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.

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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Making a Meditation Practice into a Habit

dreamstime-48267628Getting into the routine of meditating every day has sometimes been a challenge for me, even now when I’m retired and have lots of time. When I worked, I meditated in the evening. Now that I’m retired, I decided meditating in the morning is the way to go.

I set a goal, sharpened my intentions, focused on the positive rewards that I experience from meditation, and still didn’t consistently follow through.

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Recently I came across these photos taken by Roeselien Raimond, a Dutch nature photographer, showing foxes enjoying themselves in the wild.

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It appears that foxes don’t need mindfulness courses to learn about being in the moment, even in the face of adversity.

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After seeing these pictures, I became curious about Roeselien, the person behind the camera. How did she ever get the pictures? I learned that she didn’t use remote controlled cameras or any other fancy technology. Instead it was a process that required mindful presence and nonstriving. She comments:

“ the harder you try, the more you’ll move away from your goal. If you are too eager, an animal will sense that eagerness and will remain alert. I learned to do as foxes do, just being there and see what might happen. And in the mean time, I just enjoy smelling some fresh air and feeling the sun on my skin.”

What a metaphor for my meditation practice. However, what meaning could it possibly have in the midst of a busy, goal-oriented life?

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Of course we need to have goals and to work toward achieving our goals. Foxes need to eat. Roeselien wanted to get exhilarating pictures. She’s a professional. Her livelihood depends on it. We want the health benefits of a meditation practice and try hard to achieve those results.

Yet I’ve learned over time that one of the most profound ways to achieve my goals is nonstriving. For me this means just being there in the moment, being present, even with unpleasant things, and letting the action develop organically out of wisdom and appropriateness to the situation.

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The results are often very different from anything I might have planned and beyond any expectation I could possibly have had of what would happen.

Meditation is a very direct way to practice nonstriving. When you sit down to meditate, you don’t get to control anything or to dictate the outcome. You quickly discover it’s impossible to control thoughts, for instance. What emerges is an ability to see thoughts more clearly and in the process not get carried away by the thoughts. In this way, mindfulness has been shown to be helpful for conditions like anxiety and depression.

I meditate because, over time, I’ve become more centered and grounded, and more compassionate with myself and with others. I’m able to get over periods of depression and anxiety easier and quicker. I feel more connected to the mystery and wonder of life. All of this happens without striving for particular results.

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It’s about just being there and seeing what might happen. Just being there, for this particular meditation period, or for my life. As I discover over and over, what happens often is totally amazing and totally unexpected.

Venturing Out

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Winter (Jean Meier)

Many days of snow and ice,
cold and wind.
I rarely venture out,
until yesterday.
End of winter.
Slowly
warmth returns.
Still ice on the pond.

Breath of Life (Danna Faulds)

I breathe in All That Is-
Awareness expanding to take everything in,
as if my heart beats
the world into being.
From the unnamed vastness beneath the mind,
I breathe my way to wholeness and healing.
Inhalation. Exhalation.
Each Breath a “yes,”
and a letting go, a journey, and a coming home.

Befriending Self-Doubt

Alone

An “off trail” hike over gargantuan red boulders
dropped in the desert as if by some God.
Filled with trepidation at the suggestion to stray…
yet, afraid to say, “no”.
Scrambling over, under & around smooth edged rocks,
rough & warm in the sun…
trying to keep up…fears of being left behind…
hardly able to take in the surrounding, abundant beauty.
Common street sneakers, like their wearer, not up to the task.
Panic rising, a fist tightening in the gut,
a knot in the throat, dry mouth… dread deepening as dusk approaches,
shadows looming across the boulders.
They seem to delight like young children frolicking…
astounding…and oh, the deep yearning to feel that too.
Alone, terrors haunt.
The fear and the shame of it…keep me silent…
isolated as a desert butte.
And then, around another rock…a sign…the trail.
The safety of stories shared.

Recently, I was reminded of the feelings of being lost in the desert and once again experienced feelings of anxiety and inadequacy as I was moving out professionally into some ‘unfamiliar territory’.  A part of the ‘fruit’ of mindfulness practice in my life is that I am able to recognize these familiar feelings of anxiety and inadequacy and the bodily sensations that accompany them as they arise and bring a more curious and friendly attention to them.  With a gentle inquiry, “What is this?”, and turning toward my body to feel the sensations and where they are arising, I say to myself, “I see you…It’s OK…I’m here”. What arose was a quality of spaciousness within myself to embrace the feelings of anxiety and inadequacy as well as the willingness to share what I was experiencing with my colleague and friend.  The result has been an ongoing creative collaboration on our shared dream filled with joy and more resilience in the face of challenge.

When we learn to  hold the stories we tell about ourselves with more curiosity and kindness, we can begin to touch and remember the wholeness of who we already are.