The Practice of Lovingkindness Meditation

In 2011, I had the good fortune to attend the Spiritual Directors International’s (SDI) Conference in Atlanta, GA.  Without really knowing many of the presenters, I chose to sign up for a three-hour session on what I thought was compassion.  Rabbi Rami Shapiro, who I had experienced briefly at an Academy for Spiritual Formation conference, was the teacher.  The presentation was an eye opener for me to a whole other way of practicing meditation and prayer. 

Rabbi Shapiro presented from his book, The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Preparing to Practice.  One of the practices he taught us was called Metta or Lovingkindness Meditation.  Metta is a Pali word, which can be translated as love. The best translation of this type of love in Christian terminology is agape. It is a love that is unconditional: open and unobstructed.  According to Sharon Salzberg, who is the cofounder of Insight Meditation Society,

Metta is the ability to embrace all parts of ourselves, as well as all parts of the world.  Practicing metta illuminates our inner integrity because it relieves us of the need to deny different aspects of ourselves.  We can open to everything with the healing forces of love.

Metta has two root meanings; gentle and friend.  It is likened to a gentle rain that, without choosing or selecting, falls indiscriminately.  This reminds me of the passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies and pray for them, “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).  The practice of metta begins with us gently befriending ourselves.  This is sometimes even harder for us then praying for our enemies.  We are more likely to judge ourselves harshly and not spend much time in self-compassion. With the metta practice, we can uncover the possibility of truly respecting and loving ourselves as part of the human race. 

There are various phrases that meditation teachers use for this practice but the overall flow of the practice is the same.  One begins by taking a comfortable posture, either sitting in a chair, on the floor or lying down.  In metta, we always start by saying the phrases for ourselves.  We focus on our breath and imagine our heart being open and welcoming.  We then say some phrases that are a variation on the following traditional phrases (some alternatives are in the parentheses):

  • May I be free from danger (May I have safety, May I be free from fear)
  • May I have mental happiness (May I be peaceful, May I be liberated)
  • May I have physical happiness (May I be healed, May I be healthy)
  • May I have ease of well-being (May I dwell in peace, May I live with ease)

I prefer to use Rami Shapiro’s phrasing as it resonates with our American life for me. His suggestions are:

  • May I be free from fear
  • May I be free from compulsions
  • May I be blessed with love
  • May I be blessed with peace

One suggestion that Rabbi Shapiro made when we pray for ourselves is to invite a mental image of ourselves as a young child, especially if there is one that is wounded within us.  As we say this prayer, we say it to that child. And then we get an images in a progressive sequence of our teen age self, our middle age self and one of ourselves when we are much older than we currently are, ending with one when we are on our deathbed.  As we say this prayer to each image, we begin to feel the warmth of compassion extending to all various selves we carry within us.  This can allow real healing to take place.

After praying this prayer in a repetitive fashion for ourselves, we move on to say it for a person close to us whom we love or are friendly towards.  Next we extend it to a person we know but not very well, such as the person we buy our coffee from daily.  Lastly, we bring to mind the image of “an enemy” or a person with whom we are currently in a conflict situation.  We say the same phrases to them without anger or judgment but with an open and loving heart.  It can change the attitude we have towards them and thus be a change agent in the conflict situation.  We can also extend this metta prayer to include all living beings and our world. 

This practice has been a life changer for me, especially in the current state of the world that is full of divisiveness and hate.  If I seriously pray with an open heart for those who I feel are “enemy,” I can begin to look at them though other eyes.  I can see them as humans with fears and compulsions.  I can see that their desires are similar to mine: for peace, acceptance, and love.   I will be honest, for some people, I have to repeat this prayer over and over again before I begin to feel a shift in my own attitude.  That is all that I have any real control to change—my attitude.  This practice gives me the spaciousness of heart that allows acceptance of reality.  It helps to connect me to the oneness that connects us all, which I know stems from the heartbeat of God.  It is in that oneness that I know that Julian of Norwich’s statement is true; “all will be well and all manner of things will be well.”

Resources:

Shapiro, Rami. The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Preparing to Practice

Salzberg, Sharon. Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

http://www.contemplativemind.org/practices/tree/loving-kindness

https://jackkornfield.com/meditation-on-lovingkindness/

https://www.tarabrach.com/guided-meditation-loving-kindness/

Step by Step

Last month we visited my son and daughter-in-law in Norway.  They have two beautiful children, which of course any grandparent might say. The youngest is a boy, Lucas, who is filled with joy and loves to be outside.  Lucas loves all sorts of machinery but also leaves and dirt.  His joy is infectious and he can bring a smile to anyone’s face.  During this visit, we went to their cabin in the mountains for a weekend. When we arrived it was a bit rainy, cold and overcast.  However, we decided to take the kids out for a walk after a long car ride to get there.  Our granddaughter took a spill close to the cabin and decided that she was too upset to go any further. She left to go back to the cabin with her mother.

Lucas was having too much fun and wanted to continue with us all the way up the hill.  The path led to a meadow that was rocky and covered with all sorts of lichen that were showing off their rich autumn colors.  Lucas was a real trooper and walked most of the way, holding his father’s hand when the way got steep or too rocky.  He even struggled up the hill without asking to be carried.  His father would have done that for him but he wanted to “do it myself.”

Later, as we descended the hill, I watched as they walked together and noticed that they were fully in sync without even having to give a thought about it.  It reminded me of a song by Rich Mullins we sometimes sing in church.

Oh God, You are my God 
And I will ever praise You 
Oh God, You are my God 
And I will ever praise You 
I will seek You in the morning 
And I will learn to walk in Your ways 
And step by step You’ll lead me 
And I will follow You all of my days

Sometimes I think of Abraham 
How one star he saw had been lit for me 
He was a stranger in this land 
And I am that, no less than he 
And on this road to righteousness 
Sometimes the climb can be so steep 
I may falter in my steps 
But never beyond Your reach

Lucas was never beyond the reach of his father, even when he wanted to walk by himself and not hold hands.  Yet, anytime the road got rocky or he needed help, he didn’t hesitated to reach out to his father, who was always keeping an eye on him. 

How like God this is.  God is always present as we journey through life.  Many times, we let go of God’s hand. We want to “do it ourselves”—just like a toddler who is discovering his independence and ability.  Yet God is always walking beside us; ready to catch us if we fall, ready to sooth our hurts and cries when the road gets too rocky.  We just need to reach out and take God’s hand. We may feel we are all alone but God never takes God’s eye off us.  And if we continue to stay connected, we will begin to walk—step by step—in the path God leads us.  It will still be rocky at times but we will know we are not alone.  With God we can conquer even the biggest hill in our path.

Bless The Lord

img_5804Do you ever get a song stuck in your head and find yourself singing it to yourself at odd times?  This happens to me frequently. For the past week or so it has been Matsunrise-on-mountainst Redman’s “Ten Thousand Reasons.”  If you have never heard it, I encourage you to find it on YouTube as it is a beautiful song.  Beware though—it might get stuck in your head too.   I find myself singing it when I awake in the night time and early morning.  Specifically, this verse is resonating with my soul at this time.

“The sun comes up
It’s a new day dawning
It’s time to sing Your song again
Whatever may pass
And whatever lies before me
Let me be singing
When the evening comes”

It was especially poignant one morning when I awoke to the full moon setting over the mountains and the sun lighting up the sky in oranges and pinks.  It was glorious and felt like such a sacred moment.  The presence of God was palpable in the air and I was just struck with the beauty of creation.  The scene kept changing, with each moment becoming more beautiful as the sun came up.  It felt like a “new day dawning.”

We have all had moments like this I am sure.  It is easy to sing God’s praise when we are surrounded by beauty and wonder. But the next lines say “Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me…”  Really?  Does this mean I need to let go and let God be in control?  That I need to sing this song in the time of pain and suffering just as loud as I sing it when all is right with the world?  This is so much harder.  To thank God when the “evening comes.”  Not just the literal evening but the darkness that can feel overwhelming—when God feels so far away and we are scared and lonely.  When we are placed in a situation we don’t like—a negative medical diagnosis, a divorce, a job lost.  We usually feel the air knock out of us at times like this, like we don’t even know how to take the next breath much less sing anyone’s praises.

Yet, even in times that seem the darkest, we are invited to sing God’s praises. Maybe in doing so we will be able to remember the good times as well.  The psalmists follow this pattern, lamenting for a while but always ending with blessing the Lord. God knows our pain, travels with us through it and knows us deeper than anyone can.  God calls each of us beloved.  When the dark times come—and they will—we can join our voices to others in our community or, if unable to sing, can let them sing for us.  Singing praises helps to lift our spirits and to remind us that this too shall pass.  I invite you to try it the next time evening descends upon your life.  It might help you to feel less alone.

Help! My life is out of control!

stressWe all know that life is stressful. In fact, without a certain amount of stress, life would be boring to most of us. We use certain internal stressors such as deadlines to make sure we stay on track with our responsibilities and appointments. Some stress comes from positive events in our lives such as a new marriage or birth of a baby. Other times, it is from a death in the family, financial worries, or too many demands at work. We live in a fast paced world that asks us to keep up a whirlwind speed that can become overwhelming at times. When we become overwhelmed by tasks, deadlines or commitments, we can move from stress to di-stress.

Stress and anxiety are the fight or flight instinct that is our body’s natural way of responding to emergencies. When there is an actual emergency, this instinct allows us to think clearly and quickly respond to what is needed. Hormones race through our body to speed up our heart and other physical processes. They help us to avoid or deal with the threat. However, because we have the ability to anticipate problems, many of us fall into chronic worry or planning for possible problems that never even materialize. Thoughts about these possibilities can trigger the same flood of hormones and stress. Chronic anxiety leads to impairment of the immune system and increases the risk of physical and mental problems. This can lead to increased physical problems such as autoimmune diseases, coronary artery disease and decreased satisfaction with life.

Signs of stress vary among individuals but may include:

  • Worry, anxiety, or panic attacks
  • Sadness or depression
  • Feeling pressured and hurried
  • Irritability and moodiness
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Physical symptoms, such as stomach problems, headaches, or chest pain
  • Allergic reactions, such as a skin rash or asthma
  • Problems sleeping
  • Drinking too much alcohol, smoking, or misusing drugs
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Eating too much or not enough

Mindfulness is a great tool for coping with stress and anxiety. This practice involves stilling the mind by letting go of thoughts or emotions as they arise and tuning back into the present moment. Simply focusing on the breath or our body can do this. It is a practice of letting go of the thoughts that will, without a doubt, arise. The only definition of successful practice is that when we notice we are thinking or feeling, we name it and let it go, returning to the focus of the present moment. Practicing this type of stillness is best done as a routine before we are in the midst of an upsetting situation. Then when these situations occur, we can lean on our practice of letting go of anxious thoughts that are not helpful to solving the problem but just add stress. A great resource describing how to apply this technique specifically to anxiety is The Mindful Way through Anxiey: Break Free from Chronic Worry and Reclaim Your Life by Susan Orsillo, PhD & Lizabeth Roemer, PhD.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is also another tool that can help to alleviate the anxiety we feel. There are several different techniques in this field that can be applied to anxiety. The first step is learning how to identify these thoughts and differentiating the rational from the irrational. A therapist can help us to isolate the thoughts that are causing the anxiety and teach us ways to challenge them to decrease anxiety. This type of therapy has been shown to be a very effective means of reigning in our chronic worry, anger or depression. A good resource to read to become familiar with this tool is When Panic Attacks by David Burns, MD.

It is also important to remember to take time for self-care in the form of spending time with friends and family and getting the proper nutrition, exercise and sleep. Participating in positive activities and having fun is an important stress reducer. Watch any negative self-talk about not being able to cope or being competent. Seek out people that are supportive and caring. View problems as challenges rather than insurmountable obstacles. Remember, stress is normal but anxiety can be met head on and decreased. Don’t be afraid to seek the help of a friend or therapist if life begins to feel overwhelming and nothing seems to help. We all need help at one time or another and no one needs to go it alone.

Consciously Stupid

I have begun a new exercise program that includes a set of DVDs to use for home workouts. six pack abs On the DVD, a very ripped instructor and several good looking people are doing exercises that, frankly,re challenging even for a person who has worked out most of her life–me.  Now, I have ridden a bike over 60 miles at a time and have a routine of doing the elliptical machine at the club for over 55 minutes.  And not just on the easy settings but on the hill climb setting.  I also work out with the Fitlinx machines to lift weight using upper and lower body machines.  So I figured I could follow the instructor pretty well and didn’t have to use the alternative methods modeled by the one woman who, frankly, looks like she hasn’t worked out a day in her life.  Right?  Who wants to follow the out of shape woman.  That would really be a hit to my ego.  I was sure that, even though I was about two decades older than any of the people in the video, I could keep up with the best of them.

Man, was I wrong. I knew I was choosing to do this because I needed to feel in shape even though I had not done a routine like this for a long time.  I had moved to the Elliptical because of knee issues. The DVD workout had lots of squats and others knee and bun pounding moves in it.  Weights were used in other exercises and still included bending and squatting.  I didn’t want to give in and say I was out of shape by having to follow the “fat” woman. That was what I was aware I had labelled her in my mind.  I was consciously being stupid.  I knew my motivation for choosing to follow the athletic looking people was all ego and not based in reality of my limitations, yet I did it anyway.  Competition drove me to push myself regardless of the warnings on the DVD and the fact that no one was seeing me workout.  Who was I trying to impress?

How many times are we aware that the choices we are making are not in our best interest but we do them anyway?  We look for something to stroke our ego rather than making the right choice for our situation and limitations.  We compete against others real or imagined rather than focus on our gifts and talents. We know that overeating is going to lead to weight gain that will make us feel bad about ourselves but we binge out on sweets because we are feeling depressed.   We know we need 8 hours of sleep to be at our best but we stay up late to watch a movie or read a book.  We know that spending time in meditation or prayer is good for our spiritual life but we pick up the computer first thing in the morning, check Facebook and an hour is gone before we know it.

Being conscious and self aware is good and a first step to changing our behavior to move towards a happier, more fulfilled life.  But we need to take the next step and make choices that will lead to self care and growth.  I am dealing with the resulting sore muscles now in ways that help, such as massage and heat/ice, stretching more and most importantly, following the modified version of the exercises.  I hope to be able to work up to doing it the harder way if I can.  For now, I know that I am taking better care of myself and won’t hurt myself along the way.  I encourage all of us to use our awareness to make good choices.  This means pausing before moving from awareness to the choice, acknowledge the emotion that is driving us to choose inappropriately, and making the choice that is in our best long term interest.  Not easy but each day presents us with many opportunities to practice.  We will make mistakes but we can greet those as opportunities to learn and improve our ability to make a better choice next time.  Above all, we need to treat ourselves with kindness and gentleness. This will increase the chances of making the appropriate choice the next time.

Learning to Balance

balanceI recently returned from a trip to Europe where I was able to visit my granddaughter and her parents.   It was a fun trip filled with new experiences for all of us.  My granddaughter was learning many new things. One of them was to sit up on her own. If she over-reached for a toy, she fell forwards or backwards.  She was working on developing a strong core to be able to stay upright and to right herself  if she fell.  Additionally, we took a trip to a new country for me–England.

Overall, there was plenty of new information to take in and integrate into my knowledge of the world.  I started thinking about the need for both adaptability and stability as we approach new situations.  We need them both to learn and grow.  Without adaptability we remain stuck in our old way of perceiving reality and without a solid core or center we can feel out of sorts and confused.

As a small example of this, bathrooms in Europe are quite different from those here in the United States.  While there are some similarities, there are many challenges one faces when trying to accomplish the simple task of toileting, especially in public places.  Some have self contained rooms with both sink and toilet; others have common sink areas.  So far, that seems similar to the US, right?  But the faucets connected to those sinks came in all shapes and functions. At times I would just stare at them, not knowing how to even turn them on. I never saw one that was automatic like the ones common in the states.  However, there were ones where the faucet was hidden in the stem that tried to fool me into thinking they were automatic.  This made the task of washing my hands a challenge sometimes.  Also, reading the signage in some of the stalls was a bit like trying to assemble furniture from IKEA.

It was important to remain flexible while dealing with this common but important task.  It helped to use what researchers call fluid intelligence.  According to psychologists Robert Cattell and John Horn , fluid intelligence is the “capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, independent of acquired knowledge. It is the ability to analyze novel problems, identify patterns and relationships that underpin these problems and the extrapolation of these using logic.”  Being flexible helped me to search “outside the box” for a solution.  Additionally, I could draw upon my experience in other situations or my “crystallized intelligence” to make a best guess on how to proceed.

Using flexibility or adaptability is important in many of life circumstances.  At the same time, it is important to have a sense of your deep identity to keep yourself centered and grounded.  If either of these two qualities are out of balance, we can “fall over” just like my granddaughter did when she over-reached her center of gravity. We can ground ourselves through centering prayer, mindfulness, breath work and many other ways of stabilizing ourselves in the present moment.  We can practice flexibility by trying new things in our everyday life,  even if they take us out of our comfort zone.  If we can stay in balance with these two tasks, we will be able to deal with most of life’s challenges or at least be able to right ourselves when we “fall.”

What Makes True Happiness?

IMG_2368A young waitress serving the Dali Lama at a ski resort sat down at the table and asked him what was the meaning of life.   He answered immediately, “The meaning of life is happiness.” He raised his finger, leaning forward, focusing on her as if she were the only person in the world. “Hard question is not, ‘What is meaning of life?’ That is easy question to answer! No, hard question is what make happiness. Money? Big house? Accomplishment? Friends? Or…” He paused. “Compassion and good heart? This is question all human beings must try to answer: What makes true happiness?

What makes true happiness?  That is a good question for all of us to ponder.  This question seems to have many different answers depending on whether we are young or old, poor or rich, depressed or feeling upbeat.  Does it really depend on our situation or age or does it depend on our attitude and approach to life?  If we are focused on gaining material possessions or a great job, does that give us great happiness?  Maybe,  if we are living in poverty.  If this is the way to happiness, how do we reconcile the fact that some of the happiest people are also poor? There are challenges in life due to poverty, chronic pain, discrimination etc. I am not suggesting that these don’t need to be addressed.  However, if these challenges are perceived as overwhelming or take over all our focus, we miss the positive things that occur in our lives as well.  And many of us in the first world, act as if we have extreme poverty when it is far from the truth.  Instead we worry over have the latest gadget or clothes when we have more than enough.

We all need to feel we have a purpose in life.  This is what organized religion has provided in the past for many of the baby boomer generation.  With the advent of scientific discoveries, the ability to know so many facts at the touch of a button, and the picture of earth sent back from space, we have become an untethered people. We are no longer tied to a geographical spot on the map. Expectations no longer limit us.  We expect more and more in everything we do and have. Consumerism is encouraged as a good way to stabilize the economy.  We have lost our purpose of life or at least one that came predetermined for us by our elders or our religious leaders.  We look to our government to give us a national perspective but even this is divide and not to be trusted.  Where can we search for the meaning of true happiness?

How can we adopt the Dali Lama’s suggestion that compassion and a good heart is the road to happiness?  Firstly, we need to focus on having compassion for ourselves; not demanding perfection in everything we do but learning from failures and mistakes with an open and generous heart.   We can learn to laugh at our foibles at the same time not allowing them to define who we are as a person.  Claiming our belovedness as a child of God (or whatever we call the energy that unites all of us and yet is more than just us) can help us to feel secure and worthwhile.

We can  greet each day as it is, allowing it to unfold without expectations of how it needs to be in order for us to be happy.  Suspending judgment until we truly understand and can empathize with people we interact can allow us to feel compassion and openness in our hearts.   We can acknowledge pain with an open heart but not add to it by our thoughts or resistance to the pain.  We can sit with our emotions until we are clear about what action we need to take if any.

I believe we can do all of the above. If we practice doing this each day we will grow into compassionate and open people who find happiness if most of our lives.  It takes practice and humor when we miss the target but we can learn to rewire our brains towards happiness. Neuroscience is discovering how this occurs.  The practice of mindfulness is aiding many people to do just this. Listed below are several good books that have been published on the subject.  I have also included a website. We each are in charge of our happiness and can change the attitude with which we approach our situation and the world.

  • http://www.rickhanson.net/writings/just-one-thing
  • Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, by Rick Hanson
  • Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, by Thich Nhat Hanh
  • The Mindful Way through Anxiety: Break Free from Chronic Worry and Reclaim your Life, by Orsillo, Roemer, and Segal
  • The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, by William, Teasdale, Segal and Kabat-Zinn

 

 

Wisdom’s Heart

 

IMG_6578 ” I am the vine; you are the branches.  If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

I recently have had one song on my mind.  It is a beautiful piece called Mother’s Blessing that is written and sung by Snatam Kaur, who is a Sikh Mystic. She wrote this song when she was pregnant and it is a beautiful statement of her wish that her child will always know God and feel God’s protection.  Some of the words are:

May you never forget God, even for a moment,

Worshiping forever the Lord of the universe.

Remembering God, all mistakes are washed away…

God is inside you, God is Infinite…

May you never be worn by worry.

Let this mind of yours be the bumble bee

And let the Lotus Feet of God be the flower.

Those beautiful words and blessing has hit me at  a deep level.  As some of you know, I became a grandma for the first time six weeks ago.  My son and his wife gave birth to a beautiful little girl named Sophia (or wisdom).  In experiencing her birth through my daughter-in-law, I had a visceral experience of what it means to be the vine and the branches as in John 15:5.  I feel an intimate connection to this little one even though at this point I have yet to hold her since they live in Norway.  Yet, I know in the depths of my being that the essence that made me is flowing through her as well.  That essence is God or the Ultimate Reality and I deeply wish for her that she will come to know that Divine Reality.

Those of you with grandchildren or great grandchildren know what I am talking about.  Somehow it is different than having children.  With children the connection is so close because you are physically involved in the creation of the new person.  But being removed by at least one generation and to still feel the connection speaks to the connection that we all have with one another whether we are once or twice or seventy times removed from the actual creation of the being.  And with her birth my heart expands so that I wish this mother’s blessing for all peoples.

The birth of any child is such a miracle.  It is the mother’s heart that pumps the blood that sustains life for the both of them for the nine months as an amazing form of creation is taking place.  The babe inside goes from being two small individual cells to a full human being! During this time of gestation, two hearts literally beat as one. Everything the mother takes in as nourishment affects the baby’s development.  Even the smallest deficiency can affect the ability to sustain this life throughout the nine months.  In my daughter-in-law’s case she needed to increase her iodine level before she could carry a pregnancy to term.

Through this small miracle of life we get a glimpse of the heart of the universe or Wisdom’s heart.  The image I have for Wisdom’s heart is a warm, welcoming, life sustaining one that is rhythmically beating, pulsing and connecting all of life in just the way that a mother’s heart is connected to her babe.  And in the same way as for a mother, what we do matters for our earth.  How we answer two questions Who I am? and Where did I come from? determines how we look at this world of ours and how we will  treat everyone and everything else on this planet.  If we see ourselves separate from God instead of  the extension of God as portrayed in Jesus’ metaphor of the vine and branches, then we won’t  realize that to misuse others or the animals, plants, or trees, hurts ourselves as well.  From this perspective of separateness, we can feel justified in subjugating nature to serve only us.  This has been the western approach for many years.  To quote  Dr. Phil, “How’s that working for us?

We have climate change, huge disparity between the rich and poor, extinctions of species and on and on.  But if we take the approach of many of the wisdom teachers of old, such as Teilhard de Chadin, Meister Eckhardt, and Lady Julian of Norwich to mention a few,  we will know that we are connected to the earth and to the universe as intimately as a baby is to her mother. We will come to understand that Love is the center of creation. Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “Love is the physical structure of the universe.”  This love flows through us and works through us, in fact it is who we are.  It is also where we came from. If we truly know this, we will walk upon this earth in a different fashion.  We will treat others as we want to be treated not because it is the Golden rule but because we understand fully that we are connected as one. 

I recently had a deep experience of this connection.  Snorkeling in the waters off of Maui, I dove down to get a closer view of a large turtle.  While watching this massive creature swim, I was aware of hearing a whale song. That song resonated in my being even though I had no idea what the whales were trying to communicate with each other.  Later, on a whale watching expedition, we saw these great humpbacks and heard their songs again.  We were told that all the males sing the same song, each year adding a new verse that all of they learn.  Isn’t that amazing? They communicate and are artists just like we are!

I will leave you with a quote from my favorite mystic, Lady Julian of Norwich, in which she calls this union with God by an old English term, oneing.  In her book the Showings, she wrote,

By myself I am nothing at all but in general I AM the oneing of love.  For it is in this oneing that the life of all people existsThe love of God creates in us such a oneing that when it is truly seen, no person can separate themselves from another person.

We live and breathe and have our being in Wisdom’s heart.  Let us take this knowledge to our heart and walk softly on this earth.

The Patience To Wait

candlelight” Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself? The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting, she is present, and can welcome all things.”  Lao-tzu

As autumn draws to a close and winter closes in, the darkness appears to win the battle over the light.  It is a time of drawing inward and setting our houses ablaze with light.  We move towards the Season of Light, which is celebrated in many different cultures and spiritual traditions with the lighting of candles and the gathering around a fire.  In ancient times, these rituals were done to ensure that the light would return to the earth, providing the warmth and energy needed to provide growth for the spring plantings.  Christianity celebrates this time as Advent, which is a period of great hope and expectancy.  But do we have the patience to wait?  Can we remain open and receptive, allowing ourselves a time of emptiness without trying first to fill it with some direction or wish list for the how we want to be transformed?

Patience is a hard thing to learn.  When my sons were little, I used to ask for patience so that I could be a good mom.  I wanted to be happy with them, not wanting them to be older than they were or different than they were.  I was told by more than one person to be careful what you ask for, because instead of just getting patience free of charge, life would give you opportunities to practice patience.  And boy did I get lots of opportunities to practice!  Patience is an active thing.  It is more about leaning into whatever life presents you and learning to be fully present with it.  It is not about having a preconceived notion of what the right action is but waiting until “the mud settles” and the right action becomes obvious.  When I responded to one of my son’s antics by yelling or being upset, I missed the opportunity to use it as a teaching moment.  I also missed the humor contained in most of the things they tried and alienated the relationship I had with them.  I got a chance to practice this over and over and eventually got better at it, I believe.  You would have to ask them to get their side of the story, but we have a very good relationship now so I think I did some things right, some of the time at least.

Mindfulness is a way to practice patience.  According to Williams et al in their book The Mindful Way through Depression,

“Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are…  (It) means paying attention to things as they actually are in any given moment, however they are, rather than as we want them to be.”  

This practice is about stilling the mind by letting go of thoughts or emotions as they arise and tuning back into the present moment.  This can be done by focusing on the breath or the body or the food you are eating.  It is as simple as bringing your attention back to what is happening around you at the moment.  It is a practice of letting go of the thoughts that will, without a doubt, arise.  They will attempt to move your attention off the present, into planning for the future or ruminating about the past. These thoughts arise even for seasoned practitioners of mindfulness.  The only definition of successful practice is that when you notice you are thinking or feeling, you name it and let it go, returning to the focus of the present moment.  Practicing this type of stillness or patience is best done as a routine before you are in the midst of an upsetting situation.  Then when these situations occur, you can lean on your practice of letting go and waiting until the right action arises.  Above all, being non-judgmental about the times you are not able to be patient, allows you to practice a key aspect of mindfulness–the acceptance of whatever is happening at the given moment rather than some goal of perfection we desire.  And you will get many times to practice this if you are like most of us.

 According to Pema Chodron, a Buddhist monk,

“Personal discovery and growth come from letting there be room for all of this to happen; room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.  Suffering comes from wishing things were different. Misery is self-inflicted, when we are expecting the “ideal” to overcome the “actual” or needing things (or people or places) to be different for us so that we can then be happy.”

As Lao-tzu states, if we keep our expectations open, not seeking a specific end to the interaction with others or with our spiritual journey, we are able to welcome all things and use them to enhance our understanding of ourselves and others.  Each event in our life can bring us closer to our true self. And in this way, we can move towards bringing back the light we need for growth and energy in our own lives and in the lives of others around us.

Lao-Tzu (translated by Stephen Mitchell), Tao Te Ching

Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness.

Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times.

 

The power to choose is yours

Power to choose“The thought manifests as the word; The word manifests as the deed; The deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care, And let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings. As the shadow follows the body, as we think, so we become.”      Buddha, Dhammapada

This week in my yoga class my teacher shared a saying that spoke to me and I have been thinking about it ever since.  She said “If you don’t choose your feeling tone, your past will choose it for you.” As I pondered it, I knew that it rang true.  If each day, each moment I am not conscious of what intention I have my life then I can only react out of my unconscious habits.  Those habits have been shaped over my life, most of them being formed in my childhood and early adulthood.

It is the same for all of us.  The past  shaped us and will continue to rule us unless we become more mindful of the new path we desire.  For example, if we are raised in a family where shame was used to control us, we will easily sink into shame  even when others are not intending to shame us.  If we were raised in a very judgmental family, we will be quick to judge others and ourselves, even when we would prefer to be compassionate. This reaction results from our need to be vigilant to such tactics to deal with the environment in the past.  As such, we continually scan for evidence of the same negativity in our current situation.  Our brains are programmed to be aware of any such “threats” that exist, even when there are really only a few of them in the present moment.  Being able to  spot them immediately helped us to survive when we were children.  Our brains are hardwired to notice and  respond to the threats, real or imagined.

If we are to choose a different path, we need to heal the wounds of the past.  One way to do that is by using positive experiences to counter the negative one.  Rick Hanson, in his book Buddha’s Brain*, suggests two methods of doing this.  The first option is to let all the positive experiences that occur in the present  sink into the old pains.  To do this we have to maximize the positive experience. We need to replay it over and over in our mind, making a full colorful “movie” of it to see in our mind’s eye so that we really can get a full body experience of it.  Savor the positive moment.  Let it strengthen and replace some of the negative experiences in the past.  This helps to give us today what we should have received as a child.

The second option is to replace negative material that surfaces with positive emotions and memories that will be its antidote.  For example, if you have felt weak and dependent in the past, let a current experience of strength bathe it with healing.  If hurt from past neglect or rejection in relationships continues to make you feel unworthy, bring to mind where you are loved by other people or God.  Hanson suggests adding a thought such as “I got through all that, I’m still here and many people love me.”  While the memory of the pain will not vanish, using these two techniques will help it to diminish.  It will allow you to move on to the future you desire, rather than have the past choose it for you.

For more information about the use this technique and how it impact us at a neurological level, I refer you to Hanson’s  book.  Cognitive behavioral therapy also has many different methods to help us change our thoughts.  As quoted in the passage above, our thoughts lead to words, deeds, habits and character.  Our feeling tone or our intentions are intrinsically related to our thoughts.  By watching both our intentions and our thoughts we can begin to change our character.  One of the best places for this thought to spring from is from love and compassion, both for ourselves and the world.

* Hanson, Rick and Mendius, Richard, Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom, New Harbinger Publications, 2009.