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

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.

Going Through Anger to Sweetness

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.

The Wanting and the Long List

Who among us hasn’t had this experience? There is something we really want to do—perhaps in our careers, family, or creative lives. We see it clearly and then the long list of all the ways things might go wrong, all the obstacles that might arise, and all the negative opinions or judgments that others might make arises. We are left feeling that this is not meant to be. 

The glass is definitely half empty, if not fully empty, and yet, the wanting to do this particular thing keeps returning to us. 

We, humans, are especially good at getting in our own way. Our brains have been wired from the beginning to get us out of the way of danger and threats—real or perceived. Danger arises and we run for cover, fight like crazy, or freeze into frozen statues.

But, this doesn’t mean that we are victims of evolution; it simply means that to do what we want, what is important, and feels true sometimes requires us to do some skillful work inside. By paying full attention and being alert to our own nature—and being present with what arises we come to know what is true for us.

First, we recognize what’s happening in the moment. Perhaps it is self-talk making a list of all the bad and ugly things that might happen if we attempt to do what we are wanting, or it might be a never-ending movie showing us the same. Whatever arises, the first step is to become aware of it. We might say to ourselves something like, “I’m sensing there is a long list of reasons I shouldn’t do this and I’m saying hello to it.”

This kind of acknowledging is very important. It is not a judgement.  It is simply a recognition that we are aware it is here and are acknowledging its presence.

Now, invite in an attitude of interest and curiosity. Curiosity is so helpful! When we are curious we are not pushing anything away; and we are not grasping either. Curiosity is a soft, open, and interested attitude. Sometimes it helps to say, “Oh, I’m sensing I’m curious about this.” 

And, if something arises letting us know that it doesn’t feel curious and doesn’t like what is arising, we can acknowledge that too, and be curious about that.

And, sometimes when we do this we feel a settling and flow; or we may feel another quality. It could be something like tensing, contracting, or an emotion like fear. Or, perhaps what is here, let’s say the scary list, may grow bigger! Or, something else entirely. Whatever comes next is OK. We acknowledge that, too. 

If what has arisen is strong or grows stronger, we might put some space between us and it. Just visualizing space can be helpful. Or sometimes, instead of having direct laser focus on it, allowing our attention to be soft, and fuzzy and a little to the side–as though we are sitting beside it rather than in front of it. This soft attention also creates space.

We might also invite it to let us know how it would like us to be with it. This allows us to be with it in a way that is comfortable to it. This is the beginning of enquiry. Asking questions is a skillful means to bringing ourselves into relationship with what is arising and from there into wholeness.

Yes! We are building a relationship with what is needing our attention. When we think about it, it makes sense to do this. We build relationships all the time, with friends, family, colleagues. This is how strangers become friends.

Now is a good time to sense which other questions might feel appropriate. Perhaps some of these. 

Inviting what is here to let you know what is the worst part of it…

Or, inviting it to let you know what it is not wanting to have happened to you…

Or, in a similarly, inviting it to let you know what it is not wanting you to feel…

After asking… just waiting for what comes… and acknowledging by repeating or reflecting back. 

And, repeating the sequence for as many times as feels right.

This might go something like this…

Enquiry: I’m inviting it to let me know what it is not wanting to have happen to me…

Deep attention ((what comes will be different for each person): What comes is a sense of failure and an image, quality, or words of being ridiculed 

Reflection (Reflecting back): It’s letting me know it doesn’t want me to be ridiculed if I fail…

This sequence of enquiry might repeat several times. Perhaps, then, an openness, flowing, lightness, expansiveness, or calm and ease will arise…

This is the moment to allow this change, this open space, this ease and calm to be here as fully as it wants and an opportunity to give thanks to all that has arisen…

And, then what feels right… the right attitude, the right actions will occur naturally… 

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.

Pizza on plate

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.

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.

A Very Difficult Person

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.

Open green book with pen on white background.

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.

On Autopilot?

Mostly, we go about our day on autopilot. It makes sense that we do not consciously have to decide moment-by-moment, what next. We just do what we do. Every day, we get up, get dressed, brush our teeth, wash our faces, get our kids off to school, go to work, eat, drive, and so on without thinking about what we are doing.

This is not a bad thing. Imagine the effort we would expend to consciously and repeatedly make the same decisions and navigate the same minutia of the same activities day after day. Perhaps exhausting.

On the other hand, when on autopilot we cannot savor what is right here, right now for us; we are not fully present and alive. We might be missing feeling the joy of even the simplest activity. Or, we might be missing something that some part of us might be trying to tell or show us.

What? you might be asking. Who cares!  And, you might also be sensing some budding curiosity in discovering what might come forward by spending a little time with something that doesn’t seem to need any attention at all.

How about bringing your full attention to some routine activity: Brushing your teeth, drinking a coffee or eating a doughnut or bowl of cereal, getting dressed, or driving to work?

Exploring bringing your awareness to something simple that we all do, like brushing our teeth, is a good place to start. Let’s do it.

IMG_3285

Notice how you pick up the brush, apply the toothpaste, and turn on the water. Really pay attention as you hold the brush. Be aware of which hand and kind of grip you use.  Sense how it feels to hold the brush. Now, squeeze the toothpaste onto the brush. What do you see? How would you describe the toothpaste going onto to the brush? And, the water? What do you notice?

Now bring your attention to brushing your teeth. Notice your stroke. Maybe you go up-and-down, side-to-side, round-and-round or some other combination of moves. Sense what it feels like as the brush contacts the the teeth and gums. Notice the texture of the toothpaste mixing with your saliva and how it tastes. What’s your tongue doing?  Do you swallow? Tune into how it feels inside, in your body.  Be aware of looking in the mirror and how that is. Notice when you decide to stop brushing and how that feels.

Be aware of how you finish up.  Perhaps you rinse your mouth, or not. Notice each step you take to clean and put away the brush. Notice your hands and how they feel as you do this.

Perhaps take a moment now and reflect. How was this different from brushing on autopilot? You might be surprised. Welcome whatever comes to you.

Perhaps your senses of taste, sight, touch, hearing, and smell have woken up. How was that? Maybe you noticed something you enjoyed or something that felt unpleasant. Take a few moments to describe what has come for you.

If something pleasurable is there, take your time and let it be there as fully as it wants to be. Now sense how that feels inside, in your body, having done that.

Perhaps it has brought forward something that is wanting your attention, something that doesn’t feel quite right, stuck, painful, or out-of-place.  It might have come as a feeling, a memory, an image, or a story. Check that out and see if something like that is there for you. If it is, you might say hello to it and let it know that you are willing to come back to it and spend time with it. Now notice how doing that feels inside.

This is it. Even the simplest, most routine and mundane activity is alive for us when we pay attention. And, by paying attention what springs forward may be pleasant and flowing and/or open us to something in us that given our compassionate attention and active listening moves us forward in our lives with just rightness.

What To Do About Cravings

From time to time, all of us have experienced cravings: Those intense and eager desires that drive us to react with behaviors that we often regret afterwards.

For some of us repetitive bouts of craving push us into behaviors that are harmful to ourselves. These behaviors may take the form of eating excessively, smoking, drug-taking, or may take some other form. So, what can we do when a craving–that intense urge–hits leading us to react with a behavior that does not actually help us?

We can surf the urge. Developed for people in recovery for addictive behaviors, urge surfing can help all of us deal with cravings in a way that does not engage a reactive behavior. Based on mindfulness, that state of active, open attention on the present, urge surfing provides a path for riding cravings like a surfer rides a wave.

When a craving strikes we breathe and commit to stay with the feeling. We don’t try to push the feeling away or judge it. We just stay with it. We release tension by noticing what’s happening in the body right now: Head, throat, back, belly, and so on.

We notice our reaction to what’s happening right now. If the feeling is increasing, we imagine that it is like a wave that goes up and up. Like a surfer, we are rising and staying with the wave of feeling by using our breath. We use our breath just as a surfer uses his surf board to stay with the wave. As we ride the feeling of craving, it reaches a crest and then falls away, just as a wave does.

We may even be able to find space as we are riding the craving to be curious, to enquire, “What’s here?” “What do we really need?” “What’s underneath?” It’s not the object of our craving–the food, or cigarette, or drug. Maybe it is loneliness or stress and a desire for relief. Maybe it is emotions or thought patterns and a desire to be free from them. Whatever is there, be kind and gentle and stay with the experience.

So let’s learn to surf the urge with this guided audio recording.

Surf the Urge Audio File from Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention