10 Simple Ways to Invite Mindfulness into the Present Moment

Mindfulness is not reserved for only those times when you are “formally practicing.” While taking the time to close your eyes and follow your breath, or taking a mindful walk can be enormously helpful,  we can build our awareness by bringing our full attention to our everyday daily activities. These are the tasks that have been so ingrained by repetition , so habitual that they are often times performed on autopilot. It can almost be like we are sleepwalking.  We sometimes don’t even remember doing them!apples_edit

Yet even the most mundane of these provides an opportunity to notice something new or bring some calm and clarity right into the here and now.  We can choose to bring a fresh mind and an open curiosity to these moments.

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Begin by simply observing the sensations occurring within the body and the mind, and being attune to the sights and sounds around you as you :
1. First wake up and get out of bed in the morning
2. Brush our teeth
3. Have a cup of coffee or tea
4. Eat a meal or a single piece of fruit
5. Wash the dishes
6. Fold Laundry
7. Take your first step outdoors
8. Exercise
9. Sit at a red light
10. Stand in Line (anyplace you have to wait)

You may want to start with focusing on one of these activities. Returning your attention again and again (the mind will most likely wander) to what you are seeing, smelling, touching, tasting…and to any feelings that may be arising within your body. What are you thinking while you are doing this activity? Not judging the thinking or the feelings, just noticing, as if you were simply a kind, impartial observer to the whole of the experience. You can name the thoughts (remembering, planning, worrying, etc.) and feelings (joy, sadness, excitement) without getting too attached to any of it.  See what happens.

Experiment. You may expand your awareness to encompass them all.

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THE MUSE, MINDFULNESS WEARABLES

What about a headpiece to help you to train your brain? As mindfulness continues to gain acceptance as an integral part of a healthy lifestyle, it too has become lucrative fodder for inventors and investors who see its potential amidst the big business wellness industry.

Like the Fitbit wristband that measures your movements towards the goal of physical fitness, the latest gadget to help you meditate and improve your focus is called the Muse. At a price tag of about $299, this headband uses electroencephalography sensors to measure the activity of your neurons to detect when your mind is focused and when it’s not.muse2

The piece sits behind your ears with a thin plastic band with the sensors stretching across your forehead. With headphones on, the app begins to measure your brain activity as it coaches you through exercises to help you focus. For instance, as you begin the app prompts you to think about musical instruments or well-known celebrities. It then asks you to bring your attention to your breath. Counting your breath as sounds of nature play in the background; the sounds themselves can signify that your mind is starting to drift away from your point of attention.

A session last several minutes and produce for you a line graph that details brain activity in percentages of active, neutral, and calm states. You earn points (little bird icons) for the times you were calm.

The Muse creatively uses the latest in neuroscience to effectively engage the firing of neurons in our brain. This is good! It is fun. We all like fun. Another real positive is that this latest cool shiny object may actually be the catalyst to entice you to sit down and experiment with meditating. Its carrot approach that provides “rewards” for when you reach some moments of calm focus may keep you coming back and practicing. If you continue to work with it and see some noticeable benefits, (initial reviewers who are new to meditation have found it helpful), you may become interested in sitting and meditating without it or learning more.

In other words, it could lead to fully experiencing and working with mindfulness and its ability to transform, inspire and engender compassion.

Conversely, the nature of novelties is that they tend to peak quickly in popularity and fall from favor in the same fashion (most of my friends that ran out and bought a Fitbit are no longer wearing them or even know where they put them)! It will be interesting to follow up with Muse wearers in a year and see if they are still wearing them daily. 020206_trdp_s6 (1)

The marketplace eagerly responds to our perennial search for the magic bullet, the quick and easy fix. AND as anyone who practices mindfulness will tell you, instant gratification leaves you grasping for more and more in order to satisfy.

What neuroscientists have also discovered is that when you stop, the brain returns to its wandering mind. It’s our default mode network. Just as our muscles atrophy when we stop lifting weights or exercising, our brain shrinks when not being work and trained.

To learn to be become focused, present, and calm is a process and a daily discipline, just as eating healthfully and getting physical exercise is a lifelong journey. Time and effort are required to build consistent concentration and equanimity.
If you understand that the Muse or any similar device, can be useful if employed as part of a larger program, and you can afford it, give it a try. 060405_cr_2559 (1)

I would love to hear from you 365 days from date of purchase.

THE MUSE: MINDFULNESS WEARABLES

What about a headpiece to help you to train your brain? As mindfulness continues to gain acceptance as an integral part of a healthy lifestyle, it too has become lucrative fodder for inventors and investors who see its potential amidst the big business wellness industry.

Like the Fitbit wristband that measures your movements towards the goal of physical fitness, the latest gadget to help you meditate and improve your focus is called the Muse. At a price tag of about $299, this headband uses electroencephalography sensors to measure the activity of your neurons to detect when your mind is focused and when it’s not.

muse

The piece sits behind your ears with a thin plastic band with the sensors stretching across your forehead.

With headphones on, the app begins to measure your brain activity as it coaches you through exercises to help you focus. For instance, as you begin the app prompts you to think about musical instruments or well-known celebrities. It then asks you to bring your attention to your breath. Counting your breath as sounds of nature play in the background; the sounds themselves can signify that your mind is starting to drift away from your point of attention.080322a8447 (1)

A session last several minutes and produce for you a line graph that details brain activity in percentages of active, neutral, and calm states. You earn points (little birdy icons) for the times you were calm.

The Muse creatively uses the latest in neuroscience to effectively engage the firing of neurons in our brain. This is good! It is fun. We all like fun. Another real positive is that this latest cool shiny object may actually be the catalyst to entice you to sit down and experiment with meditating. Its carrot approach that provides “rewards” for when you reach some moments of calm focus may keep you coming back and practicing. If you continue to work with it and see some noticeable benefits, (initial reviewers who are new to meditation have found it helpful), you may become interested in sitting and meditating without it or learning more.

In other words, it could lead to fully experiencing and working with mindfulness and its ability to transform, inspire and engender compassion.

Conversely, the nature of novelties is that they tend to peak quickly in popularity and fall from favor in the same fashion (most of my friends that ran out and bought a Fitbit are no longer wearing them or even know where they put them)! It will be interesting to follow up with Muse wearers in a year and see if they are still wearing them daily.

The marketplace eagerly responds to our perennial search for the magic bullet, the quick and easy fix. AND as anyone who practices mindfulness will tell you, instant gratification leaves you grasping for more and more in order to satisfy.

What neuroscientists have also discovered is that when you stop, the brain returns to its wandering mind. It’s our default mode network. Just like our muscles atrophy when we stop lifting weights or exercising.

To learn to be become focused, present, and calm is a process and a daily discipline, just as eating healthfully and getting physical exercise is a lifelong journey. Time and effort are required to build consistent concentration and equanimity.

If you understand that the Muse or any similar device, can be useful if employed as part of a larger program, and you can afford it, give it a try.

I would love to hear from you 365 days from date of purchase.

MINDFUL WALKING

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On certain days and for a variety of reasons, the idea of mindfully sitting for any length of time may evoke a strong sense of aversion. Of course, if this occurs, you always have the option off choosing to be curious about that aversion, working with it, as well as being receptive to any other strong feelings, thoughts and attending sensations that may arise.

Or you can walk. Mindful walking is an excellent way to get us out of our anxious, stressed and ruminating head and into the movement of our body. Our senses too become involved moment to moment with the world around us.

537In fact, sitting meditation is no more important than walking with presence. If you get right down to it, they are the same practice. We are learning to know and experience the contents of our mind and body.

However, walking meditation is different than simply going for a walk around the block, taking a nature hike, or to getting from point A to point B. Mindful walking is a deliberate practice that has us arrive in the present moment with each step.

If you have the ability to walk, you probably seldom bring much attention to it. Most of us take it for granted. After that initial year of so when we were toddlers and had to bring quite a lot of focus to it as we literally “toddled” from coffee table to Mom’s knees to the floor! But it is quite a miracle when you think of it, how we humans can balance on these feet of ours compared to the size of our bodies.

footprintsIf you like to try some walking meditation, you begin by becoming fully aware of the process of walking itself. To begin, stand with intention. Simply put, know that you have chosen to stand and begin to notice how your feet are firmly planted on the ground that supports you. Your arms are held loosely by your side. Your spine is fully erect but not rigid, standing with ease. Know that as you walk, you are embodying dignity and grace.

In formal walking meditation, we typically focus on the individual movement involved with shifting the weight of our body, lifting the foot on the other side, and then placing the foot on the ground. We may even find it helpful to say silently to ourselves as we walk, “Lifting, moving, placing, lifting, moving, placing.”

To begin, find a quiet place where you can walk undisturbed for about ten to fifteen minutes without distractions, and where you can walk back and forth for a distance of ten to twenty feet. Start off by walking slowly and paying attention to sensations on the soles of the feet as each part of the sole, from heel to toes, touches the ground. Notice how the body moves as you walk and how the arms may swing back and forth. If at any point you notice the mind wandering from walking, just acknowledge this and gently bring the focus back.   IMG_0506

You may soon discover that sometimes you may feel like walking more quickly, sometimes very slowly. And if family, friends, or coworkers become curious about what it is you are doing, who knows, perhaps a community of mindful walkers will sprout and naturally grow, supporting your and others’ endeavors!

 

 

 

 

MINDFUL HUGGING PRACTICE

There is truly no greater gift to give someone than your full, pure presence. We intuitively know this to be true. Perhaps you can recall a time in your own life when you’ve had the experience of someone’s complete and undivided attention. What did it feel like? The feelings may have been profound or subtle, but are almost universally life-affirming.

How were they embodying that presence? We often recognize that the body is relaxed and quiet; the emotional energy is clear and focused. Their shared thoughts back to you reflect a deep state of listening. meditation_selfcompassion

Yet we also know this is a rare occurrence. How often do we really give our full attention to someone? Our child is sharing their day and we are only partially listening while we cook dinner, fold laundry, return a work text. We are having a conversation with a friend or a coworker and simultaneously remembering a task undone or impatiently waiting for them to finish so it’s ‘our turn’. This is a human tendency. Fortunately, we can choose to communicate in a more skillful, even transformative way. Read more

MIDDLE OF THE ROAD

I’ve gone beyond caring about Democrat and Republican, about laying blame with one party and spouting phrases that in the end “signify nothing.”  Really I have; and it’s seems as a nation, as a world, there might be some sanity in this chosen, but not resigned, approach.  Election year notwithstanding. What is at risk with an aversion to identifying solely with any one belief system?   

It’s not that I’ve gotten complacent about matters of human injustice, environmental concerns, or the sadistic powers that lead to horrific crimes against humanity. 

It is more that I would prefer to plead the case of the adoption in our culture of (what may be classically deemed an Eastern culture school of thought), the middle way.  Incumbent upon us at this juncture of our nation and the world’s history is to find the in-between space between rapid dogma and the insipid and weak refusal to stand up for anything.  Herein lies change, herein lies greatness

From our ominpresent consumer perspective, this is a hard concept to sell. So instead what is being peddled year after year, is division, is separateness. What is continually wiped from our memory is the fact that we have been and are a pluralistic nation with many truths, just as the world in which we live has always been. Embracing a multiplicity of ideas can be daunting, and the “hegemonic imagination” (i.e., those in power) are continually thwarting any efforts by those who are attempting to undertake this task (consciously and unconsciously).

Added to this paradigm, much of our religious identity in the United States has stemmed from the Enlightenment conception of self. The main idea being that “each person is an independent unit that is an autonomous, self-determining ego”. Key, here, is the notion of autonomy. This has unleashed an unrestrained individualism in many of our private and public beliefs and practices that stress personal responsibility and despise any hint of or the reality of dependency.

Richard Niebuhr, along with other modern theologians, have cautioned against this tendency which focuses excessively on me, blindly on us, and divided from them. The underlying flaw in this logic is that it limits our sphere of responsibility to some degree, instead of widening the scope to humanity and the Universe. What emerges is that “I must find my center of valuation in myself, or in my nation, or in my science, etc. Good and evil in this view mean what is good for me and bad for me; or good and evil for my nation”, etc…but not that what is good in a more broad sense of looking toward sources of creativity or social solidarity.

For any ongoing process of transformation to take place, we need to put boundaries around our own needs or desires and make room for the legacies of others to penetrate our awareness. This means being able to sit in the discomfort of another’s painful story, a piece of our collective memory.

It takes conscious effort and continued discipline to form a nuanced and educated opinion.  It takes work and discipline to stay engaged in the complex issues that change and morph daily.
 
The commitment to these ideals will turn the tide of our daunting nation’s issues and not who wins any election, no matter what they try to tell/sell us.                

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. 

WHO ARE THE TALIBAN?

The recent demise of Osama Bin Laden (couldn’t help but think when listening to Obama that night, “Those that live by the sword shall die by the sword”) on the Pakistan and Afghani border has renewed interest in al-Qaeda and their kin, the Taliban.

We have our men and women giving their lives in that region on a daily basis and in many instances, fighting against Taliban insurgencies.  Some may not need to know more than the fact that they are radical Islamists who systematically violate human rights.  Yet to make any lasting progress and attending peace, we must begin to have at least a rudimentary grasp of the cultural and historic constructs by which their very existence was created.

So who are the Taliban?

In brief, the liberation of Afghanistan from Soviet occupation in 1979, left a vacuum of leadership in an already war-torn country.

Afghanistan, primarily a Sunni country, had previously enjoyed but a fragile unity, offset by the realities of its multiethnic tribal society (Pathans, Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Persian-speaking Shiites in the West).

The mujahideen (Muslim militia) who were lauded the world over (the US providing arms and aid)  for driving the Soviets out, pasted together a mujahideen government which quickly fell prey to a bloody power struggle. Mujahideen leaders (or perhaps more accurately, warlords) vied for supremacy, resulting in more deaths and devastation than its liberation cost.

An 18 year civil war ensued between the ancient tribal, ethnic, and religious rivalries.

And then, the seemingly endless state of carnage and chaos was abruptly reversed.  As if out of nowhere, a band of students (taliban) from the madrassas (schools whose primary purpose is the teaching of Islamic law and related religious subjects) appeared in 1994 and within two years swept the country.

Denouncing the warlords, they claimed the mantle of moral leadership as representatives of the Afghan majority who were victims of the internecine warfare.  Although initially portrayed as young students from the madrassas with no military background, they were in fact a force of mullahs and taliban, religious leaders and students.  The mullahs were primarily veterans of the Afghan-Soviet war, who returned to the madrassas (the religious schools) with harsh battle experience but little in the way of real religious education.

Because little was known about the Taliban and they were portrayed simply as young students from religious schools, inexperienced in warfare and poorly armed, they were initially not taken seriously.  In time they proved to be a formidable force, feared by warlords but embraced by ordinary citizens.  They were hailed as liberators who secured towns and made the streets safe.

However, soon, the Taliban’s strict form of Islam soon became an issue.

Like al-Qaeda with its puritanical notions of Islam (known as Wahhabism, springing from Saudi Arabia), the Taliban segregated the sexes outside the home, closed girls’ schools, required that women be fully covered in public, and banned women from the workplace.  Television, cinema, and music were also banned.

Most austerely, they re-instituted ancient (hudud)punishments, taking only literal translations of the Quran and hadiths, such as amputation for theft, un-tried death for murder, and stoning and/or death for adultery.

This is a convoluted interpretation of Islam.

The notion of the law in Islam is expressed by two different but semantically related terms: sharia (the “way” or method set out by God) and fiqh (the “understanding” of application of this method in specific cases). While speaking about Islamic law, informed Muslims use the term sharia to connote the sacred law as a global concept or ideal, while fiqh is used to connote the ongoing interpretation of the law through the schools (four Sunni and one Shiite) of judicial practice.

From the earliest days of Islamic history, knowledge of the law was regarded by Muslims as essential knowledge, the very epitome of “science” (ilm) itself.  But the science of the law, like any other science, does not stand still.  Ideal principles are useless unless they are put into practice, and the changing conditions of Islamic society demanded new interpretations and applications of the way.  For this reason, the interpretative science of fiqh was developed in the first Islamic century (about 1400 years ago) .

Yet in the past century, Islamic law has been weakened considerably.  With the resented substitution of Western notions for Islamic conceptions of justice under colonialism, attempts by authoritarian regimes to bypass the judicial process, and the lack of standard religious training (makeshift madrassas an enormous problem) have conspired to undermine the status of fiqh.

A common belief fostered by the Taliban and modern political Islamists in general is that only the sharia-but not fiqh- constitutes the true law of God.  They actually want the elimination of fiqh (interpretation).  They see it as a source of dissension that undermines Muslim unity.

This negative view of Islamic jurisprudence is advocated by the Taliban and al-Qaeda and denies Islamic law the ability to adapt to changing conditions.

To eventually stunt the proliferation of this kind of radical fundamentalism, the only real deterrent is economic and social justice, education and equality. In the countries where fundamentalism has the greatest hold…Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia (to name but a few), the work towards freedom and opportunities made available for a better life will eventually out the propensity for extremism.

WAITING AS A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

Waiting as a spiritual practice is found in almost every religious tradition I can think of. 

For Muslims, the month of Ramadan, the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, marks a month of fasting, giving alms, abstinence from all things of the flesh,and active prayer. This is in an attempt to cleanse the soul, but also it is thought that using these methods of emptying out the cares and desires of the physical world, one is preparing and waiting for the revelations of God to be experienced.  This is what happened to Muhammad.  In fact, the holiest night of the Muslim year is Laylat al-Qadr, it falls just before the close of Ramadan, and commemorates the night when the Qu’ran was first revealed to the prophet Muhammad. 

In Jewish tradition, waiting and the practice of patience in the face of daunting circumstances, has been a recurring theme since the Book of Exodus and those ensuing dark days in the desert.  The Jewish people wait for the angel of death to pass over their households during Passover and recreate the stories of bitter times and the promise of sweeter days in the Seder.  Again, fasting, prayer, and self-denial carve pathways to this opening up of the soul.

The Christians now find themselves in the heart of Lent.  Christians too share these same tools of purification.  Yet they wait for something unique to the other monotheistic religions.  They wait for the day of Resurrection, the Day that Jesus rose from the dead.

And, yet, even if one does not believe in the actual physical revival of the Christ from the dead, the stories that rise up from the New Testament can resonate with each of us, teaching us the power of waiting in faith.

These are stories that speak of yearning and suffering.  Yearning for a better life, a purpose, a meaning, and the reality of pain.  The stories of Jesus of Nazareth are stories of hope and fear, loyalty and betrayal, acceptance and denial, life and death.  Jesus tasted both the success of his mountain ministry (see Matthew’s feeding of the 5000) and yet was still determined to go to Jerusalem, with death threats and a certain persecution.

His followers were waiting for a triumphant crowning of a king as the culmination of a glorious ministry.  Instead, they were confused and angry by a leader ridiculed and crucified.  Jesus tried to point out that this path he was on, was not one easily understood by the ways of the world, that his lessons were those of the spirit and not of earthly successes and kingdoms.  Certainly choosing to undergo great suffering is not a natural inclination. 

Our own stories of waiting for a better day, whether for a job that has not yet materialized, a healing from an illness (our own or a loved ones, or even a death), can find much solidarity with the Bible stories of Lent.  They are filled with expectation on one day, as Jesus heals a leper and brings the dead to life, and then disillusionment, despair, and death on the next.

 One of the definitions of resurrection that I can hold up to a broader, secular audience is the Greek notion of resurrection as the “state of one who has returned to life.”

We all have seen the grief-stricken and the broken find a way back to a full and happy life after the most unmitigable tragedies, this is the promise of resurrection that casts it net wide and yet does not strain the boundaries of the intellect.  It is the faith of waiting. 

Quote for the day: “Even if one glimpses God, there are still cuts and splinters and burns along the way.”

YES WE CAN TOO

Tonight, sitting snowbound in front of the TV, I watched the persistent and passionate protest of the Egyptian people.  One woman held up a sign which read “Yes We Can Too.” It caught me off guard.  Not too long ago, the slogan “Yes We Can” helped to elect the first African-American president of the United States.  For a short and wonderful time, the world applauded and was reminded of the promise that was once pervasive, that here was a land of opportunity where anything was possible.  With a decade of unpopular and devastating choices in the global arena over the last decade and a recently unleashed financial crisis, we had chosen idealism and hope.  Yet fear and impatience, and the politics of blame quickly snuffed out the change that many of us had voted for.  Or has it?

There is no way to underestimate the bravery, determination, and passion of the Egyptian people over the last week. When I read that protester’s sign, I was reminded of recently read quote of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.”  It demonstrated to me that an authentic message of hope that has real substance and that resonates with the deeper part of our universal human nature, may be temporarily extinguished in one area, only to reignite in another. Egyptians too are campaigning for change and while not looking for any help (or interference) by us, can be encouraged by the power of these words.

It is my prayer that the citizens of Egypt will realize a free and democratic system for themselves and their children.  They have suffered too long under an ineffective and unjust regime that favors the few and provides little or no opportunities for the majority.    

Ironically too, the social networking mechanism that has helped win elections, is also fueling the movements in Egypt and Tunisia. I hope not only their ongoing commitments reminds us of how blessed we are to have the freedom and liberty of free speech and assembly.  Equally important, it shows the Western world that Muslims too are seeking a better life for themselves and their families, to put bread on the table, and have a voice in their government.  It is a much-needed counterpoint to the daily sound bytes of Islamic terrorists and radicals. 

May it be a peaceful transformation and be a shining example to other nations still ignoring the will of the people.