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.

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.

Mindfulness Apps I Love: “Plum Village”

Much gratitude to SmileCalm who brought this meditation app to my attention!

So far most of the mindfulness apps and programs that I’ve written about have reflected a more secular version of mindfulness (Insight Timer is an exception, because it encompasses a very broad range of practices).

The opening screen invites you into Plum Village…

However, Plum Village is the meditation app of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village Tradition of Buddhism. It is beautiful in its simplicity, reflecting mindfulness authentically — and appropriately so, as Thich Nhat Hanh is considered the “father of mindfulness”.

Things that ring true for me:

1. It is completely free. There are no in-app purchases or upgrades, and certainly no ads. You download it and have access to everything. It is open to everyone.

2. It is uncomplicated in design, allowing easy navigation within a simple serene tangerine-colored layout.

3. There is no competition inherent in this app: no meditation counters, no record of meditation “streaks”, no gold stars for hitting meditation milestones, nor a way to compare your progress against that of others. It focuses only on the selection that you are doing now. And when you are done with it, you are done. No clinging.

A partial view of some of the categories in the “Meditations” section.

There are five sections, buttons for which run along the bottom of the screen. “Resources” contains chants, poems, mindful movement videos, in addition to spoken and written teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh. “Practices” could be considered the ‘how-to’ section as it explains various mindfulness practices and concepts.

There is a large selection of guided meditations in the “Meditations” section. They are based on Buddhist values, and while most are lovingly presented by monks and nuns, there are some led by Thich Nhat Hanh himself. To round out the collection, there are clips of nature sounds to use as a background to meditation.

The “Ask Thay” section (Thay, or “teacher”, referring to Thich Nhat Hanh) contains a long list of questions posed to the Zen Master with audio clips of his gentle responses. While these within themselves are not meditations, I found myself mesmerized by his words.

But the section I’ve utilized the most is “Bells”. It’s possible to set up the sounding of a ‘bell of mindfulness’ for intervals ranging from every five to sixty minutes. I’ve let that run for the entirety of my workday, setting up the bell to sound every 10 minutes, as a reminder to stay present and focused. When I get lost in work, the bell declares its presence, easily cuts though the noise in my head and serves as a reminder to take several deep breaths.

I have been using this app differently from other mindfulness apps like Calm and Insight Timer. Plum Village is more instructive, and as I am interested in deepening my knowledge of Buddhist Dharma, I use it not only to calm my monkey mind, but also as a learning tool.

Of all the programs and apps I have used, Plum Village feels the most authentic, as if I’m coming home to the roots of mindfulness.

Mindfulness and the College Admissions Scandal

As an alumna of one of the universities involved in the recent U.S. college admissions scandal, I’ve been following the details of this story with great interest. My eldest will be completing college applications this autumn. She is a remarkable student; however, unlike many of my fellow alumni, I have not had the means to put her into every imaginable extracurricular activity.

Yet, I had impressed upon her the importance of always doing her best and getting into a “good” university to improve her choices for the future, particularly since there will not be a windfall waiting for her when I die.

But the recent events have left a sour taste in my mouth. Particularly since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve been rethinking the stressors that are placed on students in the hopes of getting them into the “best” schools.

So much anxiety and lost sleep. Pressures to compete. I can no longer say that it’s worth it. The recent admissions scandal broke open the “secret” that many of us already knew. There is great iniquity in our society and college admissions reflect that.

I do believe that education is very important. That has not changed. But the artificial ways that we twist ourselves to fit a mold, to be granted confirmation of our worthiness of being one of the chosen few, is unhealthy.

I have served as an alumna interviewer for prospective students and become increasingly frustrated by the opportunities that wealthier applicants are given, when in fact they may work no harder than their less fortunate counterparts. If anything, I’ve seen relatively poor students do so much with what they have, sometimes as they deal with complicated home situations and an inordinate amount of responsibility.

But one thing seems to hold true for all students, regardless of income: competition for college acceptance teaches them that they’re never “good enough”. Having good grades and high scores is insufficient — they must do more: sports, clubs, musical instruments, volunteer activities, other distinctions, all at nosebleed-high levels of accomplishment. Nothing less than perfection is expected.

And always planning, planning, planning. There is little time to appreciate what is taking place now.

I don’t want the exquisite beauty of now to be sacrificed for some plastic promise of tomorrow.

I have bright children, but my wish for them is not necessarily to attend my alma mater. That is not what is important. I want them to be good people. Compassionate, empathetic and not so much in a hurry to get ahead, particularly not if it means treading on others. We have the ability to define our own success and we can do so mindfully and with grace.

This is not something that money can buy, nor that a particular diploma can offer. This is something that comes from within. The greatest gift that I can give my children is to teach them mindfulness, to show them how to still their thoughts and calm their worries. That lesson will serve them for the rest of their lives.

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What I would like all those students who tried so hard and still weren’t
“accepted” to know:

You are enough. You don’t need an acceptance letter to prove your worth.

You are bright and resourceful, inquisitive and engaged. And no matter where you go to school, you will do well. I see the sparkling light in your eyes — don’t let the heaviness of worldly expectations douse it. You, not some musty ancient institution, are who defines yourself.

Strive for what you feel is important, but do so mindfully and with kindness. That is what will make this world a better place for all.

Mindfulness Programs I Love: “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction”

Although I may never be able to prove it, I’m willing to bet that stress played a role in the proliferation of my cancer.

As a result, getting my stress response under control was a high priority, so I started a meditation practice and once the toughest parts of my treatment (chemo, radiation) were done, went searching for a formal class to address anxiety.

My clinical counselor had told me about a book called “Full Catastrophe Living” by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. As it turned out, Kabat-Zinn had been a long-time meditator and, drawing on both Buddhist Dharma and scientific research, developed a stress-reduction program for patients at the UMass Medical School in the 1970s called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

So when I found a Center for Mindfulness at a local university, I jumped at the opportunity to take that same flagship MBSR course.

This is an 8-week class with an additional full-day retreat. The curriculum has been developed to introduce students to mindfulness and help them, over a two month period, develop a practice, both formal and informal to manage stress in their lives.

It is also not cheap! The non-discounted version may cost about $600, depending on where and when you sign up. If I hadn’t had cancer and therefore a powerful reason for needing in-person guidance in mindfulness meditation, I would have considered myself priced out of this course, instead opting for a self-paced, free online version, such as Palouse Mindfulness.

But I used the significant price tag to motivate myself to do each and every homework assignment. The classes themselves were 2.5 hours a week, with daily home practice lasting about 45 minutes to an hour. That’s no small commitment! I had to move around my schedule to be able to fit the practice time in, and even the Center for Mindfulness itself recommended that if you could not accommodate the home practice to wait for a time that you could before signing up for the class.

The teachers were warm and supportive. They genuinely cared about student progress and themselves had a regular practice in addition to having spent time and resources on their own teacher training. As such, the instruction was excellent.

There were a number of resources for the students, including audio and video programs, which are also available to the general public. Currently, as an MBSR alumna, I have access to all the day-long mindfulness retreats for students free of charge. This gives me an opportunity to immerse myself into silent meditation for substantial periods of time in a similarly conducive environment.

The development of a mindfulness practice has more to do with the effort of the student, rather than the expense of a class.

I was struck by how quickly the class registration filled up, and how during the first session, when asked why we were taking the course, so many of us cited the amount of stress and anxiety in our lives. It is a sign of the times that so many people are willing to pay a significant amount of money to take a class to help them get some semblance of control over their inner state.

Actually achieving this was harder than simply paying the cost of admission. This class began with about thirty of us, but fewer than half made it to the very end. A number of people admitted being unable to complete the homework. Some gave up completely. There were others that came for several sessions but then never returned. Everyone was looking for help with stress but not everyone was successful.

As a secular version of Buddhist mindfulness, the course does justice to the tradition. While the expensive registration fee may be off-putting for some (many?), there is tuition assistance available, which I feel is important. As I’ve written before, I don’t feel that it’s appropriate to make mindfulness available only to those rich enough to afford fancy classes.

But in the end, regardless of what type of mindfulness instruction you utilize, what matters is how much effort each student puts into the practice of being mindful.

And that is available to all.