Every year I make time for a silent meditation retreat. This retreat week is a time to gain perspective on my life, recommit to how I want to be in the world, to move inside, be silent and tune in to my deeper yearnings. This year, one thing that came up for me is that I think it’s up to each of us what our future world will look like and it’s my fondest wish to create a world focused on well-being for all. All this seemed especially necessary and even urgent this year given the deep unrest in the US, the political divides, the pandemic and even the specter of climate change wreaking havoc on our world.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.