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, Google.com, 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.

MemeCloud

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.

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

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.

~Jon

If eternity is settled, focus on the here and now

Last night in Concord, Gene Robinson, the former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, was asked why in the face of death threats and rejection by his peers, he persisted in his effort to move the church toward accepting homosexuality, bi-sexuality and transgendered people. Among other reasons, Robinson made the point that one of the benefits of faith is you don’t need to worry about death.

I don’t recall his exact words but the gist was that if you no longer must focus on making sure you enjoy eternal life, then you are free to focus on making life on this earth as good as possible for everyone.

Courtesy of Creative Commons via Flickr

Gene Robinson, Courtesy of Creative Commons via Flickr

A couple of key principles lie behind this. One is the conviction that God loves everyone. I’m not sure where Robinson stands on the idea of eternal damnation but I would guess he doesn’t buy it. (I’m happy to be enlightened on that.) The second is that hate is the antithesis of good, and fear lies at the root of hate — specifically, hate aimed at a class of people in contrast to hating certain people for having done terrible things.

At any rate, regardless of one’s faith or lack of faith, for purely pragmatic reasons, one would have to say that anything that promotes more caring acts on this planet is a plus.

-Jon

Moment by Moment Pie

 In my house, on some magical weekend in the fall, Sunday night dinner consists of a piece of warm apple pie and a chunk of cheese. It always happens after an afternoon of apple picking. Such was tonight’s dinner. Because the plate would hold just that small amount of food, I decided to undertake a sustained awareness of eating practice at the moment when I walked into the kitchen to finally dive into our freshly baked delight. Coming in the doorway from our living room, I noticed that the aroma of baking pie had normalized into my nostrils for the past two hours. Retrieving plates and flatware, I heard the clink of their coming together, and the crump of the cupboard closing.
Now, at the stove, I punctured the top of the crust at the center, and heard the crispy crack. There was more shattering crust, and clack of knife on glass pie pan, along with steam and a fresh wave of pie smell. The juicy slice slid onto the lifter, and across to the plate. I noticed that I rushed to cut cheese and put the block back in the refrigerator. Hurry, hurry: there’s pie! I noticed that my stomach suddenly felt empty and ready for food. I felt grateful that I had been busy and had let myself actually get hungry before eating. This is not always the case.

Pie by Margaret

Even with every intention to eat and be aware of eating, and with all the time I would have wanted, that pie was gone too soon. I did enjoy the flavors of pie-spice and the warm, oozy mouth textures. I noticed an almost-too-hot bite, and adjusted to blow a bit before the next forkful. I registered the back-and-forth of sweet pastry and salty dairy fat, and noticed how I naturally alternated between the two, without much thought or intention. I felt food land in my stomach, and a sense soon after of my body responding to nourishment: a little livelier, a little “sugared-up” if you will. I heard the fork scrape the last bits off the plate, and realized I had “missed” the last few forkfuls. What was I doing instead? I can’t tell you. I know I was glad that I was (mostly) “here” to eat that piece of pie I had worked so hard to make from scratch. It was a pleasure to have my husband join me in the practice. We had a lovely meal together.
~Margaret