Sunday, April 30, 2017

Walking Meditation

I spent the last two days at a Mindfulness Research Conference and my brain is full. I dreamt about mindfulness last night. Don't ask me to describe it because it doesn't make much sense, but trust me when I say it will be several days before all of the information I received filters down through the recesses of my brain and begins to create a clear picture. I was left with a tremendous sense of gratitude for all of the people who are doing such good work to uncover which practices and paradigms are the most effective. People doing work on a shoestring budget in the face of resistance to the idea that this is a science, in the face of challenges like racism and ablism and a culture that doesn't embrace relationships between people as much as it embraces the power of money. More than once, I found myself breaking out in goosebumps as I listened to these brilliant, fierce, heart-centered folks present their work. Whew.

When I took the pups for a walk this morning before most of the rest of the neighborhood woke up, I had ample opportunity to quietly reflect on the last two days. I set out with the intention of simply paying attention to my surroundings, appreciating the flowers in my neighbors' yards, the smell of the air after a hard rain last night, the sound of the birds talking to each other and their babies. It wasn't long before I was distracted, however, which is akin to what happens sometimes when I sit down to meditate. Some people call it 'monkey mind,' but in this case, it was puppy mind. The dogs were pulling me in two different directions, each of them intent on tasting whatever they could - small sticks, bits of gravel, discarded wrappers and chewing gum they discovered on the ground. Over and over again, I tugged one back toward me with a harsh Leave It! I nearly laughed out loud when I realized that this is what I do to myself when my thoughts stray during meditation and I resolved to be more gentle. These puppies are doing what comes naturally to them - exploring their world with their mouths. Anger won't change that. I can be more gentle in redirecting them (and simultaneously look forward to the day when I can take them for a walk and they will lift their heads up and look forward and walk smoothly instead of letting their noses lead the way in some winding treat scavenger hunt).


The actual events of the walk did not change with this realization, but my response did.

This is mindfulness. The recognition that there is a stimulus-response occurring and that I have the power to stretch out that hyphen between them, reflect on it a bit, and change the response to one that is more purposeful, more gentle, more positive without ever trying to change the stimulus.

As we rounded the next corner, I saw a neighbor up ahead walking to work. I didn't want to shatter the quiet, so I just observed him as he walked into and then out of my field of vision. Once he had passed out of my sight, a small sedan came zipping down the street - going well over the speed limit - a young woman behind the wheel bopping her head to her music and peering in the mirror of her visor. I felt my blood pressure rise and lamented the fact that I was too far away from her to catch her eye and send her some kind of signal that she needed to Slow Down, for God's sake!! My jaw clenched and my hands tightened around the leashes despite the fact that we were fully half a block from the street she had just raced down. I was furious.

Oh. Yeah. I was furious. This is mindfulness.

Noticing that word furious bouncing around in my brain, coupled with my physiological responses and the urge to dispel the tension in my hands and face and chest by yelling or flipping her off was enough to stretch out that hyphen space.

Stimulus                                       -                                        Response

Was I really angry? Yes.
Why? Fear.

The sudden appearance of this fast moving car on the heels of seeing my neighbor walk along that road sent my mind racing. As soon as I saw her driving quickly down the street, seemingly not paying close attention to her surroundings, I conjured up images of a horrible accident. My mind spun off into horrible scenarios: her not being able to stop in time for the crosswalk right in front of her; not even seeing a small child or pet racing across the street to catch a ball or chase a squirrel; crashing sounds, twisted metal, glass shattering on the roadway. 

Even though none of that happened, even though two blocks ahead of her was a stoplight that would surely be red this time of the morning, my conditioned response to fear of potential disaster was anger. 

Well, what about next time? She clearly didn't learn anything this time. She'll most certainly drive that quickly down this road again and maybe next time it won't be fine. I wish I could catch up with her and tell her to pay more attention. 

I watched as my mind created stories about her - she was out after a long night of partying and had to race home before her parents noticed she was gone. She was an entitled rich kid (she was driving a fairly new Audi sedan) who only thought about herself. She was looking in her visor to put on her makeup instead of watching the road.

I nearly laughed out loud at the elaborate tales my mind created in order to sustain my anger response. This is mindfulness. 

All of this happened in the space of about 90 seconds but by remaining curious and separate from my thoughts and physiological responses, I was able to move through the fear and anger and gently redirect my mind back to the walk, the flowers and the quiet and the dogs who were now wrestling with each other on the wet grass at my feet. Instead of holding on to that tightness, elaborating on that story, striding home to tell my kids about the crazy person who sped down the street and nearly killed the neighbor this morning, I took a deep breath and let my shoulders drop. 

This is mindfulness. 
I may still sit today with my eyes closed and clear my mind for a while in formal meditation. But even if I don't, I am reaping the benefits of mindfulness practice by doing my best to extend it to the other parts of my life where my stimulus-response mechanism can have enormous effects on my mood and the way I interact with others. I suspect this is only one of the ripple effects the last two days will have and while it is invisible to most people, it will certainly impact how I show up in the world. 




Monday, April 24, 2017

On Expectations

Expectations may be one of the biggest roots of all suffering. And yet...

Is it possible to be human and not have expectations? Can we really move through life without having some subconscious idea of where we're going and what it might look like when we get there?

I have been thinking a lot about expectations lately. My life does not look like I expected it to when I was a kid. It doesn't look like I expected it to when I was in college, or as a young adult, or even two years ago. My children are not doing the things I expected them to be doing, nor is my mom. Ultimately, that is both pleasant and sad. There are things going on in my life that are devastating and others that are so amazing and wonderful that I am grateful over and over again in any given week.

A big part of grief, I think, is letting go of that picture I had in my mind, realizing that life is not going to be the way I thought it was, and recognizing how much I rested in it, relied on it, planned for it and trusted it. I find it amazing how often I lend some weight and solidity to my expectations, even though they are merely schemes cooked up in my brain with no substance whatsoever. I can believe a certain thing so unquestioningly that I build entire systems on top of it and then spend overwhelming reserves of time and energy reworking those systems when the bedrock beneath them turns out to have been sand.

But in order to move forward, expectations are a requirement, aren't they? Or am I confusing expectations with goals? Perhaps that's it. Maybe I need to be more mindful of the difference between desire and assumption. Just because much of my life does go according to plan is not a reason to lull myself into thinking that all of it will. And it's true that often, when things fall apart, I have some pretty amazing experiences that help me grow and become a better person, simultaneously, I'm holding expectations for other parts of my life.

Maybe it's impossible to not assume that there will be certain givens in my life. Maybe, without those mental mirages, I wouldn't ever bother to get out of bed. Maybe, as long as I can continue to recover from the loss of expectation, grieve for it and learn from it, it's not a bad thing. Maybe this is just the way it's designed to be. Our human brains crave coherence, predictability, structure. We want a story that makes sense, puzzles with all the pieces contained in the box. Most of us would choose a safe, complete scenario over one whose ending is altogether uncertain, and so we are built for expectations. And while I know the Buddhists say the trick is to not get too attached to them, that is sometimes a tall order (especially when we've crafted those stories in our minds so well we don't even recognize them for what they are - stories). Maybe accepting the fact that we're going to get attached to some of them and learning how to breathe and get curious and remain flexible when they fall apart is a more realistic plan. At least for me.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Inspiration

My friend and coach, Kris, posted something on her Facebook page yesterday that gave me pause. I watched it again this morning before taking the dogs for a walk and let it filter through my brain as we sidestepped puddles and admired the fat cherry blossoms and smelled the daphne perfuming the air.

Kris was talking about inspiration and how, sometimes, we sit and wait for inspiration to push us to action, and as we wait, we are frustrated and discontent. She wondered whether it is the discontent that is actually the source of inspiration, that if we take that first step toward action, the path will open up and we will begin to feel the motivation to continue. What if the frustration is the sense that there is a difference between what we say we want and what we are doing to get there, and that is actually the driving force, but our desire to wait for a clear sign to begin keeps us from doing anything?

Well, yeah, when you put it that way.

I have been feeling stuck a lot lately and as I walked and ruminated on Kris' words, it struck me that I have been using that stuck feeling as an excuse not to change some things in my life that I can actually control.

I have long felt that I rely on wine and chocolate as crutches to make myself feel better, but since I am not overweight and I never get drunk, I haven't sensed a reason to change my behavior.

But here's the thing: when I indulge in those things in the evening, the narrative that goes through my head sounds a little something like this - I deserve this. It's been a long day. Or - It's a pretty small vice and I don't do it every night. 

More often than not, the next morning, I shake my head at myself, wishing I hadn't had that extra piece of Easter candy (damn you, Cadbury mini-eggs!), and sometimes I even go so far as to come downstairs and throw the remainder of the bag away. And I wonder what message I'm sending to my girls when they see me with a glass of wine almost every night.

The incongruence between what I say I want - to be mindful of food as fuel, to be active and physically healthy - and how I act is grating. And this shows up in other places in my life, too. I see in my Facebook groups that there are other writers who are getting their freelance work published once a week and I feel guilty - I should be out there hustling more work that is visible because the memoir I'm working on won't see the light of day for a year or more.

Often, the way for me to get clarity on things like this is to let my mind create a picture, and this morning was no exception. I imagined myself standing on a beautiful beach, dazzled by all the little, shiny things dotting the sand. There are rocks polished by the surf, fully intact shells, smooth pieces of driftwood. I walk along and gather the ones that are the most intriguing to me, filling my hands and pockets and not really thinking about what I'll do with them or where I will put them. I'll figure that out later. Right now, they are a tangible sign of what I have - like publishing credits or a wine cellar that's full. I feel the land beneath my feet and I am grounded. This is real. I can walk like this forever, back and forth.

But eventually, my hands are full and I've walked the length of the beach. And I realize that what I really want is to be out there, in the ocean, floating, being lifted and held and open to possibilities. When I'm in the water, that's my inspiration, my true passion, my purpose. It is where I can be fully supported and I'm able to really get some perspective. When I float in the water, I can look back at all of the glittery gifts on the beach in their entirety and really discern which ones speak to me. I don't have to gather armfuls of things just because they are lovely, I can truly choose the things that are congruent with the big picture of who I am and what I truly want. And I can come back in to the beach at any time, but when I remember that the floating, the be-ing is where I am most grounded, that it is here where I draw my inspiration, the beach seems like a place for occasional visits, not someplace to dwell and get caught up in the doing and the gathering.

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