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?
We can’t eliminate fear and anxiety. And if we try, it tends to grow. When we approach difficult emotions with vulnerability and care, we learn to sit with our experience and let it unfold. This week, we are diving into these three beautiful qualities. Won’t you join us online?
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 email@example.com if you’d like to attend but cost is an issue.
Your Guide: Marc Balcer has been trained in Mindful Self-Compassion and Mindfulness-Based Stress Management. He leads classes and workshops locally and has created offerings including Simply Meditation, Mindful Men Meeting and Men Sitting By A Fire.
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.
When we go into certain situations, interact with people, arrive at work, or walk into our home, like luggage on a trip, what are you carrying and what are you holding on to. What is in there? Fear, love, worry, maybe it’s the story created from the baggage. These things affect how we interact with the people in our lives and the experiences that we walk into. Often this baggage is caused by what is happening and what we want to happen or how thing are and how we want them to be. It often occurs when we don’t like what is occurring. It can be pain, a busy mind, or stress. This is often based upon our own expectations, perceptions, preferences, and comparisons. On top of this, a disconnection can occur when we go into this space where we can often encounter the stories, the judgments and criticisms for self and others, adding on to the pain and struggle that already exists.
In these moments can we pay attention and take the time to pause and check in to see what is here. Asking ourselves, what is between me and being present. Taking the time to acknowledge what is arising, pleasant or unpleasant, wanting it or not wanting it and taking the time to name what is here. Perhaps then making a choice to loosen the grip, hold a little less, giving ourselves the opportunity to allow what’s here to be here. Whispering to ourselves allow or this belongs in this moment. These pauses can help to open our eyes so we can see a little more clearly and make choices for ourselves and others, giving us an opportunity to put the bag down for just a moment. And, we may pick it up again and again and we can make the choice to stop and pause again and again. It might be an opportunity to see what we need and who can help us and support us. Someone that cares about us and loves us. We are not alone and we don’t have to carry the baggage alone. It’s okay for someone else to help us carry the bags and give us the support we need.
Please check out this practice by Tara Brach, Everything Belongs, to help with difficult situations and to work through the baggage. You may also enjoy the short talk and guided practice from our weekly Simply Meditation offering below,
We are pleased to share a guest post from fellow teacher Dan Del Duca. Dan has harnessed his practice to bring awareness to his experience and to his students. As the school year begins, enjoy Dan’s reflections and join C4SC for upcoming events,
The practice of sitting and counting your breaths while practicing mindfulness can be pretty mundane and uneventful. Sometimes I keep moving positions and find I am not really comfortable. I find my mind wandering and sometimes I feel the ten-minute practice is doing little good. The room I meditate in is simply a room with a rug, chairs, tables, and a window looking out at the trees.
Then suddenly one morning, you have a mindfulness practice that makes an amazing difference in how you see the world. I want to share my story to show the positive power of daily meditation and how it changes the way your brain works and how you observe the world.
I work as a science teacher in an elementary school. My days are usually fast paced and busy. One of my students was using the 3D printer in the makerspace to print fifteen games pieces for a board game he had invented. The printing of the pieces took over an hour and my student and I were both pleased with the results. As one might predict in an active classroom, students like to pick things up and take a look at them. I noticed later in the afternoon, that one of the fifteen game pieces was missing. My mind had all kinds of stories to explain the missing plastic game piece. I wondered whether I would have to print out the piece again. I was frustrated that I could not find the piece anywhere around the 3D printer.
The next day early in the morning I practiced my ten minutes of mindfulness in the quiet makerspace. I felt I had a rhythm and a calm during the practice, despite the anticipated stopping and starting of my meditation. The ten minutes of silence ended peacefully as I began to look around the room. Early morning light was stretching across the rug and as I looked across the room I saw the small game piece glittering in the sunlight. This was the same game piece I was not able to find the previous day. The discovery was amazing and I realized once again the power of a mindfulness practice. Daily mediation allows you to slow your reaction time so you are able to really see what is in front of you. In the brief moment, I was not worrying about the future or looking back into the past. I was simply living in the present moment. When practicing mindfulness, I see the world in front of front of me more clearly.
Vulnerability, as defined by Brown, encompasses uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. As a meditator, we practice this on the cushion. We sit with our experiences. We get distracted or lost in thought, and then we come back, again and again. Meditation helps us create space for experience by moving from thoughtless reactivity to thoughtful responsivity. It requires us to be with our feelings, our discomfort, not to mention the failure of losing our attention. It also brings the invitation to choose – many times, the reflection offered by meditation helps us determine what is meaningful to us so that we may act boldly and bravely.
Using vulnerability to get us to a stage of wholehearted living involves the interplay of own internalized shame messages and our capacity for empathy. As we recognize the universal human experience that our shame messages represent (things like “who do you think you are?” or “Your not good enough”), an empathy emerges to heal and open us to authenticity. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown offers 10 Guideposts to Wholehearted Living as well as the barriers to experiencing them,
In our Sunday gathering, I shared the story of a creative block in my first job. It took letting go of my perception of others expectations to let go in to creativity.
Brown’s work has impacted my life and helped me soften in to my experience. Throughout August, we’ll be listening to her interviews with Krista Tippett of On Being each Sunday and bring her theories in to practice at Simply Meditation every Wednesday from 7:15 to 8pm. Please join us. You can also check out The Poetry of Vulnerability.
Below you’ll find the interview we listened to on August 4. Among the segments we didn’t get to listen to is an exploration of vulnerability and gender (~20min mark), parenting (~28min) and culture (~39min). Enjoy.