I don’t often write about events or activities in my blog, but today I want to share some wonderful news. Perhaps you’re a reader of my blog and have wanted to dive deeper into Focusing but didn’t know how or didn’t feel you had the time. Here’s an opportunity to learn Focusing as well as investigate other topics like Thinking at The Edge.
The Focusing Institute, our professional organization, holds an annual summer school. This year it is being held from August 21 – 27, 2016 on the west coast at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center in Joshua Tree, California.
Why learn Focusing at the Summer School? Perhaps you’re needing time and space away from your daily routine or have vacation coming. Or maybe you prefer in-person learning and never seem to have the time for a once-a-week or weekend class when you are immersed in work and family. Perhaps you are wanting to learn in the safety of a supportive and accepting community of like-minded people. Whatever your reasons, learning Focusing and experiencing how it can be applied in the arts, in deep thinking, and in work with children is what you’ll have the opportunity to do at Joshua Tree. Click here for more information and to register.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
When we experience the world we typically do so from the perspective of “I.” What does that mean? It means that we place our own particular meaning on the sensory perception of our world.
For example, when we hear, the brain first records pitch and volume and then adds meaning. It runs through its memory banks. “Ah, yes, that sound is of a piano, and the music is Ravel’s Concerto in G Major. And furthermore, it’s beautiful and was played the first time I went to symphony with a man who is now my husband. I love my husband; I love the music.”
So you see that the sound doesn’t stand by itself. It always stands with the meaning we give it. Even the first time we hear the sound, we immediately record the sound and what else is happening and the emotion that we have about it. Then each time, we hear the sound again the associated memory and the emotion are triggered. Piano. Ravel. First symphony with husband. Love.
Of course, not all our experiences are so happy. Suppose you are in an automobile accident. You record the sounds of screeching tires and colliding metal, and the smell of burning rubber. You recall the instant of quiet on impact and your terror rising immediately, thereafter. You remember being shaken up and your spine going askew, and how you walked away without anyone’s help.
Now you are walking down the street. You hear the sound of screeching tires. Your heart starts racing and your spine begins to ache. You are terrified. Why? You are not in danger. But, your brain doesn’t grasp that. It only grasps the sound of the screeching tires and associates it with the memory of the car accident. Not just this time, but every time you hear screeching tires. Why? Because your brain stored: sound of screeching tires = car accident and emotion of fear.
The fellow walking towards you has heard the same sound: the screeching tires. In response a big grin comes over his face. Why? Because the sound of screeching tires brings back the memory of attending a stock car race with his father as a young boy and his emotion of joy and wonder. Same sound. Different memory. Different emotion.
So what! Well, two things.
First, as long as the emotion associated with the sound and accompanying memory is not overwhelming and fades as quickly as it rises we are OK. If it is not so joyous that we go and do reckless things or so sad that we become depressed; or so worried that we become anxious; or so full of grief that we become grief-stricken; or so full of fear that we become terrified, frozen, and anxious; or so angry that we become enraged, we go on. We are OK. Feeling a slight twinge of a past emotion such as joy when we hear the sound of Ravel or fear when we hear tires screeching is natural.
But if the emotion is too big it makes us suffer. When joy propels us to over-exuberance or sadness brings depressions, or worry or fear becomes anxiety, or grief becomes uncontrolled, and natural fear becomes terror, we suffer. This is the time when we need to walk into that emotion, right into the center of it to see that it is nothing at all. Disassociating from it in this way removes its power over us so we can see that it is not us and we cease suffering. This, by the way, can be much harder to do than one may think, so if you find yourself here, find a professional to guide you in this activity.
Second, remember that a sound is just a sound. When hearing the screeching tires, ‘A sound,” we can tell ourselves. Doing this allows us to hear the sound afresh. Letting go of the association of sound, sight, smell, taste, or touch with a memory and its emotion, even if it is a wonderful one, opens us to new experiences. When hearing the screech of tires, instead of the thought of “car accident” we are free to just hear the screech of the tire and go on. Perhaps, we now associate it with the broad smile that we see on the face of the guy walking towards us. We are open to experience something new.
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.
Do you know that a smile affects your overall well-being? That we smile even as we grow in the womb? And, that children smile four hundred times a day? When faced with suffering, smile even if it hurts and keep smiling. Very soon a real smile will spread across your face and and your heart will open. Check out this delightful Ted Talk by Ron Gutman. (If the embedded video does not appear in your mobile device, you can find Ron’s Ted Talk on the web here.
Welcome to the practice of living in health. When the body/mind is centered, we enjoy health in all its aspects, physical, mental, and spiritual. When we are in balance we dwell in the spaciousness of our center and are one inside and out. When we are in harmony, we live easily in the present moment.
Living in health is a journey of discovery to our holistic selves, an interconnected body, mind, and spirit. We discover that when centered and still, we are also dynamic and ever changing. With this recognition, when we live in the moment, we live fully in awareness, experiencing through our unfettered senses.
Living in health is a journey of transformation. Health relies on energy conversion at all levels of our being. Blocked and restricted energy pathways impede communication, change, and synchronization leading to malaise and ill health. By fully reconnecting these pathways, we enable transformational healing.
Living in health is a journey of wonder, happiness, and peace. These are the gifts we enjoy in the moment and share with all beings along the way.
Each week in this space you will find a topic devoted to the health of the body/mind. I invite you to the practice of living in health and welcome your frequent visits.
Our breath is always with us. It’s automatic. Although we breathe more than twenty thousand times a day, we pay no attention. But when we notice our breath it can tell us much about the current state of our health and well-being. When we are anxious, stressed, or in pain, we breathe more rapidly and shallowly from the shoulders. When we are relaxed we breathe more easily, gently, and slowly from the diaphragm or belly.
Take a moment right now as you read this to notice your breath. How does it feel? Is it tight? Or relaxed? Shallow? Or deep? Rapid? Or slow? Hard? Or gentle?
If it feels tight, hard, shallow, or rapid I invite you to try this practice.
Sit on a chair with your feet on the floor or on a pillow on the floor with your legs crossed so that your shins are parallel to your body, your back upright (not sloughing over or leaning back). Place your hands on your thighs or fold your hands in your lap. Set a timer for five minutes.
Close your eyes.
Take a few deep breaths to relax.
Now pay attention to the physical sensation of your breath. That’s all, nothing more. As you breathe in, say to yourself, “Breathing in.” As you breathe out, say to yourself, “Breathing out.”
When thoughts rise up, don’t worry. They will. Notice how they draw your attention away from your breath. Don’t make any judgements; thoughts rising up and falling away are a natural thing. When distracted by thoughts, simply acknowledge them by saying, “Thoughts,” and return your attention to the breath by saying to yourself, “Breathing in,” as you inhale and, “Breathing out,” as you exhale.
When an ache or pain arises in some part of your body distracting you from your breath, acknowledge it gently by saying to yourself, “Sensation,” and return your focus to the breath by saying to yourself, “Breathing in,” as you inhale and, “Breathing out,” as you exhale.
If this is not enough to rest your focus on the breath instead of the ache or pain, try this. Breathe into the place of pain as you focus on the breath. Doing this diminishes the pain and then you’ll realize that it is not there any more. Continue to focus on your breath by saying to yourself, “Breathing in,” as you inhale and, “Breathing out,” as you exhale.
Keep your focus on the breath in this way until the timer sounds. Now open your eyes. Notice how you feel. Do you feel different? How? This is a calming practice that will greatly enhance your sense of well-being. Now breathe.
Do this every day.
Once you feel comfortable watching your breath in this way for five minutes, increase the time. Don’t worry about how much you increase it. Maybe you’ll watch your breath for just a minute more, for six minutes, or maybe you’ll watch it for ten minutes. When you can comfortably sit for the new period of time increase the length of time again until you reach twenty-four or more minutes.
Remember, it is the doing, not the duration that is the gift of this practice.