Spiritual Lessons

Mindfulness Diaries: Let go and begin again

You make mistakes. You disappoint yourself. You succumb to temptation. You lose your cool in frustration. You make decisions based on false stories you tell yourself. In so many other ways, you forget to live "your best life".

You're human. It happens.


Hourly or even more often, if you're really paying attention.

Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/3s3JPEXRzUg

Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/3s3JPEXRzUg

Each moment you discover that you are not living or being the way that truly aligns with your highest purpose, your inner Buddha, your goals, whatever way you want to frame it - you have the opportunity of letting go and beginning again. Without judgment or recrimination. Just let it go.

I first heard this life lesson on the meditation cushion, listening to Sharon Salzberg's meditation course on 10% Happier. Good for me Sharon repeats it often in a single sitting and then over multiple days in the course, because I'm resistant to simple wisdom. I want to be special, different, unique. Basically, I don't want to be human. I want to be right.

Maybe about the 15th time I heard it did I think about actually listening and trying it for myself. Every meditation session offers at least 37 opportunities to let go and begin again. Every time you notice that you have been swept up in some daydream or some replay of that annoying thing that happened, you get the chance to let it go and give your breath your restful attention. You don't need to think about why you daydream or how long you were off in monkey mind town, you just let it go and begin again.

It's a real-life do-over, friends!

This do-over option isn't just for the meditation cushion, It's for all time and every time. This isn't an excuse to never hold yourself or others accountable. This isn't a way to deny or repress feelings. It's more like, I realize I am in a feeling or telling myself a story, and I'm going to note that and return to the breath. I'm going to engage in the present moment, whatever that is.

As Sharon says, you really won't improve or grow through tearing yourself down. Compassion and forgiveness lead to healing and growth. And in the case of mindfulness (and everything else), you have to start with yourself. 

You, more than anyone else in the universe, deserve your love and affection. - Buddha

The moment of noticing is the point. We all have our minds wander on the cushion, or get lost in revenge fantasies from time to time. No stopping it by force. We notice, note, and let it go.  Sometimes you will notice it right away, in the first few seconds and sometimes you'll be gone for minutes. Either way, same rules apply: Let go and begin again. With compassion and gentleness.

Let's say it all together: Let go and begin again!



Love is attention

I read an article in The Atlantic a couple years ago that shared the secret to a happy marriage. I have re-read the article several times since then, which isn't really a normal thing for me. I need to inoculate myself against apathy and to assure myself that it really is as simple as I remember.

So simple and profound is the answer: pay attention. 

We all know it's true. Like proven by science true.

But we don't do it.

What keeps us from paying attention, real attention to our dearest ones? Our worries we are missing out on something better. Our selfishness. Our belief that our thing is so much more important than that other person's thing. Facebook. The game. That big client.

Really, it's bullshit.

We assign importance to things based on some labels and rules imposed on us by systems outside of our control. We are manipulated into believing that every 'like' is a check mark next to our value as a human being. We take for granted that beautiful being sitting next to us. We are blind to the impermanence of everything. 

Everything falls away. Everything ends. Everyone dies. Everyone. You even.

As scary as it is to contemplate impermanence, we must in order to be free of these delusions that there will always be time to catch up with a friend or read that book with our children. But it's more than giving time. We must give our true and whole attention to our beloveds. 

The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers. - Thich Nhat Hanh

My brother died suddenly at the age of 49. I never got to say goodbye to him. This is one of the deepest pains of my life.

In our last exchange, we promised to spend more time together. He had recently quit a job he hated that required him to be out of the country for weeks at a time. I was a working mom with young kids facing separation. We had excuses. We had reasons to postpone the phone call. To wait until Spring to visit.

I never got the chance.

It feels scary to hold all of this together in your mind. But mindfulness meditation can help. It will help. Meditation and mindfulness help us create some space and distance from our thoughts and our perceptions. Space allows for us to see things for what they are. Space allows us to see our children, our partner, our friends for who they are, not the labels we have assigned to them.

Space allows us the time to be present fully in this moment.

Not every moment. But some of them. With more practice, we can stitch more moments together. Eventually, we can be in a mindful state more than we are not. Ok, maybe not all of us. 

So I'm going to put down this laptop and go help my kids get ready for school in the most mindful way possible. Which really means I'll do my best to get through the whole thing without yelling at anyone. 

Baby steps.

Mindfulness Diaries: The Matrix

In the funny way the universe works, the universe told me to watch The Matrix. First I heard one person mention it on a podcast as an example of how mindfulness practice can help us see through delusion. Then someone else mentioned how we all must make the choice between the red pill and the blue pill. The last straw was walking into my living room on Sunday, to see Neo (Keanu Reeves) there on my television in all his expressionless wonder. My partner had decided to watch it, not knowing that The Matrix was on my mind. I'm not even going to speculate how that happened. I didn't then either. I just sat down and folded the laundry while I watched.

Neo (Keanu Reeves) in his kung-fu inspired Matrix attire that I adore

Neo (Keanu Reeves) in his kung-fu inspired Matrix attire that I adore

The Matrix is a wonderful piece of comic book camp. If you don't think so you probably haven't watched it in a while. The intervening decades have been pretty kind. Stopping bullets with your mind is still pretty cool. Mostly I love Neo's costume - all that fabric flowing slowly as he jumps and swirls around like a dancer. 

But seriously folks....

Faith is a key theme in The Matrix, especially in The Matrix Reloaded (which I watched later the same day). Is Neo the One? Who is the Oracle? Can she be trusted? Will the prophecy come true and Zion will be saved by Neo and friends? Morpheus believes so. Neo believes it eventually. Thousands of people in Zion believe it. Is their faith enough to make it true?

Faith and trust go hand in hand. Both are required for any human cooperative endeavor, especially true of saving the world. Can we trust those who tell us they know our destiny? Are we the makers of our own destiny? Do we really have free will? Is there ever really a choice? Are we victim to our feelings, our patterns?

So many questions!

Maybe we aren't going to be asked to save all of humankind. But we do have the choice whether we save ourselves from The Matrix - from the delusions of our minds and the rantings of our passions. We can save ourselves from the toxic society that tells us all our wildest dreams can come true if only we lose that 15 pounds, get the new car, win the prettiest girl, or scrabbled our way to the top. The Matrix tells us everything we need is outside of us. The Matrix is everything we need. But this is a lie, a program built by people without our best interests at heart, in order to keep us a slave to Capitalism, the Patriarchy, and White Supremacy. Mindfulness can bring us liberation. 

We are the droid we looking for. Wait, wrong Sci fi movie classic. 

What role does faith have in mindfulness? A lot. Faith in yourself to keep going, to keep letting go and beginning again. Faith that this practice is worth all the effort, that we will reach liberation, however fleeting. 

We also have to divest ourselves from The Matrix. It isn't real. The limitations it applies to us based on our gender, race, geography, class, etc. are false. We don't have to believe them. We can stop the metaphorical bullets with our mindfulness. Ok, maybe that one goes a little far. But you get the idea. Our mindfulness will allow us the eyes to see clearly. See our thoughts, our feelings, the reality of our situations, sometimes even the path before us. 

"There's a difference between knowing the path and walking the path."                     - Morpheus

That line right there is the thing from the Matrix that I will carry with me. There's a difference between the intellectual pursuits of mindfulness and the practice of sitting on the cushion and bringing these ideas into life. There's a difference between being aware of the toxins of our society and then doing something about it. There is a difference between understanding the systematic oppression and liberating ourselves and others. 

Walk the path. 




Mindfulness Diary: Sitting is hard

I will start by warning you of the proselytizing that is about to happen. I can't help myself. It's that good.

Source: https://pixabay.com/en/china-buddha-statues-religion-god-1177009/

Source: https://pixabay.com/en/china-buddha-statues-religion-god-1177009/

 About a year ago I started meditating once a day using the Headspace app. You should go watch this before we go any further. You will love Andy's voice. His soothing voice is probably why I stuck to meditation in the beginning.

 His voice is awesome, right!? My cats agree.

So I did that for a while and then I stopped doing it for a while and then started and then stopped. You know the drill as well as I do, I bet. Habit formation is hard. You really can't will yourself into it, unless you are one of those Obligers who can.

About a month ago, I realized one of the reasons I wasn't consistent was because I didn't have a place that was the meditation zone. I was meditating in the living room or my bed, and often got interrupted by a family member with some urgent whatever. I felt like I was occupying their space and I needed a space of my own. A space just for meditation and contemplation. So I made one. I have a tiny little cabinet that houses some treasures. I threw some orange fabric on it and collected my Buddhas from around the house, made me an altar. I found a sitting cushion/ottoman we had down in the basement. Voila, meditation zone

Having this dedicated space has helped me so much. I wake up. I walk ten steps to my cushion and sit for 10-20 minutes, depending on the day. At the end of the day, I go up to my room, brush my teeth, and sit for 5-10 minutes. Getting to the cushion hasn't been hard. The sitting has been really hard.

Sitting for 10 minutes at a time and not fidgeting is enough of a challenge for me. But to sit and note the breath for more than like 3-5 breaths is almost impossible. I got to 10 breaths this week (I rarely count but that was the task that day), well I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to start over at 1 and erase all my hard work. But the most important work of meditation is letting go

Over and over and over again. 

Letting go with compassion and forgiveness? A herculean task. I know I'm not supposed to be allowing these thoughts to take control and occupy my attention when I sit. So every time that happens, about once every 6 seconds, I have to realize it, let go of the thought with kindness and forgiveness, and go back to mindfulness. I'm getting better at realizing my attention has drifted and getting back to resting my attention somewhere in my body, but the forgiveness and compassion part can get tricky for me. This morning I was using a guided meditation by Sharon Salzberg (thanks 10% Happier app - more about them another day) and she said something that was like a giant searchlight in the darkness of my self-loathing -- paraphrasing here:

You will experience more growth with compassion than condemnation.

Funny thing is, I already know that. Intellectually I understand that part of human behavior change. But applied to the dark circus that goes on inside my head 24/7? Crazy talk. Self-compassion is something my therapist has been working with me on for a year. I'm pretty self-aware most of the time (ok, some of the time). I know when I am being a jerk or jumping to conclusions, etc. I can call myself on it. But forgive myself for it? Not so fast there, Pollyanna. I need to spend at least a few minutes (hours, days) berating myself, just to make sure I understand what a terrible person I am.

Not nice. I know.

So that's why I meditate. To quiet the mean jerk who lives in my head (my roommate, as Michael Singer says in Untethered Soul) who tells me no one likes me and I'm never enough. For at least a few minutes, sometimes only seconds, my spirit gets a rest. And then when I'm out in the world walking around and talking to people, I am more able to pause and reflect before reacting to the situation. Those dark feelings don't have quite as much power over my speech, my thoughts, or my conduct. There's like a 15% greater chance I will react with lovingkindness. That 15% is worth my time sitting. I hear that percentage will grow the longer I practice. 

Who knew sitting and resting was such hard work?

I get to vs. I have to

I listen to a lot of podcasts. The list changes over time according to my current interests. Last week I added Secular Buddhism to the mix to support my summer of inner exploration of philosophy and spirituality. Buddhism has been a part of my thinking about life since my early 20's when I first started my journey, my search for "The Way". Buddhist concepts have helped me through every struggle of the last 2 decades. Buddhist concepts keep me grounded in gratitude and focused on the positive aspects of existence. I am not a Buddhist per se, but I'm also not not one. It's complicated. But to get back to my point. 

In the latest episode, Noah discusses how we frame our life dictates our emotions about situations and challenges. For instance, you can think, I have to cook dinner for my family or you can think, I get to cook dinner for my family. It's the difference between duty, obligation, chore vs. opportunity or gift of the moment.

While I was driving to a meeting yesterday, I applied this framework to my experiences with grief and loss. In this contemplation, I realized my own experience of loss allows me to see others with new eyes. My grief cracked open my heart and that allows me to be more vulnerable and present for others.  I got to experience heartbreak and loss so I could be more loving and compassionate to others. This is an awesome gift. I get to use this pain as a bridge of understanding to connect with others. I get to use this pain as a starting point for inner growth and gaining depth in my own experiences. I get to be a different person than I was before.

These thoughts were circling in my head, along with a heady sense of joy and recognition, while I walked into the lobby of the Medical Examiner's Office for a public health meeting. This building looks as if the whole city decided to look away from the grief and heartache that happens here and never looked back. As if by ignoring this place, the terrible things that are witnessed and recorded here would cease to exist. I have been in the lobby dozens of times and I can't tell you anything about it except I want to be out of there as quickly as possible.  And its dark and ugly, just a blur of dark and ugly. I never linger.

I signed in with the security desk and walked towards the door to get buzzed into the main building. As I was walking across the narrow lobby I happened to turn my head to the left and see an open door to a room I never noticed before. The room beyond the door was artificially bright in an institutional way. As I realized that there were people in the room, I met eyes with a woman. Her eyes were bloodshot and glazed. Her hair was pulled back into a bun but bits were hanging out here and there like she had just received an electrical shock. She sat slumped on a hard plastic chair between a few other people whose faces I could not see. It was just me and her in all the world for those seconds. In that instant of our eyes meeting, my heart sank. My soul winced because I could see the depth of her despair. I knew.

I had my own trip to the Medical Examiner's Office (Monroe County not Philadelphia). I know how people are polite, if official. I know what it is like to get the phone call. There is no preparation for it. In a second they are gone and there are questions to answer and things to do. I could see it all in the woman's eyes. 

In that second or two, I tried to convey my heart to her. I willed my eyes to show compassion and my face to offer some expression that could comfort her. But I know there was nothing I could do for her other than to see her. To witness her grief. To honor it as sacred. To have enough love in my heart not to look away. 

Once the large door shut behind me I lost my breath. My heart pounded and I could taste blood and tears. My eyes filled and my throat closed up. Deep breaths. Slow deep breaths. I slowly made my way through the bright bare hallways to the bathroom. In that tiny gray stall, listening to my colleagues' chit chat, I took a few minutes to try to understand what had just happened. 

Had my thoughts allowed me to have that experience with the woman? Would I have even noticed her any other day? How many times have I walked past a similar scene with no regard? Why did I see her this time? Is there something larger at play here? Is this some kind of nudge from the universe? 

In the end, it doesn't matter why or how the experience came to be. It only matters that my heart and mind were open to it. None of us asked to be here. None of us willed ourselves alive. We are here because of circumstances and conditions that lead to our birth and everything after it. We have to do the best we can in each moment. How we frame this rollercoaster ride dictates everything. We can look at life as a series of things that happen to us, a series of drudgery, chores, and problems or we can look at it as opportunities and gifts. The choice is ours. Every minute we get a new chance to change our frame.