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Delving into mindfulness

5 Feb

Although I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for a few years, it’s only recently that I’ve really read some of the Buddhist sutras- the texts that are fundamental to Buddhist thought and philosophy, and which have been passed down over 2,500 years. Stemming from my desire to get the skinny from the Buddha’s own mouth, I’ve been reading the Long Discourses of the Buddha (the Digha Nikaya), the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (Majjhima Nikaya), Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn and The Awakening of the Heart by Thich Nhat Hanh. This latter book is an excellent resource for anyone who’s interested in mindfulness, the practice emphasized by the Buddha as the foundation of the path to enlightenment. Mindfulness is a buzz word these days, but who really knows what it is? Here is my understanding of mindfulness, from putting into practice what I’ve read and heard. Try out the breathing exercises and you will be on your way to Enlightenment!

Mindfulness as a concept is quite simple: it is simply knowing what you are doing while you are doing it, and then choosing whether or not we want to do that thing. Ever go into a room and not know why you went there? Chances are, your mind was off on a tangent, effectively distracting and derailing you from your purpose! Think of mindfulness as following your thoughts and actions from point A to point B, and being aware of the journey in between. In relationships we use mindfulness to be aware of our reactions and thoughts,  dealing more skillfully with our feelings in reaction to those qualities that we find difficult in others. What we need in order to practice mindfulness is a roadmap; lucky for us, the Buddha laid out the Four Foundations of Mindfulness to give us just that roadmap: Body, Feelings, Mind and Mind Objects (or Perceptions).

1- Body: Normally, we aren’t aware of our bodies, but rather spend a lot of our existence trying to ignore them. Mindfulness of Body consists of knowing what’s going on with your body- what position it is in, following your hand and arm through space as you go to grasp something, being aware of- and sitting with- pain and discomfort, etc. Sometimes, we spend more effort and time gassing up, changing the oil and polishing our cars than we spend being truly aware of our life vehicle, the Body. Try this: as you brush your teeth tonight, become aware that you are brushing your teeth. Investigate the sensation of the brush on your teeth and gums. Get curious. Say to yourself, “I am brushing my teeth.” Feel the position of your body. Notice little things that normally go unnoticed: hmm, I’m pretty forceful with my brushing; I can feel the little bubbles around my lips from the toothpaste; I’m kind of slumped forward and craning my neck. The cool thing about mindfulness is that once you’re aware of something, you have the choice of changing it – or not. 

2- Feelings: I think you’ll agree with me here- feeling drive how you live your life. They can take us from a relatively calm state to a triggered state of rage in seconds! The secret to understanding feelings is to realize that they live in the subconscious for the most part, and the subconscious mind ‘drives our cars’ so to speak, until we bring that content out of the subconscious and into the conscious mind. Here’s an example of how mindfulness helped me not get in a car wreck once: I was driving down the road with my husband in the passenger seat, when he said something that really ticked me off! I was probably cruising for a blow-up due to other factors, and his comment was the last straw. I felt a surge of anger, and noticed that I had the urge to gun the car and make him feel as out of control and subject to my whim as I felt in regards to him! That would serve him right, I thought. But I was aware of those thoughts; I breathed, gave myself a little space, and didn’t act on my feelings. I just noticed them. I was still angry, but now I had a choice: do I act out my anger and create more bad feelings, or do I notice my anger and listen to what it has to tell me, namely that I’m feeling disregarded and belittled? Once you notice your feelings, you can ask yourself, “What am I going to do with that?” If you can remove the emotional juice from your noticing, it becomes the noticing of an observer and not a participant. Thus the Buddha asked us to categorize our feelings, to foster that role of observer: is my feeling pleasant? Unpleasant? Or neutral? Then, we can notice whether we’re clinging to that feeling or pushing it away- and by the way, we can cling to or push away both pleasant and unpleasant feelings! For example, when I was so angry at my husband in the car, I wanted to cling to that anger and get really stoked up! Anger is a powerful feeling, and it helps us feel very alive very quickly- which can be addicting, like a double shot of espresso. When I was growing up however, anger was not something that I felt safe expressing- so I repressed it. Same person, two different ways to relate to anger.

So, when dealing with your feelings, notice whether the feeling you have right now is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, and whether you’re clinging to it or repressing it, then make the choice: what choice creates the best outcome for all? Labeling feelings comes in handy when you’re meditating: “Oh, that’s a pleasant feeling” (now follow your breath and let the feeling go); “Hmmm, a feeling of fear” (now follow your breath and let that feeling go). Like Morris Albert’s 1975 song goes, ‘Feelings, nothing more than feelings’.

3- Mind:  Mind is different from feelings, in that it’s more of a background state of mind, such as agitated, distracted or grounded. It’s the flavor that’s present, the set dressing already onstage when feelings come up. Mind will collaborate in creating a feeling; if my mind state is pretty cool and comfy, then I won’t react as strongly to a verbal jab from someone; but if I’m depressed or vulnerable, it might set me off like a Roman candle! Being familiar with your mind state is a great mindfulness tool; again, it will help you make choices that support you rather than sabotage you. I was asked recently to give a talk on mindfulness, and I was aware that my mind state was somewhat nervous. My urge was to get myself hyped up on chai before the talk (why? I’ve noticed my tendency is to want to amplify what I’m already feeling), but I knew that my talk would be scattered and not at all mindful if I gave in to that urge. So by noticing my mind state, when that feeling came up I could then make an intelligent choice to support myself.  Here’s another example: someone invites you to a party, and you’d like to please her but you’re aware that there’s a subtle yet undeniable background flavor of being frazzled. You could acquiesce to your friend and go to the party, but would that choice support you and the other people in your life? You get to decide.

4- Mind objects (perception):  Buddha reminds us to “guard the sense doors”: understand that when your 6 senses come in contact with the world around you, they trigger feelings, help to create your experience and add to others’ experience in the world around you (for better or for worse). What are the six senses? Taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing and consciousness. What does Buddha mean by guarding the sense doors? Buddha knew that our senses lead to longing for things and people and experiences; they create craving. They also create aversion. And so he reasoned that if we don’t listen to music, go dancing, drink or eat intoxicants, gamble or otherwise seek out strong stimulants, we’re less likely to struggle with the clinging and aversion these stimulating experiences engender in us. Sound like a real buzz-kill? The question is, does the buzz help or hinder you?

Let’s investigate the sense door of sight. When we meditate, we’re encouraged to either close our eyes or look down through half-open eyes at a spot 45 degrees in front of us (“where the cow lies down”, in some cultures!). This will help us ‘guard the sense door’ of the eye and decrease outside stimulus in order to still our mind. How about the sense door of taste? Here’s an example from my experience: I’m addicted to the taste of Bhakti chai, a local, spicy chai I really enjoy (you’re getting that I struggle with my addiction to chai, huh?) Recently I was driving my son back to college; we’d stopped on the way there for a Bhakti chai. It tasted pretty good. Then as I drove home alone after dropping him off, missing him already, thinking about how grown up he is and probably struggling with my mortality and parenthood, etc., I was gripped with a strong desire for ANOTHER Bhakti chai! Now, I had already opened the sense door of taste by buying the first chai; now my need for comfort was screaming at me to get another chai, and now! Instead of caving in to that desire, I recognized it as a stress response. I asked myself (as my mind was screaming, just get me the frickin’ chai NOW!), what else can I do that would provide comfort, that’s not loaded with sugar and caffeine? I pulled into the parking lot for a trail I’d always wanted to explore, and took off down the trail. It took me half an hour to placate my loud mind, following my breath and repeating to myself, “Breathing in, I am here. Breathing out, I am nature” as I walked through the prairie along the sunset-lit path. Because I was aware of what was happening in the Chai/Sense Door of Taste scenario and decided to walk instead of buying another chai, I witnessed an hour of the most gorgeous sunset I’ve ever seen, pulling its healing powers into my bodymind. I also had the satisfaction of being in the driver’s seat of my own life.

The purpose of mindfulness is to bring you into the present moment, which is the only moment you have any agency in. You can’t do anything about the past, because it is gone. You can’t experience the future right now because it doesn’t exist yet. But you can look deeply into what is happening right now, influence the future and heal wounds from the past by mindfully experiencing the present moment. According to the Avatamsaka Sutra, if you live one moment deeply, that moment contains all the past and all the future in it. All these concepts are intertwined into a kind of quantum physics existence, where the Observer changes the observed phenomena and all phenomena are interpenetrating. It gets mind-twisting pretty fast!

But to simplify: mindfulness means that by being aware of our doings and thinkings through mindful practices, we have a lot more control over our own lives, and we can choose to act and think with compassion, love and equanimity. It’s not about being detached from our lives or others’ lives and levitating in our living rooms, but rather about being deeply involved in the world. It’s about making choices that support us rather than sabotage us, and we can do that only when they are conscious choices. Feelings, body sensations, mind states and perceptions that remain in the subconscious mind will continue to drive our actions whether we like it or not. But when we are aware of them, we have a choice.

So how to practice? The foundational practice of mindfulness is to be aware of one’s breath: “Breathing in a short (or long) breath, I am aware I’m breathing in a short (or long) breath.” “Breathing in, I’m aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I calm my body.” This is a wonderful template for mindfulness practice. It can be used as an observation, or as a tool for stress reduction: ‘Breathing in, I am/feel ____. Breathing out, I am/feel _____.” For example, here’s a tool to help you observe yourself- “Breathing in, I notice I’m dissatisfied; breathing out, I sit with that dissatisfaction.” As a stress-reduction tool- “Breathing in, I notice my dissatisfaction; breathing out, I embrace and comfort my dissatisfaction.” We practice when it’s easy, so when life gets hard that ‘muscle’ has been exercised, and will work for us. And our inner physician can surface from the subconscious, giving us sage advice and insight when we pause and breathe, watching our breath.

If this practice (which comes straight from the Buddha, via our modern master Thich Nhat Hanh) is new to you, I  encourage you to start with this exercise: Breathing in, I am here. Breathing out, I am aware. As you continue breathing and repeating this phrase silently, drop the first part so that now you’re thinking, “here, aware” as you breathe in and out. The beauty of this template is that you can create a meditation for yourself at any time and anywhere, based on what you need right now in your life!

Create a meditation for yourself, and if you don’t respond to it, change it up. And if all you can manage is to notice that you’re breathing in, breathing out…enjoy each breath, and let it nurture you.

The New Health Insurance: Heading Off A Crisis

25 Jul

As I mentioned in my last post, health insurance is gambling: I’ll pay this insurance company to save me from a health crisis, hoping I’ll never have to use their services! Nobody wants to get sick; we would like to envision ourselves as oldsters, still healthy in mind and body, playing golf or swimming at the rec center, taking classes in ancient Greek, etc.

There’s another way to insure your health, and like health insurance from an insurance company, it requires a monthly (or more frequent) investment. As it turns out, in order to maximize the possibility of that beautiful picture of old age, we need to start when we’re young.  By the time we’re old, we’ve already made those bad decisions, had those accidents, experienced all that stress…it’s harder to turn our bodies around at that time.  However as younger people, we have a choice to help ourselves attain the best health possible.

There are many, many ways to take care of yourself and increase your chance of aging gracefully. The following are the practices that help me the most, and why I value them.

Visceral Manipulation: VM as taught at the Barral Institute is a hands-on modality that entails sensing restrictions in the web of connective tissue within the body. Also known as fascia, connective tissue surrounds and supports our organs, arteries and veins, muscles, bones, nerves…everything! Physical trauma and emotional upheaval can cause the connective fibers to draw up into “knots”.  These restrictions can keep our bodies from functioning well, and often cause secondary problems. For example, a car accident causes a head injury, which causes a restriction in the connective tissue, which travels down to the bladder, causing a secondary problem of incontinence. I love Visceral Manipulation; it’s very gentle and non-invasive, and not only helps existing and obvious problems, but also can prevent problems from occurring. I also receive VM to help me process emotional issues- don’t forget that when we don’t express our strong emotions, we often store them in our bodies, where they can start that process of restricting the connective tissue and turning into physical ailments.  Don’t go there, address your emotions sooner rather than later!

Massage: Because we store both physical and emotional stress in our bodies, it’s a great idea to let off that steam so it doesn’t accumulate, wouldn’t you agree? Massage feels good, helps get rid of mental and physical knots, and boosts your immune system. I get massage or another form of bodywork once every two weeks, or more often when I’m under a lot of stress. It helps immensely!

Meditation: Ever hear of your “small, still voice”? Mine often beckons me to sit and meditate, or do a walking meditation. “Slow down! Breathe…” , it says. Meditation helps us to observe our thoughts; when you can do that, you stop becoming a slave to them. You can say, “Oh, that’s a thought about fear…let me sit with that a little. Ah, I’m fearful because what he said reminded me of that thing that happened 20 years ago…I guess I don’t have to react this way…I guess I’ll breathe first.” Breathing leads me to another wonderful practice…

Yoga: It’s important to both stretch and strengthen your body; yoga does both! If your muscles are warmed up and stretched out, they’ll react better to falls and other accidents than tight muscles would. Yoga also encourages you to breathe, which according to Andrew Weil, M.D. and health guru, is the single most important thing you can do to improve your health. Expand your belly, then your middle, then the top of your lungs on your inhale; reverse that order on your exhale. Try it, you’ll oxygenate your cells and feel and think better!

Chi Gung: There are subtle, vibrational aspects of the human body and mind that should not be ignored- they make up who we are, just as our “grosser” body parts do.  Chi gung (or qi gong) is an easy way to channel and improve the flow of energy in our bodies, through slow and graceful movements. These movements have cool names, like “Bamboo Waves on Mountain”, so that in itself should encourage you to try Chi Gung!

Journaling, dancing: …and other expressive arts. When we express ourselves fully, we live fully. That doesn’t mean say whatever you want and have no filters in place!  It means, live your life beautifully, let your thoughts and movement flow. Someone once said to me, “Don’t be a God dam”, meaning don’t dam up the energy that wants to flow through my life. Flow and movement are essential to good health.

EMDR: or other subconscious healing of thought patterns. When we experience difficulty or trauma, our minds sometimes store the event as a pattern in our subconscious, where it can drive our actions and reactions without us knowing it. EMDR brings subconsciously-stored trauma to the conscious mind (without making us live through it again), allowing us to discharge the “juice” associated with it, and letting us be in charge of how we react to events in our lives.

What all these practices have in common: love yourself enough to take care of yourself; know yourself well enough to know what you need; do the necessary work on a subtle level;  let the energy flow!

The answer to everything? Loving yourself.

12 Jun

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I do misguided things, and why I sometimes get it right: say the right thing, do the right thing, etc. You may have run across “The Eight-fold Path” in Buddhism: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration (check out these principles at  http://thebigview.com/buddhism/eightfoldpath.html ).  It seems to me that we can unpack those tenants of Buddhism further and boil them down, to find the elusive user manual for life!

If you approach every decision you make- whether to speak or not, what to say, what to eat and when, etc., etc., it becomes clear that there are decisions that support you, and decisions that sabotage you. Regardless of your religion or moral persuasion, each decision can be made in relation to how it loves you, so to speak. Here’s a real-time, concrete example: I’m sitting here, typing this in my office.  I’m hungry, so I’m eating a cereal snack mix that’s not satisfying me.  I also know that I promised my son I’d bring my computer work to do at home during the summer, instead of sitting here away from him in the office. So, I could continue to feed my body food that’s meant for emergencies (like having no time to eat in between clients) instead of feeding it healthy, satisfying lunch; and I could continue to break my word to my son. Or, I could decide to love myself through right action, right mindfulness and right concentration.

Hey, wait!  Sitting here doesn’t sound like loving myself!  Ok, I’ll continue this discussion at home, after lunch and after I say “hi” to Harry!

(Harry decided to sequester himself in his room…but at least I’m in the dining room, typing and available! Quesadilla with apples and kale and homemade tomato sauce for lunch, by the way).

Of course, there’s the question of other people in our lives- we don’t live in a vacuum. And it’s usually in relationships that we screw up, because there isn’t anything we do or say that doesn’t effect people around us!  Here’s a recent example of something I did that illustrates pretty well how I disregarded the Eight-Fold Path stunningly well:

I received via email a request to edit someone’s letter which was attached. As I read her letter, I thought to myself, “This is not going to appeal to its audience; it’s too wordy”, etc. I spent a good hour going over the letter, rearranging phrases and deleting whole sections to make it into a succinct, one-page letter that I felt conveyed the message, while honoring the style of the author, which was very unlike my style.  I felt I had done her a service; indeed, I patted myself on the back, reflecting that I had dedicated an entire hour of my time to this request for editing.

When she responded in outrage that I had denuded her letter from its original spirit and had chopped up something she had spent six hours writing, I had a rude awakening.  In my zeal to “help”, I had instead hurt someone. I had not listened to the real need for editing; I hadn’t taken into consideration the personality of the person involved; and I had launched into this effort, which was not joyful as “right effort” should be, but which was rather based on my need to be right or superior.  True, I wouldn’t have written a letter like that.  True, I still think it was too wordy.  But the fact remains that this person has a right to express herself differently than I do. Someone I respect recently told me, “Christina, you don’t always know.”  In short, I needed to be more loving and respectful toward the letter-writer.

Ok, so what does all this have to do with loving oneself? Well, another concept of Buddhism is that we are not really individuals, separate from one another. We are one and the same: ” I am he and you are he as you are me and we are one together”, as the Beatles said in “I am the Walrus.”  Another way to look at it is that we are all strings in a web of interconnectedness; when I pull my string, the whole web is affected; the important lesson is to see to it that whenever we pull our strings, we do so with the whole web in mind. When I hurt someone else, I hurt myself. I affect the whole web, ultimately.  If I can look at other people as extensions of myself, and that I am an extension of them, it seems pretty clear that we’re all in this day together- shouldn’t I try to love myself (you, him, her, them) to make it a great day?

I have a sneaking feeling that this lesson is going to be my next deepening experience- here’s hoping I can absorb it well!