Mindfulness & Wellbeing

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Walking Penny in the Morning

Pretty much every morning I walk to my son’s house to take my granddog, Penny, for a walk.  She is my teacher and partner in walking meditation.  Penny is a 7 year old Pit Bull Terrier or, for people who find the idea of a Pit Bull scary, a Staffordshire Bull Terrier which sounds a little less threatening.   Her breed’s temperament, which is a great description of Penny, is: Stubborn, Friendly, Affectionate, Intelligent, Loyal, Obedient, Strong Willed, Clownish, Gentle, Courageous. 

Penny is also part of my daily fitness program, we walk a 3-mile loop, pretty much regardless whether it is warm, cold, sunny, light rain or snowing.  She is definitely a family dog, and although she enjoys my company, I am not one of her “people”.  This is expressed clearly on our 1 ½ mile walk out as she is frequently looking back to my children’s house, walking slowly and reluctantly.  She would much prefer staying snuggled on the comforter on my grandson’s bed.  I remind her that we both need the exercise as we are not getting any younger.  At 7 she is middle-aged and I won’t mention my years other than to say I have at least 20 years on her.

Her pace helps to slow me down as well as I coax her along encouragingly.  Although we have done this walk too many times to count, what I have noticed is that each time is fresh and new to her.  She uses all her senses, especially smell, to note any sensory input whether old/familiar (to my habitual view) or new.  It seems everything is interesting and her curiosity is infectious as I interrupt my mind’s habitual wandering in reverie or from my ‘to do list’ and begin to also notice what is catching her attention.

When I move away from labeling the things we are passing with ‘concepts’ like tree, bird, sun…I also begin to notice the detail like how the sun is breaking into rays coming through the leaves of the Tulip tree which are beginning to turn yellow in the early Fall and how the mist is rising over the water and the lovely trill of the Red-winged blackbird’s song in the Sumac bushes near us.

Of course, in no time at all I am lost again, on auto pilot, when suddenly I am pulled up short as Penny stops in her tracks to explore some compelling smell. It’s like a bell ringing in the meditation hall and I am jolted back into the present moment just in time to miss tripping over her…realizing I have been someplace else in my mind.  Once again I start noticing detail in the surrounding trees and woods along the canal towpath as we walk. Suddenly, both Penny & I are surprised by the movement of a Buck with a 6 pointed rack of antlers running across the dry canal bed & now standing motionless, majestic in the brush beneath the trees, safely out of reach.

Penny doesn’t miss much. If I’m alert and curious I see all kinds of wildlife, like the small red fox that crossed the towpath 50 yards in front of us this morning, her bushy white-tipped tail sticking out parallel to the ground as she scurried across the canal to take shelter in the trees. 

By the end of our walk, I begin to feel embedded in this scene not just passing through as an observer, feeling a kinship, care & appreciation for these fellow beings.  I feel so blessed to have Penny as my mentor and teacher.

Embracing our Lives in the Midst of Challenge

It’s the beginning of a new year again. This past year has brought particular challenges, as we all know. I’m tempted to just put it all blessedly in the rear-view mirror and look ahead to a time of bright, fresh, new possibility.

This year I don’t think it’s that easy. Instead, I’ve decided to take stock of the past year with openness, curiosity, and compassion and see if by looking deeply I can find, even in the midst of challenge, wisdom that might guide me towards the future.

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Every year I make time for a silent meditation retreat. This retreat week is a time to gain perspective on my life, recommit to how I want to be in the world, to move inside, be silent and tune in to my deeper yearnings. This year, one thing that came up for me is that I think it’s up to each of us what our future world will look like and it’s my fondest wish to create a world focused on well-being for all. All this seemed especially necessary and even urgent this year given the deep unrest in the US, the political divides, the pandemic and even the specter of climate change wreaking havoc on our world.

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From Fear to Love

Ten days ago, right after the initial public requests for social distancing in response to the Coronavirus Pandemic, I went to my grocery store. What struck me immediately was that people were frantic, disconnected, and rushing around. Everybody was grabbing for stuff without awareness of other people around them. They were cutting each other off in aisles, everyone for themselves. There was that sense of urgency, get what you need and get out as fast as you can and back to safety at home.

They seemed to be afraid as they desperately searched for cleaners, disinfectants, and hand sanitizer. I’ve never seen anything like it. The shelves were empty, and the carts were overflowing with megapackages of paper towels, toilet paper and bottled water.

The sense of urgency was contagious. I felt the urgency, even panic and started thinking, “there won’t be enough”. I found myself grabbing things I didn’t necessarily need.

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Cultivating Self-Compassion

Self-compassion has not and still does not come easily to me. Typically my knee jerk reaction to challenging situations or difficulty in relationships has been to blame myself at some level. I question what I could have done or said differently to have avoided the difficulty. My conditioned reaction is to try to find a strategy to fix the situation.

I am most grateful for the practice of mindfulness which has helped me to become more aware of how this intellectual problem solving habit is actually a movement away from my experience in the moment  and by extension creates a disconnection from myself as a vulnerable human being. Staying with my experience in these challenging moments is difficult because most often I am experiencing painful emotions such as, disappointment, hurt, fear, self-doubt or shame. I am also personalizing these feelings as this is who I am, e.g. “something is wrong with me”. Thoughts arise in the moment such as, “You wouldn’t speak to me that way” or “This wouldn’t be happening…if I was smart enough, more competent, worthy of respect, good enough”.

The challenge has been to learn to recognize this pattern of thinking and feeling as human and natural rather than the truth about who I am. That actually, what I am experiencing in those moments connects me profoundly with other humans and our shared human condition. I am not alone or an aberration. Within this perspective and understanding, compassion is possible, not only for myself but also for other human beings who experience similar thoughts and feelings. Read More

Moving from Separation to Connection

On a recent meditation retreat, during a walking meditation outdoors, a woman walked up behind me & passed me on the sidewalk.  I observed that she was older and I noticed I was having thoughts that sounded a little patronizing in tone about her gait and her slight limp as she walked and thinking that I don’t have an obvious limp and she probably couldn’t walk all the way down to the pond which I enjoyed so much.  She seemed different from me.  “I’m not like that.”  All this despite being 72 years old myself and having had an issue with my left foot only a few months earlier that had made it difficult for me to walk with ease.  I did feel a certain sympathy and pity, but also felt separate from her.  As I became more aware of this pattern of thinking, it was curious to me to see it as a bias, a prejudice, ”ageism”.  I wasn’t judging myself about it like I certainly would have in the past as unkind & shameful.  I was just noticing it.

There is a natural human reaction to disconnect and distance from people and situations that trigger unpleasant emotional responses in us.  Another, less obvious, natural human reaction is to distance or disconnect from our own unwanted thoughts, feelings and experiences.  A common way that we do this is by projecting our unwanted emotions or thoughts onto others.  When this happens it is very difficult for us to have any curiosity or compassion for others or ourselves.  The practice of mindfulness helps us to become more aware of these habits of mind and to bring more kindness and curiosity to what is happening and what underlies these automatic reactions. Read More

I got back a couple of weeks ago from a 10 day silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre Mass. My friends asked me about the retreat and about how it was coming home. I fumbled with my words. How can I explain what coming home was like?

My very first day back I decided to go to the DMV to get my license renewed. I had to do it within the month. I didn’t need to do it on the first day back. What was I thinking? I just wanted to do things that needed to be done to have more order in my life. It turned into a true test of equanimity. There was a huge long line. Stand in one line, get to the front, get paperwork approved, go stand in the next even longer line. Utter frustration. In the past I might have stormed off or said something very pointed and even insulting to the staff who didn’t seem to have a lot of urgency in their job. Instead, I was able to slow down and contemplate my options. I could come back later. I could judge myself for being so stupid to do this on this particular day. I could lash out at the people serving us. I chose to simply take in that it was my choice to be there and to weather the experience with as much equanimity as I could muster. Read More

Mindfulness at Work

When I worked as a vocational rehabilitation counselor, I had close to 200 clients in my case load and the demands were overwhelming. Each person had a history of injury, disability, and needs that were often heart wrenching. For instance, my clients included an office worker whose desk collapsed on her one day leaving her in chronic pain for the rest of her life plus many others with head injuries, spinal cord injuries, or mental health disabilities.

The stress for both my clients and me was over powering at times. I was constantly filled with gratitude that I had a longstanding mindfulness practice that supported me and contributed to my clients. However, it’s a very limited view to see mindfulness training as simply a stress reduction or wellness program.

Mindfulness is the capacity to be aware of what’s happening in the present moment with a quality of attention that’s curious, and accepting. The point is to pay close attention, to see more clearly what’s happening in the moment, including physical sensations, thoughts and emotions.

How is this helpful? As one example, when I’m aware of physical sensations, it’s possible to catch tension and tightness in my body quickly before thoughts and emotions escalate. This deeply affects how we interact with customers, clients, patients or co-workers since interactions often happen in stressful moments. Mindfulness supports an ability to be more open and sensitive to others, to recognize when a busy mind or outside distractions take us away from being really present. It helps us find more sensitivity to our customers’ needs.

I experienced this a couple years ago when I had eye surgery. It was a little nerve wracking considering I was to be awake for the whole procedure. I got to the surgery center early in the morning and was greeted by nurses who did everything physically necessary to get me prepped for surgery but didn’t pay a lot of attention to my emotional state. At one point my surgeon came over. I’m sure she was far busier than the nurses or staff, yet she took the time to notice my anxiety and she showed that sensitivity with the smallest of gestures. She lightly touched my shoulder and said “Are you OK?”. In that moment she was able to be mindful in a very small way that made a huge difference. Read More

Communicating Authentically From Our Heart

I’m very happy to announce the publication of a new book by Oren Jay Sofer on mindful communication!  Bringing mindfulness into real life situations is not always that easy and I find Oren’s writing to be insightful and inspirational. Thank you Oren!

Excerpt from: Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication
by Oren Jay Sofer

From Say What You Mean by Oren Jay Sofer © 2018 by Oren Jay Sofer. Reprinted in arrangement by Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. [[pg. 42-45]]

All real living is meeting.
—Martin Buber

When it comes to conversation, the force of our habits and the pressure of social settings can make it exceedingly difficult to maintain presence. Here, our internal practice serves as a basis. We use the arena of conversation itself as a training ground for presence, using techniques to anchor awareness within the midst of exchange and developing the capacity for relational awareness. Read More

I’m just back from a photography trip to Chincoteague and Assateague off the coast of Virginia. Before the trip our instructor was very clear. This was to be a working vacation and it wasn’t for beginners. I felt a little trepidation. I knew enough about f stops and aperture settings to think I might fit in yet I was barely beyond the beginner stage with photography.

I also knew we would be going out in the field to catch the best light at sunrise and sunset. Still nothing could prepare me for getting out of the van that first morning, in the dark, wind blowing, cold and bleary eyed from lack of sleep. Our instructor is way too awake. He’s even happy and joking: “Quick, quick, we’re wasting daylight” he says. I think about pointing out to him “there is no daylight. It’s pitch black”. I guess he knows that. Read More

The Gift of Curiosity: From Separation to Connection

We often teach in our mindfulness classes that mindfulness supports the curious investigation of what’s arising in our awareness so we can see it more clearly and not just react to it habitually. What was big for me this year on retreat was the deeper understanding and clarity around what ‘investigation’ means and how important curiosity is in the practice of mindfulness.

For instance, during this week-long silent retreat, I was walking on a path under some apple trees. Suddenly something dropped down in front of me. My initial reaction was: ”Eww!”. What’s that?!! I realized it was a caterpillar, a strange looking caterpillar. My judging mind kicked in. I saw holes in some of the leaves and thought, “It’s damaging the tree!”

Then I began to look more closely with curiosity. “Wow…look at that!!!” It was maybe ¾ inch long, a gazillion legs, very fine green fur covered its body and 2 long antennae extended upward from his head way beyond its fur and the mouth had 2 amazing prehensile extensions moving back and forth. It was hanging by a thin thread. “Perhaps the wind had knocked him off a branch?”  I stood there, amazed by this very small piece of nature & the thin thread that had caught him.  I was moved by the awesome complexity of the life in this ¾ inch long caterpillar! Read More

Beginner’s Mind

One day last week I was sitting out in my backyard. The day still had that early morning feel to it. Bits of conversation drifted over from neighbors in my row of townhouses. There was a job interview that hadn’t gone well, medical concerns, all the frustrations and issues of the day.

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Ease and Balance in the Midst of Challenge

We often say the purpose of mindfulness it to be able to be more fully present in the midst of our lives, for the pleasant as well as the unpleasant moments.  I recently had an opportunity to use my mindfulness practice in a very challenging situation.

I wasn’t so happy when I learned I needed outpatient surgery to remove a basal cell cancer below my lower eyelid.  I had over a month wait in order to schedule the surgery.  So, initially there was plenty of time for my mind to come up with scary scenarios, especially after seeing photos of the repair process. I started to worry about what was my face going to look like. How long would it take to look OK again, or would it ever? What if I could not see. Read More

If in rush hour traffic you can remain perfectly calm. If you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy. If you can love everyone around you unconditionally.  And if you can always find contentment just where you are, then you’re probably….a dog.                     —Shauna Shapiro

Most of us tend to set up unrealistic goals and judge ourselves harshly when we don’t meet them. Even when we do accomplish a goal, the joy is often short lived. Got that college diploma, well what about a job? Then a promotion? Then… on and on. Life becomes an endless stream of “not quite good enough”, a never ending struggle.

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Just Seeing What’s Going On

Everywhere we look Spring is announcing her arrival…bright yellow forsythia sprays; fruit trees brimming with white & pink blossoms; brilliant yellow daffodils bursting on hillsides; and perennials emerging from their winter sleep with the promise of Summer flowers to come.  Alongside this outpouring of life lies the debris of leaves, sticks and branches from the Fall and Winter.  All of these seasons coming and going, co-existing in the present moment.

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