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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

A NEW YEAR: WAIT A MINUTE

photo_3664_20090119Have 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!)

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.

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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.

FULL CATASTROPHE LIVING

Our title today is taken from the ground breaking book, Full Catastrophe Living (1992) by premier leader in the field of mind/body training and the founder of the University of Massachusetts Stress Reduction Clinic at UMASS Medical School, Jon Kabat-Zinn.     dreamstime_7048996 (1)

This book  has long since been dog-eared and worn thin by its continual use as an invaluable instruction manual for me. “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 application of mindfulness,” align with my own.

While I entered this stream of contemplative practices long ago from the opening of spirituality vs. the current tide of science and medicine; they are in some ways one and the same stream.

In living the full catastrophe, we accept the pleasurable experiences of life and the painful ones with a quiet balance towards them, not getting too wrapped up in clinging towards one or running from the other.  Understanding in a deeper sense that both of these are just passing phenomena, we can be with either.  

For instance, this morning my mind continued to play the daily theme it has done for some weeks now. With frigid temperatures continuing, along with my chronic, cold induced cough, I think,  “I need a vacation.” Perhaps you’ve had this thought recently too? Many, many others thoughts follow this, but they are all stem from this one.

100414a1266 (1)And there is nothing wrong with this thought (or any other for that matter).  Vacating your life for a bit, whether for a week, a month, or even a long weekend (especially if there are turquoise waters involved) can push the refresh button on our minds and bodies.  We log in so much information and activity every day. The amount we can or choose to delete never really a significant de-cluttering of brain space.

And here is some more thinking, “Some warm weather may help me with this winter cough…”

But what if  we can’t take a vacation or we got to take a vacation and it didn’t “take?” Whatever problems we have, whatever inner turmoil, doesn’t necessarily or even likely cease just because we have gone somewhere other than where we are.

If you have been struggling with sadness, anxiety, or anger before you left, chances are there will be moments while you are away that these emotions still arise.  The saying  “wherever you go, there you are”(a title of another book by Kabat-ZInn by the way) is an undeniable truth.

Since you ARE here right now, being here is always an option.

You can make room for moments right now that are exceptional and rich by not going anywhere. How? By engaging with the art of non-doing.  By being present to comfort and discomfort alike, with no particular preference.  By not judging yourself for not doing, but instead just seeing what IS here.  

As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, “The flavor and joy of non-doing is 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.”

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Right now, there is sunlight peeking through the frost covered windows of my bright alcove in my office. A host of bird songs are making themselves known on the evergreens outside.  Cars are speeding past this little cottage while my dog sleeps.  I can breathe in warm steam and hot tea and smile at this fortune.  I can send out thoughts of healing for myself and everyone else who is coughing this morning. I can notice how warm my feet feel in these slippers.

All this from non-doing.  What is in this moment for you?

   

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.