Stress Reduction

On Remembrance Day 2016

On  Remembrance Day – Dear mindfulness practicing friends:

On Tuesday we witnessed an unexpected victory for Donald Trump in the USA-  he will be the next President for our neighbours to the South- along the longest undefended border between two nations.
Our people have  evolved side by side for over 150 years  with enough shared values and similar life styles that we could say unequivocally:  we have more interests in common than differences.
I remember this wonderful picture book from 1976 that featured neighbours along that long border –  called : Between  Friends , pictured above.  The heartwarming photos of ordinary people living close to our border with the USA and Americans living within a stone’s throw of our Canadian communities was edited and compiled by Lorraine Monk.   Ironically it came out in a second special edition in June 2001- a few months before the world was transformed by 9/11.
When I flip through my copy, I can see how closely our lives can be intertwined  across that border.  How interdependent we actually are, how special our international friendships have been over many generations.

Whatever your  sentiments right now, at this moment in time – whether you are feeling elated or devastated by a Donald Trump Republican victory –  know that your views will change.  The world will keep moving forward, and we will be seeing and hearing how the new administration evolves after the early days of January 2017.

It is important to use our practices now to enhance our ability for critical thought, for evaluation, for clarity and honesty.  Do we have a willingness to look deeply into our own attitudes and views  on politics, social change and the needs of all of Americans, Canadians and the Planet ?  We may actually have to fight for our deep convictions, in our own ways:   taking stands peacefully where we can,  within the system for what we believe in.  The Civil Rights movement on behalf of all marginalized people and the survival of this very planet – is not over!

It is easy to fall into the black hole of seeing disaster fall upon us all,  if you support the Democratic party and what they have been working for these last two terms in the White House.    Since Tuesday  morning I have been waking up and flashes of fear and apprehension pass through my mind and body.  I see the wiping out of democratic institutions and long and hard fought battles on many issues, such as climate change and human rights; the importance to provide refuge for those fleeing tyranny.   Many hard fought socially progressive legislation and social safety nets suddenly appear to be vulnerable to elimination with the stroke of the new President elect’s pen.   Then I remember Mark Twain who is reported to have said “I have seen many disasters in my time-  75%  have never even happened.”

My mind like that of most of ours is quick to get aroused into a fight or flight reaction. That is the nature of the mind.  It fills in the blanks very quickly, and before we know it we see destruction and devastation all over the place.   My hope is that I will keep my practice very close and watch over my thoughts and not allow my emotions to take me down into fear and despair.   They say there is a silver lining around every cloud.  If that is the case:  What is Tuesday election’s sliver lining?    Perhaps it is the opportunity to recognize that reality and reality shows   are not the same thing!!    The internet can not be the source of our education.  It is filled with anger driven, even hateful commentary masquerading as facts.   It is time to teach ourselves and our children rudimentary logic – to immunize everyone from being swayed by innuendo and calumny and slander.

These times may also be an opportunity to listen and learn and try to figure out how we can actually work together for needed change in our strong democracies.    I invite you to view the following Tube video:  I think it speaks to the single most important issue in the Western World that absolutely needs to be addressed.   This issue- about inequality of wealth distribution – can no longer be ignored.  Income distributions  have reached  a most  egregious extreme in America;  but it is not only a problem in the USA.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPKKQnijnsM

To be honest, it is a bit of a stretch for me,  but I am trying to be open to what were the needs and sentiments behind those who gave their votes to Trump, and apparently held such disdain for Hillary Clinton.  Maybe the above video explains one of the many factors that have led to where we are right now,  on Remembrance Day.
Remembrance Day (or Veterans’ Day) is a time to remember that a not so long ago, in the in the 1910’s ,1940’s ,1930’s,  1950’s, 1960’s  indeed every decade in the last century –  our brave sons and daughters have been willing to go and fight for values and a way of life we have been benefiting from.
The only way forward, in my estimation, is to foster dialogue and ask questions and keep listening –   Between  Friends.  I wish the best to our friends and  neighbors, even family in the Great United States  to begin the journey of healing, so the nation can be whole again soon…
May the great American poet Galway Kinnell lead the way.

How Many Nights
How many nights
have I lain in terror,
O Great Spirit, maker of night and day,

only to walk out
the next morning over the frozen world
hearing under the creaking of snow
faint, peaceful breaths…
snake,
bear, earthworm, ant…

and above me
a wild crow crying “yaw, yaw, yaw”
from a branch nothing cried from ever in my life.

From: Body Rags – 1968 – reprinted in A New Selected Poems 2001

“Are mindfulness practices making us Ill?” – A question worthy of serious reflection.

I was recently sent a link to a couple of articles by an English journalist Dawn Foster which appeared in The Guardian- a British publication to which she is a regular contributor. Ms. Foster writes about her own introduction to mindfulness practice with a group of people in a work place setting. The session began with a benign sounding request to eat a sandwich mindfully. Yet, Ms. Foster began to feel “excruciatingly uncomfortable” and was left wondering if her jaw was malfunctioning. Her distress became amplified as the group was next introduced to siting meditation. Even before the postural instructions were finished, she felt the beginnings of a panic attack. These experiences are described in Ms. Foster’s January 23rd. 2016 article entitled: “Is
mindfulness making us ill?” http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jan/23/ismindfuness- making-us-ill.

Individuals world wide are reporting positive benefits to overall wellbeing as they
practice mindfulness meditation. These practices are taught on several continents in
many languages and followers now number in the millions world wide. Yet there are a
growing number of individuals who report adverse effects in some situations when they
begin mindfulness meditation. Is this shocking or even surprising? Absolutely not.
Those who are engaging in the practice, expecting mindfulness to bring ease, freedom
from distress and blissful states of mind misunderstand the aims of the practice, or the
reality of suffering. Basically, people are projecting their deepest emotional needs and
longings for release from anxiety and inner turmoil onto a method that may well have
been oversold in our western pragmatic and solution oriented culture.

There is no question that every healing approach or set of prescribed set of
suggested behaviours for improving wellbeing has limits. Mindfulness is a practice of
becoming aware of our condition, and of the human condition in general. Awareness
comes at a price – the inevitable price is related to the fact that our world is not a
peaceful place. We are not immune to the conflicts and suffering of our fellow human
beings. Unavoidably, in this conflict ridden world, our inner life is complex, often messy
and full of turbulence. When we choose to shine a light within, there may be a lot of
dust bunnies and even nasty things lurking in the corners of our psyche.

Most of us live at least some of the time in states of denial. The truth is we can
not attend to all the suffering in the world and live a good life. Our habit of avoiding the
realities of life can go too far. Our favourite way to avoid is to distract ourselves, and
our environment offers infinite ways to accomplish this. We need only to turn on any
one of our electronic devices to tap into pleasant and interesting forms of distraction
from hard truths, both on a personal level and on a societal one. Yet, there has to be
balance and to live a healthy life, in the very least our personal experiences and realities
need to be faced and seen with compassion for how they really affect our minds and
hearts.

Psychologists warn that sitting and watching the mind may trigger intense
emotions. We are, after all, emotional beings who crave those feelings we call pleasant
and go to great lengths to protect ourselves from the other kind – the intense, mean and
scary kind.  Meditation is a kind and gentle practice of self care – a way of enriching our
lives with the invitation to live more fully in the present. However, it is not without its
power to reflect what ails us sometimes quite vividly. Any one of us who has the habit
of avoiding taking care of ourselves by regular reflection on the big picture of our lives
will collect the dust bunnies of anxiety. When anxiety arises, it could be seen as a gift –
the gift of clear seeing.

On rare occasions, sitting and paying attention to what is arising in body and
mind may raise anxiety in troubled people. If they have had psychotic episodes in the past another one could be triggered. However, these breakdowns are triggered by a variety of situations in life. Mindfulness Meditation can not be held responsible. We know that individuals with traumatic histories may not be able to handle the sudden opening of the floodgates of inner experience damed up with coping strategies designed to keep the truth of suffering and anxiety at bay.
Fragile people may need a lot of support and skillful guidance. The unleashing of memories from their past may be highly intense to take head on.
Especially when they are unprepared for such past experiences to come gushing forth. Starting a practice with guidance from experienced teachers may be the necessary but not sufficient step for some. Some may require an experienced therapist to interpret what arises mentally along the way. Providing support to navigate inner storms on the painful journey toward healing is the role of an experienced therapist. Mindfulness is not therapy, even though many therapies now are informed by mindfulness.

In spite of the fact that we can not prevent people confronting their painful pasts, mindfulness based therapies and practices have great potential benefits. Even the most vulnerable, whose approach to their experience is carefully planned and who can make use of skillful guides along the way
can begin to heal with mindfulness.
And that is simply because no matter whatever happened in
the past to any one of us, we can only move forward and honour that past without
succumbing to fear and hopelessness. The alternative is to continue to repress the past and distract ourselves with addictive behaviours. Repression and denial stunt our growth and prolong our suffering.

Who is Dawn Foster? My search shows that she is a Guardian journalist who
seeks out edgy subjects. She challenges the status quo including the National Health Service in England.
So, as mindfulness based therapies are gaining traction in Great Britain these
approaches to health care are rightfully being challenged. I applaud the act of
challenging any treatment approach, especially one that is promoted by large corporations such a Google,
or the Department of Health and Transport for London. Pretty soon the Apple Watch will
be equipped with a Mindfulness App. The question is whose App will be chosen? And
will the mindfulness app be oversold as a way to manage the stress of constant contact
in a wired up life? Are we going to allow ruthless workplaces to push us even further
into stress with corporate offerings of “stress reduction’’ while denying their
responsibility to negotiate with employees honestly about their work loads. On the
other hand, when is the declaration of “my job is the reason I am a mess” a valid
argument for sick leave? These discourses need to be faced with more than a
superficial nod to the mantra of “Work Life Balance”.

The title of this last guardian article is naively preposterous, in my view. But it is
bound to draw attention to the soft underbelly of the mindfulness industry. As a well
entrenched and pretty long time teacher (going on to my ninth year) I don’t mind
admitting that the stress reduction end of mindfulness as a practice has some serious
pitfalls. It is far from well researched because this kind of endeavour poses many
obstacles to serious scientific enquiry. Mindfulness is not a well controlled series of
health management techniques – it is a group of skills packaged in a variety of ways for
many different purposes.

“Is mindfulness making us ill?” With such a challenging title, I am not likely to be the
first practitioner responding to defend the practice. On the other hand, I also believe
that Ms. Foster’s viewpoint has a kernel of truth but one that is born of lack of
understanding of the aims and benefits of mindfulness practice and meditation. You
have to believe in the power of awareness, to commit to any of the mindfulness
practices.. Mindfulness meditation is not transcendental meditation. Mindfulness
does not seek to empty the mind and dissolve the ego. It goes beyond that, and
challenges us to look at and see our present reality. How things actually are is not that
pretty much of the time. The journey can not be successfully undertaken without
harnessing the power of kindness and openness and acceptance of ourselves as
imperfect and suffering human beings. It also challenges our preconceptions about how
the world is supposed to be. This does not mean capitulating to those aspects of our
lives which require us to confront and rise up and take action.

But that is another topic worthy of another discussion.

Cultivating Tranquility – Step 2

Tranquility is a state of mind and body many of us deeply appreciate. How can
we cultivate tranquility? And why is it so often an elusive state in our daily lives? The
truth is that we are a busy, wired up species with many interests and distractions
continually pulling us in different directions. This creates tension and stimulation
contradictory to states of peacefulness, ease, gentle focus and spacious awareness.
The buzz we get from the information highway can be exhilarating. But the fatigue that
comes with too much stimulation is often the source of our yearning for calm and
tranquility in our lives. So how do we reset our nervous system and come down from
periods of exhausting overstimulation?

The radical message of the Buddha asserts that seeds of tranquility are already
within each of us. The natural state of the mind is open and serene. Cultivating
contemplative practice allows us to reconnect to our innate stillness. Each of us can
tap into a felt sense of peace and tranquility. We are not reaching for something foreign
to our natures. We yearn to return to a home base of peaceful abiding. What peace
feels like is unique to each person. To experience peace we need respite from the
seemingly endless demands of modernity. Recognizing when we have reached a
certain saturation point is the first step to choosing calmer moments to revive the spirit.

I recently returned from a three day silent retreat where we were asked to hand
in our cell phones to avoid the temptation of checking messages, told not to read or
write nor speak or even make eye contact with one another. Even the bulletin boards
were mostly covered at the retreat centre. You might say that we were intentionally
guided to give up external stimulation for mental activity. We were left with our own
minds to experience our inner lives and see whatever came up for us.

Of course, this was not sensory isolation; we walked in the lovely woods and fields,
drank aromatic ginger tea, ate healthy, freshly prepared food including delicious
desserts. All our needs were met seamlessly within a strict schedule of mindfulness
practices. The retreat conditions enabled an experience of living life here and now.
Unfolding moment by moment, the natural world and our inner life were so much more
accessible, as the avenues for technological connectivity were blocked for a few days.

Upon returning from this silent retreat, a certain mental ease and tranquility
within. The familiar sense of urgency in all that “needs to be done” seems less gripping.
I am walking a bit slower, and taking some time to launch out on the inevitable errands
that after a few days away from my routine will need attention. I feel my movements
slowed and a quiet calm settling deeply within my body.

But I know that my mind has not miraculously been transformed in three days. It is still
the same busy mind. For now I remember to watch my thoughts and observe mind’s
idiosyncratic ways. I see how I often choose to buy into the tension and hustle around
me. Whatever I feel responsible for assumes an exaggerated sense of importance. My
story concerning the many demands on my time cause stress and distressing feeling
states. Otherwise, I have a to do list that is not unique; just the same kind of list we all
accumulate out of habit. Whatever our circumstances, its not the stuff we need to
address, but the story behind the scenes – inflating our stuff with importance: our roles,
duties, accomplishments and our insufficient freedom or apparent lack of choice.

Is any of this really necessary?” we may well ask ourselves.

Do you recognize how you let your stress sweep you into agitation, irritation,
anxiety or anger? The mindfulness practitioner learns the futility of turning away from
these difficult emotional states. If we turn toward experience with openness and a
sense of equanimity – right now -this is here – we are in a state of non-contention with painful experiences.

Tranquility may seem distant and elusive when suffering pain or difficult moods
states. Ironically, acknowledging these challenging feelings and sensations is the most
caring state of mind we can possibly cultivate when challenged by them. Mindfulness is
being with whatever is arising without judging it, just noticing and being aware moment
to moment as experiences pass through us. Bringing mindfulness to bear on any kind
of suffering honours the fact that we are human beings not human doings. For that
moment during which we’re being mindful, we cease being swept away into hopeless
and helpless beliefs about ourselves.

The untrained person is buffeted by the rocky demands of life into reactivity in the
service of an attempt at self preservation. His first reaction is to turn away, push away
from what feels too difficult to face. There may be judgement, anger, fear, blame or
aggression. This is exactly how we might turn away from the homeless man on the
sidewalk even as we drop a few coins into his hat. Common humanity can be painful.

eye_pic

Stress is created in the mind when mind concludes that we’re facing a situation for which we do not have the resources to cope. It takes some training and trust in
ourselves to recognize whatever is arising in the mind and heart, (even the aggressive
impulse) and treat ourselves in that moment with kindness, concern, offering ourselves
some moral support. Letting go automatic reactivity takes courage and persistence. At
these times we need the strength and the fearlessness of a warrior. That is how we
begin a journey toward tranquility and peace.

Finding balance may require renouncing habits of living that do not serve our
health and well being. Habits take time and effort to shift. Awareness builds
incrementally and supports our quest to retake charge of ourselves. This process is
beautifully portrayed in Portia Nelson’s poem:
An Autobiography in 5 Chapters. Let’s examine this poem chapter by chapter:

Chapter 1 – I walk down the street;
There’s a big hole in the sidewalk – I fall in.
I am lost…. I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find my way out.

At first when we embark on a journey to cultivate tranquility and peace in life; we
are confronted by years of conditioning. We don’t choose to be stressed out and in
pain. It isn’t our fault. Many generations of stressed out ancestors pass down genes
delineating certain temperaments. As children we watched bewildered parents struggle
with life’s demands. The triggers are active and people and situations easily get us
aggravated, irritated, angry, unhappy. Can we train ourselves to notice this as it
unfolds? The body is where this all happens. Recognizing the sensations in the body
that inevitably go along with our automatic emotional reactivity reveals where our work
lies. We mostly notice how much suffering and tension are involved in allowing difficult
emotional states to build up. Just noticing and allowing ourselves to feel what is coming
up is already stepping out of an automatic pilot lifestyle. Coming off autopilot is a
process. As we embark on our mindful journey, we often feel hopeless and helpless.
As if we were at the mercy of our mindsets. Seeing our suffering can be scary, and
when fear is in charge, anger is not far behind. Working with our fears not the same as
banishing our fears.. but we begin to see them for what they really are with self
acceptance and equanimity. Without the ability to feel the fear and know it, we run
madly off in all directions in an effort to regain control. When struggling for control our
major coping mechanism is projection. We blame our reactions on events and other
people out of the false belief we have no say about our emotional states whatsoever.
As long as we entertain and believe this sense of hopelessness, it will take forever to
find our way out of suffering.

Chapter 2 – I walk down the street,
There’s a big hole in the sidewalk….
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.

We humans love all manner of distraction. It is commonplace now to walk into a
a train station, or an airport terminal and see the tops of heads, as everyone is busy
surfing the net or playing with their smart phones. Having nothing to do can feel like
peering down the edge of a precipice – making people dizzy with uncertainty. So we
live a substitute life, pretending it is the real one. We prefer external stimulation and
distraction to connecting with our true inner experience of life. A deep disconnect from
the simple joys of being alive is the result. There are few opportunities to just be even
for a few minutes – lost in observing the moment unfolding around us. Instead we find
many ways of consuming and getting just one more thing done; and in the process our
brains are tuned to a state of arousal and vigilance. Stress is inevitable when living life
constantly engaged in one more activity. We pride ourselves in being busy- as if it were
a virtue.. As I sit in meditation my mind constantly returns to what must be done today;
all the messages to be sent, work to be done, and questions that need answering; this
is not peace but the inevitable product of a mind tuned into relentless “doing” . This
mind is practicing being stressed out!! Can you believe it? Nothing has changed, I ‘m
in the same place – tranquility seems out of reach. How do I / or you get off this Merry
-Go-Round? Mindfulness in the form of Mindful Bells practice enforces a break from
constant doing. Stopping, even for just 4-6 breaths can restore a sense of balance and
bring us back to life unfolding in the real world. But we must choose to let go and be
still: open to things simply as they are without needing anything to do.

Chapter 3 – I walk down the street,
There’s a big hole in the sidewalk…
I see it is there.
I still fall in…it’s a habit.
My eyes are open, I know where I am
It is my fault – I get out immediately.

Iceberg_pic

 

What a revelation!  I have some say in being stressed and unhappy.

It follows then: Only I can get
myself out of this place of suffering.

This eureka moment alters the landscape of experience forever.

It is easy to succumb to this world of endless distractions, short lived little hits of pleasure from endless sources all around. We allow the stream to carry us with it. It is a bumpy ride. Pleasure followed by disappointment; pain amplified by impatience and fear. As we awake to our predicament, its best to first just observe its working on our psyche – day by day. No need to rush and fix anything. Just being with everything unfolding in the usual pattern is an act of solidarity with our situation. It is just “Like This”… What is “this” for you on a regular day? Life may feel like a roller coaster. Getting off requires courage to look closely at what is really happening. We ride the thrill of stimulation and entertainment, indulgences to the top, and then free fall sets in when realizing pleasure fades; expectations are not in line with the actual product we are grasping – the object of our craving. Seeing craving and aversion at work is liberating. We can just be with it: seeing the well worn patterns as if for the first time.

stop sign

Facing his own suffering, the Buddha decided to examine his own mind. He sat quietly under a tree, closed his eyes and watched his mind at work.
The Buddha was a naturalist doing field work – his topic: – his own mind and body – his tools: – patience, close observation, non judging attitude and acceptance of all phenomena without preferences for pleasant. He taught himself to abide with painful experience and afflictive tendencies – opening to them; countering the natural inclination to turn away and shun the unpleasant. In this careful and systematic manner, he examined what it means to be a human being at the deepest level – compassionate to all aspects of this messy state called life. After some time invested in observation, we begin to see where choice comes in – opportunities to observe our habits will reveal where we can interpose a break in the chain of behaviour choices.  We can sidestep the automatic reaction to brace, tense up or fight and resist whatever we just don’t want right now.

Chapter 4 – I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I walk around it.

The deep hole must be seen for what it is. My holes are when I choose to take the easy
way, not noticing that “easy “ really means “familiar and comfy”. Sometimes the familiar
landscapes I travel in, reassuring and no longer threatening are not really the wisest – or
easiest in the long run. For example, I hate paper work, so I usually procrastinate until
the bills are just about overdue. As one can imagine, interest payments are not rare in
my life. I have a stack of file folders on the side of my desk which require attention.
Always something more significant or interesting awaiting doing; closing files awaits
another day. Pretty soon, regret sets in and anxiety drives what could have been much
simpler to finish earlier. Occasionally, I will wake up at 4:30 am needing to get to the
office downstairs and finish the backlog.
I now see that procrastination habit looming over my left shoulder – feeling into
that knot in the stomach that tells me “you are avoiding something”. I can’t avoid the
fact that letting go old habits will require time and patience. It helps to bring kindness to
this recognition. On autopilot, I may suddenly be enchanted by something very gripping
that took precedence over the boring bills. With mindfulness in place, I see the
fascination behind that distraction as just plain delusional- a mirage in the desert.
Delusions are many and vigilance takes energy. This has not been an easy road,
learning to pay attention to the habits that don’t serve me; acknowledging the need to
shift gears. But seeing that deep hole of the old habit right in the middle of my day – the
vertigo I often feel – leaning into a tempting distraction – the anxiety just around the
corner that goes with knowing that playing solitaire on the computer; or sudoku in
today’s paper for only 10 more minutes will be the plunge into another time eating hole
of regret. Yet, the conditions leading up to any habit are oft complex. There is also the
element in situations such as mine that call out “Why this?” and – “What is truly needed
here right now?” This requires taking a step back and sitting with the discomfort of it
all. Seeing my messy, over programmed day, too many projects vying for limited
energy. My particular overly ambitious, overly programmed day needs to be seen for
what it is: a choice I need to revisit. Finally a useful question finds its way to
awareness:
What is really, truly important in my life?

Blog_last pic2

Chapter 5: – I walk down another street.

There is a forest few miles from our home which burned for two days in June a few years ago. The devastation was wide spread. Squirrels, ground hogs, birds, toads,
lizards and bugs of all kinds were displaced. The ground was scorched. The trees
underwent an awesome transformation – burning from the inside out. These scorched
maples, birches, alders and a few pines and cedars have begun to host vegetation of
all kinds growing from the ashes of burnt branches. The soil is rich in organic material.
Four years later spring and summer wildflowers are evident in great abundance. We
walk this forest at least once a month, admiring the richness and resilience of nature.
As the canopy returns, bird populations are on the rise, their song enriching our hiking
experience. The open sky and sunshine nurtures ground plants not seen here for
many decades.
Noticing my particular emotional reactions of wonder, pleasure and sensory
delight out here: I am learning that sometimes the heart has to burn from inside out.
Another poem reminds us : Give back your heart to itself. Let go the habit of taking on
the whole world. Let go the drama of your pain and suffering. Burn off the excessive
holding on; and unnecessary bits of your daily routine. Rising from the ashes a
completely new experience will take hold – an appreciation just waiting for permission to
become manifest. Maybe you too are ready to notice and experience what is right here
for your enjoyment. Walk down that other street.

A Credible Lightness in Being

Recently at the end of one of our Mindful Morning practices at River House in Ottawa, we spoke about uncertainty, the fleeting nature of our motivation, our bodily feelings and that despite our practice, we still mess up with the people in our lives! I guess we had the good sense to inject some humour and realize that no one will handle every event in his life perfectly. We can’t please all our friends and relatives. Our children will get jobs out of town and move away. Our friends will move to Victoria and the dog will die. No one is to blame when events leave us unsatisfied. The Buddha summarized life’s inescapably fickle course so beautifully:

The Radiant Buddha said:
Regard this fleeting world like this:
Like stars fading and vanishing at dawn,
Like bubbles on a fast moving stream,
Like morning dewdrops evaporating on blades of grass, Like a candle flickering in a strong wind,
echoes, mirages, and phantoms, hallucinations,  And like a dream.
The Eight Similes of Illusion

 

Life happens beyond our control, experience is all fleeting, and as we are flesh and blood – nothing about us is solid or enduring. And that is about all we can know with certainty!

This is the basis for the idea of “non self”; maybe the most difficult buddhist idea to comprehend for beginning partitioners of mindfulness. After all, we are all separate people, so the subtlety of our actions, our experiences even our relationships
as occurring in a context of “non self” can be mystifying.
Sadly some religious historians who understand little about the sage we call the Buddha and the depth of his wisdom about human existence, interpret the teachings on non-self to mean that the teachings are somehow nihilistic. Nothing is farther from the truth.

It does not help that psychologists developed a huge body of theory concerning human development and individuation that is in sharp contrast to buddhist teaching. Psychoanalytical writings (and personality viewed as consisting of separate components: id, ego and super ego) have deeply influenced our ideas about ourselves. Powerful though Freudian thinking may be in shaping our concept of man in western culture, it is basically just one theory, one worldview.

If you dissect the body- or the brain – there is “no self organ”. So who am I.. and do I have a distinct unchangeable identity? I know I am not who I was yesterday, never mind a decade ago. What about you? Looking back on your life, you see how life has formed you and keeps moulding who you are today? From the moment of our birth to the moment we die we adapt to our environment. We suffer when we can not adapt to changing circumstances. If we talk about “me, myself or I”- we see that this person is constantly changing.

Of course, each of us possesses unique genetic characteristics that develop over time, are shaped through our bonds with our families and by our contact with others. As unique individuals, we resonate with others through our capacity for empathy. When we feel connected to whomever or whatever we care about, deep emotions can emerge that feel like there is a solid entity inside. But the more I examine this notion about myself, the more I see it as an illusion.

Humanity is delightfully diverse and ever changing! Such richness in a multiplicity of talents, personalities and the like among humans! Just like the flowers in my garden – different colours, textures, growth patterns, life spans, ways of manifesting, etcetera. Some of us manifest our inner potential easily, some of us may be disconnected from ourselves. How we are in the world depends on causes and conditions that have shaped our lives; such as our personality, our temperament, our intellect and our early relationships . Our traits develop with support from trusted and significant others. Many of us have weathered turbulent times and survived adversity that others can not imagine. Yet we are all destined to grow, mature, age and decline and eventually die. Our experiences can shape us for the better or for the worse.

Just as November comes, and flowers in our gardens will wither as they were designed to do; in the end, our bodies and minds succumb to the same fate – there is no real choice, it is a question of when and how it will unfold – the withering I mean.. All that remains is to choose how we will direct our energies given the unpredictability of our world. As I see it, we can choose one of the following positions in an uncertain world:

1. We can take in whatever “good in life” is available right now. This approach can delight when we allow events to simply unfold. Taking advantage of present opportunities, we can live in the moment, aware of the ebb and flow of things, not waiting until some other time when we imagine we may be more inclined to enjoy what is already here. It means being able to think out of the box to recognize ay opportunity for present moment joy and delight.

In Rabindranath Tagore’s words:
“From dawn till dusk I sit here before my door, and I know that of a sudden the happy moment will arrive when I shall see.
In the meanwhile I smile and I sing all alone. In the meanwhile the air is filling with the perfume of promise.”

Sometimes we have difficulty sensing promise in the air- and end up throwing discrimination to the wind. Instead, indiscriminate or compulsive ways of being with our experience or with the world takes over. Gambling or over eating have this compulsive quality. I know I can not go to buffet Chinese restaurants because I will be compelled to keep eating and consume what my eyes are wanting rather than my body is able to digest without causing a stomach ache. Striving and forcing an experience rather than waiting and seeing what arises can deplete our enjoyment of things! Grabbing onto life experience spoils our pleasure when we can’t monitor what is enough and let go.

2. Another pattern of dealing in an uncertain world takes the form of giving in to our fears, opting out and choosing to play it safe with life. Thinking ourselves not capable of much, or when nothing really satisfies, we may give up and stop pursuing goals. Capitulating to pain, to failure, we may give up believing in the possibility of joy, of discovery& delight, or in ease and contentment . This mind state becomes a serious obstacle to our peace and contentment. Besides confining us to live on the sidelines, this attitude deprives the world of our unique talents. Yet the feeling of hopelessness can be all too familiar. When I get into this mind frame, I feel depleted and lost.

Tagore’s words resonate: “I came out alone on my way to my tryst. But who is this that follows me in the silent dark?
I move aside to avoid his presence but I escape him not.
He makes the dust rise from the earth in his swagger; he adds his loud voice to every word that I utter.
He is my own little self, my lord, he knows no shame; but I am ashamed to come to the thy door in his company.”

Ah the self doubt, the weight of shame and insecurity, the fear of not measuring up! Dismayed when the vibrant flavour of life is replaced by another less desirable feeling, the best I could do is slow down and monitor my mood until this too changes. I can seek out some help, some calming practice or just plain give up something I can not handle at this moment. Letting go and trusting that this unpleasant mood will pass has become my mainstay when I feel depleted in this way.

3. Mindfulness practice opens another doorway on life. Once we have been on the mindful path for a while we start to pay attention to the “music within”. Learning how not to react in habitual ways, we centre ourselves using one of our calming practices, such as mindful meditation. Inserting this pause and stopping while letting difficult feelings emotions or pain just flow through, is a gateway to coming to terms with what is actually possible right now. This is a powerful way to reclaim our optimism and wellbeing. Opening to the rich fabric of life and to all living things throbbing with energy – lifts us up and allows us to ease into the present moment. That is where our practice leads – to witnessing life passing through us!
A teacher can introduce you to the melody but you have to be willing to sing the music of mindfulness.

Some people have asked if mindfulness is a spiritual practice or a branch of psychology? Perhaps the answer is that it depends on what your own needs are or what you take away from your practice. Many people have reservations about mindfulness because they already have what they feel is their religious/ spiritual path. Mindfulness is not incompatible with any affiliation with formal religious practice. Authentic spirituality is inclusive not exclusive. From our spiritual sensibilities, we recognize the limits of this human life we have been generously given by our parents, their parents, their parents’ parents. Mindfulness reminds me to take good care of the abundant natural resources right here in this moment. When we cultivate taking care of others as ourselves, we resonate with the music of eternity – life coming and going. A maturing meditation practice does that for us. You will find this unfolding uniquely in your own personal life once you can sustain your practice.

Mindfulness practice is straightforward, not mysterious. But it is a precious seed needing cultivation. I have often been asked “If we are not suffering in this moment, why do we practice?” Maybe the answer is because we know we will be suffering sometime down the line. Maybe because seeing the truth about this world brings sorrow to our hearts. Whatever your view or path, whoever you are, you can grow stronger from your meditation practice.

 

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Wild Geese: Mary Oliver

 

Take a look at an interesting little experiment (the link below) showing that meditation practice may indeed heighten our humanness through developing empathy. After all, we can aim higher than just wanting to benefit ourselves from mindfulness practice. We can share and give to others and make this a better world. Imagine, just by sitting for a few minutes in silence on our chair or cushion every day.  WOW… This is Awesome… !
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/opinion/sunday/the-
morality-of-meditation.html?_r=0

Cultivating Tranquility – Step 1

Being truly  calm in order to build moment to moment awareness is something that  we often try to cultivate,  but do we really understand it?   It is complex and requires some states of mind which do not come easy to most of us.   Let us examine these in order to free ourselves from barriers that are common in the quest to be truly “present’ with life unfolding and the quiet stillness that comes with this skill.

Recently,  I received the following gentle reminder from Jack Kornfield:

“There is inherent goodness in you.  The point of meditation isn’t to make yourself better but to quiet yourself so that the natural integrity, consideration, care and love of the heart is available.  Meditation allows the beauty of your spirit to open and awaken.” 

Essentially,  Jack is reminding us that we need to slow down, still our bodies and minds in order to experience our life unfolding moment to moment.  We sometimes think that meditation entails exerting some kind of effort to beat the mind into submission, into stillness.    The resolve to make the mind do our bidding is just one more example of delusion – that the mind is doing something wrong in being distracted and forcing restraint on it is the way to corral it into stillness.   But we have to be careful not to damage the inherent resilience and power of the mind.  It is perfectly capable of stillness as well as of energetic activity.  Both these qualities need care and patience to develop and  to be available for us when we need these qualities to emerge.  Willpower can’t over ride the tendency of the mind to respond to the often incessant  stimulation we subject it to.  If we push the mind incessantly all day, it may need some time to calm.

We value stillness.  But stillness can ‘t be achieved by force!  Conditions for peaceful abiding need to be made available, and the mind will follow along toward the much valued peacefulness.  Mind is not the enemy.  It is only a creature shaped by the conditions of our life, and is ever maliable!

So,  when my life is full of running about, and getting things accomplished and rushing out for new exciting experiences,  I reap a lot of turbulence.  Why would this not be so?  I create a lot of agitation in being active all day and sometimes in the evening as well  without mindful breaks.    Over time, the frenzy and agitation makes itself felt as  trapped energy.  I am lucky if I realize the need to discharge some of that energy.  Otherwise, I  may soon notice that getting a good night’s sleep is not always possible,

my aches and pains intensify, my head is pounding.  My impatience rises up again, and soon I  take things that don’t go well as personal failure!   The more I take on, the more I feel like a prisoner to some unseen overlord never satisfied, relentlessly pushing me on.

Sometimes  we have to go through cycles of these experiences and notice with mindfulness  how they are linked in a chain of habits and  conditions that make it difficult to become quiet and peaceful.  If we allow the mind to relax in meditation, the love and integrity in our hearts reveal themselves.    That peaceful love is always there, but not  always accessible.   Slowing down the agitated pace of life is a precursor to quiet,  to peace of mind and body.  Body too, needs rest and release from the demands of life.

Incessant activity is the sign of being out of touch with heart and mind,  bent on proving something ephemeral, an illusion of self importance.    As Thomas Merton very famously said:

“The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence”. 

This is what buddhist psychology means when speaking about creating a ”Self.. Co-operating with the delusion of constantly becoming”.  Trying to create a persona for oneself is costly to our happiness and contentment .    Protecting heart and mind from incessant pressure to “become” is  a new skill I am developing, slowly – day by day.

There is inherent goodness in me, according to Jack Kornfield.   There seems to be no test to pass,  no hurdles to overcome,  no external seal of  approval.  To experience this, we just need to connect with an open hearted acceptance of things just as they are:  of ourselves, our conditions, our sorrows and triumphs – an unconditioned openness to what is already here.  As Galway Kinnell pointed out in his poem:  St. Francis and the Sow:

…..everything flowers from within of self blessing,

Thought sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness,

To put a hand on its brow  – of the flower

And retell it in words and in touch 

It is lovely,

Until it flowers again from within, of self blessing…….

Reflection when we feel stirred up by powerful forces within is very helpful.  I often recommend the meditative 4 step reflection known by the acronym:  RAIN.

Have a look at this video by Pascal Auclair  who brings it alive for us accessible on VIMEO.

Enjoy your practice –  Enjoy your life….  I look forward to your comments here!!

KN

Many Minds into One

We all have multiple personalities:  They are the Committee in the Head!!

Have you noticed that things can be going well in your life; and suddenly you feel like you are totally lost?

Have you worked on not reacting to a difficult person in your life, and began to believe that mindfulness has really changed you from a reactive to a reflective person – then – suddenly out of the blue:  you are screaming at your difficult person ?

These common experiences have nothing personal about them.  Yet we do take them personally…The truth is that our minds are complex.  Our needs are multiple and sometimes conflicting.  It takes time for new patterns to reach and rewire old patterns of brain activity.  We may have the intention of cultivating patience and non reactivity,  yet our conditioning runs deep.  Conditioning has laid down neural pathways that have been firing in a certain pattern for years, and now they have literally become habitual.   This is the way the brain works.  It has to be efficient, so “schemas” are created to come up and present themselves as solutions to recurring problems..

Schemas are routines or ways of perceiving the world that save time, energy and reduce uncertainty in our lives.  In addition to their  usefulness in reducing uncertainty and stress, old schemas can manifest as “going on auto-pilot mode” of living.   Some autopilot modes are about going unconscious concerning what is going on inside/ outside of this body.  Other times familiar contexts create triggers of reactivity.

For example,  when I am really hungry,  I have NO patience.  I can be grumpy and unfriendly and even aggressive until I get something to eat to rebalance some kind of hypoglycemia.  I realize now, after years of meditation and reflection,  that I have felt guilty and ashamed  about this for years.  Only with compassionate non-identification has it been possible for me to step back and  accept how my metabolism presents itself.

That does not mean that I take no responsibility.  I am not off the hook from taking care of this sudden onset hypoglycemia.  I am just off the hook of taking it so personally.  So I still have to plan my day so that I take good enough care of myself not to get so hungry that I am in danger of doing / saying something rash and unskillful, and then have to regret it and – that in itself exposes me to more self criticism and self doubt and embarrassment.  And,  so you can see,  here is the “wheel of suffering (samsara) “  as it  plays out over and over.  When we become aware,  we have the opportunity of freedom.  Only with awareness can I become freed up from the automatic reactivity,  but I still have to take some action to take care of the issue.  The remedy, if it is wise and timely and done with compassion, has to be applied to complete the  circle of mindful self care.

 

So, what about those sudden shifts in mood, emotional tone, sensations and thoughts?

Our minds and its moods are often contradictory,  and so living with ourselves can be,  as one mindfulness student in the U.K. described,  like living with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The dwarfs , conflictual characters, all  strong personalities embodying some of our tendencies are trying to live in harmony.  Of course fights ensue and sometimes nothing can get done because of the lack of co-operation.  These are our internal battles.  There are Grumpy, and Bashful,  Happy and Sneezy and  so on.  Along comes sweet Snow White who tries to oversee this chaotic household.   She sees the different emotions/ motivations and interests,  but does not try and argue.  She does not always achieve harmony,  but she never uses coercion,  does not ban anyone, accepts all viewpoints,  is overall respectful of their differences.  Her strength is to be able to contain the diversity and channel all the energies.  Her courage and persistence , good humour and compassion work together to “hold” the energies in a compassionate caring presence.    Then of course, our differing mind  states have to co-operate, like the  Dwarfs,  to enable life to unfold harmoniously.

 

My  often quickly changing mood states can leave me feeling like I was disintegrating, rather like a photograph of me cut into pieces,  and each piece coming life .  Rather like the broom in Walt Disney’s version of  Fantasia with Mickey Mouse.   When we reflect on the complexity of our lives, our motivations and plans, we see that we  want so many different experiences.  So, in essence,  we are of many different minds.   I know I want peace and tranquility, yet I yearn for being in the midst of things that interest me.  I yearn to have the time to write poetry,  yet I over program myself so that the solitude needed for that becomes impossible.  Awareness clarifies what choices need to be made to move forward.   But  am I ready to make the difficult choices?   Maybe it is normal to not want to give anything up.    There is a recognition that change won’t happen without resistance.    Giving up certain ways of being in my life is  hugely challenging for me.   Probably most of us have a delicate balancing act which we perform daily among all of our desires, different conceptions of who we are and who we would  like to  be.   We all harbor the capacity to shift and embody moods, attitudes and opinions that are in contradiction with each other.

This multiple mind phenomenon is the reason  we ask that question  at the beginning of commiting to something new or  when we need to let go a non functional, but familiar way we have been  been dealing with stuff in life:  “What do I really, really want?”  Because we are of many minds,  we have many choices;  what  valued routine, or way of being with ourselves needs to be surrendered in order to follow through with our deepest desires?    Some try very hard to change their basic nature and contort themselves to fit some imagined ideal.  Idealized self is especially doomed when it takes the form of “I can do it all!”

Inside, many of us have a  Driver who insists we have to do “Just one more thing, and one more..”   All these conflicting ideas can drive us crazy -like  an invasion of flies.  This is why we train the mind to take up a middle road path and stay on it in all seasons, in good times and difficult.

When I am able to let go my ideal self,  it becomes possible  for me to allow my personality to just be as it is.   I know that accepting my basic personality leads me to setting more  workable goals without pushing the world uphill.   With self acceptance and some compassion, letting go some choices becomes easier.  I hope to be driven by the wish to keep learning and discover  where my real potential can lead me.  When I  doggedly try to wipe out basic tendencies, I know I feel disheartened, hopeless, maybe even a bit ashamed for just being who I am after all these years.   The great Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said:  “You are perfect just as you are; and there is always room for improvement.”

 

     Enjoy this video:  The Fly!!