mindfulness

Savor life with mindfulness

A few weeks ago, I was out walking the dog along the waterfront, where a new pier is being constructed for a residential high-rise. It’s been a little noisy in the neighborhood for the last few months, but nothing really disturbing; just a constant sort of background hum.

This particular day however, as we got closer to the site, I could really hear it. I mean really. You want to know how loud it was? It was louder than the loudest setting on my phone’s music app! Awful, right?

Immediately, the yenta complainer voice that lives in my head chimed in: “Ugh. It’s so loud. I wish it would stop. Why does this need to be happening now? Why can’t I just go for a quiet peaceful walk on a beautiful warm day without something like this ruining it? Why does this always happen to me?

She’s a real gem…

A pile driver was mercilessly banging away at the steel beams. Bang, bang, bang, without end in sight. And I noticed that I was feeling instantly annoyed.

Normal, right? Who wouldn’t be? Well, I live in a slightly different head-space these days, so my annoyance was like an alarm, letting me know there’s some lesson to learn here (a gift from the universe, if you will).

When I feel annoyance (or any other negative emotional state), I play with it. I use it as a signal, to go inward. I go deep inside the experience, with curiosity, to find out more. I apply a version of mindfulness to it.*

If it’s an emotional reaction, I get into the core of what’s triggering me. If it’s a sensory thing that’s affecting me, I embrace the experience to see how it can be altered by observation from within. It’s an ever-present meditative focus these days (which is actually a much more interesting way to live in the world, but that’s for another post).

So I thought “Ok. Pile driver. No end in sight. I can’t wait it out. What if I didn’t resist the sound? I know it’s unpleasant, but what if I just tried to welcome the sound, and really let myself feel it? What if I treated the sound like music instead of noise?” I chose to allow the sound in, and tried to locate the experience of the sound inside of me. (Yes, that’s right, I stood there, like a crazy lady, staring at the construction site, “feeling” the sound of the pile driver.).

I did a quick body scan to see where the sound was registering inside me. I let go of that very subtle muscle contraction in the ear that tries to keep out unpleasant sounds, and what happened next really surprised me.

After about ten seconds, the sound vanished out of my perception entirely. It’s like I couldn’t even hear it. And when that happened, suddenly the visual came into sharp focus. I stood there mesmerized by the construction scene itself. You’ll forgive me, I’m not a poet, but the whole site was performing a beautiful ballet in front of me! The pile driver was rhythmically moving up and down; the cranes were swinging and swirling around; the excavator was gracefully swooping down and shuttling earth and rocks back and forth… all in some kind of beautiful harmony, as if in sync with a melody only they could hear. I couldn’t believe it. It was captivating and absolutely magical.

I don’t know how long I stood there exactly, but I just couldn’t tear myself away. It was amazing; but more importantly, I almost missed it.

Had I continued to focus on my annoyance, and not overridden my default “normal” resistance, I never would have seen it. This is exactly how we miss the exquisite beauty of everyday life; when all we focus on is the automatic un-investigated negative response. Who knew that irritating construction noise could lead to this incredible experience?

It turns out that with a little internal awareness, we can begin to really savor life completely. Every moment. Every experience. Especially the “bad” ones. As if each experience was an exotic drink you’re tasting for the first time.

The next time you find yourself in an annoying situation, see if you can drop the resistance and watch what happens instead. I bet you’ll be surprised by what you find.

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*In case you’ve been out of the loop, mindfulness is the focusing of one’s attention and awareness, with complete acceptance, without judgment, to whatever is arising in the present moment.

What do you do about anxiety?

Anxiety is a pretty common occurrence, especially in stressful busy lives. I suffered with anxiety for many years, as did many of my friends and colleagues. One of the first things I learned about anxiety, years ago, which was very helpful to me (particularly at times when I felt like I was losing my mind with panic), was that the thoughts you think in those moments aren’t true. 

They are “anxious thoughts,” which arise from the aroused state of your body/brain in that moment. You don’t need to believe those thoughts, or magnify them, or engage with them when they are spinning out of control. You can just let them be, and they will go away when your body settles back to normal. This idea alone was incredibly comforting. Naming them, separating them, and discounting their validity, especially during an anxiety attack, can be helpful and stabilizing. 

One of my favorite teachings on handling negative emotions comes from Pema Chodron’s book, Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality.

Pema describes encountering an experience of unabating anxiety every time she sat down to meditate, while she was on a retreat. She struggled with it for days. Unable to find its source, or make it subside, she visited her teacher looking for guidance. Upon describing her experience and frustration to him, Dzigar Kontrul Rinpoche said “Oh, that’s the Daikini’s Bliss! That’s a high level of spiritual bliss.” As soon as she heard this, Pema became instantly excited about her next meditation practice, no longer concerned with feeling it, she became eager to feel it. And after Rinpoche left, she sat down on her cushion, ready to experience it again, but the feelings were gone.

When he said that, that was melting it, or space coming into it, or warmth coming into it. You change the way you look at it.”

The teaching on negative emotions, like anxiety, in many spiritual traditions (in this case, the Shambala lineage of Tibetan Buddhism) is first to drop the resistance. Resisting the emotion (wanting it to stop, trying to make it stop, worrying that it will never stop) will only make it worse. Instead of focusing on getting rid of it, change your relationship to it. Welcome it.

I know that sounds crazy; why would you ever welcome anxiety?

Well, because the very disposition of trying to push it away makes it worse. The resistance exacerbates the situation and makes it last longer. And that will create new anxiety about having anxiety. The mind is brilliant at creating traps like this for you. It’s one thing to have a panic or anxiety attack which last for a short time, but the fear and anticipation of having one again, at any moment, can haunt a person all the time. 

So, in order to “welcome it,” to work on dropping the resistance to it, when you feel it beginning, treat the anxiety with curiosity. This is a fantastic tool. Get curious about your anxiety. Instead of continuing the inner dialogue about how bad it is, or how much you wish it would stop, make it your Daikini’s Bliss, and drop your eager attention into your body to investigate it.

Try to locate the experience of anxiety in the different parts of your body. You could slowly scan each area with your mind, and ask yourself “do I feel anything anxiety related in my right foot? In my left foot? In my right leg? In my left leg?” Do this slowly, and concentrate on really investigating and feeling each area of the body. Continue going all the way up your body, until you’ve located the areas where you are experiencing the anxious feeling. (For me this is usually in my stomach, in the center of my chest, in the back of my head, and in my hands).

When you’ve found it in your body, start to articulate the actual sensation of it with words. “I feel a huge weight in my stomach. It feels like an anvil sitting in there, pushing downwards. It feels heavy, and it’s pressing on all the organs under it… In my chest, I feel outward pressure, like a huge pocket of air is trapped in my chest. It feels hot, and like it’s expanding…” Continue to tell yourself about the experience for as long as you feel it, in great detail.

You will notice that the more you focus your attention on the feelings in your body, rather than on the terrifying thoughts that triggered the anxiety, the quicker the feelings will subside. In essence, by dropping into your body, you are cutting off the story-line in your head, which is feeding the anxiety with fearful thoughts. And you are unhooking your attention from the scary thought stream, and redirecting the attention into your physical sensations. This is a form of grounding into the body and out of the mind, and staying fully present with the experience. 

You can try this practice with any negative or unpleasant emotion, like anger, sadness, shame, guilt, etc. In my experience, this practice is an extremely effective tool. When you get used to doing this, you come to find out that you can actually enjoy the experience of any emotion, even the bad ones. The more you allow yourself to feel them, the greater your capacity and resilience to process them through. They don’t need to be suppressed or numbed. You can welcome all of your emotions, and get better and stronger at welcoming them, and really savor the experience of being human.

 

Is meditation the new black?

I came across this article, by John Horgan, questioning the benefits of the new meditation craze. I thought he made some interesting observations, and on some level I agree with him. 

I think that one of the problems with mainstream meditation hype is that the benefits are touted in order to sell the idea of it (usually for commercial gain), while the nuanced proper spiritual instructions are not included. It retains its form, but loses its substance, and so it doesn’t really yield what it promises.  

Sitting still and trying to “not think” is not what it’s about.

Carving out a tiny bit of time, in an otherwise hectic day, to sit still and calm the mind is not a bad idea, but that’s not what meditation is for. (Guided meditations can be like a quick vacation for a stressed out mind, but on their own they don’t do much.). Treating meditation as a discipline, trying to somehow master “not thinking,” or sitting still for long periods of time, has no real benefits. It is a forceful attempt at mind and body control, dominating the mental landscape by force of willpower. (That approach is fundamentally philosophically antithetical to authentic transformational spiritual and mystical practice. I’ll explain why in a minute).

Horgan is correct that meditation, as it is widely taught, does very little.

Just having a meditation practice doesn’t make you happier, or more peaceful, or nicer. Some people push themselves really hard to meditate, and then take great pride in their meditation practice, even turning it into some kind of competitive endeavor, which then only feeds the ego and moves them in the wrong direction.

It is what one does during meditation that leads to awakening and all of its benefits (or it doesn’t, as the case may be for most people). What’s missing in most mainstream meditation instruction is the substantive practice of self-inquiry, which what you’re actually supposed to “do” during meditation.

The basic idea is that as you sit and try not to think, thoughts begin arising on their own. It’s one silly thing after another. The more you try to focus on not thinking, the more distracting thoughts come up to grab your attention. Laundry, dinner, errands, to-do list items you forgot, etc. You’re suppose let them pass, as clouds, without hooking into any particular thought stream. This has the effect of training the attention, which is like a muscle. The more you train it to stay put and not follow the thoughts, the better you become at focusing and wielding attention. The attention can then be directed (ie. follow this thought stream, but not that one), which is a useful internal tool. 

What you’re supposed to get (which lots of people don’t) is the realization that you are not your thoughts. Thoughts come and go without you creating them. You don’t make them happen. As this realization slowly permeates your understanding, you begin to dis-identify as the thinker of the thoughts. You start to see the separation between you (the watcher), and the thoughts arising from somewhere else. And because you are not the one doing them, you begin to remove them from your sense of identity. You’re not really responsible for them in the way you used to be. You can watch them with a sense of neutrality, without judging them or being ashamed of having them. This creates a ton of internal space between the watcher and the thinker. 

This leads to the realization that you don’t have to believe your thoughts, which is the ground floor of self-awareness, and the threshold into the inquiry practice (the real heart of spirituality). It’s also the beginning of a lot of other discovery work about who the “watcher” within you actually is…  

The next crucial part is noticing that thoughts produce emotions. You start to understand that if you focus and hook your attention onto a scary thought stream, you actually begin to “feel” scared. And so by training the attention muscle (above), you can unhook yourself from a scary thought stream, and redirect your mind to something that isn’t producing feelings of fear in the body. This is huge!! Where you place your attention determines the emotional state you experience. This is a profound discovery for most people. Learning how to do this is the key to managing all kinds of anxiety and panic issues.

You can see how with proper instruction, at least up to now, meditation practice can lead to greater self-awareness, self-regulation, and emotional intelligence.

Then begins a deepening level of awareness and practice.

Having explored and familiarized yourself with the mental landscape a bit, dis-identified with the thinker, and trained the muscle of attention, now you can being exploring the source of the thoughts. Where are they coming from? Who is the thinker within? You begin to find that all the thoughts you have are perfect emanations of a vast network of subconscious beliefs you hold, about yourself and about other people. Now we are getting into a process called contemplative inquiry.

What you find out here is that if you bring those subconscious beliefs into conscious awareness, one at a time, you can begin changing them, and thus change the thoughts that automatically arise in the mind! As you change your core beliefs, the thoughts that are produced also change. That means you can change your internal landscape, and the emotional states you experience on the whole! You can reprogram the thinker, as it were, to change the kinds of thoughts he sends into your mind. 

So as it stands now, when fear thoughts arise, your mind automatically hooks into that thought stream, and creates those emotions in your body and you feel fear. In order to calm down, you have to use the muscle of attention to stop, and redirect your mind by force, to something not scary, in order to stop the fear reaction in the body.

That takes effort, and usually by the time you notice that you’re scared, you are already pretty far down the rabbit hole, and are already hooked into that fear thought stream.

But if you begin systematically working with and changing the beliefs that are creating the fear thoughts in the first place… well, then you are experiencing a lot more internal peace and calm. The fear thoughts aren’t even arising, and your system isn’t feeling fear as often. You’re not wasting time or energy putting out internal fires trying to calm down, you are just generally more calm, because the fires aren’t erupting as often. 

Further, when you start to see the internal mechanisms, and take account of the countless thoughts and beliefs that are just under the surface, you start to see that you are actually full of fears, and insecurities, and a deep sense of unworthiness (this is true for most of us). You begin to see that most of your words, actions, and behaviors are nothing more than protective strategies to mask those perceived vulnerabilities.

That’s when your own self-love and compassion begin to emerge. Then you start to notice that other people are also just terrified little children, walking around defending themselves in a big scary world. That’s when compassion for others arises, and you become nice and kind to the people around you. You see their fears, and their out of control thought streams, and the underpinnings of all their bad behaviors.

The better you understand the workings of your own mind, the more compassionate understanding you have for others. 

So by now, you have become more self-aware, more emotionally educated and intelligent, more able to self-regulate, you are experiencing less out of control anxious thought streams, and you are starting to feel self-love and compassion for others… All of this naturally makes you much happier.

It’s a process and a practice that starts with meditation – you have to sit still and begin noticing your thoughts to get all of this going. But without this deep nuanced understanding of what to do within, meditation on its own is pretty pointless.

 

 

Wanting to be wanted

 

As we courageously explore the rich depths of our consciousness, we sometimes come upon some strange and unexpected things. Sometimes fascinating, other times deeply confounding, these patterns are often well-hidden in the unconscious, and when brought up out into the light of awareness, they seem to defy rationality and contradict truth, wisdom, and expectations.

Wanting to be wanted is one of those patterns.

It is both very subtle, and very pervasive. Wanting to be wanted is a kind of egoic perversion of personal desire; it keeps us trapped in being the object of someone else’s desire, instead of the subject of our own.

Meaning, instead of recognizing, identifying, and asking for what we really want and need (often because we don’t know and our feelings are terribly jumbled about this), we focus entirely on being desirable, pleasing, accepted and wanted by someone else.

This is not confined to the sphere of romance or sexuality, but exists across the spectrum of identity. This particular pattern causes a great deal of emotional pain and psychological suffering. It turns out to be one of the central pillars of the ego’s operation.

When we find these feelings and motivations inside, when we explore them and admit them to ourselves, they seem wrong or deeply confusing. They fly directly in the face of sourcing love and approval from within ourselves; which is precisely the point! This is another lie in the mechanism of the ego. It seeks love and happiness externally by trying to please someone else, and earn their love and approval. The feelings and desire of wanting to be wanted prevent us, somatically, from living in our own integrity. I’ve spent a great deal of time exploring and digesting through the wounding that creates this particular set of feelings. It can be both very deeply and very broadly enmeshed in who we are and how we function. 

For those unfamiliar with this internal experience, I highly recommend the book below. 

Women and Desire, Beyond Wanting to be Wanted, by Polly Young-Eisendrath

Polly is a prominent and powerful voice among many wonderful feminist leaders and thinkers. Her book does an amazing job of articulating how it all works, and distilling a lot of ancient wisdom into a practical modern approach to life (primarily for women, but also often applicable to men).

Polly encourages her audience to get really honest and really clear about their desires, bringing their truths into the light, because it is only when we are aware of what we really feel and what we really want, that we have true freedom to choose how we live in the world.

Here are a few short blurbs from the book:
 
  • “Wanting to be wanted is about finding our power in an image rather than in our own actions. We try to appear attractive, nice, good, valid, legitimate, or worthy to someone else, instead of discovering what we actually feel and want for ourselves. In this kind of conscious or unconscious arrangement, other people are expected to provide our own feelings of power, worth, or vitality, at the expense of our authentic development. We then feel resentful, frustrated, and out of control because we have sacrificed our real needs and desires to the arrangements we have made with others. We find ourselves always wanting to be seen in a positive light: the perfect mother, the ideal friend, the seductive lover, the slender or athletic body, the kind neighbor, the competent boss. In place of knowing the truth of who we are and what we want from our lives, we become trapped in images.”

 

  • “Nor is wanting to be wanted the expression of a desire for intimacy or closeness. Rather, wanting to be wanted makes us feel as though we have no clear desires of our own. We focus on how to bring things under control by appearing in a certain way, speaking in a certain manner, implying our needs. Yet we never say directly what we want, and we may never actually know. We have been culturally programmed so thoroughly to tune in to the subtleties of whether or not we are having the “desired effect” that we fail to tune in to what we really want or to see how strongly we are motivated by wanting to be wanted.”

 

  • “[People cannot read your mind or guess what it is you want. C]lear and direct communication avoids the indirect message that other must intuit our desires. Attempting to evoke response from others without claiming one’s needs not only is confusing but carries the hidden meaning of danger… It is only when we speak directly, with a secure self-confidence, that we step outside this negative meaning of female desire.

 

  • “The Renaissance metaphysician Paracelsus said that we cannot love something without knowing it, or know something without loving it. When we feel deeply loved, we also know that we have been encountered authentically, that we have been true to ourselves in the presence of the other and found that truth fully embraced and accepted. When we tell the truth to a partner or a friend, we are indeed vulnerable to being judged, blamed, or rejected. If we hide the truth in favor of protecting ourselves and appearing in a certain way, however, we may retain an illusion of control but we lose the possibility of being known for who we really are, and hence of being loved.”

All of that from just the first chapter!! 

 

 

 

Honesty, instead of eggshells

 

One of the most challenging aspects of love and living authentically is developing the courage to speak with truth. This is a really difficult area of work. It sounds easy, but it’s really not. 

At the outset, the search for truth within can be a scary endeavor. To be honest with ourselves, to admit our real feelings and allow them into conscious awareness, can be terrifying.

Forget big universal truths; I’m talking about little truths, personal truths, aspects of our personality which are in conflict with who we think we are or should be. Most of us are afraid to really look inward, and to be honest with ourselves, to admit the truth to ourselves, because we might find some really shameful and unacceptable parts. We might find some parts that require us to make difficult choices or changes.

Naturally, none of us really want to endure feelings of shame or emotional turmoil, so most of us prefer to live in denial than to face the difficulties that truth presents. Denial has the appearance of safety and stability, and for a while it can certainly help keep things quiet. 

For those of us who are courageous enough to go within, and to do this inner truth seeking privately and make peace internally with who we really are, life offers us the next great challenge and obstacle – other people!!

Sometimes admitting truths to ourselves privately feels ok and comfortable, and we can certainly build up resilience to face greater and more unpleasant truths as we go. But the idea of saying those things out loud to another, or asking that the needs we’ve discovered, or the feelings we’ve found, be accepted, respected, and honored by someone else? That can feel overwhelmingly scary. 

The people in our lives, our most intimate relationships, can sometimes turn out to be the scariest places of all.

We might fear their shame, rejection, invalidation, or ridicule. We might fear that the other person will abandon us if they really knew the truth. Other times, we might be very concerned with the feelings of others, afraid of hurting or upsetting them with our truths, and so we become afraid of being honest, or telling them how we really feel. Sometimes we find ourselves in relationship dynamics with people who are psychologically fragile and explosive. They might often respond to our feelings or vulnerable truths in very harmful, toxic, and emotionally violent ways.

As a matter of course, in destructive dynamics like this, especially if there is a power imbalance, in order to stay safe, we learn how to subjugate ourselves and maneuver around others very carefully. We do everything we can, twisting ourselves into knots, just to avoid their psychological landmines. We learn how to coddle them and their insecurities. We learn how to cater to their unreasonable demands and manipulations. We learn that saying an honest and authentic “no,” or expressing contrary feelings can lead to destructive explosions and retaliations. We never know when we’ll step on some trigger with them, so we make ourselves really really small and unobtrusive. We tread lightly. We forgo our own needs and wishes. We speak less and less. We express ourselves less and less. We keep our truths, our opinions, and feelings suppressed, all in an effort to avoid upsetting them.

This is how we end up on “eggshells.”

Despite our best efforts, when we deny and silence our real feelings to avoid conflict with others, inevitably our resentment grows more and more. We end up feeling a variety of contemptuous feelings towards them, which then has carry over effects in all other areas of our lives. 

But what’s worse than resentment is that instead of moving towards greater and greater courage in expressing our truths, these relationships drive us further into oppressive silence. We can feel suffocated in these dynamics, which don’t allow any space for our real selves to exist.

So part of the spiritual maturation process involves a kind of unshackling within these relationships, and a liberation of our authentic honest feelings. That requires siding with our feelings, making space for them to exist in our relationships, standing by them when they are attacked or disallowed by others, and learning how to express ourselves honestly to other people, especially if we are used to walking around on eggshells.

That’s part of the real terror of this process – working to wisely and prudently heal the shame and fear of being our authentic selves with others, even if that means incurring the wrath and disapproval of those who seek to keep us silent and small.

We have to slowly work to unlearn the eggshell patterns, and as we do this more and more, we begin to develop greater courage with speaking truth.