Practice, Practice, Practice

309683769_4e8749343b_o“We are always practicing, until the very end,” writes Brenda Miller in her book The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. I admit, in such a performance-driven world, the idea that we are always practicing gives me comfort. So what if I don’t preach my absolute best sermon at our upcoming Baccalaureate Service. It is good practice for the next time. So what if I never get that essay published that I worked so hard on. It was good practice to write it. When I sit with my students to lead them in meditation I always begin by saying, “Don’t worry about getting this right or doing this perfectly, we are just practicing.” Saying this seems to relieve tension present in the room. The invitation to practice is an invitation to offer ourselves some grace, because if we get it wrong we are still okay.

Miller goes on to discuss practice as an end in itself, as the discipline that brings us to life. She quotes Kim Stafford who says that a violin, played every day, will keep the vibrations of the music in its body, even while lying still and silent. If it is not played every day, the vibrations dissipate and the wood grows lifeless. An instrument dies if not played daily.

This is true for so many things. If I do not practice good parenting, or practice being a good wife every single day, then I imagine my relationships would not sing with life. Instead, they would grow stale and distant. If I did not practice my Christian faith, then that faith would cease to offer me life or new opportunities for growth. When I am diligently practicing my writing and intentionally tapping into my creativity, the muse of inspiration flows more easily. Life is rich with creative inspiration, when I am practicing.

Miller concludes her chapter on practicing with this contemplative exercise:

Reflect on what you practiced as a child. How did you feel about it? Was practice something you dreaded or embraced? What did you practice today? Think about all the skills and habits of mind you practice each day—and how those practices make you who you are.

 

[Feature Image: Kate]

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]

 

Writing to Discover

6281142155_e8a8afcddb_oIn an essay I am writing about my son I am discovering just how much I love my children. This feels odd to write because of course I already know that I love my children. But as I challenge myself to go deeper in this essay, to be more truthful, to choose words that resonate with emotions that I rarely bring to the surface, I am discovering the power of this art I have chosen (or perhaps has chosen me.)

Yesterday, I hit a raw vein of truth—namely, the fear I bury that something bad will happen to my children. I imagine all parents hold this fear and bury it deep. It’s not an emotion we can live with on the surface or else we’d never let our children out the door in the morning, let alone get on that big yellow school bus which is sure to be full of bullies. I climbed into my fear yesterday, though, as I sat at my desk with my notepad and pen and picked that fear raw to see what was living there. Why would I do this? Why subject myself to such torture? Well, I guess because I’m learning that emotions are not to be avoided. The feelings our hearts yield are signs pointing us towards truth waiting to be discovered—truth about who we are, how we are, and how we relate to the world. I learn so much when I honor my emotions enough to sit with them.

Out of the raw place of fear that I mined yesterday, the love I hold for my children overcame me like a wave grabbing and ripping me away from the safety of shore. It was a love that moved so far beyond the healthy lunches I pack every night and the grass-stained clothes I endlessly launder and the good night cuddles I linger over. It was a love that hurt—a love that physically gripped me—a love that clearly needed to be safely managed and stored back away so it wouldn’t devour and consume me. Good God, now I know what it means to call love a risk. Because to lose the source of this love—like many parents I know have—would be near impossible to survive.

Writing brought all this to the surface for me. I walked around for the rest of the day with my unsurfaced love jangling about like a bundle of unplugged chords. Then, my children came home from school and I was extra attentive. I stroked their little blond heads. I bathed them tenderly, relishing the chance to wash the day’s dirt and sweat and crumbs and routine chocolate smears off their growing-up-too-fast bodies. I kissed them and hugged them and clung to them before tucking them into their beds and thanking God that, for the moment, they were safe.

I don’t want to live in fear. Because that’s not really living. But I do want to live awakened, alive to the emotions that drive me and the truth that can be uncovered, or recovered, when I am willing to honor all that is inside. Writing is the path that takes me there. What path do you choose?

 

[Feature Image: Ramiro Ramirez]

 

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]

The Practice of Doing Nothing: Sitting with my Suffering (Part 2)

Fear 1On a bright summer morning, I dropped my 5-year-old daughter off at day camp placing her in the care of counselors who all appeared to be in high school. Looking at Ella’s counselors I remembered myself at their age, and the parents who entrusted their children to me. I didn’t take the same precautions with those children as I do now, with my own. I suspected the same was true of these teenagers. But I was too busy with Ella’s transfer–lunchbox (check), bathing suit and towel (check), water bottle (check), sunblock and bugspray (check)—to give my worry much attention. The camp counselors were busy too, loading my daughter up in a 15-passenger van. They were taking the kids on a trip to the lake.

Driving away from the drop-off, the image of my tiny, tow-headed daughter, climbing into the camp van stayed with me. Arriving at my office, unlocking the door, arranging my desk to tackle my long list of to-do’s, my mind kept returning to my daughter in the van.

Then, a premonition overcame me; a feeling, a knowing. My mind pictured the tragedy—a van overturned with my daughter’s body inside it.

The urge to go and get her—to chase down that van, find my daughter, pull her into my arms and keep her with me for the rest of the day—swelled. Fear flooded my nervous system and I broke into a sweat.

Am I crazy? Or is this a sign? Will I regret this forever if I don’t go and get her? How could this possibly be true? I was suffering terribly and almost succumbed. My car keys were in my hand when I remembered my practice.

So I took my suffering to the mat and sat with it. This was a tough one because the fear was like violence within me. It was beating me up inside, clubbing my heart, contracting my lungs, scorching me with its heat from the inside out. It was almost unbearable. But I sat with it and breathed. I leaned into my suffering instead of running away from it, or running immediately to resolve it. And, like my anger previously, I eventually felt the urgency of my fear dissipate. The oxygen calmed my nerves and restored my reason. I was still afraid, but not overwhelmed. And in this new state I realized that I had to let Ella go…and keep letting her go…because her life and mine could not be ruled by fear.

Our suffering has much to teach us, and yet we do everything possible to avoid it or get rid of it. I am becoming much more aware of my suffering now and my power to sit with it. This, in turn, has led me to become more aware of the suffering of others. The faces of humanity rise in my mind as I sit on my mat. I hold each in my heart, just as I hold my own fragile self. Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, believes that the world would be a more peaceful and compassionate place if we all practiced meditation. As I stop to imagine this—a world that could learn from its own suffering and not be ruled by fear—I give thanks for the profound gifts of a simple practice.

Twelve Minutes

10-minutesLast Thursday I settled myself cross-legged on my zafu and set my timer for twelve minutes of meditation. I had just finished scratching out my to-do list for the day—a mistake—it made me realize I only had an hour free this morning to finish writing my sermon for Sunday and meet a few other deadlines. The pressure of my schedule tightened my chest and shoulders as I wondered to myself why I was sitting there doing nothing when I could be writing, folding laundry, washing the dishes, or straightening up the living room that my children had just left in total disarray—blankets, pillows, game and puzzle pieces strewn all over the floor, a sippy cup turned over leaking milk on the couch. Even with my eyes closed, I could feel the mess pressing in on me. My body itched to start doing, but I forced myself to sit and breathe. The dog whined softly in the corner, the ice machine rattled in the kitchen. (It broke this morning. When will I get that fixed?) My twelve minutes were up.

Inspired by Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and a book I’m reading by Pema Chӧdrӧn, I made a commitment to meditate every day of Holy Week. I keep reading about how good meditation is for you, like in this article here.  A poet once told me his writing really started to take off after he got serious about his sitting practice. I teach meditation to my college students who are hungry for ways to calm down and de-stress. My interest in this ancient practice webs and wanes, though.  I often prioritize it out of my schedule because I have my doubts and my time is precious.

Holy Week has come and gone but I decided to meditate again today. It’s Easter Monday and I have the day free to get a lot of stuff done. Why not begin with twelve minutes of breathing? “If you have time to breath, you have time to meditate,” says Ajahn Chah (via Pinterest.)

Before I reached my meditation cushion, though, I noticed myself feeling stressed. Why am I feeling this way? I wondered to myself. I have the whole day free?  Puzzled, I decided to take Ani Pema’s advice and enter into my emotion through meditation. So I sat with my stress—leaning into its pressure—to see what I could learn about my mind, how it works, and why I respond to life the way I do.

It was a miserable way to begin the morning, but I stuck with it, focusing on my breathing and the emotion within me. The air cooled my nostrils on every intake, warmed them on the outtake. Slowly I began to recognize my emotion as pressure I was placing on myself—my own desires were the root of this stress.

After my twelve minutes were up I opened my journal to see if I could identify what those desires were. Here’s a partial list: I desire more time to write—a clean home and office—recognition for my work—the ability to write beautifully—lose ten pounds—eat delicious food—ice cream—good wine—be an attentive mother to my children—more money—more time to exercise—lie in bed to read a good book—lie in bed—speak words that are meaningful at my grandmother’s funeral—create—publish—take the dog to the vet—enjoy more sex—get a massage—shop for pretty, stylish things—laugh with friends—love my husband well—have more spiritual experiences—feel more peace.

My desires quickly filled a whole page of my journal before I stopped myself, realizing I could go on for pages. Where does all this desire come from? Why do I crave more than I already have?  When will I have enough? When will I be enough?

Okay, I will be meditating again tomorrow.