Start Where You Are

Beginners to meditation often lament that just the thought of sitting still is too much for them. “I can’t sit still!” I have often heard new meditators say. “Meditation is not for me.”

When someone says, “I can’t sit still,” it may be that in that moment they can’t and that’s OK. One of the beautiful things about meditation is that you start where you are. 

If when you sit down to meditate, you feel jittery, antsy, nervous, scratchy, or fidgety, then that’s the place to start. Often, bringing your awareness to your breath brings a sense of calm with it and the jitters dissipate. But, sometimes the fidgeting lingers or even gets stronger. 

Trying to push a nervous jittery feeling away won’t work. What meditation teaches us is that the way to relieve suffering is by going into it and through it.  You might say, “Oh, but it is just the jitters. I am not suffering.” Then also notice if you also feel spacious, calm, and open. If you don’t then the jitters is holding tension. Be willing to hold the disquiet. Something is not right. There is suffering under the surface. It may not be ready to show itself fully. But, it is inviting you to notice. 

Notice it and acknowledge it. “Fidgeting is here,” you might say to yourself. Don’t judge it or make excuses for it. Be friendly and neutral. Feel what you are feeling (to quote Mark Epstein). Allow it to be there without pushing it away. Just let it be. 

Notice where in your body you feel it. Perhaps in the shoulders, arms, or hands. Maybe in the torso or legs. Perhaps in the mind. When you invite yourself to notice where you feel it, gently acknowledge that too, bringing your full attention to it and its bodily place. “Fidgeting is here in the shoulders.” 

Sometimes, just by bringing our full attention to it and holding it in this neutral and friendly way, it softens and dissipates. If it does, then return your full attention to the breath. If it doesn’t, then be curious. 

Yes, open your curiosity. Be interested in it. Invite it to let you know something about it. You might say to yourself, “What is this fidgeting?” Or “I’m inviting this fidgeting to let me know how it is for it.” And, then just wait. Don’t try to find an answer. Just drop your invitation into your inner space and wait. Something may come or unfold. Whatever comes is OK. If something comes, stay with it in the same neutral and friendly way. If nothing comes, then return your attention to the breath.

When I first began meditating, a sharp pain in my back between my ribs would arise. I remember trying to hold my back straighter and stretching the space between my ribs. I also remember trying to do this in the background like some kind of clandestine operation while settling my attention on the breath. The more I would try to outmaneuver the pain between my ribs, the stronger it would become. I noticed how it made me feel anxious and angry. I was at a loss. I didn’t know what to do. 

The teacher had kindly invited us to sit with our backs straight, to sit like a mountain, upright and relaxed. She had instructed us how to bring our awareness to our breath and how to return our attention to the breath when thoughts would arise. I tried over and over again to bring my attention to my breath, but after a breath or two the pain intruded. 

I was too shy to ask her for advice, so I struggled with it for a quite a while, for several months actually. Then it came to me. I am at battle with this pain. It is going no where until I acknowledge it without judging it and hold it fully in a neutral way. 

This was a big aha and opened up a whole path of enquiry for me. I was so afraid of doing the meditation wrong, of not getting it right, of being inadequate. Memories of childhood incidents sprung to the surface as did their accompanying feelings. I learned to sit with what came in this new neutral way. To allow them their life. And though it seems strange, even as I write this, by allowing them to be with me fully without my interceding in any way, their energy released opening me more and more. 

This is important. Allow what is here for you right now to be here. Be with it fully. Start where you are.

Going Through Anger to Sweetness

There is nothing intrinsically harmful about anger. Anger is a natural emotion that moves us to action. As with all emotions, it rises and falls away.  So why do we often feel that we can’t shake anger? Why does it stick to us however hard we try to push it away? 

The answers are many. Perhaps this stickiness comes from how our culture teaches us not to show anger or how as children we protected ourselves in difficult and dangerous situations by not showing it. The truth is, though, the cause is not what matters. What matters is how we are with it; how we respond to it.

In my life experience, anger has been a great teacher. A person very close to me had for many years been caught in the throws of addiction hurting herself, her family—all her relationships and endeavors. Her suffering was palpable.  At first, when the call would come that she was in a desperate situation, I would run to her side with the belief that I could set everything right. Once the appearance of balance and health emerged I assumed all was right and would leave triumphantly. Of course, this was a delusion. I had accomplished nothing and failed to notice this for the longest time. 

Over time my anger grew becoming a constant irritating companion. Then, fortuitously, as my mindfulness practice developed, I noticed and sat down with my anger.  This starting where I was, was crucial in my journey of awakening to my anger and my true nature.

At first I sat with it in the same way I might sit by a roaring campfire. Giving it space, I sat a little bit away from its heat while watching intently its flames flicker and dance. I sat with it for a long time in this way noticing, acknowledging, and watching.  When it felt right, I invited it to,open to me from its perspective by asking, “What’s the worst part of the situation?” It let me know. 

It showed me what lay beneath. First, there was hurt ego desperately playing the savior, believing that it could control and fix everything. There was resentment that this person had spoiled our relationship.  There was paralyzing fear that this person would be arrested, thrown into jail, or die.  There was recognition that this suffering was arising from my response to the situation. Finally and surprisingly, my anger released.

It showed me that the way to freedom from my suffering, lay in going through the anger. Not skirting it, not attacking it, not pushing it away. By being fully present with it and immersing my full attention in it in a neutral yet friendly way it  both dissolved and led me to appropriate actions. 

In my case the appropriate actions were the setting of appropriate boundaries which led to the further action of changing my behavior. I acknowledged that  I had no control over the situation but I did have a choice in how I responded to it. In this process, my love and compassion grew stronger.

My experience led me to understand that noticing, acknowledging, and being present with anger are the first steps to allowing anger to do its job, to move me to action. So now when anger arises, I turn to it and invite it to let me know what it is wanting while knowing that its wanting will unwind like the layers of a juicy onion. At first as we cut the onion, it brings tears to our eyes. Then as we slowly cook it,  it releases its sweetness. So, too, with anger. 

Go ahead. Experience your anger.

The Wanting and the Long List

Who among us hasn’t had this experience? There is something we really want to do—perhaps in our careers, family, or creative lives. We see it clearly and then the long list of all the ways things might go wrong, all the obstacles that might arise, and all the negative opinions or judgments that others might make arises. We are left feeling that this is not meant to be. 

The glass is definitely half empty, if not fully empty, and yet, the wanting to do this particular thing keeps returning to us. 

We, humans, are especially good at getting in our own way. Our brains have been wired from the beginning to get us out of the way of danger and threats—real or perceived. Danger arises and we run for cover, fight like crazy, or freeze into frozen statues.

But, this doesn’t mean that we are victims of evolution; it simply means that to do what we want, what is important, and feels true sometimes requires us to do some skillful work inside. By paying full attention and being alert to our own nature—and being present with what arises we come to know what is true for us.

First, we recognize what’s happening in the moment. Perhaps it is self-talk making a list of all the bad and ugly things that might happen if we attempt to do what we are wanting, or it might be a never-ending movie showing us the same. Whatever arises, the first step is to become aware of it. We might say to ourselves something like, “I’m sensing there is a long list of reasons I shouldn’t do this and I’m saying hello to it.”

This kind of acknowledging is very important. It is not a judgement.  It is simply a recognition that we are aware it is here and are acknowledging its presence.

Now, invite in an attitude of interest and curiosity. Curiosity is so helpful! When we are curious we are not pushing anything away; and we are not grasping either. Curiosity is a soft, open, and interested attitude. Sometimes it helps to say, “Oh, I’m sensing I’m curious about this.” 

And, if something arises letting us know that it doesn’t feel curious and doesn’t like what is arising, we can acknowledge that too, and be curious about that.

And, sometimes when we do this we feel a settling and flow; or we may feel another quality. It could be something like tensing, contracting, or an emotion like fear. Or, perhaps what is here, let’s say the scary list, may grow bigger! Or, something else entirely. Whatever comes next is OK. We acknowledge that, too. 

If what has arisen is strong or grows stronger, we might put some space between us and it. Just visualizing space can be helpful. Or sometimes, instead of having direct laser focus on it, allowing our attention to be soft, and fuzzy and a little to the side–as though we are sitting beside it rather than in front of it. This soft attention also creates space.

We might also invite it to let us know how it would like us to be with it. This allows us to be with it in a way that is comfortable to it. This is the beginning of enquiry. Asking questions is a skillful means to bringing ourselves into relationship with what is arising and from there into wholeness.

Yes! We are building a relationship with what is needing our attention. When we think about it, it makes sense to do this. We build relationships all the time, with friends, family, colleagues. This is how strangers become friends.

Now is a good time to sense which other questions might feel appropriate. Perhaps some of these. 

Inviting what is here to let you know what is the worst part of it…

Or, inviting it to let you know what it is not wanting to have happened to you…

Or, in a similarly, inviting it to let you know what it is not wanting you to feel…

After asking… just waiting for what comes… and acknowledging by repeating or reflecting back. 

And, repeating the sequence for as many times as feels right.

This might go something like this…

Enquiry: I’m inviting it to let me know what it is not wanting to have happen to me…

Deep attention ((what comes will be different for each person): What comes is a sense of failure and an image, quality, or words of being ridiculed 

Reflection (Reflecting back): It’s letting me know it doesn’t want me to be ridiculed if I fail…

This sequence of enquiry might repeat several times. Perhaps, then, an openness, flowing, lightness, expansiveness, or calm and ease will arise…

This is the moment to allow this change, this open space, this ease and calm to be here as fully as it wants and an opportunity to give thanks to all that has arisen…

And, then what feels right… the right attitude, the right actions will occur naturally… 

Mending The Breach

A couple of weeks ago, on an incredibly warm, blue-sky day, as the snow pack melted into torrents of water, my neighbor stopped by to tell me that my irrigation canal had breached its banks. I pulled on my Wellingtons and followed her down to have a look. The swiftly moving water was eddying around fallen branches and banging into the sides of the canal at each turn as it made its way from the head gate at the creek, through the woods, to the hillside pasture. 

There in three places, the rushing water had eaten away the bank and was gushing into the woods and down the hill. As we opened our senses to what was right there, our plan of action emerged. We set to work. Collecting the flattest rocks from a nearby pile, scooping up mats of last autumn’s leaves from underfoot, and collecting rich mud from the earthen banks that had given way, we began building retainer walls.

We felt the texture of cold, rough stone, dried, brittle plant, and mucky earth. We watched the water curl, swirl and race and felt its brilliant coldness as we placed a rock, applied our handmade mortar of leaves and mud, and then placed another rock. Presence, a tender calmness, our open senses, and a wondrous sense of spaciousness guided our movements.

The trickster water changed course, seeping not here now, but over there. We placed a rock there. We patched with mud here. Rhythmically, moving as in a dance along the narrow path at the canal’s edge, we didn’t need words or feel the hurly-burly of emotions. Our work carried us. Time passed. Birds flitted above. Sunlight filtered down in glistening waves. The walls held. 

This experience is with me as I ponder. How often do we push others away when discord happens? How vigorously do we find fault or blame when something goes awry or someone hurts us? How disheartened do we feel when something breaks? How often do we approach the every day stuff of life with our full presence and open heart? This is our choice.  

How we perceive a situation is everything. In an instant a reaction might burst in us and in another instant, as we notice this eruption, we can pause and bring our full awareness and compassionate heart on line.

This coming into kind presence as we mended the breach in the canal bank, is the same kind presence we can call upon in ourselves when we perceive someone or something has wronged us.

Imagine that when seeing the water flooding over the banks of the canal, we had become angry, blamed the weather, or the neighbor further up the mountain who hadn’t opened his canal to relieve the volume of water coming down, or we had reacted with fear and anguish that the erosion would destroy the pasture. Certainly we would have suffered and quite possibly not have had the wits to look around to see that the materials for mending the breach were right there at our feet.

Noticing our reaction, we can choose to come into tender presence and by giving our full attention, listen deeply to what is needed and receive the wisdom that allows us to mend the breach.

Now is the Time

Our understanding of time, of past, present, and future, is largely something we conjure up. We dwell on our notion of time. Another year. Another day. We talk about time marching on and about having time, or more often, about not having time. We await and celebrate the New Year while inside wishing that time would stand still—that we could remain just as we are without any changes; or that we could go back in time—that we could start fresh and not feel the remorse, shame or guilt because we should have, could have, or would have done it differently.

Funneling our energy in this way is not helpful to opening possibilities or making us happy. It’s our ability to go with the natural cyclical flows of moon, sun, and season, and of our very own bodies that’s important. Too often we are caught up in what someone else says, does, or thinks. We forget to listen to ourselves. To listen deeply to our own energies as they flow or don’t flow—telling us what we need.

Our to-do lists are long and tedious. Housework. Home repairs, kids’ activities, and family duties. We don’t have any time, we lament. We have obligations and responsibilities, we tell ourselves. Yes, we do. We have a deep responsibility to ourselves. What we need is to take time for introspection. Time to ask ourselves what are we really wanting? The time is there. All we need to do is ask for it.

I remember the story of a young working mother supporting her kids on her own. She thought hard about what was her heart’s desire. To travel. To travel the world. So, every day she took time to put a dollar in a jar. Day after day. Year after year. Her kids grew up and went out into the world on their own. Now was her time for her journey. She took those carefully, meticulously saved dollars and traveled around the world. The cycle had been long—decades—but there she was fulfilling her heart’s desire from that very first moment she put the first dollar in a jar.

It isn’t about immediate gratification. It is about finding that one thing that is deeply wanted inside of us and then acting on that in a steady and consistent way. In the very process, we find happiness because we know that one day we will take that trip around the world.

The Problem with Directness

What we think the problem is, often isn’t.  “Oh gosh,” you say to yourself, your friends, your co-workers, your mentors, your therapist, “I’ve got this problem and it is XYZ.” We assume that by talking about it, analyzing it, stewing about it, or focusing all our energy on it, we can solve it and everything will miraculously start moving forward toward resolution.

Not so fast. The real problem and, therefore, its solution is in many cases, actually in most cases, not something we’d expect it to be. Rather, what’s smacking us in the face are symptoms. These are reactions we’ve created internally to defend,  protect, or shore-up the original situation. They may present themselves as big emotions, pointing fingers, or an emptiness so profound it scares the hell out of us.

OK, we say, “I am courageous. I’m going in. I can deal with this.”  I remember saying this to myself and others. “I’m going in. I’m resolving this issue now.”

I was emphatic. And, this head-on approach didn’t work.

A curious and often frightening thing can happen (as it did to me)  when we sit down in a comfortable and grounded way, go inside, and focus directly on what is bothering us.

We are greeted with feelings of obstinance or anger, or a sense that what we are focusing on has gone into hiding and doesn’t want us around, or we find nothing there at all except blankness.

The more we focus on it, the worse it gets. It is gone. Putting my direct attention on it drove it away and left only terror in its place. Not a good start. Here’s what to do.

This is the moment to back off and ground your energy.  Feel the earth energy in your feet and up through your body. Feel how your body is supported and held. Put lots of space there. Perhaps, even say inwardly, “I’m putting a lot of space here.” Space is always good thing.

Next, diffuse your attention. Instead of focusing it directly on the problem, divert it to the periphery. Instead of laser-sharp focus, diffuse your focus. Think of this as a kind of seeing sideways. Instead of looking straight ahead, focus your attention softly on the perimeter.  This is a kind of night vision. Have you ever noticed how at night, in the dark, when you look straight at something it disappears from view, but when you allow your vision to settle softly on the edges you can see more clearly.

Something magical happens when you do this. Things start coming forward as bodily sensations, textures qualities, images, words, or even sounds and colors. Now is the time to listen attentively and softly, to acknowledge whatever comes in an empathic and non-judging way. “Just inwardly letting what is presenting itself know, “I am hearing you. I am seeing you,” is all that is needed.

As you go with this process, the unraveling begins and ahas happen.  The thing at the center, eventually presents itself.  Then there is the realization that what the real problem is, the original situation, isn’t what we thought it was after all.

This is the time to continue listening, to holding all with empathy, and acknowledging. Little-by little, you will feel the release of energy until suddenly you are aware that what was there is not there any more. In its place is a feeling of forward energy, a bright, flowing, openness.

Try it. And remember, this process is not whizz-bang. It takes time and space and your whole soft attention. And, remember, sometimes, direct focus of our attention is what is needed. What’s needed is attuning to what’s going on inside and proceeding appropriately with care and non-judging attention.

On Being Authentic

Everyone is talking about being authentic, of being our authentic selves, and of leading authentic lives. The talk grabs our attention. It feels right to say, “I want to be authentic.” But, exactly what is authenticity? And, how do we know when we truly are?

When we are authentic, the dictionary says, we are genuine, real, true, and honest. These qualities feel right. Most of us want these attributes for ourselves and others. Once we move from the abstract to our daily lives, however, exactly how these operate in us can be much harder to pin down.

What does it mean to be genuine in our words and actions? How do we know if we are being true? True to what? And, are we really honest? Authenticity is an inside job and there s a lot going on in there.

We ask ourselves what is authentic for us. An answer comes. How do we know the answer is authentic?  One way is to look at inner and outer drivers.

Inner drivers include what feels right or what feels true in the moment absent of any interference from our environment. Inner drivers include understanding our reasons for acting in a certain way, acting from our own bodily wisdom, and living courageously allowing our creativity to flow. When we are authentic we decide for ourselves without intervention from external authorities or events. But, the inside is a complicated place. Much of what is happening interiorly is due to externalities that we have taken onboard. Traumas, hurts, slights, and misconceptions have dug deep into the very sinews of our bodies, minds, and souls.

Outer drivers include cultural norms, and/or peer, social, and religious pressures to appear a certain way. Our actions, behaviors and outward manifestation can be driven from external forces.  When what drives us is something bound up inside of us as a result of  our environment, experiences, or traumas then it is these externalities that are driving us. Even external events experienced by our forebears such as famine, war, prejudice, or enslavement can be passed down epigenetically and drive our living experience.

When we feel pressured to adhere to a certain way of living, dressing, or acting or we ignore our own inner objections (such as ‘this doesn’t feel right’) but we do it anyway because we believe we will fit in better or be able to live more comfortably in our surroundings we are living from outer drivers and not our authentic selves.

Authenticity isn’t about being nice. Authenticity is about being true to our inner knowing about what right for us.

Authenticity isn’t about removing ourselves from our environment or our connections. It is about being creative and courageous to act in a way that is being true to who we are as we also live in our environment and nurture our connections.

Sometimes it is useful to sit with ourselves and ask the question? How does this feel inside? Suppose a friend asks you to do something. You immediately say, “Yes, of course I’ll do it,” because this is your friend asking and you want to please your friend. You don’t want your friends, family, society, or culture labeling you as bad, unkind, or selfish.

But inside something doesn’t feel right about it. This thing that your friend has asked you to do doesn’t align with your inner knowing of who you are, your core values, and what feels right. Realizing this you let your friend know, “This doesn’t feel right for me, so, no, not this time.” This is your authentic self shining through.

So what’s authentic? Acting to please your friend even though the action doesn’t align with your core values is not authentic. Letting your friend know that this action doesn’t feel right for you and so you won’t do it is authentic.

Take note here. It is not about your friend, it is about you. When we are authentic, we are not judging others, we are being true to ourselves.

We want to please our friends, our families, and our colleagues. We are compassionate and want others to rely on us. We want to feel included in our environment, community, and among our networks of friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances. Something in us believes because we have been told this that this is the way to feeling whole, creative,and full of forward moving energy. But it isn’t. This is what ties us up in knots inside, binds our energy, and dampens our creativity. This is not the path to authenticity.

The process of discovering our authentic selves can have big consequences. It can take a long time and much effort.

So, it was with my own journey to authenticity. As a woman I felt a strong need to be able to make it in life with my own smarts and to depend on no one. After getting an MBA I began working in high tech. I got promotions and made a lot of money but was miserable. I was always trying to fit in, to prove myself, and to succeed according to what my environment defined as succeeding. I had the education, capability, and work ethic.  Those were all there. But, something was missing. It had to do with truth, the truth of who I am and the misalignment between my essential true self and the expectations of the environment of my profession. It was all very subtle.

Years went by. Then it happened. On a business trip, my left foot began hurting so badly I could hardly walk. Getting to and from meetings was agonizing. I felt cut off and physically, emotionally, and spiritually drained. Finally the meetings were over and I boarded my cross country flight, slumped into a window seat and fell asleep. On waking, I  looked out the window. There, thirty-three thousand feet below, the sparse and rugged southwestern desert was lit in golden light. In a flash, like a pop,  it was clear.  High tech is not for me. Immediately, I felt energy flowing and the pain subside in my foot. Two days later I quit my job and the unwinding began. My life began opening to me.