The Mindful Life

3870006964_57d04d9c95_oLast week I taught a class about “The Mindful Life” at my college.  Mindfulness is rooted in the Buddhist philosophy that only the present moment exists.  The future does not yet exist.  The past no longer exists.  Therefore, we should focus our energy and attention on that which is real, the present moment.

Personally, I think Jesus would approve.  “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.  Today’s trouble is enough for today.”  (Matthew 6:34) Jesus was incredibly present to the people he loved and served.

I had a good turnout for my class.  Lots of people are interested in meditation these days as a way to help them cope with anxiety and stress.  But mindfulness meditation offers more than a sense of calm.  New research is coming out about how meditation actually changes the way your brain performs.

A recent study by Harvard University revealed that meditation rebuilds the brain’s gray matter in eight weeks.  An article on this new research states:

Previous studies found structural differences between the brains of experienced meditation practitioners and individuals with no history of meditation, observing thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration. But those investigations could not document that those differences were actually produced by meditation.  Until now, that is.  The participants spent an average of 27 minutes per day practicing mindfulness exercises, and this is all it took to stimulate a major increase in gray matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.  Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.”

Did you catch all those benefits of meditation?  Let’s run through them again:

  • Better Attention
  • Emotional Integration
  • Self-Awareness
  • Compassion
  • Introspection
  • Reduced anxiety and stress

5691277643_ae020b36e2_oOf all these benefits, I most value the self-awareness I have gained from the time I have spent practicing mindfulness meditation.  I have learned a lot by sitting with myself in meditation.  I think of it as time spent observing, even honoring, the thoughts and emotions that pull me away from the present moment.  This new awareness, or self-knowledge, helps me control those thoughts and emotions better, rather than allowing them to control me.  Knowledge definitely is power.

At the end of my class I led the group in the following meditation.  I invite you to find a quiet spot and a comfortable place to sit and practice it yourself.    More books and meditation resources are listed at the bottom of this post.

Awareness Meditation

Sit comfortably.  Sit up straight with your shoulders back.  Open your chest area and heart space. Close your eyes.

Notice the sounds in the room.  What do you hear?

Notice the smells in the room?  What do you smell?

Feel the clothes on your body.  Feel the fabric stretching along your arms, back, chest, legs.  Feel the socks on your feet.  Feel the warmth your clothes hold close to your body.  Feel the way your clothes shelter you from the chill of the room.  Are your clothes comfortable?  Feel this comfort.  Do your clothes pinch?  Feel this discomfort.

Feel the weight of your body on the floor (or in your chair.) Feel yourself on the earth.  Feel the gravity pulling you down.  Feel your stability.   Feel grounded.

Notice your breathing.  Pay attention to your inhale and your exhale.  Notice how the air is cool on way in and warm on way out. Picture the air moving in and out of your lungs.

Focus your mind on your breathing for the next few minutes.  If you get distracted, that’s okay.  Just notice the distraction.  Smile at it in your mind.  Acknowledge it. Then return your mind’s focus to your breathing.

Conclude your meditation at any time.

More Good Resources on Meditation:

 Books:

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with your Mind by Pema Chodron

Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience by Sally Kempton

Online Resources:

Insight Timer Guided Meditations

The Freedom to Choose Something Different Online Class by Pema Chodron

Headspace by Andy Puddicombe

[Feature Images: Mitchell Joyce and Keoni Cabral]

A Reason to Live, Even in February

8485155298_a3633fb0a6_oIt’s hard to love life in February. All I see on my drive to work is the grey sky mixing into the grey snow that melds with the grey cement of the cracked and salt-stained road beneath my wheels. Black branches poke and scratch the sunless sky as I begin to look for color—any sign of color—in a world that feels so bland. I notice the green of the street signs. They pop out to me now that I have tried to see. But their green is a flat green. It is not the green of spring, not the green of that which is new, fresh, alive.  It is 8:20am and in spite of the two cups of coffee I’ve drunk all I want is a nap. My whole self wants to sleep—to close myself off and shut myself down until this cold, dreary, muck of February has passed.

On Ash Wednesday I reminded a Chapel full of people that life is precious—that joy comes in the morning—that we must live as if we are truly alive. Today, though, I see the ash I thumbed onto foreheads everywhere. This dust of death is mixed into the dirty snow piled on the side of the road, smeared on the bark of dormant trees and settling heavy on my heart, making me wonder if all I said was a lie.

Parking my car in front of my office, I decide to sit for a while, to wait in the warmth and enjoy the numbing hum of the engine. I will sit here and wait, I tell myself, until I catch some sign of life—wait for a sign to live again—wait for a reason to believe that all this matters. If I wait here long enough, there has got to be something, something to stoke my life fire. There has got to be something worth getting out of this car.

A black SUV turns onto the road flashing red and blue emergency lights. It may not be the police. It may just be a volunteer firefighter. But it makes me think of the police and of the conversations I’ve been having about our criminal justice system with a few of our minority students. We’ve been reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and studying the issue of mass incarceration.

The night before I sat on an overstuffed couch and listened to three students, one Latina and two African Americans tell me about why they were afraid of the police. Even if you weren’t doing anything, they said, the police were to be avoided. They might stop you, search you, shame you—so you steer clear. The police are not your friends, they said.

This was not my experience. I was taught to trust the police. I was taught to seek out the police if I was lost or hurt as I child. But as I sat and listened to my students—one kept shivering and bouncing her legs, her emotions running so high she couldn’t sit still—I recognized that my experience was not theirs.

Recalling this conversation, I turned the ignition key shutting off my car’s engine and gathered my things to go. My life today might be dreary. I might feel weighed down, maybe even depressed. But my life has never been like that of these minority students. In this insight I found my motivation. What I do with my privilege matters. I can listen. I can come to understand. And then I can help others understand. Thankful for this sign, I began my day determined.

 

[Feature Image: Pavel P]

Holding each Moment

10176739514_0aaa3f47d5_oI am growing accustomed to an annual end-of-the-summer episode of the blues. I am wallowing in this place now, grieving the passage of time. Mourning the loss of the summer’s long days when I read and write and giggle with my children. All this and the summer isn’t even over yet.

No stranger to anxiety and depression I create strategies to lift my spirit. I will manage my sleep patterns and avoid alcohol. I will schedule time each day for that which feeds me: meditation, writing. I will stop checking my email first thing in the morning. I will read more in the evenings and watch less stupid T.V. Just making this plan makes me feel better.

These steps to avoid a downward spiral feel healthy. It’s never good to get psychologically stuck. But part of me is wondering if my desire to avoid the darkness is a desire to avoid life itself.

Into my wondering a new book arrives; a book of poetry by a rabbi I recently met. In Waiting to Unfold, Rachel Barenblat has written a poem each week of her son’s first year of life. I got wrapped up in this book immediately. Barenblat’s writing is clear and honest, returning me poem by poem to the first year of my son’s life. I appreciate how she captures the beauty of her first moments as a mother. I appreciate more how she captures the pain, the exhaustion, the post-partum depression. Each week’s poem is new; a multidimensional, complicated mix of awe, joy, exhaustion, grief, amazement, mystery and change. Barenblat’s ability to convey the undulating highs and lows, emotional chaos, and heightened nature of new life makes for one great year of poetry.

Out of Barenblat’s dark moments poetry was birthed—poetry that spoke to, resonated with, and held deep meaning for this reader. So even though there are experiences of life that I am impatient to see pass—like this time, here, at the end of the summer—and experiences of life that I want to linger—like sneaking into my children’s bedrooms at night to risk waking them with too many kisses—all of life, all experience holds potential and promise. So perhaps I need to simply hold each moment, like a newborn baby holds bottle or breast, and drink deeply of all life offers.

 

 

[Feature Image: David Precious]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choose Life–Even When Life is Hard

13030589.aspxI have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. Deuteronomy 30:19

Do you believe life is a choice?  It doesn’t feel like a choice.  Life feels more like something that just happens—something you can’t control.  Life propels you forward and you just swim along, doing the very best you can.  Then sometimes life is too much—too hard.  Someone close to you asks, “What’s wrong?” and you can’t tell them—because it’s nothing and everything—and because you don’t know.  All you know is that life is too much and you can’t deal with it.   You just want to make a little nest for yourself and crawl in, lie down, and go to sleep for a day, or a week, or a month.  But you can’t, because you have kids and responsibilities—because life just keeps pushing you forward.

Kathleen Norris, the poet and memoirist, writes that this state of lethargy, or weariness of life, is what the desert monks might have called, “acedia” (a word that can be translated as “indifference”) and in the Middle Ages it was considered sloth, but these days is most often named, “depression.”  Kathleen Norris knows this state herself.  She writes, “I had thought that I was merely tired and in need of rest at year’s end, but it drags on, becoming the death-in-life that I know all too well, when my capacity for joy shrivels up and, like drought-stricken grass, I die down to the roots to wait it out.  The simplest acts demand a herculean effort, the pleasure I normally take in people and the world itself is lost to me.  I can be with people I love, and know that I love them, but feel nothing at all.  I am observing my life more than living it.”[1]

Norris’ words resonated with me because I’ve suffered from depression off and on my whole life.  If I don’t take care of myself, especially during times of extreme stress, it can get pretty bad.  For a long time, I thought I was alone on this island of depression.  But I’ve become increasingly aware of how prevalent “acedia” has become in our society.  I counsel college students suffering from it all the time.  Sometimes their depression is situational—they are extremely stressed about their classes or their future and the stress just takes them down.  Other times the depression comes as if out of thin air.  It’s something chemical—an imbalance that they may have inherited—and for which they need to get some help.  I’ve known farmers who suffer with it, affected by the winter’s lack of light, prompted by the stress of trying to predict Mother Nature’s whims, or just trying to survive their general daily grind.  Older adults know it too, those who are alone for a majority of their day with little to occupy their minds and their time.

So, in our text for today, when I read of God laying out a buffet of choices for the Israelites who are about to enter the Promised Land saying to them, “I have set before you today life and death, blessings and curses” and then implores them to choose life—I wasn’t sure I quite understood (or agreed).  Is life a choice?  Certainly we have the power to choose death over life because we have the power to end our own lives and the lives of others (through acts of violence.)  On the other hand, though, life can be a form of death, we can be alive physically, but dead spiritually, emotionally, psychologically—the depressed person knows this well.  And this state of death-in-life isn’t always a choice.  Sometimes it just happens.

But I do understand why God would implore God’s people to choose life, because the temptations to escape to a state of death are everywhere.  Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death led a group of us at the college into an interesting conversation about addiction and temptation.  Hoffman apparently died because of an addiction to heroin—which, I learned in this conversation, is a drug that offers a high like no other.  Heroin is one of the most addictive drugs because its effects are so euphoric.  As I sat there listening to heroin’s euphoric high described, I remember thinking—wow, that does sound pretty good.  To just escape life for a little while—go on a little euphoric trip and leave all your worries and responsibilities behind.  Of course I never would do heroin because it is clearly a choice of death.  But I might sit down with a glass of wine to melt my worries away…or hit the mall for a little retail therapy….or (as I found myself doing last week) raid the refrigerator way too late, dipping spoonfuls of frozen yogurt into a container of vanilla frosting and then slapping it on a cookie to eat.  These temptations don’t rival the evil of heroin, but they could still lead me to a physical, spiritual, emotional state of death if I excessively indulged…and kept indulging.  The temptation to escape life is huge—especially when you are tired, or stressed, or—depressed.

And I imagine God knows this—which is why this scripture feels more like an imperative than a statement.  “Choose life” God implores, “so that you and your descendants may live.”  There’s passion in these words.  There’s love in these words.  There’s almost a sense of desperation in these words because God knows that life can be hard and that the temptations to escape life are so strong.

I come to understand God’s sentiment even better when I started to think about these words from the perspective of a parent.  I wouldn’t say these words to myself so much….I wouldn’t implore myself to choose life over death (especially if I was feeling depressed) but I certainly would my child.  I can picture my children, Isaac and Ella, going through life, encountering its hardships, struggling with defeat and stress, even tragedy.  And I can see the temptations to escape looming around them.  Perhaps they will be tempted by drugs or alcohol or wild nights out.  Perhaps they will be tempted to overindulge, to drown their sorrows in Happy Meals and chocolate milk shakes. Perhaps they will turn away from God and the church and from the community that cares for them in search of something else.

The parent knows the value of her child’s life because the parent knows how much that child is loved.  The one who created you, labored over you, and bore you into this world knows how much you are loved and knows how valuable your life is.

And as my own children face all this I imagine myself saying to them, with the same passion and the same authority as the God who made all of us, Choose life, Isaac and Ella.  Choose life over all that is dark, and death-like, and tempting.  Choose life, Isaac and Ella, because you are extraordinary and you are valuable and your life is a gift—even when it is hard.  So don’t give up.  Always push on.  Choose life.


[1] Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, pg. 130-131.