Mindfulness & Wellbeing

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.

Ten days later, on my second trip to the same store, I immediately sensed a difference in people’s emotional state. They were taking more care to allow space between each other and there was less franticness which allowed more eye contact and even an occasional verbal response, “Go ahead.” or “After you.”

I don’t think the people were any less afraid on my second trip, but this time their fear wasn’t stoked by empty shelves. The store management had created a sense of order by setting limits on items that were essential or perishable and I also noticed grocery store employees circulating, at a safe distance, inquiring if customers had questions or needed help finding items.  There were also announcements on the store loudspeakers telling customers where to go to line up, at a safe distance, for the self-service registers or the teller registers. There was even a special line for seniors. Store personnel were circulating in the register area to facilitate a smooth flow and to help keep it orderly…again with smiles and patience.

I began to sense the genuine care they were expressing for all of us and I was deeply touched.  I began to intentionally look directly at these employees, engaging their eyes and thanking them for their care and support during this difficult time.  I also told them how important their time and services were to me. Without exception, they beamed back at me with an enthusiastic, “You’re very welcome!”

The change in the environment profoundly affected my emotional reaction. I felt calmer. I was able to take in more of what was going on around me and was able to move more slowly and thoughtfully. It was an external order that the store had supplied that helped reduce the fear and helped bring about a change from a sense there wouldn’t be enough to “We’ll take care of everybody.”

The structure the store provided and intelligence, care and planning that went into it, wasn’t just a business strategy. It wasn’t management just being financially astute or strategic. There was more of a sense of care for the community like the feeling of a good parent. “The kids are out of control. We love them but they need some structure here.” That was the strategic piece. That’s what made the difference, that clearly management and their employees had seen what happened and thought: “We’ve got to do a better job of managing the situation. This isn’t working and we want to be sure people get what they need. That’s our mission, to feed our community.”

The overall experience was very powerful for me. It allowed a shift in my perspective from so much fear to experiencing that sense of a shared humanity, that feeling of ‘we’re all in this together’. The store management and their employees reminded us how to be our better selves, our better angels so that we were able to really care about each other.

The power of this experience for me at this particular time was how it slowed the whole thing down so I could see how deeply dependent we all are on the people who work on the front lines in grocery stores, the trucks and companies that get food to the store, and the farmers that grow it. It was a moment of really seeing and appreciating the complexity of it all. Mutual care, concern and cooperation are a fundamental part of our human nature that we easily forget under the influence of fear. One could say these qualities are a source of our survival as a human species.

So, when I approached that clerk and looked him in the eyes and said, “Thank you so much for your service. I’m so grateful. I don’t know what we’d do without you.” We were seeing our essence. We were seeing how much we care for and value each other. 

Well that’s love you know, embodied love, love in action.

To me, this time of social distancing is resonating in our collective human soul. We’re feeling out of control and facing the real uncertainty of life that we usually deny in all our busyness. As we individually practice connecting with and embracing our fear with kindness and compassion, there is a possibility for us to find a way to live more deeply connected with each other in the preciousness of this moment. To me, that is the opportunity in this moment in our shared history.

Especially when we’re feeling like we don’t have any alternatives, that’s when we need to pause, slow down, see what’s possible because our actions, large or small, do affect others, often in very profound ways.

I think what gives great meaning, purpose and great love to our individual work in meeting our own fears is that our effort is in the service of a much greater potential awakening. I’m reminded of something Thich Nhat Hahn wrote,

“When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.” —Thich Nhat Hanh

We can navigate this pandemic as long as we work together. There is enough for everyone. We just need to pause, take our time, consider those among us who need more care including the elderly, those out of work, or those on the front lines.

My wish is that we wouldn’t need a crisis like this to see each other’s hearts and to see what really matters, but today’s pandemic is a great opportunity and my prayer is we’ll rise to the occasion and “seize the moment”.

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

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

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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Inspiration for Uncertain Times

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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.

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It’s that time of year again, the time when many of us make New Year’s resolutions. Maybe you’ve resolved to exercise more or to go on a diet to lose weight. Perhaps you’ve decided to increase your time meditating or maybe you just want to stop criticizing your spouse so often.

Whatever it is, if you’re anything like me, you may find yourself starting with immense enthusiasm and then watching with dismay as your best intentions peter out in a short period of time. This can quickly get into a negative, downward spiral of self criticism which actually undermines any positive goals you’re trying to accomplish.

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Bridging Divides

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.

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Pausing as a Gift of Mindfulness

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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.

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Mindfulness and Racial Bias

I’m heading off to a silent retreat next week with the discord of our peace-in-the-worldcontentious 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.

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Mindful Summer Tips

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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.

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Why Would We Want to Tune into Our Frustrations & Challenging Moments?

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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.

If you would like to learn more about developing these mindfulness skills, check out our upcoming classes.

Mindfulness and Chronic Pain

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.

body-vipassana-1054233_960_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.

Body scan meditation

Body Scan Meditation

The body scan is a meditation practice that can support you in becoming curious about and mindful of body sensations.

Get a free body scan recording (plus tips and tools from our newsletter) when you join our mailing list.

 

10 Tips to Keep Mindfulness Going at Work

Beautiful Hispanic business woman relaxing and doing some meditation at her office

Although having a regular sitting practice is what helps to develop the ‘fruits’ of our mindfulness practice in our lives; we all have periods when it is difficult to find time to do that. At those times we can keep our mindfulness practice going by utilizing every day tasks and routines as opportunities to practice. Here is a list of 10 routine activities to keep mindfulness going at work.  It might even turn that ‘boring’ or unpleasant routine into something pleasant, calming, centering and even inspiring!

  1. While your car is warming up, take a minute to quietly pay attention to your breathing.
  2. Pay attention to your breathing, to the sky and trees or the quality of your mind when you stop at traffic lights.
  3. Take a moment to orient yourself to your workplace once you park your car. Use the walk across the parking lot to step into your life: to know where you are in the moment and where you are going.
  4. Use everyday cues in your environment as reminders to ‘center’ yourself, e.g. the telephone ringing, washing your hands, breaks between activities.
  5. During your breaks, instead of having coffee, a cigarette or reading, try taking a short mindful walk using all your senses to take in your surroundings and breathe mindfully
  6. Take some time at lunchtime or other moments in the day to speak with associates. Try listening mindfully.
  7. Choose to eat one or two lunches per week in silence. Use this time to eat slowly, mindfully experiencing the food – take a moment to really pay attention to the taste, texture and how your body reacts to the food.
  8. Pay attention to your walk back to the car – breathe in the air, feel the cold or warmth of your body. Can you open to and accept these environmental conditions and body sensations rather than resisting them? Listen to the sounds. Can you walk without feeling rushed? What happens when you slow down?
  9. While your car is warming up, sit quietly and consciously make the transition from work to home – take a moment to simply be – enjoy it for a moment.
  10. When you pull into the driveway of your home, take a minute to orient yourself to being with your family and entering your home.

Tips for keeping mindfulness going at work Adapted from Saki Santorelli “Mindfulness and Mastery in the Workplace: 21 ways to Reduce Stress During the Worksday.