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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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.

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.

Happy In(ter)dependence Day!

In the United States tomorrow there will be plenty of hooting and hollering surrounding our annual festivities to celebrate our independence from Great Britain. Red, white and blue bunting will hang in communities throughout the country, and children will revel in the miracle of fireworks exploding above them. But more exciting to me is that tomorrow is a day when communities come together—there are BBQ’s, parties, family reunions and parades—all celebrating our independence. However, I see them as a celebration of our interdependence.

Sure, we’re all glad to be free from colonial rule. But I can’t say I spend too much of my day-to-day thinking about the Townshend Acts or worrying about British soldiers being unfairly quartered in my home. (Ok, there was a period of time when these thoughts were often on my mind—but I’m no longer a U.S. History Major living in Colonial Williamsburg, so now it’s easier for me to focus on other aspects of the holiday apart from the history.) However, what’s pretty cool about this holiday from my perspective as a mindfulness teacher bent on compassion and empathy, is that during this time of year as Americans we have an opportunity to remember our interconnectedness and common background.

Tomorrow is a chance to celebrate “Interdependence Day!”

We can remember that we’re all in this together. As independent as we may like to call ourselves, we could not make it without each other. Heck, we probably could not have won our independence without the help of French forces! Tomorrow is a chance to remember that the shirt on your back, the food on your plate, and the friends surrounding you are all here because of someone or something else (have a look at the Gratitude Webs as a reminder of how connected we are).

Our interdependence spans borders and so much more. From humans to animals to plants to the water cycle, our current existence hinges upon the existence of everything else. To me this thought is a wellspring of gratitude.

You don’t have to be an American to celebrate “Interdependence Day.” Here are a few ways you can celebrate:

  • You can take a moment to reflect on who and what got you to where you are right now and then offer some gratitude in their direction.
  • You can take tomorrow as an opportunity to connect with someone with compassion. Remembering that we’re all in this together why not be nice?!
  • You can make sure that those around you feel your love and gratitude—be it an extra hug, a kind note, or an act of compassion.
  • You can even send some gratitude to yourself! Shoot some love to each and every part of you that makes you YOU. Your heart that keeps beating, your lungs that keep breathing, and your brain that keeps running the show, each of these parts deserve thanks too!

What will you do to celebrate our interdependence?

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. 

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.

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.