The Meditation Diet

Here we are in the third week of January. This is the time when most of us who made New Year resolutions are already slacking off. Statistics show that only eight percent of people who make New Year resolutions actually stick to them, and most people abandon them after just one week.

Weight loss is the number one resolution we make, and I was no exception. I decided to try a low carb diet to lose ten pounds, and started January 1. After three weeks of it, and not losing a single pound, I got discouraged and gave up.

My other resolution was to change not just what I was eating, but how. I’ve always been one of those people who likes to read while I eat. I like classified ads or small bite-sized information that I can read between glances at my plate. Maybe it’s a habit from living alone. Not sure. But I do know that it disconnects me from the eating experience.

I don’t have a dining table. Well, actually I do, but it doubles as my sewing table and it always seems to be covered with fabrics and notions and knits being blocked. The table used to do double duty but I’m still reeling from the time I tripped and spilled an entire plate of spaghetti marinara over my sewing machine and project. Since then I’ve moved to the worst place of all to eat: at my desk in front of the computer.

Yep, one hand on the mouse, the other holding a fork. And is if it couldn’t get any worse, while I eat I surf the internet for those bite-size nuggets of information, typically news. And what’s usually in the news? Bad stuff. Death. Destruction. Suffering. Not really what I want on my menu.

I looked over at my bunny, Gilligan, and how he eats. He’s focused. He eats one piece of cilantro at a time. He chews, he swallows, then he starts another piece. His eyes half close in contentment. When he’s full, he stops.

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When I teach my mindfulness classes, we eat a single raisin as slowly as possible, using all the senses and observing what happens when we slow down and focus on the task at hand. Eating becomes a meditation in itself.
Evidence is emerging that the best approach for long term, healthy weight management is mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation reduces stress, bridges the mind-body split that is at the root of most disordered eating, and puts you in touch with your natural hunger and satiety cues. It also frees you from the influence of emotions and thought patterns that provoke you to eat (when you are not mindful and conscious of them).
You can practice this yourself, using a single food like a raisin or a handful of nuts or an orange. Then extend it to your whole meal. Then expand it to the steps in cooking your meal, savoring it, and even cleaning up afterward. I love the idea of washing your dishes as if bathing a baby Buddha. With practice, your whole life becomes a practice of mindfulness.
Here are a few tips to explore mindful eating:
  • Eat in a place free of distractions such as TV, computer, phone. Before the first bite, take a few deep breaths to get settled.
  • Appreciate your food. Take a moment to ponder where it came from, who grew it, who transported it to your table, even your own efforts to prepare it.
  • Notice. Are you feeling impatient? Are you mentally distracted? Don’t judge yourself; just notice what’s happening as you prepare to eat.
  • Use your senses. What textures, colors, smells do you notice in the food you are about to eat? Observe.
  • As you take your first bite, keep noticing what’s happening in your mind. Are you making judgments about the food (too hot, too cold, too salty…)? Notice how easy is it for the mind to make comparisons.
  • Chew thoroughly. Savor all the textures and flavors you experience.
  • As you continue to eat, the mind will likely wander off into thoughts. When you notice this, bring your attention back to your food and the experience of eating.
  • When you feel full, stop eating and spend a few moments breathing quietly before moving on to the next task.

The Magical Laundrymat

Yesterday was laundry day, which meant a trip down to the Magical Laundrymat. Yes, that’s what it is actually called, an unassuming place with a name that always makes me laugh. Magical? Laundry? My experience there had always been absolutely mundane.

Laundry is one of my least favorite chores. I put it off as long as possible. Then I find ways to spend the least amount of time in the actual laundrymat. I put my washer load in, set a timer on my phone for 28 minutes, then go run an errand like mailing a letter at the post office, or washing the car. At minute 27 I go back in and move the clothes to the dryer, reset the timer for 32 minutes, and find something else to do. Usually I go sit in my car with a book.

Except this time I forgot my book. Doh!! I thought about walking the couple blocks home to get my book, but by the time I got back the laundry would be finished anyway. My familiar bugaboo, boredom, loomed large.

A little voice in my head went off: “Hey, Mindfulness Teacher! What if you just did nothing?” I sat down on a bench and crossed my arms, resisting the idea. I saw the timer on the dryer: 28 minutes to go. Sure seemed like a long time to do nothing.

A spiritual lesson just waiting to be discovered.

A spiritual lesson just waiting to be discovered.

I drew a few deep breaths and gazed at the dryer, the tumbler going round and round and round. Round and round and round. I felt mesmerized. The rhythm of the motor began to take over the buzz in my head. I picked out a piece of clothing, a red top, and watched it circling around and around. Then another piece caught my attention, my pink bunny-print pajamas, and I followed its circuital route with my eyes. Then a black sock took over.

Suddenly it occurred to me: this is like meditation! Thoughts flit across the tumble dryer of the mind like clothing. We latch onto these thoughts and follow them, churning them around and around. But we don’t have to.

I softened my gaze, letting the image of the dryer go blurry so it was just a wash of color like an Impressionist painting. I could still detect movement, but instead I focused on the image as a whole. Clothing coming and going, thoughts coming and going, breath coming and going. I felt peaceful.

A buzzer went off and the tumbler stopped. My laundry was done. I was surprised by how quickly the time had passed. I realized then why the place was called the Magical Laundrymat, and how little moments of inner sight can come from the most mundane of chores. I vowed to leave my book at home the next time, too.

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.

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.

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.

Finding a Foothold on the Mountaintop

I like to hike. Drive 40 minutes out of San Diego and you’re in the mountains, 6,000 feet up amidst whispering pines. So I turned to my favorite guidebook (Afoot and Afield in San Diego County by Jerry Schad) and picked out a new hike for my day off: Stonewall Peak in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, 850′ elevation gain. That seemed like a lot of elevation for me, but the description said there were switchbacks that made it doable and a magnificent view at the top. I laced up my boots and set off.

On the way there I thought about the mountain metaphor and the mountain/lake meditation I sometimes do. I hoped to find inspiration on my hike and to come back and write a blog post about the qualities of the mountain, that I would easily find steadiness and solidity. But that’s not quite what happened.

Stonewall Peak in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

Stonewall Peak in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

I found the trail head and looked up. Oh. Wow. That’s really high up there. I stopped to read an interpretive sign about how the mountain was formed, and cautioning against rattlesnakes and not hiking alone. A family with young children was just coming down the trail, the little boy riding on his father’s shoulders. Well, if they do it, so can I, I tried to convince myself.

The ascent began almost immediately. I could feel my heart beating fast and my skin getting hot. But I stopped to rest now and again, taking in the ever-increasing view, and plodded on. I passed many other hikers, including lots of small children and dogs. This reassured me.

The hike seemed to go on forever, a relentless uphill climb. But then I glimpsed the peak about 100 feet away. My first thought was, “Hallelujah! I’m at the top!” But then a wave of panic spread over me as I saw how I was supposed to get there.

The Final Ascent

The Final Ascent

There were natural rock steps with a handrail, and on one side the face of the mountain, the other side a sheer drop down 850 feet. I began to feel dizzy and very, very afraid (my heart rate has increased just writing about this). It was the same feeling I had at the top of Monument in London, atop the Eiffel Tower, and in the whispering gallery in St. Paul’s cathedral. Acrophobia. Fear of heights.

My first reaction was to get mad at myself. No no no no no! This can’t happen now! I was aware of what was happening, yet I couldn’t seem to stop it. Then I tried denial, and started to march up the steps with determination. Damn you, fear! You’ll not stop me! But then it got even worse. My palms were sweating. My hands shaking and fingers tingling. I began to get tunnel vision. I freaked out.

I had noticed a man in a green shirt already at the top platform when I first arrived. I figured he would come down soon, and I would just ask him to help me down. But I waited, and waited, and the green T-shirt didn’t come. Then I spotted a family lower down the mountain, posing for pictures. They’ll come! They’ll be here any minute! But, then they turned and headed down the trail instead of up. I felt panicked.

I knew I was hyperventilating, and began scanning my mental toolbox. Okay, you need to find a focus. Gripping the rocks with my sweaty hands, I began to stare at the side of the mountain, just one little patch a few inches wide. At the same time I tried to slow my breath. I began to notice all the different colors in the rock, and the little flecks that sparkled in the sunlight. The only thing happening right now is this mountain, I told myself. Be the mountain. Feel your feet. Feel your heaviness. Breathe like a mountain, slow and even.

I felt a little better. I noticed two butterflies dancing along, just above the summit. They seemed okay. A few more breaths and I found the courage to turn my head and look out over the valley. Wow. So spacious. So still. Like meditation, I thought.

For a few minutes I just stood and took it all in: the view, my reaction to the situation, and my ability to respond and adapt. I had basically meditated my way out of my panic. I felt gratitude for my tools, especially the breath. Then I realized I was going to have to get down the mountain by myself, so I scooted down on my butt a few inches at a time, sort of crab walking my way down the steps. At the bottom I stood and brushed myself off. The precipice out of view, I let out a deep sigh.

Just then a couple walked up, about to make their own final ascent. “How is it up there?” the man asked. I hesitated a moment, about to launch into my story, then said simply, “It’s amazing.”

Whether you’re climbing mountains or struggling to keep your focus in meditation, it can be helpful to find a foothold, something to focus on and bring you back to the present moment, and to the steadiness that is your essence. This foothold could be as simple as the breath, or a mantra, or exploring the detail in a patch of rock on a mountainside. It really is amazing.

Just Take One Minute

I was out for a walk in my neighborhood, grooving to some tunes on my headphones and lost in my head, when I saw this poster on a telephone pole:

IMG_0014

It stopped me in my tracks. I was pleased and amazed that some mystery person had taken the time to remind his neighbors to be mindful. It was a refreshing change from the usual garage sale and lost cat posters, and I liked that it had rusty staples like it had been there awhile, anonymously encouraging people as they passed by.

And so I stood there, trying to do what the sign said. Boy, one minute can sure seem like a long time, I thought, feeling anxious to get back to my Daft Punk. I’m not sure if I can spare one minute. I don’t want my heart rate to come down, I explained to myself.

They say that if you if you don’t have time to meditate, you should just do a practice for 20 minutes. And if you don’t have 20 minutes, you should meditate for an hour. How apt.

I continued on my walk, observing how difficult it was to take even just one minute out of my whole day, just one of 1,440 minutes.

Then I moved house, and all my minutes got jumbled up, my usual routines and practices all went out the window for a few days. In the chaos I kept thinking about that mystery sign, how I should just take one minute to press pause, look up at the spacious sky, and take in the wider view. Remind myself of the fleeting nature of the moving experience, and that there were constants I could find all around me.

I started a new little mantra: Just Take One Minute. When I felt myself getting overwhelmed with my “gotta do’s” or rushing about town, I stopped and did nothing but breathe for one minute. Instead of jumping in the car and simultaneously setting the iPod, sipping water, putting on lip gloss, buckling the seatbelt, fishing for a mint in the glove box, putting on sunglasses, singing, punching in directions to the phone, AND backing out of the driveway, I just stopped for one minute before doing anything else. And breathed. THEN I started the process of backing out and driving, and I noticed that I was more prone to do one task at a time, and that I was more aware and engaged in the task at hand: driving.

So I invite you to try this simple little practice. Read to the end of this paragraph, and then stop everything for one minute and just feel yourself breathing. Without changing the breath, just notice what it feels like. Then at the end of the minute, notice how you feel overall. Has anything changed? How can you use this practice to help you manage your life?

There is No Boredom in the Present Moment

Heavenly Boredom

Boredom is one of my bugaboos. I was definitely one of those kids who whined a lot about how there’s “nothing to do,” and who had a comeback for every suggestion to go play outside (“but I already climbed that redwood tree”), go over to Suzie’s house (“but she’s so boring”), or hey, why don’t you do some chores (“oh, I’m busy meditating!”)?

I know that boredom is at the root of why I engage in busy work to avoid my sitting practice, or to procrastinate a difficult task. It’s what’s happening when I start writing a shopping list in my head during meditation, or fidget with my fingers, or think, “If only I burned some incense, then I could really focus here!”

In today’s society we’re used to being constantly stimulated. Our minds crave novelty and excitement, and technology has only increased that hunger. When faced with the idea of paying attention to our breath for 15—or even 5—minutes, many of us resist. In fact, we expend a great deal of money and time trying to avoid being bored.

We think boredom is caused by our circumstances. We think the situation we find ourselves in is simply not interesting. The mindfulness traditions, on the other hand, regard boredom as the product of inattention. In other words, we get bored when we withdraw our full awareness from whatever it is we are experiencing at the moment.

Boredom

When asked by one of my meditation teachers during practice what I was noticing in the present moment, I said, “Boredom.” To which she swiftly replied: “There is no boredom in the present moment.” It was one of those moments when I wanted to get up and bitch-slap my teacher. “I don’t know what present moment you’re experiencing, but I’m BORED!” I thought.

I had to chew on that one a lot, practicing taking the stance of the witness: here I am meditating, noticing boredom, aware that my attention is wandering, coming back to the breath… It’s taken me awhile to realize that boredom isn’t caused by our external circumstances but by our own mind, and that the antidote to boredom is paying complete attention. Rather than paying attention, though, most of us are inclined to continually seek out new mental stimulants to keep our minds occupied with trivialities.

The practice of mindfulness encourages us to relinquish the craving for stimulation and simply be attentive to what is. Boredom itself can be interesting if you simply observe it patiently without judgment.

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