Empty Mind or Open Mind?

The point of meditation is not to perfect yourself but to improve your capacity to love.”
– Jack Kornfield

Familiarity leads to wisdom.” -Buddha

The best way out is always through.” -Robert Frost

This is the first in a series called “Meditations on Meditation.” They are intended to help beginning and experienced meditators consider their intentions and motivations as they walk a mindful path.

When I began to meditate, I thought of it as a new tool to help me figure things out, to fix or eliminate whatever was bothering me. I had all of these questions, “Why am I feeling so frustrated?”, “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?”, “Am I past my prime?” I figured that as I became more focused, I would answer these questions and move on. I would literally meditate my worries away. But that’s not what happened. Thankfully, by sticking with it, I learned that this practice is not yet another self-improvement project but a way of living and thinking. The questions didn’t get answered but I was able to reflect on them without needing to figure them out.

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

Should I “empty” my mind or be with what is?

Many beginning meditators come to Center For Self-Care feeling overwhelmed or at their wits’ end. Others have a basic familiarity and want to learn more. Either way, there are some common pitfalls that can make the benefits of meditation elusive. It is worth considering what the “point” of meditation is. In the early days, I’ll hear complaints like “I can’t stop thinking,” “This is just making me more frustrated,” or “I’m afraid I’m doing it wrong.” If you are thinking these thoughts, you are probably doing it right!

9532e2b906530d839aad60b465ab7ae3For me, the point of meditation is not to empty one’s mind or reach enlightenment, or even become more focused and productive. It’s about feeling what we are feeling while we are feeling it. It’s about being aware of what’s happening in this moment and relating to it with kindness. Ultimately, this allows us to respond thoughtfully instead of reacting habitually to whatever arises. The good news: relaxation, stillness, clarity and happiness are wonderful byproducts of intentional and consistent practice

Below, I’ve listed some of the motivations our clients have shared as they come to meditation. Take a look at the right column to consider a different way to approach these questions. Allow yourself to rest in these questions without needing to answer them or get them right.

If you’re hoping for this . . . . . . try this out instead
I want to feel relaxed

I want to empty my mind

I want to figure it out

I want to get it right

I want to be happy

Can I pay curious attention?

Can I let thoughts come? 

Can I become intimate and familiar?

Can I just put my body there? 

Can I cultivate resilience?

This work takes practice. Consider three components of a vibrant mindfulness practice,

Give the Gift of Meditation For The New Year

Would you or your loved one like to …

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

Give the gift of Meditation this holiday season.

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

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

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

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

Harnessing Your Energy

As we dive deeper into the holiday season, we often find our energy fluctuating wildly from an excited adrenaline rush to an overwhelmed exhaustion. This is a natural response to the increase in stimuli triggered by upcoming family gatherings, travel adventures and changes in routine. This post offers some nifty tools for harnessing your energy based on the work of my teacher Jonathan Foust and Body-Centered Inquiry.

It is no secret that our bodies were engineered for simpler yet far more dangerous times. 20,000 years ago, we needed some sort of system that sensed threat and immediately reacted. This kept us from being eaten by tigers and mauled by bears. This fight-or-flight response relied on the amygdala sensing danger and unleashing a waterfall of hormones including adrenaline and cortisone. The act of running or hiding from the tiger or the bear naturally dissipated these “stress chemicals” and we returned to a biological rest. Today, these physical threats are tucked away in zoos. But we still have the same biological response to stress. Cortisol explodes throughout our body. And then it gets stuck. Instead of running and burning off the stress chemicals, they get stuck inside. Over the long-term, chronic stressors increase our risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. So we must find “artificial” methods to get that energy flowing. My favorite morning practice comes from Lee Holden,

Once we’ve got the energy flowing, it becomes easier to observe and listen to the body, finding its natural rhythm and energy. One of my favorite practices works great after movement and comes from Jonathan Foust, Slow Motion Energy,

As we listen to the body, there are three foundational messages to consider,

We hold our issues in our tissues

With the backup of cortisol in our system, our emotions find their way into that knotty stomach ache or stiff back. How do we resolve that?

Where the attention flows, the energy goes

When we focus our attention, we can redirect our energy, especially from unpleasant sensations to a more wholesome state.

The neurons that fire together, wire together

This is the basis of neuroplasticity and the promise of mindfulness. Intentional action can becomes hard-wired as a habit with continued practice. When it comes to energy, can we identify those things that give us energy and those things that drain our energy? Armed with this knowledge, we can choose those things that give us energy when we need it.

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Click Above For a Handy Worksheet

It’s true that when I am bored and don’t know what to do, I have a tendency to reach for my phone and read political news. That drains the life out of me. Conversely, any time I jump on the bike and ride, make a call to a close friend or stop to read just 10 pages of a book, I become energized. Tasks that seemed impossible earlier seem more realistic or easier. So, how to remember to do those things that give us energy. We need reminders!

The guided practice below was introduced to me by Jonathan Foust and begins with some seated movement before inviting the meditator to make a list of those energy gainers and drainers and then ask yourself some questions. For Gainers, “What would I have to give up to do more of these things?” or for Drainers, “If I didn’t do this now, what would happen?” I encourage you to write down what you discover and place it prominently next to your computer screen, refrigerator or some other high traffic area. Then, when you are in doubt about what to do next, pick an energy gainer.

Try these out for yourself and let me know how it goes!

These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things, Part 1

Having just returned from our fall men’s meditation retreat, Getting Unstuck, I am inspired by the diligence, wisdom and compassion of this year’s participants. They made the teachings come alive by applying them to their own experiences. Over the coming days, I thought I’d share some of my “favorite things” from the retreat.

Movement

We used energizing movement to wake us up each morning before the crack of dawn. I use this “go to” movement exercise from Jonathan Foust almost every day before meditation.

We even made our own movement tribute video but I’m not exposing the video on an unsuspecting public,

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Qi Kong instructor Lee Holden has some amazing courses and a handful of free resources that we brought to the weekend,

Making It RAIN

We brought the rain so hard, it turned in to snow and ice!

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Tara Brach has popularized the practice of RAIN – Recognize, Allow, Investigate and Nourish. This four-step model helps us work with challenges and difficulty, cultivating a resource state to integrate whatever we face into our lived experience.

Seeing Deeply

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

Loving Awareness

This year’s retreat included Movie Night for the first time. We watched the short documentary, Going Home, which features teacher Ram Dass as he confronts mortality and embraces the spirit of love. If you have Netflix, this is a must-watch.

Comfortable With Uncertainty

“I’ve been learning to meditate. I didn’t realize all you have to do is sit there with your eyes closed, and worry about everything.” – Joe Zimmerman

download (1)A traditional focused breathing meditation often includes the instructions “No need to try to change anything or make it a certain way. Instead, observe your experience unfold, returning again and again to the breath when you become distracted.” Aside from being easier said than done, practicing in this way builds the muscle of attention and discernment. It offers an invitation to sit with the uncertainty of each moment. Intrusive thoughts, strong emotions and sensations in the body call for your attention and you explore the choice to let them go or follow the story.

As Danna Faulds writes in her beautiful poem, Allow, “The only safety lies in letting it all in – the wild and the weak; fear, fantasies, failures and success.” Some themes emerge as one contemplates uncertainty,

  • There is no end to uncertainty
  • There are rich tools & technologies for working with uncertainty
  • The task may not be to change one’s circumstances but instead to change one’s relationship with them in order to heal.

These present a challenge to the fixing mind. So often, we focus on probabilities and not possibilities, thus foreclosing options and ideas that might bring contentment or relief.

Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” – Voltaire

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


Our habit patterns tend to make our feeling of uncertainty worse. Whether we are procrastinators or perfectionists or even ignorers, these responses can reinforce our feeling of powerless in the midst of uncertainty as we amp up the pressure to control our experience.

One tool you might try comes from Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, who offers a strategy based on questions for accomplishing what we want to do. Too often, we set goals without clear plans for achieving them. We get blocked by obstacles or procrastinate. Ferriss turns the goal setting process on its head by offering Fear Setting.

Here are Tim’s questions when faced with a problem, issue, situation or upcoming decision:

Define → What’s the worst thing that could happen?
Prevent → What could you do to prevent this from happening?
Repair → What could you do to correct it if and when it happens?

What might the benefits of an attempt or a partial success be?

If I avoid this action or decision & decisions like it, what will my life look like in 6, 12, 36 months?

uncertainty barber_0The point is not to masterfully and fully answer these questions but instead to see what arises. When I last undertook this exercise, I used an example of a business opportunity I’m pursuing. Asking “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” elicited the response, “It might not work” and “I could be embarrassed“. As I reflected on those worst cases, I felt a softening and a loosening because those weren’t actually all that bad when I investigated them. I did, however, consider the “repair” question to better plan for an adverse outcome and how I would respond.


A final thought on uncertainty. Stepping out of our “story” and into our experience . . .

Bugs in a Bowl, by David Budbill

Han Shan, that great and crazy, wonder-filled Chinese poet of a thousand years ago, said:

We’re just like bugs in a bowl. All day going around never leaving their bowl.

I say, That’s right! Every day climbing up
the steep sides, sliding back.

Over and over again. Around and around.
Up and back down.

Sit in the bottom of the bowl, head in your hands,
cry, moan, feel sorry for yourself.

Or. Look around. See your fellow bugs.
Walk around.

Say, Hey, how you doin’?
Say, Nice bowl!

One last resource I recommend is Pema Chodron’s beautiful book, Comfortable With Uncertainty. Two chapters that particularly resonate with me are “Wisdom of No Escape” on page 7 and “Staying in the Middle” on page 47.

The Four Noble Truths: There Is Suffering

You have probably heard something of the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment and what led up to it*. Before he became the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama lived two very different lives, neither of which brought contentment or peace. He was born in to royalty and before long was prophesied to be either a great king or a great religious leader. His father, hoping to extend the “family business,” sheltered him from the drudgery and challenge of everyday life. He built walls around the castle and gave his son all of the luxuries of life. But the son was unhappy. He wanted to see outside the walls. So one night, his servant took him into the village. What he saw there shocked him. Imagine living 29 years and never seeing a sick person or even an old person! He saw these in spades in addition to the homeless and even dead bodies. Next week, I’ll continue the story into his life of austerity but suffice it to say, the experience in the village brought him insight to The First Noble Truth, There Is Suffering.

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

 

There’s a way,” writes Jack Kornfield, “in which we all deeply long to do the work of the heart, but we forget, we get so busy, we might get caught. We forget to ask what needs attention.” I often find myself so caught up in commitments and obligations, that I forget to feel. So busy crossing things off my to-do list, I forget to notice and wonder if what I am doing aligns with my heart. This is the human condition. Our culture even encourages this because if I live in delusion and distraction, I will look for a fix. Tara Brach calls this “the trance of unworthiness,” which drives us to try the newest drug,  cosmetic or shiny new car in order to be happy. We push away our suffering, constructing walls both literal and figurative, to shelter us from the reality of illness (think hospitals) and old age (think nursing homes).

The First Noble Truth urges us to stop, if only for a moment, and not run away from unpleasant sensation. We all have our own stories or narratives for “how things are” or “how they should be,” but what does it really fell like to acknowledge and feel the uncertainty and what comes with it? Great wisdom can come from asking, “What is asking for my attention in this moment?”


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Join Center For Self-Care this and every Monday at 7:15pm at Balanced For Life Yoga in Devon, PA for Simply Meditation. This drop-in class includes a short teaching, a guided practice and time for discussion. A perfect way to support you as you apply the wisdom of meditation and mindfulness to your own life. Contact us or register online today.  September 2019 features an exploration of a new Noble Truth each week!


Insight Meditation is a form of practice that invites such a reflection through ancient but universal instructions. Jack Kornfield, who was my inspiration for the meditation below, describes this as the first task – to acknowledge and stand in the center of our experience, to “be here now.” The meditation below brings one in to the body, the mind and the heart, gently touching what needs attention or click here for a longer version with an introductory talk.

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

 

 

 

From Struggle to Self-Care

How do we take the first step toward our care?

We sometimes get caught up in the fix, wanting to change things especially when we are feeling pain. Can we perhaps instead of curing in this moment offer ourselves care. Maybe if we can take a moment to see our pain and acknowledge it, we can then see what we need to take care of ourselves. This can be the first step, acknowledging that we are struggling in this moment. In this moment can we pause to see what’s here and be with our pain and struggle. Seeing our pain may be the first step toward acceptance, compassion, and kindness toward ourselves. After we check in, it may be helpful to then ask ourselves this very important question, to offer ourselves the care we deserve and need. What do I need for my care? See what arises and notice what’s here. Our awareness can lead to healthy and caring choices for ourselves and the people in our lives.


Check out the great programs offered by Center For Self-Care to the right of this post. Josh will be at the UMCC for a five week class Tuesday Nights from 7-8pm from October 8-November 5. This class is an opportunity for adults to take time to pause and care for themselves. No experience needed. Register here today.

Time For Joy

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

May your success continue to grow.

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

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

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


More tools to cultivate joy

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

The Power of a Smile blog or podcast.

The Power of Gratitude blog or podcast.

The Power of Generosity blog or podcast.

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

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

originally published March 31, 2017

The Power of a Smile

We all know what it feels like to see a friendly face and a smile in the midst of the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

But that doesn’t always happen because of two dynamics – everyone is in their own world so they don’t remember to smile and we don’t remember to look.

Awhile back, I put together a list of 10 intentions for my everyday life. Along with reducing electronics use and spending quality time with my family, I included the one-word intention, “smile.” While my track record to-date on the other 9 intentions is pretty good, my intention to smile has been neglected. Sometimes I don’t feel like smiling. Nonetheless, just a small amount of practice has me feeling benefits already.

Click to download our most recent podcast on iTunesStitcher or Soundcloud.

This podcast includes a guided meditation on the smile. There isn’t any expectation of results or for it to be a certain way, just an exercise to experiment and see what comes up. If you find yourself saying, “I’m not good at this!” you are probably doing it right! Instead of truly trying to get you to smile all the time, it is intended to support awareness of what’s happening inside, how you are feeling and what you are thinking. You can find a shorter version below or join us for Simply Meditation each week in-person or online,

A simple smile can trigger physiological and chemical changes in our body as well as impact our emotions. You don’t even need to “feel it” to have an impact. Through this process, your can transform an intention into an inclination and then into an action.

One researcher, Dr. Robert Zajonc was responsible for early research that suggested one’s smile can actually contribute to a feeling of wellbeing as opposed to just reflecting it. Daniel Goleman writes of two such studies, one that showed simply placing the muscles of your face in the pattern of a particular emotion elicits that emotion. The other found that blood temperatures in the brain were impacted by different facial expressions, suggesting that brain processes work differently depending on your outer expression. You can find 9 more benefits of smiling by following this link.

originally written by Marc Balcer for the Your Mindful Coach Blog.

Not Knowing

Screen Shot 2019-05-21 at 10.52.00 AMAs a child, I remember a slogan on a coffee cup that read, “I finally got it all together. Now where did I put it?” Can you relate? My life often feels like a never-ending cycle of figuring things out and then realizing I didn’t have it right. It’s a cycle of Knowing and Humbling. I read a book that brings an insight then build a system or habit to incorporate it into my life. Or I take a new approach in a relationship. At first, it’s working great. My head grows a little bigger and I become self-righteous. And then it falls apart.

There is an oft-repeated story that sheds light on our efforts create certainty and stability out of a mysterious and chaotic world,

The Chinese tell the story of an old man who owned a bony plow horse. One spring afternoon the horse ran away. The old man’s friends, trying to console him, said, “We’re so sorry about your horse, old man. What a misfortune you’ve had.” But the old man said, “Bad news, good news-who knows?”

A few days later the horse returned home leading a herd of wild horses. Again the friends came running. Filled with jubilation, they cried, “How wonderful!” But the old man whispered, “Good news, bad news-who knows?”

Then the next day, when the farmer’s son was trying to ride one of the new horses, the young man was thrown to the ground and broke both legs. The friends gasped. The old man stood still and said, “Bad news, good news-who knows?”

And a short time later when the village went to war and all the young men were drafted to fight, the farmer’s son was excused because of two broken legs. Good news. Bad news. Who knows?

Adapted from http://topmoralstories.blogspot.co.uk/2008/05/bad-news-good-news-who-knows.html

So I can try to figure everything out or I can just allow myself to not know. I can have a guess based off probabilities but I don’t have to foreclose the rest of the possibilities. As it turns out, not knowing can be exhilarating or even relaxing. Not knowing can open our minds and hearts to curiosity and wonder.

In the video below, Zen Master Bon Soeng declares “Knowing separates things. Good, bad, right, wrong. Not knowing greets wonder and curiosity and aliveness.Being in this moment. Right here and now even if we can’t quite make sense of it. Not knowing is alive. With uncertainty, anticipation, fear and excitement.

Technology and interconnection have enabled us to have 24/7 access to information at our fingertips. So we have the perception that everything is knowable. Comedian Pete Holmes observes, “There was a time that if you didn’t know something, you just didn’t know!” So we have less practice of sitting with uncertainty because much of what we think we want to know can be uncovered with a simple Google search.

Meditate with C4SC

Join us every Wednesday at 7:15 pm for Simply Meditation at Balanced For Life Yoga Therapy, 45 Berkley Road, Devon. Each week, we offer a short teaching, a guided meditation and time for shared reflection. Register at https://www.balancedforlifeyoga.com/schedule.html or email marc@center4selfcare.com for details.

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Don’t Know Mind

Zen Master Suzuki Roshi wrote, “A beginner’s mind is wide open and questioning. An expert’s mind is closed.” The certainty of knowing limits the possibility of change. Not knowing can be a powerful tool for developing wisdom and accessing intuition. Our experience is impermanent and ever-changing such that what we think we know is true no may not longer be true, or perhaps it never was.

We can practice inviting uncertainty in meditation. It may be as simple as offering the phrase “don’t know,” whenever we get caught up in a thought or busy solving a problem. Or we can invite it into the challenges and difficulties we face to see what comes up. A helpful resource is Pema Chodron’s short book, Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion.