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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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.