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.

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. 

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!

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?