Stepping Off and Slowing Down

During a recent mindfulness retreat, we did a walking meditation outside.

The idea was simple: walk slowly, as if taking steps for the very first time. Sense how it feels to shift all your weight onto one foot as you lift the other, then extend that lifted leg, place that foot down and shift weight onto it as you lift the other leg. Rarely do we slow down enough and realize how complex a movement that is, we’ve been doing it for so long.

As I walked along the paved path, I moved fluidly. There was nothing in my way and the pavement was flat. Perfect to move me along even though I was taking extra care with my steps.

But as I came up to the lawn and stepped off the path onto the grass, I sensed a change in my movement. The lawn was bumpier, clover blossoms all around with honeybees that I wanted to avoid. My steps slowed even more as I trod gingerly.

The living, growing lawn required more balance and called for increased attention to what I was doing.

Ah, those man-made paths…getting us to where we need to be.

As I made my way through this walking meditation, I was intrigued by how my experience differed between the two surfaces. Our human-constructed paths are designed to get us places and purposefully point us in the direction that we must go. The hard pavement requires less thought about balance and it is usually clear of hidden obstructions. As a result, we pay less attention to what we’re doing in the moment and more to replaying scenes from the past or what’s to come in the future. We whiz through, perhaps arriving at our destination with little memory of how we got there.

Once in a while, get off the path, enjoy the journey and see where you end up.

But the grassy blanket laid down by nature gently commands us to observe the journey. That path has many possibilities and sometimes we don’t know exactly how we will travel when we set out. We give it more thought as we progress, perhaps changing direction several times, but being aware of the reasons for doing so. We may arrive at our destination with a fresh mind and greater appreciation of the journey.

Certainly, we cannot always leave the paved path. We have responsibilities that must be met and those may require efficient travel in the shortest time possible. But what a shame if we never take the opportunity to wander off and slow down our pace, delighting in where we are right now.

Why I Meditate in Panda Socks

“I laugh when I think how I once sought paradise as a realm outside of the world of birth. It is right in the world of birth and death that the miraculous truth is revealed. But this is not the laughter of someone who suddenly acquires a great fortune; neither is it the laughter of one who has won a victory. It is, rather, the laughter of one who, after having painfully searched for something for a long time, finds it one morning in the pocket of his coat.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Before my very first all-day silent retreat, I bumped into my meditation teacher in the hallway. I had just gotten an “all clear” mammogram following a year of breast cancer treatment and I was so excited.

She said hi to me, so I happily related my test results, only to have another meditation teacher poke her head into the hallway and sternly shush me. This was, after all, a silent retreat.

At the lunch break, that shushing teacher gave me a gentle hug and handed me a sweet note of apology. None was necessary — I hadn’t been offended by having her correct me.

Weeks later, I happened to see her again (not at a retreat!) and she explained how she had felt during her very first retreat when no one would look at or speak to her, because, of course, they weren’t supposed to. She admitted that she felt slighted at that time, and that’s why she hadn’t wanted me to feel the same way after she quieted me. She was so darling and sincere, I couldn’t help but hug her again.

This is something I’ve thought about: at many of these retreats, when we practice noble silence and custody of the eyes, there is a tendency to adopt a dour expression. We’re working hard to concentrate and turn inwards…perhaps a bit too hard. It’s easy to lose that lightness and joy of mindfulness if we’re being too serious.

There is comfort in humor. “Right now” can be a pretty funny place.

At the next retreat I attended, that same teacher was teaching mindful yoga. We were on all fours and instructed to raise up our left arm…then our right leg…and our left leg…leaving a few of us confused since levitation hadn’t been part of the class curriculum. The teacher chuckled and said that we needed to keep a sense of humor about our practice.

I like that idea. And that’s why now when I go to meditation retreats, I bring along my thick socks with panda faces and cute little ears. Life hasn’t been easy and it certainly hasn’t gone as planned. But as I sit there amongst all the other meditators, I smile knowing that I can still find humor in this world.

Keeping Anxiety at Arm’s Length

These are the most difficult mental calisthenics I’ve ever done.

The most frightening part of anxiety for me is that when scary, intrusive thoughts hit, they are right in my face. It feels as though there is no buffer zone so they come at me fast. I am highly reactive — nausea, cold bowels, rapid breathing, sweating, buzzing head. No opportunity to pause and consider a response. I am thrown into “flight” mode.

I don’t get panic attacks the way others have described them: heart beating so hard it feels like it’ll burst out of your chest, or hyperventilation to the point of getting lightheaded, even passing out. But I still feel anxiety intensely and physically.

So my practice lately has involved allowing stressful thoughts into my line of sight, but softening them, so that they appear blurred and more distant.

I establish this by immediately focusing on my body sensations as soon as I’m aware of the physical sensations of anxiety. That means feeling down to where my skin touches my clothing and focusing on the sensation of pressure on my seat and feet (if sitting) or the entire length of my back (if lying down).

Once my attention in on my body, I revisit the stressful thought, but as if squinting with my “inner eyes”, sometimes looking at it from the side instead of head on. I acknowledge its presence, but fuzz out the details, and most importantly, I keep it at a distance from me so that I have some space. Then I bring in deep breaths, slowing them down and allowing them to calm me as much as possible.

This is not even remotely easy. On some level, I’m still reacting to the thought and do experience a fear of bringing it closer to me. But the soothing nature of the breath helps temper my reaction. I think of this as exposure therapy, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, except where everything takes place inside my head.

Establishing the breath as a self-soothing “anchor” takes time and consistency in practice.

Lately, I’ve been having more success with this, particularly when I wake in the middle of the night, which is one of the most frightening times for me to experience runaway anxiety. This self-comfort would not be possible without established meditation and relaxation techniques — I’ve used the breath to soothe myself through cancer diagnosis and treatment, but the great majority of my meditation practice takes place when I am not stressed.

That fact, along with consistency in practice, has been critically important to me. In order for the breath to serve as an effective anchor, it must be recognized as one. And that means building up “anchor-like” peaceful associations over time so that the link is not easily broken.

None of this is a quick fix. But as with many things that are not quick fixes, the process of achieving success is part of the success itself. And that is a very reassuring thought.

The Magic of Impermanence

I can be clingy at times.

For better or worse, my tendency is to cling to thoughts, expectations, emotions. Letting go is difficult because change brings on uncertainty, and uncertainty doesn’t feel safe.

And yet, if there’s anything that watching the stately Notre-Dame aflame teaches us, it’s that nothing remains untouched by time and happenstance, not even the 850-year-old symbol of a country.

In our lifetimes, the cathedral has been a steady fixture. And yet, if you consider its history, Notre-Dame has undergone many changes. Modifications by French kings, damage during the Huguenot riots and French Revolution. Repurposing, re-consecration, restoration and renovation over the centuries

While it’s romantic to consider Notre-Dame de Paris as a constant through the ages, the reality is that those significant changes have enhanced its character with meaning. And when the unstoppable advance of time transforms the cathedral into rubble, perhaps something even more beautiful will arise from her remains.

Change can set free something unexpected and lovely.

I have experienced changes in my own life that I couldn’t have predicted and certainly didn’t want. They have been frightening and even painful, and I increased my suffering by fighting them even after realizing I couldn’t stop them.

But just as there is new growth after a forest fire, with the heat being necessary in some cases to release seeds and allow them to find soil, unpleasant changes in my life have led to new paths. All I have needed to do is let go of the past, accept my new reality and find something even more beautiful there.

And that is where the magic lies.

Between the Past and Future: A Cancer Survivor’s Perspective

I attended a workshop on cancer and stress given by the social workers at my cancer center. Since I like to take advantage of every opportunity to explore what’s going on inside my noggin I was looking forward to the presentation, but I didn’t realize that I would be offered a curious vantage point at the same time.

Sitting in the front row as I always do, I was joined by a woman who was awaiting the results of her second breast tumor biopsy; her first had confirmed cancer but another tumor was discovered shortly thereafter.

She told me about her racing thoughts, lack of appetite, inability to sleep — all those symptoms of intense stress that I also experienced as I awaited diagnosis. How odd it was to revisit this through her, now that I had a comfortable seat on the other side of that experience.

I commiserated with her, briefly offering up my own experience, and assured her that some of the anxiety would mellow once she had a definitive diagnosis and accompanying treatment plan. That’s the only thing I assured her of, knowing the nature of cancer, but I hope it gave her comfort seeing how far I’d already made it on the cancer journey.

And then, ironically, I realized that the woman sitting directly behind me was someone I had sat next to during one of my chemo infusions in 2017. I re-introduced myself, and while she didn’t remember me, she said she’d been through so many chemo sessions that it was hard to differentiate one from the other.

When I met her in 2017, she had hair and a good dose of energy. We talked about our kids (hers were grown) among other things. She was being treated for lung cancer but we didn’t dwell on the particulars. That’s not generally what you talk about during chemo. You gravitate towards non-cancer topics.

Things don’t always turn out the way we predict they will.

But now, she wore a ball cap to cover her bare head and walked with a cane. She seemed frail and was accompanied by a caregiver — several years of cancer treatment, not to mention the cancer itself, will do that to you. I’m not sure what her prognosis was, but given what I knew about her and the fact that she was still doing chemo, it probably wasn’t favorable.

There I sat, trying to stay present, next to my past and in front of my potential future. I had the good fortune of surviving the one and a decent chance of escaping the other.

There is no crystal ball with which we can gauge the future, deciding whether or not we like it, and if not, opting out. So here’s to making the best of the time that we have.

Unpacking the Monkey in the Courthouse; and, Mindful Justice

I wrote my last post about my not-so-mindful behavior in the jury lounge of the local Superior Court, waiting to see if I’d be called to serve as a juror on a case.

I wasn’t, but the situation ended up being stressful nonetheless, and it had nothing to do with my forgetting that I had a metal fork in my backpack and being called out by security for it. (Oops!)

No, what did it was the runaway narrative being played out in my head about potential frustration if I were selected, and whether I could manage all the facts of the case (chemo brain) and the sitting (neuropathy and back pain). While not completely inconsequential, neither chemo brain nor physical limitations were an issue for me as I was sitting in the jury lounge, waiting.

That evening, released from jury duty for another year, I came across an article by beading teacher and author Kristal Wick, who settled on beading as meditation to help her deal with her monkey mind, and in it she wrote about her realization that we are making stress up.

In stressful times, it’s not always easy to differentiate between what’s real and what’s not.

I would clarify that by noting that we don’t make up stressful events themselves, but the toll that anticipating what may happen takes on us depends in great part on our reaction to it. And whether or not we want to admit it, ultimately that’s under our control — although if we’ve established a behavior pattern of anxious reactivity (*cough, cough*), it will take practice to rein in those responses.

But the reminder that those “thousand deaths” that I was dying in advance of something that was not real or guaranteed…ahhhh, I needed that.

Next time a calmer, more realistic response, perhaps?

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Mindful media blogger Smilecalm wrote a beautifully thoughful account of his experience as a juror, and I found it so compelling that it became fodder for an evening of discussion with my husband and children.

Do we equally offer everyone the benefit of the doubt?

In his post, Smilecalm describes how mindfulness creates a situation where justice truly prevails. Whereas it would have been easy to make a snap judgment and convict someone who seemed, on the surface, to be guilty, pausing and carefully sorting through the facts provided a different picture.

When I think of the concept of “beginner’s mind”, I think of this kind of patience and open examination of what is before you, instead of moving down well-worn paths to conclusions based on circumstances.

I am sure that the defendant in Smilecalm’s case was grateful for the care with which the jurors considered his testimony. I, for one, am grateful to Smilecalm for bringing to light not only the importance of serving on a jury, but doing so with care and compassion.

Who Let That Monkey into the Courthouse?

My right heel has been hurting — for the past week I contemplated
claiming plantar fasciitis to get out of jury duty.

Okay, I knew that excuse wouldn’t fly, but I was stressed about getting pulled out of everyday life, with an already overfull plate, to do my civic duty. The more I thought about it, the more I worked myself up into a lather.

Mindfulness couldn’t cut through the noise in my sleep-deprived head. This agony of anticipation made several things crystal clear:

My nemesis. This monkey will pull your lungs out through your nose.
  1. I ruminate enough to rival a massive herd of cows. Hello, monkey mind! I’d been thrashing through all the unknowns, unfettered irritation and unfounded fears in my head. This was the monkey-on-my-back, screeching madly.
  2. My physiological reaction to even the anticipation of potential stress is out of control. Granted, this reaction was lubricated by a hefty pint of caffeinated coffee from the courthouse cafe. But when the voice over the loudspeaker called out names in alphabetical order, my heart pounded as the list approached where my name would be. I knew what was happening and that it was ridiculous, but simply couldn’t stop.
  3. Instead of patiently waiting to see what happens, I really really really want things to be a certain way. I punished myself by clinging too tightly to expectations. I mean, tight enough to turn my knuckles white (knucklehead that I am).

All of this opened the door to a boatload of suffering. Great. So much for being mindful. My morning as a prospective juror was fraught with anxiety.

Even after several years of daily meditation and mindfulness bells and “take 5” reminders, even after trying to be all zen about it, I was still a mess. Disappointing, by my judging eyes. But also, very human.

Things didn’t improve until I started pacing at the back of the jury lounge briskly enough to feel conspicuous. The motion soothed me, like rocking a baby. It was self care, which is the first casualty of my anxiety.

It was the only mindful thing that I could manage, but it kept the monkey busy as we zigged and zagged around other people to avoid a collision.

Once I racked up a good 3000 steps and a bunch of odd stares (don’t care, don’t care, don’t care), the pressure released a bit. Okay, that and the fact that I’d made it through the first two rounds of juror calls without hearing my name and it was already time for lunch. That combo was like the “pffft” from a fizzy bottle of kombucha. I was feeling better.

I returned from a long lunch break with my reasoning mind in charge, calculating probabilities. Three sections of seats, fifteen rows each, a minimum of three people per row…not counting the folks at random round tables and working on laptops along the walls…hey, that’s a LOT! Safety in numbers! The odds were in my favor, otherwise known as, “if your group is being chased by a hungry leopard, don’t worry about outrunning the cat, just outrun your friends.”

You mean, NONE of this stuff is real???

So the reasoning mind wrestled the crazy monkey mind into a half nelson. But alas, the reasoning mind was still a slave to expectation, with its own monkey-on-the-back. It was a tenuous peace, unstable and easily shattered by the voice over the loudspeaker, but it enabled me to approach the situation with less reactivity even if temporarily.

Guess how this messy day ended: a thousand deaths later (around 2pm, to be exact) the voice from the loudspeaker released us from service, giving me a year’s reprieve and kicking the monkey to the curb. And it was at that moment that I realized how tightly worry had gripped me, and it wasn’t even real. Everything had taken place in the space between my ears.

I thought about how my agony had been self-generated. And that’s a topic for another post.