“Don’t Know” Brings Us Together

When it took me twenty minutes to drive around the block to meet my wife and son for the ride home through the “Bomb Cyclone” on Friday afternoon, I knew it was going to be a long journey. Thankfully, my day was done and I didn’t have any responsibilities waiting for me at home. bomb-1515075605-8916.jpgFiring up the Waze GPS, it indicated that we’d traverse the 6 miles in just over 30 minutes. It was a relief given traffic was currently at a standstill. An hour later, as we once again passed our starting point, Waze was still feeling optimistic, just 35 minutes to go!

Across town, my friend was stuck at 69th Street Station. Hundreds of people huddled in the cold waiting for the bus that was to replace the train that wasn’t coming. Apparently, the bus wasn’t coming either. She sensed a spirit of kindness in the soothing words and conversations of those around her. A sense that “we’re all in this together.” One of the men near her finally arranged a ride home to his due-in-three-days pregnant wife. He proceeded to offer to share his ride with several of his new acquaintances.


Our mission at Center For Self-Care is to build communities through mindful exploration and connection. We have several such opportunities in the coming weeks including:

Wed., March 14 @ 8pm – Mindful Dads Meeting
Sun., March 18 @ 2pm – The Mindful Parent: How Mindfulness At Home Begins With You Sun., April 8 @ 9:30am – Connection and Reflection Full-Day Mindfulness Retreat

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The snow continued to fall and our family seemed farther from our home than when we started. Every few minutes a car would perform an awkward u-turn and head in the other direction. I tried it myself but it was of no use. It dawned on me, “None of us have any idea what to do.” We don’t know. When I looked at our situation from that perspective, I felt a real softening. Again, I was fortunate that I wasn’t hurrying to work or to care for a child or sick relative. But it helped me feel a compassion for the people in the cars surrounding me. They all wanted to get where they were going and didn’t know how to make that happen.

Cropped-shot-of-mature-male-couple-with-arms-around-each-other-at-coast.jpgI don’t know,” can be uncomfortable and uncertain. Our inherent negativity bias tells us that this feeling is dangerous, even life-threatening. But it also has the power to bring us together. Then next time you “don’t know,” explore the feeling and sense who else might be feeling the same way. Not only does connecting with a shared experience help cultivate self-compassion, it can bring us together in ways big and small. Including for a ride home. Even if it takes four hours.

How To Be Angry

My teacher Jonathan Foust likes to say that meditation will make you feel better. It will make you feel sadness better, it will make you feel frustration better, and it will make you feel anger better. The practice of mindfulness and meditation brings us to a state where we can feel what we are feeling when we are feeling it. And that gives us a choice. What will I do next? It offers the glimmer of possibility to respond thoughtfully instead of react habitually. But we must be quite gentle as these mind states arise.


You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.” – Undetermined

Thich Nhat Hanh offers this simple teaching for when you are angry:

Do Nothing

Say Nothing

Breathe

It may seem these phrases are passive. Perhaps there are situations where immediate responses (or withdrawal) are necessary, but I have found this advice to be near-perfect in its ability to bring me back to myself and the present moment. It is a radical act of self- (and other) care and compassion.

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Image from Men For Change, The Online Healthy Relationships Project, 1998 

Anger is what is called a “secondary emotion.” Most often, our anger masks an underlying primary emotion that we don’t want to feel. Things like sadness, jealousy, or fear elicit a reaction that triggers the secondary emotion such as anger. And sometimes related action like lashing out, arguing, or withdrawing.

I can recall a car ride on a cold winter day with my family. For some reason, I was frustrated and angry. My guess is that there was some distance between how things were in my life and how I wanted them to be. With every utterance from my wife and boys, I wanted to react, to criticize and diminish. But instead, I silently repeated these phrases, “Do Nothing. Say Nothing. Breathe.” After about 45 minutes, I felt a softening, and was able to reengage and share in my family’s joy. Later that evening, my wife said something along the lines of, “it really seemed you were having a tough time today.” This sympathy was enlivening and probably wouldn’t have come had I acted on the anger that was arising earlier that night.

Importantly, this practice doesn’t eliminate anger. Anger and all emotions are valuable information that our body, heart and mind give us to alert us to something meaningful, important or scary. When we try to shove them down or freeze them out, they’ll only find a way back into our experience. If instead, we can be with these emotions, witnessing but not becoming these emotions, we take a path of peace and understanding. The practice below works with this concept of witnessing:

What’s your experience with anger? Share your comments below. We’ll continue this discussion in upcoming weeks, exploring ways to communicate to those we love that we need a little space so it doesn’t seem like we are disconnecting or isolating ourselves.


Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 5.41.02 PM.pngMindful Dads Meeting resumes on Wednesday, March 14 and we’d love you to join us. Additionally, please consider Connection and Reflection: A Full-Day Mindfulness Retreat on Sunday, April 8. Readers of this blog receive a 10% discount by entering the promo code “EARLY”.

This Lousy World. And Being With What Is.

To give a cow a large spacious meadow is the best way to control him.” – Suzuki Roshi

I sat in practice. The feeling arose. Somewhere between uncertainty and overwhelm. This feeling didn’t bring a lot of content with it. Somewhat ominous but not quite imminent. Like something lurking in the distance while I rested comfortably behind the reinforced walls of a fortress in my mind.

Sometimes it feels like I’m just a bag of bones meant to carry around this overactive thinking machine of mine. My friend Jim describes it as a “mind tornado”. Rumination, reflection, anticipation and regret. What to do?

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I sat with it. It became a form in my mind, a jagged red shape, not quite circular, rhythmically heaving. It held heat and energy. But it wasn’t me. I imagined myself pulling up a chair next to this feeling. Not quite attending to it, but observing it. “What is this?” I asked. No answer was forthcoming. But I didn’t sense it needed an answer. It just needed to be seen.

From the silence emerged a response, “You don’t know. And that’s OK.” The shape retreated, the mind became still. I found myself at peace, if only for a moment. Psychologist, author and Holocaust-survivor Victor Frankl wrote about the importance of creating space for this peace. This space opens us to choice and possibility. Like the cow in Suzuki Roshi’s quote, making room for our experience allows us to flow more freely through life.

There’s an awful lot going on. Some local, some universal, most repeating and some truly unique. No wonder Jon Kabat-Zinn’s pioneering thome on mindfulness is entitled, Full Catastrophe Living. Our human instinct for survival drives us to make sense of it all and eliminate threats (perhaps foreclosing risk-taking and exploration). But we can find a stillness, if only for a moment. Sitting with our experience. Taking a breath. Being present.

The practice below begins with instructions for quieting and softening the body. An invitation to explore the present experience is offered and a question is asked. Try it out for yourself!


Make some time for yourself to learn and practice in the coming months. Join us for Mindful Tools For Stress Management for Men beginning February 21 or attend our co-ed full-day retreat, Connection and Reflection on Sunday, April 8. Enter the promotional code “EARLY” for a 10% discount.

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Hanging Out In The Space

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Victor Frankl

In our last gathering, we explored The Space Between How Things Are And How We Want Them To Be. There will always be this space, this grasping, this striving, that is part of our human experience. In fact, we spend most of our time dwelling in this space. Our efforts to close the gap are commendable but ultimately impossible. We simply can’t fix everything. Instead, when we change our relationship and response to the situations and issues in our lives, we open up to freedom and curiosity.

Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 9.35.32 AMThis post is the fourth in a series that offers teachings to support a mindful practice and lifestyle. They are based on gatherings of Mindful Dads Meeting but offer universal wisdom suitable for anyone. Please check out our upcoming stress management workshop for men.

Author Daanan Parry shared the beautiful Parable of the Trapeze in his book, Warriors of the Heart. Parry begins:

“Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I’m either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments in my life, I’m hurtling across space in between trapeze bars.

Most of the time, I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the-moment. It carries me along at a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control of my life.”

I can relate to Parry’s opening assumptions, recalling my time in investment management. My task was pattern recognition. If only I could find patterns that repeat over and over again in the companies I invested, I could eliminate unexpected events and work with ease and calm. I could arrive at work each day to a predictable flow that appeared to hold little risk. Except that it did. Everything changes. Everything is impermanent.

letting-go-2.jpgIt can be helpful to explore what happens with our emotional states. We quickly realize how they come and go. Alone, they are fairly fluid. But when we add to them with thoughts and ruminations, they feel more solid. And we can use a mindful practice to honor and create space for this landscape of emotions. As Michael Stone declares in the guided meditation below, “If we create the conditions for a calm body, unstable or turbulent emotions have a place to settle and a place to exist . . . Use your practice to continually bring you into the sanity of this moment. Sometimes our enlightenment will ask us to love things that seem impossible to love, and that’s why we practice.”


Make some time for yourself to learn and practice in the coming months. Join us for our co-ed full-day retreat, Connection and Reflection on Sunday, April 8.

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being-doing.jpgParry concludes his parable by suggesting “transformation of fear may have nothing to do with making fear go away, but rather with giving ourselves permission to ‘hang out’ in the transition between trapezes.” So the question moves from What should I do? to What should I be? Instead of focusing on the next action, we might instead focus on fostering positive emotional states to arrive at a sense of well-being, regardless of our circumstances.

As we make space in our experience, we might reflect on the question, How do I want to feel? In the practice below, you are asked to reflect on a situation or issue in your life that may be causing difficulty or suffering. Allow yourself to feel into this experience. What are the thoughts, emotions, and sensations in the body that arise as you visualize and recall this situation?

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As you continue through the meditation, you may experience a shift or perhaps have some advice for yourself. For our group, some of the advice was:

  • Do less better
  • Enjoy the moment
  • A little conflict isn’t such a bad thing
  • Slow down and think

Practice along with the recording below or click here for a written description.

10 Questions To Ask Yourself In 2018

It came to me one day in meditation. I was struggling to put the finishing touches on a lesson introducing mindfulness to a seventh graders. It had to be perfect. I had to be whole, complete. And then a response arose in my mind, “Teach the questions, not the answers.” Speaking of teachers, the poet David Whyte writes, “If you construct a question that is beautiful, it is something that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.” Questions that make us stop and help clarify our dreams, our intentions and our next acts. Author Robert Bly wrote, “Teachers help students remember who they are” by uncovering what is already inside of them and reintroducing them to their passions, their motivations and their wildest dreams.

The mindful questions below don’t have a right answer. They may not even have an answer at all. But they are virtually guaranteed to make the reader stop, reflect and consider – the foundations of mindfulness. They remind us that though we may not be able to control our circumstances or current conditions, we always have a choice. A choice to respond thoughtfully and intentionally instead of react habitually to whatever comes our way. This approach is a radical act of self-care and self-compassion in a culture conditioning us for immediate gratification and multi-tasking.

How do I want to feel?

Well, how do I want to feel? I rarely ask myself this question because I’m too busy trying to get things done! But when I step back and honor my emotions, I often recognize that what I’m doing isn’t necessary and is actually causing me stress. Much of our goal-setting and planning is very accomplishment-oriented. What if instead, we approached it from an emotion orientation?

What is between me and feeling free (happy, at peace, etc.)?

overwhelmed-kid.jpgWhere shall I start? Overwhelm, responsibility, uncertainty, doubt, fear, anger, frustration, letting go, letting be. Are any of these familiar to you? What I notice is that all of them are inside my head. I may have a frustrating relationship or nagging injury, but it is my minds response to them that holds me back. Simply acknowledging them can create a softening.

What is not between me and feeling free (happy, at peace, etc.)?

Use these responses as a foundation on which to come closer to that feeling of freedom. My passion, my love, my resources and my relationships are not getting in the way of feeling free. What if I offered this love and passion to the part of me that is hurt, scared or doubtful? [salzberg]

What am I doing?
Is it right?
What will I do next?

71ywcxkvc5L._AC_UL320_SR230,320_These three questions were introduced to me by Gretchen Schroeder. I have found them helpful in nearly every situation where I find myself carried away, stressed out or reactive. Yesterday, for example, I had returned from a wonderful vacation to a snowstorm. I was a grouchy pill all day long. Several times throughout the day I stopped and reflected on these questions. And usually I just kept on doing what I was doing. But by 4 pm, I’d finally had enough of myself and decided that next I would try out a bit of Qi Gong (from the wonderful Lee Holden) and what do you know? I started feeling better!

I use these questions when I’m being overbearing with friends or family. They are flexible. Instead of telling me, “stop this right away!” they force me to choose my words and actions. So when the answer to “Is it right?” is “no” over and over again, I eventually choose a course of action that gets me back on the right track. It can be both humbling and humiliating to recognize that I am the problem. But this recognition can be a tool to softening as well.

Does it have heart?

Overwhelmed-todays-to-do-list.jpgWe all have too much to do. Deciding what to next can be so difficult that we often distract ourselves and defer taking the first step on our most important dreams. When my to-do list is 100 things long, I start going through and crossing off anything that doesn’t have heart? This may mean that the home improvements get deferred or I’m eating a pile of wheat thins for dinner, but it helps me reset my compass back to what is most important.

How can I simplify this?

I admit, eight questions in probably isn’t the best place to suggest making things simpler. Its just a question. But as with many of these other questions, it creates a pause where habit can be replaced by wise judgment.

Who will support me on my path?

Maybe it is a running partner or colleague on a project. Maybe it is a friend who knows you inside and out. But resilience is about more than just pushing through obstacles. It is about asking for help and taking care of yourself.

Will it matter when I’m gone?

No? Then don’t do it! This one can yield surprising answers that go beyond the sentimentality of an existential question. It may be that taking on the new job that will take you away from your family for a time may matter because of the security it provides them. Or it may be that this question reorients your expectations and intentions. 


Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 9.35.32 AMThere are plenty more questions that we explored in our December retreat, Asking The Beautiful Questions. At Center For Self-Care, we love to support you on your own path of self-discovery. See below for our upcoming programs.

Wednesday, January 10Mindful Dads Meeting

Five Wednesdays beginning February 21Mindful Tools For Stress Management for Men

Sunday, April 8Full Day Mindfulness Retreat (co-ed)

An Experiment in Generosity

Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” – Buddha

Author Sharon Salzburg, writing in “Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection,” describes how we can experiment with generosity:

So often we are taught to arm ourselves with cynicism and irony, to cut ourselves off, dismissing displays of kindness or generosity as phony or self-serving. It takes a lot to say, “I am going to conduct an experiment to look at things another way.”


3176908_1506097971.7898My friend David Gerbstadt has been doing a lot of experimenting. David is a local artist who uses art to share his positive message and connect with people in the community. These messages include “You Are Loved,” “Never Give Up,” and “Be Kind.” David is also well-known for his commitment to art for everyone. The video below shows a project where he left his art throughout the community for people to enjoy and ultimately take home with them. How radical!

david_gerbstadt_be_kind_button_3_hearts_3_cm_round_badge-ra74f514ebd1045f3b5b876d6adab6a18_x7j12_8byvr_324David’s generosity doesn’t have a specific expectation when he shares it. Instead, he follows his heart, trusting that a response will arise. I’m a huge fan and have started a club at The Shipley School to continue to spread this message of abundance and generosity. We aren’t all great artists but each of us has a gift that is renewable. It may be a smile or a kind gesture. Or it may be a human connection in a time of need.

Like David’s work as much as I do? Send him a note at davidgerbstadt@gmail.com. He offers “$1 art by mail,” Be Kind buttons for $1 each and has a huge studio with paintings, found-object sculpture and much more.  12189744_990388567670851_862643810091700739_n


At Center for Self-Care, we’ve begun with a primary focus on men and dads. When it comes to men and generosity, I’ll start with the bad news. A recent study by from The University of Zurich suggests that men’s brains respond more to selfishness than generosity. The opposite is true for women. In the study, participants were given a choice to keep a sum of money or share it with someone else. Participants were placed in an fMRI machine to monitor brain activity. What researchers found was that an area of the brain called the striatum showed increased activity in women when they shared the money and in men when they kept all of the money for themselves. The striatum is part of a human’s reward system, coordinating the release of dopamine, one of our “feel good” hormones. Men are literally rewarded with a release of soothing chemicals for selfish behavior. Strangely enough, when researchers gave participants a drug designed to suppress dopamine release, men and women switched roles, with the men becoming more generous!Selfishness

The study was small and far from conclusive. Additionally, it is hard to say whether this observation is hard-wired or a learned behavior based on cultural norms and expectations. We are learning more about neuroplasticity, our brain’s ability to learn based on our experience. When we are rewarded (both externally and internally) for selfishness, we tend to continue that behavior. There is a vast literature describing the differences in ways boys and girls are treated. Oftentimes, girls are rewarded for pro-social, generous actions. On the flipside, girls are more likely to be punished for selfishness while boys may be excused from consequences because “boys will be boys”.

Aside from consequences, unwritten social expectations can play a role as well Angela Saini, author of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story declares, “We know that girls and women are socially expected to behave in different ways from boys and men. We encourage girls to be kinder, gentler and more generous, because these are seen as female virtues. It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that research like this shows that women tend to show a greater reward response to this kind of behaviour.”

a50efb21be71b5e7af55ffc0360926cf--so-cute-funny-stuff.jpgOther research has suggested that women are more likely to be balanced in their generosity, appealing to fairness and equality. Men, on the other hand, may appeal more towards justice, leading them to be either “perfectly selfish” or “perfectly selfless” depending on the situation and benefits they may accrue from their response. Additionally, these researchers found that when generosity is expensive, or takes a lot of effort, women tend to be kinder while men may be kinder than women when the cost of generosity is low (small gestures). This is exciting news. It offers a window in to how to start with generosity. Returning to the concept of neuroplasticity, we do know that generosity can be practiced and learned. Experiment on your own or try out the suggestions in The Power of Generosity. Men can rewire their brains to emphasize selflessness over selfishness. And it is important to start small. As Mother Teresa explained, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

The Power of Generosity

Powerful research connects generosity to happiness but only if we are thoughtful about it. There are many ways to think of generosity. The great poet & author Maya Angelou wrote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This generosity of presence is one of my favorite forms of generosity.

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Oftentimes, generosity isn’t even fully conscious on the part of the giver. I have a good friend Jim who helped me through a difficult time by joining me for a morning walk nearly every day for weeks. He’ll probably tell you we were just out for a stroll but it was way more than that to me. Another friend regularly reminds me how I made it a point to join him for lunch each week as he went through cancer treatment. The interesting thing is that I don’t recall if that was completely intentional on my part. I wonder if I was just hungry!

I’ve also linked a podcast talk, Generosity as Mindfulness Practice below:


Check out this hilarious story of generosity called Joy from Ashok Ramasubramanian.

One of my favorite lenses through which to view generosity is the lens of letting go, letting go of expectations, letting go of attachments. When we are generous, we move out of the comparing, judging and analyzing that characterizes most of life. Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg has written about the positive effect generosity can have on one’s sense of and freedom. When we give, we continually test our limits. She writes,

“our attachments say, ‘I will give this much and no more’ or ‘I will give this article or object if I am appreciated enough for doing so.’ The practice of generosity is about creating space. We see our limits and we extend them continuously, which creates a deep expansiveness and spaciousness of mind.”

Salzberg describes two aims of giving. The first, she says, is

“to free our minds from the conditioned forces that bind and limit us. Craving, clinging, and attachment bring confinement and lack of sense esteem. If we’re always looking for some person or thing to complete us, we miss the degree to which we are complete in every moment. It’s a bit like leaning on a mirage only to find that it can’t hold us; there’s nothing there. The second purpose is to free others, to extend welfare and happiness to all beings, to lessen the suffering in the world. When our practice of generosity is genuine, we realize inner spaciousness and peace, and we also extend boundless caring to all living beings.”

The act of giving recognizes interconnection and interdependence we have on each other and also sets into motion of cycle of generosity and love from others.


Generosity can also be very humbling. With generosity of assumption, I ask myself if I can defer judgment in a situation and instead bring curiosity. It is rare that someone hurts or insults me just for fun. Instead, it is often the result of some challenge or unhappiness in their own life. It isn’t about me. In our current political environment, the generosity of assumption is ever so critical. We all have different opinions and our support of a particular party or politician doesn’t represent all that we are. And that is before even considering that I’m often wrong!

Brene Brown writes about this in Rising Strong. She suggests a way of relating where you “extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others.” This isn’t to say that you become soft and flaky. It is more of a recognition that we are all coming from different experiences that inform our behavior. Our assumptions about others are more based in our habitual way of responding to others and through exploration, we might approach a clarity that is based on our present moment experience. We can actually be more discerning and even choose not to relate to certain people when our full faculties suggest it isn’t safe.

images-2Finally, generosity is a critical component of self-care and self-compassion. When we treat ourselves with kindness regardless of outcome, we aren’t giving ourselves a free pass. We are allowing ourselves the generosity of assumptions and presence that offers the promise of forgiveness and understanding. This opens us to creativity, curiosity and appropriate risk taking as we embrace our vulnerability and live with a sense of wholeheartedness.


Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 9.35.32 AMLooking for a way to bring mindfulness, compassion, gratitude and generosity to your life? Look no further than Center for Self-Care.

Co-Ed Offerings
Full Day Mindfulness Retreat, April 8

Men’s Offerings
Mindful Tools for Stress Management
Five Wednesdays, Feb 21-Mar 21

Mindful Dads Meeting (drop-in)
Wednesdays, Jan 10, Apr 11, May 9, June 13


Practice and Research

Krista Tippett of the radio show and podcast On Being interviewed generosity researcher Adam Grant, the author of Give and Take. In the discussion, Adam makes several salient observations using a framework of personality types he calls givers, matchers and takers. Like Salzberg, he argues, “the most successful givers are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. They are strategic in their giving so that their work has the maximum desired effect; they give in ways that reinforce their social ties and they consolidate their giving into chunks so that the impact is intense enough to be gratifying.” Grant describes generosity as “micro-loans” of our knowledge, skills and connections in ways that transform and shape experience. These “five minute favors” are more likely to be meaningful and less likely to leave us burned out.

Grant observes that givers have a tendency to either be wildly successful or just plain burned out. The distinction he makes is that successful givers are very discerning. They say yes to the things that they have time for, have unique skills or resources to contribute to and helped them feel connected. Failed givers, on the other hand, tend to say “yes” to everything.

There are several research-informed practices from Greater Good Science Center that you can use to build your generosity muscle. They play on our natural inclination towards kindness and caring that sometimes is masked by our expectations, our obligations and our judgments.

Remembering Connection – Humans are kindest when they we feel connected to other people. As we feel connected, we have an instinct to connect more deeply.reminders_of_connectedness_257_180_s_c1

Shared Identity – Isolation and group difference keep us from harnessing our generosity. This practice is about identifying the commonalities with those that we may see as different from us.

Random Acts of Kindness – The value of variety here highlights the importance of keeping our generosity fresh so that we and others recognize the act and appreciate it rather than expect it.

Try these practices out and let me know how they go. I wish you a warm and wonderful holiday season as well as the resilience and presence to persevere through any challenges or difficulties you may be facing. And I trust you’ll be able to bring generosity to all of it.

A version of this post was originally published on the Your Mindful Coach Blog in December 2016.

 

How To Ask A Beautiful Question

question heartFor me, the guiding question “Does it have heart?” is most resonant of the beautiful questions. I can’t remember the last time my to-do list had fewer than 15 things I just needed to do ASAP. They won’t all get done. There are different ways to prioritize them: easiest to hardest, smallest to biggest, etc. But the method that most enlivens me is asking “Does it have heart?” to guide my next act. I must admit, this occasionally leads to sticky situations including unanswered emails or too much dirty laundry. But when the question reminds me to put away the cell phone and connect more deeply with my family, it serves me well.

David Whyte writes (lightly paraphrased), “if we are able to construct a question that is beautiful, it will stay with us for the rest of our lives.” Deep and open-ended questions lead us to connect with that which gives us meaning and purpose. Whyte has compiled a list of 10 Questions That Have No Right To Go Away. They include:

What can I be wholehearted about? Am I harvesting this year’s season of my life? Can I be quiet, even inside? Am I too inflexible in my relationship to time? How can I drink from the deep well of things as they are? Can I live a courageous life?


20171202_120322On December 2, Your Mindful Coach, in cooperation with Center for Self-Care, hosted Asking The Beautiful Questions: A Mindfulness Workshop. The retreat was inspired by the work of Jonathan Foust and other teachers.

The questions we ask harness “the one who knows“, that unconditioned self that is absolute inside of each of us. Foust describes the dance of intuition  between “who you are, fully human, full of doubts and fears and anxiety and pettiness and need to control; and who you are free of anxiety, who you are free of fear.”

To find this place, we can begin with empowering questions. Questions that shift our mindset and open us to possibility. We began with the four questions as described by Foust:

  • What do you love about this life?
  • What gives you energy?
  • What about this life enlivens you?
  • What would happen if you did more of that?

Another approach is to engage with our lived experience. Noticing and allowing what is arising and passing. One way to practice is with this guided meditation from Josh:

Asking open-ended questions can support us in clarifying our next steps. Accessing our passions, our motivations and our heart. Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, 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 felt into 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.

In the talk below, Foust describes the non-dual, non-conceptual mindstates that become accessible to us as we come to presence and ask these beautiful questions. We move out of our “doing” and spend more time “being.” For many of us, the tasks of our work require judging, analyzing, comparing, debating. But that isn’t always the best way to discover peace and equanimity.

I have found questions to be helpful in the heat of the moment as well. When I am under stress and feel like shouting, screaming, arguing or even running away, I use the following questions to reset, pause and approach with a thoughtful response:

What am I doing?
Is it right?
What will I do next?

There are countless questions that open our mind. What resonates for you? What will you do next?

 

 

Asking the Beautiful Questions

As a teacher, I have two options. I can try to teach the answer or I can try to teach the question. All too often, the “answer” is burdened by my own judgment, opinion, beliefs and experience. Teaching the answer can be limiting because everyone’s experience is different. But when I teach the question, infinite possibilities are unleashed. We open to imagination and creativity.

Poet and author David Whyte writes, “What would it be like to see teaching as the ability to cultivate the imagination? To [help students] create the biggest context they can for whatever they are being taught. . . if we are able to construct a question that is beautiful, it will stay with them for the rest of their life.” Deep and open-ended questions lead us to connect with that which gives us meaning and purpose. Whyte has compiled a list of 10 Questions That Have No Right To Go Away. They include:

What can I be wholehearted about? Am I harvesting this year’s season of my life? Can I be quiet, even inside? Am I too inflexible in my relationship to time? How can I drink from the deep well of things as they are? Can I live a courageous life?

These questions don’t demand answers but instead reflection. And lived experience. The practice of mindfulness invites us to welcome these questions and explore. I invite you to try some of these questions on for size at our workshop, Asking The Beautiful Questions, this Saturday, December 2. Register today or read below for more details.

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We all know that questions can be empowering or restricting depending on how they are framed. My teacher Jonathan Foust offers four empowering questions:

excited

What are you most excited about in your life right now?

What are you most proud of in your life right now?

What are you most grateful for in your life right now?

What are you most committed to in your life right now?

Notice how these questions challenge you to shift out of the mindset of problem-solving, thinking, comparing and judging that characterizes most of our everyday experience. We might find responding to such questions difficult because they remind us of what’s not quite right yet. But it also opens the possibility for growth, meaning and understanding. In practice, one needn’t search for the answers but instead allow them to arise. Some of the responses may be strange and unexpected but also illuminating.

A perfect example of how empowering questions open our minds and hearts comes from StoryCorps, whose mission is “to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” You may have heard these stories on National Public Radio. Check out this list of wonderful questions for just about any situation that are sure to get right to the heart of the matter.


Here are just a few of the qualities that inquiry and questions can generate:reframe-nlp-frame

  • Reframing – Questions allow us look at our experience from a different angle. Approaching an issue with a different kind of question shifts our perception and our attitude.
  • Softening – They can bring a compassion, an appreciation and even a forgiveness for difficulty, confusion and uncertainty we face.
  • Opening – How many ways could I describe the situation? What are the new ways?
  • Clarifying – What is really happening right now? Can I be with it? What is important to me? What will I do next?
  • Identifying habit patterns that aren’t supportive of wholehearted living, happiness and resilience. We begin to recognize our reactivity and how it may harm us.
  • Connection with our passion, our values, and our heart to create purpose and meaning.

At its heart, the practice of mindfulness asks two questions, “What is happening?” and “Can I be with it?” These two questions represent the two wings of the metaphorical bird. Wisdom to see clearly with awareness and compassion to non-judgmentally be with our experience. In a sense, these are the questions that characterize the experience of mindfulness. As we practice mindfulness, we step out of the story we’ve created in our minds and into the genuine experience of being alive, with its joy, its sorrow, its uncertainty, its faith.


I welcome you to explore questions further by listening to Inquiry as Mindfulness Practice, via iTunes or Stitcher. This episode includes a meditative inquiry practice called The Five Problem Solving Questions which I think you’ll enjoy experimenting with.

If you live in the Philadelphia area, please join me on Saturday, December 2 for Asking The Beautiful Questions from 10am-12pm at the Tredyffrin Public Library in Strafford, PA.  You can learn more by visiting www.center4selfcare.com or  www.yourmindfulcoach.com. You also might enjoy a visit to jonathanfoust.com or focusing.com to learn more about the tools of meditative inquiry.


Sometimes by David Whyte

David-Whyte-road-close_0.jpg
David Whyte

Sometimes
if you move carefully
through the forest

breathing
like the ones
in the old stories

who could cross
a shimmering bed of dry leaves
without a sound, 

you come
to a place
whose only task

is to trouble you
with tiny
but frightening requests

conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.

Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,
and

to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,

questions
that can make
or unmake
a life,

questions
that have patiently
waited for you,

questions
that have no right
to go away.

Portions of this post were originally published on the Your Mindful Coach Blog in December 2016.

The Power of Gratitude

Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” – Cicero

The dictionary defines gratitude as “the quality of being thankful; a readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” There are two key components to gratitude. First, gratitude involves an affirmation of goodness. Second, gratitude involves a recognition of its source. As we pause to notice the goodness and generosity around us, we become aware of the people & resources, causes & conditions, that lead us to this feeling state. Gratitude reminds us of our connection and interdependence.

My friend and noted gratitude communication researcher Ross Brinkert observes, “Gratitude is not only good for the receiver, its also good for the sender. You can transform your own feelings by sending gratitude to somebody else.” One of the many powers of gratitude is its ability to incline the mind. This concept of inclining the mind abounds in the study of mindfulness and meditation. It rehabituates the mind away from the constant judging, comparing and evaluating that characterizes our usual experience. This inclining process is a reframing of our experience, a “gladening” or even a softening of the mind. This inclination allows us to find the sacred in our ordinary, everyday experience.


And don’t miss our monthly Mindful Dads Meeting, on the second Wednesday each month including Wednesday, December 13.


Why practice gratitude?

Robert Emmons identifies physical effects such as stronger immune systems, improved self-care and even better sleep as benefits of consistent gratitude practice. Psychologically and socially, those that practice gratitude are more likely to experience positive emotions, feel happier & more optimistic and feel less lonely and isolated. Grateful people exercise more self-control and are better at delaying gratification. This reminds me of mindfulness. Through returning our attention to our focus or anchor, in mindfulness our breath, our body, our senses, we are able to respond thoughtfully instead of react habitually. In this way, we turn a habit into a choice. It seems using gratitude as our “anchor” can serve much the same purpose.line.png

With gratitude, what we are not doing is nearly as important as what we are doing. Its hard to multitask while practicing gratitude. We are unlikely to be checking our cell phone or mindlessly eating a hamburger. When we practice gratitude, we aren’t engaged in jealousy, greed, grasping or comparison. We are creating a space in our experience. As we leave the realm of judgment, comparison and criticism, our natural wisdom and compassion emerge.

How does one practice gratitude?

For gratitude practice to have a lasting effect, it must be intentional and consistent. Gratitude must be a way of relating to the world and not just an afterthought.

One of the best ways to cultivate gratitude is to write it down. The intentionality of actually putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) allows you to be more reflective compared with just “thinking” about gratitude. In the video below, SoulPancake performs an experiment where people were asked to write about someone who had a positive impact on their life. Writing and then sharing what they’d written to that person had a powerful effect on the happiness of the gratitude giver.

 

charlie.pngWould you like to give it a try? How about the “Three Good Things” practice? This is essentially a gratitude journal. Each day, you recall 3 things that went well for you recently, positive experiences, interactions or observations. Take the time to describe each of these good things. Note how you felt then and how you feel now upon reflection. Conclude by explaining what you think caused this event to happen? Was it your preparation, the generosity of another, the gifts of the earth? Click here to try it out yourself. I’ll collect the responses and share them in an upcoming blog or podcast.

You can practice gratitude is by expressing it through a gratitude letter to an important person in your life or just give them a call. Brinkert recommends communicating gratitude with an element of surprise. Much like “random acts of kindness”, “random acts of gratitude” help your expression stand out. He writes, “Expressions that come unexpectedly actually have a lot more weight than things that are expected. It’s really important to make the opportunity to thoughtfully surprise people because that really stands out for them.”

Finally, because gratitude is for you as well, simple mindfulness & meditation practices support the concept of inclining the mind. Meditations on gratitude and joy help you set an intention toward gratitude and remind you of the gifts you have given and received.

Wishing you the best in your own practice of gratitude! If you’d like support in your practice, visit www.center4selfcare.com today.