Presence by Touch: A Visualization

Staying present is key for not letting your thoughts take you on a wild ride.

Maintaining presence, however, takes practice so I’m always on the lookout for new ways to imagine the state of being in the “now”. Some of these are simpler exercises than others, but the upside of a more “complex” technique means that all my mental energy remains on staying present instead of, say, worrying whether I embarrassed myself at a party three nights ago.

The following is a visualization and mental exercise rolled into one:

What if only what you’re touching exists and everything else falls into nothingness?

Seated, close the eyes. Breathing deeply, allow everything that is around you to fall away in your mind, leaving only those points where your body makes contact with the surface beneath you.

Imagine that the soles of your feet sit on top of sole-shaped pieces of support material. Your buttocks and thighs contact like-shaped material, as does any place your back rests against your chair. If you touch your fingers to the side of your chair seat, small oval-shaped pieces of material appear where your fingers make contact.

Everything else disappears against a background of light (or darkness, if that is more calming). The chair and floor and even the room you are in? Gone. The point of this visualization is maintaining focus on only what you are physically experiencing at any given moment.

It is a strange sensation to imagine, floating through the ether but still feeling support from the slightest bits of material that touch you. This is the ultimate in being 100% present and turns the concept of object permanence on its head.

You don’t feel it? It doesn’t exist.

Our brain wants to fill in the parts that we can’t see because the brain has formulated an image of what is out there. However, in this practice we try to do the opposite–let go of what we do not have immediate physical evidence for.

This is a good analogy for dealing with thoughts that our brain fabricates based on the expectations that it has. What if we let go of them, if only for a short while, and simply sit in the stillness of what is happening right now?

Wound a Bit Tight? Meditating with Muscle Release

I, like so many people, keep a lot of tension in my neck and shoulders. Some days it feels as though my neck is made of steel, but not in a good way.

The reality is that I don’t even realize how tight those muscles are until I lie down and try to relax.

So I have made a meditation of this for bedtime. Instead of focusing on the sensation of my breath, the focus is on releasing the tension in my neck and upper shoulders.

It may sound like I would not be able to squeeze an entire meditation session out of this, but oh, I can.

Complete release takes focus!

Lying down on my back I inhale, and then with the exhale, I focus on my neck and relax it, releasing the rest of my body along with it. With the following exhale, I do that again. That’s because while I may think that the initial release took care of the tension, there is still tightness there and I really have to work on it mentally to release that.

It’s as though my neck muscles are springs that I can stretch, releasing tension through the exhale, but once I let go (inhale) the “memory” in my muscles tightens them up again.

It helps to imagine my body melting, as if I’m being drawn downward into the Earth.

I can keep going like this, feeling my chin inch slightly towards my chest as the tension releases. Melting into the mattress. The more I release, the more subtle the sensation, yet very satisfying. The more I relax, the more deeply I breathe and everything lets go.

The awareness of what is going on in my body helps so much, but the tension is tenacious. This is not surprising, given how much mental weight my neck and shoulders bear. So it is a dance between releasing and returning to release again. Little by little until I eventually fall asleep.

The “Side Effects” of Yoga Teacher Training

I’ve shared that I recently completed a three-month, 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training (YTT).

My main motivation for entering YTT revolved around yoga’s role in my emotional recovery from cancer. My teaching goal is to make yoga accessible to more cancer patients and survivors. Sadly, the view that many have of yoga in the USA is that it’s mainly for young, white, flexible, affluent women.

That means that the benefits of yoga are not reaching many of the populations that need it most.

Sadly, yoga in the USA is not associated with a diverse clientele.

In YTT, I expected to deepen my own practice, immerse myself in the roots of yoga and gain experience in sequencing and teaching among other things. And we did that. The program was well-rounded and paid homage to yogic philosophy, in addition to covering a broad range of relevant topics such as anatomy, meditation, sound healing and creating an inclusive atmosphere.

What I didn’t expect was what I learned about myself. Now, in the course of cancer treatment I gained access to counseling at my cancer center with an excellent therapist. And prior to that, I had sought help for anxiety. I’d explored talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and had gone through a lot of introspection. Basically, I thought I’d covered my bases and knew what’s what when it came to my inner workings.

YTT proved me wrong. I learned that I still struggle with competitiveness, perfectionism and a host of little insecurities. Wow, that was an eye-opener, even after all the “head work” that I’d done! In addition to coursework, YTT had a requirement of attending a number of yoga classes. Due to the limitations on my time given my work and family schedule, I was forced to take the heated (~95F) Level 2 classes, which happened to be most convenient. They emphasized balance and flexibility, while my non-yoga fitness focus has been strength and endurance.

*ahem* This is NOT me.

Balance and flexibility against the backdrop of neuropathy, menopause and vestiges of cancer treatment effects did not allow me to show my “best side.”

Not a big deal, I thought, since yoga for me is a mental “work-in”, not a workout. I’ve felt that holds truer to the traditional purpose of yoga and respects its roots. But in a crowded yoga studio where I was usually the oldest class member, I struggled to maintain my composure. Many of the other students could have been my offspring. The Level 2 classes made me look, I felt, like I didn’t belong.

And that feeling got worse as the classes went on. By the last weekend, I was the only teacher trainee who showed up (others trainees had more flexible schedules that allowed them to take other classes). After weeks of taking Level 2 classes, feelings of dejection had built up.

I should be over this, right? I should have been able to hold my head high and do what I could, knowing that my fitness stemmed from other activities and yoga served a different purpose for me than for “the youngsters”.

But nope.

The YTT itself was exceptional and the teacher trainers were amazingly supportive and knowledgable. The other members of my class were (no surprise) all white, all female and all younger than me. But they were generous and sweet and each one had been through her share of hardships. I felt only love from them. I just didn’t feel it from myself.

This is my preference for yoga: slow , mindful movements performed with intention. No contortions.

And with fitness being so important to me, I was frustrated that yet again I managed to find a situation where I showed myself to be “less than”. That was painful.

Yet, this peek into my current state was invaluable. Being in the midst of all those younger bodies strengthened my resolve to create classes that are more suitable for not only cancer folk, but also for other special and older populations.

YTT taught me that I don’t have it all figured out yet. However, it also gifted the awareness of what was really going on. Just as in mindfulness meditation, once I became aware of where my mind was leading me, I could take action to return to a place of peace and acceptance. That advanced my emotional evolution by lightyears!

Experiencing classes at a yoga studio also drove home the necessity of offering yoga to people who would benefit from the practice but are often forgotten when classes are planned. There are populations for whom studios are simply inaccessible financially, physically and even psychologically.

Ultimately, this next-level awareness showed me that what I had been doing on my own over the years still counted as yoga, even when I didn’t look like the other class members. It was the yoga I needed. And that was enough.

A Reflection on “Chemo Fatigue”

After posting videos from my final infusion where I described chemo fatigue, I felt it important to follow up with a debriefing.

I was not in a good headspace during that time. I had started a mindfulness meditation practice five months earlier but had too little experience and not enough training for it to significantly affect my mindset, 50+ years in the making.

When I write a cancer-related post, I straddle a line. On the one hand, I want to provide an admittedly subjective and honest account of what I experienced during treatment; on the other hand, understanding that we all come from different backgrounds and may have vastly different perceptions of what cancer means to us, I don’t want to color the reader’s view of what their experience might be like.

Cancer revealed a lot more about myself than I expected to find.

There have been times that I held back on projecting too much of my own personal state. I waited five years to post my videos on Chemo Fatigue because I didn’t know whether it was appropriate to do so. They remain some of the rawest and truest representations of the despair that I felt at the time. I was still very angry and frustrated, feeling what I recognize now as a deep sense of betrayal.

It was mindfulness meditation along with deep reflection, expert counseling and simply the passage of time that ended up bringing me out of the anger. That process took a lot longer than I ever expected. It also showed me aspects of my personality that I hadn’t understood before because I’d never had to confront them.

So while I still would never say that cancer had a positive effect on me, just as with many heavy life experiences, it took me to a new level of maturity and self-awareness. I am very thankful to be on this side of treatment, although I’m acutely aware that everything may change with the next scan. That makes every moment all the more precious.

Being in Your Body: A Mindfulness Visualization

I came across a delightful mindfulness visualization on the Calm meditation app, presented by meditation teacher Jeff Warren who credits his teacher, Dan Clurman, with relating the idea of this exercise.

It is an effective and immersive way to ground yourself into the present moment with the emphasis on being in your body.

Imagine that your body is an hour glass and that the falling sand brings awareness as it fills the glass, from the bottom up.

Imagine that you are an hourglass and your awareness is the cool sand that falls from above. First, bring your awareness down into your feet and ankles, feeling into the sensations there, filling up not only that part of your body, but also inviting attention into the space between your feet and around them at the bottom of the hourglass. Feel the level of your awareness rise.

Now invite your awareness to fill up your legs, while still keeping attention on your feet and ankles. Notice how the level of these “sands of awareness” travels up and fills out the space up to your hips. Feel into how that feels, not trying to change anything, but simply noticing any sensations.

In this way, continue to work your way upwards, allowing these “sands” to gradually fill up your body as they empty from your mind. Allow the swirling thoughts to release and drop down to light up your lower limbs, your entire torso, your arms and shoulders little by little. Maintain awareness of the parts of your body that have awakened already, so that as you move along in this way, the sensations in your body build and you feel the liveliness of the present moment in them.

Finally, coming to the top of your head, feel into all the sensations vibrating through your entire body, perhaps gentle tingling in your feet and legs or a subtle pulsing in your arms and hands. Maybe the awareness of movement through your intestines, the beating of your heart and even the areas where your body makes contact with the surface that supports it.

In this way, you bring the whole of your body into the present, not focusing on just one part, but on everything that makes up your physical presence, and also the space around your physical presence, while at the same time relieving your mind of the pressures exerted by thinking. As your body fills, your mind empties and thoughts are replaced by a sense of peace and well-being.

I’ve tried this a number of times and found it to be both grounding and uplifting simultaneously and an effective way to bring myself out of my head and into the here and now. If you’re looking for a different way of engaging in a body scan, give it a try.

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Please note that a form of this meditation appeared on the Calm app on April 29, 2022, as an installment of Jeff Warren’s Daily Trip.

While I am a subscriber to Calm, I do not receive compensation for writing about the app. I am simply a very satisfied user.

15 Seconds of Zen in a Teaglass [Video Clip]

I’m neck-deep in juggling my day job and studying for my Yoga Teacher Training final exam, so I’m going to keep this short and tell you about a daily practice that I’ve established, as suggested by one of our teacher trainers.

We were to choose one thing to do consistently, something that was just for us and our well-being. And it was something that we should commit to doing everyday.

I chose making myself a tall glassful of hibiscus tea as my daily practice. As it is, I love tea because the process of making it requires that I pay attention to what I’m doing. While we set up morning (decaf) coffee the night before and the coffee maker is on a timer to brew, tea requires my presence.

Between waiting for the water to boil in the tea kettle, placing the hibiscus petals into the infuser, inserting that into the teaglass, pouring the hot water over it…the process becomes mindfulness meditation. And the best part is the visual reward of watching the vivid colors of the red hibiscus flowers seep through the infuser and into the glass, beautiful swirls of vibrant pink that, even if just for a handful of seconds, fill me with a sense of peace and spaciousness.

Feeling my spirit refreshed, I take a deep breath and return to my day.

Actually, it’s 16 seconds…but 15 sounds like a nicer, rounder number. Sorry about the knocking in the background. Once life calms down I’ll post a better version of this clip.

Another Dual Focus Meditation: Engaging the Ears

In my ever-continuing quest to maintain my concentration during meditation, I’m constantly exploring different points of focus. My go-to still remains the breath, but I’ve written about sharing that spotlight with focus on sensations in the hands as part of a dual focus meditation.

More recently, however, I’ve incorporated more of the senses into my meditation practice (I mean, we have five so why not?).

Urban sounds can provide a constant din that can be used with the breath as a dual focus sensory practice.

In between the inhales and exhales, there’s space during which I’m notoriously susceptible to distractions. Lately, I’ve been working with sounds. I live in the city on a busy street and there’s rarely a lack of noise, so in the lulls between my breaths, my ears turn on and absorb the sounds transpiring outside my window.

The trick with sounds, however, is to allow them to simply be interpreted as tones and refrain from being drawn into naming them. A siren runs the risk of eliciting thoughts of “where’s the fire?” or similar scenarios. For this to work, it’s important to engage our “beginner’s mind” — our brains are quick to match familiar sounds with a story — and divorce the sounds from associations that we’ve made over the years.

If simply shuttling between breath and sound provides enough fodder for concentration, this might not be an issue.

In that case, street noise can be an effective anchor for its variability, its high tones and low tones, as the passing of cars may morph into ocean wave-like sounds.

Meditation music and meditative sounds abound on the internet. Hunt around and you will find a plethora of offerings to use as a focal point.

However, if urban noises are either too intermittent or too difficult to resist spinning tales around, there are many other options for ambient sounds that will work for purposes of meditation. It’s no surprise that platforms like YouTube have a gazillion listings under “meditation music” that may fit the bill. In addition, apps like “myNoise” (and website myNoise.net) provide customizable background sounds to help mask outside noise and maximize ability to stay focused longer.

As the body moves with the breath, sound will remain in the background allowing attention to organically cycle between the two. From personal experience, I’ve learned that juggling between feeling into sensations in the body (breath) and being aware of sounds coming through my ears results in really turning down the dial on my Monkey Mind, which seems to fade to the distance. This dual focus can close the gap through which mind chatter might otherwise intrude.

If you feel inspired, give it a try and let me know how it goes!

100+ Breaths: Another Back-to-Sleep Option

Another stressful night left me wide awake at 3am again. Not fun when you’ve got a long day of work ahead of you.

I went to my tried-and-true tactic: several guided meditations which usually work to take the place of the worries swirling in my noggin. But this time it wasn’t enough. The voices were soothing but I wasn’t close to falling asleep.

So I came up with a simple impromptu meditation that kinda-sorta breaks the mindfulness “rules”.

So many numbers out there for me to count while I’m not sleeping…

I’ve been taught that one can count the breaths to help deal with the chattering “Monkey Mind”, and this can be done in various ways. For example, count each inhale as one and each exhale as two, repeating with the next inhale as one and exhale as two, and so on, never progressing further.

Or counting each breath cycle up to 10 (or any other preset number) and then start again at one. If your focus is lost at any point, start at one again, working your way back to 10, restarting at one if your mind wanders off again.

These types of counting techniques aren’t meant to get you anywhere. The number you reach doesn’t matter. What matters is that you make the breath counts your point of focus, giving the Monkey Mind something to do and keeping anxious thoughts at bay.

But for this particular 3am waking, I decided to try something else: count breaths without a stopping point. Instead of observing the breath without changing it, as is usually done during other mindfulness meditation practices, I counted during the exhale, consciously extending the breath as I thought the number. And as I focused on my breath, I kept track of the ascending numbers. This required a touch more concentration and yet was simple and boring enough to not excite my mind.

Inhale, exhale, eighty-six…inhale, exhale, eighty-seven…inhale, exhale, eighty-z-z-z-z-z-z-z…

Somewhere in the 70s and 80s the numbers started jumbling in my head and I repeated several, not being sure exactly where I was. By the 90s, my monkey brain was muttering. I remember getting to 100 and going past it, but my memory is foggy. Consciousness faded in the one hundred teens, I think.

As far as back-to-sleep methods go, this was not a quick fix, but I was too awake to try anything else. I counted for a good 20-30 minutes. I manipulated the breath, so as I mentioned, this practice didn’t follow the mindfulness meditation “rules”, although it did offer me meditation practice in lieu of spinning my worry wheels.

But in the wee hours of the morning when nothing else seemed to be working, it got me to where I needed to be: asleep.

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When the going gets tough, I’ve found counting to be one of the most effective last-ditch back-to-sleep methods, for me preferable to getting out of bed and going out to the couch to read or something. If nothing else, I get in some effective meditation practice. Additionally, this was not a night with a totally hyperactive Monkey Mind. My monkey was awake for distractible.

Note that as I was doing this, I lay on my side, bolster between my knees, white noise playing through my earbuds (yes, I’ve taken to sleeping with earbuds in!). I was in “sleep position” and keeping still, so the only “moving parts” were my brain and the expansion and contraction of my chest and belly.

What If It Isn’t?

“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”
“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.
Piglet was comforted by this.

A. A. Milne

So, I felt a “lump” under my left nipple, what I refer to as my cancer-side. It wasn’t the same kind of lump that I remember from cancer but when I thought of how I’d describe it (mass, thickening, etc.) I came up with cancer-sounding descriptive words.

This “lump” was also way bigger than my tumor had been.

I think I feel “something” and –BAM!– my mind takes me to worst-case-scenario land.

Now you might think that I would reason with myself. I’d had an MRI in the late summer that showed nothing. A real lump that big would have shown up.

Again, it wasn’t a lump, it was a “lump”. But in the back of my mind, a film starting playing…

I was writing letters to my friends on how much I had appreciated their friendship. Practicing how to tell my kids that I wouldn’t be around to see them graduate from college. Posting my final thoughts here.

It sounds sooo melodramatic but my brain is like a motor boat left unattended with the engine running. And it’s just heading away on its own on a course that no one plotted.

Why do I “go there”?

There is a part of the brain called the Default Mode Network (DMN), which is the area that is more active when you’re at rest and otherwise not focusing on anything. There is a nice “plain-English” explanation here (from an accompanying article to meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness course on Masterclass.com). It describes the role of the DMN in “self-reflection…social evaluations…memories…envisioning the future”. And it also notes that problems within the DMN can predipose people to a variety of cognitive issues, including anxiety.

Start my motor, cut me loose…and off I go.

This would explain a lot about my personal default mode.

The article goes on to describe how meditation can “keep the mind from wandering into stressful territory, like reliving traumatic events from the past or anxieties about the future.”

Well, it’s good that I’m meditating, then. But I’ve already put a lot of practice into panicking. I’m an expert hand-wringer. I have a lifetime of experience helped along by a series of anxiety-provoking events. Meditation is chipping away at my hypervigilance, but it’s a slow process.

The main thing that has changed, however, is that now I’m more aware when the motorboat putters away. It used to blindsight me and before I knew it, I was hit by a tidal wave of anxious sensations (tightening, gripping, nausea…). I didn’t realize that this habit of automatic thoughts was driving my anxiety.

Now, when I start down the road of “what if it is…”, I can stop and ask, “what if it isn’t”?

And that comforts me.

When I Can’t Keep Images Out of My Head

When I first started my mindfulness meditation journey, I was taught to use the breath as the point of focus. It is a reliable anchor, always there to return to when you inevitably drift off into thought. It is a stable grounding force that keeps us present.

But there are times when it’s hard to focus on the breath. Perhaps when the mind is especially busy. At those times, I switch to other bodily sensations, such as tingling in my hands or pressure from contact with the surface that I’m sitting on. I wrote a post about moving between two points of focus to help the mind maintain concentration without wandering off. That helps too.

Some days my monkey mind is particularly loud and attention-seeking.

And sometimes my chattering “monkey mind” calls for a switch to an auditory focal point such as gentle music, singing bowls, nature sounds or even simply street noises. Those will keep me present as long as I don’t fall into the trap of making stories about the sounds.

But some days are extra tough.

I tend to avoid meditating with my eyes open. Doing so only reminds me that I need to clean my desk or vacuum the carpet (“guilt-guilt, blame-blame”). However, I am a very visual person with a vivid imagination, and opening my eyes immediately grounds me if my thoughts get too pervasive when my eyes are closed.

Sometimes a thought will trigger an uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking feeling simply because a seemingly-innocuous scene has been associated with a disturbing event. The scene flashes before my eyes andbefore I know it I’m down a rabbit hole. Monkey mind is activated.

While staying with bodily sensations would be preferable, some days there are too many opportunities for my monkey mind to run away with me. It can get exhausting and counterproductive to “dodge” these visuals. Yes, we are “supposed to” let the thoughts pass by us without getting caught up in them. But there are days when they agitate me too much and throw me off track.

Tree!

So I’m cutting myself some slack and turning the “problem” into the solution. On those difficult days, I focus on an image of my own choosing. Something that I can visualize clearly so that it keeps the monkey occupied while at the same time keeping me away from troubling scenes. You could argue that I’m “avoiding” the thoughts. But I see this differently–I’m giving myself a little break from them.

What works best for me? An image unencumbered by potent associations–this is different for each person. A tree, for example, works for me. It might be a thin white birch tree or as majestic and meaningful as Yggdrasil. The tree itself doesn’t matter as much as that I choose it according to what suits me and what soothes me. I can focus on its rough bark, veiny leaves and thick canopy and the sensations that these things evoke to keep away from creating stories.

And if this results in greater concentration, I have the option of hopping back to the breath. Or not.

This might not seem like an earth-shattering revelation. There are relatively popular mountain and lake meditations, so this concept is not new. But with all the emphasis on feeling into your breath in an effort to calm the thinking mind, sometimes it’s simpler to not worry about the “shoulds” and instead see what your own self needs to help it let go and settle into peace.