My Lunch Date with Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh visited the Deer Park Monastery in Escondido last month, the penultimate stop on his world tour. He would go on to speak with the staff at Google headquarters in Mountainview, California about mindfulness in the workplace.

I looked forward to this visit with Thich, or Thay, as is followers call him, for months. As the date on my calendar loomed closer, the visit began to take on an almost magical quality, as if just visiting the monastery would bring me peace and happiness. I arranged with a few fellow mindfulness practitioners to meet that day at the monastery so we could sit together. One had seen Thich speak before and related how she experienced a wonderful peace just by being in his presence. I wanted a piece of that!

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

On the appointed day I rose pre-dawn, showered and had breakfast, and packed up my zabuton and zafu for the hour’s drive up to Escondido. It was a beautiful morning with the sun shining on prisms of dew, and soft fog lying in the valleys. I felt good.

As I approached the monastery I began to see cars with bumper stickers like “Coexist” and “Practice Random Acts of Kindness”. My GPS said I only had one mile to go, and I was right on time. “This is perfect!” I thought to myself. Then the cars began to slow, and then stopped completely. Already throngs of people were abandoning their cars and walking toward the monastery. “Geez, this is like a Rolling Stones concert,” I said to myself. And then, “No matter, this is a good chance to practice patience.” I took a few conscious breaths as I inched my car forward.

I started looking at the clock, the minutes ticking by. I felt impatient, worried that I was going to miss out on the opening practice, a walking meditation. Forty-five minutes later a parking lot came into view…and a monk directing everyone to turn around because it was full. On the way back, I passed a sign that read, “Be Zen. Drive 10.” I heaved a deep sigh. “Why aren’t these monks more organized?!” I thought angrily to myself.

I drove a long way out into the suburbs before finding a place to leave my car. For a minute I considered driving straight home. But I’d already come all this way, so I hoisted my cushions on my shoulder and started walking.

A few minutes later a young woman called to me from across the street, “Are you going to the monastery? Is this the right way?” I felt grumpy and didn’t really want to talk, but answered, “Yes. I’m not sure how far it is. I just drove from the full parking lot and it wasn’t even close to the entrance.” “My name is Sophia. What’s yours?” I extended my hand. “I’m Chandra.”

We began to chat, about mindfulness, meditation, yoga, San Diego, the weather, where I got my cushions, where we both lived (around the corner from each other, it turned out). We walked and walked and walked. We talked about pets, family, relationships. We walked some more. Finally we got to the parking lot where I had turned around. I stopped to take off my sweater and drink some water. “I think the entrance is still another mile from here,” I said, the sun beginning to feel more intense. “I’m not sure we’re going to make the walking meditation.” Sophia shrugged her shoulders, “We’re almost there.”

The road suddenly began to incline steeply, the monastery still nowhere in sight. My cushions felt heavy. I felt winded and fell silent. “Know what?” asked Sophia. “What?” I breathed. “I think we’re doing our walking meditation.” I laughed. She was right.

The long, long road up to Deer Park Monastery

The long, long road up to Deer Park Monastery

We climbed and climbed. “I’m thinking about how good it’s going to feel to set down these cushions,” I said. “I’m thinking about how much nicer it is to walk with someone,” she said. I smiled again. A golf cart driven by a monk in a brown robe struggled past us, the back laden with metal folding chairs.

Finally we arrived at the monastery, which was not the tranquil, silent environment I’d imagined but instead resembled Disneyland on a three-day weekend. There were thousands of people milling about, buying T-shirts, queuing up for the bathroom, and fanning themselves with programs. We wove through the crowd to the meditation hall, which was so packed with people that they were spilling out the side doors. I had no idea how to find my friends. We found a couple of folding chairs on the perimeter and collapsed. I’d carried my cushions all that way and now I had to hold them in my lap.

Finally!

Finally!

A voice came over a loudspeaker, a nun preparing us for Thay’s arrival. She encouraged us to practice mindfulness while we waited. “Focus on your breathing. Breathing in, I am peace. Breathing out, I am here. Please be silent. Please don’t walk up and down the aisles; be still.” Dozens of people continued to talk and walk up and down the aisles. A woman seated next to me narrated everything to her neighbor. I closed my eyes, trying to shut out her distraction. She elbowed me in the ribs, “Want a cookie?” she asked, holding out a Ziplock bag. I answered her with a glare. The woman in front of me answered her cell phone. I closed my eyes again. I felt like crying. I was tired, it was hot, I came all this way to be mindful and people were driving me nuts! I looked over at Sophia, who was asleep.

Then, finally, Thich Nhat Hanh came into the hall and began his dharma talk. I couldn’t see him at all. There was a poster on the outside wall of the hall advertising his visit, his portrait looking serious. I tried to imagine him talking. The talk went on for about two hours, during which time I asked myself a lot of questions: Why do you need the guru to be mindful? Why do you need to see? Why do you think it’s better in the meditation hall? Why are you letting other people take away your peace? Why can’t you accept what is?

A gong rang out, and the nun came back on, “Please join us for a mindful lunch, in silence.” Immediately people began talking, the noise filling the air. Sophia and I looked at the long line forming for lunch. “I have some apples in my purse,” I said. Together we walked a ways down the road where we could stand away from the crowd, and shared my apples. “You know, I don’t think I’m going to stay for the afternoon. There are way too many people here and I feel overwhelmed,” I said. “Yeah, let’s go,” she agreed. We set off down the mountain. Dozens of other people walked with us. “I feel guilty, like I wimped out,” I confessed as we walked. “Why? You can be mindful wherever you go. You don’t need this place to know that.” I thought about how Sophia, meaning wisdom, was aptly named.

Together we walked the long road back to our cars. At one point a woman pulled over and asked, “Do you ladies want a ride?” But we were both enjoying the conversation and the company so much, we declined.

Driving home I realized that sometimes the greatest gifts don’t lie where we think we’ll find them. They aren’t necessarily in the holy places. Sometimes, they live right around the corner.

Advertisements

The Black Rabbit of Inle

The Black Rabbit of Inle visited my house last week. My rabbit, Molly, died on Thursday, October 24.

If you ever read Watership Down, you’ll remember the Black Rabbit of Inle visits Hazel, the hero of the story, in the final pages and invites him to join his Owsla (the rabbit police). Think of the Black Rabbit as the bunny version of the Grim Reaper. Hazel consents and leaves his body behind.

You may remember from a previous post that Molly had a parasite called e.cuniculi, which attacks the brain and nervous system. She had lost her sight and was gradually losing control over other functions in her body. A couple months ago we had to retire from our pet therapy visits because Molly couldn’t stand up anymore.

Last week she had declined to the point where I took her to the vet to see if anything else could be done. The vet didn’t think she would live through the night. I decided to take Molly home so that she could pass surrounded by her family.

I made a death bed out of couch cushions laid on the floor, set up a heating pad, and placed Molly on her side. I spooned her from behind, while my other rabbit, Gilligan, lay on the other side. Making a “love sandwich” was something we often did in the evenings, and Molly always insisted on being in the middle.

For two hours we lay together in the peace. My rabbits have Sanskrit nicknames, and Molly’s was “Shanti”, which means “peace”. (Gilligan’s is “Ananda–joy”.) I chanted Om Shanti, pausing at times to tell her it was okay to leave her body behind, that Gilly and I would take care of each other, that she was only changing form and her soul would continue on its journey. I told her how much I loved her, how beautiful she was, and thanked her for the amazing gifts she had brought into my life with her presence. Her breathing was quiet and slow.

Then suddenly her body spasmed and she tried to breathe through her mouth (normally rabbits only breathe through the nose). Then, everything went quiet. Her breathing and her heartbeat had stopped. I knew the Black Rabbit had come. I kept chanting Om Shanti even though I was crying.

Black_rabbit

The Black Rabbit of Inle comes for Hazel.

Gilly and I kept a vigil over her body for another couple of hours. I wanted him to see and smell her so he could process what had happened. I combed out Molly’s fur, kissed her one last time, and wrapped her in a shroud I had made from some bunny-print fabric. I put her body in the freezer until I could take her to the crematorium.

The next day I went for a long walk on the beach. The fresh air felt good, and the wind dried my salty tears against my cheeks. At my turnaround point I sat on a rock and looked out to sea. I watched the waves rising, cresting, falling, and then a moment of calm before another set of waves. It was a perfect reflection of my emotions.

I felt gratitude for my boss, who had the understanding and empathy to let me take a few days off to grieve a pet. I felt gratitude for my girlfriends, who had brought pizza and wine so I didn’t have to cook. I felt gratitude for the open sky, where seagulls were soaring on the updrafts, as I knew Molly’s soul was doing.

I thought back to when I lost my first rabbit 10 years ago. It happened suddenly and in the midst of a very difficult time in my life. I understood that expression to be “beside yourself”, as I couldn’t bear to be in my body and feel my pain. I was hysterical and hyperventilating. A friend had to give me some Valium to calm me down enough to talk. I deeply resisted what had happened, and so I suffered.

And here I was again, but sitting on the rock I felt deeply calm. Sadness rose up again and again, but now I had a container big enough for it. Through my mindfulness practice I had gained awareness of how all things rise and fall: joys and sorrows, nations, people, animals… All things must pass. With awareness came an acceptance, and with acceptance, peace. Then I knew that Molly, Shanti, would always be there.

Molly--Shanti

Molly–Shanti

An Eye Opening Meditation

I went to the Mingei Museum in Balboa Park recently to see an exhibit of over 300 quilts. I began exploring quilting a couple years ago and thought it would be fun and inspiring to see what others have done. Except that when I arrived the docent told me there had been an error on the web site–no quilts here. I was disappointed. “You should still check out the current exhibits. We have some interesting things to see here,” he said, consoling me.

So I began wandering around the museum. There was an exhibit on called “Take a Seat”, all about chairs and seating through the ages. I found myself doing what I usually do at museums and art galleries: shuffling along and letting my eyes pass over objects without really stopping to study them. I passed by elaborate carved wood chairs, plastic folding chairs, a jump seat from an airplane, old-fashioned school desk-chairs. I felt bored. Chairs weren’t quilts.

I just had to put some quilts in here! Here's one I made for my meditation room.

I just had to put a quilt in here! Here’s one I made for my meditation room.

Then I spotted a meditation cushion, part of the exhibit. It was a rectangular green zabuton with a square zafu to match. I smiled. I actually stopped to read the plaque: “Traditional Japanese meditation cushion.” It looked a lot like my own cushion at home. I began to think about my mindfulness practice and how I had been drifting through the museum rather mindlessly. Had I really seen anything?

I sat on a bench across from a chair. Immediately my mind began to analyze and label the chair. The color, the era, the materials, the shape. I made judgments about how I disliked it. I compared it to the chair next to it. Oh, how my mind wanted something to grasp!

Seeing, without looking, can be a form of meditation. When we slow down enough, and let the attention become soft and open, we begin to see things simply as they are, without trying to categorize and label everything. When we step back, we begin to notice simple concepts such as “color” or “curve”, without having to name it “orange” or “chair back”.

In this spaciousness you may begin to notice your body relaxing, your breath smooth and even. The object of your attention has not changed, but the readiness of the mind to receive it has transformed. You may become aware of details you never noticed before. Sometimes this eye-opening can be transcendent, reminding us of timeless truths or the Infinite itself.  You may perceive the wholeness and oneness of the object, inseparable from the viewer. Other times it can be an opening to what is immanent, to the physicality of sight and its object, to the exquisite sensuality of the real.

I invite you to try this meditation anywhere: go to a museum or a park, or even just look up at your ceiling as if you’ve never seen it before. Choose something to gaze at, let the initial thoughts rise and pass, and then settle into a state of quiet reception, and see what happens.

I may not have gotten to see my quilts, but the docent was right: there were some very interesting things to see in the museum.

Public Enemy Number One: Stress

Stress. It’s a killer. In fact, it’s the world’s #1 killer. And we all experience it at some point.

I came across this powerful graphic from the Heart Math Institute that says so much about the pervasive nature of stress:

infographic-stress-effects

Not a pretty picture, is it? To make matters worse, your body reacts to stress the same whether it’s a minor delay in traffic or being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger. Each stress event sets off a cascade of chemicals and over 1400 physiological responses in the body. If we let that build up, we can age prematurely, lose cognitive functioning, and do serious damage to our health.

You may not even notice just how stressed you are. Even though your body is pumping out all those cortisols and stress hormones, you may not be mentally aware of it because you’ve become so used to it. Being stressed is your new normal. Yet the effects are still there, chipping away at your health, until it shows up one day in some bad news from your doctor.

So what’s a stress puppy to do? Well, there’s good news! You can rewire your brain and change the way you respond to stress before it builds into something harmful. The best way to deal with stress is to address it in the moment. Don’t wait until the weekend, your next yoga class or massage, or your next vacation to relax. Take just a few minutes to breathe deeply. Close your eyes, turn within, and listen to what’s going on inside you. Bring awareness to what’s happening with your thoughts, your emotions, and your physical sensations. You don’t have to consciously change anything at this point, just bringing awareness into the present moment will usually slow your breathing and help keep you from disassociating from stressful events.

Pull over on the side of the road if you need to. Sit in your car for a few minutes. Go hide in the office bathroom for five minutes. Even lay your head down on your desk and close your eyes. It only takes a few minutes to derail that stress reaction and come back to peace. Do it as if your life depends on it, because it just may well.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Class Starts Soon

I’m very excited to announce that I’ll be teaching my first Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course in San Diego beginning October 23.  More details and registration here, and see the flyer below.

So what is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR? It’s a structured 8-week course that develops the quality of present moment awareness through meditative disciplines such as sitting and walking meditation, mindful movement (gentle yoga stretches), and bringing awareness to daily activities such as eating and interacting with others.

Meditation itself simply refers to the activity of paying attention on purpose. In this practice it is possible to develop the capacity to see things as they really are in a non-judgmental, open-hearted way, allowing for the capacity to live more fully, less on “auto-pilot”, and with greater clarity and insight.  This in turn reduces physical and psychological stress.

MBSR was originally developed in the 1980s by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.  Since then, a large body of evidence has developed to demonstrate the benefits of attention practice in the health care setting.  These concepts will be explored, experienced, and expanded in the basic 8-week course.

This fall’s class will be very intimate, limited to just six people, so sign up early to guarantee your spot.

MBSR-1MBSR-2

Help! There’s a Monkey in my Mind!

I was chatting with a handyman while he installed an air conditioner at my house. “So what do you do?” he asked over the noise of his drill. “I teach meditation,” I said, noticing bits of drywall falling onto my zabuton. “Oh, meditation…I tried that once. Couldn’t do it. Too many thoughts in my head.” I smiled at the familiar refrain and said, “Yes, the monkey mind. I know just what you mean.”

“Whaddaya mean, monkey?” he asked, wiping the sweat from his brow. “Well, think about the way a monkey swings from tree to tree, going from fear to desire and thought to thought. That’s what our minds do without a focus,” I said. He laughed at the image. “Meditation is simply paying attention on purpose,” I continued, “and it can help interrupt that cycle and bring you peace.” “Huh,” he got quiet and continued drilling.

“So I guess you’ve tamed your monkey, since you’re a teacher and all,” he said as he worked. I burst out laughing. “No way, dude! I wrestle with mine every day. I’ve just learned a few techniques to help keep him in check. It’s something that comes with practice.”

He looked encouraged and began to tell me about his experience with recovery from drugs and alcohol. “I’m doing so much better these days but I still have so much stress,” he said, shaking his head. “I just think there’s got to be a better way, you know?” “There is,” I said, and handed him my card.

monkey mind

Ah, the monkey mind. If you’ve ever tried to meditate, even for just one minute, you’ve met your monkey. He’s the one who leads you over past hurts, drags you into future planning, and gets you started on a grocery list when you’re trying to focus on your breath. He’s insidious and distracting and incredibly frustrating. And the bad news is, he never goes away.

But the good news is, you CAN tame the monkey. The human mind has over 100,000 thoughts per day. That’s what our minds do: they make patterns and analyze and invent ideas. Our minds are incredibly creative tools. You can use that brilliant brain of yours to make friends with your monkey and find more focus, and therefore more peace. Here are a few tips:

When I lived in the UK they had an expression: ‘Slowly, slowly, catch a monkey.’ In other words, don’t get angry and wave your arms and threaten the monkey because he’ll only run away. Instead use kindness and sweetness. I like to use humor and imagine that I’m working with a child or a cute little animal. “Hey, little monkey! Aw, you’re so cute. Want a juicy banana? Come and sit quietly next to me while I meditate.” When I realize my attention has wondered off yet again, I laugh inwardly and say, “Ah, it’s happened again. That’s so funny. Come on back now.” Self-criticism won’t get you anywhere. Be compassionate towards yourself.

Give the monkey something to chew on. Use a mantra or repeat a phrase over and over (such as ‘I am at peace’ or ‘Breathing in, breathing out.’). Even if the monkey is shrieking and flying all over the place in the background, keep focusing. Eventually the monkey will get bored because you’re not giving him any attention and will quiet down.

Open your eyes slightly and keep a soft focus. Find a point on the floor to gaze at, or a candle flame or symbol, and use the visual as an anchor. I use a Buddha statue in my meditation space. When I get distracted I open my eyes and look at the Buddha. “Huh, he seems to be doing okay. I’ll try again.”

Practice, practice, practice. Practice some more. And then practice some more. Focus in meditation comes with practice. Every time you find you’ve wandered off, just bring your attention back again. And do that over and over and over. You will still have distractions but you’ll learn to recognize them for what they are. You’ll become more adept at ignoring them and keeping your concentration. And then one day you just might be surprised to find that little monkey asleep in your lap.

Smile! It’s Good For You!

I am a smiler. Walking down the street, I’m usually the first to break into a smile as I pass a stranger. Under my photo in my high school yearbook it says, “Best Smile.” Smiling is such a natural reflex for me that when I do feel depressed, I notice the heaviness in the corners of my mouth right away. That’s how I know something’s not right in my brain: my smile turns upside down.

img227

Smile and the whole world smiles with you.

And so I was intrigued to read that smiling, even fake smiling, can actually change your mood. Yes, there is scientific evidence now to support this. Try it for yourself: next time you’re feeling out of sorts, grab a pen or pencil and stick it in your teeth horizontally, like you’re a dog carrying a newspaper to your master (or in this household, a rabbit with a whole carrot that he’s just stolen from the fridge). This forces your facial muscles into the semblance of a smile. And here’s what will happen:

The simple act of smiling sends a message to your brain that you’re happy. And when you’re happy, your body pumps out feel-good endorphins. Your body will slow its breathing and heart rate, reducing anxiety. This reaction has been studied numerous times since the 1980s and has been proven again and again.

You’ll probably feel ridiculous with that pen in your mouth, and you might start to laugh. This is great! Have you ever laughed without smiling? It’s impossible. Numerous studies have been done on the health benefits of laughing, including how it acts like a mini workout that burns calories and works the abs. Laughter also helps blood flow, lowers blood sugar levels, reduces stress, and improves sleep. It may also raise the level of antibodies in the body, which helps boost the immune system.

Remember the Nat King Cole song, Smile? Check out these lyrics, and see if they don’t match up with the scientific research:

Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you

Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what’s the use of crying?
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile

That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what’s the use of crying?
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile

Satchmo knows what's good for ya!

Satchmo knows what’s good for ya!

And smiling helps others, as well. “When you’re smilin’, the whole world smiles with you,” sang Louis Armstrong (who had one of the best smiles ever!). Research shows that smiling is contagious. Something as simple as seeing a friend smile can activate the muscles in your face to make that same expression, without you even being aware that you are doing it.

Have you ever noticed that the Buddha is often represented in statues with a slight smile? It is said that his smile holds the 10,000 joys and the 10,000 sorrows of the world. That’s how powerful it is. Smiling can help you hold whatever emotions, thoughts, or sensations you are feeling. Think of it as a big bowl that can contain it all.

If holding the pen in your mouth is making you drool, then just close your eyes and simply imagine the curved shape of a smile. Let the image spread into your eyes, feeling the corners of the eyes soften. Let it melt any tension around your mouth and jaw. Feel the smile shape spreading its warmth into your chest and heart. Let the natural rhythm of your breath relax you. When you open your eyes, you might notice that you actually are smiling. Let it shine.

Spiritual Mile Markers

Dear Friends,

Today is the one year anniversary of this blog!! I first want to say thank you to each and every one of you for your support. I started this blog because I wanted to share some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned from having a spiritual practice. I wanted to create a community where we could help each other along the path. The topics I write about usually come from my daily life, ideas that are rooted in the mundane activities we all share but that contain universal spiritual principles. I hope this blog has given you some practical ways of deepening your own practice and a sense of being in it together. I am very grateful for the presence of each and every one of you.

I called this blog “Spirit Trail” because I liked the metaphor of the path, with all its twists and turns and ups and downs, it’s challenges and it’s rewards. Sometimes we fear what might be around the next bend; other times we get an expansive view. It’s not uncommon to take a wrong turn, or to have to repeat your steps. But ultimately we are all climbing the same mountain.

Whether you are conscious of it or not, you are on a journey of discovery. Your soul is on the path of enlightenment, a dawning of the full awareness of who you are as a spiritual being: a unique expression of god. Every person you meet on this journey has value to bring to your experience. Every experience you have serves your enlightenment in some way. This is going on around you and through you every day.

My story is your story. My particular dramas might be different than yours, but the tale is the same. Here we are, traveling together. I am playing the role of teacher/blogger, and you’re playing the role of student/reader. But the funny thing about being a teacher is that the roles often get reversed. So really I’m just reminding you of the real power that already exists in you. I’m standing here next to you, showing you the full picture of your life. Your life is a microcosm of the macrocosm of the universe.

mile

Some of you may be asking, “Are we there yet? How do I know if I’m making spiritual progress?” Well, thankfully we know what it looks like further down the trail because a few brave and wise souls have already journeyed there and sent postcards back. All of these enlightened beings seem to share three qualities:

1. Peace. They have a profound sense and understanding of their connection to spirit and to all things, and they rest in that. They don’t panic, they don’t worry, and they’re not troubled or conflicted by all the things going around them. Even when things happen in the world that seem horrific, they somehow see all of our human drama from a higher perspective, knowing that no soul is ever lost and all good is guaranteed.

2. Compassion. All enlightened beings show compassion, which is love in action. They recognize our oneness and know that how you treat others is paramount to how you will be treated in return. Compassion is one of the first signs of spiritual maturity. They are forgiving. They’ve made enough mistakes in life to know that they cannot judge another person. We’re all doing the very best we can.

3. Wisdom. Those who have traveled further down the road hold a deep, abiding wisdom that cuts through fear and doubt. If they come to a rattlesnake on the path, they simple walk around it. They trust in knowing they are an aspect of god, and this gives them a power, a deep connection to the truth within.

So as we journey along, watch for these spiritual mile markers, a way of examining your own life and checking in with your progress. Cultivate these three qualities in your daily experiences. You are on the right path.

With love and gratitude from your fellow traveler,

Chandra

A Symphony of Sound

Let’s talk about sound. I’m settling in to my new living space and adjusting to being in closer proximity to my neighbors than I was before. Next door to me are a group of college freshman who do what college students do: party. All night. Very loudly.

I’ve found the sounds coming from next door really bothersome. They keep me from sleeping, and I’ve found it hard to do my meditative practices during or after their activities. (I wonder, do my Oms at 6am bother them?)

Yet, one of the meditations I lead asks participants to treat sound as just another passing phenomenon. Sounds can be as compelling as thoughts and just as immaterial and open to interpretation.

Good sound or bad sound?

Good sound or bad sound?

One morning I sat outside and tried to experiment with this. Closing my eyes, I immediately began to notice the sounds all around me. I also observed how my mind likes to label and make patterns. It went something like this: “It’s an animal…it’s a bird…it’s a hummingbird.” “It’s a vehicle…it’s a truck…it’s a UPS truck.” “It’s a person…it’s a child…it’s a child crying because he doesn’t want to go to school.”

I admit I found the “neutral sound” meditation very difficult. Maybe it was all the ear training I received when pursuing my bachelor’s degree in music theory. My brain hears sound and wants to give it a name. I hear a car horn and think, “That’s an F Sharp!” A doorbell rings and I hear it as a musical interval. I visited a Buddhist temple where they had a fan going intermittently and I heard it as wind blowing through the Himalayas.

Good sound or bad sound?

Good sound or bad sound?

But if we can let go of labels sound can be like any other ephemeral, passing occurrence. You might even begin to hear sounds as if they were instruments in a symphony: the percussion of a helicopter, the bass of a car stereo, the soprano of an ambulance siren. When we can detach our emotions from these sounds, they become neutral. And when we take the stance of the curious observer, we can lessen our suffering.

Give this practice a try with the following meditation:

·       Settle into a comfortable position and become aware of your breath flowing in and out.

·       When you are ready, shift your awareness to the sounds that are present in this moment.

·       Without searching for sounds, let them come to you and fill your ears while simply hearing sounds near and far away.

·       Notice any judgments or thoughts about the sounds and let them pass away.

·       Notice if you find yourself trying to identify or label the sounds and instead focus on hearing the bare sounds themselves.

·       Be aware that sounds arise and fade away, and notice if there are any spaces between sounds.

·       When your mind wanders or fixates on a particular sound, gently return your attention to the flow of sounds occurring in the present moment.

·       When you are finished, shift your attention back to your breathing and gradually open your eyes.

Treading Water

I’ve been spending a lot of time at the pool lately trying to beat the summer heat. Usually I swim laps, enjoying the zen-like rhythm of stroking back and forth, back and forth, until I’ve completed about a mile.

But some days I just don’t feel like swimming laps. I’m tired or hot or lazy. Some days the black dog of depression sits heavily on me, making me feel like I can’t even muster the energy to smile. Yet I know some exercise would do me good, and feeling weightless in the water can be a good antidote to throw off the weight of the heavy dog. On those days, I tread water.

I learned to tread water as a child. My swim teachers, Laura Lungfish and Sammy Seal, taught me how to scull the water with my arms and hands. They showed me how to flutter kick and move my legs like egg beaters to stay afloat. If I ever had to stay in the water a long time, they showed me how to conserve energy by leaning back and floating my legs up like I was in a recliner, gently sculling with my hands.

tumblr_m2poxkzF7p1rokefdo1_500

I get in the water and start moving my arms and legs as hard as I can for five minutes to warm up. I flutter kick, egg beater kick, and move my legs like I’m cross-country skiing. I sweep my hands forward and back, making a full circle around myself. Then I cross my arms and switch to using only my legs. It’s hard. I can feel my lungs aching as they strain against the pressure of the water. If I get too tired, I kick back into recliner position until my energy comes back. Then I use only arms, crossing my legs so I won’t be tempted to use them. I alternate like this for about 30 minutes.

Sometimes the lifeguard will come over and ask if I want to use the floatation belt. “No, I’m good.” A little while later he’ll ask, “Are you sure you don’t want to use the fins?” “Nope, I’m fine.” Some people stare, wondering what I’m doing. Sometimes people will ask, “How are you doing that? Why don’t you sink?” “I don’t know,” I answer. “I just keep moving and breathing.”

“Aha!” I thought. That’s it. For me, treading water is a way to keep going when I don’t know what else to do. I may not be moving from point A to point B, but I am still moving. If I stop moving, I will sink, so I just keep waving my arms and legs, even if it’s slow and languid.

It also helps to keep the breath smooth and even. Too much of an inhale or a holding of the breath and I pop up above the surface. Too much exhale and I start to sink. So I have to keep it even to keep my head above the water. Slow and even, no matter how hard I’m paddling under the surface.

Treading water can only happen in the deep end, where your toes can’t touch the bottom. You have to move out into the open and be willing to take a risk. Like life, you just have to keep moving and remember to breathe.

« Older entries Newer entries »

%d bloggers like this: