GOOD NEWS OR BAD NEWS?

photo_8145_20090912We humans have a tendency to label things as good or bad, wanting more of the former and avoiding the latter at all costs. Yet this labeling is the antithesis of mindfulness. In truth, it is the root cause of much of our suffering and stress.

You don’t need to take my word for it. Try it for yourself. Throughout the day, see if you can notice how much of the time you are either liking or disliking almost everything that’s occurring.

For instance, you may be repulsed by the thought of mushrooms. You had mushrooms when you were eight years old and you thought they tasted awful. It might have simply been the way they were prepared or how you were feeling that day, but it doesn’t matter. You now (perhaps decades later) simply say whenever mushrooms are offered, “I hate mushrooms.”

Read more

GOOD NEWS/BAD NEWS: YOU THINK YOU KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO?

We humans have a tendency to label things as good or bad, wanting more of the former and avoiding the latter at all costs. Yet this labeling is the antithesis of mindfulness. In truth, it is the root cause of much of our suffering and stress.photo_8145_20090912

You don’t need to take my word for it. Try it for yourself. Throughout the day, see if you can notice how much of the time you are either liking or disliking almost everything that’s occurring.

For instance, you may be repulsed by the thought of mushrooms. You had mushrooms when you were eight years old and you thought they tasted awful. It might have simply been the way they were prepared or how you were feeling that day, but it doesn’t matter. You now (perhaps decades later) simply say whenever mushrooms are offered, “I hate mushrooms.”

Or you may want to learn a new language. But you say to yourself, “I’m not good at languages” because in high school you struggled in a Spanish class. Once we label an experience, it colors all future experiences that even resemble it slightly. And yet is it necessarily so? Or is it just more thinking that we are inadvertently believing in any given moment?

These assessments, though occasionally conscious are more often unconscious. They are simply reflex reactions based on past experiences. Our judging mind is showing up in the habitual, predictable way as it has countless times before. This is not about fault finding or trying to control our thinking. The process happens so quickly that we are not even aware that we are unaware. These thoughts have become automatic.IMG_1057

However, we do have a choice. In fact, we have many choices. When we become present to the content of our thoughts, we gain access to our available choices-to respond rather than react to these thoughts. We open up a pause that can generate countless opportunities for new experiences.

I often share the story below with my students in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction courses. It illustrates how our interpretations of what is happening is directly linked to the level of stress we may be feeling at any given time. And how our interpretations are never the whole story.

There once was a peasant farmer who lived in a remote village in China. His only means of plowing his fields was an ox. When the ox died, he flew into a panic about how he was going to feed his family. The villagers told him to visit the old sage who lived on the outskirts of town. He would know what to do, they said.

The farmer said to the wise man, “I don’t know what to do. My ox has died and my family may starve. This is the worst thing that could ever have happened to me!”

The sage paused, looking him squarely in the eyes and said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The farmer walked away in disbelief. How could he say such a thing when here he was in such distress. He told his family and neighbors that this was no wise man; he didn’t know what he was talking about.

However, the next morning the farmer discovered a strong young horse grazing in a distant field. He trained the horse and in short order, he was able to plow his fields better and faster than before. Not only that, the horse ate less feed than the ox. The farmer thought to himself, “You know, maybe that old man is wise after all. Finding this horse was a stroke of great luck.”

He decided to go the sage and thank him. “You know”, the farmer explained, “I thought you were crazy for telling me that maybe it wasn’t bad luck that my ox had died. But now I know you were right, I found this horse and he plows even better than the ox. It has been the best thing that has ever happened to me.”HPIM0699

The sage again looked into his eyes and said, “maybe yes, maybe no.”

The farmer, incredulously said, “Are you kidding me?” Shaking his head and walking away, he thought “This guy is nuts! I am not coming here again.”

A few days later, his only son was riding the horse while working and was bucked off. He broke his leg and the horse had to be put down. Inconsolable, the farmer recalled that the sage had indeed spoken wisely and decided to go back to seek advice. After sharing these latest events, he said to the wise man, “Now you have to admit, this is absolutely the worst thing that could have possibly happened to me!!”

And the old man, calmly and lovingly replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

This infuriated the farmer so much, he stormed back to the village and told anyone who would listen how ridiculous the so-called wise man was.

The very next day, troops arrived in the village to take all the able-bodied young men away to fight in the on-going war. His son was the only one who was saved. His broken leg spared him from almost certain death.

IMG_2205When we can step back and pause with a mind that does not truly know the answer, we can extend our view. We can see potential in all occurrences, gaining a bird’s eye perspective, a wisdom on our own lives.

GOOD NEWS/BAD NEWS: YOU THINK YOU KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO?

We humans have a tendency to label things as good or bad, wanting more of the former and avoiding the latter at all costs. Yet this labeling is the antithesis of mindfulness. In truth, it is the root cause of much of our suffering and stress.

cairn over rocksYou don’t need to take my word for it. Try it for yourself. Throughout the day, see if you can notice how much of the time you are either liking or disliking almost everything that’s occurring.

For instance, you may be repulsed by the thought of mushrooms. You had mushrooms when you were eight years old and you thought they tasted awful. It might have simply been the way they were prepared or how you were feeling that day, but it doesn’t matter. You now (perhaps decades later) simply say whenever mushrooms are offered, “I hate mushrooms.”

Or you may want to learn a new language. But you say to yourself, “I’m not good at languages” because in high school you struggled in a Spanish class. Once we label an experience, it colors all future experiences that even resemble it slightly. And yet is it necessarily so? Or is it just more thinking that we are inadvertently believing in any given moment?IMG_1057

These assessments, though occasionally conscious are more often unconscious. They are simply reflex reactions based on past experiences. Our judging mind is showing up in the habitual, predictable way as it has countless times before. This is not about fault finding or trying to control our thinking. The process happens so quickly that we are not even aware that we are unaware. These thoughts have become automatic.

However, we do have a choice. In fact, we have many choices. When we become present to the content of our thoughts, we gain access to our available choices-to respond rather than react to these thoughts. We open up a pause that can generate countless opportunities for new experiences.

I often share the story below with my students in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction courses. It illustrates how our interpretations of what is happening is directly linked to the level of stress we may be feeling at any given time. And how our interpretations are never the whole story.

There once was a peasant farmer who lived in a remote village in China. His only means of plowing his fields was an ox. When the ox died, he flew into a panic about how he was going to feed his family. The villagers told him to visit the old sage who lived on the outskirts of town. He would know what to do, they said.

The farmer said to the wise man, “I don’t know what to do. My ox has died and my family may starve. This is the worst thing that could ever have happened to me!”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The sage paused, looking him squarely in the eyes and said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The farmer walked away in disbelief. How could he say such a thing when here he was in such distress. He told his family and neighbors that this was no wise man; he didn’t know what he was talking about.

However, the next morning the farmer discovered a strong young horse grazing in a distant field. He trained the horse and in short order, he was able to plow his fields better and faster than before. Not only that, the horse ate less feed than the ox. The farmer thought to himself, “You know, maybe that old man is wise after all. Finding this horse was a stroke of great luck.”

He decided to go the sage and thank him. “You know”, the farmer explained, “I thought you were crazy for telling me that maybe it wasn’t bad luck that my ox had died. But now I know you were right, I found this horse and he plows even better than the ox. It has been the best thing that has ever happened to me.”

The sage again looked into his eyes and said, “maybe yes, maybe no.”

The farmer, incredulously said, “Are you kidding me?” Shaking his head and walking away, he thought “This guy is nuts! I am not coming here again.”

A few days later, his only son was riding the horse while working and was bucked off. He broke his leg and the horse had to be put down. Inconsolable, the farmer recalled that the sage had indeed spoken wisely and decided to go back to seek advice. After sharing these latest events, he said to the wise man, “Now you have to admit, this is absolutely the worst thing that could have possibly happened to me!!”

And the old man, calmly and lovingly replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

This infuriated the farmer so much, he stormed back to the village and told anyone who would listen how ridiculous the so-called wise man was.

The very next day, troops arrived in the village to take all the able-bodied young men away to fight in the on-going war. His son was the only one who was saved. His broken leg spared him from almost certain death.090829a7652 (1)

When we can step back and pause with a mind that does not truly know the answer, we can extend our view. We can see potential in all occurrences, gaining a bird’s eye perspective, a wisdom on our own lives.

THE COMMUNITY OF CONTEMPLATION

This past weekend, I attended the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies in Boston. There were lots of luminaries in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, education, philosophy, and the humanities. Counted among these were the Dalai Llama, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Daniel Goleman, Arianna Huffington, and so many more whose are well known to those in the field, reflecting the explosion really of mindfulness into all aspects of our modern society.

IMG_1248

Some presenters shared results of mindfulness programs they have implemented in particular clinical settings, or in business, and several neuroscientists provided the latest in their research findings on what is happening in the brain during contemplative practices and where in the brain it is happening. The goal of all this being the very mission of the conference: to “advance our understanding of the human mind, reduce human suffering, and enhance our well-being.”

Perhaps needless to say, among the 1700 participants, there was a palpable energy, an electric environment eager to engage with this multivalent subject of contemplation. As a long time student and teacher of contemplative practices, it felt akin to my all-time favorite third grade class trip where we went to a historic New England village. I remember waking up that morning excited with the sense that there would be new to things to learn, ideas and practices that made up their way of life that were ancient and those that were contemporary to them in their place and time. Contemporary and contemplation not coincidentally sharing the root, ‘contemp’, which means ‘together with time.’ This idea of being present to the current moment in ways that speak to our interior lives and the life of our communities within the wider society.

IMG_1057

This connection is a vital one. While contemplation and contemplative practices have become synonymous with meditation and a sense of personal transformation (and in some traditions this includes prayer as well) AND this can be profoundly true; this definition is only a part of the larger living meaning of contemplation. It must begin with one’s self, but ultimately goes beyond one’s self, to serve.

Contemplation, our modern definition stemming from the Latin ‘contemplatio.’ translates with broad concepts: thinking deeply and at length, examining, meditating, or looking thoughtfully. Yet these roots grow from another word, ‘templum’, which is a piece of ground consecrated for a building or space for worship. These ideas are both prisms of the diamond of contemplation, containing a process personal and worthy, that touches in to our deepest core and brings us together in community for a higher purpose.

IMG_1178

Taking this language further back even still we discover that the Proto-Indo-European base ‘tem’ means ‘to cut’ and the base ‘temp’ means to stretch and often referred to a “place reserved or cut out” as a cleared space in front of an altar.

We are cutting down and reshaping ourselves as the early pioneers at that long ago field trip depicted and as a society we continue to cut down and to stretch ourselves and make for us individually and collectively a clearing space.

In the process of observing IN THE MOMENT, whether that be thoughts, feelings, sounds, our breath, not adding any judgment to these observations, we too are paring down and making room for what is worthwhile. As the early pioneers who learned to thrive depicted on that long ago field trip, we too are stretching the limits of what is possible in our human experience.

“The ultimate value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation rather than upon mere survival.”- Artistotle

THE COMMUNITY OF CONTEMPLATION

This past weekend, I attended the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies in Boston. There were lots of luminaries in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, education, philosophy, and the humanities. Counted among these were the Dalai Llama, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Daniel Goleman, Arianna Huffington, and so many more whose are well-known to those in the field, reflecting the explosion really of mindfulness into all aspects of our modern society.

IMG_1248

Some presenters shared results of mindfulness programs they have implemented in particular clinical settings, or in business, and several neuroscientists provided the latest in their research findings on what is happening in the brain during contemplative practices and where in the brain it is happening. The goal of all this being the very mission of the conference: to “advance our understanding of the human mind, reduce human suffering, and enhance our well-being.”

Perhaps needless to say, among the 1700 participants, there was a palpable energy, an electric environment eager to engage with this multivalent subject of contemplation. As a long time student and teacher of contemplative practices, it felt akin to my all-time favorite third grade class trip where we went to a historic New England village. I remember waking up that morning excited with the sense that there would be new to things to learn, ideas and practices that made up their way of life that were ancient and those that were contemporary to them in their place and time. Contemporary and contemplation not coincidentally sharing the root, ‘contemp’, which means ‘together with time.’ This idea of being present to the current moment in ways that speak to our interior lives and the life of our communities within the wider society.

IMG_1057

This connection is a vital one. While contemplation and contemplative practices have become synonymous with meditation and a sense of personal transformation (and in some traditions this includes prayer as well) AND this can be profoundly true; this definition is only a part of the larger living meaning of contemplation. It must begin with one’s self, but ultimately goes beyond one’s self, to serve.

Contemplation, our modern definition stemming from the Latin ‘contemplatio.’ translates with broad concepts: thinking deeply and at length, examining, meditating, or looking thoughtfully. Yet these roots grow from another word, ‘templum’, which is a piece of ground consecrated for a building or space for worship. These ideas are both prisms of the diamond of contemplation, containing a process personal and worthy, that touches in to our deepest core and brings us together in community for a higher purpose.

IMG_1178

Taking this language further back even still we discover that the Proto-Indo-European base ‘tem’ means ‘to cut’ and the base ‘temp’ means to stretch and often referred to a “place reserved or cut out” as a cleared space in front of an altar.

We are cutting down and reshaping ourselves as the early pioneers at that long ago field trip depicted and as a society we continue to cut down and to stretch ourselves and make for us individually and collectively a clearing space.

In the process of observing IN THE MOMENT, whether that be thoughts, feelings, sounds, our breath, not adding any judgment to these observations, we too are paring down and making room for what is worthwhile. As the early pioneers who learned to thrive depicted on that long ago field trip, we too are stretching the limits of what is possible in our human experience.

“The ultimate value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation rather than upon mere survival.”- Artistotle

OPTIMISM REVISITED

wendyAs far back as I can remember, I’ve wore rose-colored glasses.  This tendency to see the best in people and life in general is not something I particularly worked at or read how-to books about. I guess you could just say it’s in my nature.  It’s part of my genetic makeup. And I do believe that my positive energy has attracted a lot of good people and situations in my life.

Globally we know hundreds of research studies have confirmed that optimistic leads to greater health and better outcomes after illness, bereavement, and other major life changes. Not surprisingly what has followed is a plethora of books about how to raise optimistic children, pets, or even your own positivity IQ. Everybody, it seems, wants to ride on the sunny side of the train.

Read more

I DON’T KNOW

Whether your brand of faith is organized or something more organic, practicing an attitude of trust in whatever is happening in your life right now without the certainty about what it means or how it will turn out,  takes a willingness to be okay with these three little words: “I don’t know.”

We know that it is true that we don’t REALLY know how things will turn out, but it is still hard to not run from this reality. Security is in many ways hard wired into all of us. But saying and meaning “I don’t know” provides you with a little space to pause for a bit. In response to any sense of inner or outer urgency you may be experiencing, you can wait and get a little comfortable with the unknown. Without reaching for the metaphorical security blanket, a blanket that comes in a million forms, you begin to see things as they are.

Read more

LOVING KINDNESS MEDITATION

There is an ancient and transformative meditation that the Buddha encouraged that elicits a gentle spirit, towards ourselves and others.

It is a practice that opens the heart toward forgiveness, even towards those who we may have deemed enemies. We may have people in our life who have caused us great pain or we may feel have stolen from us our essential self.  This, of course, is an illusion (though it can hold a powerful and long lasting spell on us if we are not awakened to it).  With loving kindness meditation, we can be restored to remember who we are, to listen our own good heart, our own best Self.

We can discover the wisdom to open the doors and windows of the Spirit.  It begins, always,  with a loving kindness towards ourselves.  It is after all, almost impossible to truly love others…until we know, love, and accept ourselves.  From this touchstone, we can spread our ability to love towards those in our inner circle, and then out into the wider world.

Begin with the breath of mindfulness, it is the breath that calls us to this moment.  It is life’s breath.  It is the breath that breathes through you, that you do not have to control, that you do not ultimately control. Be in your body.  It is a good body, and worthy of your care and respect.

Each day, for as many days as you can be present, repeat these ancient words:

“May I be filled with loving kindness/May I be well in body and mind/May I be safe from inner and outer dangers/May I be happy/Truly happy and free”*

*(taken from Jack Kornfield’s Audio Meditation on Loving Kindness)

I do this, dear reader, and it is changing me.  I watched a woman laughing on a 100 degree day in Charlotte, NC with her labrador retriever, getting cooled off in a beautiful fountain in the park.  She was directing her dog to the places that he could catch a drink of water.  She maneuvered him so deftly, so joyfully…it was only as I left that I realized that she was blind, and that this dog was her eyes.  Or perhaps something more?

With loving kindness, we are given eyes to see.  She was seeing, though not without the aid of  natural sight.

And last night, I caught a glimpse of early summer evening light on two church steeples and the glint  of their brass weathervanes…signs of old New England, and felt blessed, blessed to be exactly where I was.  Steeped in love and kindness towards myself, the ones I have been given to love, and towards those who crossed my paths…all bathed in this light.

YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE?

“You only live once? False.  You live everyday.  You only die once.”  footprints

The first time I read this quote, I found it rather jarring. I guess it’s often the case that the truths we would rather not think about are that way. Yet often In order to wake up, it is only the words that slap like a splash of bracing cold water first thing in the morning that can bring us sharply to our senses. Doses of reality are commonly experienced as unpleasant.  Yet, they are helpful means to rearrange our perspective right here and now.

We do live everyday.  Mostly, we just do everyday. We do this and we do that. From one activity to the next text, we are getting things done.  And some of this is good!  It feels good to accomplish things each day, on a grand or humble scale. And it is easy to lose our balance and what we know to be true for our self if we don’t practice mindfulness along the way. We lose sight of our intentions behind the actions and our greater purposes can get pushed aside for yet another day.

cairn over rocksStopping daily, on purpose, to be present to what’s happening here in and around this body of ours is an antidote for this.  What are the sensations and thoughts happening right now? Can you invite awareness into this moment, no matter what is happening? This discipline flowers into a subtle but profound shift in how we are in the world.  If we keep at it and practice, practice, practice.

We will no longer need a two by four or thirty geese overhead or a full moon so big and iridescent it practically bowls us over to be arrested by the wonders available to us if we have the presence to be with them.

When you do die, which WILL eventually happen, as my father once said, “There will still be stuff in your inbox to do.”  These items will either get done by someone else or die themselves from lack of attention. Someone else will feed the dog, answer the phone, pay the bills, and so on.  Many traditions practice dying before you die meditations, which essentially encourage you to see the impermanence of all things and so to worry less and perhaps release a bit the compulsion to fit in one more thing, and live just this once.

Today, for five minutes, “die on purpose” to the big agenda, and see what’s here already, ready and waiting.

REALLY URGENT

What does REALLY URGENT mean?

Here are some of my first responses to this question:

1. Someone in your vicinity (including you) is on fire.    ??????????????????

2.  Someone in your vicinity or related to you:  is on the phone right now and has had a car accident* (the cause of which could have been the phone, but that is a story for another day), has had a fall down a flight of stairs, is in the deep end of a pool near you and obviously can’t swim, or appears to be having a heart attack or stroke (perhaps your own).

I think you get the gist.  There are life and death situations that need your immediate attention.

dreamstime_11087921 (1)AND YET we tend to live our lives like everything that calls to us needs our immediate attention.  It’s a pervasive sense of urgency and it’s filling our days with tight muscles and knee jerk reactions that reflect annoyance and judgment.

To further instill this idea, people have been telling us since childhood the necessity and even glamour of accomplishment.  All aspects of our culture champion those who DO the most each day, the multitaskers, the captains of industry.  These are the ones who always manage to squeeze in one more appointment, errand, or e-mail. Does this sound familiar to you?

dreamstime_12677239 (1)I’m inviting you to try something different today.  More accurately, I am encouraging you to test how true this belief in urgency is.  Watch for the tendency towards hurry and the need to get more things done.  When you feel a strong sense of urgency, try slowing down, stopping on purpose.

See what’s happening in your body, in your mind, around you, right now.  Investigate.  Can you sit with that overwhelming impulse to do anything at all besides just be here now, and look behind it for a moment or two?

Writer Mark Nepo points out wisely: “The doorway to our next step of growth is always behind the urgency of now.  …now more than ever, when the weights you carry seem tied to your wrists, you must not run or flail.”

???????????????????????????????Because being here brings you back to yourself. What is most important to accomplish today gets remembered in a way that reflects best your own authenticity and integrity. Today, for me, it’s noticing light snowfall, blackbirds flying over the gray landscape, writing and a few meetings, a dog walk.

Perhaps you will discover that choosing to be present to your moments and to take time to stop and be mindful, that one or two things on your “to-do” list don’t get done each day. And that the things that do get done are completed with more clarity and enjoyment and precision.

These are what Thoreau coined acts of voluntary simplicity.

Today, the tax prep sheets will not get done, (I have another few weeks), there will be no visit to the grocery store after working (there is enough food for today), so that I can present to my life without ceaseless rushing.

Here is a short meditation to get you here in your own life:               090223a2484 (1)

  • Center yourself and feel the urgencies that pull at you.
  • Feel the tension of each like a string stretched taut.
  • With each breath, untie yourself, one urgency at a time.
  • However briefly, breathe freely, even for a moment, untied to any urgency at all.