Posts tagged ‘practice’

If You Believe You’re Practicing Mindfulness “Wrong,” Think Again.

There are no mistakes. The events we bring upon ourselves, no matter how unpleasant, are necessary in order to learn what we need to learn; whatever steps we take, they’re necessary to reach the places we’ve chosen to go.

Richard Bach

The wandering mind is the often the most dominant experience when anyone first attempts to learn mindfulness practice.  Although it is a natural characteristic of being human, most of us don’t realize how busy our minds are until someone asks us to pay attention to our experience, such as the breath, for an extended time; we are generally unaware that preoccupations about the future or the past have such a strong grip on us.  Therefore, many people interpret that they are “doing the practice wrong” when they realize that their mind is wandering so frequently and that they are ensnared by those thoughts.  They judge themselves as not being good at practicing mindfulness.

Instead, it is helpful to understand that you free yourself of the grip of your wandering mind by noticing when you are caught by it.  It is in that moment of noticing that you are preoccupied by thoughts that you have the opportunity to bring your awareness back to the here and now. Ultimately, you foster the increasing ability to bring your mind into the present moment by noticing when it is not present, and learning to welcome it back, rather than punitively judging yourself when you are not paying attention.  You are not “doing the practice wrong,” this is actually how you develop the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a process, like building a muscle that gets stronger with use over time.  Physiologically, you are creating new neural pathways that support your ability to bring your awareness into the present, and each time you repeat that pattern, the neural pathway becomes stronger and the signal becomes faster.  With greater use, that pathway is easier for you to access.  So, to cultivate mindfulness, follow the advice of Saint Francis de Sales, “If the heart wanders or is distracted, bring it back to the point quite gently …. And even if you did nothing during the whole of your hour but bring your heart back …, though it went away every time you brought it back, your hour would be very well employed.”

Carl Jung asserted, Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth, and if a man does not know what a thing is, it is at least an increase in knowledge if he knows what it is not.”  Accordingly, knowing that your mind is not in the present moment, that it, instead, has been wandering, is a valuable experience.  This helps you to learn to differentiate when your mind is actually present.  Also enables you to develop insight about the patterns of thought that pull and preoccupy your attention.  As counterintuitive as it may sound, learning more about your wandering mind, and your tendency to get seduced by it, helps you develop the capability to be present more often.

The same is true regarding any aspect of your experience, not merely your wandering mind.  In her poem, Unconditional, Jennifer Paine Welwood suggests,

Willing to experience aloneness,
I discover connection everywhere;
Turning to face my fear,
I meet the warrior who lives within…

Opening to my loss,
I gain the embrace of the universe;
Surrendering into emptiness,
I find fullness without end.

For example, if you feel impatient, rather than fighting against that feeling and trying to force yourself to act patient, instead you may learn about patience by exploring and becoming more familiar with your experience of impatience – acknowledging it fully and getting to know it more intimately.  Patience then comes from your ability to be free of impatience.

Similarly, rather than pushing away experiences of pain to try to minimize your discomfort, see what it is like to be willing to explore your experience of pain.  By turning your awareness in towards it, taking a very close look at the pain, noticing how it feels in your body, separately from the thoughts that are triggered, you may at some point notice moments of being free of the grip the pain has upon you.

Instead of judging yourself, congratulate yourself for noticing when your mind has wandered, or that you feel impatient or what the experience of pain feels like.  This is the heart of the mindfulness practice, insight, knowing what your experience truly is in the moment.

A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.

James Joyce

August 9, 2011 at 9:21 am Leave a comment

Driving Yourself Sane

“Patience is something you admire in the driver behind you and scorn in the one ahead.”
— Mac McCleary

Driving is an activity that most of us do on a daily basis.  It also tends to incur a significant amount of stress.  In fact, commuting to and from work may be the most stressful part of the day for some people.  It is, at a minimum, a contributing factor to the accumulation and cycle of stress within daily life.  Therefore, this an especially fruitful place to apply mindfulness skills.

The practice of mindful driving entails paying attention to your experience (what you see, hear, feel, smell) while driving rather than getting engaged in other stimulation or being preoccupied by your thoughts.  There is plenty to pay attention to while you are driving.  In fact, for many people, driving is a very stimulating experience on its own, even without adding other distractions.  So when we then engage in additional stimulation, it can be overwhelming to our system.

Here are some suggestions for driving with more mindful awareness:

  • Turn off all optional sound (radio: music/news/talk; CD/tape; mp3 player)
  • Eliminate other distractions (phone, food, etc.)
  • When you are stopped, either at a red light or in heavy traffic, use that as an opportunity to check in with yourself.   Notice if you are holding tension in your body and see if you can release that.  Areas particularly vulnerable to tension while driving are your jaw (notice if you are clenching your teeth) as well as your arms and hands (notice if your fists are tightening).  Notice if your mind is preoccupied and see if you can return your awareness to the moment.  Taking a few abdominal breaths can be helpful to bring yourself back to balance.
  • When on the freeway, select one of the right-hand-most lanes and drive at or close to the speed limit, unless conditions demand that all drivers slow down.  Allow other drivers to pass you if they seem to want to exceed your speed.  People commonly have a misconception regarding how much time will be saved by going faster.  It may surprise you to learn that calculations estimate by increasing your speed from 65mph to 75mph you may only save 1 minute 14 seconds every 10 miles.  According to Natural Resources Canada, speedy and aggressive driving burns excessive fuel and money and only saves a matter of minutes.
  • In heavy highway traffic, pick a lane and stay in it, but not the fast lane. Over the course of many miles, all lanes will go approximately the same speed. In the end, excessive lane changing will not get you to your destination any faster, and ultimately only makes traffic run more slowly overall. It also increases your chances of a collision.  According to some statistics, 10% of crashes are due to lane changes.
  • Leave a few minutes earlier than you think will be required to arrive at your destination.  Giving yourself this buffer may be one of the best ways to reduce the stress that arises from time pressure.  Tip: Google Maps will not only provide you with driving directions to your destination but you can also ask to see up-to-date traffic conditions to help you plan your route before you leave.
  • And if you are running behind schedule while you are on the road, or get caught in unexpected traffic, accept that you will arrive whenever you arrive.  Let go of your tendency to strive to make up for lost time or change the circumstances you are in.  Once you are on the road, you have fewer means to significantly impact when you will arrive.

Driving need not be a necessary evil.  Instead, it can be another opportunity to bring mindfulness into your daily life.  Try some of these suggestions to see if you can reduce the toll that driving takes on your health and well-being.

May 10, 2011 at 4:06 pm Leave a comment

8 Reasons For Business People to Meditate

It is no secret to those who know me that meditation, and mindfulness in general, is one of my passions. Like many others, I originally developed a meditation practice to address challenges I was experiencing in my daily life.

Upon graduating from college, with a background in engineering and a progressive attitude, I chose a career in the high tech hardware and software industry in the Silicon Valley. The high tech industry is excessively demanding—those who work in these environments undergo highs and lows similar to being on a roller coaster and are faced with constant and rapid change, as well as arduous time commitments and workloads that can take a toll on other aspects of one’s life. “What life?” some may ask! This has not been an easy path, especially as I have matured and increasingly taken on more responsibilities besides my work. To thrive under these conditions, I turned to my mindfulness practice with the intention of achieving greater balance, satisfaction, and effectiveness in my life.

Role models I met along the way had been advocating the value of meditation in the workplace, Les Kaye and Lewis Richmond among them. Inspired by their values of integrating meditation into one’s work life, along with my personal experience attempting to do so, I set out to explore the effects of meditation for people who work in the business world as my doctoral thesis for a PhD in psychology, “Business people who meditate: The impact of the practice on their experience in the workplace.” *

This study explored the impact of a long-term meditation practice on business professionals’ experience in the workplace. The participants consisted of business people (4 females and 4 males, ranging in age from 37 to 63) who maintained long-term meditation practices. The duration of participants’ meditation practice ranged from 2.5 to 33 years with a mean of 11.8 years. Participants held a variety of professional positions, including 2 executives, 1 manager, 3 individual contributors, and 2 consultants. One-on-one in-depth interviews were conducted to investigate the effect, if any, their meditation practice had on their experience in the workplace.

Analysis of the data revealed 8 major themes related to aspects of the participants’ work life. Take a look and see if you can relate to any of these themes, and if they motivate you to continue to practice:

  1. Improved inner state
    100% of the participants in this study reported being less stressed and calmer or more patient at work as a result of their practice, enabling them to interact more fully with coworkers, cope with difficult situations, or face adversity. Moreover, several of the participants described this as the most significant impact their practice has had on their experience in the workplace.
  2. Increased functioning at work
    Participants reported positive effects of their meditation practice such as improved ability to listen to coworkers or clients and truly hearing what they are saying, increased productivity, improved concentration, and greater mastery or competence in their work. Instead of getting caught up or agonizing over all of the things that needed to be done, participants reported being able to do what was in front of them, working each problem as it comes up, minimizing procrastination and, ultimately, being more effective.
  3. Improved perception of self
    Participants reported greater compassion for, or acceptance of, themselves, increased self-esteem or self-confidence, and improved ability to trust and forgive themselves. In turn, they believed that this has had a positive impact on their work experience in a number of ways, such as being more positive, more willing to contribute, or more at ease.
  4. Increased sensitivity toward others
    All of the participants in this study revealed that their meditation practice has impacted the way they see their colleagues and customers. Without exception, the responses indicated an increase in sensitivity and openness toward others in the workplace: greater compassion; ability to have and show more respect for individuals at work, regardless of their position; and more forgiving.
  5. Shift in priorities of work toward greater balance
    Participants reported that they invested less of themselves in work: they worked fewer hours or were not as compulsive about work. For example, one participant said she wasn’t “willing to drive [herself] 80 hours a week anymore. Another said, “I’m not 110% devoted to the success of the business at the expense of every other aspect of my life. (It is relevant to note that this shift in priorities did not come at the expense of perceived productivity; instead, participants reported increased productivity, as stated in the second theme above.)
  6. Increased focus on ethical behavior
    All of the participants discussed ways in which they have increased their focus on ethical behavior in their work as a result of their meditation practice including greater attention to ethical speech, greater attention to ethical actions, increased ethical standards, and more selective business associations. Half of the participants acknowledged having always had ethical values; however, their practiced has confirmed and enhanced those innate values for them in their work.
  7. Improved relationships
    A majority of the participants reported a positive impact of their meditation practice on their relationships in the workplace: paying more attention to relationships and experiencing less conflict in relationships. Several of the participants described this to be one of the most significant impacts their meditation practice has had on their work experience: enriching their work, making it more enjoyable, and providing greater personal satisfaction.
  8. Integration of practice with life
    100% of the participants indicated that their meditation practice permeates all aspects of their life. Moreover, the participants reported that they are no longer able to separate their practice and its impacts from the rest of their life; their life and practice have become integrated. As one participant stated, “It’s apparent to me, in a way that it never has been before, that I can’t differentiate. The practice is not something different than my life. And I’ve often thought of them as little bit dichotomized or zero/one. That’s just not true anymore.”

These results suggest that long-term meditation practice may have positive impacts for not only the individual in the workplace but also for coworkers, customers, and the organization as a whole. As a mindfulness teacher and practitioner, as well as someone who works in the business world, I am grateful each day for the benefits I receive from my practice. I’d like to hear more about how your mindfulness practice impacts your experience in the workplace. Please let me know.

* Forbes, J. (1999). Business people who meditate: The impact of the practice on their experience in the workplace. UMI Number:9958678.

March 14, 2011 at 7:42 am 1 comment

Mindful Change: Living From the Inside Out

“I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.”
– Louisa May Alcott

A person came to me recently very frustrated as she was struggling with a difficult situation.  She was in lot of emotional pain and she desperately wanted her situation to change; she wanted things to be different than they were right at that moment.

Her circumstances are not different from those many people are facing and hers is likely a situation that is familiar to many of you.  If we are honest with ourselves, there are aspects of our lives that feel as if they are out of our control and at times we find ourselves challenged, or even overwhelmed, by this experience.  You are not alone if you relate to this.  Be assured, this is a common experience, part of the human condition, and often causes us quite a bit of suffering.

Mindfulness is a skillful way to address these feelings of pain and suffering that arise in your day-to-day attempts to survive.  It is important to understand, however, that by cultivating mindfulness as a means of addressing the stress in your life, the circumstances of your life are not likely to go away; they may not even change.  Instead, changes are happening internally, within yourself; the work you are doing is from the inside out.  As you cultivate awareness in the here and now, you have the opportunity to transform the way you relate to the difficulties you encounter.  By developing mindfulness, you enable yourself to see what you are experiencing more clearly and become more familiar with your habits of reacting to that.  With greater clarity, you may have the possibility of responding more effectively to the challenges in your life rather than reacting automatically, falling into the same in-grown patterns that keep you stuck.  Responding with greater awareness, over time, frees you from the maladaptive reactions that otherwise continue to keep you in a cycle of suffering: either reacting as a victim to the circumstances around your, or instead, being caught in denial.

You probably have experienced the futility of changing your circumstances from the outside, without addressing your internal reactions.   Some examples are:  quitting a job that isn’t working only to find the same problems creep up once you are in a new job, ending a problematic relationship only to find yourself experiencing the same dynamics in the next one, or finding yourself repeating the parenting styles of your parents even though you vowed you would never treat your own children in that manner.  Unless you become familiar with your ingrained habitual reactions and gently work with them to explore new ways of responding out of choice, you are destined to stay stuck, a prey to your circumstances, and endure the pain that results.

However, there are options and you do have significant influence in your life, even if control is illusive.  As you develop new ways of responding to the challenges in your life with awareness, not only can you minimize your own pain and suffering, but you can also become a role model for others in your life: children, spouses, co-workers and friends.   As Gandhi said, “We must be the changes we wish to see in the world.”

When you are feeling the pain of dealing with challenges in life, before you react, see if you can take some time to direct your attention inward, toward your own experience.   With continued practice, you may begin to be able to explore new options and respond, with choice, out of your growing awareness.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Viktor E. Frankl

February 22, 2011 at 11:00 am Leave a comment

Mindfulness Can Change Your Brain: improvements in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking

Most people come to learn mindfulness meditation with the hopes of improving their well-being and quality of life.  However, one of the challenges of undertaking a commitment to mindfulness practice is that the changes you experience may be gradual and subtle.  The benefits are not always obvious to the practitioner as they develop over time.  Therefore, it can be helpful to receive reinforcement for your on-going practice.

Here’s some reinforcement for you.  Encouraging results were released in a study published in the January 30th issue of Psychiatry Research: Imaging.  In this study, MRI images were obtained from 16 participants before and after taking an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program and compared with a control group of 17 individuals who did not take the program.  The MRI images from those who practiced mindfulness every day found increases in gray matter concentration in the left hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory.  Increases in other areas of the brain were also identified in the MBSR participants as compared to the control group.  “The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.”

Take these affirmative results to heart and have confidence that your mindfulness practice may improve your memory, emotional regulation, empathy and perspective in life.  Let this be encouragement for you to continue to practice mindfulness, return to your practice if  it has waned, or begin a practice if you have not tried it yet.  And as more research is performed, I look forward to sharing more information on the positive effects of your mindfulness practice.

January 28, 2011 at 12:06 pm Leave a comment

Practicing Mindfulness With Training Wheels On

“Meditation is training for life. If we want to be free, it is important to learn how to directly experience the unbroken chaos and impersonal confusion of our own minds without being disturbed by any of it. Only if we can bear it will we be able to take responsibility for it. If we cannot calmly endure our own minds, others will inevitably suffer the consequences. If we cannot handle our own thoughts and emotions while we are simply being still and paying attention, then how are we ever going to be able to make the appropriate choices when we are walking, talking, and engaging with others? Meditation is training for life.”
Andrew Cohen

Meditation is training for life.  And, as one responder to this quote asserted, “Life is training for meditation.”   Most of us undertake mindfulness practice with the intention of improving well being in our active day-to-day life.  However, to do so, it takes significant effort grounded in a consistent practice, just sitting on a cushion or in a chair with ourselves.

Gil Fronsdal, the primary teacher for the Insight Meditation Center, likens our formal meditation to practicing mindfulness with training wheels on.  He suggests that when we carve out this time to practice, we give ourselves the ability to meet experiences in this protected setting that are more challenging for us to address in active daily life.  It is a safe place for us to explore complicated feelings, sensations, judgments and reactions that are an essential part of being human.

With training wheels on, in a mindfulness meditation practice session, you can try to reach beyond your current comfort zones and you have the freedom to make mistakes without dire consequences.  Here, you have the opportunity to invite and explore your own experiences of pleasure and pain, avoidance and desire.  In a meditation practice, you can take risks to see yourself more honestly, to allow yourself to be more vulnerable, and to become more familiar with those things that trigger you along with your habitual reactions to them, gaining insight as to whether they serve you or hinder you.

And then, there is a time when it is valuable to get off of the cushion and extend mindfulness into your active daily life (where the rubber hits the road, where you are likely to get triggered into reaction).  Take off the training wheels!  Try living your life more mindfully. You may fall down; you may get bumps or bruises.  Nevertheless, this is where life becomes training for meditation.  This is where we learn to balance better.

Most of us have no other choice than to be engaged in daily life. However, it can be tempting for some people to hide out in their meditation practice, safe from the impacts of daily life until they think they are ready to face it.  Yet, as an unknown source pointed out, “If you wait until you are sure you will never take off the training wheels.” The point of our mindfulness practice, ultimately, is to maximize our well-being within the challenges of everyday life; to live fully.  If you fall down, or lose balance, you can get up again and know that you can always come back to your cushion and put the training wheels back on.   

In the end, with mindfulness practice, it is important to put the training wheels on regularly to cultivate, maintain and maximize equanimity in your day-to-day life.  Accordingly, develop your skills and confidence by working with your training wheels on for some time every day!

“The most important part of education is proper training in the nursery.”

January 18, 2011 at 4:37 pm Leave a comment

For the Best Results, Start Small

It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward.”
Chinese Proverb

It is customary at the beginning of a new year to make resolutions, to set new goals.  I personally find this tradition problematic and believe that we frequently set ourselves up for disappointment.  It is not so much the envisioning of intentions that is the trouble, but in how these objectives are commonly approached where most of us falter.  Once a person sets a goal for him or herself, he or she often becomes stuck focusing on the end result rather than paying attention to the process of how to get there.  To be more effective, rather than getting preoccupied with and striving to reach goals, my suggestion, instead, is to start by take small steps in the direction you’d like to go.  And continue these small steps, one after the other.  As Rita Baily said, “Start wherever you are and start small.”

What we are really trying to do when we make any change in our lives is to alter our habits.  This is true when learning a new skill, such as mindfulness.  For example, the intention when practicing mindfulness is to be present in each moment, to be aware of your experience as it is.  However, becoming mindful is not simple journey, as those of you working on this ability know; developing this skill can be very challenging.  The best way to cultivate mindfulness is to start small, practicing by noticing when your attention gets pulled by minor preoccupations (slight annoyances, trivial distractions or captivating stories), and bringing your awareness to your breath to return to the here and now.  Doing this over and over, whenever you notice you are caught in these types of thoughts, you begin to train your mind to a new habit.  With continued practice, eventually, when more challenging fixations arise (set in anger, deep-seated fear, intense rumination or acute pain), you may have the ability to return to the present or even maintain yourself in the here and now regardless of the nature of your experience.  But it all starts with one small step and then continuing to take further steps; working with the small challenges, you are building up the skills to address the larger ones.  “He who would learn to fly one day,” Nietzsche asserted, “must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance.”

John Wooden described the process in this way: “When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. When you improve conditioning a little each day, eventually you have a big improvement in conditioning. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts.“

The process of making changes in our lives takes patience and persistence.  It requires us to continue taking one step at a time when we would prefer to see some substantial results, already!  But don’t despair; if you happen to find you have fallen off of your intended path at any point, you can get back on by taking one small step in that direction.

Ask yourself, right now, what small step you can take to continue in the direction you want to head.

“What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

December 29, 2010 at 6:12 pm Leave a comment

Taming the Monsters

“In facing these monsters lurking inside us with the courage of a warrior, we find that they are not as horrible as we had thought.  As Rilke put it:

‘Perhaps the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.  Perhaps everything terrible is, in its deepest essence, something that feels helpless and needs our love.’

Our monsters are only masks worn by those parts of us that feel powerless or unlovable.  They want, most of all, to be met and seen through.”

— John Welwood, Ph.D.
Journey of the Heart

In a previous post, I suggested that there is nowhere to run; nowhere to hide from the fear that resides deep within each of us.  So how, then, can we work with challenging states of mind that arise which may sabotage us, many of these manifestations of the deeper fear that resides beneath them, such as wanting what we don’t have; anger and hatred; laziness and lethargy; restlessness and anxiety; and doubt?

Most peoples’ first reaction to challenging states of mind is to distract themselves.  Keeping busy “doing” by working, shopping, watching TV, engaging on the computer, etc., is a common strategy, as is numbing oneself with substances or sleep.  Anything that keeps a person from having to actually “be” with their self and the truth of what they are experiencing during these difficult states.  Somehow we often believe if we don’t see and feel something, it doesn’t have an impact upon us.  Unfortunately, that is far from the reality – the difficulty is usually still there taking its toll. As the title of a book by Karol Truman points out, “Feelings buried alive never die.”

In actuality, the most skillful way to respond to these challenging states is to use them wisely and take the opportunity to learn from them.  Here are some suggestions for working with difficult states of mind when they arise1:

Observe to understand and develop a new releationship
Rather than suppressing or hiding from difficult states, see if you can observe them when they are present.  See if you can notice, with a sense of curiosity and inquiry, how you are reacting to these difficult states and, perhaps, getting caught up in them them.  Just this insight alone is valuable; by understanding better how you relate to a difficult state, from there, you may have the opportunity to develop a new relationship with it, one that serves you better.  As a metaphor, Gurdjieff, a 20th Century spiritual teacher who based his work on self-awareness, was known to hold mindful work retreats for students.  During one of these retreats a participant was ousted by the others because he was very difficult and generally disliked.  After this participant left the site, Gurdjieff actually found this man and paid him to return to the retreat to give the other participants the ability to work with this challenge.  Gurdjieff recognized that if he allowed the students to eliminate this thorny issue during their retreat, they would avoid addressing the difficulty and thus would miss the opportunity to learn to relate to it in a more effective way.

Promote the opposite state
If a difficult state of mind is overwhelming, try promoting an opposite state to combat the grip the difficult state has on you.  If you can weaken its hold, you then may be able to attend to it more effectively.  For example, it is told that the Buddha first taught loving-kindness to monks who had been dwelling and meditating in the forest.  These monks were fearful of being attacked by spirits in the forest that didn’t want them there and came to the Buddha to seek his advice.  In response, the Buddha taught the monks the practice of loving-kindness, cultivating intentions of kindness and well-being, as an antidote to their fear.  The monks returned to the forest and as they chanted phrases of loving-kindness, such as, “may I be peaceful, may I be happy, may I be safe, may I be free of suffering,” they began to feel safe and see their environment as friendly.   By practicing loving-kindness, the opposite of fear and anger, the monks were able to quell their fear of the spirits in the forest.  Another example from day-to-day life: during those times when you feel lazy or lethargic, by having the will to energize yourself into some more active state (going for a walk, for example), you may be able to weaken the lethargy and, from there, take a closer look at it and your reaction to it.

Let go
With growing awareness, you may develop the ability to let go of the difficult states when you notice they are present, let them pass.  However, the ability to let go requires that you first acknowledge the feelings honestly, without engaging in them, without being seduced into a reaction to them.  If you, instead, evade acknowledging them honestly, you can slip into a state of denial or avoidance, which are common ways of reacting.  Therefore, it is not effective to bypass step 1) of these suggestions; observing and understanding your reactions to these difficult states must first be mastered before you can truly let go of them.

None of these ways of working with challenging states of mind are easy; however, the payoff for the effort is worthwhile.  Try these approaches for yourself and let me know how they work for you.

1.  Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation, Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, Shambhala (2001)

“The best way out of a difficulty is through it.
— Robert Frost

November 19, 2010 at 4:54 pm 2 comments

Nowhere to Run; Nowhere to Hide

“Nowhere to run
Nowhere to hide
From you, baby
Just can’t get away
No matter how I try

I know you’re no good for me
But free of you I’ll never be”

— Martha and the Vandellas

Recently, I attended a retreat led by a Tibetan Buddhist nun named Pema Chödrön entitled, Smile at Fear.  The primary questions she raised for the participants during the weekend were, “What is it that scares you?” and “How will you work with that?”  As we approach Halloween, these seem like very appropriate questions to pose.

During the weekend retreat, Pema Chödrön continued by inviting participants to consider the possibility that everything we do, the way we interact, the way we react out of habits, etc., is all related to not wanting to feel our fear – it all arises from our attempts to run away from fear.  As human beings, we are stuck in an unconscious reaction of trying to run and hide from our fear.

However, there is another option.  Awareness practices, such as mindfulness, are a method of being with yourself completely and taking the time to see the underlying challenges, including fear, with kindness and honesty.  As Pema Chödrön explained, this path takes bravery to see yourself completely and not run away.  If you touch into the fear rather than turn away, you find tenderness, vulnerability.  While, instead, running away from fear causes a hardness; we become out of touch with ourselves and the world.  Touching into the fear softens and opens us.  It results in greater appreciation, gratitude and compassion.  So the question really becomes, “How can I open to life?”1

What if we use Halloween as a metaphor for meeting the fear that resides within us and make the attempt to open more to life? For example, when we open the door to greet trick or treaters on Halloween, we meet ghouls and goblins, devils, ghosts, vampires, witches and skeletons in addition to the super heroes, cartoon and Disney characters.  Yet we open the door and we do greet them, whatever they may represent or whoever they may be underneath.  For all of the masks and costumes they are wearing, covering up who they really are, they aren’t all that scary when we actually meet them at the door.

Perhaps we can learn to greet our own inner fears in this manner?  What if we were to open our doors to meet our fears?  We might actually meet the disappointment that is hiding under the anger, or the sense of unworthiness hiding under the lethargy, or the pain hiding beneath the restlessness.  All of these, too, are masks or costumes covering up our genuine nature.

Pema Chödrön told a related story about a friend of hers who was having a series of bad dreams.  Pema’s friend spoke about being disturbed by dreams in which she was being chased by monsters.  Pema asked her friend, merely out of curiosity, “What did these monsters look like?”  Her friend paused and responded that she had never turned to look at them.  This question, however, sunk into her psyche and when she had another similar dream, this time she turned around to look at the monsters that were chasing her.  What she found was that the monsters she was fleeing from weren’t really very scary; instead they more like two-dimensional cartoon characters.  After turning to see the “monsters” in this manner, the power they seemed to have over her diminished.

Here is a suggestion to help you face the monsters that reside within you rather than unconsciously running or hiding from them:

1.     Slow down, maybe even stop, when you notice that you are reacting out of fear.

2.     Instead of keeping busy or falling asleep or distracting yourself so that you can avoid what frightens you, can you instead, take a look at it, very gently and truly see it, acknowledge its presence?

3.     Taking the effort to meet your discomfort and fear in this way, over time, although it isn’t likely to go away, its power over you may diminish.  Out of this effort, you may gradually find more effective ways to respond to these challenges.

As Rumi says in his poem, The Guest House, “This being human is a guest house, every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they are a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

“Someone’s knockin’ at the door
Somebody’s ringin’ the bell
Someone’s knockin’ at the door
Somebody’s ringin’ the bell
Do me a favor,
Open the door and let ’em in”

— Paul McCartney

1. Smile at Fear: Finding a True Heart of Bravery, October 15, 16, and 17, 2010, a benefit for the Northern California Shambhala meditation centers and the Pema Chödrön Foundation

October 26, 2010 at 12:28 pm 8 comments

Living in the Gray Areas

Life isn’t black and white. It’s a million gray areas, don’t you find?”

– Ridley Scott

 So often, when working with people to help them develop a new lifestyle practice, I notice that setting up rigid expectations can get in the way of their success.  You know what it is like when you are trying to change your exercise or eating habits?  In your attempts to make these changes, you tell yourself that you will get to the gym four times every week, or that you will eliminate the sugars from your diet. These intentions may be taken on with your best interest in mind; however, it can be difficult to live up to the agenda that you set for yourself. You may only get to the gym once or twice during the week and you feel as if you have failed, so next week you aren’t motivated to go at all.  Or you may have dessert while eating out with friends, so you abandon your attempts to change the way you are eating.

 Similarly, after asking students to practice a new stress-reduction exercise each day for 30 minutes, I find a common obstacle when I check in with them the following week: all or nothing thinking.  More specifically, the common response is, “I didn’t practice every day because I couldn’t find the 30 minutes I needed to do so.”  The barrier to their practice becomes the timeframe I suggested: If they aren’t able to practice for 30 minutes, they don’t practice at all.  By getting stuck in all or nothing thinking, the students sabotage their intention to practice each day and, ultimately, lose the benefits of the changes they want to make. 

 To overcome this obstacle, when you get caught here, the key is to allow yourself to live in the gray area, or middle ground: Consider what subset you can do rather than how you can’t meet your entire expectation all at once. For example, Insight Meditation Society co-founder Joseph Goldstein makes the following suggestion to meditation students to encourage their practice:

 “Try making a commitment to getting into the meditation posture at least once a day. You don’t have to sit for any particular length of time, just get on the cushion. A lot of times, the hardest part is getting there. Once you’re sitting down, you think, ‘I might as well sit for a few minutes,’ and more often than not, you’re getting full sessions in.”1

This same suggestion can be applied to other intentions we have for ourselves.  Taking small steps toward the direction of change you are seeking can be less overwhelming and, ultimately, more effective than trying to do it all at once.

The imperative:  Identify a lifestyle change you want to make and break it up into manageable steps.  Commit to taking one step at a time and build up to the goal you are intending to meet.  Let go of the black and white limitations; instead, allow yourself to explore the gray areas.

If everything isn’t black and white, I say, ‘Why the hell not?’
— John Wayne

1. Tricycle, Fall 2007:

June 29, 2009 at 12:08 pm 1 comment

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