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]

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.