Mindfulness & Wellbeing

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!

This pausing and noticing led to naturally feeling a sense of care and concern for his wellbeing.
“Had he been knocked down to the ground he could have been squished!”. So I carried him over and placed him on a branch of the tree. I felt deeply satisfied and somewhat parental as I watched him crawl slowly out of site.

I was struck, once again, by the realization that these kinds of events are going on around us all the time but because we’re preoccupied and lost in what happened before or what will happen next we miss it.

 So this was a very different kind of being with my experience. I really appreciated at a deeper level what curiosity is and what investigation is. It’s not digging at all. It’s different than our habitual way of trying to understand what’s going on. We often bring a quality of investigation or exploration that’s hard edged, more like problem solving or analyzing. This type of curiosity is lighter, not prying or digging into or trying to get to the bottom of. Instead it’s, “What is this?” ”Isn’t that curious?”, with a sense of wonder and not needing answers and more comfortable with not knowing.

At another time during the retreat, I noticed while I was walking that I was having recurring thoughts about how I looked, how I was dressed, how I appeared. My typical response in the past would have been to judge myself as not nice, self centered, and to dismiss it with “Why am I thinking like that?” “What’s wrong with me?”

An interesting thing happened when I brought more curiosity to that kind of thinking, a curiosity which was open, friendly, lighter, spacious, just seeing what’s there. Quite spontaneously a question arose: “What happens in my experience when that thought comes up about what I’m wearing”?

So it’s not digging. It’s not trying to get to the bottom of anything. It’s just what happens. So I noticed I went from feeling open and spacious to feeling more tight and contracted and a little anxious. Then I noticed that I started to notice others around me. My feelings began to change from feeling a part of and warm and connected to feeling self conscious and uneasy. I noticed thoughts arising about how others viewed me and began to feel somewhat threatened and insecure. What was interesting was that I was able to see that not as a problem or the truth even, but just “Isn’t that an interesting reaction”. “Wow!” So when I get preoccupied with how I look, I start to get disconnected, anxious and feel separate from people. Isn’t that curious how quickly that happens in response to just a few thoughts about what I’m wearing and comparing myself to others and what others think about me.

When I was able to be curious, it wasn’t a problem. In that moment of appreciation there was spaciousness. It was really quite freeing to see that it was just thoughts and I could just let them go. As I was able to just allow them, my feelings of disconnection changed back to warmth and connection.

In this way curiosity was useful, empowering, clarifying. It helped me see and experience what was there without filters, so that I could experience life more fully, see other people freshly, move beyond separation to connection, with people, to all of life and its beauty and complexity.

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

sunrise-quote-dreamstime_xs

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.

election-debate

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Pausing as a Gift of Mindfulness

Minion Balloon at Beach [2] IMG_1374

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

Happy-Mother-&-Child-large-

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?

SnowAngel-5644

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.

“Fruit of the Practice” Moments

boy in leaves dreamstime_m_46019777

Sometimes a meditation practice can feel stale or boring or pointless. Then all of a sudden, out of the blue, a moment spontaneously arrives  where you know you’re experiencing life in a more open, curious, friendly or compassionate way. Those moments are the real “fruit of the practice”.

For instance, one day last fall I went to my 7 year old grandson’s house on the spur of the moment. I found him raking leaves with a 3 foot branch with an “L” shaped end. This seemed like very slow going to me and I found myself wanting to help him do it “right”. Then suddenly I became aware that this was an opportunity to join with him and be in the moment with his agenda in a supportive role. Together we found several ways to gather the leaves and the hour passed swiftly. As he jumped in the finished pile, we celebrated together with a squeal. Ah, what a delight!

Another example was given by one or our students. While taking her dog for a walk one morning, she became aware he was looking at her anxiously as he prepared to ‘pee’. She suddenly realized how impatient and preoccupied she was, thinking about everything she needed to do back at the house.  She began to feel  apologetic for all those moments she ‘wasn’t there’ and the angst it generated in her dog…and in herself. Being present and enjoying those morning walks with her dog became a new mindfulness practice through which they were both nourished!

Another example is from a manager who became aware of how he habitually passed his employees in the hallway, preoccupied and in a rush…hardly noticing their presence.  He suddenly realized that his demeanor might be off putting and that he was missing a chance for positive interactions. He began to make walking mindfully down the hall a part of his daily practice.  Not only did his employees respond more positively, so did he!

We would love to hear some of your “fruit of the practice” moments and how they affected you in your life. Share them below in the “Comment” section. We will publish one of them in our next Newsletter.  Thank you in advance for sharing!

Home for the Holidays

Holidays can be a difficult time. We go home to our families and old patterns of relating may be triggered which can produce stress and suffering. Mindful self care is a way to approach these moments with more curiosity and compassion for ourselves and those we love.

I-still-want-to-smack-some-

For instance, suppose you’re home having thanksgiving dinner with your parents and siblings and their spouses. You ask for seconds of pumpkin pie and your mother says somewhat quietly but loud enough so others can overhear, “Are you sure you want that second helping? Remember how you struggled with weight in your 20s.”

How could mindfulness help in that situation?

I take a moment to envision myself in the situation. I start by bringing awareness to what’s happening for me which is a way of bringing compassion to myself and seeing clearly what is going on, on the deepest level.

As I put myself in her situation, I’m surprised at the intensity of my reaction. I’m stunned. It’s like someone punched me in the gut. I feel blindsided by her words and so initially I’m shocked and then hurt and angry. I’m embarrassed that she would bring this up in front of my siblings and their spouses and seemingly has no awareness of how that would affect me. I’m disappointed that my mom still sees me as the person I was 20 years ago.

As I look deeper, I realize I really want her to see me as I am now, an adult, married, a competent professional, with good self-care skills. Her statement feels so disrespectful. So I guess in addition to acceptance of me as I am now, what I also want is respect. As I connect, I notice I’m feeling a lot of sadness and hurt more than anger. I really need to give myself understanding and acceptance for my feelings as they are now. As I’m sensing my yearning for understanding and acceptance from my mom, I touch into the capacity to give that to myself. I stop and just pause.

holiday-gathering-dreamstim

After I do that, I become aware of another level in myself, which is curiosity about what might be going on for my mom that she would say something like that. What deep longings might be going on for her that might be behind what she said?

Perhaps she feels some distance from me and my professional life and my competency in my life and even into my married life. We don’t visit often like this so there’s a lot she doesn’t know about me. Or perhaps she doesn’t feel a connection with me as I am today. So I’m wondering if her comments are a desperate attempt to connect with me in a way that she did in the past. She did have a deep intimate connection with me years ago where she felt able to contribute and help me in areas where I was struggling. Sensing this now I’m feeling a shift to a sadness that’s different because being a mother now myself, I can sense that loss of connection for a parent as a child grows into an adult. Perhaps she didn’t know another way to bridge that space with me other than with the comment she made.

So now I’m feeling some understanding and I’m moving into compassion for that loss of the closeness she had at one time with me. Maybe with that understanding I can find a way to communicate with her about how I felt without being judgmental or harsh. I also want to share with her my actual need to be seen and accepted for who I am. I’m also in touch with a longing to find ways to connect that would be meaningful for both of us and that might be a new exploration for both of us.

As I move out of visualizing the situation, I realize it’s so human to have painful feelings and thoughts. What’s important is how we respond to them. Mindfulness helps us to be more aware, in the moment, as the thoughts and feelings arise…and to bring curiosity and friendliness to them like simply saying to our emotions, “I see you”  This seeing is with kindness and compassion for ourselves and for the hurt or frustration or disappointment we’re  experiencing. It’s also a curiosity about what it is we are longing for and care about at a deeper level which may be triggering these feelings. From that place it’s easier to guess what’s going on for others and to communicate without being so judgmental or harsh.

I would like to emphasize that this kind of self-reflection and self-compassion “in the midst”, which might be implied from this post, would be quite unusual.  Just to have the presence of mind to pause and breathe mindfully in the moment would be an extraordinary act of mindfulness.  For most of us, the reflection and self-compassion and empathy come after the fact…often the “fruit” of the mindful pause in the midst.

 

 

Self Care for the Holidays

Walk Slowly (Danna Faulds)

It only takes a reminder to breathe,
a moment to be still, and just like that,
something in me settles, softens, makes
space for imperfection. The harsh voice
of judgment drops to a whisper and I
remember again that life isn’t a relay
race; that we will all cross the finish
line; that waking up to life is what we
were born for. As many times as I
forget, catch myself charging forward
without even knowing where I’m going,
that many times I can make the choice
to stop, to breathe, and be, and walk
slowly into the mystery.

Often we get extremely busy with the fast-paced demands of a job, with taking care of others, or just with day-to-day activities.  External demands can seem overwhelming, especially in the holiday season. When family, friends, parties, and gift-buying, all become too much, it’s easy to let taking care of ourselves go by the wayside.

I remind myself that in this moment, in any moment, I can choose to stop, take a breath, notice, be aware. I can choose to bring my focus back and touch into what I want this holiday season to be about at the deepest level. I can choose to take time to nourish myself, to love and care for myself. In the process I make possible the deep connection with others that I so yearn for and that is the essence of this holiday season.

dreamstime_m_47305293 [mother & daughter play at Christmas]

Ways to mindful self care when the going gets tough:

  1. Becoming aware of being triggered. Especially noticing it in the body.
  2. STOP. Pause. Allowing whatever is happening. Making space for it with a sense of curiosity and friendliness.
  3. Noticing thoughts. Are there expectations? Limited perceptions? Self judgments? Knee-jerk reactions? Remember that thoughts are just thoughts.
  4. Tuning into what you care about, value, long for, or need at the deepest level. Nurture self compassion.
  5. Listening for and guessing what the other person cares about, values, longs for, or needs at the deepest level. Let the other person know you are making an effort to tune into what is happening for them at the heart level.
  6. Speaking your truth. Ask yourself: Is what I’m saying helpful? true? necessary? kind? Does it express what I’m yearning for at a deep level.
  7. Asking for what you need. Keep in mind there are many possible strategies for meeting particular needs.

Learn more about how to bring mindful self care into your life:

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Close Encounter

800px-Airbag_of_Dacia_Logan_after_accident

Recently, I was driving to visit a friend at her horse farm. Traffic was light on the two lane, secondary road and my mind was wandering ahead with concerns about being late. Suddenly the car in front of me veered into the opposite lane. The first car of oncoming traffic narrowly missed a collision, but the panel truck behind struck the car head on. The car bounced back into my lane and came to a stop about 20 feet in front of me. I instinctively braked and pulled onto the shoulder. All of this unfolded in slow motion. It felt like time stood still.

I felt scared and overwhelmed. I thought “I don’t have skills to be helpful in a situation like this”…I also felt very torn and had a sense of ‘should’ and ‘obligation’ to do something. Then I saw many cars had stopped and a number of men were running toward her car. I decided to drive on.

As I drove off slowly, my car came almost parallel to the car that had crashed. I observed the driver’s arm and head slumped out the driver’s window. It was a woman. She had long curly red hair. She looked very young. I couldn’t imagine she could still be alive. Such a close encounter with death, so sudden and with someone so young, was disorienting and deeply unsettling. I felt shaken to the core. How can someone be here one minute and gone the next?

I wanted to get away, yet I stopped about 500 feet down the road, feeling that nagging thought, “I should go back and tell them what I saw”. But I didn’t. I told myself…”they don’t need me… I’m going to be late”. I continued on, feeling a nagging sense of guilt.

I also found myself detaching with a subtle sense that the person was doing something wrong and deserved it. “She was probably texting. There is a reason for this. It could have been avoided.” Later I realized I was rationalizing that this couldn’t happen to me. I was finding things that I wouldn’t be doing while driving which somehow made me feel safer, separate, and not so vulnerable.

By the time I arrived at my friend’s farm (see an earlier blog , “Building Trust, Turning Toward the Difficult”), I was pretty disconnected from my body and the feelings I was having.

Fortunately, the experience at the farm helped me to reconnect with what was happening for me in my body. My ability to be present and value what was arising in body sensations and feelings, i.e. fear and overwhelm, allowed me to value deeper needs although I was not clearly able to articulate them in the moment.

Equally fortunate, that evening I spoke with two good friends who are fellow mindfulness practitioners. They listened as I spoke about my experience that day and reflected back to me what they heard. They reminded me that it is human to blame others when we are confronted with the natural grief over the fragility and vulnerability of our human condition.

I am grateful for the ‘fruit’ of my mindfulness practice over the years which ‘showed up’ for me in the midst of such an unsettling and disturbing experience. Because of my practice I was able to watch and observe the thoughts as they arose without necessarily believing they were true or getting caught in them. This cultivated a willingness to turn toward what was happening, even though it was unpleasant,  which allowed me (with the support of my friends) to respond to a larger sense of what was unfolding, rather than denying or repressing my experience.

Now, somewhat surprisingly, I’m feeling a sense of gratitude for this very real reminder of our shared fragility. I am reminded, once again, that there is no insurance policy that can protect us from this reality, mental or otherwise. I’m left feeling great compassion for the woman in the car (who survived without life-threatening injury) and myself and my fellow humans. I’m much more in touch with the preciousness of each moment of our shared journey…and with the desire to not get caught up in taking our precious, fragile lives for granted.