Been gone, been down, still am

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It has been a while since I last posted on this blog. I have not been active on my Facebook page either. Why? I think because I am having trouble making sense of the world right now. I simply do not understand the hate and violence that are so pervasive at this moment.

I used to think I understood people who express their anger demonstrably, because I used to manage my own anger so poorly. I thought I had some insight, based on my own struggles as a young man, when it was so easy for rage to rise up inside of me and spill forth. Maybe I did, but I don’t feel like I do anymore.

I don’t understand most of the anger I witness on social media and on TV. On my worst days, when anger overwhelmed me completely, when I literally shook from the negative energy boiling up from deep inside, I never displayed such naked aggression, never verbally savaged another being, never even considered doing either. So I try to imagine what torment these angry people must be suffering, I try to put myself in their place, to contemplate their plight, to fathom what could possibly propel them to these states of frothing, thrashing, tearing, unbridled fury. But I fail repeatedly, fully unenlightened.

I am left distraught by my confusion, by my utter inability to grasp what is happening in the world, in this country, in my own backyard. I cannot comprehend the acts of violence that take place every day, many times a day. I am even more confounded by the eagerness of so many people to act on their violent impulses, by their hair-trigger readiness to lash out with deadly force.

I fear that I am despairing, losing sight of humanity’s inherent goodness, losing touch with creation’s core of love. I do not love my fellow beings any less, but I admit I sometimes wonder what good it does. Am I helping at all? Am I contributing, in any way, to stemming the angry tide? Could it possibly be any worse if I weren’t here at all?

The sadness I feel is nearly unbearable. My heart aches for the beloved of the brutally murdered. Compassion continues to swell up even for the perpetrators, even though I don’t understand them, even though I believed that well had run dry, even though their acts are so repugnant and inexplicable that I begin to fear that my own loved ones are no longer safe.

Today and yesterday and the day before, each brought more unwelcome news, more tragedy, more devastation. Unremitting, incessant, unflagging, unstoppable. At least it seems that way. Though I hope, I do, I really hope. And I do what for a Buddhist passes for prayer, and I cling to the possibility that the storm will be a little less fierce at dawn, and I focus on the inevitability of the sun rising, and I remind myself that the powerful, unquenchable power that fuels creation is still there. Love remains and, if we can manage to get out of its way, will prevail.

I believe that, I honestly do, even now, even when it is so terribly difficult to make sense from any of it.

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The Mindfulness Backlash

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Seems like anything that garners attention in this age of unavoidable social media eventually suffers a backlash. For several years now, there has been a steady stream of articles about the benefits of mindfulness practice and meditation. More recently, there has been a growing number of missives attacking mindfulness and meditation – in other words, the backlash has begun.

I think I understand the motivation for the usual backlash – people are just sick to death of hearing about a particular topic. It happens with equal frequency for things of great importance – like presidential campaigns – and things of no importance at all – like planking.

Where these anti-waves lose me, though, is when they begin to attack the thing itself, rather than the ridiculous amount of attention that the thing has received. Which is why I’m bewildered by the backlash against mindfulness and meditation. True, they are both receiving much more attention than they used to, but not nearly as much as other things that collapse back on themselves. Worse, some people are characterizing meditation and mindfulness as ineffective, faddish, and a waste of time. Both practices can withstand a close critique, in my opinion, but much of the criticism I have seen is ill-informed and reveals a startling lack of understanding of the things they are condemning.

A typical example appeared recently under the title “In defiance of mindfulness,” as if mindfulness were somehow oppressing the author. Her opening paragraph was a jaw-dropper:

Mindfulness is so big these days that someone has even made an attempt at calculating its impact on this country’s GDP. I, however, have not seen anyone to whom mindfulness has made any substantial difference. In fact, all the confused people that I know regularly meditate and go on yoga retreats. Some even teach at them.

Let’s just skip over the hyperbole and address the notion that the author knows no one who has benefited from mindfulness. That suggests to me that she doesn’t know what mindfulness is. Of course, I’m attuned to it as a practitioner, but I see mindfulness’ benefits everywhere I look; even when I’m not looking. Her next lines confirm what I thought:

While mindfulness can calm us down and we may even decide, after too many deep breaths, that we have “found ourselves”, we then invariably go back to the real world and all its limitations. And our old circumstances stare us in the face and create the same stress and aggravation.

The most common misunderstanding about meditation and mindfulness is that their purpose is to withdraw from the world or hide from reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although meditation often takes the form of sitting in quiet, its intent is to benefit you when you’re not “on the cushion.” Mindfulness is about improving your awareness of life as it happens and, thereby, your ability to cope with the stress and aggravations of every day.

BTW, if the practice of mindfulness involves “finding ourselves” (not a phrase I’ve ever used in relation to mindfulness) it does not seek to hide from world. Rather, mindfulness is about finding yourself where you actually are, in the circumstances you actually are living in.

And here comes the message of this article. It is breathtakingly naïve to claim that all a modern individual needs is inner calm, and all else would fall into place. How can half an hour of yoga and meditation a day fix a stalled career, for example? So instead of chasing some elusive sense of self which we hope will keep us happy at all times, we should instead focus on improving our circumstances and getting rid of the problems that caused us the stress in the first place.

This paragraph breathtakingly mischaracterizes mindfulness and is further proof the author doesn’t know what it is. No one who truly understands mindfulness would make such a claim. It is a tool for living in a world of suffering, not a method for eliminating suffering. It works best, in my opinion, when integrated into your life, including any other things you do to promote physical, mental, and emotional health.

Let me answer the author’s question: A half hour of yoga or mediation a day won’t make your job any better, or increase your income, or stop someone from abusing you. It will change your outlook, the orientation of your mind, your attitude. It will equip you to deal with the suffering you encounter so that you can find the strength and motivation to seek a new, better-paying job; or to find a way to escape from an abusive situation. Mindfulness helps you cope with the difficulties of life by opening your eyes to the true source of those difficulties – it is virtually impossible to remedy difficult circumstances if you don’t truly understand their nature and what causes them.

One last item: The author refers to mindfulness as “new-age,” which is a code word for “the latest fad.” Of course, mindfulness and meditation are thousands of years old, hardly a recent development. If anything is new, it’s the author’s awareness of the practice.

It is unfair to characterize mindfulness as something it is not intended to be and then tear it down for not being that something.

Mindfulness and Work

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I have written in the past about the wonderful advancement of meditation and mindfulness practice in elementary and secondary schools and in colleges and universities. The pace at which they have infiltrated the business world may be even more rapid.

The need for these practices in the workplace should be evident. Is there any environment more prone to inducing anxiety and causing stress than the job site? As adults, that is where we spend the largest portion of our waking hours. Can meditation and mindfulness make you more successful and richer? Perhaps, but they’re greatest value is enabling you to cope effectively with worry and stress at work, which lessens the dread we connect with the daily grind (thereby further lifting our spirits), and makes us healthier in mind, body, and spirit.

However, there is a tendency, I think, for mindfulness and meditation in the workplace to be treated as the latest management fad. They get lumped in with a great mass of self-help, empowerment, how-to-succeed-in-business approaches that become super-popular for a few years and then are discarded in favor of the next big thing. Meditation and mindfulness have staying power as personal tools because their efficacy and benefits are demonstrable, even though they may eventually fall by the wayside as business tools. In truth, most successful management and professional practices contain components that are applications of both mindfulness and meditation – they’re just called something else.

The following are a sampling of recent articles about the inroads that meditation and mindfulness are making in the business world.

4 Easy Ways to Be More Mindful at Work – “Bringing more mindfulness into my working days is one of the best things I can do for my enjoyment, productivity and creativity. Rather than spending time counting down the clock, allowing frustration to grow, or taking work stresses home with me, I use several techniques to create a more mindful work environment. Four powerful ways you can also incorporate mindfulness into your working days include tuning into gratitude, taking short and regular mindful breaks, journaling mindfully at the end of the day and using a mindfulness tool.”

Just Breathe: Using the Power of Mindfulness to Achieve Peace in Business – “I first started my mindfulness journey several years ago when I was a junior in college. After getting into a car accident that left me horrified over just the thought of getting into a car again, I found myself in cognitive behavioral therapy. My prescription? Meditation – a mindfulness exercise.”

The Mindful Board – “Directors facing complex corporate governance challenges can develop their capacity to think together about the implications of their decisions.”

5 ways leaders can help their teams manage stress and burnout – “Train the brain to manage chaos. Practicing mindfulness can instill useful mental habits that enhance resiliency and productivity at work and in one’s personal life. Leaders and teams who prioritize mindfulness collaborate better, control stress more effectively and improve performance, according to the report.”

Reduce constant worry while job hunting – “Brain science has demonstrated that practicing mindfulness may actually train the brain to think in other ways. For job seekers, it potentially provides welcome relief from the stress of self-defeating, anxious thoughts, such as the fear of having left out an important point in an interview or of not finding jobs at all.”

Mindfulness: An Holistic Approach to Business – “Everyone stresses at work, and that might not be your responsibility, but you can definitely account for your own stress! Be mindful. For instance, some people use meditation to improve their work performance, or excel in life. Some have even found their true calling. So how can you be mindful? Mindful in the sense of being aware of oneself but also able to focus fully on the task at hand. This encompasses emotions and thoughts, being aware of the distractions but being concentrated on the work to be done.”

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More about Meditation and Mindfulness for Students

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More about Meditation and Mindfulness for Students

Not long ago I posted about how much students need mindfulness and meditation to cope with the stress of modern living. I am happy to say that the trend toward teaching children about meditation and living mindfully continues to grow, as evidenced by these recent articles:

One of San Francisco’s toughest schools transformed by the power of meditation – “In the first year of Quiet Time suspensions at Visitacion Valley – which has 500 students aged 11-13 – were reduced by 45%. By 2009-10, attendance rates were over 98% (some of the highest in the city), and today 20% of graduates are admitted to the highly academic Lowell high school – before it was rare for even one student to be accepted. Perhaps even more remarkable, last year’s California Healthy Kids Survey from the state’s education department found that students at Visitacion Valley middle school were the happiest in the whole of San Francisco.”

De-Stress for Tests – from Clemson University’s The Tiger – “Meditation: A few minutes of meditation is always better that none. You can even set aside just five minutes. Studies show that meditation brings stress levels down while simultaneously boosting the brain’s ability to focus, and can even improve memory recall.”

App Teaches Teens Mindfulness Skills – from the University of Arizona’s UA News – “While mindfulness-based resources increasingly are offered for adults, adolescents have received less attention. University of Arizona postdoctoral research associate Tami Turner has designed a mindfulness-based mobile app and is in the midst of a pilot study investigating the associated benefits for its users.”

Deep breathing critical to students’ well-being – “Young students have learned to control anger, stress, anxiety and fear through learning mindful breathing. Calmer Choice has many benefits for us all and belongs in the schools.”

Mantras before Math Class – “Over the past 10 years, small meditation programs have started cropping up at public schools around the country, in major cities like Los Angeles, New York,Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. They’re most often found in low-income areas, where stresses have a way of compounding…It’s hard to change the circumstances that create this kind of stress, though plenty of people are trying. But if you teach kids to meditate in the meantime, the thinking goes, you can help them reduce the stress itself. That reasoning always made sense to me, as someone who has been practicing TM since childhood and seen the research on adults, especially for stress-related problems like heart disease. Struggling schools need lots of things: better food, stronger math programs, and higher-quality teachers, to name just a few. One of those needs seems to be a way to reduce stress so kids can absorb information and go into the world as well-balanced, successful people.”

Parents and schools teach meditation to kids – “Asking a child to sit still for meditation doesn’t sound like a recipe for easing stress. Yet more families are making a few shared minutes of quiet contemplation a part of their daily routines. When handled with flexibility and a sense of humour, they say, the practice can calm their children, reduce stress and anxiety and help them focus.”

School board brings in meditation expert – “The Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board (HSCDSB) is hosting a conference for Northeastern Ontario educators focused on meditating with children. Christian meditation pioneer Ernie Christie will be the facilitator of the full-day conference. A native of Australia, Christie pioneered Christian Meditation with Children, along with Dr. Cathy Day, fourteen years ago.”

Kids use meditation, mindfulness to de-stress – “The exercise at Highland Presbyterian Church Nursery and Weekday School is an example of how some schools are using mindfulness – the practice of focusing one’s awareness on the present moment – with or without meditation, to help students center themselves, combat stress and treat others with kindness. The goal is to give children “coping skills for life,” said Patricia Salem, a counselor at St. Agnes Catholic School, which has had a mindfulness program for about three years.”

Mindfulness meditation may improve memory for teens – “Adolescents assigned to a mindfulness meditation program appeared to have improvements in memory in a recent study. ‘These results are consistent with a growing body of research in adults that has found mindfulness meditation to be a helpful tool for enhancing working memory capacity,’ said Kristen E. Jastrowski Mano of the psychology department at the University of Cincinnati, who coauthored the new study.”

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Is there a mindful response to terrorism?

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Is there a mindful response to terrorism?

My daughter spent the fall of 2014 attending college in Paris, which gave me the opportunity to reignite my love affair with the City of Lights. Shortly after she returned home, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo occurred. My thoughts and emotions were a welter of relief that my daughter was here and not there, and heartbreak for the people of Paris. Learning the news last night of the most recent terrorist attacks in Paris brought all of those feelings back in a rush and by a factor of at least 10.

Is there a mindful way to respond to acts of terrorism? I can hardly believe I need to ask that question. It is so much simpler to contemplate mindful responses to hunger, fatigue, stress, rude people, etc. Everyday things we all have to deal with. It is sad beyond description that terrorism is common enough that it requires specific consideration with regard to mindfulness. But it is a fact, and needs to be dealt with.

The aim of terrorism is not the act itself – as terror-filled as the act may be – but rather to inspire lingering terror. Nations spend untold billions of dollars protecting “high-profile targets” such as government buildings and cultural sites. The most successful terrorist acts, though, are perpetrated in much more mundane and commonplace locations – on buses, in a concert hall, at a corner cafe. It is these acts of terror that resonate and that are the most effective from the terrorist’s perspective, because each of us can imagine ourselves on that bus, or attending the concert, or eating dinner with friends.

Terror and fear are not consonant with mindfulness because they innately focus on the future, on what may happen, rather than on the present moment. More human suffering is caused by the fear what might happen to us than is caused by the things that actually are happening to us. Mindfulness teaches us to open our eyes to our present circumstances, to tear away the veil of unreality that comes in the form of fear of what might happen, so that we can focus on what truly is.

Our minds and lives are most balanced and healthy when we mindfully live in the present moment. The insidiousness of terrorism extends far beyond the immediate physical destruction it causes – it shatters our mindfulness and continues to prevent us from regaining balance. We cannot live fully in the moment when our minds are focused on what terrors might lurk around the corner. When we turn that corner and see that our fears were unfounded, we are not relieved – instead, we shift our fears to the next corner, and the corner after that.

It takes considerable effort to focus on what is happening around us right now when our fears bombard us with nightmare visions of what could happen next. I won’t suggest otherwise. But it is a necessary effort if we are going to recover our balance and re-center our lives.

Should we ignore the possibility of more terrorism to come? Of course not. Precautions should be taken. Protections should be put in place. That is undeniably prudent. Nations should work together to fight groups that wield terror as a weapon. But it will not be enough to completely defeat terrorism. As is so often pointed out, when one terrorist is eliminated, another jumps up to wield the weapon in his place.

The only lasting approach to defeating terrorism, in my opinion, is to rob it of its power by living in the present moment. Terrorism persists because it continues to be an effective weapon. The effectiveness of terrorism derives not from the guns or bombs the terrorists use to attach, but in the lingering fear the attacks inspire. If we do not let the fear of terrorism master us, if we live in the here and now with compassion for all beings, then terrorism will lose its power. This I firmly believe to be true.

Meditate Your Own Way

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At the risk of appearing silly, I confess that I adore coloring books. They represent a piece of childhood to which I unrepentantly grasp tightly – they have the same effect on me as a hot, buttery bowl of pastina. Such memories of a simpler time of pure joy bring warmth to my spirit these many years later. (Second confession: I had a big bowl of pastina last week and it tasted like a big hug from my Mom.)

But the marvels of coloring books don’t end there. I find coloring to be a mind-freeing experience. It occupies the wild monkey in my brain that threatens to derail my meditation practice. While Mr. Monkey Brain is busily scribbling between the lines and trying to decide if the next shape should be burnt umber or brick red, the rest of me focuses on meditating. When my meditation period ends, I have all the usual benefits of meditation. And a pretty picture to hang on my fridge.

Q: Why is this guy wasting my time talking about coloring books?

A: This guy apologizes if you think he’s wasting your time. I’m not always quick to the point. I am sorry. The point is this:

If it works for you, keep working it.

Why would you do otherwise? If you have found a routine that supports your meditation, and your meditation is helping you to live a mindful and fruitful life, praise be! Marvelous! Keep it up.

If you think it matters one iota to me that some people think I’m childish for playing with coloring books, think again. Darn tootin’ I’m childish! I’m also a practitioner of meditation for more than 25 years, in no small part because I’m willing to try new things (and old things, like coloring) and stick with them if they work for me. No matter what anyone else thinks. It’s my time on the cushion, not theirs.

So shake your groove thang. Lay on your back. Walk laps around the high school track. Mow the lawn. Juggle chainsaws. As long as it helps you to meditate well.

More food for thought:

The Zen of Adult Coloring Books

A Guide to Walking Meditation – Thich Nhat Hanh

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Students need meditation more than ever

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My daughter is a sophomore in college. Among many eye-opening experiences I have had as a parent of a college student is discovering how stressful college has become.

In some ways, it is an exponential continuation of the experience of middle and high school, which seemed to me to be way more stressful than when I was that age. Granted, my 30th high school reunion was a couple of years ago, so perhaps my memory is dim. But I don’t think it is — I believe young people today are much more stressed in school than used to be the case.

All the more reason why students need to be taught meditation from an early age. I frequently share articles about meditation programs for students on the Dharma Beginner Facebook page and Twitter feed because I believe that meditation training is as essential — more essential, perhaps — to students as any academic subject they study.

The importance of meditation instruction and practice extends well beyond educational performance (though it is undeniably valuable in that regard). Young people need meditation to support their lives outside the classroom even more. School generally will end by the early 20s, but life will continue well beyond that.

Join me in supporting school-based meditation and mindfulness programs wherever you find them and in spreading the good word about their benefits.

Just a few examples…

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