Empty Mind or Open Mind?

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.

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This common graphic can easily be misunderstood as suggesting mindfulness is about blocking out everything that isn’t happening right in front of your eyes. As it turns out, our thoughts ARE in the present moment. Sure, we might ruminate on regrets of the past or opportunities in the future. That’s okay! What is most important is how we relate to them.

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!

9532e2b906530d839aad60b465ab7ae3For 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,

Give the Gift of Meditation For The New Year

Would you or your loved one like to …

… be more patient and relaxed?
… be less reactive and stressed?
… be more present and engaged?

Give the gift of Meditation this holiday season.

Marc Balcer, Josh Gansky and Center For Self-Care have been teaching mindfulness meditation with a special focus on men, middle age and the workplace for nearly a decade. We help people create space in their experience to respond thoughtfully instead of react habitually. Many see improvements in sleep, focus and relationships

Get started today with our Jumpstart Package, three customized 30-minute online or in-person meditation training sessions for just $150. Introductory 75-minute session for $125 and a 5-session Mindful Tools for Stress Management for $495 are also available.

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These time-tested practices can help let go of:
• grudges
• the need to be right
• exhaustion as a status symbol
• unreasonable expectations

Visit tiny.cc/C4SC to purchase a package today.

Harnessing Your Energy

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.

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Click Above For a Handy Worksheet

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!

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things, Part 2

Poetry has the ability to tell an ageless story with just a few words. Last summer, we hosted four poetry sessions on topics including Beauty, Pain & Suffering, Vulnerability, and Intimacy. This post shares the poetry from our November retreat, Getting Unstuck,

Below Our Strangeness by Mark Nepo
My souls tells me, we were
all broken from the same nameless heart.

What to Remember When Waking by David Whyte
What you can plan is too small for you to live.

Piglet’s Song by Benjamin Hoff from The Te of Piglet
Let’s find a Way today, that can take us to tomorrow.

No Path by David Whyte
There is No Path that Goes all the Way

Tell Me by Sandra Belfiore
You will not drown.
You were born swimming.

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From To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings
by John O’Donohue
This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.

The Real Work by Wendell Berry
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work.

There is No Going Back by Wendell Berry
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.

The Journey, Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began.

These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things, Part 1

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.

Movement

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,

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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!

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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.

Seeing Deeply

Up next, a talk on the practice of clearing the space and identifying what is between you and feeling free/happy/good about yourself,

Loving Awareness

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.

Comfortable With Uncertainty

“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

download (1)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

The audio above comes from Everyday Mindfulness, a series of free workshops held in Fall 2019 at the Tredyffrin Library in Strafford. Join us for our final session, How To Cultivate Self-Compassion, on Wednesday, November 20 from 7 to 8:30pm.


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?

uncertainty barber_0The 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.
Walk around.

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.

Getting Unstuck, A Men’s Retreat

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 marc@center4selfcare.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.

 

The Four Noble Truths: There Is Suffering

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.

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By User:Sacca – Picture of a painting in a Laotian Temple, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=800455

 

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?”


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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.

*Check out Jack’s Kornfield’s wonderful Meditation For Beginners audiobook for more on the integration of The Four Noble Truths into one’s life. For a great, brief description of the Buddha’s early life, check out The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson.

 

 

 

Opening to Vulnerability

This August, Center For Self-Care is exploring Vulnerability and Wholeheartedness with several programs including Sunday mornings at Main Line Unitarian Church and Wednesday nights at Balance For Life Yoga in Devon, PA. Our goal is to apply the work of Brene Brown to the practice of mindfulness and meditation.

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https://www.stresstostrength.com/tame-your-busy-mind/

Vulnerability, as defined by Brown, encompasses uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. As a meditator, we practice this on the cushion. We sit with our experiences. We get distracted or lost in thought, and then we come back, again and again. Meditation helps us create space for experience by moving from thoughtless reactivity to thoughtful responsivity. It requires us to be with our feelings, our discomfort, not to mention the failure of losing our attention. It also brings the invitation to choose – many times, the reflection offered by meditation helps us determine what is meaningful to us so that we may act boldly and bravely.

Using vulnerability to get us to a stage of wholehearted living involves the interplay of own internalized shame messages and our capacity for empathy. As we recognize the universal  human experience that our shame messages represent (things like “who do you think you are?” or “Your not good enough”), an empathy emerges to heal and open us to authenticity. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown offers 10 Guideposts to Wholehearted Living as well as the barriers to experiencing them,

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In our Sunday gathering, I shared the story of a creative block in my first job. It took letting go of my perception of others expectations to let go in to creativity.

Screen Shot 2019-04-21 at 8.00.14 PMBrown’s work has impacted my life and helped me soften in to my experience. Throughout August, we’ll be listening to her interviews with Krista Tippett of On Being each Sunday and bring her theories in to practice at Simply Meditation every Wednesday from 7:15 to 8pm. Please join us. You can also check out The Poetry of Vulnerability.

Below you’ll find the interview we listened to on August 4. Among the segments we didn’t get to listen to is an exploration of vulnerability and gender (~20min mark), parenting (~28min) and culture (~39min). Enjoy.

Time For Joy

Have you ever wondered “where does joy come from and how can I get it?” I have recently been exploring the Buddhist practice of Muditā, or Sympathetic Joy. It is cultivated by intentional practice of delighting in other’s wellbeing. Sharing in others joy can offer a lifeline, an expansiveness that builds on our connection with others.

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Buddhist teachings offer the Brahmavihāra, translated as the Four Immeasurable Qualities of Being. They include Compassion, Lovingkindness, Equanimity and Joy. Joy is translated from the Pali word Muditā, the nuance of which includes the concept of sympathetic or appreciative joy. The traditional meditation on joy, like those of compassion and lovingkindness, begins by imagining beings and offering your wish for them to experience this state.

While meditating on joy can help settle the mind and make one feel more connected and happy, the most exciting quality to me is its empathetic qualities. Usually we think of empathy in terms of identifying and connecting with difficult emotions in others. But can it work the other way around? By finding joy in others, we can awaken the joy that lives in each of us. How beautiful to think, “I know how you feel” when we see another person full of joy and delight! This activation carries the secret – that we hold the tools for joy inside of us. With presence, mindfulness, and of course practice, we can find joy and experience its benefits.


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Practice with Center For Self-Care every Wednesday night at 7:15pm at Balanced For Life Yoga in Devon, PA. Email or click here to register today.


I’ve been meditating for many years, spending weeks at a time meditating on compassion and lovingkindness. These meditations ask us to visualize loved ones, friends, strangers, those in need and even difficult people. Oftentimes, these meditations suggest we bring someone who is suffering into our consciousness. We offer them our wishes for compassion, health, safety and peace.

Psychotherapist Brian Williams offers an interesting take on the joy meditation. His meditation asked me to bring someone who is doing really, really well into my thoughts. When I first practiced this, I felt an explosion in my mind. It hadn’t occurred to me to bring someone who was just plain doing well as the subject of my practice. It was an opening: “Oh! I can offer my wishes to those doing great too.” And there is no need to set the bar impossibly high. I began with my children, one of whom has had a strong improvement in school and the other who has been skillfully managing his anxiety. Sure, they have difficulties but in general, things are going pretty well. As I practiced, I was able to recognize their joy and realize that I had my own measure of it as well.

The next time you sit, bring to mind someone who is filled with joy, perhaps someone who is doing really well right now. Create an image of them. Then repeat these phrases silently:

54eba5a005c198b1ae99a9f3b3ddd19b_-real-estate-company-in-lotus_2000-920.jpegMay your happiness increase.

May your success continue to grow.

May you continue to create the conditions for peace and freedom in your life.

I see your success and I wish for it to grow.

I’ve recorded a version of this meditation, 7 Mindful Minutes: Sensing Joy, which you can access via iTunes or Soundcloud.


More tools to cultivate joy

You can subscribe to my podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or Player FM or download individual episodes using the links below:

The Power of a Smile blog or podcast.

The Power of Gratitude blog or podcast.

The Power of Generosity blog or podcast.

Jack Kornfield has numerous talks and writings on joy including the video below.

Another way to share in the joy of others is by journaling on gratitude each week. I do these as part of my reflection on teaching adolescents – usually these reflections and stories involve a discovery by a student or a kind act I witnessed. In this way, I can share in the joy of others and activate it in myself. There is some great research on the benefits of such practice.

originally published March 31, 2017