Day: “Mindfulness is the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves.  Consider, for example: a magician who cuts his body into many parts and places each part in a different region-hands in the south, arms in the east, legs in the north, and then by some miraculous power lets forth a cry which reassembles whole every part of his body.  Mindfulness is like that-it is the miracle which can call back in a flash our dispersed mind and restore it to wholeness so that we can live each minute of life.”