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.

Busy. Crazy Busy.

Crazy Busy Effect

“I’m Busy. Crazy Busy. And, how are you?”

Is this you? This used to be me; I remember a time when I was “busy, so busy, too busy, crazy busy.”  Too busy to notice the morning . Too busy to sit down for lunch. Too busy to see friends. Too busy to take a walk. Too busy to get needed sleep. Always too busy. Even when doing things like playing with kids or exercising which might have been relaxing, I felt so busy!

For a time, busy felt OK, like I was in the groove. Then slowly I sensed something off-kilter. Busy wasn’t feeling good. It kept feeling worse and worse.

Now, I see it’s not just us adults, it’s kids, too, college students, teens, even pre-schoolers. We schedule ourselves from early morning to evening. And, when asked, “How are you?” We reply, “Busy, crazy busy.” and how that is for us shows in our body language and facial expressions. We’re exhausted.

So, what’s going on here?

This busy-ness is our culture at work. Being busy is what we do to belong; to be part of our community. Imagine saying in the middle of the day at work, “I’m wanting some rest. I’m going to take a walk.” Most of us wouldn’t do it, or we wouldn’t say it even if that’s what we were going to do. Why? Because, “being busy” and “not taking time to rest in the middle of a busy day,” is our culture in play. I like this definition of culture that Mary Hendricks-Gendlin gives us. “Culture is the routine actions and feelings which a situation consists of.” And, “culture belongs ‘to all of us within the community.'”

It doesn’t have to be this way. Imagine feeling the rightness of taking some time every day to separate yourself from all the routine actions and feelings associated with ‘I’m busy.’ Imagine using that pause to sense the whole of your situation at that moment in order to feel the rightness of your action knowing and accepting that your right action may not be one prescribed by your culture. To be truly creative, innovative, open, and alive, we first need to pause the routine button.

Here’s how to pause.

  • Sitting comfortably let your body take its most comfortable position.  Any place where your body can be quiet for a few minutes is fine.
  • Close your eyes or lower your gaze, if that feels right.
  • Feel your hands, your fingers and fingertips and what they are touching. Now feel your feet. Perhaps wiggle your toes and feel how your feet feel alive.
  • Feel the contact of your body with the support beneath you. Maybe it is the chair you are sitting on. Notice how the support holds you. And, if it feels right rest into that support.
  • Sense your breathing, just the way it is. And, if it feels right take some deeper breaths.
  • Now bring your attention inside to your inner body. That’s right. Inside. Sense your throat. Sense your chest. Sense your stomach and belly. Sensing each inner place for how it is right now.
  • Now remember that whole thing of being so busy. That’s right the whole busy-ness situation. Now offer it an invitation, inviting it to come into your awareness. And sense how that whole busy-ness situation is right now in your body, probably in those places you were sensing before the throat, the chest, the stomach and belly.
  • Maybe something is there for your right now. If there is say “hello” to it and notice what happens.
  • Maybe you sense something but are unsure of what it is. Maybe you’re unsure anything is there.  That’s good, too. Just wait. Something will come. When it does sense if it would like a “hello” or maybe it would like some company, like you’d give a good friend. Hang out with it. It has something to share with you.

Joy and Sadness

Previously, we have explored the emotions of anger, fear, worry, and grief. Today, our topic is joy and sadness. Joy and sadness are about caring. When we get something we care about we experience joy. It may be a beautiful sunset, a longed-for treasure, a long-awaited goal, or a blossoming of heart-felt relationship. Joy resonates in the body as a twinkle in the eye, a blush upon the cheek, a smile on the lips. When we lose something we care about, something dear to us or our community, we experience sadness: The loss of friendship, opportunity, or treasures-of-the heart. Sadness resonates as a tear in the eye, a pallor to the cheek, down-turned lips.

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In traditional Chinese Five Element Theory, joy and sadness are the emotions related to the fire element which is expansive, upward in motion, and relates to heart energy.  Fire, symbolic of combustion, represents that fleeting moment of maximum activity followed by its falling away. From a physiological perspective, all emotions are electro-chemical signals that flow through us in an unending cycle. Every emotion is a specific signal asking us to focus, to collect information, and then to act accordingly.

Joy and sadness are related to heart. We talk about the joy in our hearts and our hearts breaking with sadness. Joy manifests in us as love, laughter, and enthusiasm and when balanced, we are able to give as well as receive warmth and delight in the company of others. Sadness manifests as a fall in energy, a momentary melancholy, and withdrawal away from others. Often when we are sad, a whimper or tears come.

In both the ancient and the modern Western traditions, when we are balanced, emotions move. So, too with joy and sadness. If stuck, too much joy manifests as always joking, laughing, and talking–always on without pause. And, when there is too much sadness we are in a state of helplessness and despair; continuously drained, down, melancholy, depressed.

Joy and sadness are associated with compassion. When we see suffering, we experience a twinge of sadness, a feeling of concern and connection, just before we feel a willingness to act. When suffering has been relieved we then experience a moment of joy. Often, sadness can get stuck in caregivers and others in the healing and humanitarian professions. This is because instead of letting go of the concern and connection they feel towards those they are helping, they get stuck in sadness; leading them to take on more responsibility than is reasonably theirs to bear. Sometimes, unable to shake their sadness, they opt instead instead to leave a profession they love. Seeing thousands of starving many children, they miss the joy of the ones whom they have fed and rather, focus on those they have been unable to reach.

What can we do when joy or sadness gets stuck? We can notice. Turning inward to our bodies, we can invite the whole thing about the joy or the sadness to come forward. We can make contact, acknowledge, and listen deeply as we keep whatever comes company. Just as clouds cannot be chased away; stuck joy or sadness can’t either. It is only by turning our attention to it, by saying “hello,” and by actively listening that we can once more live our life forward.

Healthy joy and sadness are like the clouds in the sky; they pass through leaving not a trace, and always there are more another day.

Danger! Threat! Fear!

Did you know that fear keeps us alive? It is essential to our survival. In the face of danger, we become afraid and parts of the brain activate the fight flight reaction.

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Both western science and ancient Chinese Five Element theory recognize fear as that emotion that helps keep us alive. In Five Element theory fear is associated with kidney energy or qi. Kidney qi is of a special type. It supports the body in reproducing, growing, and developing–the bodily life cycle. So, it is not surprising that fear works with kidney qi to keep us alive.

From a western scientific perspective, fear arises from a perceived threat and we experience the physiological response called fight flight or the stress response. Fear is an important element of fight flight because when we feel fear that’s a signal to us that we need to pay attention, not just react but really pay attention.  Here’s why. So important to our survival is fight flight that when a threat stimulus reaches the thalamus, its first processing point in the brain, the same stimulus takes two different processing paths. The short route is rough and fast. The long route brings in higher processing and is much more precise but is also slower.

The short and long processing works like this. Suppose we’re hiking through the woods and just up ahead, we see something. It looks like a long narrow shape coiled up on the path. The short route says, “Must be a snake!” “Snake,” says the amygdala, “I’ll tell the hypothalamus to turn on the stress response!” At the same time, the long route sends the information to the cortex for higher processing, “Wait a minute. It kind of looks like a snake but is it really?  No, it isn’t. It’s twisted woody vine.” But, let’s check in with explicit memory.” The explicit memory is consulted through the hippocampus. “This is twisted woody vine. I’ve seen this before.” Word is sent to the amygdala. “No snake! Just twisty woody vine.”  The message is received and more messages tell the nervous system to reset.

The fight flight response causes physiological changes in our body via the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. These include elevations in perspiration and heart and respiratory rates. It makes sense. If we’re going fight or flee, we need muscle power and that means we’d better have oxygen and blood flow going to the muscles so we can punch harder or run faster. “Snake! Run!”

At the same time that the sympathetic nervous system is ramping up glucose production, it is also making other less noticeable but just as important physiological changes in the body. The pupils dilate, blood is drawn away from the skin to the muscles alas the saying, “white as a sheet,” when someone is really afraid. Parasympathetic modulated responses such as digestion and large intestine and bladder functions cease. The body is so focused on fight or flight that the bowel and bladder may even empty spontaneously.

When  a threat presents itself, fear arises and the stress response system turns on. When the danger passes, our fear evaporates and the nervous system shakes off the stress response by re-balancing its sympathetic and para-sympathetic branches. Animals in the wild literally shake all over once danger has passed.

But what happens when our nervous system isn’t able to shake it off? This happens when one perceived threat is followed by another one before the nervous system has had time to reset. This is the dilemma of our modern life. The dangers and threats we face are not tigers looking for their next meal and usually, not even snakes in our path. We face a plethora of perceived dangers often driven by our own thoughts. We are afraid of not having enough of what it takes to meet the challenge that lies ahead. Perhaps we are afraid we can’t complete or achieve that which we aspire to or that we are inadequately prepared for what we might be asked to do. “Will I get laid off?” “Is this relationship going to fall apart?” ” What’s going to happen at work today? Will my project get approved?” “Do I have enough money to pay the mortgage this month?”  These are all survival fears! And, one after another they arise without ever giving our bodies time to reset. The result? We live in a state of fear and physiological stress. It takes its toll on our health and well-being. Our kidney qi gets zapped.

If we don’t do something non-stop fight flight or stress response can turn from something that saves us into something that kills us. What can we do?

We can pause. Remember that when  a threat appears, we feel fear and the brain processes it both on a short,  fast track and on a long, slow tract. The fast track processing gives a quick and rough appraisal to the amygdala, “Ah, it looks like a threat. Better to act now than be sorry.”  But, if we pause, we allow the long tract enough time to process. The higher processing of the cortex and explicit memory via the hippocampus can weigh in. Is this really a threat? No, it isn’t. The body can relax.

Our fear is a signal. It is a signal to pause and bring our awareness inside to the whole thing about the perceived threat.  We can make contact with it by saying, I’m sensing something in me that’s really afraid … .” We can acknowledge it by saying, “Hello, I see you’re there.” We can keep it company with interested curiosity and when it is ready to tell us something, we can listen mindfully, with our full attention, non-judgementally and with compassion.  We can ask, “What is this wanting to happen?” or “What is this not wanting to happen?” This practice of pausing with awareness can save our lives. It can keep the fight flight, stress response at an appropriate level. Turned on when necessary; turned off when not. It can keep our body mind in balance, healthy and well.

Transformative Grief

Grief is our natural emotional response to a loss of something or someone with which or with whom we had a bond. We grieve when someone we love passes. We grieve when we are separated from someone important to us or from a job that is no longer ours or from a lifestyle in which we can no longer participate perhaps due to illness or misfortune.

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Grief is one of the five emotions (the others being joy/sadness, worry, fear, and anger) described by the ancient Chinese Five Element Theory. Grieving is a process; it moves like the seasons, like summer into autumn. Summer’s creative action culminates with the harvest while autumn’s energy strips the leaves from the trees and makes everything bare. The leaves fall to the earth giving nourishment for new growth in the spring. Grief moves like the active energy of summer falling away into the inward-turning and letting go of autumn.

Grief’s living forward energy cleanses and purifies as it distills creative, active bonds into their essence, this most precious thing that carries us forward with natural resilience to new creative action. Just like the resilience of nature as it sprouts, blooms, and withers in continuous cycle. S. A. Berger, in his 2009 book Five Ways We Grieve, identifies four paths of creative action which may come from grieving.  These include preserving the memory of the loved one or lost thing, recreating a sense of family or community, helping others dealing with the same illness or issue of the loved one or lost bond, and creating meaning through religion, philosophy, or spiritual quest. In each of these there is a life-forward movement. Think of the grieving parents of a young Leland Stanford Jr. who after losing him to typhoid fever when he was only 15 decided that because they could not do any longer for their own son that they would do for the children of California. Out of this they built Stanford University, now one of the world’s most prestigious. Think of those who have rebuilt families after losing one of their own to war, illness or accident or towns that after losing many of their inhabitants to earthquake, tornado, or flood have built again never losing the memory from which they have come. Think of those who through the grieving process have given themselves to healing others, providing solace, or seeking the spiritual–reaching out, touching, transforming suffering into the sweetness of the moment.

Grieving is not all sadness. It can also bring forth moments of delight and laughter when we remember something joyous, something funny, something wonderful about our loved one or loss. I remember a family story about my father’s remembering his Aunt Bertha after her death.  The story goes that Aunt Bertha was a no nonsense women, who worked in an airplane factory as a welder during the war. Once at the dinner table, and much to my father’s delight, she took a big piece of cherry pie even though she had not yet finished her meal.  When my grandmother, her sister, admonished her  she matter-of-factly said, “You never know if there will be any left the next time round. I’ll just have mine now.” The story then goes that my father, grieving the loss of his dear aunt, laughed so hard telling this story that tears came to his eyes, happy tears for his Aunt Bertha.

What happens when grief gets stuck? Unable to process, to transform, it hunkers down. Its energy unable to move becomes oppressive rendering us unable to function. We may become lost in sadness or depressed for a prolonged period of time. Or, we may disassociate from our grief. Unable to sense it in our bodies we think it isn’t there. Perhaps we hold a belief that grieving is just something we don’t do, that we just have to get on with life, so we push it away.  Or, we exile it because another part of us thinks that it’s too much to bear. But, it isn’t. There is room for all to come.

When we allow our grief to come to us like autumn comes in nature, when we are present with it, acknowledge it, keep it company, and sit with it with interest and curiosity, it will show us its life-forward energy and we will be transformed.

Worried Sick?

Worry, like anger, joy/sadness, grief, and fear is a natural emotion. For thousands of years, we have recognized the energy of worry as that energy which triggers thinking. The feelings of worry–uneasiness and concern– move us to think how to satisfy the worry.

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In its natural form, worry is healthy. And like all healthy emotions worry moves.  Worry moves us to think. Thinking moves us to a solution. Then worry releases leaving as naturally as it arrived in us. This movement from worry to thinking to solution is something we do every day.

Suppose that we live by a river. In the spring, we notice that the rains swell the river.  Sometimes the river becomes so full, it overflows its banks. Our house is right there and we notice that when the river overflows, the water approaches our house. We notice that it comes close, just to the border of our garden.

Now, worry arises in us. We worry that the water could flood the house! So what happens? Our worry leads us to think how to protect our house. “What can we do to protect the house from being flooded by the river’s waters?” We ask ourselves. “Ah, we can bring sand bags to protect the house; or we can put the house on stilts; or we can work with others in the community to build a higher levee to protect our homes.”

Our thinking gives us options;  we have three here already. It also helps us to see which one fits best. Ah, sandbags seem best. We discover that the city stocks them every year for residents just like us. We make note of where the city stockpiles are and how to get there on several different routes. We note that the sandbags are within five minutes of our house. Deep breath. We have a solution and a plan to implement it. No more worry.

But suppose instead of leading us to this kind of constructive thinking, our worry leads us into a negative kind of thinking–a circular and repetitive thinking that feeds upon itself. If instead of problem-solving thinking, we careen off into this negative kind of rumination, we might think like this.

“There’s nothing I can do to stop the river from flooding. This is futile. What do I do if the water starts rising. What if I can’t get away from the water. What if the water ruins all my belongings. I have no place to go. I am alone. What do I do if the river floods? I can’t stop it. I’m alone. What do I do? I’ll lose everything.”

And, so on and on in a circle that traps the worry and gives rise to a sense of hopelessness and isolation. We become depressed; everything seems dark and flat and negative. No matter which way we turn we end up in the same place, in the same circular pattern.

From time to time, we all may find ourselves slipping into negative rumination. Then we catch it!  But, if we don’t it becomes oppressive. We feel trapped. Worry is now a concern because it leads not to problem solving but to negative, circular thinking that makes us sick.

The expression, “I’m worried sick,” comes from our collective human experience of worry gone awry. We become anxious, depressed, isolated. We stop caring about our lives; we refuse to see our friends. Stuck worry makes us sick and we suffer.

So what can we do? We can bring awareness to our worry and then turn to our body, sensing and accepting what comes. We can acknowledge it, keep it company and listen compassionately without judging.

“How does one do this?” We may be asking. Mindfulness meditation, BodyTalk, and Focusing  are three practices that help us to do this. In all three  we focus our attention, receive what comes compassionately, and acknowledge non-judgmentally.

More On The Body

Last week, we talked about people feeling in their body and offered a definition of body as interconnected process, interacting with the environment, sharing wisdom with us all the time. We talked about our bodily process of experiencing the world, the environment in which we live and how we describe that. We gave some common examples. The stomach tied in knots. The queasy feeling in the abdomen. The tightness in the chest. The clenching in the throat. Now, what happens when we don’t feel in our body? When there is no stomach tied in knots?  Does this mean that there is something wrong with us? Or that our definition of body as process isn’t holding up?

Not at all. Because the life process that is body is not necessarily felt by the individual in the physical body, we don’t have to feel physical destinations or associate a feeling with a physical thing such as “a knot in my stomach.”Kreuzknoten-slip_2

For some of us, we experience our bodies simply through an inner knowing. Our experiencing will lead us to say, “I have an inner knowing.” “I just know it.” “It feels right.” We have a sense of something and whether something fits because it feels right. What we don’t have is a subtle somatic experience. We are still sensing without bodily destinations and things we can describe.

In my personal experience when something is tenuous, not quite formed, or afraid of coming forward, I feel and know it is there but don’t have a place or name for it. Over time, as it develops it may feel like it is just there, in that space outside my head or beyond my shoulder, but not in any way associated with head or shoulder. Interestingly, it gives me information all along the way from the time when I just sense something to the time when I sense something over there. I don’t have to experience it as “a knot in the stomach” to listen to what it wants to tell me.

Another example of someone who doesn’t sense things in his body is someone very close to me who is a mathematician. He’ll say, “I don’t feel anything in my body,” but he’s a keen listener and will often say, I just know this; it feels right.” He’s very accustomed to thinking precisely, abstractly and intuitively; it’s in his training, so it makes sense that his bodily experiencing is abstract without place names like “stomach” and things like “knots.”

It isn’t how felt senses manifest themselves, it is whether we listen and how we listen. If we don’t listen with distance, connection, and respect or we don’t listen at all we won’t get a sense of how it is for us right now.

I invite you to sense how you, yourself, experience the body as interconnected process, interacting with the environment, and sharing wisdom. Listen and share how it is for you right now.