Holiday News Wrap-Up!

Mindfulness has been all over the news lately. The last month has been a blur of joyful holiday gatherings with family, and it felt like at each get together someone else would mention a different article or TV program they’d just seen touting the benefits of mindfulness. In case, like me, you’ve also spent the last few weeks away from your computer I wanted to give you some of the mindfulness highlights.

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Plant the Seed!

Plant the Seed!

"Just for a little while, come outside with me. Feel your insignificance, and get to learn a different way to be in the world."

Because when we go out, we talk about, if we're going to observe wildlife how do we have to be? You have to be completely different than you are normally as a 10 year-old—flailing about, loud, whatever. Well, you can do that, but you're not going to see much! Nature has a different pace and a different volume. So the more I do this work, the more I understand that part of the value for these young people, and for me, in doing this work (and I hope for the larger community as it grows) are these sort of different perspectives and this opportunity to be a different way in the world.

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Giving Thanks!

Giving Thanks!

Gratitude is a fantastic and scientifically proven way to re-route those negative neurons in our brains and actually bring about happier feelings and less negativity. Not only does mindfulness help us to notice when our mind is tight with negativity, it also helps us to notice so much of the richness of life.

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TV-mind

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about thinking. And it’s been easy to get carried away with it. I’ll start thinking about thoughts and what role they have in mindfulness practice and the next thing I know I’m thinking about planning a talk, then I’m drafting a blog, then I’m imagining how many likes it will get on Facebook, and then I start questioning my social media strategy. Strategy? That sounds like I’m going to war. Hmm. That video I just watched of John Lennon and Yoko Ono was touching, the two of them were all about peace. Peace is good. If only all of these thoughts would stop so I’d have some peace…

I think you get the picture.

When many people first hear of mindfulness I think they might get the idea that it’s all about clearing the mind of thoughts to get some peace, or that we’re supposed to be thinking only about the present moment.

With some types of thinking this view of mindfulness is accurate. The mind likes to keep busy, drumming up memories and hopes, imagining scenarios and playing them out over and over. A surprising amount of our thinking is like white noise, a dull hum in the background that can be both comforting and annoying. Left unattended to, this white noise starts to crank up the volume. It reminds me of having a few TVs on in the background, each with different home-shopping or infomercials playing. Sure, we could grab the remote and switch them off, but that necklace looks interesting, and can you believe how much that towel can absorb?! It’s easy to get sucked into these TV programs even if we’re not really interested in the products they offer. With this type of thinking our mindfulness practice helps us to identify the thoughts and then let them go. Once we notice that the TV is on, we can grab the remote and turn it off. The mind wandering that happened when I started thinking about thinking is a good example of this TV white noise.

But mindfulness is not solely about turning off our thinking. In fact, if we spent all of our time turning thoughts off I think we’d miss out on the transformational magic that mindfulness can have on our experience. Mindfulness is about meeting our experience and experiencing it fully, without adding the story of why or why not the experience is ok.

It is about transforming the relationship we have with thinking, moving it from one of clinging and aversion to one of wonder, inquisitiveness and discovery.

Our challenge then is to meet our thoughts and get to know them, especially the thoughts that seem to be emotionally charged or filled with self-judgment. Why do some keep calling over and over? What story am I perpetuating about myself with these thoughts? How does my body feel when I think that thought?

As we continue practicing mindfulness, we begin to see different patterns in our thinking. We can more easily detect when the TV is blaring white noise as opposed to when it is playing a breakthrough documentary about our inner workings. As our discernment develops we are less easily carried away by cascading thoughts. And not only that, but we don’t get so easily tricked into believing that everything we think is the truth. What we see on the TV of our mind is just like what we see on TV--images in a box. They're just energetic patterns flitting around our brains, light projected on a screen. Sometimes they can be informative and useful, but a lot of the time they're just white noise.

Mindfulness practice helps us choose what channel to watch, or if we want to watch TV at all. And when we choose to watch the TV of our minds, mindfulness practice helps us to remember the adage: don't believe everything you see on TV.

6 Tips to Help Jumpstart Your Meditation Practice

I first came to meditation out of desperation. As a sophomore in college, I had been struggling with a challenging course and was filled with anxiety and having minor freak-outs ahead of each class session. I remember feeling like I had to do something to take care of myself or I wouldn’t make it through the semester.

So every Wednesday morning before that class, once my roommate had left our dorm, I would sit my college-issued desk chair in the middle of our common space, close my eyes, and take a few minutes to breathe.

The result: I was calmer and less nervous about the class. I think I may have even gotten an A. When the semester ended, I wasn’t so committed to meditating each day, and my pittance of a practice fell by the wayside.

It wasn’t until the following summer when I attended a couple of residential meditation retreats that I decided I wanted to make meditation a more consistent part of my daily routine. In the decade since then I’ve gone through spells of time when I’ve been less than consistent in my daily practice. But on the whole, since I first made that commitment during my retreat, I’ve kept at it. Along the way, a few suggestions have bolstered my practice and kept me coming back (to the breath).

If you’re considering starting a meditation practice here are a few things that will support you.

1.     Make a commitment, set your intention, and make it do-able. First thing’s first, you have to decide you want to do this, and it will help if you’re reasonable in your expectations. Don’t start your meditation practice by forcing yourself to sit for at least three hours a day, each day. Chances are, you’ll get sick of it and will quit before you even see the magic that meditation can work on your life. Set yourself up with a goal you’ll be able to keep. It could be as small as five minutes for five days a week a day at first.

2.     Create a space where you can practice. These days I have my own altar and meditation area; but when I started out, it was the middle of the dorm room, the top bunk, and eventually a corner in my bedroom. Find somewhere conducive to taking a few minutes alone that you can reserve for just this practice (so not near a TV or where people gather in the house to chat).

Photo By: Gregory Crespo  You don't need an altar like this! A dedicated space in your room would work. :-)

Photo By: Gregory Crespo

You don't need an altar like this! A dedicated space in your room would work. :-)

3.     Set a consistent time to meditate each day. I like to meditate first thing in the morning before my head gets filled up with the day. Maybe it’s easier for you to set aside a few minutes of your lunch hour each day. Or perhaps bedtime will work better for you. Put it into your calendar like any other appointment, and I bet you’ll soon appreciate the value of having an appointment with yourself.

4.     Find a community to support you in this effort. It can be challenging to stick to your commitment when you’re alone in it. When I first committed to meditation practice, I was lucky enough to find a sitting group that met twice a week on my college campus. These days, I meditate with friends online once a week, and have a group I meet with in person once a month. Having even just one other person to be accountable to, to share your experiences with, and support you in this endeavor will make a huge difference in helping you keep your intentions.

5.     Be gentle with yourself and stick with it! While somewhat simple and seemingly easy, meditating, and sticking to a commitment to meditate each day, can be very challenging. You’ve been wiring your brain a certain way for your whole life, so it’s not surprising that the rewiring that comes with consistent meditation practice may not happen overnight. It can sometimes be discouraging when it feels like meditating is nothing more than glorified worrying or list-making with your eyes closed. But do not fret! The simple act of setting your intention and following through each day is enough. Being kind to yourself during your meditations and about your meditation practice is imperative for it to have a chance to take root and eventually blossom.

6.     Lastly, remember, you can do this!

You CAN do this! And if you’d like, I can help!

You're invited to join me during the month of October when I’ll be posting 15-minute guided meditations online each day. You can sit with me!

If you’ve never meditated before, or perhaps you’ve dabbled but not yet committed to a daily practice, or perhaps you just want to see me each day, then now is your opportunity! In addition to providing you the basics of mindfulness meditation, those of us sitting together each day can support each other as a community (see #4!), plus I’ll be kind to you (see #5) and will cheer you on the whole time (see #6). As an added bonus, you can reach out to me with any questions or concerns you're having with your practice. I'm here to help!

Set your intention (see #1) and sign up to “Sit With Me in October.” I’ll send you all the information you’ll need to jumpstart your own mindfulness practice.

Woohoo!

Asking for Help

Please excuse the long absence from blogging… I’ve made it a point to only write when I feel I’ve got something worth sharing; and for the past few weeks I hadn’t been feeling like I had much to offer.

I’ve debated whether or not to write about the cause of my absence—depression, anxiety and shame—feeling that somehow the fact that I experience these feelings in some way makes me a lesser human being and a lesser mindfulness teacher. But I have decided to share with the hope that by bringing this pain into the light, I can hopefully help others who may have had or are going through a similar experience.

Every once in a while I find myself in what I can best describe as a funk—a negative mindset combined with low energy and condescending self-talk. These funks might last a day or two and subside with meditation and exercise. But occasionally, like the last month or so, the funk turns into something more than just a passing bad mood. In these instances a dark pervasive energy takes over my whole outlook. In this most recent experience it sometimes felt like my head was surrounded by a bunch of relentless gnats, buzzing their judgments and anger at me. As the weeks passed, it began to feel like I was staring at a big impenetrable wall in front of me. Negative thoughts kept me from making decisions, and convinced me that the world was out to get me.

I was ashamed and embarrassed. I teach meditation, I’m not supposed to feel this way! Why do I feel so hopeless? Why can’t I think or meditate my way out of this?

Image Credit: Gregory Crespo  Feeling trapped inside my thoughts, my life passing me by.

Image Credit: Gregory Crespo

Feeling trapped inside my thoughts, my life passing me by.

I made deals with myself for deadlines to feel better; but with each deal, the deeper into self-loathing and self-judgment I’d fall. It seemed like my 45 minutes of daily meditation was the only respite from the relentless negative self-talk. But once off the cushion that voice would start berating me again. I did my best to bring mindfulness to my time off the cushion, but often the negative energy felt too strong for me to be with.

So I kept pushing it under the surface, hoping that by distracting myself and denying the existence of this shameful hurting it would somehow disappear.

It didn’t disappear. Instead, it bubbled over into some tearful conversations with my husband and then my parents.

I needed help.

In admitting this I immediately felt a huge relief. The shame I’d felt began to subside the more I admitted to myself and to my loved ones that I was struggling. I still felt confused and anxious, but it was no longer compounded by feelings of guilt and shame.

After I admitted that I needed help, my loved ones made sure that I got help. I talked to a professional, I had some bodywork done, and I took some time off. Things started to feel less heavy.

I was reminded to simply experience my pain and fear. I didn’t have to deny its existence or try to ignore it to make it go away. Just like I’ve learned time and time again, I have to be with what scares me with love and patience. I had tried doing that before seeking help, but it seemed like too much to handle. I can be so stubborn in my shame. So rather than ask for help, I was determined to go it alone, even if that meant unending suffering. I often forget that when it feels too difficult or scary to be with these emotions, it’s ok to ask for support. And it is probably a good idea to do so. This latest encounter with my darkness has softened me, and proven to me that holding my pain is far less frightening when I have backup in case things get to be too much.

I was also reminded that the fact I was struggling did not mean that I was any less lovable or worthwhile as a person. I am lovable and worthwhile just for being here (so are you!), regardless of what thoughts or feelings cross my mind at any given instant. My thoughts and emotions do not define my inherent worth, but my character is shaped by how I respond to these experiences.

My struggle didn’t automatically disqualify me from being a mindfulness teacher either. In fact, facing my suffering with compassion and patience has given me more empathy and confidence with which to help others. It’s difficult to show someone the way if you’ve never been there before. I’ve been there, and maybe I can help.

On Talking Dirty

The title of this post is a bit misleading, because I’m not writing about a bunch of naughty stuff here—after all, this is a kid-friendly website! But I did want to spend a little time to explain how to clean up our speech and why doing so can help us gain some peace of mind.

Speech is powerful, something as seemingly innocuous as a few words can make or break your day. Think about the last time you received an unsolicited compliment, or worse, an insult. The compliment may have brought with it a little tingle of joy, and the insult may have been more of a stinging slap to the ego. Our words carry weight, and can leave an impact long after things quiet down.

So it seems that being aware of what we say and how we say it could help make our days better for ourselves and for those around us.

Wise speech is a topic in Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and many other religious, spiritual and ethical discourses. Recognition of our words’ inherent power calls for some personal responsibility, which is probably why many of these texts include guidelines for speaking. Instead of delving into a long-winded comparative exploration of these texts, I thought that the following two bullet points might be useful for cleaning up our talk.

  • First, pay attention to what you say. Without an awareness of what we’re saying, positive or negative, it’s going to be rather difficult to make any changes to our habits.
  • Second, before you speak ask yourself the following two questions:
 

Is it true?

Is it helpful?

 

If I can’t answer YES to BOTH of these questions it is an indication to me that I should probably rethink whatever I’m about to say—or maybe not say anything at all.

This has proven to be both a challenging and fulfilling practice for me. Even though it wasn’t easy at first, I soon saw the benefits of speaking cleanly. As difficult as it was initially, it now offers me a surprising amount of freedom. I can more actively listen to those around me and I’m not worried about being right or proving a point; instead, I’m more focused on creating a situation that is beneficial for each of us in the conversation. I don’t have to look over my shoulder to see if the subject of my gossip is entering the room. I am no longer worried about whether or not I have hurt someone’s feelings with my careless speech. I don’t have to juggle any white lies in my mind. And I feel good about the things that I have said. In fact, I find that the practice encourages me to give honest compliments when I’m not sure what to say to someone.

It’s a work in progress for me, and there are still plenty of times when I get to practice self-forgiveness when I’ve not been the wisest with my words. But it’s something I see the value in continuing. I hope you will too!

Try the two bullet points above for an hour today and see how it feels. Does it change the way you write emails? Does it change how you’re connecting with those around you?

Stay tuned for more on cleaning up our words—next time I touch on this topic I’ll talk about cleaning up our internal monologue.



Adopting a Whale Mindset

I’ve been thinking about whales lately. Something about them captures my attention so that when I read about them or see pictures or videos of them my heart starts to fill up with excitement.

Since we moved back to California I have made a point to search for whales anytime we drive along the coast. Finally, last month after a year of fruitless (whaleless?) gazing, I spotted a group during a drive around Big Sur. Greg pulled over and the two of us watched about 15 gray whales frolicking in a cove below us. Neither of us could peel ourselves away from the view, and we stood there in awe of their sheer magnitude and majesty.

As we got back in the car and continued driving down the coastline, I started to realize why I get so joyful and hopeful when I see or read about whales. To me, they offer an incredible example of abundance.

Whales must consume thousands of pounds of tiny food each day during the feeding season. Their very existence hinges upon their environment providing them with millions of teeny organisms to eat each day. I did some rough approximating, and determined that the human equivalent in consumption based on the scale of a whale-to-food ratio (each of the 4-6 tons of krill that humpbacks eat a day are 1/1000th of humpback size) would be like me eating 50lbs of poppy seeds a day! That’s A LOT of poppy seeds!

And yet, I don’t see whales setting up big krill farming operations to ensure that they will have enough to eat each year. Instead they seem to trust in the abundance of nature and go about their business—migrating up and down the coast, eating thousands of pounds of food a day, and singing lovely songs to one another.

Watching my thoughts during meditation, if I catch myself worrying with a mindset of scarcity, I work to adopt what I believe is a “whale mindset.” With my whale mindset I welcome the abundance that each day has to offer, be it 50lbs of poppy seeds or fulfilling and nourishing work like teaching mindfulness. 

Loving Fear

Roomies! Eeek!

Roomies! Eeek!

I get scared.

A lot.

Sure, the big black jumping spiders sharing our apartment with us freak me out; but the fear I’m talking about usually rears its head right before I’m going to do something I love—like teach meditation, go traveling, start a business, or write a blog. Usually the fear comes around when I’ve been following my heart’s call, and it tries to convince me not to do what my heart has pushed for.

For weeks ahead of a big heart-led event, like this Mindfulness Teacher Training I recently attended, my fear starts creeping in. Not yet even discernable as a thought, it envelops me like a fog—trying desperately to obscure my heart from me. Before I know it, I’m clinging to every detail of planning for the event. As if having some control over part of it will somehow make the free-floating-fear-fog dissipate. Instead, it usually gets worse the more I plan.

Closer to the event the worries start to bubble to the surface. What will I say? Will people like me? What if I’m late? What if it’s not the right thing for me and my heart has been full of bologna this whole time?!

Logical Leslie takes over, attempting to shut these fears down. You’ve done this sort of thing before. You won’t know the answers unless you do it. It’s as though I’m desperately hoping that if I can logic my way through it, the fears will leave and I’ll get to be the self-assured confident person I aspire to be.

Unfortunately planning and logic-ing the fears away doesn’t usually work for me. Instead, this tends to amplify my anxiety. Even when I meditate on my fear each day, sending myself love, it still feels like part of the fear keeps eluding me. And that elusive part grows so big when I’m not meditating that it feels like a terrifying shadow following me around, weighing heavily on my heart wherever I go.

Yeah. It’s pretty miserable.

As the actual event gets closer I somehow convince myself that I’m not THAT scared, and that whatever messages my heart sent me months ago when I signed up for this, well, that those messages are probably still worth following. A stoicism overtakes me. I’m tight—tight shouldered, tight stomached, tight lipped. As if locking myself inside of me will somehow protect me from myself and whatever imaginary Other my fear has created.

At times like these, all I can do is breathe—following each breath with faith that my heart still knows the way.

A few minutes before my first solo trip to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2010. Sure, I'm giving thumbs up, but I'm actually a nervous wreck in this picture!

A few minutes before my first solo trip to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2010. Sure, I'm giving thumbs up, but I'm actually a nervous wreck in this picture!

So two weeks ago when I finally went to this training after months of fear and anticipation building up, I had the rare opportunity to really be with my fear as I felt it. I suppose it only makes sense that at a Mindfulness Teacher Training we’d be practicing a lot of mindfulness—awareness of our present moment experience without judgment.

I learned two surprising things about myself and my fear through this practice. 1) I was holding onto a story that “I” wasn’t enough, and that my vulnerability would reveal this to everyone around me. 2) I saw that my fear was afraid! Afraid that I wouldn’t be afraid anymore!

The first realization was big, but it’s one I’ve been working to uncover and disprove my whole life. My heart knows I am enough. Usually I just have to do these “scary” things to regain my trust in myself and my heart’s desire. Being vulnerable in these situations isn’t something to hide, rather, it is an offering. Honoring and respecting my vulnerability was a huge gift for me. We are ALL vulnerable, and if we try to hide our vulnerability we sell ourselves short, missing the chance to empathize and offer each other love and compassion. Like a new flower, I’m most vulnerable as I grow, and like that new flower, I’m also beautiful in my vulnerability. Can I keep viewing my vulnerability as an offering? I hope so.

Opening to the sun, beautiful in their vulnerability. 

Opening to the sun, beautiful in their vulnerability. 

The second realization was a doozy for me. My fear is afraid. Whoa! If this is so, why do I keep pushing it away? That’s not how I would treat a scared child! So why am I treating my fear like that? Being scared, having fear, this doesn’t make me less of a person. The heart that guided me to whatever scary place I find myself in, that same heart has the capacity to hold my fear with love. When all of my efforts revolve around strangling or stifling my fear, it just grows out of control. But by holding my fear with nonjudgmental loving attention, by becoming intimately familiar with all of its facets, its sharp edges, its soft parts and tight parts, I was able to let it go with ease and grace.

Realizing that my fear was afraid, seeing its vulnerability, gave me the empathy to hold my fear with love. And in holding it with love, not stifling or strangling it, I could let it go.

Let's see if these realizations stick, or if I'll get to re-learn them the next time I'm afraid. :-)

Getting Out Of A Rut

Ever find yourself in a rut? Stressed out at work, too exhausted to cook dinner, anxious thoughts flitting through your head all evening to the point that they’re keeping you up at night, then not sleeping well and feeling unable to focus the next day? That’s pretty extreme. Maybe you’re just feeling kind of blah about stuff and aren’t sure why or how you got to feeling this way.

Photo Credit: Greg Crespo  Stuck in a rut, it's easy to miss the beauty surrounding us.

Photo Credit: Greg Crespo

Stuck in a rut, it's easy to miss the beauty surrounding us.

I just finished reading Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, and it had some helpful ideas for how to get out of the ruts in which we so often find ourselves stuck. In addition to advice on getting out of your rut, the book provided straightforward and easy to follow instructions on cultivating a mindfulness practice of your own. I found Williams and Penman’s perspective refreshing and realistic. While the book offers eight weeks of mindfulness meditations and contemplations, I will just focus on the “habit releasers” that they include with each week of practice.

As creatures of habit we have a tendency to get into habitual ways of thinking and acting, and in turn, glossing over some of our lives with conditioned ways of being. Think about it the next time you drive somewhere. How much do you actually have to concentrate on the act of driving? What else are you thinking about during that time?

Once we train our brains how to do something, the neurons fire along the same course in our heads, carving out a well-traveled path. In many cases these well-traveled neuro-pathways make our day-to-day living much easier. Imagine if you had to put a lot of thought into the act of putting your pants on each morning. Unfortunately though, we sometimes put ourselves on autopilot without really meaning to. Williams and Penman explain, “You can easily end up thinking, working, eating, walking or driving without clear awareness of what you are doing. The danger is that you miss much of your life this way."

It is possible to be more mindful or aware of what is going on moment-to-moment. While having a daily mindfulness practice will help hone your skills and ability to maintain moment-to-moment awareness, you don’t have to have an established practice to try shaking things up a bit with these habit releasers that Williams and Penman suggest in their book:

  • Sit in a different chair or move the position of the chair you typically sit in for your next work meeting or at the dinner table. What is the view like from this new perspective?
  • Go for a walk. Try to make it at least 15 minutes long. Even if you can’t get out in nature, see what nature you can find sneaking out of the world around you. What new things, people, or places did you discover? Pretend you are an explorer in uncharted territory.
  • Value your devices. Before plopping down in front of the T.V. or Ipad for a night of mindless entertainment, decide what show you really want to watch or what website you really want to visit that evening. Make a point to only turn on the T.V. or Ipad for the program or website you have picked out, and to turn it off once it’s over. At the end of the evening, make a note of how it went, what it felt like to only watch or read what you wanted to.
  • Go to the movies at a set time and choose whatever movie looks best to you at that time. Don’t go with the movie picked out ahead of time. Even if none of the movies really appeals to you, go to one of them anyway. Let yourself be consumed by the film you chose. Williams and Penman explain, “Often what makes us happiest in life is the unexpected—the chance encounter or the unpredicted event.”
  • Plant some seeds or take care of a plant. Studies have shown that just the act of caring for another living thing can improve one’s life. Enjoy watching the mystery of life unfold as you tend to your plant. Notice the smells, colors, and textures. Soak it all in.
  • Think of something that used to make you happy that you don’t do anymore. Maybe it’s riding bikes, flying a kite, drawing or cooking. Set some time aside this week and just go do it. Don’t wait until you feel like doing it—just do it and see what happens.
  • Do something for someone else. You could let someone else go ahead of you in line, or send a thoughtful note to a friend. It can be as small and as simple as smiling at your neighbor. Notice what it feels like to connect with a smiling heart.

I dare you to try one these this week. Just see what happens. You might find you agree with Williams and Penman that “it’s difficult to be curious and unhappy at the same time.”

Do you have any habit-releasers that have helped you get out of a rut? Please share below in the comments!

Planetary Perspective

“…The Earth, as Buckminster Fuller used to famously say, is a spaceship, Spaceship Earth. We are in space already. It’s just that we haven’t brought that into our perspective as we live here on Earth. The Overview Effect is simply the sudden recognition that we live on a planet, and all the implications that it brings to life on Earth.”  --David Beaver, Co-Founder of the Overview Institute

Today we celebrate Mother Earth. As I contemplated how best to share my gratitude and awe of our planetary home, I remembered two websites that made the rounds a while back. Each of them offers a unique perspective from which to view our place in the universe, and hopefully each will offer even more reason to celebrate Earth today.

It’s easy for me to get stuck in the mental construct that my reality is all that exists and that I am the center of the universe. Heck, we are all at the center of our own universes, right? Scrolling through the interactive “Scale of the Universe” is an easy way to dispel this self-centered mind-state. By scrolling left and right you get pictures depicting the relative scale of everything in the universe—from the smallest to the largest.

I’ve looked at this site a couple of times, and each time it humbles me and fills me with awe. How can we be both so huge, compared to the smallest unit of scale, and yet so minute, compared to the vastness of the observable universe? It makes me feel lucky to experience life on this planet, in this form. Our Earth holds so much of our reality, but is just a tiny piece of the fabric of the universe.

Unifying the vast and minute, former Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell shares a realization he had upon seeing Earth from space, “…I had studied Astronomy, and I had studied Cosmology, and fully understood that the molecules in my body, and the molecules in my partners’ bodies and in the spacecraft had been prototyped in some ancient generation stars. In other words, it was pretty obvious from those descriptions, we’re stardust.” The largest and the smallest, we’re all made of the same stuff!

Growing up, I wanted so badly to be an astronaut. Then I realized how much math and science were involved, and I decided to look for other career options. But I think that this video about the “Overview Effect” experienced by astronauts like Mitchell explains why I wanted to go to space. If you haven’t watched it before, give yourself a 20-minute break and enjoy.

In the video, philosopher David Loy describes what some of these astronauts came away feeling. “…That experience of awe, is at least for the moment, to let go of yourself, to transcend the sense of separation. So it’s not just that they were experiencing something other than them, but that they were at some very deep level, integrating, realizing, their interconnectedness with that beautiful blue-green ball.” This description makes me smile, because while I didn’t become an astronaut, my meditation practice has offered me a similar understanding.

So happy Earth Day! I hope these sites will help you to take a moment today to revel with wonder and awe at our glorious home. 

Packing and Waiting: Tips for Mindful Travel

We’ll be heading out of town tomorrow for a family trip, so I thought I’d share some resources I found helpful in preparing for our journey. My friend Jared Gottlieb has written two blogs for National Geographic about traveling mindfully. Tapping into the wisdom of meditation teachers Jonathan Foust and Sharon Salzberg, Jared gives some great pointers on packing and traveling mindfully.

Packed and waiting...

Packed and waiting...

As I lay out my clothes, toiletries and other necessities for our travel, Jonathan Foust’s advice about packing is at the forefront of my mind.

"Jonathan says that while packing light is a priority, the decision-making process should always support a 'sense of safety and preparedness.' … It’s about being conscious of what’s important to you, Jonathan says. 'When I’m really mindful about what I carry, I feel more secure — I’m more open to the unknown.'"

Knowing that I have the essential items I'll need helps me to relax into the experience of traveling. I'm not constantly thinking about whether or not I brought the right stuff because I already spent some time figuring out a plan.

Once I fill up my backpack for the trip, I know I’ll be turning to these ideas from Sharon Salzberg to help me to best “appreciate the journey, especially the more unpleasant parts.”

When I remember to, I like to “wait with lovingkindness” as Sharon recommends, cultivating “a sense of benevolence or recognition that our lives are connected and that everybody wants to be happy.” Standing in line for security is less stressful when I’m wishing my fellow travelers a safe flight and happy travels.

And her advice to “be where you are,” is keeping me grounded today, as I sit with anticipation and excitement about what is to come. For now, I am here in my home, my feet tapping with a hint of anxiety and eagerness for tomorrow. Tomorrow, I will be someplace else, and I will work to pay “attention to what’s happening around [me]—and within [me].” Because I trust that “when [my] attention is focused on where [I am, I’ll] arrive at [my] destination in the best possible state of mind.”

There are more tips and practical advice on the two National Geographic articles. Check them out before the next time you hit the road! 

How and Why Mindfulness Aids in Self-Control

Researcher Rimma Teper’s work looks into why and how practicing mindfulness can help regulate our emotions. Her interview with Emily Nauman over at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center gives some scientific backing to what many mindfulness practitioners have found through experience.

Rimma’s explains:

"The link between mindfulness and improved emotion regulation is certainly not a new one. What our model does is examine the nature of this relationship and helps to understand how mindfulness may improve emotion regulation.

There is often a misconception that mindfulness simply leads to less emotionality, or that mindful people experience less emotion.

Our model proposes that this is not the case. Specifically, we suggest that mindfulness leads to improvements in emotion regulation not by eliminating or reducing emotional experience, but rather through a present-moment awareness and acceptance of emotional experience. This sort of attentive and open stance towards one’s own emotions and thoughts allows the individual to still experience emotion, but also to detect emotions early on and stop them from spiraling out of control." 

In my own practice, it’s that “attentive and open stance” towards my emotions that helps shrink them down from the giant monster in my head to something more manageable. Instead of running in mental circles to avoid feeling something unpleasant, I can see the emotion for what it is and go from there. 

You can read the entire interview here: How Does Mindfulness Improve Self-Control?

Gratitude Webs

Gratitude is one of my favorite practices, mostly because it makes me feel good. :-) 

When I practice gratitude I feel like my life is full of abundance and that I am connected to the rest of the world. It helps me cheer myself up when I’m bummed out and it helps me to savor and enjoy things when I'm feeling great. 

Feeling grateful!

Feeling grateful!

I have plenty of ways I bring gratitude in my daily life, but today I’ll share one that makes for a fun art activity.

Drumroll please... Gratitude webs!

You’ll need a blank piece of paper and a pen or pencil. If you’re feeling extra artsy, or if you have kiddos participating too, you’ll probably want some crayons or colored pencils as well.

You can each come up with something or someone that you feel grateful for—something that brings you joy to think about, and that you feel happy is in your life. Maybe it’s your computer, your pet, your spouse, your parent, the dinner you just ate. The possibilities are limitless. Today, I chose my morning cup of coffee.

Ok, write that item down in the middle of your page. You can circle it if you like. I chose to draw a picture of the item too. 

A starting point.

A starting point.

Now start thinking about what all came together to make that person, place or thing possible. Did it need nourishment? Did someone build it? Did you get it at a store? Did a farmer plant it?

Make a line coming out from the center item going to one of those things that made it possible. If you can think of a lot of things that made it possible, make a lot of lines!

The web is growing.

The web is growing.

Now, take some time to think about what made those things possible. Did the farmer water the plant? Did someone drive it to the store? Did someone sew the cloth? Did your item need sunshine? Love?

Make a line coming from the outer items to all of these new parts you’ve just reflected on.

You can keep doing this until you run out of space, or out of imagination.

A lot of things had to come together for my morning cup of coffee. There is quite a bit to be grateful for!

A lot of things had to come together for my morning cup of coffee. There is quite a bit to be grateful for!

Way to go! You’ve just created a gratitude web! The next time you feel grateful for your item, you can also feel grateful for all of that webbing you added around it. Without all of those other parts, the thing you were feeling grateful for wouldn’t be there to begin with! No matter how many times I do this activity, I'm always amazed at how connected we all are. 

Nothing Special

Seems like I spend a lot of my time either looking forward to stuff or dreading it in a mess of anxiety. Meanwhile, I overlook whatever ‘boring’ thing is happening right now because I’m too busy distracting myself on the internet or making up stories about the far more interesting future.

Every once in a while though, usually after I’ve just meditated or worked out, I have the clarity of mind to stop and appreciate nothing special.

Look at that guy! 

Look at that guy! 

Most of the time my mind is so much happier to be distracted from that nothing special. At least, it thinks it’s happier. But really, with the anxiety it’s tight, constricted, limited and with the daydreaming it’s half asleep in a distant Fantasy-land. When my mind wanders to either of those places (which is far more often than I’d like) it is as if I’ve decided that whatever is happening right now isn’t all that interesting or worth noticing. Let alone worth living!

I don’t really feel like I decided that though.

The more I’ve practiced mindfulness, the more I realize that my mind has a mind of its own. It will just flit off to la-la land without asking permission, or dive bomb into a pit of endless fear after the hint of a threat. All of this creates hours of entertainment. Oh the drama! The comedy! But I wouldn’t say that this 'entertainment' makes me happy.

Hours and hours of sitting on my meditation cushion noticing thought after thought, as they come and go, as they contract my stomach muscles and limit my perspective, or as they open my heart and loosen my shoulders, all of this noticing and paying attention to what circus my mind is putting on for itself is punctuated by the fact that someone else, someone apart from my thoughts and emotions, some distinct I, is watching it all.

And I have a choice about what channel watch.

What happens if I turned the station to the present moment?

Instead of taking up the whole screen in my mind, those seemingly incessant thoughts of pushing or pulling about the future now only run along the bottom like a headline news ticker. And the main program, the channel that I chose, is far more interesting.

Ohh! There is a banana slug scooching on the back porch. And I think I can see the fern unfolding its leaves in front of me! Oh, wow, this orange is really juicy!

Sometimes, when I get wrapped up in the present (or rather, unwrap the present), even the news ticker fades away. Instead of defining who I am—a worrier, a dreamer—those are just thoughts I have sometimes. What I glossed over earlier because it wasn’t sensational enough for my media-saturated attention is now so engrossing that it’s quieted the chatterbox who lives in my head.

It’s weird how when I start to notice nothing special, it somehow becomes something special after all. Sweet.

Try it yourself!

Technology is often one of my main escapes from the present. But let’s take a second to let our technology (as in, this blog post) guide us into the present. I challenge you to stop what you are doing on the Internet for just two minutes. Minimize your tabs, turn off your monitor, put your phone on silent (after you finish reading these questions!). And now notice how you’re feeling. What’s going on around you? What’s going on inside of you? What channel is playing in your brain? What does it feel like to disconnect, if only for two minutes? 

Bill Treats PTSD with Mindfulness and Yoga

Each day, soldiers return home from combat often ill-equipped for the mental and emotional stress of life after combat. Suicide rates among veterans are upwards of 22 per day, and occurrence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among vets from Iraq and Afghanistan is between 11 and 20% according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

Mindfulness and integrative health programs may offer some relief for these veterans.  

A couple of weeks ago I brought up the utility of mindfulness for athletes, and today I wanted to briefly highlight an article about how mindfulness and integrative health programs may soon be among mental health options for veterans in the U.S.

Congressmen Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Rich Nugent (R-Fla.) introduced The Veterans and Armed Forces’ Health Promotion Act of 2013 in November. Among the many programs it seeks to introduce for members of the armed services, the bill would offer a variety of wellness programs aimed at veterans including mindfulness, yoga therapy and healthy eating. While some of these programs are already in place, the bill would make them more widely available to all veterans. 

Congressman Ryan, a practitioner and fervent advocate of mindfulness, explained to the Huffington Post that mindfulness is “helping the veterans, it’s low-cost, it’s low-tech, and there aren’t any side effects… If that doesn’t cross partisan lines, I don’t know what’s going to.”

Sounds reasonable to me!

Have a look at the full article here: Why This Congressman Is Fighting To Bring Mindfulness To Veterans

I'll keep an eye out and post an update on the bill's progress. At the moment, it has been referred to the Subcommittee on Military Personnel.

Listening Safari

Here's one for the kids (and any grown ups who like to act like kids)! Practicing mindfulness can be quite fun!

I have found that a great way to get children interested and engaged in mindfulness training is by inviting them to participate in a way that they already feel comfortable doing.

Most children are eager to let their imaginations run free. The animal ears activity is a fun way to bring mindfulness into creative play.

Perk up those ears! What do you hear?

Perk up those ears! What do you hear?

The intent here is to foster mindful listening—an open awareness of sound without judgment. Inviting children to pay attention to the sounds around them is an easy entry into mindfulness. And getting to do so through play makes it all the more fun.

With your child, brainstorm some animals that have good hearing. Each of you can choose one of these animals to ‘be’ for this activity. Together, put on your animals’ ears. Now pretend that you are out in the wild and need to be extra still and extra quiet in order to listen to all of the sounds around you. You may even invite them to close their eyes so that they are relying only on their animal ears.

Try this for about a minute, or longer if they are enjoying it! You could even try it in a few different environments--inside, outside, at the park, etc.

After you have finished listening to your environment(s), share what you heard. Did you hear loud sounds? Quiet sounds? Sounds from inside your body? Other animals? Vehicles? Ask your child how the different sounds made them feel. As an animal, did it make him want to run and hide? Go out hunting? Stay still?

Finally, invite your child to draw a picture of some of the sounds she heard that she doesn’t usually hear.

You can take a listening safari together at home, or even on a walk outside (though, you may want to keep your eyes open for that!).

I’d love to hear in the comments what animals you were, and what sounds you noticed. :-)

My Dirty Laundry

Laundry. I've never much liked doing my laundry.  Not that it is something most people revel in, but I've harbored a real aversion to it. Growing up, I paid my mom a portion of my allowance so she would do my laundry. And in college, I would buy new underwear to avoid a trip to the laundry room (I know I'm not alone here!). So last week, when I was assigned to do kitchen laundry while on a Lovingkindness retreat, I wasn't sure that I could embrace the task with much lovingkindness!

Upon arriving at the retreat center, everyone attending is assigned a chore for the week.  And throughout the week, in addition to sitting and walking meditation, this becomes a working meditation--a chance to see how we can bring our practice with us to other parts of life after the retreat. On past retreats I’ve been assigned to wash dishes and sweep walkways, and I gained new appreciation for the satisfaction I could find in those tasks. So when I was put on laundry duty I was curious to see if my opinion of the chore would change.

Feeeeed me! 

Feeeeed me! 

The retreat was spent in silence. No talking. No reading. No writing. No computers! No phones!! But what was allowed and encouraged was quieting the mind by internally repeating the phrases, “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. And May I live with ease.” Morning, noon and night I kept these phrases on an internal loop--wishing them for myself, wishing them for people I like, wishing them for people I don’t particularly like, wishing them for animals, wishing them for all beings everywhere. You get the idea.

I wished them while sitting still. I wished them while eating. I wished them while walking. And yep, I wished them while doing the laundry.

All of the dirty rags, aprons, towels, and veggie cloths would get piled high into a grocery cart that I rolled out into the crisp Massachusetts air each morning on my way to the laundry room. The task was simple enough. Shake out the excess gunk, load the laundry machines, three pumps of sanitizer, one scoop of detergent, unload the laundry machines, load the dryer, hot and regular for 45 minutes, fold, fold, fold, put away. Repeat daily.

Despite my aversion, I quickly grew to enjoy my job. There isn’t much stimulation on a silent retreat, and an hour of folding towels fresh from the dryer on a snowy afternoon provided much entertainment. With the well-wishes on repeat in my head, I sent kind wishes to each towel, rag and apron, extending my positive thinking out to all of the people in the kitchen who might use them, and then extending further to wish kind thoughts to all those who would benefit from the work of the kitchen. Each afternoon turned into a little laundry love-fest, wherein I left with two laundry baskets full of folded towels and a great feeling of satisfaction--amazing what a little lovingkindness will do!

---Ok, this next part seems kind of cheesey. And when it was happening it felt kind of cheesey. I debated whether or not to post this because it felt kind of trite. But here it is, because despite the cheesiness, it was one of those 'aha' moments and I think it's worth noting.---

I noticed that even away from the laundry room, the rags and aprons were making their way into my consciousness. One afternoon as I sat in the meditation hall, working through some painful emotions, all I could see in my head were lines of laundry hanging out to dry. They seemed to take up the whole frame of my mind’s eye. Not sure what else to do, I went with it and started wishing the laundry well. And I started well-wishing my painful emotions. After doing this for a while, instead of just seeing laundry hanging out to dry, I saw a huge expansive sky, my laundry just a small speck at the edge. I realized that the line of laundry would soon be dry, and I’d fold it and put it away. Then all I’d be left with was that big beautiful sky. The emotional pain I was struggling with was beginning to dissolve. I guess sometimes those things just want to be washed, dried and put away with care.

More laundry will come. With each new day I will fill up the basket. I’ll have dirty laundry until the day I die. I can choose to push it away, buy new underwear, pay my mom to do it, or let the dirty pile fill up my view and blot out the big sky. Or I can choose to send it well wishes and open-heartedly welcome each dirty rag and painful emotion as a chance to send some love to the world.

I tend to think I’ll choose the latter of the two options. Though, I imagine it will depend on how I’m feeling each day and whether or not The Gap is having a sale on underwear. 

Here's my challenge to you for the weekend: Pick a chore you don't particularly like. As you do the chore this weekend, pay very close attention to what's going on in you head as well as physically what it feels like to do the chore. See if you can maintain that focus throughout the activity. Can you give the task at hand your full attention? No phones, no worrying about tomorrow, no TV? If you feel up to it, try sending some kind wishes. May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with ease. Or whatever feels right. Notice what you're thinking and feeling once you complete the task. I'm not promising rainbows, butterflies, or a beautiful expansive sky, but the simple act of noticing what is happening just might change your experience. Try it for yourself! 

Maybe NFL Players Can Be Role Models?

NFL Mindfulness Coach and sport's psychologist, Michael Gervais of the Super Bowl winning Seattle Seahawks, spoke at the Wisdom 2.0 conference this weekend in San Francisco. (I'll tell you more about the Conference in the coming days!) I bet that while you were watching the Big Game you weren’t thinking much about mindfulness and compassion, and you probably didn't think the players were either. I get it, watching beefy dudes tackle each another doesn’t conjure images of serene meditators or inspire compassionate communication.

But one of the reasons the Seahawks may have had the upper hand was because they embraced mindfulness practice, yoga, and positive visualization as elements of their training and the team culture. Gervais said that as a team, they worked to have "one heartbeat"--55 players and 22 coaches, hearts beating in unison.

Back in September I read this ESPN article about the Seahawks' unorthodox training and was tickled to see that mindfulness had made it to the NFL. Yesterday Gervais went further to explain their meditation practice and how the Seahawks treated every game of the season as a championship opportunity. Big or small, every moment counted. 

While I know their mindfulness practice wasn’t all that earned the Seahawks their championship rings, it isn’t difficult to imagine how mindfulness contributed to their winning season. Seahawk Russell Okung explained to ESPN, "Meditation is as important as lifting weights and being out here on the field for practice."

Before this weekend, my students and I came up with three mindfulness related skills that support Okung’s assertion on the importance of meditation:

  • Focus- Through continued meditation practice (the article says they began back in 2010), the players likely honed their abilities to focus and concentrate both on and off of the field. As I often say to my students, practicing in the calm of your bedroom gets you ready to use your mindfulness in more stressful times. And as Gervais described yesterday, the stress dissolves as the players become absorbed in the present moment.
  • Resilience- With their enhanced focus, it would be easier for players to let go of mistakes and triumphs in order to more fully engage with the task at hand. Gervais called this "Failing Fast." Instead of feeling angry towards themselves or a teammate for a botched play, it would be easier to let go and start over. 
  • Visualization- Instead of filling their heads with negative thoughts, “You’re not strong enough,” “You need to play harder,” “You’ll never win playing like that!” the Seahawks and their coaching staff worked to positively visualize the future. In order for visualizations to work, players first had to develop an awareness of their thoughts, because without recognizing and befriending the negative ones, there would be little space for the positive ones to take hold.

Gervais added that the team culture also emphasized compassion and empathy, which were also key elements to the Seahawks’ success. (How did Miami do this year?) When we are aware of our mental landscape, we notice that others experience similar highs and lows. Viewing our personal highs and lows without judgment creates space for our compassion to grow, both for ourselves and for others. By treating their players as people, I think the Seahawks got it right.

Never thought you’d be reading about compassionate football players, right?

Do you use mindfulness in athletics? How has it helped up your game?