There are lots of ways in which we as human beings can get caught under the vast net of stress in our lives. We oftentimes find ourselves feeling trapped by difficult circumstances and the attending feelings and thoughts that arise from them. All of this can create a sense of being overwhelmed and life at times can appear unmanageable. We then struggle and we suffer. Often times the root cause no longer exists but our coping strategies themselves have become problematic. Read more
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! Read more
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. Read more
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. Read more
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.
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
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.
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.
Perhaps 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.
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 seek counsel at the home of the old sage who lived on the outskirts of town.
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.”
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!!”
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.
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.
Last November, 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 who are well-known to those in the field, reflecting the explosion really of mindfulness into all aspects of our modern society.
Some presenters shared results of mindfulness programs they have implemented in particular clinical settings or in business. Several neuroscientists provided the latest in their research 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.”
You may be familiar with the adage “Try, try, and try again. Then, at last, youwill succeed.” And there can be some truth in that. Preparation, practice and experience are vital ingredients to success. But we also know that constant pushing, striving, and doing in a largely effortful way is stressful and often, self-defeating. Philosophers and neuroscientists alike agree that our most productive, creative self emerges when we are in the flow. Engaging with our lives in a relaxed but keenly receptive way. Author Edward Slingerland in his book “Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity” calls this “embodied cognition.” It’s often referred to as being “in the zone” or acting spontaneously: it is a state of complete mental focus and ease.
Usually we start a new personal development program (whether that be practicing mindfulness, getting physically fit, eating more healthfully) with a great burst of enthusiasm. Yet after the initial “excitement” wears off, and despite our best intentions, we sometimes find we don’t follow through on our commitment. We don’t persist. Perhaps we don’t see immediate results so we become disheartened. Our efforts dwindle or we stop altogether.
And the not so helpful habits…they’re right there. So instead of feeling bad about this, perhaps even a little guilty, what to do? How do we re-engage in this moment our commitment to be more present?
We can remember that we are re-wiring our brain and that this takes time. Mindfulness practices are among the most powerful agents of brain change known to modern science. Practitioners have know this for centuries from their own lived experience: feeling less stress, having a better memory, enjoying greater happiness. And now in a growing number of research studies, we are seeing actual changes in brain structure that confirm these experiences in the lab, in a relatively short period of time. The first study to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s grey matter was led by a team at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Participants in an 8 week program who practiced mindfulness an average of 27 minutes a day at least 6 days a week were shown in MRI imaging to have measurable changes in brain structure, the regions associated with learning, memory, self-awareness and compassion were growing (grey matter increasing), and those regions involved with stress and anxiety were shrinking (grey matter) decreasing.
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.
“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?
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.