Our Daily Dissatisfaction

As experiences happen in us, around us, and between us and our environment the mind quickly judges. This is pleasant; hold on to it. This is unpleasant push it away. This is good. Stay here. That is bad. Go away. This doesn’t touch me. Ignore it. This process of judging and reacting can be so subtle, it goes undetected. And, yet, its affects are present. Feelings of sadness, inadequacy, emptiness, self-criticism, loneliness and fear may arise.  

Culturally in the West, we are are conditioned to accumulate as many pleasant feelings as we can. We value sensory experiences that are equivalent to a child in a candy store roaming the aisles and piling up sweets and delicacies that smell, taste, look, feel, and sound wonderful. The smell of chocolate, the taste of sweetness, the look of perfectly iced cakes, the velvety feel of ice cream, the sound of popping corn. 

Conversely, we shun unpleasant feelings. We turn away from bitter tastes just as we indulge the sweet. We rush past a homeless person sleeping in a doorway so not to see. We hold our nose to the smell of ripening perspiration on a hot day.  We cringe at the sound of alarms, sirens and screams. So afraid of feeling pain, we pop opioid pain killers to get ahead of the pain before it starts.

We go about our days in this constant state of reacting and sorting. This is pleasant; keep this. That is unpleasant; throw it away. Interestingly, the pleasant feelings we accumulate quickly dissipate while the unpleasant ones linger.  

And, something more happens. The more pleasant experiences we accumulate, the more we want. We become gluttonous, attaching ourselves physically or virtually to anything and everything that adds to our sense of pleasure. We are delirious with our possessions, our selfies, our games, and our gadgets. And, yet, the more we accumulate, the more unsatisfactory life feels.

Ah, we are suffering with pervasive dissatisfaction.

There is another way.  Rather than allow this pushing, pulling or ignoring of experience, we can pause and experience what we are experiencing by bringing our attention to it in a neutral and friendly way. When we attend to our feelings in this way we can bring interest and curiosity to their exploration.

You might be asking but how can I, or anyone, do this? 

First, we pay attention to the body by focusing our awareness. We are continuously breathing, so by bringing our intention to pay attention and then our attention to our breathing—the in breath, out breath and pause—and where we sense it—as it enters the body through the nose, as it descends the throat, as it fills the chest and settles in belly— we get used to being with the continuous flow of the reality of our breath and the edges between our inner and outer environments. As we stay with the breath, we become intimate with it a neutral, yet friendly, kind of way. We experience how it changes sometimes softer; then stronger. Sometimes superficial; then deeper. Faster; then slower. We drop our opinions and judgements about how it should be. It is as it is. We watch it with interest and curiosity. 

We can be wth our senses in much the same way. As we broaden our focus to our five sense doors, the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and body we can bring our attention to the continuous flow of sensory perception flowing within and between our inner and outer environments without judging. What we do is to develop our awareness of the flow of experience as we perceive it through the senses. This is why sitting is so important. When we sit we create the conditions in which we can train the mind to pay attention to the flow of sensory experience without grasping or pushing anything. We use our mind in a different way. Instead of judging each perception; we allow it to be present and then pass away. 

As we practice this we build our mindfulness. Mindfulness is not something we do; it is rather a condition we develop through practice leading us to it. Gil Fronsdal, a Buddhist teacher, describes it as a state of receptive attentiveness not requiring self-conscious effort*. The more we practice by focusing attention on the breath and our sensory perceptions the less effort we need to apply until we reach the point that it is just the way we are. 

* https://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/2017/01/buddhas-teachings-on-mindfulness/

 

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

We Are Like Sprouting Potatoes

To live, to produce more potatoes, the potato’s inner nature, its wiring, says sprout when conditions are sufficient. So when there is the darkness of a cellar or of the earth, potatoes sprout. In this way we are just like sprouting potatoes in the dark. We, too, have an inner knowing to live our lives forward when conditions are sufficient. This forward growth direction is a characteristic of life’s process.

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Life is process. We may feel like solid things, buffeted by situations and our environment, but we are not. We are process interacting with our environment. Consider the breath that keeps us alive. The breath is interaction with the air around us. We are not separate from our breath. We breathe and it feels right. The potato is not separate from the darkness—the darkness is intrinsic to how the potato lives forward giving us new potatoes. So, too, we are not separate from our situations and environment.

So how is it that we experience stoppages? That we feel stuck? That we are unable to live the lives we feel are right for us? When young and growing, we may not have the inner capabilities to live forward through a situation. The mother that ignores us. The parents that criticize us. The war that surrounds us. The illness that takes our loved ones away from us.  The people who are cruel to us. These are the kinds of things that can cause our inner process of living forward to stop, to get stuck.  As we grow older other situations may occur creating a stoppage or reinforce one from our youth. We may experience separation from loved ones, illness, or the harmful effects of a bad economy. Perhaps criticized as a child, as an adult, we feel inadequate and struggle to move forward in our chosen career. Or something else.

And when there is a stoppage, when something in us doesn’t live forward but remains stuck in some place in us, in our tissues, in energy channels, in our very being, then we feel that something is not right. Something may not be happening that we want to happen. We may feel our thoughts and emotions circling like wagons against attack. Something in us may rebel or capitulate. These are all signals that there is something that has not been able to process. Something in us lacked the resources and support to move through a situation and now we feel stuck.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. By coming into presence, feeling our wholeness of body, feeling how we are supported, by bringing gentle and curious awareness to that something that doesn’t feel right we begin our healing. It will emerge and come forward as something in our body that at first may not have words to describe it and yet by acknowledging it and bringing our gentle and loving presence to it, little by little it will show itself. And, by staying with it listening and reaffirming, we allow it to release its stuck energy and move forward with  a sense of rightness in life, just as the potato sprouts in the dark.

 

About The Plate

Everything is always changing. And how we eat is changing too. During the day grabbing something on the run, on our way from here to there, is common. It didn’t used to be that way. There was a time when the mid-day meal was a time to stop, eat, and rest. It was a time for the parasympathetic nervous system to do its thing: Rest and digest. Often people would go home to lunch. The table would be set. The meal would be served and enjoyed. Then after eating and clearing, everyone would take a rest before heading back to work or school.

Now, we run and eat, and eat and run and wonder why we feel hyped-up, stressed, and burnt-out. It doesn’t have to be that way. Even if lunch is brown bag, take-out or cafeteria fare, we can still make a moment of celebration and rest. It is all about the plate.

Use a plate. Stash plate and utensils in your desk at work, in your locker, or in your car or truck. Wash and dry it in the restroom. Who’s looking. Who cares.

Take a moment to unwrap and place your food on the plate. Ah, you are already slowing down. Now sit down with the plate and food.

Take a moment to take in what’s on the plate.

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Notice the textures. The rough edges, the frond-like surfaces, and the smooth and round skin.

See the colors. The orangey red, the shiny black, and the palest green.

Now smell. Perhaps something sweet and acidy will rise up through your nostrils, hit the receptors there beginning a process that generates an electrical signal that travels to the brain receptor cells and then to the primary olfactory cortex. But enough of that. Just smell the food. Oh, by the way, you may not smell much. That’s OK. Just take a moment and smell. The more you focus your smelling, the better it becomes.

Bringing your awareness to the food on the plate now, just rest your eyes there. Take it all in. Now, breathe in slowly and gently following the breath down into the belly. Pause. Breathe out slowly. Do this a few times. Now, that’s good.

You are ready to eat. Enjoy.

About Eating

How does it feel to eat? Someone once told me, “When I eat I sense something grasping and gnawing inside of me. It feels like there is something desperate in there!”

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This person was really in touch with how it felt to eat for her. Eating is a complicated activity working at many different levels of our experience. It can tell us a lot about how things are going for us in that particular moment. When we are eating, it is a good time to pause and check inside to see how it is for us right then and there.

Eating is so basic and so complicated. It often brings forth in us something that is wanting our attention; something that is wanting us to deeply listen in a curious and respectful way. But, this something wanting our attention often goes unnoticed as our attention is elsewhere. Perhaps it is on the TV, on the phone, on the computer, in a book, in conversation with another. Or, maybe we are “zoned” out somewhere far from what we are doing in the moment, eating!

Pausing is a good idea. Some people say grace or a few words of remembrance before eating. Growing up, the custom in our family was to say grace. Even as a kid, there was something about that moment of being together in thanks that felt really right, a sense of appreciation for the food on the plate and being together.

Now when I pause in thanks before eating, I do it from the inside out. I bring my awareness inside to that whole middle space that will receive this food, the throat, stomach, and belly and check what’s alive for me in this moment of eating. Perhaps something is wanting my attention right now. It may need just a moment of respectful acknowledgement or perhaps it is something that is wanting of bigger chunk of my time and space. In that case, I say hello to it and let it know I am willing to come back to it when it is needing my attention.

Pausing in this way changes my eating. It slows me down. It increases my enjoyment of the food. And, it brings me in touch with situations, feelings, and emotions, triggered by food and eating, that are wanting my attention. This is a gift for which I am grateful.

I Am Here And This Is Here Too

When you are in a situation and feeling intensely or in the middle of an internal war of thought and worry it can feel all-consuming. It might feel as though the whole of you is trapped or stuck. You might be aware of how it goes around and around, repeating endlessly.

I have felt like this. In my case, anxiety would consume me. An anxiety attack. And, it was just that, an attack by many parts of me at war with one another. Each one was doing its best to protect and defend. Sticky, tight, closed-in, going round and round in an endless spiral of pent up emotion, feeling, and thought, I felt desperate and imprisoned.

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Perhaps you have felt something like this. You are wanting to get relief and feel better. What to do? Pause and bring your attention to your body. It doesn’t matter where you are. Start with really sensing your feet, pressing into the toes, the ball of foot, and heel and what they are touching. Ah, there they are. Sense how the floor or earth supports you up through your feet to your belly, stomach, chest, and throat. You might follow the energy with your attention as it enters the bottom of your feet and moves up through the legs to the hips, pelvis and buttocks and into that whole middle space of belly, stomach, chest, and throat. There you are.

Now, pause. A breath may come with the pause. That’s good. Just notice the breath. Notice the inhale and how it comes in and down through the nose, down the throat to chest and even beyond to the stomach and belly. And notice the pause at the end. That short moment of stillness. That’s the pause we are after, that short moment of stillness.

This is a good time to remind yourself by saying inwardly, gently and respectfully, “I am the space big enough for whatever needs my attention. Who is saying this? “This is your whole self, that self that is present, that can hold and open space, lots of space, for all those partial selves, parts of yourself, that are needing your attention.

Your whole self is here, aware and open. Now, you might invite whatever needs your attention to come forward or it may come flooding in with many voices, pictures, feeling states, and emotions vying with one another. Ah, how wonderful!  They are all here right now with you. This is is a gift.

Acknowledge each one with interest and curiosity. To the first one say, “Ah, I see you are here.” Acknowledge the second one, “Ah, hello. I see you are here, too. And both can be here.” And then acknowledge each additional one that comes by saying inwardly, “Ah, I see you are here, too. And, all can be here.”

This is what we mean when we say, “I am here and this is here, too.” Practice this. Pausing and bringing your awareness, your whole self, to what is needing your attention inside. And no matter how many parts come forward letting each one know that you are here and willing to listen to it. Ah, that feels better. Now space is opening inside just as the day opens to us.

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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.