The Ease of Constancy

Constancy is the outcome of approaching activities wth the quality of faithfulness and dependability; it is also enduring and unchanging. How then do we reconcile the advice to choose constancy in our mindfulness practice when everything is ever changing? When our inner world feels confused or emotional?  When our outer world feels chaotic and unsteady?

It’s a kind of paradox. Constancy is what results when we bring a consistent attitude to our every day situations and activities. When we bring our presence in the same steadfast way to every living moment, whether it is eating a daily meal, dealing with a sudden and unexpected event such as an illness or a natural disaster, facing relationship issues such as indifference and betrayal, or living through political turmoil and policies that create war, refugees, and intolerance, we build constancy.   Think about it this way. Everything is always changing and yet our approach is always dependable. We bring our attention to and acknowledge in an even, non-judging way what is here, right now.  Constancy results not from habitual reaction to what is happening but from the consistently of approach to what is happening in the moment.

A Zen teacher reminds us that constancy requires no particular effort.  It does require training, however. Just as in dance or sports we train the body with exercises and practice to build something we call muscle memory, so too, we train the mind to pay attention and to acknowledge what is here in front of us without judging through our meditation practice. This builds constancy. Being aware of and acknowledging the worry, fear, and anxiety that we feel in our daily lives is our starting place. Our formal practice—taking time, giving space, sitting in stillness—is our practice room. We learn to sense and observe the changing mind within from a place of non-reactivity, openness, and truth. As within, without. As we build our constancy with respect to our inner world, we also build it with respect to our outer world.

Bringing the intention to build constancy in our practice just as a ballerina brings the intention to perform the arabesque in its true form and beauty and the baseball pitcher brings the intention to throw each ball with exquisite form and accuracy is a beautiful place to start. Start here. Same place. Same time. Bring intention. Be still. Be aware. Acknowledge. Observe. No judgement. 

From there our steadfastness, our constancy, provides us the freedom to respond in an appropriate way that feels right to us. 

Are You Curious?

When we are curious, we are open to asking questions, to new perspectives, and to mysteries. We welcome rather than shun ‘not knowing.’ When we are curious, the mind is enthusiastic, adventurous, and tolerates stress well. 

Curiosity is a wonderful attitude to bring to meditation. Why? When we are curious we are not closed and judging, we are open and welcoming. Being open and welcoming to what arises is a cornerstone of being mindful throughout the day and nourishes our formal meditation practice. Instead of fighting against what arises, curiosity allows us to go with what comes. Going with what is arising for us in the moment is freeing. This doesn’t mean we allow ourselves to get hijacked by thoughts and emotions. Rather, we watch them with an interested focused attention allowing them to unfold without entangling ourselves in them. 

A curious thing about curiosity. When we are curious we are not afraid. I have noticed in my own practice when fear arises and I am with it in a curious and non-judging way, the fear passes. I will say inwardly, “ I am curious about this fear arising.” This makes it OK to be with the unfolding fear. 

Curiosity fosters a sense of comfort–a kind of ease that allows unattached sensing. And, this ease allows us to be open to wondering.  Wondering is open-ended. It doesn’t presume an answer. It appreciates gaps and fuzziness. It acknowledges the unfamiliar and inexplicable. Beginning a question with a sense of wonder helps us let the question drop into space without chasing a cognitive answer. 

You might ask, “How do I invite curiosity into my practice?” Setting the intention at the beginning of each formal meditation is a wonderful way to begin as is setting it at the beginning of each day. Like anything, the more we cultivate a sense of curiosity the more it grows becoming natural to us. You might simply say, “May I be curious.” Then just let it go. Don’t think about it. Let the intention drop away like a leaf falling from a tree. And, be open to all possibilities. 

May you be curious. May I be curious. May we be curious!

Say “Yes” to “No”

I can’t begin to tell you how many times when I am meditating something arises that feels like “No,” or that says “No” or that creates a feeling of friction, rasping, constriction, or denial that feels like “No.”  When I first began meditating I would become flustered and then frustrated when this would happen. I didn’t know how to work with this kind of phenomena. 

Without intending to, at first, I would notice and then push a “No” thought or sensation away by immediately returning my attention to the breath. This didn’t work.  I was forgetting to acknowledge the presence of “No.” 

Once aware of this forgetting, I would notice and acknowledge. I would say inwardly, “thought” or “sensation” or “inner voice” depending on how the “No” was manifesting and return my attention to the breath. This seemed to help for a few moments. Then the same phenomenon would revisit me and sometimes it was even stronger than before. 

This is when I would sense frustration rising. Sometimes, I would open my eyes or shift my seat hoping for a reset, but the frustration only felt more present. I would try again. The trying didn’t help either. The trying was just striving. I have a lot of compassion for my striving mind. Somehow it learned that striving is helpful. It was helpful in getting me out of childhood situations and trajectories that didn’t feel right to me. Striving led me to new places and people who understood my need for wholeness. In this instance, though, striving was anything but helpful. Striving just increased my suffering. 

After some time, it came to me to ask these “No” phenomena what each was wanting.  This helped. I didn’t try to answer the question. No trying (striving)! I just let the question drop into space. And, something interesting happened. What was being wanted was for me to pay attention and to say “Yes,” not by merely gliding over their presence with a perfunctory acknowledgment, but by really pausing and allowing their fulness and saying inwardly with my full awareness, “Yes, this, too, is here.” Spending time and giving space was what was needed. 

What a difference this made. I realized that oh, so subtly, I had been saying “No.” It seemed that either in an undercover sort of conscious way or unconsciously I had been pushing these “Nos” away. Even as I would acknowledge and name the particular sensation or thought, underneath I was not wanting it there. I had been saying “No” to the “No.”

It was when my mind could be curious and interested but not attached (not striving) that it could pause fully, acknowledge fully, and enquire without judging or expecting any answer at all. This was my “Yes” to the “No.”  My mind’s perspective had changed. By slowing down, allowing, and being with the “No” completely and fully, the energy of “no” had a chance to unwind. 

This is how powerful the mind can be. And this is how plastic it is, too. We can train our minds. We can say, “Yes” to “No.”

Who Is Bothering Who?

When we sit down to meditate, we assume, implicitly, that everything around us will take note and stay quiet. When it doesn’t we may find ourselves irritated or agitated. “How can that dog be barking now?” we might ask ourselves. “How is it that a neighbor is cutting down that tree with a noisy chain saw right now? Doesn’t he know I am meditating?” 

The dog is just following his nature. The neighbor is just cutting down the tree because it needs cutting down. It is our mind that is reacting to the dog’s bark and the the noise of the chain saw.  We are the ones that are going out and bothering the dog or the neighbor with the chain saw.

Where is our attention? Our attention has wandered off to out there and grasped onto the noise of the barking or the whine of the chain saw. When we are mindful, our attention is even, neutral and friendly.  From this space we can relate to what arises no matter whether it is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral in the same even way. We don’t push it away, grab hold and cling to it, or judge it.  We are aware of the dog barking or the chain saw cutting down the tree and we can be with each phenomenon in a friendly neutral way.

So often we react to outside situations by building defensive fortifications as though there is a war going on. This is a creation of our own mind. Suddenly, the noise of the dog’s bark sparks a reaction. Perhaps a memory rushes in to assail us. Maybe we have been bitten by a dog, approached by a large dog which scared us when we were a toddler, or confronted by a dog’s snarl. Or, perhaps the neighbor’s chain saw jettisons us off to reacting anew to the neighbor’s past actions that we found hurtful or discourteous. Maybe we feel our shoulders or some other place in the body tense in reaction to the noise. Or, it may be that the noise sets off a pervading vague feeling of irritation that has no noticeable correspondence in the body or in conscious memory. 

Mindfulness invites us to release our reactions by bringing our mind to a neutral space. When we do so, we can be with an experience without suffering. We are aware of the dog’s bark or the whirl of the chain saw, but we are not triggered. By being with what arises, we release stuck energy. No longer does the memory of the long ago dog bite carry an emotional charge or a threat to our safety. We remember it as as something that happened but without the suffering attached to it.

Our perspective changes. We understand that it is not the dog’s bark that bothers; it is our mind’s reaction to it that bothers. By changing our perspective, we change our mind and open our mindfulness.

* See Jack Kornfield, ed., The Buddha Is Still Teaching: Contemporary Buddhist Wisdom, Shamble Publications, Inc., 2010, p. 76  

And, Epstein, Mark, The Trauma of Everyday Life, Penguin group (USA) LLC, 2013, p. 183

Do This. Get That.

Have you noticed how many “Do this. Get that.” prescriptions vie for our attention every day? In ads, articles, and books; on blogs and in social media. How often do we say to ourselves, “If only I would do such-and-such, I would be happier, feel better, be more successful, have more friends and followers, or fill in the blank with your own “would be  ______.”

Do This Get That

It feels like a cultural epidemic.  Even in publications that embrace mindfulness, we constantly hear about how meditation makes us more kind, less stressed, smarter, healthier, more tolerant, better at our jobs, in school, at home, and with our children. Meditate. Get healthy. Meditate. Be more successful at work. Meditate do better at school. Meditate. Get _____. (You fill in the blank.)

It isn’t that mindfulness doesn’t help us open to our happiness, look with fresh eyes, be present and live acceptingly in the moment. Being mindful and cultivating mindfulness with meditation is about process. It is about the doing, not the getting. Even when we mediate every day, everyday life goes on, good and bad things happen, and new and tough situations arise. Mindfulness is about the very process of being with ourselves, with others, and with our environment.

How about just sitting and breathing with no more intention than to sit, breathe, pay attention, and when the mind wanders to return to paying attention? How about giving up all the objectives and throwing the promises out the door. How about just sitting with pinpoint focus on the breath and nothing more? You just might be amazed.

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.