It has been a challenging week. Whether you and your loved ones experienced disruption from storms, or Covid or simply the slings and arrows of the human experience, we are regularly reminded that there is suffering. At the same time, we are aware that this suffering doesn’t touch everyone equally. We may be in the same storm, but we aren’t all in the same boat. Privilege, wealth and relationships might find us fortified and better able to withstand what is headed our way. What to do with that? Well, there’s guilt. But guilt rarely inspires us to act. Instead, we can ask “What would love have me do today?” and live in that way. Kornfield declares,
“If you feel guilty, if you feel ashamed somehow that you’re safe when others aren’t, that you have privilege when others don’t, that’s not the answer. The truth is that whatever birth you’ve taken in this life as a human being you’ve been given a particular assignment and if you have privilege that is your assignment to use it to treasure it to value it, to respect it, and then to use it in your way to make life beautiful for yourself and others.”
Many years ago, I attended a retreat taught by Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay). Over several days of mindful practice, we set aside many of our stories and draw attention to our experience. But we also create new stories, once again, stories of “How things are” or “How things should be.” We make new plans. There is a settling but there is also a call for action, a call for change. We might even become self-righteous.
On the final day, Thay offered a Q&A session. One participant took the microphone and explained how he was a senior executive at an energy company. He was tired of contributing to climate change and income inequality. It was time to quit his job and do something good for the world. The problem, he told Thay, was that he wasn’t sure what to do next. Should he start a non-profit? Should he become a teacher? Should he give away his wealth? Thay’s gentle smile flattened, his brow furrowed. “Don’t you dare!” he exclaimed. “Do not quit your job. Your job is to be a Buddhist energy company executive. We have lots of teachers and we certainly need more, but you can not give up the gifts that will allow you to build an energy company that acknowledges the suffering it creates but also seeks to end it.”
As part of this week’s MLUC Meditation Group I, we listened to the end of Jack’s talk, Suffering is Not the End of the Story. It is filled with stories and teachings that open the heart to the reality of our world. The practice of meditation and mindfulness is to cultivate the ability to choose, letting go of the outcome but relying of the beauty of the seeds we plant, what we bring to the table.
Poet Amanda Gorman has said, “Live every moment as if you were making history.” She sure has. Whether it seems to you that she burst onto the scene just months ago or if you’ve been following her for years, as a published author as well as the Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate or the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate, her ability to transform one person’s voice into a resonating universal truth is unquestionable. She reminds us, as she did in her inauguration poem, “being American is more than a pride we inherit. It is the past we step into and how we repair it.” Gorman’s wisdom was the topic of our February 14 MLUC Meditation Group open meeting. Below you’ll find resources from our time together,
We began our time a centering and grounding as we listened to “Earthrise,” Gorman’s poem about climate change. Participants reflected on both the hopefulness and the sadness of her words. We then reflected in small groups on two questions Gorman offers in the video below,
Whose shoulders do you stand on? and What do you stand for?
For me, the answer lies in the teachers that taught me, inspired me and led me to action. I think of Armand Betancourt, my middle school Spanish teacher who mentored me long after my awkward teenage years had passed. Or Mr. Salerno, the health teacher who literally taught the same classes that I offer to my students today. This leads to what I stand for: discovery. I could say learning or education, but the real magic for me is discovery, those “ah-ha” moments where a connection is made and the insight becomes real.
As one participant observed, Gorman presents in a way that can be heard no matter your style. You may be visual, or auditory or kinesthetic, it is all there in a spoken-word but deeply embodied and practiced approach to speaking her truth. As we closed our time together, we meditated on the poem “The Miracle of Morning,” which explores how we come together in the shared (but different for everyone) experience of living through Covid.
Gorman has said she plans to run for President of the United States in 2036. She already has a lot of votes. But there is no doubt, she is already the Inspirer in Chief for countless people around the world.
We are all Creatures of Habit. It’s not only a figure of speech, it is science. Neuroplasticity tells us that what we do repeatedly gets laid down in the wiring of our brain through the development of new and reinforced neural connections. These connections economize energy use and help us build mastery. Neurotransmitters like dopamine and oxytocin reward us through the process. This is how we build habits, both good and bad ones.
I’ve found myself getting sloppy over the past few months. Some days I skip the exercise despite a surplus of time on my hands. I’m not reading as much. My meditation practice still exists but it is less consistent. I find myself more reactive and prone to impulse. Perhaps I stay up later or
have a bowl of ice cream late at night. I’m not beating myself up for it but would I feel better in the morning if I took a different approach? There are plenty of books and Netflix documentaries that can provide advice but I find the most effective tool is the power of community and its associated accountability. And I’ve done it before. Accountability and community have been particularly effective when it comes to my phone (over)use, caffeine consumption, time spent reading and more. So I decided to try again. And invite you to join me.
Creatures of Habit is a 31-day virtual community dedicated to exploring the principles of habit change, discussing the challenges, and driving intentional action toward a goal of one new good habit and the elimination of one bad habit. Sign up today and begin with us on January 1. Sign-ups accepted through January 8.
Each Monday, you’ll find a short video on the week’s topic in your email. It will include a teaching and some homework. As the week continues, I’ll provide access to resources including daily reflections, thought questions as well as two guided meditations to try out on your own. In our second week, you’ll be connected with an“accountability partner.” This is where the magic happens! You won’t be providing each other advice or encouragement but instead acting as a witness and sounding board on a habit change journey. In five years of teaching this class, I’ve found that many partners end up being friends for life!
Video 1: Identifying Habit Patterns
Video 2: Accountability and Reminders
Video 3: Harnessing Self-Control
Video 4: Patience and Self-Compassion
Video 5: Sustainable Change
You get out what you put in. I’ve found that dedicating 5-15 minutes to this work each day goes a long way towards sustainable habit change though some dedicate as much as an hour. This curriculum is time-tested and draws deeply on the work of James Clear (Atomic Habits) and my guided teacher Jonathan Foust. You won’t want to miss it.
Creatures of Habit is offered by donation but no one will be denied access for lack of resources. You are invited to contribute any amount but might consider $20-50. Your gift in excess of $20 supports our work while allowing it to be accessible to those that don’t have resources to pay right now. Payment is also accepted via Venmo, @Center4SelfCare or PayPal, email@example.com.
What am I no longer willing to do about this problem?
How can I work on this problem and have a great time doing it?
You might try this practice with your eyes closed and something to write on nearby should insight arise. Knowing that you are unlikely to “solve” the problem, what advice do you have for yourself that might help reframe and soften your experience?
I first published this essay in March 2018. At the time, the truckload of dung I was thinking of was very personal. The usual trials and tribulations of daily life accentuated by occasional tragedies and losses. The latest truckload of dung has been delivered to the doorstep of each and every one of us. But the story remains the same. We didn’t ask for it. And we can’t send it back to where it came from. Perhaps the invitation is to work with this challenge together, offering empathy for suffering and a helping hand in times of need. Thank you for reading. Visit www.center4selfcare.com to join us in upcoming online offerings.
Uninvited and unpleasant circumstances arrive in our life with frightening regularity. We can try to push away our experience, but all too often, our aversion makes it worse. And when we carry around this “dung”, it weighs us down (and, figuratively, makes us smell). If instead, we use it as fertilizer to cultivate a deeper wisdom and understanding, we grow and evolve.
My arrival to the practice of meditation followed this path. All at once, I lost my father and my business. My wife was struggling with a health issue, school wasn’t going so well for either of the kids and I was having trouble sleeping. My response was to try to fix everything. To grab the reigns of control so tightly that not one more thing could go wrong. My teacher likes to say, “What you resist persists.” And it did. Any effort to solve these problems just created more problems. It wasn’t until I let go a bit, felt the discomfort, and watched my experience play out that life came back in to balance.
Ajahm Brahm, author of Who Ordered This Truckload Of Dung? was trained in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahm Chah (also Jack Kornfield’s teacher). His unique brand of humor makes meditation accessible and relatable. Below, he shares the simile of the dung: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fx2dnLxO2nM
His approach is very forgiving. He reminds that there are three things to know about the piles of dung that surround us, be they big or small:
1) You did not ask for this dung. 2) You can’t send it back to where it came from. 3) It really stinks (to the point of nearly being unbearable).
We can either respond to the dung delivery by filling our pockets with it, our bags, our belongings and so on, carrying it with us wherever we go. This is unlikely to make us many friends. The alternative is to see the dung and get to work. We bring it around back to the garden and gently turn it into the soil of our experience. With patience and time, the pile becomes smaller and our garden grows stronger. When we see our challenges as fertilizer, we can use them to cultivate an abundant garden of flowers, fruits, vegetables and love.
This isn’t easy, but we can practice! We meditate and notice what is arising, the thoughts, feelings and sensations that distract us from the object of our attention, be it the breath, the body or sounds. “Working the dung” is aspirational. There is no way our pile will disappear. But when we catch ourselves over and over again, we are literally training our brain to hold our experience more loosely.
Just this week, one of my son’s teachers introduced me to the Aran Islands, just off the coast of Ireland. These islands became the home for displaced Catholics hundreds of years ago. They arrived to a giant pile of rocks:
With patience, they built the rocks into walls. They brought sand to the terraces they’d carved out. And finally they brought nutrient-rich manure and seaweed to mix in to the new soil. Ultimately, they created one of the most fertile agricultural landscapes in Ireland. The secret ingredient was the dung. These are the ingredients of our lives. What will we do with them?
Jack Kornfield writes of an interview with environmentalist Gary Snyder. He is asked for advice for dealing with the adversity of global change. Gary responded, “Don’t feel guilty. Guilt and anger and fear are part of the problem. If you want to save the world, save it because you love it.”
We listened to two segments of the talk above (15-23min and 37-45min). Dass offers a vision of our experience as an opportunity for compassion, compassion being “the balance of seeing the perfectness of things right here and now and also our wish to fix it all.” The challenge, when we weigh all of the demands and commitments on our time, is that we can quickly find ourselves overwhelmed, or worse, diving deeper into an outrage that is fueled by the media, the culture and even those we love who are passionate about what needs to change. Dass continues, “The truth waits only for eyes unclouded by longing. When you desire something, you only see the outward container.” As such, it is critical to step back, reflect, and then choose what’s next instead of being pummeled by waves and waves of “woulds, should and coulds.”
The segment that starts around 37 minutes is an invitation to bring agency by sometimes saying no. As my guiding teacher Jonathan Foust often reminds me, “If it isn’t hell yes, it’s hell no!” Dass offers, “at this moment, you are in the perfect space,” you can bring compassion but you can also say no. This is a practice of becoming free.
After a long and beautiful life, Ram Dass passed away in late 2019. You might enjoy Jack Kornfield reminiscences of Dass, and a way to approach difficult issues, in the talk below,
Earlier this year, a good friend of mine headed off to Hawaii for a month-long vacation. Maintaining his meditation practice had become a challenge through the winter months and he just couldn’t wait to hit a certain secluded beach populated by nothing but birds, seals and other wildlife. Not a person around. No interruptions possible. He found his way to that beach to enjoy a long, quiet body scan meditation. Everything was perfect.
Two minutes of calm, two minutes of focus. And then, thump-thump. thump-thump. thump-trump. An incredible noise swept overhead. The beating of a helicopter’s blades, seemingly out of place. My friend opened his eyes to discover a coast guard rescue helicopter hovering just feet above the ocean. Eventually, it flew off. But his peace disrupted, he began to wonder, “what was the helicopter looking for? Was someone missing?” And on and on. The story, the narrative swept him out of his present-moment experience into the worrying, planning, analyzing that we all know too well. As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “wherever you go, there you are.”
Vacations can present a curious challenge to our meditation practice. At various times, it may seem like vacation is conducive, at other times disruptive. I’ve found vacations often disrupt my morning meditation routine because I awake to a room with other family members and in many cases, there isn’t an appropriate chair. Other times, I find my expectations rising that I should have no worries which of course turns on the “worrying mind”. Vacations are ready made for the notion, “I’ll do it later.” Sometimes later never comes.
Likewise, illnesses can present challenges by disrupting sleep routines or impacting your ability to use the breath or body as an anchor. You might physically be unable to sit as usual and perhaps other priorities must come first.
Finally, we are all very busy. You may have heard the story of the great teacher who, in response to a visitor declared, “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.” In reality, making time, any time, offers you care and compassion for your internal experience that we’d often prefer to ignore. In my work, I often talk with clients that seek to compartmentalize the realms of their life, attempting to firewall a stressful job or a challenging relationships, from the other realms. And it just doesn’t seem to work.
The good news is that the practice of meditation can be flexible to occasional periods of difficulty. The research suggests that consistent practice can literally rewire the brain through the process of neuroplasticity. This practice doesn’t have to take long. Much like an athlete training for a big event, it comes not from perfection but persistence. Just ten minutes a day has shown to have an impact.
It is also helpful to consider the value of mindfulness and meditation to “be there when you need it.” So practice, no matter how imperfect, supports your ability to respond mindfully instead of react habitually over time. At a recent workshop, a participant was reflecting on a somewhat sloppy mindfulness practice that she had almost given up on. “Then,” she declared, “something terrible happened. And it was there for me.” This story of the Rabbi from Jack Kornfield describes this dynamic nicely.
I have found that my meditation practice supports calm and focus. This process was gradual and iterative. I might find myself responding more thoughtfully to a particularly charged situation one day and totally lose it the next. That has to be ok, it is part of the practice. So its not about immediate results. Just like exercising, maintaining a healthy diet and getting the right amount of sleep pay off over time, so does your practice. You may find yourself slowly becoming less reactive in inappropriate situations or more relaxed.
Mindfulness takes place in the “real world.” So while it might not be as ideal as sitting for a half hour in a quiet, dark room, a moment of mindfulness practiced anytime in your day can be meaningful. The reality is, you can’t cram for the test of life through austere sitting practices. I see that as good news. All we have to do is a little something every day.
So what to do to maintain a practice through the challenges of vacations, illness and busyness? Below, I explore four ideas and include some tips for practice:
Lower your standards –Meditation teacher Sharon Salzburg likes to say, “just put your body there” and “assume the position.” Could that be it? Sure. Being able to say “this is what I can do today and I’m doing it” can often create an opening for sustained practice. Letting go of the perfectionist in you and allowing yourself to be flawed shows great self-compassion. My standard 20 minutes morning sit often becomes 5 minutes when I’m busy but its better than nothing.
Connect your practice to a routine – Are there any routines that find you waiting for a few minutes? Perhaps you brew tea or coffee in the morning. Take that time while you are waiting to sit quietly and observe your breath. No need to have a goal or expectation. Just allow yourself to be present in your environment. How about when you pump gas? Take that time to do a quick standing meditation instead of reaching for the cell phone.
Give yourself reminders – These days, we walk around with supercomputers in our pockets. Download the mindfulness bell app to remind you to stop, breathe and be throughout your day. You can even go old school by placing dots in prominent places to remind you to take a breath or even use post-it notes.
Do one thing & do it early – The comedian Mike Birbiglia says, “I like to write before I’m afraid of the world.” I’ve found that if I delay my practice until later in the day, fear often keeps me from sitting. Fear of missing out, fear of what might come up, etc. Try rubbing your legs, arms, shoulders and heads vigorously as you get out of bed in the morning and find your way to a short sitting meditation and see what happens.
And there’s certainly nothing wrong with a Body Scan even as you are preparing to head off to sleep.
Even briefer is the practice of Metta or Lovingkindness which can be practiced at the train station, grocery store or anywhere you’ll encounter people. As you see each person, silently offer them the following words, “May you be happy, May you be healthy, May you be safe.”
Each fall, Center For Self-Care offers a men’s meditation retreat in the mountains near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. This year, we’ll gather November 22-24 to explore ancient and contemporary tools for opening the heart and breaking habits that no longer serve us. This retreat includes guided meditations, silent reflection, deep conversations and the great outdoors in the fellowship of other men. Participants will come away with new approaches to working with habit patterns and reaction styles while cultivating empathy and compassion for self and other.
The weekend takes place in Sweet Valley, PA, just two hours north of Philadelphia. The cost of the retreat includes meals, sleeping accommodations and all programming. Participants will be asked to perform a “yogi-job” which may include light meal preparation and clean-up.
So how does this all work?
Who: A dozen men of all experience levels who have an intention to explore how wholeheartedness can be cultivated through meditative practices. New participants should have attended at least one Center For Self Care event such as Simply Meditation (every Monday at 7:15pm in Devon). The retreat will be led by Marc Balcer.
When: Depart in carpools from Philadelphia-area around 5 pm on Friday, November 22. We will meet briefly on Friday evening. We will depart early Sunday afternoon at arrive in Philadelphia by 1:30 pm.
Where: The retreat will be held on a 30-acre property in Sweet Valley, PA, just down the street from Ricketts Glen State Park. Three homes provide a total of eight bedrooms.
Why: Each person comes to this practice with their own inspiration and motivation. What unites us is a sincere desire to be present for our experience and support others on this path. We are all very busy! This retreat will allow us to slow down and relax.
Registration: Pre-registration is required and can be completed here with payment by credit card, paypal, or check. The cost of the retreat is $300, which includes programming, meals and a place to sleep. A limited number of single, private rooms (shared bathroom) are available for an additional $75. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to attend but cost is an issue.
Your Guide: Marc Balcer has been trained in Mindful Self-Compassion and Mindfulness-Based Stress Management. He leads classes and workshops locally and has created offerings including Simply Meditation, Mindful Men Meeting and Men Sitting By A Fire.
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.
“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?”
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.