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

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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

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,

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

The right start is not an answer

I was at an award ceremony (the Horace Mann Awards if you’re curious) and the introduction for one of the awardees took the form of a bunch of acronyms that captured the fellow’s operating style. This approach was more engaging than the usual accolades and I remember a couple of the shorter ones

KWSN stood for “know when to say no.”

ARQ stood for “ask the right questions.”

I like the assertiveness of the first but for all-purpose versatility, it’s hard to top the second. Not every turning point, epiphany, or what have you, hinges on asking the right question, but a whole bunch do.

I think about St. Augustine, whom I know best from the section on him in Action Philosophers, who was puzzling over the question of why is there evil. If all things came from God, then God would have created evil and that isn’t such a godly thing to do.

But St. Augustine pivoted and asked a different question, why is there good. He said all good things come from God and evil is the absence of good things. It is not a thing in its own right.

Now, you might not buy that answer but you have to admit that rephrasing the question took him in a very different direction.

We love to ask questions, such as, why do smart people do dumb things. Or, why can people be considerate with their next door neighbors and tough as nails with people the next town over.

Courtesy of Thirsk via Flickr Creative Commons

I’d be curious to hear the questions that you think are worth asking, and especially the ones that took you in a new direction or opened up new lines of inquiry. I recall the question that sent me down my present path. A fellow dog walker said “Jon, you like to write and you like expressing your opinions. Have you ever thought of journalism?”

I hadn’t but as soon as he said it, it clicked, even if I had no idea what it really meant. The right questions can have that effect. They are magnetic without an obvious reason. But at the same time, I think they connect with certain facts that have been staring us in the face. I did like to write and I certainly enjoyed expressing myself. I just hadn’t realized how much I valued both.

I hope you’ll share the questions that opened your eyes to the obvious.

~Jon

What are you after?

This week I gave an interview to a writer who is pulling together an article on contemplative practice and communication. He ruefully explained at the outset that he will be working with a 100-word limit. Fantastic! This is a meditation teacher’s best constraint. Concise, precise, coherent teaching is the most effective way to convey what meditation holds out to those who sense the potential.

My interviewer got to the point quite quickly. He asked what I know about why people come to the practice of meditation. Now there’s a question that could generate a lifetime of answers!

Here’s how I responded: For most people, something feels “off.” It’s the kind of off-ness that is not responding to the known array of solutions. The something could be about handling a difficult condition in life: physical pain, trouble with the boss, overburden in general, a feeling of missing out, anger, compulsive behavior, depression, generic edginess.  This off-ness can just as easily manifest as a curiosity about the possibility of “something more.” Somehow, even with the expansive selection of life strategies and experiences we all have access to, there is a sense that when we add it all up, there’s still something important missing.

Most people who make it in the door stick around to listen and learn even a little bit, and for whatever the draw, their “something off” responds to meditation. There is a common, compelling response to what is inherently available, this very human quality of being, that arises through the cultivation of good-hearted attending to moment-by-moment experience. With a realistic mix of such nuances as skepticism, confusion, and certainty, that common response, in a nutshell: Yes!

Now, I turn this question right over to you, dear reader. Today, you chose to read this post. Why? This is a blog that asks you to ask yourself that kind of question, and to receive what comes with curiosity and an open heart. What are you after, as a first-time reader or months-long follower of this microscopic meditation form? This is an important question, mostly for you yourself. Please take this moment, right now, to pause, consider, and give yourself at least 20 seconds, to notice any and all answers that show up.

Having a good-hearted space to ask such questions and be with whatever answers arrive is maybe enough for you. Perhaps you found new information to take in, or to act on, or questions of your own to contemplate. I wish you all the best with what you discovered. And, if you’re willing to post a response, a phrase or a longer reflection, you may inspire another reader in a way they hadn’t known. Lastly, Jon and I can take what is given and use it to craft this form more precisely, concisely and coherently for our intrepid band of readers. As always, we invite your comments…

~Margaret

Almost Halfway

My husband, being the inventive parent that he is, long ago devised our family’s stock answer to the perennial summer car-trip question, “Are we there yet?” The answer always is, “We’re almost halfway.”

It’s been fascinating to watch our girls go through stages of understanding as he continued to dole out that answer over countless family adventures. Innocent acceptance, dawning curiosity, frustrated annoyance, chagrinned amusement and eventually collusion at the non-answer: call it the five stages of long-distance travel.

It’s valuable to consider what happened when the kids were only able to think about the  “there” of the trip. In those times, “there” represented something better than “here.” When they were really convinced of this, everything here was annoying, boring, or otherwise inferior. Some future image in their minds was more compelling than the reality of the back seat. Strangely, as soon as something here would catch their attention, the boredom vanished. And, just to round out the picture, they found there was virtually equal amounts to be fascinated and bored with when we arrived “there.”

What is it like when your view is overtaken by a kind of tunnel vision to that unknown location called The Future? What do you notice about a trip, or project, or even a day, when the sense of “almost halfway” overwhelms any access to what’s happening right in front of your face? With your primary focus on a destination in either time or space, is your capacity for experiencing the part of the trip called “getting there” compromised in some way? If so, specifically how?

~Margaret