Lice, Tie-Dye, and Some Soul Cleansing

Lice, Tie-Dye, and Some Soul Cleansing

It wasn’t until I spent my 21st birthday on a meditation retreat that I found anything remotely as soul cleansing and wonderful as hippy camp. Instead of singing camp songs, it was days of silence and contemplation. And instead of making tie-dye, new little joys came in mindfully doing laundry or washing dishes.

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Obstacles On The Path

Obstacles On The Path

With mindfulness we can become aware of the obstacles we face without getting unwittingly mired in their traps. Instead of trying to barrel through them or obliterate them, we learn how to work with them and how to meet them with the same relaxed, kind, interest that we meet anything else in our practice.

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Stop Thinking That You Have to Stop Thinking

When I first came to meditation I had it in my mind that I was supposed to sit down, close my eyes, and stop my thoughts. With somewhere around 60,000 thoughts a day, that would have been no small task! The longer I sat in meditation, the more frustrated I became at my inability to turn off my thoughts. I have a feeling I'm not the only person who has had this frustration and misunderstanding about the "goal" of this meditation practice.

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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!

Checking Your Weather

Earlier today I was reflecting on taking an internal weather report and the refrain of a 90’s rap song kept going through my head, “You better check yo’self before your wreck yo’self.” Given the rest of the lyrics in his song, I don’t think Ice Cube was necessarily referring to mindfulness. But if he was, I think he might have been onto something that is key to living mindfully: paying attention to what’s going on inside right now so as not to exacerbate our suffering.

What’s the weather inside of you like right now? Are you a turbulent ball of anger and frustration, chest and face heating up with contraction and short breaths? Are you light and airy, floating on a cloud of joy and excitement bubbling up as you approach some much anticipated event? Or are you feeling kind of heavy, dull and sluggish, trudging your way through this blog as a distraction from the boring, never-ending pile of work on your desk?

We’ve probably all had our own experiences of each of these internal weather patterns, and in all likelihood, we’ve already had a handful of different weather patterns today. Getting up and feeling a bit dazed or sleepy, feeling alert and ambitious after that first cup of coffee, feeling the sting of embarrassment and a stab of fear upon hitting “Reply All” instead of “Reply,” or feeling the lightness and calm of taking a quiet walk during your lunch hour.

The practice of mindfulness helps us to notice the weather as it is happening inside of us and once we notice it, we can choose a compassionate and skillful way to respond to whatever tempest, frost, or spring dew we are experiencing. You know, like Ice Cube suggests, checking ourselves before we wreck ourselves. Because without an awareness of what’s going on inside, it can be difficult to prevent the volcano from erupting and destroying everything in sight.

If we notice the tightness of a clenched jaw and a stomach tying itself into knots, we can look a bit deeper to uncover what may be the cause of our tightening. Knowing ourselves, we can then take better care of ourselves. Maybe we can pause for a few deep breaths, or open the mouth to stretch out the jaw. Or perhaps we could even remove ourselves from the situation that is causing such distress—if only for a few moments to regain some composure. This way instead of acting out of our clenched jaw, tight stomach, red-faced self, we can come back to a more centered and calmer place to address the situation at hand.

When I practice sitting meditation, I typically fluctuate between any number of weather patterns during my time on the cushion. Upon noticing the shift in my internal barometric pressure, I gently bring my awareness back to the feeling of the breath, finding a place of calm in the storm. It’s this repeated practice of checking the weather in the safety and comfort of my home that prepares me for life off the cushion. Having practiced it a zillion times before, I am comfortable checking myself throughout the day. And having noticed the multitude of shifting weather patterns in my daily sits, I am comfortable and less fearful when a big storm shows up on the horizon—I trust it will pass in time, and so, do not wreck myself.

So now is your chance to follow Ice Cube’s advice. Set aside a couple of times in your day to check your internal weather. It might help to set an alert on your computer or phone to remind you throughout the day. At the appointed time, take a moment to get still, taking a few deep breaths. Turning your attention inward, notice how you feel. You can notice physical sensations, recurring thoughts, emotions, or the absence of any of these. Pay attention too, to your reaction to your internal weather—do you want it to change? Do you want it to stay like this forever? Do you wish you’d feel something? Keep in mind, this experiment simply asks you to notice what’s going on; there is no need for it to be a certain way or for you to feel a particular way. Each feeling and thought is worth noticing. 

Having now checked yo’self, you can proceed in your day without wrecking yo’self. 

Getting Comfortable with Change

Sunday morning at about 3:20 I opened my eyes and looked over at my husband. The bed was shaking, we were shaking, the house was rattling. We were feeling an earthquake with its epicenter about 30 miles away from us. I remember thinking to myself that I was glad I’d installed some extra supports under our shelving last week.

After the shaking stopped, we hopped out of bed to survey the damage. Thankfully, apart from some rattled nerves everything else was just as we’d left it before going to bed. However, I know that for the thousands of residents living closer to the epicenter, life was turned upside down in those thirty seconds of shaking.

Everything is constantly changing. The sun sets, the moon rises. Leaves change colors and fall to the ground. Children grow up. Sometimes the inevitability of change can numb us to its effects and we forget that today’s experience will be different tomorrow. Other times the change happens in an instant, like Sunday’s earthquake, and we’re reminded quite suddenly of the impermanent nature of our existence.

Photo Credit Gregory Crespo  Even that which seems permanent is subject to change... and trees!

Photo Credit Gregory Crespo

Even that which seems permanent is subject to change... and trees!

The fact that things are always changing can be a reason for suffering, disappointment or aversion. I remember when I was a 12 year-old at summer camp and my favorite counselor from the year before had not returned for my session. The other counselors kept reassuring me that “change is good,” but my tweenage self replied, “but cash is better.” Unwilling to accept the fact that things change and grasping at my past experience, I spent a good chunk of my time at camp bummed out about personnel issues instead of enjoying my experience.

At other times change can be a cause to rejoice. (I’m glad that my 12 year-old attitude changed and matured through the years!) When I get the flu often my first fear is that the body aches, fever, and malaise will last forever. But once I remember impermanence, I begin looking forward to healthier days and wishing away my present experience. I'm not really sure how sick I feel because so much of my energy is spent bracing myself against the pain and wishing that it would go away. 

I’ve learned through mindfulness practice that neither of these extreme reactions to change feels very good. Each reaction—grasping for the past or longing for the future—is a denial of what is actually happening. There is a happy middle way to approaching change that does not involve either of these extremes: just experiencing life as it comes. Something magical happens to aversion, grasping and impatience when I give my attention to my present experience. They don’t quite disappear, but they do become somewhat less gripping. I can be more comfortable in my discomfort.

So how can we learn to be with what is without wishing it away or trying to hold onto it forever? Mindfulness can help! (After all, this is a mindfulness blog!) Here are three things to try out today that will help prepare you to face your next change with grace and joy:

  • We can get familiar with change by following the breath for a minute or two. Close your eyes, let your body get still, and let all of your attention rest on the sensation of the breath as it comes in and out. See if you can notice the subtle shifts that take place. Does the temperature stay the same? What about the pace or depth? Can you inhale or exhale forever? What is it like to experience the breath as it changes?
  • We can take some time to feel gratitude during each day so that we honor what is and are sure to enjoy the present while it happens. For a week, keep a gratitude journal as you go to bed, writing three things you’re grateful for from the day. Notice how your heart and mind feel as you go to bed feeling grateful for the day you just experienced. How does this impact your experience of the present moment? Can you practice feeling grateful throughout the day?
  • Lastly, we can practice getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. Find a comfortable position, and sit perfectly still for 5 minutes. Don’t scratch, don’t adjust your legs or hands, don't clear your throat. Watching how our minds work and react to discomfort (like a leg falling asleep) will prepare us when change comes and we feel uncomfortable. What is it like to simply be with that discomfort? Bring some curiosity and scientific investigation to the process. What does it feel like to react to discomfort? What exactly does the discomfort feel like? Tingling? Burning? Itching? Tickling? 

When it comes down to it, we can only respond to what is in front of us when it arises. Hopefully the next time you're faced with an uncomfortable change, you can fall back on one of these exercises—taking some time to breathe, finding one or two small things to be grateful for, and spending some time getting to know the uncomfortable—so that you can remain in the present moment, riding the waves of change instead of getting pummeled by them. 

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.

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. :-)

Quiet Eyes

A few weeks ago I posted a gratitude activity that highlighted how interconnected we all are. I recently finished reading Sharon Salzberg’s book Faith and this passage stood out to me. It articulates the power of contemplations like gratitude webs:

In order to know the truth of interconnectedness we need to look at the world with what theologian Howard Thurman calls ‘quiet eyes.’ It might be through silent meditation that we see the hidden patterns of connection that make up our inner life. It might be through pausing long enough to realize where a plate of spaghetti comes from. However we do it, softly receiving reality with quiet eyes rather than pinpointing objects and events as separate and distinct opens up our view instead of enclosing it with predetermined boundaries. We take in what is appearing before reactions and conclusions get fixed. When we relax into this mode of perception, a different perspective on reality becomes available to us.
Image: Greg Crespo  So much more than "just a cup of coffee!"

Image: Greg Crespo

So much more than "just a cup of coffee!"

So often we get stuck in our patterns of naming this or that as definitive objects. The example I used last week of a cup of coffee showed that the coffee is so much more than the warm liquid in my mug—it was a unique confluence of the efforts of many, natural processes and certain causes and conditions. When I look upon my cup of coffee as "just a cup of coffee," I lose out on the wonder and the larger perspective that viewing it with “quiet eyes” gives me.

And it’s not just with tangible objects. I’m prone to delineate and define my emotions or situation in life as "this or that," "good or bad." When I look at a feeling of shame or anger rising inside of me with these narrow eyes, that’s all I see, shame or anger. And sometimes, (actually, usually), these narrow eyes are accompanied by some judgmental sunglasses, declaring said emotion as worthy or unworthy, positive or negative.

Looking at anger with “quiet eyes,” I see and experience a tightening in my chest, my face growing flush, the breath quickening, and an elevated heart rate. I notice the painfulness of these sensations. I notice a layer of fear emanating from behind my judgmental sunglasses, "You will always feel this angry!" "How dare you feel that way?!" "You’re a mindfulness teacher, you’re not supposed to have these thoughts!"

But thankfully, by using my “quiet eyes,” I can see the anger as just another layer of experience resulting from a confluence of causes and conditions.

My "quiet eyes" recognize what I did or said, what someone else did or said, and what thought or occurrence brought this emotion to the surface. My “quiet eyes” turn “I am so angry” into “Right now, I feel anger.” In addition to the thoughts and sensations associated with my anger, my "quiet eyes" also see the vast open sky of awareness that stands as background to any emotions I might have.

In Faith, Sharon describes it like this: 

The open nature of awareness can bare anything without becoming damaged. Relying on this unsullied nature, we can see whatever happens to us as part of the rising and passing of all phenomena. This understanding doesn’t make us passive, but gives us the ability to see things with a different perspective—knowing that there is always an intact place within us. Then we needn’t be paralyzed by our suffering.

“Quiet eyes” help me remember the intact place within me. Unruffled. Accepting. Aware. 

Image: Greg Crespo  Awareness as vast as the sky.

Image: Greg Crespo

Awareness as vast as the sky.

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! 

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? 

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! 

Some Nuggets of Wisdom 2.0

Probably the closest I'll get to anything resembling Burning Man... Inspiration Village at Wisdom 2.0.

Probably the closest I'll get to anything resembling Burning Man... Inspiration Village at Wisdom 2.0.

Please pardon the absence… I’ve spent the last couple weeks doing some personal development. Between the Wisdom 2.0 Conference and a week-long silent meditation retreat, I haven’t had much opportunity to digest all that I’ve taken in recently, let alone blog about it!

Even though it took place waaay back last month, I wanted to share a little bit more about my experience at the Wisdom 2.0 Conference.

Before signing up, all I knew about Wisdom 2.0 was a fuzzy idea that it was about technology and mindfulness. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go—descriptions were vague, it was pretty expensive, and I wasn’t sure how much I liked its target audience of tech-elite. I came up with plenty of excuses and dragged my feet for a good month or so before coming to my senses and finally signing up for it.

Looking back, I can't help but laugh at my hesitance. Um, hello. I have a website called Mindfulness Online, my program is all about using technology to spread mindfulness. How did I not sign up for this conference immediately?! 

Ego. Fear. Self-consciousness. Anxiety. Doubt. I guess those were some of the reasons.

Tense with anxiety, my tightened jaw and I made our way into the crowded hall of over 2,000 attendees. Soon though, my anxiety and my jaw loosened as I began to open to what all the conference had in store. Guided meditations for 2,000 attendees, group yoga with 2,000 attendees, and exercises in mindful communication with our seat mates meant that instead of being surrounded by strangers I needed to protect myself from, I was part of a community, each of us with something valuable to offer. Cool!

Here’s a quick-ish run-down of some of the nuggets I learned once my heart opened to the possibilities at Wisdom 2.0:

  • Technology is not inherently evil/distracting/a terrible drain on society— The general consensus at the conference was that the addictive nature of our gadgets can leave us wanting more meaningful connection with ourselves and others; while these same gadgets can also offer us new avenues for connection with people all over the world. It all depends on how we use them. Ok, I knew this, but I will admit that I’ve held off from getting an iPhone for fear of the limits of my own self-control.
  • Tech people are alright—Some of my misgivings about the conference had to do with a group that I viewed as the “other.” In the past year of living in SF, I have not been too enamored with the tech-class as my perception of these young, newly-minted millionaires had been rather biased. But meeting these “others” and seeing how they too are human just like me, working to find a deeper meaning in their lives, reminded me to hold off my judgments. How easily I forget that life can be challenging for each of us, regardless of our social status or paycheck.
  • We should be working on our eulogies instead of our resumes—Arianna Huffington gave a great talk on a new metric for measuring success that includes health, happiness and well-being. As she put it, no one at your funeral will be remarking on your ability to put together a Power-Point presentation. Though, that’s probably just because they never saw my awesome presentation on insurance that included an animated slide of Richard Gere topless, doing a flip on a jet ski. But still, I’d rather be remembered for how I loved and lived than how many LinkedIn contacts I had.
  • Spacious presence is within us all—If you have the time, stop what you’re doing and watch this presentation from Eckhart Tolle, or at least bookmark it and watch it when you can. It’s so easy to get caught up in the fantasy world of our thoughts and emotions, we often forget that under all of that is an unending field of spacious presence. We’ve got it with us always. We just have to remember to take a breath, get still and tap into it.
  • Gratitude is interactive mindfulness—Yeah, I already feel pretty strongly about this. And Brother David Steindl-Rast did an excellent job explaining how we can do better at bringing more gratitude and in turn more joy into our lives. We just have to stop, look, and go. Just like crossing the street. Stop means wisdom, a quality of the mind that comes by allowing whatever comes our way to grab us. Look means awareness. We see difficulties along with a way to solve them. Go means acting with a mind/heart of compassion. Check out Brother David’s talk, he is far more eloquent than I am.
Conference attendees shared their gratitude on one of many chalkboards.

Conference attendees shared their gratitude on one of many chalkboards.

My biggest take-away from the conference though, isn’t really something I can sum up for you on a bullet pointed list. Rather, my experience during the weekend gave me a renewed sense of self-confidence in who I am, what I am pursuing, and my intentions for pursuing it. All of those reasons I had for not attending the conference dissolved into a more confident, excited and love-filled version 2.0 of me. Woohoo for Wisdom!


Love love love

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Last weekend I attended the funeral of a friend's father. What struck me most about the remembrances that his family and friends offered was how much everyone spoke of his love. He loved his family, he loved life, he loved his friends, he loved his neighbors, he loved his patients. And they all knew it. Because he had told them and shown them so each day.

I want to live a life with that much love.

Let's keep the Val in Valentine's Day... or something like that. Let's not forget what this is all about. Let's make sure that today is a day that we are open and generous with all our love. One thing I've learned about love is that the more I give out to the world--to my family, my friends, strangers, enemies--the more fantastic I feel. 

In addition to the normal ways we think of expressing love, my mindfulness practice has shown me how fostering gratitude and kind wishes for others and myself has increased my capacity to love.  Today I'll be boosting my gratitude and kind wishes quota and I invite you to join me!

Gratitude: Try this simple gratitude activity today. Quick, come up with 5 things you are grateful for! They can be small, simple things like the smell of your coffee or a hug from a friend. Or they can be BIG, complex things like the Internet or your family. 

Especially when I'm down, stealth gratitude like this helps me gain some perspective, and often reminds me that we're all connected in one way or another.

Here's what I came up with this morning: 1) I'm grateful for all of the support and love I've felt as I launch this teaching program; 2) I'm grateful for my husband Greg's design sense and unwillingness to quit while updating my website; 3) I'm grateful for a ride to San Francisco this morning so I can go to the Wisdom 2.0 Conference; 4) I'm grateful that there's a conference all about mindfulness and technology happening only 45 minutes away from my house! ; 5) I'm grateful for the chance to share with you . 

Kind wishes: This one may take a little practice because it can sometimes feel forced at first. But I've learned it's the kind of thing that you can fake it 'till you make it. Try sending yourself three or four kind wishes for the day.

Here's what I'm feeling for myself today: May I be calm, may I be happy, may I welcome new surprises with ease and joy, may I be open to all possibilities. 

If sending them to yourself is too difficult, try sending them to someone you see almost every day who makes you really happy. You can send personalized and specific ones like the last two of mine, or you can do broader wishes like my first two.

Try doing these for a couple of days and notice how you feel.

Ok, that's a lot of 'self-love.' I found that I've got to build that up before I can genuinely go forth and spread my love around to others. 

My favorite way to share my love is through attention. Giving someone my complete attention when I am with them seems like the biggest gift I can offer.

How do you show your love? However you do, make sure you do!

Love love love.

From Fantasy to Reality

I wrote this post back in July but have been hesitant to post it until I could commit to blogging regularly. Ok, I suppose this means I've committed now! :-)

Fantasy = Reality!  Smiling students after a mindfulness lesson. :-)

Fantasy = Reality!

Smiling students after a mindfulness lesson. :-)

Shortly after my husband, Greg, and I first got engaged, it seemed that everyone wanted to know all the details about our future wedding. Without having really made any decisions or doing much research, we kept responding the same way to those who asked. “In the Shenandoah Mountains, in the fall of next year.”

The fall of next year seemed far enough away and the Shenandoah Mountains sounded like a nice place to get married. We kept repeating these details, and whenever I imagined our wedding that’s what I saw. I guess it’s no surprise that we got married along the Shenandoah River the next fall. 

But had I asked ‘engaged Leslie and Greg’ how wedded to this plan they were, I think they’d both would have said, “Let’s wait and see how the planning goes.”

I found myself in a similar situation last spring as Greg and I prepared to move across the country from Washington, DC to San Francisco. Everyone wanted to know what I planned to do out there. Without having made any decisions or doing much research, I'd respond, “I’m going to teach kids how to meditate.”

I’d say it over and over without any idea how I’d go about making this happen. It wasn't like this was out of the blue; I had been meditating on it a lot myself, and kept getting a rather vague, yet oddly explicit, directive from within, guiding me to this response.

Just like our adventures in wedding planning meant countless hours of research, decision making, and preparation before we wound up at the Shenandoah River in the fall; this latest journey has required similar efforts to wind up where I am today, ready to launch a kid-friendly online mindfulness meditation program.

Switching careers is hard. Starting a business is challenging. But I’ve kept with it because each time I take steps toward making this dream happen doors seem to open and the universe seems to affirm my decision.

After a curriculum training I started out teaching my nieces via Skype. Even though I’d be drenched with nervous sweat at the conclusion of each 15-minute session with them, I’d also be exhilarated. This felt right.

Last fall Greg and I left DC for a three-month trip to Asia, our return tickets booked for San Francisco.

While we traveled, we also dreamed and plotted about our future in California. Where we’d live in SF, what we’d do on the weekends, who our friends would be, what I’d do for work. On one day of dreaming, Greg suggested I start my own online program to teach kids mindfulness. He reminded me of how much I enjoyed working with my nieces and how it had worked well online. We talked more specifics that day, and have been talking around this idea since then.

On the eve of my online launch, I felt surprisingly similar to how I did in the days leading up to our wedding, in the Shenandoah in the fall. There is a current of terror mixed with joyful excitement as I see far-off fantasy becoming reality.

I teach kids how to meditate.