We are all Creatures of Habit. It’s not only a figure of speech, it is science. Neuroplasticity tells us that what we do repeatedly gets laid down in the wiring of our brain through the development of new and reinforced neural connections. These connections economize energy use and help us build mastery. Neurotransmitters like dopamine and oxytocin reward us through the process. This is how we build habits, both good and bad ones.
I’ve found myself getting sloppy over the past few months. Some days I skip the exercise despite a surplus of time on my hands. I’m not reading as much. My meditation practice still exists but it is less consistent. I find myself more reactive and prone to impulse. Perhaps I stay up later or
have a bowl of ice cream late at night. I’m not beating myself up for it but would I feel better in the morning if I took a different approach? There are plenty of books and Netflix documentaries that can provide advice but I find the most effective tool is the power of community and its associated accountability. And I’ve done it before. Accountability and community have been particularly effective when it comes to my phone (over)use, caffeine consumption, time spent reading and more. So I decided to try again. And invite you to join me.
Creatures of Habit is a 31-day virtual community dedicated to exploring the principles of habit change, discussing the challenges, and driving intentional action toward a goal of one new good habit and the elimination of one bad habit. Sign up today and begin with us on January 1. Sign-ups accepted through January 8.
Each Monday, you’ll find a short video on the week’s topic in your email. It will include a teaching and some homework. As the week continues, I’ll provide access to resources including daily reflections, thought questions as well as two guided meditations to try out on your own. In our second week, you’ll be connected with an“accountability partner.” This is where the magic happens! You won’t be providing each other advice or encouragement but instead acting as a witness and sounding board on a habit change journey. In five years of teaching this class, I’ve found that many partners end up being friends for life!
Video 1: Identifying Habit Patterns
Video 2: Accountability and Reminders
Video 3: Harnessing Self-Control
Video 4: Patience and Self-Compassion
Video 5: Sustainable Change
You get out what you put in. I’ve found that dedicating 5-15 minutes to this work each day goes a long way towards sustainable habit change though some dedicate as much as an hour. This curriculum is time-tested and draws deeply on the work of James Clear (Atomic Habits) and my guided teacher Jonathan Foust. You won’t want to miss it.
Creatures of Habit is offered by donation but no one will be denied access for lack of resources. You are invited to contribute any amount but might consider $20-50. Your gift in excess of $20 supports our work while allowing it to be accessible to those that don’t have resources to pay right now. Payment is also accepted via Venmo, @Center4SelfCare or PayPal, email@example.com.
What am I no longer willing to do about this problem?
How can I work on this problem and have a great time doing it?
You might try this practice with your eyes closed and something to write on nearby should insight arise. Knowing that you are unlikely to “solve” the problem, what advice do you have for yourself that might help reframe and soften your experience?
My friend David Gerbstadt is a local artist who shares messages like “Be Kind” throughout his community with signs, buttons and street art. He’s even been live streaming drawing lessons and what he calls the “art machine” where one can watch him develop new creations.
After David offered free signs for essential workers, he was asked by a nurse to make the sign below. She insisted on paying him but he refused. Minutes later . . . he began receiving payment for these signs from out of the blue! Strangers, neighbors and friends who saw his work on Facebook reached out and sent money to help David make even more art to comfort and inspire. He now has several commissions queued up! You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are a fan of John Krasinski (Jim from “The Office”), you probably already know about his amazing web series, “Some Good News,” an idea we definitely need these days. There are several episodes including wonderful cameos from Steve Carrel, the cast of Hamilton and more.
So That I May Be Reasonably Happy
Many of us are familiar with The Serenity Prayer:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.
This reflection is full of Buddhist philosophy, highlighting the three poisons that keep us trapped in suffering – grasping, aversion and delusion. It is with acceptance, agency and deep discernment that we find our way to compassion and peace.
But did you know The Serenity Prayer has a second paragraph? Here is one version,
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace;
Taking this world as it is,
Not as I would have it;
Trusting that the Universe will make all things right,
If I surrender to its will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life.
I’ve spent much of my life caught up in duality. Either I was happy or I was sad. Relaxed or stressed. Frustrated or at peace. If I was 60% joyful and 40% insecure, I rounded up to all joyful. Or vice versa. This dualistic view of the world doesn’t leave much room for the concept of “reasonably happy”. It is reinforced by our questions when we greet each other, “How are you?” Usually, the asker is looking for a simple one word or one sentence answer. Our experience is always more complicated than that. And in challenging times, it may be difficult to move our level of happiness above the threshold for expression. Especially if that is the goal. As Ajahn Brahm says in the video below, perhaps the task is “to be happy being sad.”
I hope you’ll take this post as an invitation to be Reasonably Happy today! Try out the meditation below to cultivate and harness the joy that lives inside you,
Conversations on the Porch invites you into a new way of being and connecting. This is a safe, comfortable atmosphere to join together and experience authentic male friendship. Each gathering begins with a guided mindfulness meditation followed by a short teaching. Participants explore and write about their own experience and then share a story with the group. This invites us to step out of our small, isolated sense of self to rediscover a universal connection that has been there all along.
I first published this essay in March 2018. At the time, the truckload of dung I was thinking of was very personal. The usual trials and tribulations of daily life accentuated by occasional tragedies and losses. The latest truckload of dung has been delivered to the doorstep of each and every one of us. But the story remains the same. We didn’t ask for it. And we can’t send it back to where it came from. Perhaps the invitation is to work with this challenge together, offering empathy for suffering and a helping hand in times of need. Thank you for reading. Visit www.center4selfcare.com to join us in upcoming online offerings.
Uninvited and unpleasant circumstances arrive in our life with frightening regularity. We can try to push away our experience, but all too often, our aversion makes it worse. And when we carry around this “dung”, it weighs us down (and, figuratively, makes us smell). If instead, we use it as fertilizer to cultivate a deeper wisdom and understanding, we grow and evolve.
My arrival to the practice of meditation followed this path. All at once, I lost my father and my business. My wife was struggling with a health issue, school wasn’t going so well for either of the kids and I was having trouble sleeping. My response was to try to fix everything. To grab the reigns of control so tightly that not one more thing could go wrong. My teacher likes to say, “What you resist persists.” And it did. Any effort to solve these problems just created more problems. It wasn’t until I let go a bit, felt the discomfort, and watched my experience play out that life came back in to balance.
Ajahm Brahm, author of Who Ordered This Truckload Of Dung? was trained in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahm Chah (also Jack Kornfield’s teacher). His unique brand of humor makes meditation accessible and relatable. Below, he shares the simile of the dung: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fx2dnLxO2nM
His approach is very forgiving. He reminds that there are three things to know about the piles of dung that surround us, be they big or small:
1) You did not ask for this dung. 2) You can’t send it back to where it came from. 3) It really stinks (to the point of nearly being unbearable).
We can either respond to the dung delivery by filling our pockets with it, our bags, our belongings and so on, carrying it with us wherever we go. This is unlikely to make us many friends. The alternative is to see the dung and get to work. We bring it around back to the garden and gently turn it into the soil of our experience. With patience and time, the pile becomes smaller and our garden grows stronger. When we see our challenges as fertilizer, we can use them to cultivate an abundant garden of flowers, fruits, vegetables and love.
This isn’t easy, but we can practice! We meditate and notice what is arising, the thoughts, feelings and sensations that distract us from the object of our attention, be it the breath, the body or sounds. “Working the dung” is aspirational. There is no way our pile will disappear. But when we catch ourselves over and over again, we are literally training our brain to hold our experience more loosely.
Just this week, one of my son’s teachers introduced me to the Aran Islands, just off the coast of Ireland. These islands became the home for displaced Catholics hundreds of years ago. They arrived to a giant pile of rocks:
With patience, they built the rocks into walls. They brought sand to the terraces they’d carved out. And finally they brought nutrient-rich manure and seaweed to mix in to the new soil. Ultimately, they created one of the most fertile agricultural landscapes in Ireland. The secret ingredient was the dung. These are the ingredients of our lives. What will we do with them?
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!