Honoring what is Within

When our son, Isaac, was about a month old he began to scream and cry each night for about an hour.  Nothing would comfort him.  Our pediatrician helpfully explained Isaac’s behavior to us as a period of PURPLE crying, an acronym for:

Previously referred to as colic and treated as if there was something wrong with the baby, PURPLE crying was a way to help parents understand this period in their baby’s life as a normal part of every infant’s development.  As our pediatrician explained it, Isaac took in stimuli all day long and at night he needed to release that stimulation in a big, emotional cry.  I remembered this trying time of parenthood a few days ago when I sat down to meditate for the first time in many months.

My daily meditation practice faltered because I decided I preferred to use my quiet morning time to write. But then life handed me some change and new challenge.  Our beloved 14-year-old German Shepherd lost the use of his hips and after a few months of trying to help him live with dignity, we decided we had to put him down.  In the midst of this, my 45-year-old body presented me with changes to which I’ve had a difficult time adjusting.  It was the holidays, so I coped by eating and drinking too much.  My exercise routine also faltered.

Finally, while trying to run on the treadmill at the gym I noticed that my insides felt all jumpy and wrangly.  This is how stress feels to me—like my insides are filled with Mexican jumping beans. I should get back to meditating, I told myself.

That night, after the kids had gone to bed, I sat and breathed through one rotation of my 108 mala beads.  (Mala beads are great for meditation, by the way.  Read more about them here. Watch a video about how to use them here.)  It was a fruitful meditation, because what arose as I sat quietly with myself was all the emotion I had been avoiding, emotions I finally could identify during this time of meditation as anxiety, sadness, frustration, grief.  All this had been welling up inside of me, but I had been disregarding these feelings in my effort to just…keep…going.

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned from meditation is how sitting with ourselves and honoring what is happening within is essential for healing and spiritual wholeness.  The Buddhist practice of sitting with your suffering has become very valuable to me.  My emotions, like the ocean tide, need space to rise and flourish before they can ebb and recede.  Too often, though, I avoid these uncomfortable emotions and go to great lengths to push my suffering aside.  Like an infant’s period of PURPLE crying, the emotions that arise within us are a natural part of the human experience and should be respected as such.  By honoring what is within me, by attending to even the most painful of emotions, I’ve discovered that their power over me diminishes.

What about you?  What is within you?  What have you been avoiding?  And what might happen if you honored and attended that which is within?

 

Breathing with the Trees

We just returned from a week of camping in Northern Michigan.  I love the trees in the campground where we stay.  Walking among them, listening to the wind rustling their leaves, standing aghast at the blue sky to which they point, is worship.

Two years ago I wrote this blog post about our trip to Interlochen, Michigan, where we have gone camping for the past six summers.  My parents took me camping here when I was a child and now we take our kids.  It’s a Sabbath tradition that I adore.  This is the one week of the year when I truly unplug, look up, and consider the beauty of the world in which we live.  Trees like this just help me breathe better.

On our drive home from Interlochen, I read “Instructions for an Evening of Your Life” by Sarah Bessey.  Even though Sarah advises her readers to find a body of water to sit by, this post resonated with me after my week of camping in the trees.  Bessey writes:

Become acquainted with the silence in your own soul, you might be surprised by the sound of you. Sometimes you might rise up in gratitude and thanksgiving, other times the pain you’re finally allowing yourself to feel might be overwhelming, sometimes your soul feels like worship and sometimes this feels like encountering a stranger – do I know you? Then sometimes it might simply feel like a good friend you haven’t seen in far too long and you’ll think to yourself, why don’t I do this more often? 

We all need moments, vacations, sabbath time, to get reacquainted with the silence in our soul and the sound of ourselves–the more often the better.  Otherwise, the beauty of the world and the beauty that is “me” will go unappreciated and unnoticed.

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]

Who is setting your intentions?

3929606859_6a19b3a121_oIt is 9:21am and I have yet to check my email.  This is new.  Please don’t worry, though.  I’ll get to my email.  I ALWAYS get to my email.  But I needed to make a change.

Last week I scheduled a call with my writing coach, Christine Hemp (who I realize also serves as my spiritual director) because I was feeling creatively dry.  My mind was frantic, overwhelmed by work responsibilities that just kept coming, one email at a time.  I couldn’t keep up.  When I did get a chance to sit down at my desk for an hour or so of uninterupted writing time the words wouldn’t come because my mind was preoccupied by the stress of my to-do list.

During our phone conversation, Christine asked me to recall my intentions for the year.   This is a list she has me create of personal, professional or spiritual goals that I intend to prioritize.  I was surprised to realize that I couldn’t remember any of my intentions. Wow. I needed to make a change.

Sometimes all it takes is the smallest change, a minor life tweak, to improve your quality of life.  As I considered how my intentions had gotten away from me, I realized that my habit of sleeping with my Smartphone beside my bed (I used it as my alarm clock) was not serving me well.  The first thing I did when my alarm went off in the morning was reach over to grab my phone and check my email.  Then, I’d check my email every few minutes throughout the course of my day up to the moment before I set my alarm at night and went to bed.  No wonder my mind was feeling so frantic with all that digital stimuli.  No wonder I had forgotten my intentions because my emails were dictating my intentions for me.  Every email required a response.  Every email I opened was an invitation for someone else’s needs to direct the course of my day, my actions, and my intentions.

So I quit sleeping with my Smartphone.  I started using my alarm clock instead.  (I even bought a new alarm clock that wakes me up to the sound of the ocean crashing against the shore.  Nice, huh? )  I promised myself that I wouldn’t check my email until after I had gotten my kids off to school, created my list of to-do’s for the day (which included a set time to check and respond to emails) and sat for my morning meditation practice.   So far, this has made a world of difference.  I feel like my day is my own again.  I feel more present to my children in the morning.  I feel nurtured by my meditation practice to respond better to the needs of others.  I have regained the spaciousness my spirit requires for my creativity to bloom.  I am being productive again.

What are your intentions?  What changes, or minor life tweaks, do you need to make? How can you nurture yourself today so you can better respond to the needs of others?

[Feature Image:  Guilherme Tavares]

The Practice of Doing Nothing: How I Stopped Fueling my Stress

5703593871_5fdd16c7d2_oI caught myself getting overwhelmed tonight. I’d been distracting myself from my stress all day long—running from meeting to meeting, answering emails, sending emails, moving from one uncompleted task on my desk to the next. When I finally got home and needed to focus on my children, though, I no longer had the energy to distract myself. So the stress I had successfully avoided all day slowly began to unravel itself and take over.

The power of emotion is extraordinary. I felt the stress coming, could clearly see the effect it was having on me, and yet still felt powerless to stop it. As it built I tried not to let it effect my time with my children—but it did. I was impatient, angry, short and instantly regretful. But what could I do in the face of an emotion that was tightening my chest and making my heart beat so wildly? How could I possibly stop this avalanche? I was losing the battle. I was coming undone.

Then, I remembered the advice of Andy Puddicombe, the meditation guru from Headspace, saying something about the problem of resisting emotion. I remembered him talking about how, if we were to stop resisting the emotion that is causing us stress, then we will stop fueling that emotion. I was having a hard time understanding this lesson of Andy’s until tonight. When my stress reached the verge of overwhelming, I decided to give Andy’s advice a try. I sat down on my meditation mat, mala beads in hand, and stopped resisting—I stopped fighting the emotion within me. I allowed it to simply be while I breathed in and out. Almost instantly, I felt my stress lose a lot of its energy. And I realized I had been fueling it all day with my active resistance. Also, when I sat with my stress (it honestly felt like I was honoring it, like I was giving this emotion its due) it parsed itself out…it revealed itself as more than just the generic term of “stress”…but more specifically as sadness, self-doubt, and the fear of failure.

Ten minutes later, I am writing a blog post and reaping the benefits of this extraordinary practice. I still feel stress, but I am not overwhelmed. I am not undone. And I am much more aware of the source of my stress—which will make it easier the next time it, inevitably, comes around.

 

[Feature Image: Izaias Buson]

I find you spiritually attractive.

2708943201_d085338809_oI recently told a male rabbi about my age that I find him spiritually attractive. Actually, I didn’t tell him. I posted it to his Facebook page. Immediately before adding this message to his feed, though, I hesitated over the following inner monologue:

Is this creepy? Am I over-complimenting? Will this be misconstrued as some sort of strange clergy come on? Should I run this by my husband?

I was in the mood to be bold, though. I wanted to share this compliment because it was true! I hit POST.

Then, I spent the next few hours scrolling, repeatedly (some may say obsessively) through my Facebook feed. I watched my comment linger and hang at the end of his post without one person validating it by hitting the cherished “Like.” Uh oh. I thought to myself in a hot flash of regret.  Maybe I need to explain.

So what makes a person spiritually attractive? Well, for me, a spiritually attractive person manifests a quiet confidence. He doesn’t need to be the center of attention and would never put himself there, but others do because they want what he has. She gives off the sense (or maybe even the scent) that she is at peace within, she is comfortable in her own skin, and this translates into people feeling comfortable and at peace in her presence. He owns his wisdom that he communicates by the way he moves through the world. It’s a kind of charisma, but it’s NOT about her. In fact, it clearly comes from something / someone wholly other than her. All the spiritual greats have it.

Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hahn, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King, Jr, Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa all come to mind as people who possessed this quality—people who we could not get enough of because they had that special spiritual something. But even us “ordinary folks” can have our moments.

About a month ago I wrote a post about feeling magnetic through the practice of meditation. Here at my college, I’ve been leading a meditation group on Fridays at 4:00pm for the past three years. The group never really took off, though, until this year when I became serious about my own practice. It fascinates me how the more I meditate, the more magnetic I feel, attracting ten to fifteen college students every Friday to this time of attentive stillness.

There are a number of religious groups here on my college campus clamoring for the attention of generation “None” (a.k.a. no designated religious affiliation.) These groups seek to attract students through all kinds of methods: invitations to free ice cream socials, volleyball tournaments, camps and retreats; miniature New Testaments pressed in students’ hands as they enter or exit the dining hall; adults who dress and act as if they are eighteen. Honestly, I’ve tried a few of these approaches myself—it’s hard not to believe that free stuff wins in such a consumer driven culture. How good for me to remember, then, that a deepening, personal meditation practice is attractive food for the hungry. Perhaps it is the spiritual authenticity of the practice; the understanding that it flows from my own time of ‘mind-wrestling’ on the mat, that others feel like they can trust.

I felt this way when I met this rabbi—he was spiritually authentic; a person whose experience I felt I could trust. He sought me out later, by the way, to say thank you for my complimentary post.  I was so relieved.  I was also grateful for his ability to receive and own a genuine compliment–another trait of the spiritually attractive to which we all might aspire.

 

[Feature Image: Bill Selak]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mindfulness Meditation: There’s An App for That

14707168819_e6c1bd0e70_zI’ve recently heard about a new genre of “apps” that are being developed to provide “digital therapy,” or relief from all the stress and distraction caused by… all those other apps. Yeah, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’ve found the best therapy for my overworked, distracted, and oftentimes anxious mind, is to get away from anything with a glowing screen.

But recently, (on an eight hour drive to Northern Michigan with my family) I had the luxury of reading a whole article in the New Yorker on mindfulness meditation, and on one meditation guru in particular, Andy Puddicombe. The article bills Puddicombe, as a “mindfulness guru for the tech set.” Based in Venice Beach, California (around the corner from Google) Puddicombe is the developer of Headspace, an iPhone app that teaches meditation and mindfulness techniques.

Since I have been studying and practicing mindfulness meditation for a few years now, I initially eyed this “techie” version with suspicion. Is this the real thing, I thought to myself? Or some watered down version, for Google executives and Silicon Valley types.

As I read, though, I was pleasantly surprised. It turns out Andy Puddicombe, a forty-two-year old from London, was trained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. After a series of life traumas in his young adult years, Puddicombe left college and lived for ten years in Buddhist monasteries in Nepal, India, and Burma, where he became a monk in the Theravadan tradition.

After years of sitting, the article describes, Puddicombe moved to California where he could surf (a sport enhanced by mindfulness) and he developed Headspace as a tool that would make meditation more accessible to the “harried strivers” of today’s contemporary world. According to the New Yorker:

He translated Sanskrit and Tibetan terms into English, and eliminated some of the trippier exercises, like ‘visualizing bright white lights.’ In the monastery, an hour of meditation was considered a brief session, but that didn’t fly with Puddicombe’s clients. ‘I realized early on that it had to feel manageable,’ he said. He set about condensing the exercises into short chunks: twenty or even ten minutes.

Overall, the article was excellent. It not only described the growing mindfulness movement and the way scientists are tracking the positive effects of meditation, but it even summarized Buddhism and the history of meditation in India, dating back to before the Buddha was born in 480 B.C.

So I decided to check Headspace out for myself. I downloaded the app and have been working through a free ten day trial of guided meditations.

My overall impression is that this is a good resource for those new to meditation. Puddicombe is a great guide and teacher, his voice (with its endearing British accent) is gentle, positive and easy to listen to. There are some cute animations that really help you understand the meditation techniques in contemporary terms. And although, Puddicombe never uses Sanskrit, Tibetan, or Buddhist language, he obviously understands the tradition and I appreciate how he has translated it for us modern day folks.

My only small critique would be that the ten minute sessions Puddicombe uses are too short to really feel the benefits of meditation. Most practitioners insist on at least 20 minutes. But again, it’s a good start. And I think it would be hard to convince the Google executive to take more than ten minutes to try this contemplative practice. Also, while listening to Puddicombe’s voice guiding me through the session, I oftentimes wanted more silence. I’ve enjoyed my sitting practice of meditating in silence, moving through my prayer beads, for twenty minutes. I feel like I get to know my own mind better this way. But again, Puddicombe’s guided version is definitely worth it. I’ve appreciated the variety it has added to my practice and I will probably even subscribe to Headspace (it’s $13.00 a month) to see what else he offers.

The Practice of Doing Nothing: A Magnetic Experience

magnet-strength-magnet-on-clipsI’ve been leading a meditation group on Fridays at 4:00pm for the past three years. It never really took off, though, until this year when I became serious about my own meditation practice. It’s fascinated me to witness more and more students who have been drawn to sit with me in silence each Friday. Honestly, it seems like exactly the thing this techno-addicted generation would avoid. So I can’t really explain it, but the more I meditate, the more magnetic I feel—attracting students to this time and space of attentive stillness.

The whole experience of leading this group has been life-giving for me. It’s exciting to feel how the students are drawn to the group. It’s incredibly easy for me to prepare—all I have to do is maintain my practice and inspiration about how to lead the next group always comes. Also, the feedback I get oftentimes validates what I am learning.

For instance, a few weeks ago, following one of our meditations, I shared an observation.   I had been noticing that as I meditated and focused on my breath, the thoughts that interrupted me that were thoughts of the future (things I needed to do, conversations I imagined having, dreams of what might come) always entered my mind from the right side. On the other hand, thoughts of the past (events I relived and replayed, memories, past hurts) entered my mind from the left. So the phrase “staying centered” took on literal meaning as I sought to focus my mind in its center, on what is right in front of me and in the present moment. This has been helpful to my practice, so I shared it with my students. As I did, one of them gasped, “Oh my gosh! That’s exactly what happens to me!” Others affirmed a similar experience so we paused to contemplate and marvel over the way our minds work and what we can learn when we pay attention.

I recently heard someone describe how his practice of meditation has “softened” him. This rang true of my practice as well. I’ve been surprised to discover meditation softening me to others—not just those who irritate me, but everyone: the colleagues I work with, my students, people I see on the news. At first, meditation felt like a very me-centered, self-absorbed practice. But by diving deeply into myself and paying careful attention to all that is inside of me, I’m finding that I not only learn about myself but about what it means to be human and what we all hold in common. It’s a gift I keep going back to for more and more and more. It’s magnetic.

 

 

Serious Business

I enjoy reading the Paris Review’s interviews of writers because they are often inspiring. I ran across their interview of Maya Angelou the other day and was particularly struck by this question and answer exchange:mayaangelouwriting

INTERVIEWER

You once told me that you write lying on a made-up bed with a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible. What’s the function of the Bible?

MAYA ANGELOU

For melody. For content also. I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy—it’s serious business. It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day, hotdiggety. The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening if you’re honest and have a little courage you look at yourself and say, Hmm. I only blew it eighty-six times. Not bad. I’m trying to be a Christian and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about.

I love so many things about this quote. I love the vivid image of Maya Angelou writing poetry on a made-up bed surrounded by sherry, a dictionary, a thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible. It sounds like a perfect hot mess of inspiration. I love that Ms. Angelou includes Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Shintoists, Zoroastrians, friends, lovers, and mothers in her statement about trying to be good. It’s the perfect inclusive nod to our human desire to be our best selves. Also, I love Ms. Angelou’s honesty and courage in naming that she is “trying” to be a Christian, but that she regularly blows it. I blow it too. So I appreciate her saying this. Because, of course, this means I’m not the only one.

Overall, though, I love that Ms. Angelou described her work at trying to be a Christian as “serious business.” I have all sorts of respect for someone who understands that a faith commitment is just that—a commitment. And that it can’t be done well, or at all, unless you take that commitment seriously.

When I spent a week on a Spring break trip with a few of our Muslim students and observed firsthand their ritual of praying five times a day, I noted how this worship ritual shaped their daily life and consistently called them back to God. I go to worship weekly and try to meditate daily for the same reason—to return myself to God and to my commitment to practicing my faith.

Faith is not a magic bullet, or a quick and easy pill we swallow upon our baptism (if we’re Christian). Faith is messy. Faith is doubt. Faith is challenge. Faith is comforting green pastures as well as craggy mountains to climb. To say faith is anything less is a misunderstanding or a misconstruing of faith itself. It is a day-by-day commitment to one’s self and one’s God. It is serious business.

 

What I Know and What I Don’t

crop380w_istock_000003401233xsmall-question-marks“Why did this happen to me?” She looked directly and desperately into my eyes as she asked, tears welling and spilling from her own. I had moved to her good, right side so she could see me after her husband had slipped out of the room to speak to the doctor. In this brief moment of privacy, she wanted me to answer her “Why?” because I was the one who was supposed to know.

She was 37-years-old and in two days she had two strokes, with more blood clots lurking in her lungs to possibly cause even more damage. Her body was swollen and bruised, deep purple, brown, and yellow shapes covered her arms and her chest where CPR was administered for almost an hour. She was paralyzed on her left side.

“I don’t know, baby.” My feelings for her in that moment caught in my throat as I choked out this unsatisfactory answer. I don’t know why I called her baby. It just came out of me and the affection I felt for her. I wanted to offer her something. I wanted to say something meaningful. So, in response to all I didn’t know, I decided to tell her what I did.

I know you are strong, I told her. I know you have work to do, because you are still here. And I know this is hell right now. But, you are surrounded by love. You don’t have to face this alone.

She nodded as if she understood. But I don’t know what my words meant to her. They came from a deep place of passion, though, for life and for her life, in that particular moment.

Sometimes I wonder if I believe more in the divine gift of life than I do in God Himself. Because God doesn’t seem to be able to intervene in terrible, tragic moments like these. Wouldn’t God intervene if She could? Life can intervene, though, and love. Life and love can inspire us to find our way back to living while lying in bed at 37-years-old after suffering multiple strokes. Maybe this is how God works, then—through life and love and the community that surrounds us in our need? I don’t know.

I do know a deep desire to be helpful to the one desperate with questions. Is this enough, though? God?