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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
During this time of uncertainty as we move into the beginning of 2017, I find I can be easily caught up in fear and angst about the many negative scenarios and projections in the media regarding what will unfold over the coming years. I have been, probably like many people, trying to find a way to anchor my responses in a sense of possibility and optimism (rather than fear and scarcity) which is grounded in reality. My deepest wish is to contribute to the many different possible solutions to our shared human difficulties.
This election cycle is almost over. I’m breathing a sigh of relief! It seems like it’s been going on forever.
Of course, the stress is not going to be over just because the election is past. No matter what the results are, half the people of this country will be extremely dissatisfied. How will we ever heal divisions given the way positions have hardened and polarized? Bridging divides seems so urgent and yet it feels totally out of reach at this moment. Still I don’t want to get stuck in hopelessness and despair.
My husband had suggested kite flying as an activity for us to share with our 8 year old grandson. We found an amazing kite store with a huge array of kites, guaranteed to be easy to fly and fun. On Wednesday’s the kite store also sponsored a large kite show at the beach in the evening.
So our plan was to pick up our grandson from summer school at noon and head to the shore with kites & boogie board in tow. We would play in the surf first, take a break to have dinner and return in time for the kite show. As with all good plans, we ran into complications. I felt myself begin to get tense and stressed as Summer school ran late that day delaying our arrival at the beach until almost 4.
I’m heading off to a silent retreat next week with the discord of our contentious times ringing in my ears. I question whether my mindfulness practice is simply my own personal journey or can mindfulness really make a difference in the larger world?
Many people, myself included, come to a mindfulness practice thinking about personal issues. Indeed there is ample research showing that cultivating mindfulness can have a major effect on decreasing stress and in learning to work with physical pain or mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Still, in these times of discord, beset by racism, classism and myriad other isms, I ponder the place of a mindfulness practice in the wider world.
A common view of Summer is a time of vacations and time to kick back a bit. Often this is not the case for many people. Parents with children have their ongoing demands to juggle work and family responsibilities. This is compounded by finding and managing new or multiple options for their children on Summer break from school. Frequently workers find themselves required to take on extra work to cover for fellow employees on vacation.
Recently we had a “perfect storm” of snow, 25+ inches over a 12 hour period. My eight year old grandson was bored and restless after a day cooped up in the house, so my husband and I picked him up in a attempt to relieve his parents.
He was hankering to get out in the snow, so we all decided it was slowing up and time to get out the snow blower and shovels. We were working down the sidewalk to the garage, following behind my husband on the snow blower with our shovels. I looked back to see how my grandson was doing and much to my horror he was moving more snow onto the sidewalk than off. With each shovel off he would jump in the snow bank displacing it back on the sidewalk.
I felt myself becoming irritated and totally distracted. All I could think about was how much he was complicating an already difficult task.
Then I remembered a mindfulness practice we teach in our classes. It’s called STOP.
“S” is for stop or PAUSE for a moment.
“T” is for ‘Take a slow, mindful breath’
“O” is for ‘Observe’.
“P” is for Proceed
So I paused, took a breath and started to observe what was going on, with curiosity and nonjudgment. First, I noticed physical sensations: I felt tight & tense across my shoulders and in my stomach. Next my mood and emotional tone: I noticed I was irritated and annoyed. Then I noticed my thoughts: “I hope they call soon for him to come home.” and “How inconsiderate, can’t he see how hard we’re working to clear the snow?”.
This pause helped me move more into the moment. I became aware of the delight in his playfulness and the naturalness of it all. I remembered how much we’ve been missing spending time with him, now that he’s eight and so much more involved with friends and sports. Then I felt sadness, followed by regret that I might have missed this moment and opportunity to be with him by judging him for his natural response to snow. So I called to him and suggested we make angels in the snow away from the sidewalk, which he was delighted to do. He was jumping into the snow, spreading his arms and legs up and down to make the angels and needing me to reach over to him to pull him out because the snow was so deep. We laughed together in delight at the effort and the sight of his angels in the snow.
I am so grateful for this ‘fruit’ of my mindfulness practice. I was able to become aware in the moment and STOP to turn toward the reactivity I was experiencing with curiosity. In that ‘turning toward” and STOPing I was able to enjoy the delight of my grandchild and of my child within.
I’ve been dealing with chronic pain in my back and hip for some time now. I just want to avoid it all, distract myself, eat some ice cream, put my feet up, get comfortable.
There is certainly a time for distraction. Yet mindfulness practice suggests turning towards instead of running away. Why would I want to do that when getting away is so much more comfortable? I struggle with that question.
When I move away from what’s happening in my body, I can see the walls moving in tighter and tighter. My world becomes small, my body stiff and danger seemingly lurks everywhere. Mindfulness practice, being aware, actually makes that ever more painfully obvious.
I’ve gradually come to see that I have no real choice. Well I always have choice. What I mean is that when I take that difficult step into whatever is unpleasant, when I come to know what is really happening within that unwanted sensation, it’s no longer so threatening. It’s no longer just an amorphous pain in my back. It’s no longer a thought, a concept. It’s sensation. It’s something that I can explore and really come to know. It’s constantly changing. Sometimes it’s intense. More often it’s not. I begin to see from direct experience what helps and what hinders, what I can do for myself and what type of support I might want to ask for. I learn to tailor exercise to my exact needs rather than to some concept of what I should be doing. I find a way to see my wholeness without denying my limitations and to dance with life in the midst of “the full catastrophe” of what life throws at me, as Jon Kabat Zinn puts it.
The body scan is a meditation practice that can support you in becoming curious about and mindful of body sensations.
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