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.


Endless Fascination with the (mostly) Trivial

This Friday evening through Saturday evening has been designated National Day of Unplugging. According to their site, “We increasingly miss out on the important moments of our lives as we pass the hours with our noses buried in our iPhones and BlackBerry’s, chronicling our every move through Facebook and Twitter and shielding ourselves from the outside world with the bubble of ‘silence’ that our earphones create.” My 23-year-old daughter, a social media professional, advised me of this a couple of weeks ago. She’s taken the pledge to unplug for those 24 hours. Since signing on, she has been working to structure her digital life in advance for this step away, I presume to avoid getting fired or something equally dire. (Here’s the Unplug link she sent me, please visit!)

Next, let’s consider the game Phone Stack. With this digital convention, friends out to dinner together put their phones in the middle of the table and agree to unplug for the course of the meal, or pay a penalty. Our Kempt online author puts it this way:

…..As the meal goes on, you’ll hear various texts and emails arriving… and you’ll do absolutely nothing. You’ll face temptation—maybe even a few involuntary reaches toward the middle of the table—but you’ll be bound by the single, all-important rule of the phone stack.

Phone stack

For my own part, nothing beats Facebook for a go-to, all-purpose time and attention vortex. It’s so easy to peg my activity there in terms of connecting, gathering information about the world’s interests or causes, and cheering my mentors and friends on. Of course, that lasts about 90 seconds. After that, whatever there is that I call “Me” is gone, lost down the drain of never-ending posts.

Social media, via the vast array of devices that keep us plugged in from room to room, moment to moment, is the very latest in Opiate for the Masses distractions. Do the billion bits of intriguing, charming, alluring ephemera have you in their grip? When your addiction begins to degrade your social connections, when you are unable to resist urges despite knowing the consequences, if it makes you feel unbearably anxious to stop, then it’s time. It’s time to step back, feel the burn of withdrawal and reflect on the bigger picture. The world misses you. The world really needs you to pick up your gaze and get in the game.

And yes, in case you are wondering, we’re still holding hands with our friends practicing Lent.

~ Margaret

Danny Rubin and the crazy wisdom of the Body Scan

Lots of folks in the Northern Hemisphere will be taking this Saturday to celebrate turning a particular corner in the year. Based on the position of the sun to our tilted earth, February 2nd marks the halfway point between the very darkest territory of winter and luscious, riotous spring. My gardener friends will tell you it’s when the early seeds first start to stir down there under our New Hampshire snow. Lots of cultures say that on this day, ground-dwelling critters come above ground to take the year’s first peek. Feb. 2 signals that perfect pinpoint moment that comes with the whisper: *you’re awake*  That certainly means one thing, for the seeds and shrews. What about a rather more complex set of characters: us?

Here’s where Danny Rubin enters the stage. Mr. Rubin is the screenwriter who gave us that strange, funny, utterly clear picture of what it’s like to Wake Up as a human. It’s a movie that takes place almost entirely on February 2nd, and it’s called Groundhog Day. This is a story about a regular guy who unwittingly stumbles through the rich, frightening, often baffling and utterly magnificent process of human awakening. In this movie, our regular guy main character, Phil Connors, slogs through the slush of his everyday existence, grumbling, sarcastic, superior, frustrated, and way down deep, looking for something truly real. Phil is  stuck, really stuck slogging through life as an everyday jerk, day after day after day. He’s stuck and he knows it; he’s struggling to manufacture happiness, to be better, to destroy himself, to get the girl. He tries everything. Nothing works.

And then, one fateful February 2 (remember, international Wake Up day), Phil decides to stop. Instead of struggling so hard to get something, he decides to pick his head up, peak out of the hole he’s been buried in, and just take an honest, clear look. In that moment, everything changes for him.

Practicing body scan meditation, wherein one is systematically developing sensitivity to  body sensations, is pretty much like swallowing the movie Groundhog Day whole. It’s like  letting that story run its’ teaching through your system, day by day, moment by stumbling, joyous, embarrassing, enraging, blissful, tender moment. Maybe when you think of “taking an honest look” it sounds like a moral or psychological exercise. And it probably will be in some ways. Nevertheless, adding the dimension of body sensations to your data set is like nothing else I can think of. It changes the view from an interesting 2-dimensional line drawing to an all-out 3D technicolor blast.

Take an example such as one our friend Phil Connors lived out. What is superiority like? You may be able to catch onto your own thoughts telling you what a hero you’ve turned into, and what a bunch of dopes the rest of the world is. Noticing thoughts as a practice, you’re bound to see that kind of thought pattern alone as delusional and leading to some crappy behaviors. Wonderful, you’re awake to something new! But wait! You’ve been cultivating awareness of body sensations with the Body Scan. Notice what happens as a result of this trained access to your own body sensations? Now you’ve got the real 3D version of Ain’t I the Greatest? Look carefully, and you’ll find the kind of body tension that repeated enough over time will lead to chronic muscle pain. You’ll find a kind of stiff face mask that’s hiding a much more authentic look and feel that’s likely inferiority or fearfulness. You might find some high stomach nausea, and/or breath that’s stuck up high in your chest. Bottom line: you feel like crap. Now, not only do you have a moral or psychological basis for waking up from being a jerk, but most importantly, your own body is telling you: Being a jerk feels just awful, really ill. The best news is that, awakening to this fact, you just stop doing it. You’re done poisoning yourself. Being willing to feel all that makes it stop, in fairly short order. This is crazy, powerful teaching, right out of your own physical experience.

This is the reason why yoga, T’ai Chi, feeling your breath all turn out to be doorways into whole person wellness and good-hearted interaction in the world. It’s why waking up results in feeling alive and utterly well. Wake up to your body and you wake up to your life, as it has been, as it is and how it can be, now that you’re awake. Welcome to the daylight, groundhog.

(For initial instructions on learning the body scan, go here. Then, find a mindfulness teacher in your area and learn more about how to do it. )

~ Margaret

Here I am with the Man himself, my very favorite wake-up writer, Mr. Danny Rubin

Here I am with the Man himself, my very favorite wake-up writer, Mr. Danny Rubin

Begin Again

You may be taking the turning of the year, a somewhat arbitrary annual moment during our planet’s trip around the sun, to reflect and resolve on how to be in the coming days. Every one of us has taken an occasion at some point in our lives to set a new intention. A few of these might have stuck, and likely a bunch more didn’t take. Giving yourself a tough assignment once every 365 days, within the context of the many distractions, temptations, pressures and personal habits that will come into play over that time, is surely a tall order. In choosing one achievable wish to extend to you for 2013, I offer this:

an orientation to awakeness 

This is a simple yet pervasive kind of wish for you, and really for all of us. It’s not a demand that we all get it together or smarten up. I’m not asking you to grimly, forcibly push yourself into anything. There’s no need to knock yourself on the side of the head when you suddenly notice that you slipped out of being in touch with yourself and the world. This is a simple, conscious orientation, a choice to turn toward. It’s a preference to be awake, to be present to life.

I grant you that that awakeness is easy to lose track of. You’ll have noticed this, if you’ve done any formal meditation or just informally noticed what it’s like to try and hold your attention on a given element of your world. We’ve grown ourselves a complex, swirling, driving situation here and our attentional capacity matches that. So it takes some doing first to admit to this, then to try countering that situation by choosing simplicity and practicing concentration, ultimately to see why it might be a fantastic idea to develop this as an available way of being.

It’s easy to be lost in the mix and swirl. Fortunately, awakeness is just as easily found and re-found. Unlike many resolutions people will make, there are a vast number of opportunities every day to apply your intention to be present. It’s not like exercise, for instance; you don’t need to suit up and get all sweaty to be awake. You just allow yourself to remember, to pay attention to that momentary invitation that whispers, “notice that you’re alive and having an experience.” You do this over and over. The funny thing is, you’ll see that whenever you catch yourself saying “I’m lost,” you’re not. That was a moment ago, and now you’re here, knowing something about the difference between lost and awake. Now becomes the moment you commit to begin again, persistently, with kindness and good humor, honestly knowing you’ll slip away a thousand times. Return simply to this orientation, a gentle turning with profound potential. Begin again.

Here’s to the new year, and to whatever you’re orienting to these days. Let it begin with awakeness, again and again.

This year's first sun, from a typical New Hampshire back porch

This year’s first sun, from a typical New Hampshire back porch,

Just Quiet

Dear Microwave Meditators,
Jon and I have held all in humbled silence this week, amidst the many voices commenting around the difficult events in Newtown, Connecticut. We’ve been listening, taking care of ourselves and those around us, and thinking about you all and wishing only the best for this world. We’ll be back in to the Microwave office next week.
~ Margaret

In Praise of Family Reunions

My wife’s family has gathered for its annual week-long get together and while it’s popular to bemoan such things, I won’t. We are three generations under one roof with cousins ranging in age from five to 9, our ranks swelled by the possibly temporary, possibly permanent partners of the older cousins.

The week is a testament to the triumph of the family over the individual and we fly under the banner of Strength Through Accommodation. We are tolerant of each others foibles. The grandparents shuttle grandchildren to and from the beach. The uncles engage in badminton played with no net and no discernible rules with the youngest nephews. Those of us who must work at times through the week find ourselves supplied with sandwiches and beer as we hunch over our laptops.

I admire the effort to plan meals for 20 and the generosity of each nuclear family unit as we try to please as many people as possible and their widely varying tastes. We treat each other well because their merriment is our victory.

We demonstrate a flexible managerial structure with the roles of chief and mere Indians shifting as the moment requires.  Who must peel potatoes?  Who must season the stew?  Who must play with the kids?

It isn’t as though this comes without a bit of work but we come away grateful for the indulgence others have shown us, and for the chance to indulge them. We leave knowing each other that much better in the way that only spending time in the same place can make happen.

If we are sensible, we keep these habits in mind as we make our way through the more conventional times of the year.

Warm up your lunch, change your life

Don't actually turn that thing on!

Welcome to Microwave Meditations. This blog is half cheerful collaboration/half cranky debate between a committed deep thinker and a stumbling meditation teacher. Both of us propose that it’s possible to pause, in the midst of a standard-issue busy work day, and reflect for 3 minutes. This is just about the amount of time you end up standing around waiting for your lunch to heat up, or your copy job to finish, or for the conference room to empty out. We say, put this time to good use: consider your life, this moment, what you want. We’re here to invite you to ponder. We’ll give you some food for thought and some actions to take. Try stuff out, and tell us what you find out. We want to hear from you!