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.

speed

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.

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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

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:

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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

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.

Tardis

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

The Best Way Out

Robert Frost famously included, in a long piece entitled ” A Servant to Servants,” the bit that

…the best way out is always through.

The most useful thing I’ve learned from meditation is to see how much of life I end up tossing out or avoiding because of a moment of pain. One little jolt of disapproval from even a relative stranger, and I might go spinning off into some drawn out dance of fix-it-fast-to-keep-everybody-feeling-comfy-most-especially-ME. This is avoidance, and to spin into that path is to just spin and spin, going nowhere. The trick to going “through” is to stick right with the jab of nausea and the fake smile, and to know these as simply momentary off-ness and reactive artifacts. These discomforts last practically no time, send up a little flurry of thought-based falsehoods, which when allowed to clear themselves lead to a perfectly fine follow-up moment that contains all manner of viable possibilities.

As a meditation teacher, I most often find myself simply offering people invitations to see what they don’t like. The face burn of shame, the throat-fist of anger, the heaviness of despair…If you can see it, you can tend to it. If you tend to it, then it gets handled, without unnecessary drama. Soon enough, then, you and it make peace and/or go on your merry ways. If you spend your life doing everything but see it, you and it’ll be stuck together for the duration.

What is it you’re working so hard not to see your way through?

~ Margaret

Productive Discomfort

My friend Amanda, whose family has run and owned a NH auto dealership and service organization for four generations, recently introduced me to this potent business concept, Productive Discomfort. They’re using it to speak about a business stage they’re navigating, as they move toward an important and unusual new way of workplace culture. I’ve noticed that it gets at one of the critical elements of meditation as well. Anyone who has signed up to keep learning and growing will recognize this stage. When you first start a new activity, parts of it can feel unnatural. As adults, we forget this feeling because we’ve mastered so many of the basics. We’re usually traveling around, masters of speaking, walking, e-mailing, driving, etc. So with taking up a new skill, the experience of stumbling, reflecting, trying again and integrating learnings can feel predominantly like failing. Nobody likes to fail.

In practicing meditation, one of the first things to get comfortable and even skillful with is a BOATLOAD of “failing” practice. Because what you’re teeing up to do is to direct attention, moment-by-moment, on a chosen element of focus, and because your attention is relatively untrained, it’s highly likely that you’ll experience a high rate of mind-wandering, especially when you first start. Your reaction to all of this mind-wandering may be to feel like a failure, with all its attendant discomfort. Well and good. This is the place to launch from.

The act of meditation is a holistic act. The intention is always to learn to receive perceptions into the field of awareness, and to learn to do this more and more universally. So, the very discomfort of feeling like a failure can be perceived. Perceiving this is precisely within the scope of the practice. Therefore, there is no moment of failure. The more you can see what arises, whether that be your attention resting on the chosen object for a given session of meditating, or becoming aware of attention sliding away, or becoming aware of having been lost and drifting in a mind fantasy having nothing to do with the here and now, the more productive your meditation practice becomes. Being curious to the physical sensations and emotional moments of failure, while holding a sense of never really failing, is the great sleight-of-hand you learn, by allowing yourself to “fail” and “fail” and “fail.”

Some meditation traditions actually make a big deal out of setting up discomfort, in order to get at this lesson quite energetically. I’ve found that there’s plenty of discomfort just in walking around; I never needed to set myself up for much extra. It’s hard enough to sit on my cushion and stay still through urges to squirm, itch and get up to shoot the breeze with someone.

Staying steady through discomfort gives you the chance to choose a response rather than the usual straight shot to the reactive itch or squirm. If your typical way to handle failure is to back away or storm off somewhere, what would happen if you started sticking it out sometimes, as an act of productive discomfort?  It might have profound implications over the long haul. It might give you a brand new range of moment-by-moment choices that are a lot more comfortable and effective. That’s the kind of outcome I find vastly productive.

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Thanks to Grappone Automotive for the title for today’s post. I recommend you learn about their forward-thinking business culture, and even better, stop by and see it in action.

~Margaret

Restrain Yourself

Some cultures have a commonly agreed time and mechanism for cultivating an essential skill every human will need from time to time: restraint. Here in the northeast corner of the US, there will be a good handful, but still a minority of folks, who are being encouraged to choose something to refrain from for the next 6 weeks or so of Lent. Fasting is a common practice among many spiritual traditions, including meditation communities. I hope it’s okay with my Catholic friends if we borrow and follow alongside their tradition, adopting this particularly powerful tool for cultivating awareness.

I could make the argument that meditation is simply the mother of all 12-step programs,  for the unconsciously addicted. You might have noticed that it’s hard to quit habits, even those that aren’t serving you in any way. Practicing meditation, I cultivate the capacity to pause, to notice automaticity without acting on it, to feel the discomfort of unsatisfied urges without doing a thing about them, and then to choose how to proceed from an awake stance. This sequence, repeated over and over with commitment and with a kind heart toward myself, unbinds me from conditioned habits right at the root, and creates the opportunity for the new and creative to become available. In that sense, sitting meditation is one grand overall experiment in restraint. When I sit, I “fast” from all kinds of things: eating, yes, and also moving, talking, reading, entertaining myself with work or chatter, or generally filling up the time to keep from feeling life just as it is, for good or ill.

Practicing restraint by sitting quietly for a committed time each day develops consistency and patience in a formal way. This sets you up, then, for a more broad-based approach for cultivating awareness. You’re ready to pay attention, as you walk around in life, to whatever warrants seeing. Once you can see, you can choose what to partake of and partake in, and what to pause in front of without immediately engaging with. This is another level of restraint.

There’s no need to dive into rigorous asceticism. Most important is to undertake restraint in a way that’s doable. You might try to establish a sitting practice of 5 minutes per day to start, if you don’t do this yet. If you have a sitting practice, you might try refraining from broadcast news, or speaking sarcastically, for a few days. If you choose something that’s  doable, you’ll get the opportunity to see something valuable. Setting the bar too high will quickly turn your effort into just one more fantastic, soon-gone resolution.

I once decided to undertake, as a deeply courageous act, to refrain from shading the truth at work. Wow. The amount of times I found myself toying with the truth just that little bit to make myself appear smart or on top of things was astounding. About 2 days in I was astonished, and after about 4 days I was laughing at myself almost non-stop, watching the little dances of deception. This was deeply humbling, and I’m thankful that I found my way to laughter that quickly. I could just as easily have gone into depression.

red-wine-chocolate-image

Is there something you’d prefer to do without? Rather than setting chocolate or your evening cocktail aside for the next 6 weeks, why not try refraining from what’s useless?

~ Margaret