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.

Grounding with Our Mother Earth

How often do you walk on the earth barefoot? Once a day? Once a month? Once a year? Perhaps you can’t remember the last time you walked barefoot on the ground.

Perhaps, you ask, “Why should I?” Or, maybe you recall your mother’s admonitions to put your shoes on. Or, could it be that your feet having been too long encased in shoes of sundry sorts are now very tender making you squeamish?

Walking or standing barefoot on the ground is good for us; it’s good for our health. Our earth is an electron dispenser, sending out a steady flow of electrons which help our bodies’ antioxidant scavenging process by supplying additional electrons from the unlimited reservoir on the earth’s surface. These neutralize the harmful effects of environmental 50-60 Hz electromagnetic fields and free radicals arising from faulty metabolic processes in our bodies.

Regular contact with the earth can help us :

  • lower harmful cortisol levels
  • reduce inflammation
  • sleep better
  • improve chronic illnesses such as diabetes
  • improve blood circulation
  • alleviate PMS, aches and pains
  • feel good

The flow of electrons encompassing the surface of our entire planet Earth, also exists on the surface of all conductive things in contact with it including people, plants, and animals. Pulsating at approximately 10 Hz which is similar to the brain’s alpha waves, characteristic of the calm, restful yet alert state of meditation and following a rhythmic 24-hour circadian rise and fall in amplitude, this healthy electron flow is always available to us as long as we are in contact with it. When we insulate ourselves by always wearing plastic and rubber-soled shoes; living and working in buildings where our feet don’t touch the ground; traveling about in cars, buses, planes, trains, and bikes; and surrounding ourselves with all varieties of electrical equipment in our homes and places of work, we can’t partake of Mother Earth’s bounty of healing electron flow.

What to do?

  • Take your shoes off. Sitting down or walking around, plant your bare feet on the ground in a park or your backyard. Wriggle your toes. Have some fun.
  • Toss a blanket on the ground on the grass, in a field or woods, on the beach. Lie down. Watch the clouds pass by.
  • Walk barefoot in your house if it is built on a slab.
  • Walk barefoot at the beach. Walk barefoot in your garden. Walk barefoot anywhere you can.
  • Eat outside and let your bare feet enjoy the fresh air, too. Even at a sidewalk cafe, slip your feet out of your shoes to feel the ground beneath them.

Find any excuse to walk, sit, or lie on Mother Earth. Do often. Daily, if possible.

The Pause That Refreshes and Balances

Neuroscientists and psychologists have been making progress in catching up with what the ancients knew long ago–that meditation is good for us. It helps us to maintain balance. It helps us to regulate the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). When we regulate the ANS we balance the two opposing, yet complimentary, parts of the ANS: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These two systems are both necessary, but cannot both control at the same time, and when out of balance in either direction cause us to be un-well.

The sympathetic nervous system engages when we face external threats, activating the Fight-Flight system–our stress response. This happens when, for example, a driver cuts us off on the highway or our boss doesn’t recognize our contribution in a group meeting. On the highway, it saves us from getting into an accident by activating mechanisms that get us quickly and safely out of the way of the vehicle that has just swerved in front of us. In the office, it triggers healthy anger which is the motivating energy we need to get out of there and go and find another, more fulfilling job. Of course, if the ANS is really out of whack, it can also lead to inappropriate behavior such as slamming into the back of the vehicle that has just cut us off or punching the boss in the face.

At the moment that the stress response engages our bodies prepare for action. The liver dumps sugar and fat into the blood stream, the cardiovascular system heightens blood pressure; the respiratory system speeds up breathing; the senses and thinking sharpen to focus solely on this moment (not the future), and the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) shuts off to keep us from slowing down, from doing nothing while we think about options, organize, or plan. If the PFC weren’t inhibited at this moment we might crash into the guy who has just cut us off because we are pondering, “Do I swerve or brake? Which would potentially produce less wear and tear on my car in long term?”

The opposing and complimentary system, the parasympathetic system slows breathing and heart rate and keeps us calm; it is the state in which we heal and rejuvenate, and turns on the Pause and Response System which relies on the ability of PFC to resist the immediate temptation staring us in the face. We may think, “Boy, I’d really like to punch the boss in face,” but when the PFC weighs in and we see ourselves being shunned for our violence by our co-workers, we plan another course of action. In general terms, in this instance, it allows us to resist temptation: The “I won’t.” It also allows us to engage in the “I will.” After the initial burst of healthy anger motivating us to look for a new job—or get out of there–the flight response, the Pause and Response system kicks in turning on the organizing and planning we’ll need for our new job search. It also engages the “I want,” which, in effect, remembers our motivation over time: “I want to get a new job,” even when, right now, we’d rather be playing a game or socializing. The “I want,” “I will,” and “I won’t” are functions of the Pause and Response System and all reside in the PFC.

So what does this have to do with meditation? Everything. If our Fight-Flight system is continually being turned on over and over again, all day long, there is no time for recovery and activation of the Pause and Response system. Unfortunately, the modern, civilized lives we lead turn on our Fight-Flight system so many times a day, that we end up in chronic stress mode. With no opportunity for the parasympathetic nervous system and the Pause and Response system to activate, our ANS is out-of-balance and that’s when we run into trouble. That’s when disease, regret, and unhappiness come on line. Meditation helps us to balance the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems so that when we need to swerve out of the way of a car we can but then recover so that the lunch we just ate gets digested properly or the immune system keeping us from catching a cold can do its job, or we can engage in the organizing, planning, and doing necessary to get that new job.

Let’s see how by examining what happens in meditation focusing on the breath. We begin with an intention. “I will focus on my breath.” As we sit concentrating on each breath cycle, a thought enters our head; our mind wanders. Suddenly we’re thinking about the boss who snubbed us in the group meeting and we’re feeling agitated. Then we recognize that we’re distracted and that we have an intention, “Oops, I’m distracted. The boss is not the breath.” Then, without making any judgement about our wanderings, we return our concentration to the breath. This act of having a plan: “I will focus on my breath,” recognizing when we experience distractions (and we will): “How dare the boss snub me. Who does he think he is?” and returning our concentration to what we originally planned, to focus on the breath, without making judgements, without shame or feeling guilty, is building more and denser gray matter in the PFC. Amazingly, it’s the distraction, the recognition of the distraction, and the returning to concentration that builds the gray matter, the neurons and their connections. These, in turn build and strengthen the Pause and Response system.

In meditation, we’re slowing down, we’re calming ourselves, we’re emptying out.  We’re bringing online the Parasympathetic Nervous System to provide overall balance to our ANS. We feel happy, our health improves, our well-being increases, our stress decreases, our actions are more even, and our self-reflection and self-control gets stronger; we’re refreshed.

The Creative Brain

Where do our creative ideas come from? Even if we think we’re not creative, all of our brains have what it takes.  To be creative, the whole brain needs to be in the best mind state for the job.

This doesn’t mean that everyone has to approach creativity in the same way. What each of us does when we are doing something creative can be very different. Some of us wake up from a dream saying, “I’ve got it!” Others work  in a certain place or at a certain time of day. And, then, there are those of us who just take a walk.  Which way we choose to work creatively doesn’t seem to matter.

What does matter is what goes on in our brains. Back in the 70s, creativity was thought to be solely a right brain activity. Today we know that it is a whole brain activity: Left-right, top-bottom, as creativity requires the brain to access a large web of connections. Neuroscientists now tell us tell us that about 300 milliseconds before an “aha moment,” when the creative answer comes to us, our brains go into very high gamma activity (neural oscillation with a frequency between 25 to 100 Hz) allowing the binding together of neurons as far flung brain cells connect in a new neural network creating a new association. This heightened activity takes place in the temporal lobe centered on the side of the right neocortex. This is the part of the brain that understands metaphor, gets jokes, comprehends the language of the unconscious, as well as that of poetry, art, and myth.  At this same moment the right brain uses its longer connections to other parts of the brain to collect more information and put it together in a novel way.

And before that 300 milliseconds? That’s just as critical, too. First, we have to concentrate intently on the problem or goal. But, if we just think and think about it, or try to force an insight, we stymie creativity. That’s why the next stage is critical, too. Just let go. In this state the brain enters a high alpha rhythm (neural oscillations in the frequency of 8-12 Hz), signaling mental relaxation, that state of openness when we are more receptive to new ideas. Being in this alpha state sets the stage for the gamma spike when new neural connections make novel associations and the new creative idea enters our consciousness.

You’re probably asking now, “But how do I get my brain to do this?” Each of us has to discover what’s the best way to concentrate with high focus on the problem. We may sit down at our desk with paper and pen or take a walk to clear our heads of everything but the problem at hand. You get the idea. Then once we’ve accomplished that deep focus, we don’t think about the problem any more. We just let go and relax. Meditation evokes this relaxed and open state and focusing on the breath is an excellent approach, especially for beginners. In meditation, the brain relaxes into alpha rhythm. Once in alpha, all is ready for the brain’s leap into high gamma activity leading to the aha moment, a feeling of joy, and the coming into consciousness of the novel idea or solution. Practice makes perfect. Habitually doing the stages of intense concentration followed by completely letting go make the difference.

There’s one more thing. Novel ideas are fragile so it is best to surround ourselves and our creative ideas with a supportive environment and with those who are willing to help the fledging flourish.