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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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.

 

Coming Back To Ourselves

“I think we learn the most from imperfect relationships, things like forgiveness and compassion.”  -Andrea Thompson


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All relationships are imperfect, including the relationships we have with ourselves. Can we cut ourselves some slack? Give ourselves a break? Or at times, get out of our own way to enjoy the moment, allow ourselves to be open to the moment, let our guard down, resist a little less, not hold on so tight or fight so much.  Can we pause, release the grip, and breathe, so we can see what is right in front of us? Can we forgive ourselves and accept our imperfections and can we be a little kinder and nicer to ourselves?  This is our shared experience as human beings.  The struggle, the pain, the suffering, the joy, the happiness, the forgiveness, and the compassion and kindness. We experience it all and we deserve to be ourselves and the only thing we have to be is who we already are.

Compassion and Forgiveness are critical qualities to cultivate on a path to mindfulness. We have shared our favorite writings and audio below. Stay tuned for more including self-compassion in the coming days.

Accepting My Need To Be A Perfect Parent Fierce Self-Compassion: Meeting The Critic Talk and Guided Practice
The Most Important Job Forgiveness Guided Practice

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We have a great lineup of offerings coming in early 2018. They include:

Mindful Dads Meeting – Every 2nd Wednesday inc. 1/10
Men Sitting By A Fire – Various Mondays inc. 1/22
Mindful Tools For Stress Management for Men
5 weeks beginning February 21
Full Day Mindfulness Retreat – 4/8

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.

Dec2BeautifulQuestionsSmall5

 


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

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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.

Listen Deeply

In Becoming Aware, Josh shared a quote from Ram Dass, “The quieter you become, the more you can hear.” As we practice mindfully, we move toward stillness, spaciousness and silence. It is here that we can listen fully. Listening deeply to the small, soft voice of our heart, we become aware of our deepest intentions. We listen to those we love and give ourselves room to choose a response with compassion and care.

This post is the second in a series that offers teachings to support a mindful practice and lifestyle. They are based on gatherings of Mindful Dads Meetings each month but offer universal wisdom suitable for anyone.

As we build community, we keep these guideposts and qualities in mind:

  • Experiencing New Possibilities (Community)
  • Discovering Embodiment (Back to the body)
  • Cultivating Observation (Noticing/Aware of Inner Experience)
  • Moving Toward Acceptance (Non-Judgment/We each have our own experience)
  • Growing Compassion (Care)

Our evening began with a practice intended to bring our awareness to the present moment, the only moment that is truly available to us. In this practice, we begin by observing our breath. The breath serves as an anchor when we are distracted by a thought, an emotion or bodily sensation. Each time, returning to the sensation of our body expanding and contracting with each breath. We then move our awareness to the sensation of stillness in our body. First in our hands and allowing our awareness of this stillness to expand to include our arms, our legs and even our feet.

 

Allow by Danna Faulds

There is no controlling life.
Try corralling a lightning bolt,
containing a tornado.  Dam a
stream and it will create a new
channel.  Resist, and the tide
will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry
you to higher ground.  The only
safety lies in letting it all in –
the wild and the weak; fear,
fantasies, failures and success.
When loss rips off the doors of
the heart, or sadness veils your
vision with despair, practice
becomes simply bearing the truth.
In the choice to let go of your
known way of being, the whole
world is revealed to your new eyes.


MindfulDadsNov17Photo.jpgPractice with us

Looking to learn and practice? Join us on the morning of Saturday, December 2nd for Big Questions for Mindful Living: A Half-Day Retreat for Men. Or drop-in for Mindful Men Meeting, the 2nd Wednesday of every month.


weight-lifting-brain.jpgMindfulness meditation literally trains our muscle of attention. Just as we go to the gym to strengthen our body, when we sit in meditation, we grow mentally stronger. Returning our attention over and over again to the anchor of our practice (breath, body, stillness, silence, etc). For me, the first months of mindfulness practice found me less reactive. When I had an urge or an impulse to argue, confront or withdraw, I could observe this with a kind heart, pause, and choose my response. Researchers in the field of neuroplasticity are discovering how one can build new neural connections that integrate our emotional brain or limbic system with our cortical, thinking brain. They even see it in brain scans that suggests the grey matter of our brain grows with intentional practice. This integration allows the prefrontal cortex, the higher level, rational, moral part of our brain to soothe an emotional system caught in fear, uncertainty or anger.

Our reactivity and negativity biases are no accident. We needed this system thousands of years ago when our greatest threats were physical. The human environment contained predators like tigers who weren’t up for debating the merits of eating us. So we needed a way to react immediately to stimulus so that we didn’t end up as lunch. Our “Fight or Flight” or parasympathetic nervous system, is engineered to divert resources away from our internal organs and our brain to our legs so that we can run. The amygdala triggers the release of cortisol and adrenaline, priming the body for action. Which is great when you are being chased. But this system responds to our daily emotional and psychological threats in the same way – increasing our heart, breathing and perspiration rate, and turning off our digestive and immune system. No wonder our culture is riddled with irritable bowel syndrome and chronic colds!

There is just one thing that we can truly control in our fight or flight response, our breath! Taking a deep breath sends a signal to our body that we have time, we don’t need to react quickly out of habit. As we slow the breath, our sympathetic nervous system comes back online, bringing us to a state of “Rest and Digest“. It is in this state that the integration of our body gives us access to our faculties and control of our situation. We become aware of our emotions, thoughts and bodily sensations without judging them.schraf-awarenesstrangle

But in order to return to Rest and Digest, we must know that we are in a state of Fight or Flight. This first step, noticing or listening is paired with an allowing, an offering of compassion for whatever is happening right now. The cycle of our reactive habits is broken when we pair the wisdom of noticing with the compassion of allowing. We ask ourselves, “What is happening right now?” and “Can I be with it?” Marc shared the practice “I am aware . . . ” which group participants tried in pairs and reflected on in writing.

As we closed, one participant concluded that for him, now is the time for “less advice and more self-compassion.” It is a time for listening and seeing what arises. When we stop and return to the present moment, we give ourselves a chance. Not seeking perfection, but seeking progress. You might try the longer meditation below to cultivate a deep listening.

 

Excerpted from The Journey, by Mary Oliver

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

We’d love to hear from you! Please comment below to share your own insights or email us at connect@center4selfcare.com. We encourage you to join us for our monthly Mindful Dads Meeting on the 2nd Wednesday of each month at the Woodlynde School from 8 to 10pm. Click here for details, including our December 13 meeting.

 

 

Accepting My Need to Be A Perfect Parent

Our thoughts and images of what an ideal parent should be can get in the way of just being the best we can be in any given moment.

There’s a common misperception that practicing mindfulness imposes another idealized picture of what our lives as parents or lovers or close friends or leaders at work should be: Always calm, always in control, and always knowing what to do, like a stereotype from an old TV show. We can’t help but fall short of this idealized vision. Recognizing that view itself is something to notice, and then we can practice setting it aside.

Our relationships, our career, the way our kids turn out—these rarely match the pictures in our minds.

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Mark Bertin, MD

This is an excerpt from “Let Go of Being the Ideal Role Model,” by Mark Bertin from the July 21, 2016 issue of Mindful Magazine. Reading this couldn’t have come at a better time.  It connected with how I had been feeling and thinking about myself as a parent.

My friend Patti once said to me, “You are only as happy as your most unhappy child.” What an important reminder that parenting is difficult, exhausting, and stressful and it also brings me the greatest joy.

Not long ago, I had been going through a difficult time worrying about my son and blaming myself for his struggles and difficulties.  Since I began practicing Mindfulness, I have focused a lot of time on the practice of allowing myself to be imperfect toward myself, but until I had a conversation with another friend, Kenny, I did not realize the unrealistic expectations that I was putting on myself as a parent. I was not aware that I was placing unrealistic expectation of perfection on myself.  

I guess I should have known better since this is something I have been doing my entire life. It makes sense that these feelings would enter this part of my life. Of course what followed was judgment, self-criticism, and meanness toward myself. I had been expecting myself to be that perfect parent based upon the expectations that I had put upon myself and blaming myself for my childrens’ struggles and hardships.  

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The blaming I had been doing was based upon my negative perceptions of how my actions have hurt my son, as well as the fears and worries I have for him.  I want him to be happy and have good friends.  I don’t want anything that I could have done to damage this. Kenny also shared, “No matter what we do for our kids and teach them, there are going to be things out of our control and they are going to be who they are.”  I struggle with this, too, putting my expectations on my kids and when they don’t act the way I think they should, it is a real struggle and causes me a lot of stress.  

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When I really look inward I am able to see a lot of this comes from my feelings of fear and worry.  It is really hard to see my kids struggle and be in pain. 

I have misperceptions about what is happening right in front of me when it comes to them or worries about what might happen in the future. I begin to create stories about what is happening based upon my expectations of outcome.  My highlight reel of worry and fear sets in with me doing the play by play, which piles on more worry and fear.  

So, what do I do with these feelings?  I become aware of what is really here in each moment, whether it is my story, fear, worry, etc. By taking time to pause and see what is here I am reminded of what is most important and remind myself of my intentions of patience, compassion, understanding, and acceptance.   This practice is about and/both.  So often we see things as all or nothing and either/or.  Instead we can experience the pain or worry and give ourselves the care, patience, and compassion that we need.  We don’t have to push it away.  We allow our feelings to be here and  we give ourselves the support right along side of it. When I am feeling the struggle, pain, fear, I can give myself the patience, compassion, understanding, and acceptance. They are right alongside of it. It is in these times I need it most.  I can make a choice to offer this to myself in those times of struggle. The practice below from my colleague Marc Balcer is one way to work with this.

I mess up often as a parent and I am learning to accept that there is no right or wrong way to do it. I am trying to give myself more of a break and cut myself some slack.  I am constantly modeling imperfection and letting my kids know it is okay to be imperfect. Patti also shared, “A good friend told me years ago that our children will take our lead.  No truer words, or so I’ve found. I’ve tried to live by this as a parent.I know that I give my kids all the love I have, tell them as often as I can how much I care and love them, set limits, and remind myself and them that no one is perfect. I will always be there for them no matter what.  


meditationLooking for an opportunity to learn and practice together? Join us for Mindful Men Meeting on Wednesday, November 8 or for an extended gathering, check out Big Questions for Mindful Living: A Half-Day Retreat for Men on the morning of Saturday, December 2.