Jack Kornfield writes of an interview with environmentalist Gary Snyder. He is asked for advice for dealing with the adversity of global change. Gary responded, “Don’t feel guilty. Guilt and anger and fear are part of the problem. If you want to save the world, save it because you love it.”
We listened to two segments of the talk above (15-23min and 37-45min). Dass offers a vision of our experience as an opportunity for compassion, compassion being “the balance of seeing the perfectness of things right here and now and also our wish to fix it all.” The challenge, when we weigh all of the demands and commitments on our time, is that we can quickly find ourselves overwhelmed, or worse, diving deeper into an outrage that is fueled by the media, the culture and even those we love who are passionate about what needs to change. Dass continues, “The truth waits only for eyes unclouded by longing. When you desire something, you only see the outward container.” As such, it is critical to step back, reflect, and then choose what’s next instead of being pummeled by waves and waves of “woulds, should and coulds.”
The segment that starts around 37 minutes is an invitation to bring agency by sometimes saying no. As my guiding teacher Jonathan Foust often reminds me, “If it isn’t hell yes, it’s hell no!” Dass offers, “at this moment, you are in the perfect space,” you can bring compassion but you can also say no. This is a practice of becoming free.
After a long and beautiful life, Ram Dass passed away in late 2019. You might enjoy Jack Kornfield reminiscences of Dass, and a way to approach difficult issues, in the talk below,
Earlier this year, a good friend of mine headed off to Hawaii for a month-long vacation. Maintaining his meditation practice had become a challenge through the winter months and he just couldn’t wait to hit a certain secluded beach populated by nothing but birds, seals and other wildlife. Not a person around. No interruptions possible. He found his way to that beach to enjoy a long, quiet body scan meditation. Everything was perfect.
Two minutes of calm, two minutes of focus. And then, thump-thump. thump-thump. thump-trump. An incredible noise swept overhead. The beating of a helicopter’s blades, seemingly out of place. My friend opened his eyes to discover a coast guard rescue helicopter hovering just feet above the ocean. Eventually, it flew off. But his peace disrupted, he began to wonder, “what was the helicopter looking for? Was someone missing?” And on and on. The story, the narrative swept him out of his present-moment experience into the worrying, planning, analyzing that we all know too well. As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “wherever you go, there you are.”
Vacations can present a curious challenge to our meditation practice. At various times, it may seem like vacation is conducive, at other times disruptive. I’ve found vacations often disrupt my morning meditation routine because I awake to a room with other family members and in many cases, there isn’t an appropriate chair. Other times, I find my expectations rising that I should have no worries which of course turns on the “worrying mind”. Vacations are ready made for the notion, “I’ll do it later.” Sometimes later never comes.
Likewise, illnesses can present challenges by disrupting sleep routines or impacting your ability to use the breath or body as an anchor. You might physically be unable to sit as usual and perhaps other priorities must come first.
Finally, we are all very busy. You may have heard the story of the great teacher who, in response to a visitor declared, “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.” In reality, making time, any time, offers you care and compassion for your internal experience that we’d often prefer to ignore. In my work, I often talk with clients that seek to compartmentalize the realms of their life, attempting to firewall a stressful job or a challenging relationships, from the other realms. And it just doesn’t seem to work.
The good news is that the practice of meditation can be flexible to occasional periods of difficulty. The research suggests that consistent practice can literally rewire the brain through the process of neuroplasticity. This practice doesn’t have to take long. Much like an athlete training for a big event, it comes not from perfection but persistence. Just ten minutes a day has shown to have an impact.
It is also helpful to consider the value of mindfulness and meditation to “be there when you need it.” So practice, no matter how imperfect, supports your ability to respond mindfully instead of react habitually over time. At a recent workshop, a participant was reflecting on a somewhat sloppy mindfulness practice that she had almost given up on. “Then,” she declared, “something terrible happened. And it was there for me.” This story of the Rabbi from Jack Kornfield describes this dynamic nicely.
I have found that my meditation practice supports calm and focus. This process was gradual and iterative. I might find myself responding more thoughtfully to a particularly charged situation one day and totally lose it the next. That has to be ok, it is part of the practice. So its not about immediate results. Just like exercising, maintaining a healthy diet and getting the right amount of sleep pay off over time, so does your practice. You may find yourself slowly becoming less reactive in inappropriate situations or more relaxed.
Mindfulness takes place in the “real world.” So while it might not be as ideal as sitting for a half hour in a quiet, dark room, a moment of mindfulness practiced anytime in your day can be meaningful. The reality is, you can’t cram for the test of life through austere sitting practices. I see that as good news. All we have to do is a little something every day.
So what to do to maintain a practice through the challenges of vacations, illness and busyness? Below, I explore four ideas and include some tips for practice:
Lower your standards –Meditation teacher Sharon Salzburg likes to say, “just put your body there” and “assume the position.” Could that be it? Sure. Being able to say “this is what I can do today and I’m doing it” can often create an opening for sustained practice. Letting go of the perfectionist in you and allowing yourself to be flawed shows great self-compassion. My standard 20 minutes morning sit often becomes 5 minutes when I’m busy but its better than nothing.
Connect your practice to a routine – Are there any routines that find you waiting for a few minutes? Perhaps you brew tea or coffee in the morning. Take that time while you are waiting to sit quietly and observe your breath. No need to have a goal or expectation. Just allow yourself to be present in your environment. How about when you pump gas? Take that time to do a quick standing meditation instead of reaching for the cell phone.
Give yourself reminders – These days, we walk around with supercomputers in our pockets. Download the mindfulness bell app to remind you to stop, breathe and be throughout your day. You can even go old school by placing dots in prominent places to remind you to take a breath or even use post-it notes.
Do one thing & do it early – The comedian Mike Birbiglia says, “I like to write before I’m afraid of the world.” I’ve found that if I delay my practice until later in the day, fear often keeps me from sitting. Fear of missing out, fear of what might come up, etc. Try rubbing your legs, arms, shoulders and heads vigorously as you get out of bed in the morning and find your way to a short sitting meditation and see what happens.
And there’s certainly nothing wrong with a Body Scan even as you are preparing to head off to sleep.
Even briefer is the practice of Metta or Lovingkindness which can be practiced at the train station, grocery store or anywhere you’ll encounter people. As you see each person, silently offer them the following words, “May you be happy, May you be healthy, May you be safe.”
“The point of meditation is not to perfect yourself but to improve your capacity to love.”
– Jack Kornfield
“Familiarity leads to wisdom.” -Buddha
“The best way out is always through.” -Robert Frost
This is the first in a series called “Meditations on Meditation.” They are intended to help beginning and experienced meditators consider their intentions and motivations as they walk a mindful path.
When I began to meditate, I thought of it as a new tool to help me figure things out, to fix or eliminate whatever was bothering me. I had all of these questions, “Why am I feeling so frustrated?”, “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?”, “Am I past my prime?” I figured that as I became more focused, I would answer these questions and move on. I would literally meditate my worries away. But that’s not what happened. Thankfully, by sticking with it, I learned that this practice is not yet another self-improvement project but a way of living and thinking. The questions didn’t get answered but I was able to reflect on them without needing to figure them out.
Should I “empty” my mind or be with what is?
Many beginning meditators come to Center For Self-Care feeling overwhelmed or at their wits’ end. Others have a basic familiarity and want to learn more. Either way, there are some common pitfalls that can make the benefits of meditation elusive. It is worth considering what the “point” of meditation is. In the early days, I’ll hear complaints like “I can’t stop thinking,” “This is just making me more frustrated,” or “I’m afraid I’m doing it wrong.” If you are thinking these thoughts, you are probably doing it right!
For me, the point of meditation is not to empty one’s mind or reach enlightenment, or even become more focused and productive. It’s about feeling what we are feeling while we are feeling it. It’s about being aware of what’s happening in this moment and relating to it with kindness. Ultimately, this allows us to respond thoughtfully instead of reacting habitually to whatever arises. The good news: relaxation, stillness, clarity and happiness are wonderful byproducts of intentional and consistent practice
Below, I’ve listed some of the motivations our clients have shared as they come to meditation. Take a look at the right column to consider a different way to approach these questions. Allow yourself to rest in these questions without needing to answer them or get them right.
If you’re hoping for this . . .
. . . try this out instead
I want to feel relaxed
I want to empty my mind
I want to figure it out
I want to get it right
I want to be happy
Can I pay curious attention?
Can I let thoughts come?
Can I become intimate and familiar?
Can I just put my body there?
Can I cultivate resilience?
This work takes practice. Consider three components of a vibrant mindfulness practice,
As we dive deeper into the holiday season, we often find our energy fluctuating wildly from an excited adrenaline rush to an overwhelmed exhaustion. This is a natural response to the increase in stimuli triggered by upcoming family gatherings, travel adventures and changes in routine. This post offers some nifty tools for harnessing your energy based on the work of my teacher Jonathan Foust and Body-Centered Inquiry.
It is no secret that our bodies were engineered for simpler yet far more dangerous times. 20,000 years ago, we needed some sort of system that sensed threat and immediately reacted. This kept us from being eaten by tigers and mauled by bears. This fight-or-flight response relied on the amygdala sensing danger and unleashing a waterfall of hormones including adrenaline and cortisone. The act of running or hiding from the tiger or the bear naturally dissipated these “stress chemicals” and we returned to a biological rest. Today, these physical threats are tucked away in zoos. But we still have the same biological response to stress. Cortisol explodes throughout our body. And then it gets stuck. Instead of running and burning off the stress chemicals, they get stuck inside. Over the long-term, chronic stressors increase our risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. So we must find “artificial” methods to get that energy flowing. My favorite morning practice comes from Lee Holden,
Once we’ve got the energy flowing, it becomes easier to observe and listen to the body, finding its natural rhythm and energy. One of my favorite practices works great after movement and comes from Jonathan Foust, Slow Motion Energy,
As we listen to the body, there are three foundational messages to consider,
We hold our issues in our tissues
With the backup of cortisol in our system, our emotions find their way into that knotty stomach ache or stiff back. How do we resolve that?
Where the attention flows, the energy goes
When we focus our attention, we can redirect our energy, especially from unpleasant sensations to a more wholesome state.
The neurons that fire together, wire together
This is the basis of neuroplasticity and the promise of mindfulness. Intentional action can becomes hard-wired as a habit with continued practice. When it comes to energy, can we identify those things that give us energy and those things that drain our energy? Armed with this knowledge, we can choose those things that give us energy when we need it.
It’s true that when I am bored and don’t know what to do, I have a tendency to reach for my phone and read political news. That drains the life out of me. Conversely, any time I jump on the bike and ride, make a call to a close friend or stop to read just 10 pages of a book, I become energized. Tasks that seemed impossible earlier seem more realistic or easier. So, how to remember to do those things that give us energy. We need reminders!
The guided practice below was introduced to me by Jonathan Foust and begins with some seated movement before inviting the meditator to make a list of those energy gainers and drainers and then ask yourself some questions. For Gainers, “What would I have to give up to do more of these things?” or for Drainers, “If I didn’t do this now, what would happen?” I encourage you to write down what you discover and place it prominently next to your computer screen, refrigerator or some other high traffic area. Then, when you are in doubt about what to do next, pick an energy gainer.
Try these out for yourself and let me know how it goes!
Having just returned from our fall men’s meditation retreat, Getting Unstuck, I am inspired by the diligence, wisdom and compassion of this year’s participants. They made the teachings come alive by applying them to their own experiences. Over the coming days, I thought I’d share some of my “favorite things” from the retreat.
We used energizing movement to wake us up each morning before the crack of dawn. I use this “go to” movement exercise from Jonathan Foust almost every day before meditation.
We even made our own movement tribute video but I’m not exposing the video on an unsuspecting public,
Qi Kong instructor Lee Holden has some amazing courses and a handful of free resources that we brought to the weekend,
Making It RAIN
We brought the rain so hard, it turned in to snow and ice!
Tara Brach has popularized the practice of RAIN – Recognize, Allow, Investigate and Nourish. This four-step model helps us work with challenges and difficulty, cultivating a resource state to integrate whatever we face into our lived experience.
Up next, a talk on the practice of clearing the space and identifying what is between you and feeling free/happy/good about yourself,
This year’s retreat included Movie Night for the first time. We watched the short documentary, Going Home, which features teacher Ram Dass as he confronts mortality and embraces the spirit of love. If you have Netflix, this is a must-watch.
“I’ve been learning to meditate. I didn’t realize all you have to do is sit there with your eyes closed, and worry about everything.” – Joe Zimmerman
A traditional focused breathing meditation often includes the instructions “No need to try to change anything or make it a certain way. Instead, observe your experience unfold, returning again and again to the breath when you become distracted.” Aside from being easier said than done, practicing in this way builds the muscle of attention and discernment. It offers an invitation to sit with the uncertainty of each moment. Intrusive thoughts, strong emotions and sensations in the body call for your attention and you explore the choice to let them go or follow the story.
As Danna Faulds writes in her beautiful poem, Allow, “The only safety lies in letting it all in – the wild and the weak; fear, fantasies, failures and success.” Some themes emerge as one contemplates uncertainty,
There is no end to uncertainty
There are rich tools & technologies for working with uncertainty
The task may not be to change one’s circumstances but instead to change one’s relationship with them in order to heal.
These present a challenge to the fixing mind. So often, we focus on probabilities and not possibilities, thus foreclosing options and ideas that might bring contentment or relief.
“Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” – Voltaire
Our habit patterns tend to make our feeling of uncertainty worse. Whether we are procrastinators or perfectionists or even ignorers, these responses can reinforce our feeling of powerless in the midst of uncertainty as we amp up the pressure to control our experience.
One tool you might try comes from Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, who offers a strategy based on questions for accomplishing what we want to do. Too often, we set goals without clear plans for achieving them. We get blocked by obstacles or procrastinate. Ferriss turns the goal setting process on its head by offering Fear Setting.
Here are Tim’s questions when faced with a problem, issue, situation or upcoming decision:
Define → What’s the worst thing that could happen? Prevent → What could you do to prevent this from happening? Repair → What could you do to correct it if and when it happens?
What might the benefits of an attempt or a partial success be?
If I avoid this action or decision & decisions like it, what will my life look like in 6, 12, 36 months?
The point is not to masterfully and fully answer these questions but instead to see what arises. When I last undertook this exercise, I used an example of a business opportunity I’m pursuing. Asking “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” elicited the response, “It might not work” and “I could be embarrassed“. As I reflected on those worst cases, I felt a softening and a loosening because those weren’t actually all that bad when I investigated them. I did, however, consider the “repair” question to better plan for an adverse outcome and how I would respond.
A final thought on uncertainty. Stepping out of our “story” and into our experience . . .
Bugs in a Bowl, by David Budbill
Han Shan, that great and crazy, wonder-filled Chinese poet of a thousand years ago, said:
We’re just like bugs in a bowl. All day going around never leaving their bowl.
I say, That’s right! Every day climbing up
the steep sides, sliding back.
Over and over again. Around and around.
Up and back down.
Sit in the bottom of the bowl, head in your hands,
cry, moan, feel sorry for yourself.
Or. Look around. See your fellow bugs.
Say, Hey, how you doin’?
Say, Nice bowl!
One last resource I recommend is Pema Chodron’s beautiful book, Comfortable With Uncertainty. Two chapters that particularly resonate with me are “Wisdom of No Escape” on page 7 and “Staying in the Middle” on page 47.
Each fall, Center For Self-Care offers a men’s meditation retreat in the mountains near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. This year, we’ll gather November 22-24 to explore ancient and contemporary tools for opening the heart and breaking habits that no longer serve us. This retreat includes guided meditations, silent reflection, deep conversations and the great outdoors in the fellowship of other men. Participants will come away with new approaches to working with habit patterns and reaction styles while cultivating empathy and compassion for self and other.
The weekend takes place in Sweet Valley, PA, just two hours north of Philadelphia. The cost of the retreat includes meals, sleeping accommodations and all programming. Participants will be asked to perform a “yogi-job” which may include light meal preparation and clean-up.
So how does this all work?
Who: A dozen men of all experience levels who have an intention to explore how wholeheartedness can be cultivated through meditative practices. New participants should have attended at least one Center For Self Care event such as Simply Meditation (every Monday at 7:15pm in Devon). The retreat will be led by Marc Balcer.
When: Depart in carpools from Philadelphia-area around 5 pm on Friday, November 22. We will meet briefly on Friday evening. We will depart early Sunday afternoon at arrive in Philadelphia by 1:30 pm.
Where: The retreat will be held on a 30-acre property in Sweet Valley, PA, just down the street from Ricketts Glen State Park. Three homes provide a total of eight bedrooms.
Why: Each person comes to this practice with their own inspiration and motivation. What unites us is a sincere desire to be present for our experience and support others on this path. We are all very busy! This retreat will allow us to slow down and relax.
Registration: Pre-registration is required and can be completed here with payment by credit card, paypal, or check. The cost of the retreat is $300, which includes programming, meals and a place to sleep. A limited number of single, private rooms (shared bathroom) are available for an additional $75. Contact email@example.com if you’d like to attend but cost is an issue.
Your Guide: Marc Balcer has been trained in Mindful Self-Compassion and Mindfulness-Based Stress Management. He leads classes and workshops locally and has created offerings including Simply Meditation, Mindful Men Meeting and Men Sitting By A Fire.
You have probably heard something of the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment and what led up to it*. Before he became the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama lived two very different lives, neither of which brought contentment or peace. He was born in to royalty and before long was prophesied to be either a great king or a great religious leader. His father, hoping to extend the “family business,” sheltered him from the drudgery and challenge of everyday life. He built walls around the castle and gave his son all of the luxuries of life. But the son was unhappy. He wanted to see outside the walls. So one night, his servant took him into the village. What he saw there shocked him. Imagine living 29 years and never seeing a sick person or even an old person! He saw these in spades in addition to the homeless and even dead bodies. Next week, I’ll continue the story into his life of austerity but suffice it to say, the experience in the village brought him insight to The First Noble Truth, There Is Suffering.
“There’s a way,” writes Jack Kornfield, “in which we all deeply long to do the work of the heart, but we forget, we get so busy, we might get caught. We forget to ask what needs attention.” I often find myself so caught up in commitments and obligations, that I forget to feel. So busy crossing things off my to-do list, I forget to notice and wonder if what I am doing aligns with my heart. This is the human condition. Our culture even encourages this because if I live in delusion and distraction, I will look for a fix. Tara Brach calls this “the trance of unworthiness,” which drives us to try the newest drug, cosmetic or shiny new car in order to be happy. We push away our suffering, constructing walls both literal and figurative, to shelter us from the reality of illness (think hospitals) and old age (think nursing homes).
The First Noble Truth urges us to stop, if only for a moment, and not run away from unpleasant sensation. We all have our own stories or narratives for “how things are” or “how they should be,” but what does it really fell like to acknowledge and feel the uncertainty and what comes with it? Great wisdom can come from asking, “What is asking for my attention in this moment?”
Join Center For Self-Care this and every Monday at 7:15pm at Balanced For Life Yoga in Devon, PA for Simply Meditation. This drop-in class includes a short teaching, a guided practice and time for discussion. A perfect way to support you as you apply the wisdom of meditation and mindfulness to your own life. Contact us or register online today. September 2019 features an exploration of a new Noble Truth each week!
Insight Meditation is a form of practice that invites such a reflection through ancient but universal instructions. Jack Kornfield, who was my inspiration for the meditation below, describes this as the first task – to acknowledge and stand in the center of our experience, to “be here now.” The meditation below brings one in to the body, the mind and the heart, gently touching what needs attention or click here for a longer version with an introductory talk.