Tuesday, September 27, 2022

A Tool To Use With Uncertainty

We know that everything is constantly changing. The fall shows us this in colorful detail. Some changes, like the beauty of the colors, or the refreshing shift in temperature, clothes, and routines, feel good, but the reality of impermanence can often be unnerving for us human beings. While learning to flow with change is a life-long practice, there is something we can do to help us lose some of the natural tension that arises from it. I offer this tool in my A Mindful Life groups and I want to share it with everyone else, too, because I find it comforting and why not add some comfort to our lives. Like the rocks in this photograph I took in Maine, where the rocks seem placed to gently direct the flow of water, we too, can control the input of stress that change can have on us by asking a very simple question...

This exercise can be done with a partner and said aloud, or it makes a simple journaling prompt at the start of a day, or whenever you experience a feeling of being unmoored. If you do it with a partner, you might want to close your eyes so you can go inside and search without distraction and all your partner needs to do is hold the space. There is something about saying it aloud and finding what you discover before a witness that can deepen the experience. Your partner gets the added benefit of being comforted by hearing what you say, too.

Today I can rest in knowing...

~ Set a timer for 4 minutes
~ Start with the prompt: Today I can rest in knowing...
~ Wait and name the first thing that comes. Anything from: my refrigerator has food in it; my family and I are healthy right now; my car works; my colonoscopy came back clear; I have enough to pay the bills today; the sun is shining; the rain is nourishing the plants. Anything that, for right now, is true that you can take comfort in. Only say it if it truly brings you some comfort in recognizing it. It should feel genuine and specific to the moment you are in. This is not generalized gratitude for anything. 
~ After you name the first one, take a pause to take it in and let yourself rest in this awareness for a moment before moving on. Let a breath come, a smile, or some letting go in your shoulders or your gut. And then say the refrain again: today I can rest in knowing... Continue with the prompt slowly until the timer goes off.
~ When the timer goes off, see how it feels to rest in all of these things of the present moment. If you did it with a partner, your partner can feel what it's like too, and then you can switch and take in even more comfort in listening.

Yes, change can be hard, but if we slow down and look deeply, there is always something we can take comfort in. I wish you all a beautiful week and for anyone celebrating Rosh Hashanah, I wish you a sweet and happy new year.


Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Being With The Current Of The Breath

I know these are only emails, but in making the switch to write these Mindful Pauses every two weeks, I'm aware that I have missed connecting. That's a nice thing to miss! I hope September is off to a good start for everyone. I am excited to get back into some routines myself and being back with my weekly groups this week is part of that. What routines are feeling good to you as September begins?

What has been inspiring me so far this month is quite literally what inspires life in us -- the breath. Inspiration and expiration -- this wonderful mechanism of being alive and one of the guiding tools of meditation. What I'm not going to do is give you breathing exercises or tell you to take more deep breaths. I''m not going to tell you how to breathe "well" or what not to do. What I am interested in is much more subtle and gentle.

There is so much we have to organize and take charge of in life, but the beautiful thing about the breath is that we don't have to organize it or control it. The breath breathes us and we get to follow. What a relief! To not have to be the leader, but simply to follow and trust. The breath is a faithful companion. As long as we are alive, it is there for us to experience. It may change in depth and tempo, but it is there for us to tune into whenever we want. The power of dropping into its rhythm, its current, lies in how it slows us down, makes us more present and steady. If you sense your in-breath and out-breath and stay with it as you do anything, it is likely you will do it differently. 

Sometimes the idea of following the breath is misconstrued and it can sound like something bigger than it is. In reality though, it is subtle, just a quiet listening and sensing. My invitation this week is to do what I often say when I give an exercise in A Mindful Life -- find the rhythm of your breathing and let your awareness of it be there in the background. Essentially, be aware of the undercurrent of your breath as you do anything in your daily life. Come in and out of the current throughout the day. Whether you are taking a shower, getting dressed, emptying the dishwasher, driving, working on the computer, etc. Especially tune into it when you are listening to someone and when you are talking. It changes everything because we are more conscious of what we are doing as we do it and we slow down, giving us more space to be mindful of our thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. We end up giving other people space and our deeper presence, too.

How do you follow the breath? What helps me is to close my eyes just for a moment so I can listen and I wait. I wait to feel the inhale begin and then feel the exhale and wait again until I feel the next inhale. There is nothing to make happen. I find its song and follow and then go about whatever I am doing still aware of the soft in/out, still aware of the rise and fall. It is actually soothing to follow it, like watching soft waves rolling. I can't keep it non-stop, but I can return as much as I want. If I begin my day with it, I am more likely to revisit it, which is why a morning meditation practice helps me set the tone of the day. Even just a few minutes.

Start simple. Pick one easy task and follow your breath as you do it, then let it go and come back to the breath again with another task you do. Drop in and out of the breath's current and see how it feels over the course of the week to bring more attention to it. 


Thursday, September 1, 2022

The Way Forward


I love views like this one -- a straightforward path that appears to have no end. It captures the continuous nature of a way forward that is known and unknown at the same time. Standing here in Montauk on Saturday night as the day was coming to a close, I felt summer winding down and the expanse of a new season and all its potential ahead. This is another interim time where we can digest what we have just experienced and listen to what we want to call forth as fall gradually enters the stage.

Maybe the emergence of fall begins a time for you where routines find their place or where you move into a different gear? Or, maybe not much changes in your daily routine, but you feel some natural shift inside emerging, whatever the shift may be. If you didn't get to attend my end of summer workshops last week, I'll leave you with one of the prompts. How do you want to meet this fall? Whatever we may feel about the season itself (positive, negative, mixed, neutral, anything in between), we get to choose what energy we want to bring to it, what we want to lean toward, and what matters most to us in this next chunk of time we get the privilege of experiencing.

My invitation this week is to pause and ask yourself these questions: 

~ How do I want to meet this fall? With what energy, feeling, way of being?
~ What matters most to me in these next few months?

You can journal on it, or just close your eyes and ask the questions and wait to see what feels true in response. You'll know because you'll feel a sense of "yes, that's it." Avoid giving a giant bucket list or overshooting with so much that sounds good, but is too tall an order to actually fill. Get to the core energy you want to bring to whatever may come and the core feeling of what matters most this particular season. Feel free to write to me with what you find. I am happy to be a witness. Or, share it with your partner, friend, close family member.

Wishing you all a beautiful close to these summer weeks.


Working With Anxiety


This week's A Mindful Pause was shared on Sunday night in my talk (hence its length). You can listen to the recorded talk here, but I wanted to include it in written form so that you could come back to the ideas easily.  

The fall is coming. Leaves are falling with some yellow and red speckled here and there. The fall usually comes with a shift in our behaviors; we tend to get busier in a different kind of way than in summer. One of the things that can happen when I get busier is that my anxiety levels rise a bit. It can also happen when there is too much time on our hands, but I thought this might be a good time to talk about how we can use mindfulness and Buddhist teachings to help us with anxiety. If you're not feeling particularly anxious in this month of August, as I am not particularly anxious right now, it can be a great time to do this work of exploring and reinforcing what we can rely on when we do find ourselves in an anxious state. 

As I thought about applying the principles of mindfulness and Buddhism to anxiety, I noticed that these three beliefs tend to go with an anxious mind state, 1) the false idea that we are in control and are failing at it, 2) the false idea that things are permanent and fixed, and 3) the belief that we are separate from what’s going on, independent of what’s around us (which reinforces the idea that we are in control; this way of thinking can also have us believe that things are happening to us, rather than see the larger picture of our connection to all of what is manifesting).

To make this more concrete, I will use an example. If I were to have a health issue going on, I could fall prey to the false idea that I control everything that happens in my body. I can start to believe that my body is not supposed to change, get old, grow unwanted things. I could forget to see that my health is intertwined with much more than me. Genes have been passed down. There are environmental conditions to consider, as well as my emotional well-being which effects my health. My emotional health involves a huge host of complicated factors and conditions that extend beyond me. I am part of a large ecosystem of life.

The teachings on no-self (no-separate self), impermanence, and inter-being (interconnection) can help us loosen the grip of anxiety. The hardest part of these concepts is remembering them in the moment, but that’s why we talk about them again and again. We can make them more and more accessible by bringing them into our everyday life and practice seeing them daily. We can go out the door remembering impermanence. Everything here is changing. I can brush my hair and recognize that it is impermanent. As I walk out my front door and look at the blue flower pots on either side of the steps, I can notice the flowers that have wilted and are falling back into the soil and the ones just blooming. I can remember inter-being by looking at my food and my body and see how they inter-are (as Thich Nhat Hanh has taught so well). The food I eat is what I am made of and what I send back into the earth. Made largely of water, I can see the rain and know the water inside of me is the same. As I drive to an appointment, I can notice myself getting frustrated at hitting every red light and see my desire to control. Or, when the store is out of the yogurt I want, or my kids or my spouse aren’t doing what I think they should be doing I can smile at my  wanting things to go the way I want them to and release it. Every time I buy something, I can think about what impact it is having –- what it supports, what it may take away from, what it nourishes in me or in others, or not. Awareness, awareness, awareness. It is what will liberate us.

Seeing no-self, impermanence, and inter-being in our daily lives…making it a regular part is one way we can move away from rigidity and soften, helping to loosen the grip of anxiety. No big deal, just regular, daily practice.

But, in a state of anxiousness itself, what we can practice are the four brahma-viharas: love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. I suggest we put them into a practical  exercise we can use. With anything that you may be feeling anxious about, ask yourself these four questions. They can be meditated upon. Just take one at a time, ask the question and wait. See what comes and slowly repeat back what you hear. Listen with your whole being, not just your intellect. There may be more than one response for each question. Or, it can be done as journaling prompts.

  1. How can I bring love into this situation? What would meeting it with loving energy look like?

  2. How can I bring compassion into this situation? Compassion for myself, the other, and the whole situation. And compassion for anyone else also experiencing this, because I am surely not the only one.

  3. How can I find joy in this situation? This can be more challenging with something difficult, but gratefulness feels like a simple way to access joy. What about this can I feel gratitude around? (For example, with a health issue, it could be grateful for the care I am receiving, or for the medicine we have, or the support of others along the way, or thanks to myself for doing what I need to take care of myself -- having the courage to take care of what's here).

  4. How can I see this issue with greater equanimity? See it as it really is and not add onto it (judgements, assumptions about it). Not make it something that shouldn't be here.

Spending time to contemplate these questions can open our way of seeing and get us out of a narrow perspective that tends to cause suffering. Maybe we can't get rid of our anxiety altogether, but we can lessen it and take care of it.

Since we are of the nature to forget all these tools we know, I welcome you to refresh yourself whenever you need. Save this email, find it on my blog, or in my talks. I need remembering, too.



If I Want To Meditate, Why Don't I?


How many of you identify with this question? You don’t need to be sold on why meditation is helpful or even taught how to do it, and even though when you do practice you feel so much better, the seemingly simple act of stopping and getting quiet on a regular basis doesn’t happen.

Do some of these rationales for putting off practice sound familiar? Let me just get to those dishes first. I really have too much to do this morning; I’ll get to it later today. I’ll do it in a second, I just want to check Instagram for a minute (which turns into 30 minutes at which time you have to be somewhere). I feel too anxious to sit still today. Let me just check in with a friend/family member by phone and then I’ll do it (but that takes up time that doesn’t feel “productive” and so now you really need to do something “productive,” not meditate). My mind is too busy right now. I can’t take that much time for myself right now. Work can’t wait. Though the practice is built into most of my days with my groups and classes, I still know what I can say and do that keeps me from meditating. What helps make it something we do consistently because we want to? Here are some thoughts for you…

Sunday night, in a technically botched evening meditation, I suggested something that may help with our perspective, which is to view meditation as a mini-vacation for the mind and body. It’s a break from constantly thinking, doing, fixing, grasping, pushing away, rehashing, adding onto— all the things we could do with the thoughts that arise, with the feelings that surface, with the sensations that we feel. Instead, it’s a time when we get to simply “be” and observe. Not anything more. The mind that observes the mind is spacious and relaxed. The mind that observes the mind doesn’t have to work hard. 

Meditating becomes difficult or effortful when we evaluate what arises as good/bad, right/wrong or when we add onto what arises. Of course then it doesn’t feel like a break. For example, if a conversation from yesterday arises in my mind as I meditate and I start berating myself or someone else for what was said. Or, if I start thinking about something that is coming up and begin to worry about what might happen. Or, if I drift into a stream of nebulous thoughts and hear a voice that says, “I’m wasting my time here.” All of these judgements and add ons are not going to feel great. Why would we want to meditate? But, it doesn’t have to be this way if we can remember to give ourselves full permission to meet ourselves as we are and not need to do something. We can observe our experience of ourselves and of what is around us with greater equanimity and that is a relief. It brings spaciousness and ease. 

My invitation this week is to dive more deeply into equanimity as you practice. See if it allows you your body and mind to have a break and if that break is worth your time. Here is an example of what that might look like. I start by following my breath. I might name what I sense in the present moment – inhaling, exhaling, birds over there, cars going by, the air on my skin, breathing in, breathing out, people in the distance, footsteps upstairs. Sooner or later, when I notice I have drifted off in thought or have been absorbed in a feeling or sensation, I might say, “this thought, letting go of anything I am attaching to this thought.” Or “this feeling, letting go of anything I am attaching to this feeling. This sensation, letting go of anything I am attaching to this sensation.”  It’s like sitting on a park bench and watching the different characters stroll by without having to react to them. When we do this, we water the seeds of acceptance, of kindness, of grounding, of non-attachment (letting go), of accepting impermanence, of deepening presence. There is no pressure, no fight, no defending, no problem.

If bringing more equanimity to your practice doesn’t entice you to practice more steadily, I have included other basic tips to create the routine you want below. Most importantly, remember that you get to design the way you move through your experiences, whatever they may be and whatever the conditions are around you. This is empowering to come back to when it comes to developing our habits. The habits that make your life happier, healthier, more peaceful are worth spending time on. You are worth spending time on.



Chasing Sunsets

We just returned from vacation and I feel refreshed and happy to begin again. I can’t say it was restful, but it was replenishing. My friend and I went back and forth on how there are all kinds of vacations and I think it is helpful to recognize. Some bring rest, some bring excitement, some bring action, inspiration, or connection. If we expect it to be all things we can run into disappointment. This vacation was just what I needed it to be.

On this trip, I came to understand just how much my kids like tradition. Maybe it's our non-traditional family that draws them to want to repeat experiences, return to familiar places, honor the same rituals. Or maybe all kids do? I don't mind. Life asks us to stretch in so many other ways, maybe it's okay for things like vacations to be familiar. How else do you get to know the family owned restaurant in town, the climbing instructor who you trust your life with, the pond that's safe to swim great distances in, the rock that you can jump from, the best place to get lobster rolls, and the walks where not many people will be?

I try my best to give everyone some of what they want on vacation. My daughter loves sunsets and sunrises. To fill that place of awe in her, I chose an evening to go to a quiet place on Mt. Desert Island where we could catch it. We arrived early and walked onto the dock, taking some photos as we waited. This boat pictured above was what caught my eye. At 7:47, the time the sun was predicted to set, the sky was pretty, but not spectacular. Everyone was chilly (believe it or not with this heat wave going on) and they were ready to leave and have the dinner that was waiting back at the cottage. I surrendered my wish to have them awed and chalked it up to a night without a stunning sunset. As we drove back, I noticed the sky to my left was now lit up in shades of pink, but  we no longer had the view as the trees were taking the best seats. It turned out we were just too early.

And the night before…we were too late. We were driving when we saw a bit of the stunning sky, but we couldn't pull over. We kept driving in a hurry to find another opening among the trees and mountains and chose the high school as our spot. The kids asked us to stop the car and they started running toward the field. Mike and I drove around to the other side of the school where upon finding a better view, we hurried back to get the kids and bring them there. The scene was comical. Kids and a car chasing the sunset. The light was changing by the second and by the time we got out, we clearly missed the best of it.

Sure enough on our last night, Mike and I went out to pick up food and on the way home, the most unbelievable sunset was lighting up the lake. Another "pull over, pull over!" ensued and I ran across the street to capture it for Ella. This time, I did.

Sometimes we arrive at things too early, sometimes too late, and sometimes right on time. All of it is amazing because it is all fleeting. Things arise and they fade away. If they didn't change, if they were permanent, like plastic, we wouldn't have anything to get excited about. We would rarely feel a sense of awe. We need change and impermanence to fall in love. Again and again. 

On the surface, our yearly vacation hasn’t changed much in years. It isn't exotic. It doesn't make us more "worldly." But every year, I am aware that my kids are no longer the same and because of that, this yearly tradition of going to Maine is always changing, always a new experience. The impermanence of our age and of this time with the ones we love makes it all unique and special. When we remember this, we realize that we don’t need a lot of original experiences or excitement to be content, to be amazed by life, to be happy. It is always rich and the impermanence of it, chasing the sunset, is what makes it even more so.



Thursday, July 28, 2022

Anchored In Love


On Friday, I had one of those moments that will forever stay imprinted on my brain. I had just driven 3 hours to pick up my daughter from a two-week Appalachian Trail hiking trip. She had never done something like this and no cell phones were allowed (yay!) so I had no idea how the trip went. She's also a teenager, which means I have low expectations for the kind of hellos and goodbyes we might receive. I parked the car at the high school pick up spot and started to walk across the parking lot searching for which group she might be clumped together with, when suddenly I see her running toward me across the field of grass with her arms open and a huge smile on her face. I got the biggest hug I think I ever received from her. She is NOT a touchy feely person. I'm not sure there is a better feeling than the one I experienced in that moment. Since then, every time I revisit the moment, a huge smile beams across my face.

As we drove home, once we exhausted what there was to know about the trip and what she had missed at home (not much), I found myself noticing the surprise I felt at being loved and wondering why being loved continues to surprise me. This is not new. I seem to forget or not fully believe that I am loved. For me, it takes a lot of self-work to trust it. Even here, with my own daughter, I saw just how vulnerable my faith in being lovable is. I know that may sound sad. But after decades of inner looking, I know why it's there and so it doesn't feel so sad because I know it's not "true," just something that needs reinforcement. It also doesn't sadden me because I know that this is not only my experience, but many others also experience this slippery relationship to feeling anchored in love. I do the best I can to not let it get in the way of my close relationships because it is such a drag to love someone and have them not trust in it.

So what helps me to trust in love? It takes the steady presence of someone. People who repeatedly come close in one moment and go away in another, for no obvious reason, are not great matches for me. That's what I need from "the other," but then there is what I need from myself which is my own love. It's been a slow process, this learning how to love myself, but I do now. Of course I have my moments where my inner critic gets too loud, but for the most part, I look in the mirror and I like who I see. How could I possibly trust in the love of another if I didn't have my own love? How could I love another and let them be free if I didn't have my own love?

I used to think that learning to love myself was the only key needed. I now understand that we need two. We need our own deep affection and we need the steadiness of someone else, especially if it felt unknowable as a child (for whatever reason that may be). In my 20's, I remember one of my first therapists saying I needed to learn to love myself. I knew she was right and I found it frustrating because I didn't understand how to do that. It didn't come overnight and I now understand that it's a lifelong process of watering those seeds.

My invitation for this week is to practice anchoring in love. What does that mean? Here are some practices that help me:

  • I thank my body regularly for all it does for me.
  • I let myself pause and rest before I get to the place of "too much."
  • I take a moment to honor the work and effort I put into something so that I don't roll onto the next thing without saying, "thanks."
  • I look into the mirror at my face every night and see the beauty of a vulnerable human being and I smile at her. I see the young girl in myself and my heart softens toward her.
  • I remind myself to stay connected to those I love. It takes conscious doing and opening.
  • When I doubt love, I stop and ask, "is it true?" I wait for my higher self to respond. She tends to see more clearly.
  • I remember that I am part of a giant web of interconnected life. I am more than this body. This person who I identify as "me" is not separate from anything or anyone and, with that understanding, I love more easily because there is not much to be afraid of if I am part of it all.
  • I remember that to love is a choice and there is nothing to lose when it is given freely. At the same time, I don't bother trying to love someone who gives and retracts their love often. I can still show love and care without incurring the pain of not knowing what I will get or in the hope that "this time they will stay."  

You may have more ways of anchoring in love and I welcome you to share them with me. If you struggle with it, reach out, and we can see what would help to make the love you have stick.