Tag Archives: mindfulness

Why do I meditate?

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Why do we meditate? It’s a question raised in a recent column by Bruce Davis. The answer he received from Buddhist teacher James Baraz was, “Wow!” If you want to know what he meant, I encourage you to read the piece. I just want to use it as a leaping-off point for reflecting on why meditation is a part of my life.

I started meditating in my mid-20s when I was testing a calling to the priesthood. That testing had three parts: prayer, study, and action. I was praying for God to reveal the path I should take; I was studying what it meant to be a priest and spiritual guide; and I was getting first-hand experience with the work of a priest by accompanying my parish’s curate as he visited the sick and the shut-ins every Saturday. I did this for a year and, though I ultimately declined to accept the calling, the experience changed my life in many ways – not the least of which was starting my meditation practice.

As part of my studies, I began reading Thomas Merton, and subsequently Bede Griffiths and Basil Pennington, and was introduced to Eastern religious and spiritual practices. I learned to meditate and incorporated it into my Christian spirituality and I have been meditating ever since, more than 20 years later. Those books and initial meditation practice were a launching pad for a much deeper exploration of meditation, mindfulness, and Eastern religion that ultimately led me to become a Buddhist.

So, to answer the question why I meditate, I would have to say, “Because I need to.” It is as integral a part of my daily life as eating, as essential to starting my morning as getting dressed. Without meditation, I would hunger, and I would feel naked and unprepared to experience life. At least, that’s what I think I would feel like without meditation because, to be frank, I’m not sure I could truly imagine my life without meditation.

Meditation grounds me. Meditation clears away the detritus left by my emotions and thoughts. Meditation calms me. Meditation gives me the strength to handle stress and anxiety without crumpling into a fetal position. Meditation balances me. Meditation enables me to live mindfully and happily.

So you tell me: Why do you meditate?

More about Active Meditation

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If you thought my musings about meditating while shaving or snowshoeing odd, then you will truly be baffled by recent articles about meditating on the treadmill and while mowing the lawn.

Mowing may be the next form of meditation: “Researchers from the University of Queensland Brisbane discovered that a chemical released from a mowed lawn actually makes people feel happy and relaxed.”

I don’t know about the biochemical aspect of mowing the lawn, but I can personally attest to the meditative nature of lawn work in general, particularly the use of noisy equipment. Using something noisy may sound counterproductive to establishing a foundation for meditation. However, the noise of leaf blowers, hedge trimmers, and lawn mowers is kind of like a white noise – constant and enveloping, and in that way no different than wearing noise-cancelling headphones.

My condo association contracts for landscaping, but I used to look forward to autumn and blowing leaves when I owned a house and had to take care of such things myself. That sound would fill my ears, the vibration would spread from my hands, up my arms and into my torso, and I would enter a meditative state. Sometimes my mind would be mostly blank, other times my mind would grapple with arising thoughts and emotions, just like when I sit on my cushion.

Meditation made easy: How to train your brain on the treadmill: “This meditation will double the benefit of working out by connecting body and mind. It will inspire spiritual practice and keep your workouts from becoming another frenetic activity in an already busy life.”

I have no doubt that this can work as well, again from personal experience. I have done much the same thing on the elliptical machine many times. Be careful though: You don’t want to end up on a TV show when someone records you falling face-first on the treadmill when your attention wanders too far away.

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Tuning Our Mindfulness Dial

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Self-awareness is one of the primary objectives of meditation. Living  mindfully depends on our being aware of what is going on inside of and around us at each passing moment. Meditation sharpens and refocuses our awareness, both of self and surroundings. Debbie Gisonni talks about the importance of self-awareness in the Huffington Post. I wasn’t aware until reading her post that September is Self-Awareness Month. Our goal should be to make every day Self-Awareness Day, stringing them together to create a Self-Awareness Year and, ultimately, a Self-Awareness Life.

Meditation also reawakens us to the realization that self and surroundings are not separate but, rather, are inextricably linked. One way to define living mindfully is living in the awareness of that connection to all things at all times.

Awareness and mindfulness are kind of like an analog radio with a dial. Anyone remember what it used to be like to keep your radio on a particular station when you had to get the knob in the approximately correct position, before radio dials became LED number readouts? C’mon, don’t be shy, I know some of you are as old as I am. I won’t tell. Well, perhaps you saw one in a museum once…

During the day, awareness and mindfulness may ebb and flow, like the tuning on the radio drifting away from and then back toward the station you want to listen to. Meditation can be compared with adjusting the dial to reestablish our awareness and mindfulness so that our connection to the oneness of creation comes in loud and clear once again. Depending on how long it has been since our last “tuning,” meditation can be a very slight adjustment to the awareness dial or a more substantial twist of the knob.

Making little adjustments to our mindfulness throughout the day is a good way to keep from drifting too far away from awareness. But it is not always practical for us to practice our meditation during the day, while at work or school or traveling. One thing that I finds helps is to remind myself to breathe throughout the day; that is, to pause for just a minute to focus on breathing in and out deeply (or whatever breathing practice works best for you). I do this in two ways. First, I tacked a sign to the wall above my computer at work that simply reads, “Breathe.” Whenever I glance at it, I follow the one-word instruction. Second, I open my computer browser at the start of each workday and point it to the Washington Mindfulness Community’s Mindfulness Bell. I set it to ring every 15 minutes and, when it does, I take four long, deep breaths. But you can set the bell to ring as often or little as you like, even randomly, and can adjust the sound of the bell.

Whatever tools we use, it is important that we employ them to keep ourselves in tune throughout the day with ourselves, those around us, and the connection we share.

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Disconnecting to Reconnect

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When I was a kid, my dad called television “the boob tube.” Meaning, prolonged exposure to TV turned one into a brainless boob. The multitude of electronic distractions that we have now includes TV as only one of many, and probably down the list a ways.

There is a backlash of sorts occurring, with the aim of getting people to “unplug.” Not go wireless, mind you, but simply shut down the cell phone, computer, tablet, TV, and let your mind heal. Yes, I said heal, recover from the damage that too much “connectivity” does to our minds and spirits.

I suffer from this as much as anyone, so don’t think I’m casting stones. My glass house wouldn’t withstand a handful of pebbles. I just want to offer the suggestion that meditation is a viable alternative. We’re not talking a complete swap here — give up technology in favor of a life meditating in a secluded cave — just a relative handful of the moments that you might otherwise be using to text, chat, upload, download, pin, share, like, and so on. No one is asking for the technological equivalent of asceticism.

We have conned ourselves into thinking that we need all of our gizmos in order to connect, either because we forgot or never knew that we are naturally connected to all beings already. Meditation and mindfulness make us aware of that pervasive interconnectedness. Or, perhaps I should say, they allow us to shed the layers of interference — electronic and otherwise — that shield us from sensing our connection with the universe and benefitting from it.

Here’s a little meditation I stumbled across today about disconnecting from the TV. It’s equally applicable to other kinds of technology and media. Why not give it a try?

If you’re not already doing so, why not follow Dharma Beginner on Twitter, @dharmabeginner. I find lots of really interesting and relevant articles everyday and post links to them on Twitter. Okay, I realize the contradiction in encouraging you to unplug and then plugging my own Twitter account. But, if you’re going to be online anyway…

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Stuck in a Moment

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Man Sitting In Valley

A recent blog post by Wray Herbert describes sunk-cost bias as “the tendency to persist with an endeavor once we’ve made an investment of money or time or effort.” He paints it in a negative light, calling it an “irrational” behavior.

I get what he’s talking about. I can’t count the number of times I’ve put up with an unhappy situation as if there were no alternative. Part hopelessness, part fear of change (even if just about any change would be an improvement), part stubbornness (“No one’s going to make me do something against my will…”).

This may be an instance of painting with too broad a brush, though. Sometimes, even when we are suffering and a situation is far less than ideal, there are good reasons for remaining right where we are, continuing to do the exact same thing. We may know that things will get better soon. We may believe that the intolerable situation we’re experiencing is worth it to achieve a goal we consider important.

I’ll give you an example. My first marriage, for all practical purposes, was over after about a dozen years. It would be 18 years, though, before we divorced. Some of those intervening years were among the most painful of my life. If I had physically left the marriage after 12 years, though, I never would have experienced the final three years. During that time, we attended marriage counseling, where we discovered that, ultimately, we did not wish to save the marriage. In the process, though, we worked out most of the issues that had undermined our marriage. Consequently, as we worked through the particulars of the divorce and chafed at the shackles of trying to sell our home in the wake of the 2008 housing market collapse, we rediscovered the friendship that had brought us together in the first place. We also gave our daughter a lasting image of her parents as friends, rather than as mortal enemies and screaming lunatics. Tough as those years were, I wouldn’t go back and redo any of them.

Mr. Herbert points to mindfulness as the solution to the inertia of sunk-cost bias. I’d amplify that notion, though, to say that mindfulness allows us to discriminate between the moments when we are being irrationally anchored to a painful experience and the times when the best course is to stay put. Sticking out an unpleasant situation is not always inexplicable; it is sometimes the right thing for us and those around us.

The teachings I have received as a Buddhist also remind me that change is always occurring – in fact, change is an immutable part of existence. Which means that no situation is permanent, no specific form of suffering unending.

In dire times I remember the words of a Sufi poet, “This too shall pass,” as well as those of Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” And then a song by U2, “Stuck in a Moment,” starts playing in my head. I sing along and the present situation seems less dark, less inevitable.

I’m not afraid of anything in this world
There’s nothing you can throw at me that I haven’t already heard
I’m just trying to find a decent melody
A song that I can sing in my own company

I never thought you were a fool
But darling, look at you. Ooh.
You gotta stand up straight, carry your own weight
‘Cause tears are going nowhere baby

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and now you can’t get out of it
Don’t say that later will be better
Now you’re stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it

I will not forsake the colors that you bring
The nights you filled with fireworks
They left you with nothing
I am still enchanted by the light you brought to me
I listen through your ears
Through your eyes I can see

You are such a fool to worry like you do.. Oh
I know it’s tough and you can never get enough
Of what you don’t really need now
My, oh my

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it
Oh love, look at you now
You’ve got yourself stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it
Oh lord look at you now
You’ve got yourself stuck in a moment  and you cant get out of it

I was unconscious, half asleep
The water is warm ’til you discover how deep
I wasn’t jumping, for me it was a fall
It’s a long way down to nothing at all

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it
Don’t say that later will be better
Now you’re stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it

And if the night runs over
And if the day won’t last
And if your way should falter
Along this stony pass

It’s just a moment
This time will pass

Shaving Meditation

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I’m a big believer that you can meditate anywhere, anytime, and while doing anything. (Such as, say…when snowshoeing.) Stated differently, I strongly believe you can do anything meditatively. This morning I tried a new practice: shaving meditation.

Normally, I will meditate in a more traditional manner after waking. Then, when I start my morning routine, my brain is kind of limbered up and ready to start the day’s heavy lifting. Occasionally, if time is short, my meditation takes place during my morning routine — while I’m pulling out clothes to put on, feeding the cats, and so on. Then the flow of thoughts starts up along with the water in the shower. Throughout the showering process — washing, shaving, shampooing — my brain is actively organizing itself and preparing for the day ahead.

My available time was shorter than usual this morning, so I got in the shower rather quickly. My brain was ready to kick into its stream of organizational consciousness, out of sheer habit. But I hadn’t yet had my meditative equivalent of the morning cup o’ joe. So I decided to meditate while showering.

It can seem counterintuitive that one can meditate while being active. That is because we mentally limit meditation to sitting still on a cushion. Meditation does not require physical stillness. What is more important to successful meditation is stillness of mind — rooting the mind in the present moment, completely aware of what is going on inside us and around us. It may be more challenging to find that awareness when active, but it is by no means impossible.

We can be focused while active, paying close attention to what we are doing as we are doing it, all the while practicing breathing out distractions and breathing in focus on what is happening right now. And so I focused on the elements of shaving. I felt the facial wash cleaning away dry skin, smelled the aroma of the soap; saw the bristles of the shaving brush in detail and felt their soft strokes across my skin; experienced the tingle of the pre-shave cream and breathed the eucalyptus scent in deeply; watched extraordinarily closely as the shaving cream spread across my face and was subsequently removed column by column by the razor along with my beard stubble. I shuddered at the initial sting of the hot shower water as I rinsed the leftover shaving cream from my face. I luxuriated in the clean, fresh feeling on my cheeks, chin, and neck.

It was a truly amazing experience. It was as if I had never shaved before, though I must have shaved thousands of times. I don’t know that I will ever shave un-mindfully again — it was that revelatory. Most importantly, when I emerged from the shower my mind was awake, alert, and ready to go, just like it is after I meditate on my cushion. Cool, very cool.

This can, of course, be done with just about any activity. Eating meditatively, for instance, is surprisingly easy to do and incredibly beneficial. But that’s a story for another blog post. Right now, I need to look into trademarking “shaving meditation.” You never know when something is going to go viral.

Prescription: Meditation

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Meditation and mindfulness are not silver bullets for what ails you. Hardly a week passes these days, though, without another report of further evidence of their benefits.

Mindfulness Meditation Trims Craving for Tobacco – “a form of mindfulness meditation known as Integrative Body-Mind Training (IBMT) curtailed their smoking by 60 percent.”

The Health Benefits of Meditation – “studies have shown that meditation can not only reduce your daily stress, but it can also help improve your skin, reduce blood pressure and enhance your immune system.”

A 10-Step Mindfulness Practice for Better Sleep – “There are some specific meditative exercises that can help us nod off when our minds are in overdrive.”

Meditate Your Way to a Healthy Heart – “Researchers have found that transcendental meditation can actually help you keep your heart healthy by reducing high blood pressure.”

7 Health Benefits of Meditation – “a comprehensive scientific study showing that deep relaxation changes our bodies on a genetic level.”

Cure for Common Cold: Meditation & Exercise – “When it comes to the common cold, there are two natural cures that can make a huge difference in helping you heal – meditation and exercise.”

Meditation for Bladder Problems? – “According to a study, cognitive therapy such as meditation may be effective in the management strategy for urinary incontinence.”

Karen Lorre Has 11 Orgasms in One Day Thanks to “Orgasmic Meditation” – “Rather than Orgasm being a fleeting moment in time, we view Orgasm as a source of unlimited energy that’s found in all of us.”

Okay, that last one is a bit weird.

Are meditation and mindfulness magical? They certainly seem that way.

Our natural state is one of health and wholeness, of calm and centeredness, of being in the moment. Meditation fosters mindful living and restores us to our natural state. Is it any wonder, then, that meditation and mindfulness are connected with so many medical advances?

Mirror, Mirror

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Have you ever tried to look at yourself in the mirror without judgment? I mean, simply observe your reflection without commenting in your mind on what you see? It’s really hard, isn’t it?

The actual reflection is the real you – everything else you think about what you see is unreal. The things that we think when we view the reflection – old, ugly, fat, skinny, pimply, undeserving, bad, monstrous – are the stories we layer upon reality. They’re not real, but we act and live as if they are.

I heard a story recently about a landmark house whose original owners made their sons paint the inside walls as punishment for misbehaving. When the home was restored not long ago, more than 50 layers of paint were found on those walls and had to be peeled away, layer by layer.

One of the goals of meditation and mindfulness is to find the real person inside of us. The real person is the original, unpainted wall – but throughout our lives we have added layer after layer of self-judgment so that the real person is no longer visible. We have convinced ourselves that we are bad, that we do not deserve good things, that we have earned our suffering and do not deserve to be free of it. We have labeled ourselves gluttons, liars, perverts, thieves, cheaters, and many other unpalatable titles. But those are not who we are – they may describe things we have done, but they are not us.

For example, almost everyone lies at one time or another – that does not make one a “liar.” Liar is a label we attach to ourselves because – as astounding as it is to grasp – it is simpler for us to believe that we are incapable of telling the truth than it is to wrestle with the notion that being a natural human being and lying are not mutually exclusive. We are so hard on ourselves, so quick to judge ourselves (far quicker than we are to judge others, and that’s pretty quick), that it is easier to accept the delusion that we are inherently bad than it is for us to accept that we sometimes do things we would prefer not to do. The healthy path is to show remorse and to make amends when we have hurt another person; the path we more often take is the one of self-recrimination, self-loathing, and self-punishment.

Through a practice of meditation and mindfulness, we strip away the labels and judgments that we have laid upon ourselves, slowly but surely, until all that is left is the true person beneath. At the same time we are stripping away those falsehoods, we learn not to add any more layers, concoct any more stories, apply any more labels. We learn to treat ourselves with compassion, to love ourselves – the true selves that are buried beneath dozens of layers of untruths we tell ourselves.

The common translation of the Summary of the Law has Jesus saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if we loved our neighbors the way we really “love” ourselves, we wouldn’t be doing them any favors. We often treat others far better than ourselves, are more willing to show them compassion, to cut them a break, to give them the benefit of the doubt, than we are ourselves.

What many of us really need to do is to learn to love ourselves as we love others. When we learn to do that, then our ability to love others and act compassionately toward them will grow by leaps and bounds.

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An Epiphany in Casper, Wyoming

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Difficult situations are a barometer of the depth of one’s meditation and mindfulness practice and, conversely, a GPS that tells us how far we still have to go. (Technically, I guess depth would be measured with sonar and not a barometer, so sue me.) Reflection afterwards allows us to consider our behavior in the moment of the difficulty and provides insight into the role that our practice has played.

Most days dish out the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” – or less dramatic and more commonplace indignities and inconveniences . Which means we have ample opportunity to put our practice into…um, practice, and to reflect on the results.

I’m thinking about this right now because I am in the midst of a very difficult travel situation. I travel a lot and, consequently, encounter every form of travel mishap known to humankind. But this trip…oy. I was flying from Milwaukee to Denver, then on to Los Angeles. Bad weather shut down the airport in Denver and we were diverted to Casper, Wyoming. After more than two hours waiting in what passes for a terminal (three beverage vending machines and a nearly empty snack machine), we were loaded back onto the plane, only to discover there was a major mechanical problem. Off the plan again. It being a Saturday and we being in Casper, it would be three hours before someone could get there to make the repairs. By that time, the flight crew would be past its 16 hours and therefore not allowed to fly. We were stuck.

So, I got to see downtown Casper. In the dark of night. Check off another state I’ve visited (using the broadest possible term for visit, obviously); only four states left to go. Maybe next time United will divert me to Honolulu.

Stayed overnight in the Casper Ramada. Back to the airport for a 12:40 flight to Denver, 2 hours and 10 minutes after the flight I was rebooked on from Denver to Los Angeles. There are five more flights to LA after I arrive in Denver (presuming I arrive – I’m taking nothing for granted, considering it’s 12:25 right now and boarding has not begun – heck, I don’t even see a plane outside to board). I’ll be on one of them, right? Think positive!

There was a time, not too long ago it seems, when this rigmarole would have set me off like a nuclear bomb. I would have ranted at everyone who would listen and everyone who tried not to. I would have acted as if the entire mess was a plot against me, as if I were being victimized.

So here’s the amazing thing: I didn’t experience any anger at all. Not once did I think, “Why is this happening to me?” I didn’t fret over whether I’d make my connecting flight or when we’d hear an update from air traffic control. I admit to being a tad annoyed when the person at Enterprise told me, when I called to say I would be picking up the car today instead of yesterday, that my cost went from $191 to $327 – for one less day. I politely – seriously, I was polite – told him to cancel the reservation, and I called another company and got a cheaper rental. Okay, I also admit that, when we got back on the plane, and the pilot told us the bad mechanical news, I muttered under my breath, “Oh stop it.” I’m not sure who I was talking to. Other than that, though, I was a paragon of calm.

That realization made me feel pretty good, I confess. I consider it a major silver lining to an otherwise fogged-in travel day to have recognized this measure of the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. Really, despite everything that happened, I am grateful for the epiphany, and thankful for a million other things that make me a very content, happy, and lucky person.

 

Why not spend a little time at the Dharma Beginner page on Facebook, where a whole herd of people interested in mindfulness, meditation, spiritual growth, healthy living, and acting compassionately like to gather. And follow us on Twitter @dharmabeginner.

Oprah, Meet Ommmmmma

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What can it mean when Oprah Winfrey is becoming a leading touter of meditation? I’ll tell you what it means: a lot more people are going to start meditating. If Oprah can do for meditation with her 21-Day Meditation Challenge what she did for reading with her book club, the cosmic consciousness is going to get an enormous boost.

The following is an article about Oprah’s recent appearance on David Letterman’s show, ostensibly to publicize her new movie, but which ultimately became one big plug for the benefits of meditation. Oprah teamed up last year with Deepak Chopra to create the meditation challenge and, by all accounts, it appears to have touched the lives of many people who otherwise might never have tried meditation. Imagine the benefits to all beings if just a fraction of those people continue beyond the three weeks to practice meditation regularly. What a wondrous development that would be!

Chopra may be the model for successfully espousing the benefits of Eastern practices and medicine in the West. Some people think he waters down the practices he preaches to make them more palatable to the masses. But, even if that is true, what’s wrong with it? You cannot expect most people to sit down and meditate in silence for an hour right off the bat. Or ever, for that matter. I think that, by and large, Chopra manages to make meditation and other practices more accessible without robbing them of their value.

I am mindful of a verse from the Letter to the Hebrews: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need some one to teach you again the first principles of God’s word. You need milk, not solid food; for every one who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Chapter 4, verses 12-14) Not everyone can start out with the meditative equivalent of solid food. Sure, it’s pabulum, but not in the negative “baby food” sense – it is really a very nourishing meal that the newcomer to meditation can easily digest.

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