Mindfulness & Wellbeing

From Fear to Love

Ten days ago, right after the initial public requests for social distancing in response to the Coronavirus Pandemic, I went to my grocery store. What struck me immediately was that people were frantic, disconnected, and rushing around. Everybody was grabbing for stuff without awareness of other people around them. They were cutting each other off in aisles, everyone for themselves. There was that sense of urgency, get what you need and get out as fast as you can and back to safety at home.

They seemed to be afraid as they desperately searched for cleaners, disinfectants, and hand sanitizer. I’ve never seen anything like it. The shelves were empty, and the carts were overflowing with megapackages of paper towels, toilet paper and bottled water.

The sense of urgency was contagious. I felt the urgency, even panic and started thinking, “there won’t be enough”. I found myself grabbing things I didn’t necessarily need.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultivating Self-Compassion

Self-compassion has not and still does not come easily to me. Typically my knee jerk reaction to challenging situations or difficulty in relationships has been to blame myself at some level. I question what I could have done or said differently to have avoided the difficulty. My conditioned reaction is to try to find a strategy to fix the situation.

I am most grateful for the practice of mindfulness which has helped me to become more aware of how this intellectual problem solving habit is actually a movement away from my experience in the moment  and by extension creates a disconnection from myself as a vulnerable human being. Staying with my experience in these challenging moments is difficult because most often I am experiencing painful emotions such as, disappointment, hurt, fear, self-doubt or shame. I am also personalizing these feelings as this is who I am, e.g. “something is wrong with me”. Thoughts arise in the moment such as, “You wouldn’t speak to me that way” or “This wouldn’t be happening…if I was smart enough, more competent, worthy of respect, good enough”.

The challenge has been to learn to recognize this pattern of thinking and feeling as human and natural rather than the truth about who I am. That actually, what I am experiencing in those moments connects me profoundly with other humans and our shared human condition. I am not alone or an aberration. Within this perspective and understanding, compassion is possible, not only for myself but also for other human beings who experience similar thoughts and feelings. Read More

Moving from Separation to Connection

On a recent meditation retreat, during a walking meditation outdoors, a woman walked up behind me & passed me on the sidewalk.  I observed that she was older and I noticed I was having thoughts that sounded a little patronizing in tone about her gait and her slight limp as she walked and thinking that I don’t have an obvious limp and she probably couldn’t walk all the way down to the pond which I enjoyed so much.  She seemed different from me.  “I’m not like that.”  All this despite being 72 years old myself and having had an issue with my left foot only a few months earlier that had made it difficult for me to walk with ease.  I did feel a certain sympathy and pity, but also felt separate from her.  As I became more aware of this pattern of thinking, it was curious to me to see it as a bias, a prejudice, ”ageism”.  I wasn’t judging myself about it like I certainly would have in the past as unkind & shameful.  I was just noticing it.

There is a natural human reaction to disconnect and distance from people and situations that trigger unpleasant emotional responses in us.  Another, less obvious, natural human reaction is to distance or disconnect from our own unwanted thoughts, feelings and experiences.  A common way that we do this is by projecting our unwanted emotions or thoughts onto others.  When this happens it is very difficult for us to have any curiosity or compassion for others or ourselves.  The practice of mindfulness helps us to become more aware of these habits of mind and to bring more kindness and curiosity to what is happening and what underlies these automatic reactions. Read More

I got back a couple of weeks ago from a 10 day silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre Mass. My friends asked me about the retreat and about how it was coming home. I fumbled with my words. How can I explain what coming home was like?

My very first day back I decided to go to the DMV to get my license renewed. I had to do it within the month. I didn’t need to do it on the first day back. What was I thinking? I just wanted to do things that needed to be done to have more order in my life. It turned into a true test of equanimity. There was a huge long line. Stand in one line, get to the front, get paperwork approved, go stand in the next even longer line. Utter frustration. In the past I might have stormed off or said something very pointed and even insulting to the staff who didn’t seem to have a lot of urgency in their job. Instead, I was able to slow down and contemplate my options. I could come back later. I could judge myself for being so stupid to do this on this particular day. I could lash out at the people serving us. I chose to simply take in that it was my choice to be there and to weather the experience with as much equanimity as I could muster. Read More

Mindfulness at Work

When I worked as a vocational rehabilitation counselor, I had close to 200 clients in my case load and the demands were overwhelming. Each person had a history of injury, disability, and needs that were often heart wrenching. For instance, my clients included an office worker whose desk collapsed on her one day leaving her in chronic pain for the rest of her life plus many others with head injuries, spinal cord injuries, or mental health disabilities.

The stress for both my clients and me was over powering at times. I was constantly filled with gratitude that I had a longstanding mindfulness practice that supported me and contributed to my clients. However, it’s a very limited view to see mindfulness training as simply a stress reduction or wellness program.

Mindfulness is the capacity to be aware of what’s happening in the present moment with a quality of attention that’s curious, and accepting. The point is to pay close attention, to see more clearly what’s happening in the moment, including physical sensations, thoughts and emotions.

How is this helpful? As one example, when I’m aware of physical sensations, it’s possible to catch tension and tightness in my body quickly before thoughts and emotions escalate. This deeply affects how we interact with customers, clients, patients or co-workers since interactions often happen in stressful moments. Mindfulness supports an ability to be more open and sensitive to others, to recognize when a busy mind or outside distractions take us away from being really present. It helps us find more sensitivity to our customers’ needs.

I experienced this a couple years ago when I had eye surgery. It was a little nerve wracking considering I was to be awake for the whole procedure. I got to the surgery center early in the morning and was greeted by nurses who did everything physically necessary to get me prepped for surgery but didn’t pay a lot of attention to my emotional state. At one point my surgeon came over. I’m sure she was far busier than the nurses or staff, yet she took the time to notice my anxiety and she showed that sensitivity with the smallest of gestures. She lightly touched my shoulder and said “Are you OK?”. In that moment she was able to be mindful in a very small way that made a huge difference. Read More

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. Read More

The Gift of Curiosity: From Separation to Connection

We often teach in our mindfulness classes that mindfulness supports the curious investigation of what’s arising in our awareness so we can see it more clearly and not just react to it habitually. What was big for me this year on retreat was the deeper understanding and clarity around what ‘investigation’ means and how important curiosity is in the practice of mindfulness.

For instance, during this week-long silent retreat, I was walking on a path under some apple trees. Suddenly something dropped down in front of me. My initial reaction was: ”Eww!”. What’s that?!! I realized it was a caterpillar, a strange looking caterpillar. My judging mind kicked in. I saw holes in some of the leaves and thought, “It’s damaging the tree!”

Then I began to look more closely with curiosity. “Wow…look at that!!!” It was maybe ¾ inch long, a gazillion legs, very fine green fur covered its body and 2 long antennae extended upward from his head way beyond its fur and the mouth had 2 amazing prehensile extensions moving back and forth. It was hanging by a thin thread. “Perhaps the wind had knocked him off a branch?”  I stood there, amazed by this very small piece of nature & the thin thread that had caught him.  I was moved by the awesome complexity of the life in this ¾ inch long caterpillar! Read More

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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Ease and Balance in the Midst of Challenge

We often say the purpose of mindfulness it to be able to be more fully present in the midst of our lives, for the pleasant as well as the unpleasant moments.  I recently had an opportunity to use my mindfulness practice in a very challenging situation.

I wasn’t so happy when I learned I needed outpatient surgery to remove a basal cell cancer below my lower eyelid.  I had over a month wait in order to schedule the surgery.  So, initially there was plenty of time for my mind to come up with scary scenarios, especially after seeing photos of the repair process. I started to worry about what was my face going to look like. How long would it take to look OK again, or would it ever? What if I could not see. Read More

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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