Letting Your Ass Hang Out

Hey there!  Where’ve you been?  Oh wait, it’s me who disappeared.  When I started this blog, I figured I’d post roughly once every week or two.  Which turned into three, then four then five.  Well, you get the picture.  Not that it hasn’t crossed my mind.  In fact, I think about posting nearly every day, and have lots of ideas for topics I think might be new and interesting.  So I’ve been asking myself what the heck is going on?  Sit down and write already!

I’d venture a guess that at least half the blogs that are registered and excitedly launched fall victim to blogular abandonment because the writer realizes s/he is just too “busy” to maintain a blog.  So I chalked it up to that, and told myself I’d do a better job at time-management.  After all, there is a lot going on right now.  I have three little kids who’ve had strep throat, need fed at least fifteen times a day and have soccer practices, recitals and birthdays; two parents in an assisted living facility nearby who I like to visit as much as I can; a new mindfulness course I’m designing that I’m so excited about teaching I could burst; and a husband I get to talk to without interruption approximately every three days.

So imagine my surprise when I floated the reason “too busy” past the ol’ prefrontal cortex, and experienced a mental Family Feud-sized “X” and buzzer sound.  I was stumped.   After some back and forth, I had to admit that, although I’m not playing Candy Crush Saga all day, I do magically find the time for other non-essential things, like reading David Sedaris’s new book from cover to cover in one sitting.

A few days later, as I walked past my computer knowing I had about an hour to kill and a long overdue post to write, I noticed a fleeting pang in my chest and a sudden urge to clean the toilets and change the sheets on all the beds.  It was so fast that it could have easily gone unnoticed had I not been really paying attention.

In mindfulness practice, we spend a lot of time learning to be curious about our experiences, allowing uncomfortable feelings to be there without immediately bolting for the fridge (or the toilet brush).   We practice slowing down our reactions so we can see each step in the reactivity process more clearly. In my case, I could see that the fleeting pang in my chest was fear, of the serious dread-like variety, and the urge to clean was my brain’s way of protecting me from feeling that fear by distraction.  Voila!  I’m afraid of writing!  Problem solved.  I’ll quit writing!   Except that I love writing, so that solution is problematic.

After much thought, this is what I’ve come up with, and I’m pretty sure it’s true:  When I sit down to write a post, part of me wants it to be perfect – well thought out, interesting, rooted-in-serious-dharma-yet-funny-and-relatable, not embarrassing to me in any way, and with no grammatical or spelling errors.  And another part of me wants it to be authentic.  That’s all.  When these two parts of me agree on a topic to write about, the post magically gets written.  When they don’t agree, I have very clean toilets and very clean sheets.

As I investigate what might not be in alignment with “authentic,” I keep coming back to “not embarrassing to me in any way.”  The funny thing is, I can’t really put my finger on what exactly I’d like to write about that might prove embarrassing.  I can just feel a part of me strongly cautioning against any attempts, as if to say enough already, this whole blog nonsense has gone on long enough.  I’m sure the very next post will be the one that really does you in.  Quit while you’re ahead!

At this point I’d like to introduce you to my mom, Judy, the owner of that voice.  My mom is currently in the advanced stages of an early-onset type of dementia called Primary Progressive Aphasia. PPA affects the language center of the brain, so she can’t talk anymore or comprehend very much.  But when she was in her prime, she was the life of the party.  She had a great sense of humor, loved to laugh, was always helping those in need, and was totally committed to her family.  I like to think I inherited some of those qualities (and am still working on others).

On the other hand, I obviously inherited another of her qualities as well, one that is illustrated by an incident that happened when I was in high school.  We were in a public place and overheard a conversation between two women who were probably in their twenties and dressed in goth-type garb (it was the 80’s, people).  The one was telling the other – in dramatic fashion – about how she was being kicked out of her apartment for some reason I can’t remember.  But I do remember thinking, wow, that must be scary to not have a place to live.  And my mom, under her breath with rolling eyes, said “Nothing like letting your ass hang out in public.”

I looked as discreetly as I could because I assumed that her ass was, in fact, hanging out.  And that I wanted to see!  When no ass could be seen protruding from holey fish net stockings or torn black skirt held together with giant safety pins, I realized this must be a metaphor for something very important.  When the coast was clear, I asked my mom to explain herself.  In a nutshell, she said that your ass is hanging out when you reveal something about yourself that might cause others to judge you or believe you don’t have it all together.  That stuff is to be kept under wraps.

It’s funny, because I was a somewhat rebellious teen, and I’m sure my parents would say that I rarely took their advice.  But there’s a part of the brain that is deeply invested in securing its place in the tribe (in this case it was family of origin, but other times it’s our work environment or circle of friends).  It continually scans the tribal environment for queues as to what behaviors are acceptable and what might get us kicked out.  It’s subconscious.  So even though part of me was probably thinking I wonder where I can get some of those fish nets, another part of me was carefully storing away my mom’s admonition against letting it all hang out, or “TMI” as we might say today, and red flagging compliance with that rule as vital to my survival.

I’ve been aware of this tendency to some extent over the years, but have also been pretty good at keeping what I suspected were shameful truths about myself neatly tucked away.  But as time goes on and the stress of keeping those truths under wraps becomes too burdensome, the call to authenticity starts to speak louder than the fear of being “found out.”  Also helpful is the realization gleaned from a lifetime of experience that the stuff I  spend so much time hiding is usually not as big a deal as I think it is, and that the judgment I might believe is coming from the outside world is often coming from within my own mind.

In real life, with friends and while teaching, I seem to have no problem letting my ass hang out.  I talk about all kinds of real and authentic stuff that people might even wish I’d keep to myself.  For me, it seems to be specifically about writing that stuff down.  On paper or – gasp – the Internet.  To be viewable until the end of time.  So, I’m going to chew on that some more and let you know how it goes.  Maybe in, say, my next post, which will hopefully happen before Christmas.  If it doesn’t, you know my toilets will be very clean.

In the meantime, I invite you to join me is letting your ass hang out a little more.  The world needs more truth-tellers.  Really, the breeze is kind of refreshing!  Notice if there’s a part of you that shies away from authentic connection or engagement with others for fear of being judged.  And then see what happens when you do or say that authentic thing anyway – maybe even in public.  Sometimes miracles happen.

For now, I’ll leave you with the slightly edited words of the Queen of Truth-Telling and Shame-Busting,  Brene Brown.

Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our asses hang out true selves be seen.

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Who’s Driving Your Bus?

“Those parts of yourself that you do not accept will become hostile to you.”   

~  Carl Jung

 “My mind is like a bad neighborhood.  I try not to go there alone.”  

~  Anne Lamott

 

When people call to inquire about my MBSR class, they often say their main reason for wanting to take it is to feel more peaceful or relaxed.  When I tell them those states of mind often increase eventually as a result of meditation practice, but that it’s far more likely that first they’ll have bouts of agitation, intense judgment, restlessness, self-doubt and anxiety, there’s usually a long silence on the other end.

Listen, I get it.  We want to believe that if we work hard enough at it, an 8-week class will somehow un-do decades of habitual self-flagellation, perfectionism, stress and loneliness.  It’s part of the instant gratification culture we’ve created and subconsciously buy into.  Meditation is something you can do with a vengeance, with an extreme sport mentality and a mantra of “Serenity Now!”  The problem is that, when approached this way, we set ourselves up for failure and the practice becomes one more form of self-flagellation, followed by guilt, disappointment and the like.  Exactly the stuff we were hoping to escape.

By the time those brave souls who do sign up (and the unsuspecting people who take it just for fun) finish the class, they’ve discovered something that is at the very least interesting, and potentially life-altering.  Alas, it’s not a result of my teaching skill or even the material our sage leader Jon Kabat-Zinn has provided, but through the age-old practice of meditation itself.  They’ve experienced first-hand that they’re not alone up there in that vast space we call the mind. That, in addition to the neutral awareness that notices everything, there are other parts that are interpreting their experience of the world at any given moment, through filters that are not exactly neutral.  We’re not talking about multiple personality disorder or spirit possession a la the movie Sybil, but different aspects of the same, average mind, which we might identify as “me.”

In his groundbreaking approach to psychotherapy called Internal Family Systems, Dr. Richard Schwartz says he’s noticed that in addition to the open awareness we all have access to (which he calls the Self) most people have an average of five to fifteen other “parts” they can clearly identify.  For example, one part of us may be very confident and open to taking risks, while another part may be cautious or downright fearful.  Another part may be accepting and open-minded, while still another part is judgmental and harshly critical.  This is all very normal and most of us can relate to having these parts within ourselves, so what’s the big deal?  In short, the best time to use this model of working with the mind is when we experience a stress or difficult issue and can’t figure out why we keep repeating the same old patterns of behavior that we know are hurtful to ourselves and others.  As we begin to investigate, curiosity is an attitude that is essential in keeping us mentally grounded in the open awareness that is necessary to truly see clearly.  How do I experience the myriad ways I have of relating to others and the things that happen to me?

When I discuss this with students, they have some creative ways of seeing it.  Many people are visual, and can actually picture different people who represent the parts.  For one student, her “perfectionist” part was a slightly older librarian with horn-rimmed glasses that hung from a chain around her neck.  She carried a clipboard and checked things off when they were done properly.  When the student took short-cuts, even with things that were not important to her, this part gave her “the look” of disapproval.  Another student had a part he described as a “hippie beach bum.”  It told him not to worry about anything, like paying his bills on time or meeting deadlines of any kind.  This student had a high-powered job and was very successful at it, so this was quite a revelation to him and shed some light on why he was chronically just a little bit late for everything.

It’s also common to recognize different parts as having different tones of voice (male or female, pleasant or harsh, loud or soft) or as located visually outside of the body on different sides.  This reminds me of the Flintstones cartoon, where when Fred was tempted by something, a sweet angel appeared on one shoulder, and a mischievous devil on the other, each offering their advice on what he should do.  You may have experienced something similar the last time you thought about going to the gym, or having a second piece of cake.

Once we’ve identified a number of different parts, they form what Schwartz calls our Internal Family.  As with our real families, most of our internal families have at least one real character who would cause us to slide slowly under the table were we to be seen with them in public.  In my internal family, it’s most of them.  I imagine that we’re all on a bus together, driving through life.  Most days start out with my open awareness behind the wheel.  The rest of my parts can be seen in the rear-view mirror, some quietly reading, others staring blankly out the window, at least two are vociferously arguing at all times, and one is always smoking and belligerently refusing to open his window.  Without fail, something happens during the day that causes one of them to hijack my open awareness and careen the bus into the ditch of an old (not-so-helpful) habit of coping with stress.

One student saw her internal family as different characters sitting in the gallery of a courtroom, her open awareness as an unbiased judge in a black robe who did her best to let them know they would each be heard.  Lastly, and one of my favorites, a student who was having trouble with this concept e-mailed me and wrote, “I think I get it now.  I tried the exercise you recommended and I saw my open awareness as the lead singer in my life.  It was all really great, until I turned around and saw the band.” You might think about your own internal family and see what comes to mind when you experience the curious open awareness that observes your experience, as well as some of the different parts that might be present.

It’s a common misconception that the goal of meditation is to purge the mind of all the unsavory characters so we can finally live in peace with the “good” parts of ourselves.  We spend lots of time and energy erecting walls and other mental constructs to keep the “bad” parts out, when in fact, all members of our internal family have something to teach us and are essential to our growth and healing.  The strategies of fear, shame, anger, and judgment that we use to keep those parts hidden are like the layers of clay that covered over the golden Buddha in Thailand.   We believe they’re keeping us safe somehow, when in actuality they’re obscuring the shining, awakened heart that already lies within each of us.

There’s a sign at the Insight Meditation Society that reads simply: Allow Without Exception.  What meditation can do is help to strengthen our benevolent awareness, the part of us that’s not moved by our outer circumstances or inner turmoil, and is thus uniquely qualified to allow the entirety of our parts to be heard with compassion, without exception.

 If you’d like to learn more, you might consider joining us for a new year-long course beginning in September called Bringing Mindfulness to Life.  Throughout the year we’ll explore this topic and others using meditation, other contemplative practices, movement, and journaling.

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God and Gravity

I do not feel obliged to believe that same God who endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect had intended for us to forgo their use.

Galileo

 A student e-mailed me recently with an interesting quandary.  She had been coming to one of my meditation classes for a few months with a friend, and had stopped me afterward a couple of times to say how much she enjoyed it.  So I was caught off guard by the topic that had been keeping her awake at night.  She wrote, “I’ve been getting a lot out of meditation.  The talks really resonate with me, and I’m noticing a lot of positive changes in my life and in my reactions to things, but I think I have to stop coming.  The problem is that I believe in God.  Since your meditation class is in the Buddhist tradition, and Buddhists don’t believe in God, it doesn’t seem right.  Do you have any thoughts on this?”

I don’t personally feel conflicted about believing in God and meditating in the Buddhist tradition.  But I read articles in papers about how yoga is banned from some schools for the subversive Hindu messages some believe get programmed into the kids.  Secular mindfulness is taught in many, many public school with outstanding outcomes for both kids, parents and teachers.  But every now and then you hear rumblings about an administrator pulling the program for the same reason.  Here’s my personal journey with this question.

I was raised Christian, primarily in the United Church of Christ.  I loved the notion that church was “God’s house,” and I can remember looking up at the vaulted ceiling of our church when I was about five or six and thinking he was floating around up there somewhere looking after us.  It’s also around that same time that I earned a reputation for being a bit of a heckler in Sunday School.  My Mom used to tell a story about how my teacher pulled her aside one Sunday after class, smiling.  Apparently, she had read us the Bible verse John 14:6, where Jesus tells his disciples “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Now, for any non-Christians out there, this concept is a fundamental tenet of Christianity.  In fact, it’s more than a tenet, it’s like, the whole religion.  But I raised my hand nonchalantly, and said, “I don’t think that’s exactly right.  There are some people who don’t know about Jesus, and God lets them in too.”  And thus began my long history of bumping up against religious doctrines that I just knew in my heart were not exactly right.

This little glitch only got worse as I got older.  A few weeks ago I was going through the mountain of stuff that we saved after moving my parents out of their house over a year ago.  I found the “Statement of Personal Faith” that I had written before my confirmation at age fourteen.  I remember that my confirmation class met individually with the minister to discuss what we had written, to make sure we were taught well and would be good representatives of the United Church of Christ.  The kids ahead of me in line were in his office for about 10 minutes each; I was in there for almost an hour.  On a faded piece of paper, clipped to my Statement, the minister wrote, “It’s clear you have thought a great deal about this.  You have some interesting ideas about the nature of God, some of which are non-traditional, but I applaud your curiosity and encourage you to pursue them to their end.”  Well, I guess you could say I’m still pursuing those ideas, and I’m not sure there’s an end.

When I began studying Eastern philosophy about twenty years ago, and specifically Buddhist meditation, sometimes people would ask me if I still believe in God.  It always made me smile a little, because what I know to be true about God has not changed a whole lot since I was five years old.  I don’t experience God as a concept that is subject to “belief,” a deity that is separate from everything else, whom I must believe in in order to ensure my salvation.

To me, God is a force that is part of our very cells, that is operating at all times, whether we believe in it or not.  It’s sort of like the force of gravity that keeps us stuck to the Earth.  Gravity is the most mysterious of the four physical forces, because its properties can’t yet be fully explained by science.  You can therefore say you don’t believe in gravity, and argue all kinds of complicated theories about why your belief is right.  But in the end it doesn’t really matter, does it?  When you jump up, you will still come back down.  Your whole life is influenced by the force of gravity.

Likewise, whether or not we practice a particular religion or none at all, whether we live a righteous life or are mired in greed, hatred and delusion, our lives are moved by the force of God.  This force pulls us toward wholeness, toward awakening to our own true nature.  Everything that happens to us, the people who show up in our lives, the decisions we make – for better or worse – move us steadily in the direction of wholeness.  Put another way, the consequences of our actions ultimately lead us to the full realization of our own Buddha-nature, toward the realization that “the kingdom of God is within us.”  And I call the force that leads us, God.  Now, I certainly don’t speak for Buddhists, many of whom don’t see the same overlap that I do, because they have no language at all for the idea of God.  Buddha himself is not a figure who is worshipped or prayed to, but simply a reminder that it’s possible to “wake up” in this human life.

In my personal opinion, all traditions that teach the values of compassion, kindness and love are valuable and worthy of respect.  I also honor that every individual walks his or her own path, one that gives deep meaning and purpose to their lives.  Some take the well-groomed trail of organized religion, passed down from one generation to the next, with prayers and creeds and rituals that serve as trail markers in a dense forest.  Others start off on one of these well-groomed paths and for one reason or another wander off into unknown territory, finding their way by following their own inner compass, looking at the stars and checking to see what side of the trees the moss is growing on. Still others are born in the back county, climbing mountains, bushwhacking and crossing swift streams like a pro, believing that trails are for suckers.  No path is to be feared, ridiculed or made to be the evil “other.”  God pulls on us all equally.

Christian philosopher St. Anselm defined God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”  Zen master Shunryu Suzuki spoke of the awakened mind as capable of  “astonishing, prodigious, inconceivable, powerful miracles.”

Ultimately, my questioning student decided to stay.  She shared that she had come to the realization that the boundaries she had created between meditation practice and her experience of God existed only in her mind.  And that it was actually through her meditation practice that she had come to know this.  God does indeed work in mysterious ways.

 

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Standing on the Side of Love

“Love is the essential reality and our purpose on earth. To be consciously aware of it, to experience love in ourselves and others, is the meaning of life.”

– Marianne Williamson

There is a great debate happening right now.  In our homes, on the Internet, and in our places of worship, we’re asking the question, “What is happening to our world, and who or what is to blame?”  There is no shortage of opinions, ranging from the theory that societies go through ebbs and flows of violence and destruction of resources as part of their natural evolution, to the belief that there is a vengeful God who would unleash his violent wrath as punishment for not obeying x, y or z of his commands.

However you look at it, there’s no denying that we live in a time of great uncertainty.  We know from reading the news that life can change in an instant.  The solid ground we believed was under our feet turns to thin air without any notice.  At the same time, as a society we seem to be drifting further and further away from rituals and practices that might help us realize our interconnectedness and sustain us in difficult times.  As a result, the theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich called ours the “age of anxiety.”

This uncertainty is the nature of reality, yet we can’t help but try to make sense of it in order to know how to respond to current events and plan for the future. We may want to act in a loving way, but we might be so filled with grief, rage or despair that we either withdraw from the debate entirely, or lash out with speech and actions that cause further harm.  In order to find the middle way, a path of empowerment that’s uniquely ours to follow, we need to get quiet enough to tune out the “noise” of other people’s opinions and observe what arises in our own heart and mind.  More often than not, what we discover is that our thoughts, and subsequently our actions, are driven not only by our loving hearts but also by an underlying fear – specific or existential – that our way of life is somehow under threat.

Since we know we will encounter real hardship in one form or another, and also be faced with deciding how we will respond to everything from complex social issues to difficult people, it can be helpful to set an intention in advance for how we want to approach life.  Will we allow ourselves to be swept up in the loud chorus of fear, hatred and confusion, or will we commit to standing on the side of love?  We know from experience that the fear center of the brain speaks much louder than the rational, altruistic, loving part of the brain.  But if our goal is “peace in our hearts and peace in the world” it’s worth the effort to practice distinguishing between our fear- and love-based ways of relating (we all have both).

Take a moment to bring to mind a situation or a social issue that feels really alive to you.  For the sake of this exercise, don’t censor yourself.  Go ahead and pick something going on in the world that may be controversial or have an emotional charge to it.  There are plenty to choose from!  Now, close your eyes and think of a situation that really illustrates this issue.  If you’re a visual person, let the images unfold in front of you with all their accompanying thoughts and body sensations.  If you’re not so visual, as you imagine this situation, open up your senses and let the sounds, smells, and emotions play themselves out.  Notice how you feel in your body.  Are the muscles in your jaw, neck and shoulders tense or relaxed?  How does your chest feel?  Is the breath smooth or halting, deep or shallow?  As you become aware of your thoughts, what kind of tone do they have?  Is there any judgment or harshness?  Just noticing these subtle mental and physical manifestations can alert you to which part of the brain is driving the bus at any given time.

Now with your eyes still closed, take a deep breath and see if you can mentally take a step back and see a larger view of the situation.  See or sense the presence of others who are also part of this suffering, and those throughout history who have shared this same suffering, both as victims and perpetrators.  Notice the expressions on their faces; see if you can sense their heart’s desires.  Feel the connections we all share, and the desire we all have, on some level, to be free from suffering.

It’s possible to be aware of fear-based thoughts of anger, separation and retribution, and at the same time have an awareness of the heart-based spaciousness that represents love and connectedness.  You might experiment by toggling back and forth in your mind/body between the two, getting a good sense of the difference in how you experience them, both physically and mentally.  And when you’re ready, open your eyes.

None of our reactions are to be judged as bad, pushed aside or not acknowledged with lovingkindness.  It’s part of the human condition to experience both fear and love.  Of course, the time will come when we must simply decide, if our intention is to stand on the side of love, which wolf we will feed.  In his book The Great Turning, the brilliant economist and activist David Korten writes, “When the stories a society shares are out of tune with its circumstances, they can become self-limiting, even a threat to survival.  That is our current situation.”  I might add that when the stories we tell ourselves are out of tune with our true aspirations, the same limitation occurs.  Through discernment, forgiveness and lots of practice, may all beings choose to stand on the side of love.


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Doubt and Faith

Faith and doubt are both needed – not as antagonists, but working side by side to take us around the unknown curve.

– Lillian Smith

At the end of most of my meditation classes, there’s time for people to ask questions about the dharma talk, meditation in general, or their own practice.  A few weeks ago a gentleman raised his hand and said something like, “I’ve been meditating for many years.  I’ve been on lots of retreats and know lots of teachers.  I mean, I know even their lives aren’t perfect.  I sometimes ask myself, why am I doing this again?  What’s the point?”

There was a collective, knowing chuckle in the room and the man who asked the question broke into a smile.  So did I.  At some point, everyone who practices meditation has asked themselves this same question.  In fact, this line of thinking is so prevalent that the Buddha included it in the list of Five Hindrances to Meditation, and instructed his monks on how to work with it.  He called it, simply, doubt.

When we think of doubt, we often associate it with something that restricts us, prevents us from making a decision, or causes confusion.  We may even be immobilized by it.  In many spiritual traditions, doubt is associated with a lack of faith or something that needs to be purged so that our faith can be strengthened.

In Buddhist teaching, there are two kinds of doubt.  And they both have something to offer us if we investigate them.  The first is skeptical, or unskillful doubt.  This usually arises out of fear of the unknown, where we use doubt as an excuse to not try something, or to not let something evolve in order to see it more clearly.  We disengage from it in order to judge it.  Perhaps we’ve already determined it can’t help us, or is useless. There is a story about the Buddha, where he wanders into town after attaining enlightenment under the bodhi tree.  And we imagine him with a radiant glow and peaceful countenance.  A man comes up to him and asks “Who are you?  Are you a celestial being?” And the Buddha simply replies, “I am awake!” The man thinks he’s a bit crazy and dismisses him.  Sort of like yeah right, and he walks away.  And there’s the Biblical story of Thomas, who upon seeing the resurrected Jesus, refuses to believe it’s really him until he can see and touch his wounds for himself.  This is unskillful doubt, the kind that cuts us off from opportunity.

Skillful doubt, on the other hand, is seen as essential to spiritual growth, and an essential aspect of our practice.  Instead of something that is perceived as the opposite of faith, it’s a quality that strengthens faith.  It’s praised as an insistence on seeing the truth for ourselves, not assuming that something is true because we’ve heard it from a teacher, our parents or from an ancient text.  The Buddha is famous for having told his followers not to believe anything just because he said it.  He implored them to put every concept and belief into practice and see for themselves if it leads to suffering, greed, aversion, and delusion, or to the growth of love, compassion, kindness, joy, and equanimity.

It’s really the underlying premise of Buddhism, especially as its practiced in the West, this systematic way in which we get to know ourselves, and the habits of our minds that keep us lost in the illusion of separateness.  This is why Buddhism is sometimes described more as a “science of the mind” than a religion.  The ability to see clearly is a universal capacity; we all have it.  When we say we take refuge in the Buddha, we’re not talking about worshipping the historical person Siddhartha Gautama, but resting in the knowable truth of what he represents: the awakened mind.

As is the case with most other traditions, in Buddhist teachings doubt is almost always connected to the notion of faith, which translates as “the offering of our hearts.” Faith is not presented as something we either have or don’t have, but rather as an unfolding.  The notion that as we grow in real, organic understanding, our faith grows.

As with doubt, there are also two kinds of faith.  The first is what we might consider blind faith, though Buddhist scriptures call it “bright faith,” which I love the sound of.  It’s described as like a door being flung open, like seeing something for the first time, like falling in love.  It engenders incredible joy.  We encounter a person, a place in nature, a poem or a teaching, and suddenly the world is brighter and there are more possibilities.  This is often how we feel when we first discover meditation practice and have a great sit or a breakthrough of some kind.  Though it sounds wonderful, this faith is considered to be very unstable, because it’s dependent on a certain set of conditions (and we know our conditions are in a constant state of flux), not grounded in our own internal experience.  And it’s very easy to get attached to the external object as having the power to make us happy.

What we’re instructed to cultivate is known as verified faith.  We come by this kind of unshakable faith when we encounter a concept, a practice, something we read that really resonates, and we don’t skip right to believing it as our own.  We take the more arduous path of examining it, testing it out, practicing with it, seeing what outcomes occur as a result for us personally.  Because everyone’s path is different, we need to test it out for ourselves.  This results in a faith that is rooted not in lofty ideas, but in our bodies, in our cells.  We’re not moved to defend it to others or become anxious about it in any way. It also means we’re not attached to it lasting forever.  We’re open to allowing for the arising of new information that we can also test out, that might alter our belief.  Again, we go through doubt as a way of evolving our minds, of waking up.

As his death approached, the Buddha said to those gathered around him, “Be a light unto yourself; betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast to the Truth. Look not for refuge to anyone besides yourselves.”  It’s a radical notion, that we don’t need to look outside of ourselves for truth.  When we practice mindfully, doubt can be the pathway to awakening.

 

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Lessons from the New Jersey Turnpike

When I began teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in 2006, I put a Google alert on my computer for the word “mindfulness.”  Every week or so I’d receive a digest of the two to three articles and references that appeared on the Internet with the word mindfulness in them.   Today, I get an e-mail digest every single day at 3:02pm, with hundreds of references and articles about mindfulness.  So why the huge bump, and what exactly is mindfulness, anyway?  According to the Buddha, mindfulness is the first practice we must cultivate on the road to enlightenment.  Without it, there’s no point in pursuing lofty spiritual goals or even performing good deeds.  In a nutshell, he says “Mindfulness is essential in all things everywhere. It is as salt is to the curry.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn is widely known as the guy who brought the word mindfulness into the mainstream in the late seventies, mainly through the creation of the MBSR class and his bestselling book Full Catastrophe Living, on which the class is based. He defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, to whatever is happening right now, without judging it.”  So, what appears to be one relatively simple concept actually has four distinct components, none of which come naturally to human beings in the 21st century.  The good news is that we can learn to be mindful, and the benefits can be truly life-changing.  Let’s take the four components one at a time, and then I’ll give you a real-life example of how mindfulness saved the lives of my family members on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Pay Attention!

We’ve all been on the receiving end of the command to “pay attention,” and many of us say it to our own kids, but what does it mean?  The way we usually use it, it might mean stop whatever else you’re doing and start doing what I want you to, or turn off all that other noise in your brain and focus solely on this one, more important, thing.  While the ability to do those things might come in handy, it’s pretty difficult to maintain through sheer force of will.  In other words, it’s hard to make yourself pay attention for very long.

In a Particular Way

Did you know that every thought we have has a corresponding body sensation, even the mundane ones?  The thought I wonder what I should have for lunch will unconsciously trigger our digestive tract, and may even cause the sensation of hunger to arise when we didn’t notice it before.  The thought I hope I didn’t sound like an idiot in that meeting will likely trigger an uneasiness in the and stomach region, and the thought I really miss her will likely trigger a tightness or achiness in the chest.  If the body sensations are particularly uncomfortable or painful, we have a tendency to block them entirely.  Most of the time we only notice our thoughts, as if we’re a disembodied head walking around having experiences.  Through the practice of mindfulness we slowly, over time, reconnect the wires running between our thinking minds and our feeling hearts and bodies.

To What’s Happening Right Now

This sounds like an easy one, but we’re so programmed to see the world through our own biased lenses and potentially distorted programming, that it can take some real effort to see clearly what’s right in front of us.  For this reason, it’s helpful to consider our “right now” experience as the facts about all aspects of this situation, like an unbiased reporter might do.  Just the facts, ma’am.

Without Judging It

This last part is really the trickiest, but also the part that offers the most profound shift in how we experience our life circumstances.  When we become aware of our right now experience, and we notice that it’s really unpleasant or painful, that’s where the rubber hits the road.  Without mindfulness, we are very likely to go directly into the old habit patterns we’ve created to deal with that particular trigger, and those habits almost always increase our stress and suffering in the long run.  When we judge our experiences by telling ourselves a story about how bad it is to be feeling this way, or that it’s wrong that this injustice even happened in the first place, we immediately contract into our small selves, fanning the flames of disconnection and suffering.  When we can bring an open, curious attention to our experience, it transforms it almost immediately.  My story of averting disaster on the New Jersey Turnpike is a simple example.  I’ll preface it by saying that I probably have some undiagnosed sensory processing issues, such that loud, dischordant noises overlaid with someone repeating my name over and over (also known as motherhood, but that’s for another post) typically send me into a homicidal rage.

The Ride

My family spent the Thanksgiving holiday with my in-laws in New York.  We live in the Washington, DC area, so getting both hither and yon involves an approximately five hour car ride (and the way home always seems to take longer).  We roll with three kids, a dog, two portable DVD players, two iPhones with game apps and music, and an ancient iPad, which contains both movies and music.  Each child is equipped with headphones, which they are instructed to use at all times.  The boys are actually pretty good about helping their 4 year old sister change movies, put her headphones back on, etc.  It’s a well-oiled machine.

Long about Exit 5 on the New Jersey Turnpike, all small people are quiet and have fallen blissfully into their respective media-induced comas. It’s dark outside and I’m concentrating on driving, because I also don’t see that well at night.  At this point my husband decides he’d like to listen, out loud through the front speakers, to a TED talk, which sounds great to me because who doesn’t like TED talks? So he chooses this one by Eddie Obeng, also known as the world’s most enthusiastic public speaker.  About three or four minutes into this guy’s spiel (which I sense is interesting, but which I have a hard time following because of the bright lights shining in my eyes), my daughter’s headphones come unplugged and Ethiopian children’s music begins blaring through the car at a decibel that can be heard by the Mars Rover.  This disrupts my seven year old son, who tries to plug her headphones back in to no avail, at which point the repeated strains of “Mommy, he _____” and Mommy, she _____” begin mixing with the Amharic rendition of Old McDonald and the TED talk.  Then, through some cruel twist of fate, Child #3 also looses his headphone connection, and the 70’s version of the Superfriends cartoon joins the cacophonous mix.  Now Aquaman is trying to summon a seahorse with his telepathic powers while Eddie Obeng waxes excitedly about smart failure for a fast-changing world.  The dog begins to make that low whining noise that heralds the beginning of baying, as she is unfortunately part Beagle.  My husband is himself one of five children, so he just turns the TED talk up louder.

It’s situations like these when being a meditation teacher and “mindfulness coach” is both a blessing and a curse.  My particular brain is programmed through a lifetime of habit (and likely some neurologically crossed wires) to respond to this situation with anger and tyrannical outbursts in order to regain control.  So it’s with a great deal of effort that I remember I have another choice.  When I choose to pay attention in that particular way, without judging anything, the first thing I notice is that my body is in turmoil. Clenched jaw, throbbing temples, white knuckles, stomach in a knot.  I know from experience that sensations like these are reactions to my thoughts, not my circumstances, so my next job is to investigate what I’ve been thinking.

In that moment I notice I’m telling myself a lot of scary stories.  Among them: loud noises are bad, my children are out of control, they need me to fix it and I can’t, my dog is part Beagle, I need to get out of this car or I will die, and my husband is clueless.

Now, any one of these thoughts would be really stressful to believe.  But mindfulness invites us to investigate every stressful thought by asking the simple question, “Is it true?”  This exercise is really interesting, because it stimulates a conversation between two completely different parts of the brain.  Our amygdala, or fight/flight control room, will certainly be shouting “HELL YES!” while our prefrontal cortex, where our rational problem solving takes place, will most likely say calmly, “Actually, no.”  Now, listening to the calm, rational part of the brain takes practice, but thankfully I have that in my favor.  I know instantly that none of what I’m believing about this situation is true.

Though the noise and fighting doesn’t stop and my body is still extremely uncomfortable, a small shift happens right away.  In this space, I decide to do an experiment.  If my beliefs aren’t true, what is true?  I relax my grip on the steering wheel and feel my body in the seat.  Sound waves.  Different voices.  The sound of Eddie Obeng is a completely different tone than my daughter, who is at this point crying.  The Amharic music is cheerful, an interesting juxtaposition to the rest of the scene.  My body relaxes, though I’m still unable to move.  Then, surprisingly, I feel tenderness in my heart at the sound of crying.  Still not able to respond.  Sounds and feelings of movement as my husband leans into the back seat to adjust headphones, wipe tears and hit the reset button on all three kids.  Quiet.

I marvel at the power of mindful awareness to bring an end to suffering.  My body feels peaceful and I have new resolve to practice what I preach.  The TED talk ends, and my husband turns to me and says “Wasn’t that fascinating?”

 

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Raising Thankful Kids

One morning last year, my seven-year-old son was having a meltdown over not being able to take his beyblades to school.  (If you don’t know what beyblades are, you do not have a seven year old son they are spinning tops that “fight” other spinning tops.  I know, I don’t get it either.)  Which, if he is not allowed to do, means he will have to walk – walk! – home after getting off the school bus to retrieve them, because he likes to go directly to his best friend’s house, which is in front of the bus stop, to commence the spinning top fighting.  This then turned into a long-winded and loud diatribe about how he doesn’t even have any toys at all, and how mean I am to not let him play with what little he does have.  At this point I had a choice:  to take the bait, or not to take the bait.  I won’t keep you in suspense; I took the bait.

As he’s storming out the door and up the street to the bus stop, I shout “No toys?  I’ll show you no toys!  You’ll get them back when you learn to be thankful for what you have!”  Over his shoulder, from two houses up the street, in earshot of the entire neighborhood, he makes tight little fists and screams at the top of his lungs, “I will NEVER be thankful!”  For those of you just joining us, this is what we call a Colossal Mindfulness Fail (CMF).  If you’d like to reconsider subscribing to this blog, I don’t blame you.  In my defense, they say the shoemaker’s children are always barefoot.

Incidents like this one are a glaring reminder that kids don’t have the same brains that grown-ups do.  Although a seven-year-old certainly has the capacity to feel gratitude, chances are that child will not express it in the same way you or I would.  For some kids, perhaps the less mature, or the child who has difficulty identifying and expressing emotions, the word “thankful” is very abstract and therefore somewhat meaningless. Add to the mix the well-known-but-not-yet-scientifically-proven fact that children do the exact opposite of what their parents want them to do, and we have a dilemma.  We tell our children they should be thankful, but we don’t explain to them what it means, what it feels like or how to do it.

Okay, we try.  We tell them about other children in the world who don’t have anything, much less what they have.  We may ask them to pick out some of the toys they don’t play with anymore to give to those children.  We might explain that appreciating what you have makes you a happier person, or that it’s better to give than to receive.  But, while these approaches are well-meaning, and may even be true, they usually don’t stick for very long.  They may even cause a great deal of guilt or shame in the child, who suspects what you’re saying is true, but notices that, even so, they still feel envy or intense wanting, or anger about having to share.

From my own experience, gratitude is one of those things that sticks the best when not taught in a formal way, or as a zinging retort to a specific incident (ahem…like I did with my son).  My kids can smell a “lesson” coming from a mile away, and go directly to fingers in ears, “la la la la…” mode.  But real-time examples, stated from our own point of view, are much more relevant.  For example, when Hurricane Sandy struck and the wind and rain was pelting the roof as I tucked the boys into their bunk beds, I said “I’m thinking about all the people in the world who don’t have a house, and how scary that must be. I’m thankful we’re safe and warm and dry.”  Both boys were quiet for a long time, then said quietly, “me too.”  Then they proceeded – unprompted – to add a few more gratitudes of their own, related to the storm.  Since being more grateful is something I’m also working on myself, I take as many opportunities as possible to be grateful out loud, so the kids can hear me.  It makes gratitude a household norm, instead of an abstract lesson.

At first thought, gratitude seems like something we do because it feels good and because morally it’s the right thing to do.  But “mindfulness of gratitude” is more than just a fundamental underpinning of moral or religious philosophy.  When we are able to genuinely identify experiences and interactions that make us feel grateful, and connect with that heartfelt sensation, it leads to a direct experience of being connected to life.  And to the realization that our individual lives are unfolding within a framework that’s larger than our small selves.  Robert Emmons, Psychology Professor at UC, Davis and author of a number of books on happiness and gratitude, writes, “Gratitude is the adhesive that binds members of society together.  Reducing this virtue to a technique or strategy to improve one’s mood is to do it an injustice.”  When we look at gratitude this way, as the glue that binds all beings together, it also becomes an antidote to loneliness, disconnection and a sense of not being enough, all emotions that seem to visit even the littlest kids from time to time. 

The root of the word gratitude is gratia, which is also the root of the word grace.  When we teach our children to embody gratitude in ways that are real and meaningful to them, we’re also showing them what it’s like to experience grace.  Experience, not think about. When we practice mindfulness, we’re re-connecting the wires between the thinking mind and the heart/body system.  Gratitude then moves from being a thought about something, to a felt sensation in the body, and that’s where the magic happens.  But first we have to practice noticing, and then lingering in those sensations for a while, dwelling in gratitude for just a moment longer instead of flitting right off to the next thing.  Now, when my kids express even the slightest bit of thankfulness for something, I say “That’s really nice, where do you notice that?”  They’ve gotten pretty good over the years at recognizing they have a body sensation linked to that thought.  

A while ago the kids and I made a box that sits in the kitchen, in which we can put notes to family members that fall under the categories of “compliments” and “gratitudes.” To my great surprise, guess who leaves the most notes, and also helps his four-year-old sister leave notes?  Okay, sometimes her notes are in his handwriting thanking him for allowing her to step foot in his room, but you’ve got to start somewhere!

 

 

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