Follow the Breath

Most everyone by now has heard the recommendation to “live in the moment.” It’s easy to say, but what does it really mean?

A simple way to experiment with living in the moment is to choose a particular object and agree to rest your attention with it for a committed period of time. Setting an intention to stay right with the object has an immediate effect. You’ll see a great deal about being awake and aware, moment by moment, and you’ll also see what’s going when you’re not in the here and now. Adopting a kind willingness to see all of this, and to see how you relate to what you see, is at the heart of mindfulness meditation.

The breath has always been considered one of the best objects to work with. For starters, you always have it with you! So, you don’t need to have a bell or a special sitting cushion, or even anyone to guide you. The breath itself is your guide! You can cultivate awareness of breathing for a little while, or a longer period, as circumstances allow. You can do it with your eyes open, in a waiting room or sitting at a stop light. You can close your eyes, giving yourself a longer time, and giving space for the breath to be as it is, to move and change as it responds to this attitude of kind willingness.

The growing body of science around meditation has shown us what becomes possible, by developing concentration and patience as you attend to the sensations of breathing. For instance, a 2011 Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center study demonstrated that practicing 20 minutes of awareness of breathing meditation for just a few days gave people a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Morphine, by comparison, has a 25% reduction effect for both. In speaking about the array of study results that have come out of the research around mind-body practices like meditation, David Servan Schreiber concludes that “if results like these were ever achieved with a new drug, every oncologist in the world would feel obligated to prescribe it.” (p. 184, Anticancer: A New Way of Life)

People who have trained their attention to rest in present moment experience report all kinds of benefits, and these are reflected by the science. It’s possible to cultivate ease and confidence, to reduce emotional reactivity, and to find new resilience and ways of coping with the challenges of life. All of this, by patiently guiding your attention into this moment. All of this, breath by breath.

The only time you can feel this breath is now. The only place is here. The breath is always here and now, waiting for you in this moment. So what are you waiting for?!

Self-Aware Super-Meme

My friendly neighborhood dictionary,, tells me about a fascinating word I came to know only within the past year or so. Google defines a meme as “an element of a culture or behavior that may be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, esp. imitation.” Yep. Think the OK hand gesture, believing in Santa, Valley Girl dialect, communism, your particular culture’s work ethic; all of these fit the definition.

Now, imagine a collection of ever-changing memes, all overlapping, jiggling and coloring each other, dynamically, all housed in a porous, sensitized, temporary gelatinous organic container, all coming, passing through, and going. That description fits me almost to a T. When I was in college, I was a meme carrier for marching band patterns, political theories and German phrases. Most of those are gone now, replaced over time by the hand-eye coordination meme of pinning a diaper the old-fashioned way and balancing a checkbook, among other things. I’ve gained the meme of meditation guidance instructions, and long lost the meme of my high school locker combination.


There will come a day when this organic vessel containing all the collected memes will run through its capacity for sustaining life, and the whole set will go offline as a unique collection. Still, the memes themselves will continue, at least the useful or pertinent or anyway sticky ones. Some memes may die off permanently. Others will be invented long after this body dies. It’s the way memes work.

Knowing I simply house a subset of memes in a larger collection of memes is actually pretty relaxing. I can hold onto any one of them lightly, knowing they’re housed in lots of other places. I can let go of the ones that don’t serve; I don’t have to own any I happened to pick up along the way just because I’ve had them in the past. I can pick up new ones with interest and curiosity, when I remember that there’s nothing about me that’s truly fixed. I don’t need to hang onto philosophies, views, opinions, cultural norms or affiliations.

There is, present and available to all of this meme-passing, a particular awake knowingness, a benevolent companion to each visitor. When my meme-friends Anger, Boredom, Joy, or Listlessness visit, this companionable awakeness is knowing they are passing through. If I take up the fiction of believing myself to be  (fill in the meme) as my actual identity, I get myself into all kinds of painful messes, even when I’m clutching one of the nice-sounding memes! Call myself “effective” and two minutes later I’m beating myself up for forgetting to pick up milk on the way home. When I don’t confuse myself as any of the temporary visiting memes, I know myself to be quiet, clear, un-meme-patterned presence. This is unchanging, unfailingly reliable and self-sufficient. There is rest, appreciation and compassion, for myself and every other walking and scrambling meme-collection alike, when viewed via this reliable orientation.

You gotta see this meme-collection you’ve called “you,” through and through, to discover what’s reliably true.

What’s the speed limit?

You’re driving on the highway, paralleling the New England seacoast on a busy summer weekend. Traffic is congested and still flowing. Most drivers have adopted a roughly common speed, going a touch over the speed limit. Cars enter and exit with little disturbance to the flow.

And there’s that one car you encounter every few miles. The driver is darting in and out, switching lanes frequently, moving faster than the rest, braking and accelerating all the while. You feel your fingers grip harder, your jaw and gut tense, and your foot touch the brake, as that person in such a hurry quickly injects into the small opening between you and the car you’re following. Senses are heightened and at least to some degree frightened. You see other drivers jiggle, slow down or speed up to make room for the oncoming driver.


Chances are high that you’ve also been this driver at some point, perhaps even recently. If you can, bring to mind what that felt like. For me, it is similar to the encounter I described above, except consistently so. I’m driving completely tensed up, for the long haul. I’m on the greedy lookout for any advantage, not interested in the overall sense of everyone getting where we need to, each in our own good and safe time. Having unconsciously adopted the stance that it’s all about where and when I need to get, I’m just sufficiently engaged with the sense of the other cars and people around me to stay relatively safe, but not properly so. It’s pretty much all about me.

Now consider the speed you’ve adopted around just about anything you’ve undertaken recently. Maybe it’s the apartment you are searching for, or the project you’re involved with at work. Maybe it’s the 20-minute trip into the grocery store last night, start to finish. Whatever you’re doing, you are doing with a certain speed limit assumption. Fast is going to be perfectly appropriate when you dash to grab your toddler before he steps into the pool; is it necessary when you’re asking the next person in your retail establishment for their order on a busy day? Where other people are part of the flow of the project or transaction’s traffic, do you sense into what the speed is overall, and enter and exit accordingly?

If you’re operating over the appropriate speed limit, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Slow down and pay attention, for all of our sakes.

Mind Wide Open

With all the tips, techniques, and pointers available in meditation instruction, there’s going to come a time when you’ll be ready to set the doing aside. You’ve spent some basic time learning the skill of attention and the territory of human awareness. You’ve practiced knowing body sensations as just exactly what they are, and you’ve figured out which to handle and which to just allow to pass through. You know thoughts and images as the product of a conditioned human mind, and you know which ones carry some useful truth and which ones you can simply discard. You know emotions as your heart’s response to all the moment-by-moment perceptions. You can take in all of the arising, lingering and passing events, inside and outside your skin, with interest and without getting too tangled up in any of it. This is wonderful.

Now comes the time to release even the subtle activity of directing attention toward any given object. With this steadying into the territory of awareness, you can relax any movement of doing and rest in simply being. It doesn’t mean that there are no thoughts, no flickers or waves of body sensation or emotional movement. It’s just that there is a resting into awareness itself, that allows all of the movements of mind and body to be as they are.

This is ultimate relaxation and resting. In this way, no opinion is held regarding the inevitable activities in the domain of the body, mind or heart. It’s so relaxing that even deep physical tension or bubbling mental proliferation doesn’t disturb this restfulness. This is awareness so vast and allowing, that these normal arisings are known as inconsequential and immaterial relative to the encompassing quality of restfulness.

You may experience this at first in small bits. The habit of mind comes online quickly to comment about such an experience. The heart leaps in wonder, or contracts in fear, at the unknown quality of such restfulness. None of this is a problem. As quickly as possible, as you get to know the possibility of “mind wide open,” remember your carefully cultivated stance of allowing such thoughts and emotions to pass through without getting tangled up with them. Return to your intention to simply be. Orient toward and relax into restfulness.

Thanks to flickr commons for the image

Thanks to flickr commons for the image

This doing of non-doing is paradoxical. It’s radical in non-achievement and non-productiveness. It is the frontier of insight and inner freedom. It provides access to heretofore unrecognized sources of compassion and creativity. Practicing this as a formal element of your ongoing meditation pursuit is foundational to bringing insight and freedom into your non-cushion time. This is the doorway to the essential end-game, in my book. You step into radical being.

What lies beyond that step, only you can know.

~ Margaret

Interest versus Pleasure

Consider a graph with two axes. One is attentional, illustrating how you relate to what you experience. This could range from highly engrossed, even immersed, through to interested, neutrally aware, then into resistant and finally avoidant and/or in unconscious denial about. The second axis is emotional, reflecting liking or disliking. This spectrum would range from the highly pleasurable to the highly uncomfortable. Now consider how you meet life’s moments, and how that would appear if you were to illustrate it on this graph. The question is, are you living the whole territory of these two dimensions?

Interest vs Pleasure

If you’re interested in meditation, it’s important to understand that you are engaging in awareness development. So in terms of the first axis, you are waking up to the movement of your attention. First, you are going to see what it means to be present, and what alternative attentional settings there are for this. You will see how attention roams, how you distract yourself, avoid situations or recognizing facts, how you are attracted to and cling to certain experiences, and generally how you get lost from being awake. Secondly, as you’re seeing this, you also begin to exercise some control over where your attention goes, for how long, and what it orients to. As you develop in your meditation practice, both the seeing and the gaining control elements are happening simultaneously.

Meanwhile, there’s the other axis. There’s your life, noticing what parts of it you’re enjoying, what you’re neutral to, and what elements you really dislike. In terms of this second axis, you’re discovering something about why attention roams.

It’s a learned habit to avoid or wander off, attentionally, from what’s here and now. Why remain present if it’s not pleasant in this moment? A lot of people give up on meditation because when they find out about the wandering mind, they don’t enjoy what they find. And since they’re not accustomed to remaining interested in the territory of the unpleasant, they follow the learned habit of checking out. They check out from their own minds by checking out from the practice. Can you sense the dog-chasing-it’s-tail?

New students often begin by telling me that they can’t meditate. After we’ve meditated together, we spend some time together exploring their original statement, to find out if it’s possible to frame this differently. Students can recognize and beautifully describe the qualities of their wandering minds. This is stage one, the seeing. They do it perfectly. And it’s not always instantly enjoyable to find out about wandering mind. Much of the territory we travel when we’re less interested in being present consists of the boring, the anxious, the judgmental, the resistant.

To succeed in a life that includes meditation, above everything else you gotta wanta know. The more of the territory you’re willing to be interested in, the more you’re going to find out. In meditation, this is considered a very good thing. Finding out what’s in the uncharted territory opens up a vast domain of potential. Seeing what’s happening has the wonderful effect of dismantling mind habits that are dialing you out from this one precious life you have been granted. So what’s it going to be… do you want to be awake for it?

~ Margaret

Quick Launch User’s Guide to Mindfulness

the present moment 1

Instructions: Apply in a moment-by-moment way, as possible and appropriate

As you attempt, cultivate, and adopt these…

  • Slow down
  • Pause
  • Breathe
  • Open
  • Observe
  • Listen
  • Give space
  • Set aside the habit to move immediately into “doing” mode

…you’ll find that there’s more often time to…

  • Relax
  • Reflect
  • Consider
  • Know how you’re feeling
  • Recognize internal dissonance, if you’re experiencing any
  • Know about your initial reaction and be able to suspend acting on it
  • Set aside the instinct to rush to immediately diagnose, fix, solve or improve

Then it becomes possible to…

  • Observe another’s face and body language, take them in clearly
  • Recognize humanness in yourself and others
  • Know dissonance without it being a problem that it’s happening
  • Recognize internal dissonance and differentiate it from interpersonal dissonance
  • Try on new perspectives
  • State facts and distinguish these from emotions, opinions and biases
  • Find what’s productive in dissonance

This can result in the opportunity to…

  • Be vulnerable
  • Speak the truth without blame or judgment
  • Recall and name what’s most meaningful, for you and others
  • Meet around shared values
  • Feel and express compassion, friendliness, appreciation and joy
  • Connect deeply

And ultimately…

  • Exercise degrees of freedom and creativity previously unavailable, in a broad array of arenas and environments

~ Margaret

Taking a break

After about a year of posting various thought starters, I find it useful to hit the pause button. While I’ve enjoyed the bi-weekly challenge of picking a notion that might trigger further pondering, and I’ve always liked finding a photo to complement the central idea, I hit a point where I wanted to recharge the mental batteries. I will continue to follow Margaret’s insightful posts on meditation and mindfulness. They keep my mind turning.


Fake Mindfulness

Hanging out in the mindfulness scene has really upped my vocabulary. Go to a scientific conference, read any of the many studies, listen to a Ted talk, and pretty soon you too can start throwing around words like “relationality” or “anterior cingulate cortex.” You might even know what they mean!

Here’s a word that was not in my active or passive vocabulary before I took up meditation: Conflate. Online dictionaries tell me that, in the best sense, conflation is the melding of two identities or ideas into one, for concision or efficiency. Here, I want to talk about the other end of the spectrum, when conflation leads to misunderstanding. If you treat two distinct concepts as one and the same, confusion and imprecision follow. There happens to be a great potential for conflating concepts around the aims and applications of mindfulness. I experience and hear about this from students in 3 basic categories of misperception, as follows:


Be Mindful ≠ Feel Good  A common mistake, stemming from a perfectly healthy desire to feel well and/or some cherished early experiences of feeling quite well as a result of meditation. This is a perfectly understandable misunderstanding, and also a trap. Because the minute you start experiencing discomfort, you might think you’re “doing mindfulness  wrong.” Now you start trying to make good or happy experiences happen, rather than simply staying with the experience you’re having. Now you’re out of the zone of mindfulness practice and into the spinning wheel of self-recrimination and self-improvement. How to step back in: notice the habit of chasing the feel-good moment, as though someone promised you you’re entitled to only feeling good in this life. Potential mindfulness-related side-effects with this antidote: awareness of true discomfort leading to self-care activities, or an immediate shift toward curiosity, mystery, even well-being. May lead to feeling humility, inner chuckling, and dope-slapping yourself for falling into that trap for the million-millionth time.

Be Mindful ≠ Think Positive  In a similar vein, many times as we’re thinking negative thoughts we’re experiencing related discomfort somewhere. I don’t like discomfort, and most other people I’ve worked with don’t either. So if negative thoughts don’t feel good, you’re immediately back up into the Be Mindful = Feel Good conflation. Antidote for this trap is as above, and can also include examining negative thoughts to differentiate fact from fiction. Can lead to the release of addiction to acting on the fictional, and a re-deployment of resulting freed-up energy toward handling actionable facts.

Be Mindful ≠ Be Nice  This one has the greatest potential to kill the mindfulness movement dead in the shortest time, especially if you’re using mindfulness as your new stick to beat yourself over the head with, or just as harmful, beat someone else over the head with. Mindfulness evokes many enjoyable, beneficial qualities in people, and it’s also much bigger than any particular quality or behavior. Orienting toward living mindfully means experiencing all human qualities and behaviors directly, and learning how to move toward the useful and away from the harmful, as each moment and situation warrants.
So it incudes every human quality and behavior equally. All of them. It’s that big. Making it about “being nice” sets you up with a new, perhaps more socially rewarded limitation structure. That’s still a trap. And just to keep it really interesting, you’ll very often come off as “nice” to others, once you get the hang of this mindfulness biz.

Making present moment wakefulness all about being nice, feeling groovy, smelling fabulous, or sporting the latest industry approved self-aware clothing line ain’t where it’s at. I strongly recommend resisting the urge to set up rules, for yourself or others, around what it’s like to inhabit this moment. That would just be faking it.

~ Margaret

Sticky Thicket

We’re in the second week of a 6-week meditation series I teach in the workplace, and I just received an email from one of the students who started out with us. She can’t continue the class. Things are too busy in her office, they’re short-staffed, they need her, she just can’t afford to get away. She’s very disappointed and hopes to do the class the next time it’s offered.

I understand, of course.

I can’t know what’s going on in her life, at home, with her office. Every one of us working stiffs is going to go through periods where we need to draw all our resources together for the hard push. I’ve been through those events: mergers, major contractions of the business line, lay-offs, software conversions. There is no way I would have attempted the radical act of sitting still in the middle of any of that. And that’s too bad, for Past Me. She could have used that.

Here’s the rub with meditation. You have to stop. You have to be willing to stop. You might even have to fight for your right to stop. For this particular class, that means you can find yourself one day into a 6-week series and the epic battle begins.  You’ve committed to structuring 15 minutes into your life 3 times between now and the following week’s class meeting. Think Prince Charming and the forever-bramble forest he has to slash through to get to Sleeping Beauty’s tower. Only the brambles are your boss, your kids, the dirty dishes, your running shoes, book club, 5 email accounts, “what’s for dinner?,” your co-workers, employees, clients, and the heap of health insurance and charity solicitation and monthly bill paperwork that’s spilling off your kitchen counter. In fact, it’s not really any of these. It’s your adherence to them, literally. The bramble consists of an utterly sticky tangle of unexamined entanglements, and their priority above what is most essential for a human life. This is the stickiest of thickets.


If you can slash through all of that and be still, for 15 minutes, or even just truly breathe without agenda for 20 seconds, you might actually find the awakened beauty called You.

When you insist to the world that you will discover and honor that, the thicket falls away. And Nothing stands in your way.

Bigger on the Inside

I have to admit, my family and I are enjoying a nice little binge into the current revival of the British television show Dr. Who. If you’re anything like me, you love this particular combination: a little time travel, intergalactic drama, constantly refreshing romantic interest and an infinite range of period costumes. One of the recurring bits in this show involves the phrase, “it’s bigger on the inside.” I won’t ruin the joke, but it got me thinking recently that this is also a fairly accurate statement about the mind.


Of all the reasons people report to me when they show up to learn meditation, the most common involves something like getting the mind to quiet down, or to out-and-out shut up. Frankly, this makes perfect sense. In my observation, we’re living in a world that is generating more complex, rapid-fire, high-stimulation thought streams every day. The rate of increase seems to be rising as well. It’s almost impossible to catch a short break from the relentless mind, or to approach anything like decent rest. Who doesn’t relish the idea of being able to produce quiet mind on demand? But forget about making the mind behave itself. Hands down, the worst meditation instruction you’ll ever hear goes like this: To begin, quiet your mind. You may, if you’re lucky, enjoy a very brief interlude of clear sailing. After about 3 seconds, the mind kicks back on line, you call yourself a failure, quit, and get back to more important things like writing blog posts about what a flop you are at  meditation. This is a real loss. Because of a little imprecision in instruction, aspiring meditators don’t stick around for the reasonably short period of time necessary to get the chance to experience the subtle qualities of the mind.

The trick with the mind is to leave it be. I mean, really leave it alone. It’s like how you handle a sidewalk hawker, that guy who is going to keep up the sales banter to get you to pay attention.  Untrained, your mind is like this guy, producing long strings of narrative, discursive, slightly or not-so-slightly unsatisfied chatter. Even just catch his eye, and he’s got you on the hook. If you give anything to the 98% of your mind’s output that requires exactly zero of your attention, you just encourage more of same. Meanwhile you miss the vaster domain of mind available beyond the accustomed. Back on that crowded sidewalk, you turn your attention toward the crowd, the sky, you smell the scents and take in the sights all around you, and soon enough the hawker’s sales pitch is fading into nothingness. With a chattering mind, it’s the same. Let it go on, as it certainly will; it has a certain momentum it needs to spool out. Meanwhile, there’s an interesting array of sensations, smells, feelings, sounds within you and around you in the actual world of your experience. Choose one of these to orient to, and just smile and shake your head politely in a “no thanks” to the mind’s dwindling strategy to get you to buy.

And, be patiently ready for that view into the quiet mind when it appears soon enough. It’s like nothing you can anticipate, not possible to understand by virtue of someone else’s feeble description. It’s a lot like the Tardis. It’s bigger on the inside.

~ Margaret