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.
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.
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.
I’m so tired. We’ve all said it. We’ve all felt it. Why are we all so tired? Is it that we are really physically fatiguing our bodies? Or is it that how we are spending our days? Perhaps our actions and thoughts are not aligned with our values–with our authentic selves. If we are not feeling joy in what we do every day, all day, then we are out of sync with our authentic selves. Being out of balance in this way is exhausting.
Think about this. Ask yourself. What gives me joy? Right now, write down five things that give you joy. If you are finding that difficult, write down four things, or three things, or one thing that gives you joy. You may find that the things that give you joy are also difficult. For example, suppose you are a writer. Writing is difficult. It takes disciple and organization. It takes effort. It takes time. And, it gives tremendous joy. So, most often what gives us joy takes effort, organization, and commitment.
Now, put down your pen and close your eyes. Image you are immersed in doing the first thing (or only thing) on your list and ask, “Why am I doing this?” The “why question” connects you with your authentic self. When the answer comes from your core values, it feels right to be doing it and your body and mind will respond with a resounding ‘yes.’ This ‘yes’ is telling you that your values and actions are aligned with your authentic self.
This alignment is beautiful. This is where, if you put your energy and time, in ever widening circles, you will reside in joy.
If you don’t get a resounding ‘yes, this feels right,’ this is a signal that this action, this behavior may not be totally in alignment with your authentic self. Perhaps you are doing it because someone or something else feels it is right. Because they feel it is right you believe that it should feel right for you, too. Now, that you’re picking up the covers you sense that there is something more for you to explore.
This is a rich place to be. Be curious. In this place you can sit and gently and compassionately ask inwardly, “What about this whole thing?” You’ll be surprised how your body will respond, how it will show and tell you all about how this activity aligns or not with what feels right to you. It will show you where your motivation is coming from, perhaps from the obligation or pressure coming from family, friends, work, society, or culture. This exploration takes time and a willingness to be gentle and compassionate with yourself. It typically does not express itself like a bolt of lightening. Be patient. It will unwind and open and show you where your true alignment lies.
When you sit quietly and comfortably and bring your awareness inside, what greets you? Do you feel open and intimate? Do you feel that you can sit down with whatever is there like you would sit with a friend or stranger beside a campfire? Or, perhaps you feel something else.
Something doesn’t want your presence. Something is angry and rebellious. Something disappears into blankness. Something says, “Go away. I don’t want you here.” Or, says, “You’re ridiculous. ” Or lets you know that you can’t do it, that you are a failure.
What to do? Really be there for it. It can be the ugliest, most violent, most condescending thing you have ever encountered.
Really feel whatever it is in your body. Invite your body to show you/tell you something about what’s here with you right now. Invite your body to open to what you are feeling.
What you are feeling is resistance. Experience your resistance. It may feel uncomfortable. It will feel uncomfortable. Start with inviting your grounded, open presence, your whole self to be here right now. And, know that you cannot fail at having whatever experience you are having. Have your experience! Be open to it. Invite it to be here right now.
Know that what is hurting is not your resistance, it’s your relationship to it that hurts. Say, my intention, my energy is here right now to experience what is wanting my attention right now. No holds barred. I welcome this resistance and my experience of it to be here with me now.
Perhaps there is someone in your life whose actions and or words you find difficult, perhaps very difficult. If this feels right, you might do the following. Taking a few minutes gather together a piece of paper and a pen. Now, find a quiet place where you can sit and write.
Sitting, let your body take its most comfortable position. Feel your feet and what they are touching. Sense the seat beneath you and how it supports you. Notice your hands and what they are touching, how they, perhaps, hold the pen and the paper, too.
Now write the person’s name at the top of the paper. Perhaps the person’s name is Jane. Write ‘Jane’ at the top of the paper.
Now bring your awareness to your breath. Just the way it is. Breathing in, pausing, breathing out just breathing as it is right now. No need to change it. If it feels right take a deeper breath.
Now bring your awareness inside your body to your inner knowing of what feels right for you. Take your time. Sense your more spacious and whole self arriving inside. As you do, you might become aware of something in the throat, chest, stomach or belly, or somewhere else. Just notice what’s alive for you right now and acknowledge that it is here.
Now bring your awareness to what’s difficult about this person and invite it to be present. You might say to yourself, “I’m inviting that whole thing about [name of person] and [describe briefly in a couple of words the difficulty]. Here’s an example. “I’m inviting that whole thing about Jane and how she treated me in the meeting to be here now.”
Acknowledge what comes. It might be a picture, video, feeling or emotion. Whatever comes acknowledge it gently with respect and empathy. You might say something to yourself like, “Ah, hello, I see you are/it is here.”
Now, taking your time, invite three good qualities of this difficult person to come forward. You might say. “I’m inviting three good qualities of Jane to make themselves known.” Perhaps only one or two good qualities will come forward. That’s OK, too. Write each one down. Even if there is only one good quality, write that down on the piece of paper under the name of the person.
When you have finished writing, put the pen down. If it feels right take a breath, feel your feet and hands and what they are touching. Feel the support of what you are sitting on beneath you.
Read the first good quality to yourself. Now, sense how that good quality feels in your body. Let that feeling be there as fully as it wants to be. Now read the second good quality and sense it in your body letting it be there as fully as it wants. Now do the same for the third quality. Notice how your body feels now. Perhaps something has changed. Perhaps there is more space or a flowing or lightness. Just notice.
Seeing the good in someone, even in a difficult person, doesn’t hurt and can help you feel good, too.
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.
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.
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.
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.