Thursday, May 10, 2012

You are my dear and long-lost special friend

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Kind Promise: I will Celebrate Connections
May 1 is a high holy day for me. Ten days ago in predawn darkness, my husband helped me get my wheelchair down one hill and up another in a forested park overlooking the Mississippi River. This year, many of the trees were almost fully leafed, including the large oak in the middle of the clearing that wore a garland of flowers. One of my favorite people came rushing over to hug us. Many of the 200 or so people who gathered there wished us “Happy May.” Folks dragged withered Christmas trees to a pile and lit them. Just before sunrise, an accordion sounded the long notes that, as Terry Pratchett would say, indicate that Morris Dancing is about to be perpetrated.
Morris dancing groups (sides) performed together and for each other. We sang traditional songsand then departed, moving back into our lives and modernity. We had connected with the earth, with each other, with our ancestors and with the Holy. It was a perfect way to begin a month I intend to fill with celebrating such connections.
Through nature and nurture I find myself an introvert who believes my individuality doesn’t exist. While I spend loads of time “alone” enjoying solitary pursuits, I believe that we – humans, creatures, the earth and the universe – are one glorious holy entity. When I think of myself as separate from you, I diminish us both.
The Dalai Lama, I have read, greets everyone “as though finally reuniting with a dear and long-lost special friend.” What a great attitude with which to move further into my connectedness month!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Painting as Mindfulness Practice

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Practicing mindfulness of the moment brings me to be more conscious of what happens when I’m not in the moment. It makes me more aware of my monster-mind.
The other day, I was painting (yay!). In the moment, I am watching blobs of color interact with paper and water as I apply them to the surface. Observing mind.
Questions arise: “how has that blob of paint changed things in the composition as a whole? What do I want to do next?”
This is still observing mind, but the questions open a door for my judging mind: “That blob was a mistake. I no longer like that painting.”
Judging mind, in me, invites its bodyguard: catastrophizing mind: “I can try and fix it but if I do, I will probably make it worse. Maybe I should just stop now. In fact, why do I bother to paint? I’m not really an artist. I paint like a two-year-old. This is just junk.” [Catastrophizing mind can be quite long-winded. ]
Luckily, I know that I don’t have to believe everything I think. My monster-mind does not speak the truth.
I make the next mark.
In this way, painting is mindfulness practice as surely as sitting meditation.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The moment that can be spoken is not the true moment

clock showing the time: now
Maybe “embrace” is not the right word for what I want to do with each moment. The first part of embrace works fine. Opening my arms (and heart and mind) wide to the moment is exactly what I want to do with my life. Closing my arms around the moment and holding it tight is not.
A couple weeks ago a friend asked me how my health is. I told her about my weakening arms and hands, the fatigue that is becoming a bigger part of each day, the disturbances to and adjustments of members of my family. The women gathered are my friends and it was a relief – in that moment – to speak honestly. I regretted it almost instantly.
The mood in the room darkened and I felt like a whiner. That is not who I want to be.
[Psychological riff:]
As far back as Aristotle, folks have believed that catharsis – emotional release – helped moderate passions and restored balance. In the 20th century, psychology used a “hydraulic model” of emotions, imagining that emotions were like fluid flowing through the system which, if not expressed, created pressure that would – for better or worse – have to be released.
More recently, the therapeutic value of “venting” has been questioned. Most well-controlled studies indicate that …emotional expression is either harmful or has no effect (eg, Berkowitz, 1982)
[End psychological riff.]
As soon as I start talking about this moment, I start making judgments and telling stories. As soon as I start calling the sensations in my right leg “pain” I am defining, rather than experiencing, them..
In science, they call this the “observer effect.” The act of observation can make changes to the phenomenon being observed. For example, a standard mercury-in-glass thermometer must absorb or give up some thermal energy to record a temperature, therefore changing the temperature of the body which it is measuring.
If I describe what’s happening to me, the words I choose build a cage around the experience. As a writer, I find this helpful. While choosing words, I choose my experience. Those choices become more obvious when I read what I’ve written.
My verbal abilities help me understand my world and connect with other beings. They also limit my perception. Words simultaneously make my world larger and smaller.
As each moment arrives, I want to open to it and experience it without telling myself a story about it. Storytelling animal that I am, words may arise in a nanosecond. As soon as I am labeling my experience, I am no longer experiencing it. I need to return to the eternal now and understand that it exists outside of expectations, judgments and regrets.
The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
(Tao Te Ching, translation Derek Lin)
I have a friend coming over for lunch today. If he asks me about my health, I wonder what I will say…

Friday, April 13, 2012

Embracing the moment with the help of DH Lawrence

“I embrace this moment” is a wonderful idea, but I’m having trouble with the implementation. I spend much of my time planning for the future and, considering the circumstances of my life right now, that makes sense. My husband just got a new job, my daughter is going to high school next year and I am preparing to “go out on disability.” It will serve us better to plan ahead for these big changes.
I need to understand the difference between preparing and worrying. Here again, it’s all about the serenity prayer: there are things I can change and things I can’t.
Preparing means taking action now that will make a probable future go more easily. My husband will have to travel to get trained in his new job. Activities that were scheduled for that week need to be rescheduled. My daughter needs to fill out and submit forms to choose her classes for next year. I need to stop putting money into my retirement fund. Each task of preparation, though gesturing to the future, is done in the present moment.
Worrying is excessively creating detailed pictures about what may go wrong. I am a champion worrier. Chronic, progressive illness can easily invite worry. The strength in and dexterity of my hands has diminished over the last few years.
How far will it go? Will my hands be paralyzed? Will the spasticity that nags my legs start bothering my arms? Will I be able to manage while my husband is traveling? Will my daughter be warped by being around a mom dealing (sometimes none too gracefully) with disability?
My inner narrator starts sounding like the announcer at the end of an old soap opera.
When I find myself worrying, the present moment can save me.
“I got the blues thinking of the future, so I left off and made some marmalade. It’s amazing how it cheers one up to shred oranges and scrub the floor.”  –D.H. Lawrence
By immersing himself in physical, creative activity, Lawrence returned to the present moment.
Thoughts of worry arise from the biological instinct to Keep Myself and My Love Ones Safe.  It’s a useful instinct.  That instinct has made our species the spectacular, 7 billion strong, success we are today. My spinning, obsessive, negative thinking? Not so successful.
I need to let go of my worrying mind and return to the present moment. I can do that by taking a deep breath and noticing– with compassion – what my senses are experiencing right now.  I can say to myself, “In this moment, I am safe.”
After a moments’ rest understanding that I am safe, I can ask myself. “Are there actions I can take that will help me feel safer?”  If I can take action immediately, that’s great. If it’s an action that has to be taken in the future, I can write it in a list or calendar so that I am reminded about it when the time comes.
Meanwhile, I have a new phrase to recall me to the present moment: Shred oranges and scrub the floor.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Mindfulness through sensory experience

My kind promise for this month is “to embrace the moment.”
This is a simple idea and a week of observation tells me that I don’t often do it. I spend my mental time in three places:
  • Concentration/absorption in the task of the moment – this might be mistaken for mindfulness but because of its unconscious nature, I don’t think it counts. On the other hand, it is focused in the present moment, so that’s of some value.
  • Worrying about the future – my life is in transition at work. My husband and has been offered a job in California. My health is declining. It’s really easy for me to get caught in imagining what might be next and how I might cope.
  • Here and now – I visit the here and now for moments when I’m meditating, for moments when I’m painting, for moments when I am interacting with other people. This is the part of life I am trying to expand this month. It is a conscious appreciation of what’s going on right now.
Wednesday afternoon I left the house and visited the micro-wood across the street. Underneath the high-voltage power lines, grasses and scrub trees are allowed to grow. A drainage pond from a nearby apartment complex butts against the powerline corridor. A couple of fine Norway pine trees lean into the corridor from a nearby fenced suburban yard. This is the nature micronutrient that is within my wheelchair-accessible circumference.
I sat beneath the pine branches and watched a couple of male mallards squabbling in the pond. When the losing duck flew away and calm returned I became conscious of a popping sound. I thought the squirrel or bird must be in the pine tree, but I didn’t see any creatures. I decided the tree must be making the sounds.
When I got home, I googled popping pine trees and discovered that pine cones make that noise as they open. I returned yesterday to the same spot for another serenade.
Somehow I associate mindfulness with non-thinking. I try to focus on my breath and let go of anything else. I am discovering that another way to make that switch in consciousness is through my senses. Focusing on the smell of the pine, the sound of the pops, the caress of the breeze, I return to the here and now.
I intend to practice this month by taking a breath and focusing on my sensory experience in the moment and remembering the promise: embrace this moment.
When I looked at the list of promises last month, I said to myself “oh yes: next month is mindfulness.” Earlier this week, I looked up the exact phrase I had used, thinking I needed to add a modifier. It’s there: embrace.
I am asking myself not only to be here, in this moment. I am also inviting myself to open my heart to what is – to greet it – and the me of this moment – with tenderness.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Reinvention: Illness, jealousy and mudita

When I first began walking with a cane, I would watch others with a real sense of witnessing a miracle. My ankle joint no longer worked (“drop foot”) and I used the cane to steady my uneven gait. Other people were able to lift their foot completely off the ground swing it easily in front of them, place it gently on the surface and shift their weight to it – all without thought. It was magical.
Now, as my hands began to fail me, I am not as spiritually evolved. I am just plain jealous. I watch people take notes at a meeting and find myself becoming resentful and angry.
I am envious of health and those who unthinkingly possess it.
I am learning not to sit in judgment of this process, but to imagine that I am a dear friend. Of course I’m jealous; it makes  sense! How natural to wish that I were healthy. How understandable to resent those who don’t appreciate what they have. Those emotions come from grief over what I’ve lost and fear over what I may yet lose. This is not the time to beat myself up.
What, then?
The Buddhists have a wonderful concept: mudita. There is no exact English translation. The idea is “sympathetic joy.” When I see someone else who is happy, I share in that happiness. When I see someone writing without effort, I celebrate their ability.
This is made easier if I truly believe that we are all one. The idea that we are cells in a larger creature is one of my core beliefs. I am a tiny part of a miraculous whole. So are you. Your strong and able hands and feet and my weak and faltering ones are movements in one dance. Considered this way, I can be grateful for both of us.
I have added mudita to my practice. It works like this:
I feel jealousy and resentment arise as I watch others move,
I take a breath
I say (silently), “May you move gracefully forever.”
I picture my heart as a waterlily opening to embrace the universal whole

electronic illustration: Lotus opening to the universe

Friday, March 23, 2012

Reinventing: Mental practices and responses

There is a part of my mind that reflexively comes up with unhelpful comments and attitudes about what's going on. I call it my "monster mind." It says things like, "it will never work," "I will always be miserable," and the ever-popular "I'm such a loser."

Lately I've been bothered by a lack of enthusiasm for my day job, a general feeling that my life doesn't have enough joy in it and a sense that I am not appreciating others in my life enough. (Asking the question, "what isn't working for me?" as part of my of my reinvention inventory allowed me to put words to these general feelings of unease.)

This sounds like the work of my monster mind, but what can I do about it?

Create a Mental Response

Sometimes I am doing a task and have a thought in response to it. For example, I'm at work thinking "this is such a waste of time" or "they are doing this stupidly." What useful thought could I have in answer? I am lucky enough to work for a nonprofit organization with a valuable mission. The work I do serves a larger purpose, even though specific tasks seem pointless or stupid to me.

Here's my experiment:
  1. recognize that my monster mind is at work
  2. take a breath
  3. find the kernel of value in what I'm doing
  4. recommit to my task
This process only takes a minute. I have been practicing it for about a week and I'm finding it to be helpful.

Create a Mental Practice

Sometimes my monster mind works in more subtle, attitudinal ways. There is not a moment when I'm aware of a specific thought, but I don't feel the way I want to be feeling. For example, I want to feel more loving toward people and less serious toward my life in general.

Here are my experiments:
  • I've added a "tap flutter" action to my stretch breaks. I tap my hand against my desk and wiggle my fingers while moving my hand up in the air. This is a silly thing to do and reminds me to lighten up.
  • When I see someone, I say to myself, "look! A divine being in human skin!" ( See Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

 Taking Time to Practice

Adding new practices and habits to life is always a challenge. (12 Step Literature: "  I never will find time for anything. if I want time I must take it." ) I haven't been doing something and now I want to do it. How do I "make myself" include new things in my daily life?

There are two things that have been successful for me:
  1. I add them to an existing daily practice or habit. Those negative thoughts at work will arise so I respond to them with my new, more resourceful, "find the kernel" thought. When I see a human being, I remind myself they are really a divine being in human skin. My visual reminders are built-in.
  2. I create outside cues: My Big Stretch reminder program pops up to remind me to stretch while I'm working at the computer. I have added the words "tap flutter" to remind me to make the motion and lighten up. (It makes me smile every time I see it.)

Practice and Experimentation

I've chosen the words experimenting and practicing because forgiveness is built-in. If I could do something perfectly, I wouldn't be practicing. Practice involves attempts and failures and recommitment. If I could predict results, I would be experimenting. Experimenting involves taking action and observing what happens. Practice and experimentation do not involve failure, they invite recommitment and reinvention.