Paying Attention

16526168288_a4fa676e2b_oI’ve been working my way through a new book during my morning writing time called, “The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World.”  This book by Brenda Miller (love her essays, which led me to this book) and Holly J. Hughes resonates with my intersecting interests of mindfulness meditation and writing.  I am also realizing that I am paying much better attention to life now that I have made my practice of writing a priority.

All this led me to rediscover this brief piece I wrote five years ago for my old blog.  It reminds me of the wonderful things my children teach me every day, as long as I am paying attention.

This afternoon over a lunch of hot dogs and mashed potatoes our 3-year-old son said, “Mommy, I’m putting on my sun block so I won’t get a sunburn.” “Mmm Hmm, that’s nice honey,” I responded paying more attention to my lunch than to what he was actually saying. Then he said it again. “Mommy, I’m putting on my sun block so I won’t get a sunburn.” This time I heard him because his insistent tone practically begged me to pay attention, to look his way. So I looked. He had smeared ketchup all over his face, legs, and neck – the part of him most likely to burn in the sun.

Paying attention really is important in life. If you don’t pay attention you might miss something terrible—like your son smearing ketchup all over himself. If you don’t pay attention you also might miss something wonderful—like your son smearing ketchup all over himself.

[Feature Image: Mike Mozart]

 

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]

Holy Listening with Stephen Colbert

stephen-colbert-1-800I am a fan of Stephen Colbert.  I am even more of a fan after watching his interview with DeRay McKesson, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement and the new Campaign Zero, this past Monday on The Late Show.  Colbert introduced himself to McKesson as possibly “the whitest person you’ve ever met.”  Then, after a brief discussion of white privilege, Colbert offered to switch seats with McKesson, putting his guest in the role of host.

Throughout this interview and with this simple gesture of switching seats, Stephen Colbert was practicing what I would call “holy listening.”  Holy listening is honoring another by giving him or her our full attention.  It is a practice of recognizing the sacred in others, as well as the dynamics of power and privilege at play between human beings.  I remember reading about how difficult it is for those who are not in a position of power to find a way to be heard.  Hearing these minority voices really depends on the listener coming to the conversation free of his or her own agenda.  It also depends upon the listener being open to the validity of the other person’s experience.  In other words, holy listening is difficult–especially since we are not trained to listen well.  We have been trained to be distracted.  We have been trained to be loud, assertive, and confident.  We have been trained to get our point across.  Rarely are we trained in the art of listening.  But we sure could use more people practicing this fine art.  Stephen Colbert modeled a great way to begin.  Switch seats.  Stop talking.  Honor the person sitting across from you enough to be fully present with him–especially if that person’s human experience is different than your own.

 

 

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]

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.

Lion Running

10.-Lioness-walking-head-on-close-focus-wide-angle-Serengeti-TanzaniaI stole a moment to go running today.  Twenty whole minutes, in fact.  This morning as I anxiously reviewed my to-do list I decided my workout had to get skipped.  Then, to my surprise, my work went so smoothly and at such a fast clip that an unexpected window of time appeared, and I jumped at the chance to give my body what it craved.

When I run I always take the same route.  We live in rural Illinois where the country roads have little to no shoulder and the sightlines are terrible for cars that drive too fast.  So I run the same route, out and back, that is not the most picturesque (one long cornfield after another) but it is the safest.

The lack of scenery doesn’t bother me, though.  I don’t look around much when I run.  I am too into the way I feel to pay attention to my surroundings. I also cherish the mobility of my body.  At 41 I can still tick along pretty fast.  The fresh air brightens my mood and the heavy pumps of my heart cleanse me from the inside out.  The rhythm of all this lulls my mind as I sift through the thoughts and feelings of my day and of the days ahead.  This is my best time.

As I rise to the top of 200th Street, I hit an open patch of cornfield where the wind hits me full force.  I tell myself the wind is good for me.  I get a better workout here than on the treadmill.  Pressing on, I reach my ten-minute mark and turn around, where suddenly the wind is at my back.  I’m practically flying now, buoyed by all this Midwest wind power.

Then it starts to snow.  At first the flakes are tiny, like dots of white rain falling upon me.  Gradually the flakes grow and transform until they are like giant, craggy communion wafers falling from the sky.  With the wind at my back, the giant flakes hit me softly from behind, break around my body, and envelope me in an extraordinary tunnel—a vortex of dancing, swirling, silvery snow.  I run right down the middle.

Opening my hands, I marvel at the size and beauty of the flakes set perfectly against my black running gloves.  The surprising beauty of it all alerts me to become mindful of the moment.  So I pay attention.  I look around.  I turn off my Ipod to hear the crunch of my shoes on the gravel beneath my feet.  I inhale.  I exhale—deeply.  Every breath a prayer of gratitude for this moment in which I have been swept.

And I recall a recent conversation with a student during which he reminded me of Thich Nhat Hanh’s metaphor for mindfulness.  “Be like a lion,” he suggests, “going forward with slow, gentle, and firm steps. Only with this kind of vigilance can you realize awakening.”

I finish my run like the lion, grateful for my twenty minutes of awakening.