Mindfulness & Wellbeing

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.

In this situation, I was able to see my distaste and judgment as a reaction to the unpleasant, disturbing awareness of the physical disability both hers and mine.  Then I spontaneously began to recall the people in my life near and dear to me who are also experiencing physical limitation and disability and how I distance from them too at times, with impatience or irritation.  I have thoughts like, “I take good care of myself and get regular exercise, etc.”, as if that is an insurance policy to protect me.  These reactions create an illusion of separation and safety.

 As I continued to walk, I felt a sense of deep sadness experiencing how this reaction also keeps me from feeling more connected in the moment with people I care about.  How I was holding myself separate from them instead of, “Oh wow!  This is real human suffering to which we are all subject!”.  It was a gut level realization of how I was also a product of the cultural bias of “ageism” in which we stop seeing people who are older as competent & capable, rather than seeing them as “just like me”, no different.  I’m going to be there, we’re all going to be there. And just the sadness I felt that those biases and fears lived in me as well.  I felt a sense of gratitude that the awareness of my aversion and judgment of her helped me to see the things I’ve been struggling with in myself, i.e. the pain in my foot and my buttock that aren’t just going away which confront me with my own limitation and the denial and fear that I’ve not been willing to see.  Then as my awareness softened I felt a sense of warmth and compassion for myself.  The compassion began to extend to the preciousness of all life in its many forms.

When she walked past me coming back, I made myself really look at her, taking in the eyes.  When our eyes met, she smiled. This time my experience was totally different.  I was able to see and appreciate her wholeness and beauty.  Mindfulness helped me move from feeling very separate from her and ended with me feeling a sense of real connectedness. I was able to watch the whole thing open and unfold, her limitations, my limitations, our connectedness with all humans who struggle and then I was back just sensing my body walking, held in nature, simply appreciating the light streaming through the leaves, chipmunks scattering by under the fence nearby.

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.

Yes, coming home is difficult, but coming into the present moment, being awake, alive and aware wasn’t always easy on retreat either. While on retreat I was living in the midst of a supportive community. I had loads of time for sitting and walking meditation, plus hours to wander in nature. My meals were cooked for me. Our teachers filled us with endless words of wisdom. The outside world seemed far away, especially once I gave up my phone. All this might make it seem like a silent retreat is all peace and relaxation. Not so. In the silence, with no electronics, no books, no writing, little talking, no distractions, all the things I’ve been covering over with busyness, all the things I don’t want to think about, come up. In fact, some disturbing, compulsive thoughts started going round and round almost immediately. On retreat there’s time. Time to really sit with all those emotions, and thoughts and to experiment with skillful ways to work with them.Scenic pond.

Our teachers suggested dealing with thoughts during meditation sessions by noticing what was arising and coming back to an anchor, whether the breath, sound, or other body sensations such as the feet on the floor, the sitting bones on the chair or the hands. I’ve developed focus and concentration in this way for years. Yet sometimes coming back to an anchor can seem like avoidance, an effort to stop thoughts. I know that stopping thoughts is impossible, yet that’s what it feels like. At the other end of the spectrum, analyzing thoughts, getting caught in the content and going round and round trying to figure everything out in my head isn’t so useful either.

On retreat I had time to explore a middle way. I went to the retreat with the intention of exploring loving kindness , particularly for myself, since I’m often so quick to slip into self-judgment and criticism. Our teachers suggested getting in touch with the feeling rather than an abstract phrase or thought about loving kindness. In one of the guided meditations I visualized being in the presence of a caring spiritual figure who could accept me with unconditional love. This helped me tune into a very direct and powerful bodily experience of warmth and kindness. After that, just the word “kindness” evoked memory of that experience. On retreat, when judgmental thoughts arose, I spontaneously came to the idea of saying the word “kindness” to myself. What a profound difference that made.

Now that I’m home, I find it continues to make a big difference. For instance, when I got home, I looked at my living room and started craving a little less clutter, a little more cleanliness. I watched as I didn’t do anything about this for days. I looked at it but didn’t do any cleaning. There was so much self-judgment. “You cleaned for an hour on retreat, at 7:15 in the morning no less, and were proud to do it.” On retreat I thought, “yes the bathroom will be clean for the groups that meet here. The floor won’t have dust on it. The stairs where people track in dirt from outside, I got the dirt there too.” I brought a bit of order to that area. Then I get home and I can’t do the same in my own living room??? What’s this about? First, I think it’s because at IMS others see it. I only do that for others. What about doing it for me? Doing it for myself doesn’t matter?? Once again I noticed how unkind and judgmental I was being with myself.

Finally, I get the vacuum out. I vacuum the rug. There’s so much more to do. I felt the tightness start in my body but this time I remembered to bring the word “kindness”. After that, I was able to tune into my thoughts. I realize it’s the overwhelm. There’s so much to do here. So much clutter. How do I deal with that? So many things just sitting around that vacuuming is difficult. So much to deal with. At IMS it’s just one job which can be finished in a finite time, one job that I can then be proud of. Once I realize the actual core of the problem, the self-judgmental thoughts subside. I say to myself, “I think I need a few days on this. I’ll do the rug now. Maybe the floor tomorrow. Maybe start with the clutter. Certainly the bills soon. And the recycling. And then cleaning out the drawer so I have somewhere to put some clutter.” I see clearly that it gets overwhelming and that’s why I just don’t deal with it. Once I know the real problem then I can work with it. May FlyWow. What a relief to be able to slow down enough to see what’s really happening. Our minds, our brains are so fast. It’s so tough to catch all this stuff, all the stuff that goes thru my mind and determines my reactions and actions. The self-judgments just feel compulsive, out of my control, automatic. So much of my life feels automatic.

During the retreat I also noticed I have a tendency to harden my self judgments into a description of who I am. For instance, I might describe myself as a “lazy person” when I don’t get the cleaning done. During the retreat I saw clearly that getting caught up defining who I am in these limiting ways is part of what’s underneath my self-judgmental thoughts. It creates a lot of suffering.

Here’s one way this plays out for me at home. I often have strong opinions, whether about something I hear on the news, or just what someone is saying. I often seem to cycle back and forth between two options: either say nothing and feel frustrated, or say something which can come out judgmental and difficult to hear. The anticipation of saying something harsh trips me up so much that I often stay silent. Then I cement my concept of myself into “I’m just a quiet person”. I’m learning when I feel myself getting triggered, to first catch it in the tightness in my body. Then to bring in the word “kindness”. I can feel my body softening. What this means to me is I can have my opinion in all its fullness and also bring kindness into how I express it. There are other ways our brains are programmed that sometimes create suffering. For instance, we’re programmed to see and look for and take in what’s wrong, difficult, or needs fixing to the exclusion of what’s good, beautiful, or doesn’t need fixing. It’s all neural pathways groomed to see patterns because that’s what keeps us alive. Our teachers gave us a suggestion: to look for some beauty in each moment. Not just each day. Each moment. The play of light on a tree branch. The hummingbird who greets me on the deck at IMS. The mayflies at the pond. Each moment. Just come back to the present and see the world as it is to counter all the fixing and problem solving. Doing this helps me to expand my awareness to include what is difficult (suffering) and what is lovely and nourishing (appreciative joy) which helps me develop more equanimity with the inevitable ups and downs of life.

So now what I learned on retreat and what I faced after coming home seems to meld together. It’s all about coming home. Coming home to this moment, to this body, to my own little piece of the world, to tending my own small garden. When I do this, whether on retreat or back in my house, I am home.


Join us on July 23rd (on Zoom) for a Mindful Decision Making session to deepen your mindfulness skills and learn practical tools for integrating mindfulness into your daily life.

NOTE: Mindfulness and Wellbeing is co-sponsoring this session with Creative Transitions Inc.

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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.

Being sensitive to patients or clients also includes mindful listening. This might involve collaborating on projects, for instance, which is more and more necessary in today’s workplace, or navigating that difficult encounter with your boss. Many people think they’re listening when they’re really thinking about their response. While the other person is speaking it’s common for one’s mind to be analyzing, judging, problem solving, agreeing, or disagreeing rather than tuning into what the other person is actually saying. Mindfulness helps in bringing a sense of curiosity and compassion without an agenda while listening. This then becomes a firm basis from which to respond.

Here’s an example where mindful listening and empathy were crucial. In this video, police Lieutenant Richard Goerling describes a very stressful situation when he was on a call to deal with a 12-year old boy who was totally out of control.

The boy’s mother was an admitted prostitute and drug user. Goerling says, in the past, he might have been very judgmental to the mother but after learning mindfulness skills he has found it possible to be more compassionate. He comments:

In that moment she found humanity in this encounter with police. And even though everybody around her in her neighborhood was likely judging her and had their own conclusions and knew the right answer and had a prescription for how she could change her life, in that moment she got to encounter a police officer who wasn’t judging her or her world and who was simply able to help her. Mindfulness can really transform the relationship between police and the people we are sworn to serve.”

Just as important as empathizing with others is practicing self-acceptance. Accepting yourself means embracing even those parts you don’t like, including your weaknesses and short comings. For instance, sometimes, after a difficult day, my mind is perseverating about all the difficulties and challenges I had that day, judging my actions, blaming myself. Being mindful means, first, just noticing I’m doing that which can make a big difference. Maybe I’m only thinking about the one thing I had difficulty with and forgetting the four things that went beautifully. Sometimes I really need to troubleshoot difficulties and plan new approaches. In that case, slowing down, taking a pause, listening to myself carefully allows inner wisdom to emerge in a way it never can when my mind is going in endless circles of judgment and recrimination.

There are many other ways that mindfulness can be helpful. For instance, when a multitude of demands are coming at me from many directions, it’s often difficult to focus. That happened every day on the job I mentioned above. It was easy to be pulled in many directions, to start something, get interrupted, move off in 5 directions at once or get distracted by all the things that needed to be done to the extent that not much got done. Mindfulness was invaluable in helping me focus. First, I’d tune into my body and notice the tension. I would follow that with a mindful breath, a pause. Then I would remind myself to just come back to one thing, just this one thing, right here, right now, simply coming back to the present moment over and over.

Mindfulness is not just about adapting to a difficult situation, however. Sometimes, the word “acceptance” is used when explaining mindfulness and this might imply passivity, accepting things as they are. Instead, mindfulness helps with realizing we have the option to make choices in every moment, which leads to wise and skillful action. For instance, maybe you’re considering a job change but feel conflicted. Part of you is anxious about starting over in a new situation, or blaming yourself for difficulties you’re having with your current boss. Seeing difficulties with openness and curiosity means seeing the actual situation clearly. We can see whether we’re acting out of habit, or fear or anger or truly responding to this particular situation and this particular set of circumstances. We can open up to a whole range of options instead of being fixated on only one or two possibilities. We can work with anger and other strong emotions and find skillful responses which is the opposite of passivity.

Even in areas not directly thought of as soft skills, or people skills, mindfulness can be crucial. These engineers explain that both art and science, technical skills and ability to think out of the box are necessary for product design. Finding inspiration and innovation comes when you can quiet the mind, quiet the voices of judgment and criticism, move off of autopilot and move into an intuitive frame of mind.

Mindfulness helps us to be more fully present in our relationships at work, whether with a supervisor, coworker, customers, clients or patients.  As we learn to sit back and listen to others we can learn to respond more out of a creative, intuitive, connected place.  This can allow us to step out of fixed ideas of who we are and begin to see each other as fellow human beings.  This is an active, not passive, role that contributes to seeing more options and to identifying actions that will contribute to the overall mission and purpose of the organization. Yes, mindfulness is about much more than stress reduction.

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.

We are at a beach. I stumble thru the sand a short distance though it feels like a mile. I try to set up my tripod. I’ve used this tripod for 2 years, but never in the dark. I didn’t bring my flashlight either. It’s sitting comfortably back in my room in my suitcase. The notion we would be photographing in the dark didn’t quite penetrate my thinking. I couldn’t remember where all the settings are. My fingers are awkward. My feet freezing.

Finally back to the base for an instructional session, then our first critiquing session and more photography at sunset.

Whew! What a first day. I fall into bed exhausted, with racing thoughts that made sleeping difficult.  I find myself doubting myself and thinking: “Others must think I’m completely incompetent.” My mindfulness practice kicks in. I watch the thoughts float by. Thoughts are just thoughts.

More 5 am wakeups follow. The days start to blur into each other. I find myself getting into the rhythm.  I get more acclimated to the cold. The camera settings come a little more naturally. I start to actually look around, start to see and to really take in my surroundings.

The quiet of the early morning sinks into my being. I take in the clouds, purple, blue, orange. I experience the world waking up, the birds coming alive, other creatures stirring. I start to become attuned to the colors. The light is so different in the early morning. The reflections of the sky in the water. The colors in the windows of a building.

I find myself more and more able to just be present. The camera becomes an extension of my eye. There is a sense of the picture taking itself.

Yet everything looks so different when seen thru a camera lens. I’m standing in the midst of an immense, cascading, overwhelming, ever changing, kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, sounds and smells. The camera puts a border around all this. In a way it diminishes the immensity of life around me. It also helps me open to that life in a whole new way. Something about seeing one small piece of the world brings me out of my head and more attuned to the life that around me. This day, this moment I have the privilege of seeing it. It’s humbling. I see my place in the world more clearly, just one tiny piece in a vast universe.

Gradually I learn to focus on details. It’s impossible to capture the 360 degree panorama within which I live. I learn from our instructor. In our critiques he comments: “I’m not sure what you were trying to convey.” or “this over here is distracting, what are we looking at?” His words and my mindfulness practice help me really see when I’m out there with the camera.

A natural flow emerges, an openness to seeing the world in a new way, as a form of meditation. I start to see and feel the subtleties that make up my daily experience. I find a deep sense of calm, and a sense of wonder. Seeing the eye of a bird, seemingly looking at me, more likely looking for the next morsel of food, yet somehow it feels as if I can see into the spirit and soul of that bird. I watch my thoughts. What is beauty? Is that vulture ugly or does it have its own beauty?

We arrive at a place where we are to stay for 2 hours. It looks awfully ordinary to me. I notice my thoughts: “I’ve got to get a good picture out of this. We’re going to present our pictures to the class in a couple days.” I let the thoughts come and go and start to approach it without an intention for what the outcome might be. I find myself more and more able to just relax and sink into being where I am. I find a sense of humility in enjoying all the small sights that make up my world. In that way the ordinary becomes awesome.

I begin to notice small moments. It takes perseverance and presence to catch the exact moment when the bird catches a fish, for instance. I sit there for almost an hour, just being present, to get that picture. I am here. I am so honored and so humble just to be here, to be standing in this place at this instant and seeing this exact moment in time. Then it’s gone. Fleeting. Everything changes so quickly. By the time I catch it, the moment is gone.

The days go quickly. All too soon I find myself back at home with hundreds of pictures to pore over. Everyone asks about my vacation. I show the pictures. I get the oohs and aahs yet something is missing. In some ways the photographs have become objects, dead, a frozen moment.

Then I just sit and really take in one photograph, a shell, water surrounding it. It’s more than just a memory. I can look at the photograph and have new ongoing, emotional reaction to the photograph itself. I see not just a shell, and not just an intriguing picture, but the swirl of the water, the colors and shapes. I remember being mindful of the raisin in the first session of our 8-week class. A new world opens just by sitting and seeing. Just this, just this one shell, this one wave, these multitudes of color in this one instant of life brings me back to a new way of seeing.

After this trip I find my senses sharpened. I realize I miss so much. Now I feel more committed than ever to really being awake for my life. Whether it’s noticing the wind in the trees in all their autumn glory or sitting with a friend who is in distress, just being present is profound.

More information about our 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course.

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.

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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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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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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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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Self Care at the End of the Election Season

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Are you feeling stressed out, losing sleep, feeling emotions charged and mind racing over the upcoming election? I know I am.  Friends, clients and family members have reported symptoms as varied as emotional outbursts, difficulty sleeping and preoccupation to being totally disengaged or disconnecting with the process completely.

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Gratitude

To live a life of gratitude
is to open our eyes to the countless ways
in which we are supported by the world around us.
Such a life provides less space for our suffering
because our attention is more balanced.
We are more often occupied
with noticing what we are given,
thanking those who have helped us,
and repaying the world in some concrete way
for what we are receiving.
Gregg Krech,
Naikan: Gratitude, Grace & the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection

Yesterday I saw myself full of angst, ruminating about getting older and just wishing life would go the way I want. Some days this type of mood seems to go on and on as I watch myself get derailed by depression, anxiety or hopelessness.

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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.

“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!

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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