What I learned on my summer vacation

Family vacations are wonderful times to learn a lot about ourselves and our way of being in community and in the world. I remember one extended family vacation that my mother put together in a beautiful spot with perfect weather. Though everything went well, she was mostly tense and dictatorial and I was often grumpy and defensive. My main job as I saw it was to assure the safety and well-being of my two year old son and to pitch in cooperatively to keep the shared household running smoothly. But she saw me as her personal assistant and servant to assure the happiness of my brothers and their families whom she saw as the ‘guests’.

Because in the U.S., most of us don’t live in multi-generational family situations year-round, when we live for brief periods with our family of origin, a lot of old patterns resurface, and a lot of reactivity that replicates our childhood coping mechanisms shows up as well. We might be surprised, even horrified, to discover that those emotional cesspools are still within us when we felt we had become ‘better’ people.

It helps to see the pattern unfolding, even if it’s difficult to stop it from playing out. Just noticing it makes a big difference, helping us to understand its origins and its fleeting nature. We can rest assured that when the gathering is over, we will return home to our ‘normal’ adult ways. Being able to see these patterns arise gives us the chance to pause, send metta (lovingkindness) to ourselves and the rest of the family, so that we reconnect with our core intentions.

Because I had had negative experiences on family-gathering vacations my mother had hosted, I didn’t try to host one myself after I became a family matriarch. But a few years ago we happened to stay as overnight guests at a vacation home with our son and his family, and I discovered what I had been missing. Yes, extended time together can be stressful, but it can also be incredibly rich, sweet, funny and insightful. So I’ve started hosting simple little three-night summer mountain getaways, and I’m so glad I did.

We just returned from a mountain lake that has a rustic family resort vibe. It was a perfect choice for the age our youngest grandchildren are right now. We had a great time relaxing together, doing whatever anyone was in the mood to do, free of any agenda. As well as the fun of our group conversations, I had time alone with each family member — sweet moments I especially cherish.

My morning meditation got short shrift, as our grandchildren visited us when they woke up while their parents slept in, and I was too busy whispering and laughing. But my longtime practice helped me to stay grounded and present to enjoy it all and to hold the experience lightly. It would be so easy to get caught up in grasping and clinging, wanting to hold onto this special time and place forever. But impermanence is our nature. All we can do is savor the current experience and let it go, without regret or anticipation of the next great thing.

I didn’t completely master the advanced art of the zipped lip that all parents of adult children must learn if life is to be enjoyable, but I think I did pretty well, considering. I find the key is when judgy words are about to burst forth to ask myself, ‘What is my intention here?” and also “What is most important in this situation?” As a compulsive tidier and responsible tenant of vacation rentals (Oh, the pride I take in our AirBnB rating!) my first answer to what’s important defaults to making sure everything is just so, but with even a moment’s reflection I see that my relationship with my family is infinitely more important. And after all, it’s only for a few nights.

We are fortunate to not have reason to get into heated arguments, but decades ago I had that experience with other family members. I learned then to go to bed before alcohol consumption fueled wee hour dysfunctional disagreements. And again, to question my intention in needing to be right. Ah, the ‘I don’t know’ mind really comes in handy! Cultivating spaciousness for all voices to be heard without getting into battle. And if we let go of the need to convince someone of our view, we have the opportunity to learn more about what fears motivate their views, and that’s valuable information for us all.

All my past lessons helped me enjoy the gathering, but there’s always more to learn, and here are several I came away with this time:

#1 Explore off the beaten path
On the last day, after packing up, we took a little walk and decided to head away from the lake instead of toward it. (It’s understandable that we would always be drawn to the lake, but curiosity finally took us in another direction.) We discovered that right behind our cabin there was a beautiful wooded walking path to the grocery store, that was not only a short cut but a much safer way to walk with two children than on the street.

It makes me wonder what obvious/autopilot ways I have been taking in my life, ignoring beautiful and possibly even more direct routes.

Using this lesson, on the drive home down the mountain, we stopped in Jamestown, an old gold mining town off the beaten path. A passerby gave us the peace sign, a relic of a bygone era for sure. It’s main street is about two blocks long and it has all the requisite architectural features of the old West circa 1856, with raised wooden sidewalks under overhanging balconies. It had the requisite number of antique shops for any small California town before it becomes too popular for shopkeepers to sell some old bottles for a dollar each for our grandchild’s Harry Potter magic potion collection and then carefully wrap them in a gift bag.

We also chose a more scenic if less speedy way into the Bay Area, and arrived home refreshed. A perfect ending to a lovely getaway.

#2 Vacation food is not offset by exercise
Well, to be honest, I wasn’t doing that much exercise. We walked around quite a bit but also did a lot of lounging on the beach enjoying the sight of our kids and grand-kids playing in the water, and all the various families with children and elders of all ages having a great time together. I have never heard the word ‘grandma’ spoken from so many different young mouths.

I used to see vacation as an opportunity to over-indulge, but since I’ve found a way to eat in a balanced and satisfying way, my treats were tasty but sporadic and my reward was that I felt good. If my scale on returning home begged to differ, that’s its problem!

#3 Having better cell phone coverage is not always a blessing
Some in the family had AT&T and were blissfully free from knowing whether anyone was trying to reach them. We have Verizon, whose infinitely better coverage in remote areas is much appreciated in almost all circumstances. Except this one. Eventually, I had to just turn it off and put it in a drawer. We were surprised to discover that even though we couldn’t text each other our whereabouts or make plans, we kept finding each other quite naturally, just like we all did before cell phones were invented. 😉

#4 Put away the camera most of the time
With my phone in a drawer, I was without a camera. But I have found that ‘capturing’ the moment as a future memory is sometimes really losing the moment because I’m focused on framing and adjusting and not paying attention with all my senses. A camera cannot capture the experience anyway — the feel and smell of mountain air, the textures of sand, water and sun-warmed skin — and while a video camera gets the sounds as well, it imposes itself into the situation, altering behavior. Our grandchildren hate having their photos taken anyway.

#5 Always bring seat cushions
We just happened to toss in some outdoor seat cushions as we were packing for the trip, and boy did they come in handy! The cabin kitchen table had a hard bench banquette that was much improved by the cushions, and they were easy to transfer out to the picnic table on the deck where fast and furious games of Yahtzee taught the grandchildren a lot of math skills. Our kids took the cushions to outdoor movie night and said they wouldn’t have survived without them.

So let’s consider this: Where in life might we add a little extra cush? It doesn’t have to be a physical cushion. Our language, for example, has cushions that make conversations more comfortable like  ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘maybe you’re right.’ Hugs, pats, holding hands — small gestures convey a lot of love and soften the sometimes rough edges of life’s interactions.

#6 Apply practical lessons to inner life
We are all learning things every day. These are usually new facts, practical solutions, etc., but it can be helpful to see how they could apply to other areas of our lives, including our inner lives.

So, what have you learned lately?

What role does ritual play in your life?


Ritual is an inherently human activity. Rituals are created, repeated and relied on, as are habits. Yet rituals are almost the opposite of habits! Instead of making life conveniently manageable as habits tend to do, rituals bring full attention to the moment and the occasion, seeming to slow down time so that what is being experienced can be fully processed in a way that makes a deep and lasting impression.

When I was a teenager, all the formal rituals of life I saw around me seemed inauthentic, just empty gestures. I felt everything should be questioned, and all actions should be done with a freshness of thought and creativity, certainly not by rote. There was a lot I didn’t understand. The rituals I observed seemed dictated by an authority like the church, and I assumed people were just going along out of fear of going to hell. Perhaps some were, but for most there was deep comfort in the rituals they had probably been doing all their lives. I didn’t yet understand the value in that.

Especially at times of overwhelming emotion — at the death of a loved one, for example — long-established formal rituals provide valuable guidance, steps to follow through the maze of grief. Our family didn’t have that when my mother died. We stumbled around the empty space and muddled through somehow.

When it came to such things, we lived in the long shadow of my father’s rebellion against the church where his father had been a minister, and where Dad as an adolescent had to teach Sunday school for seven years. He became what we affectionately called a ‘raving’ atheist’ — probably one of the few who could quote scripture. 

He refused to allow us to put together any kind of memorial gathering for Mom. But he couldn’t refuse her one request she left with me (she didn’t trust Dad to remember!): to scatter her ashes in the wild azalea glen she loved. So I organized the immediate family, including my reluctant father, and we walked the trail to the bridge over a creek where the azaleas bloomed most densely. My brother and I clambered up off the trail and together scattered her ashes. In that moment, time stood still. There was awe and wonder. My nephew said, “Grandma would have been thrilled to death!”

I craved more ritual on that outing. I wanted words from all present, spoken from the heart of that moment. I wanted a picnic afterwards to just be together with our shared emotions and memories. But what we had was a father in not great health in a deep state of mourning saying, ‘Okay, that’s done. Let’s get the hell out of here!’ So we did.

When he died five years later, we had a memorial for them both, in their home surrounded by masses of plum trees in perfect bloom.

Death and marriage have become major industries, monetizing the rituals to extreme degrees. But regardless of how much one spends on a funeral or a wedding, every coming together to release or unite loved ones has that moment of ritualized acknowledgment of what is really happening here. And that is what lives on and sustains us.

Birth too brings celebration in one form or another, though the main participants are often too exhausted to appreciate it. They are living in a world of new tiny rituals that have not yet become habits: nursing, burping, changing diapers, singing lullabies, and gazing deeply into their uniquely amazing child’s eyes.

But what about daily or weekly rituals? What role do they play in our lives? They may provide something seemingly permanent and reliable in a whirl of a constantly changing world. Perhaps it is a place to rest, to renew, to feel connection and to feel supported. Coming together every week in community to meditate, pause, ponder, reflect and share is a valuable ritual to me and my students.

Are there any rituals in your life? Maybe there are but you don’t see them as such? Here are some things to consider:

How would your primary relationship(s) be different if you instilled a little more ritual. My hair stylist said that over the past few months she and her husband had instituted a new tradition of having one glass of wine before dinner and sitting together to talk. Their relationship has improved because they are unplugging from habitual activities and taking that time to practice a little ritual that celebrates themselves as a couple. (Note the only one glass, and of course, the wine could be replaced with something else, as suits your situation.)

Friendships can also have rituals, even if they are just things you enjoy doing together. Making them more regular and giving them your full attention will sweeten the experience. Longtime friendships often have shared language, stories and jokes that are rituals too in their way, even if no one else would consider them so.

If you, like me, struggle with being mindful while eating, take a tip from one of my students who started treating her meals as rituals, from the gathering of simple quality ingredients, taking time to prepare the food, pausing before eating to thank all who shared in this offering to your well being. Then doing a tasting, chewing, swallowing ritual that lets all the flavors and textures come fully alive, pausing to put the fork down and appreciate your surroundings, sensing in to your body to know when you have had enough. Ah, life!

And, ah, death! You might give some thought to how you would like to be commemorated, and make notes. Had my mother made a few more notes, I’m sure she would have added in a picnic. And then we would have had to have one, regardless. So be thorough, but be considerate. This is for those who love you, not for you.

Ritual slows us down, clear our minds, and capture a sense of exaltation, infinite beauty and mystery. One of my students has a ritual of blessing her house, especially when she has been away from it. We could ritualize our daily chores, blessing the floor we are sweeping and the dishes we are washing. Ritualize self-care! Imagine a brushing and flossing ritual that attends every nook and crannie with full attention and lovingkindness, not just out of fear of the dentist.

Fully present, life can be a series of rituals instead of chores to be gotten through in a habituated mindless way. Bringing mindfulness and compassion to everything we do, we stay attuned to the infinite sense of life loving itself.

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Open your channel of creativity

When I began a daily practice of meditation in my early thirties, I was frustrated creatively. I had a novel in my head but I would write the same first twenty pages over and over again. My inner critics were bearing down on me with such vigilance that it felt impossible to get a word in edgewise.

After a couple of weeks of incorporating meditation into my life, I woke up one morning with a vivid dream that gave me my novel full blown. All I had to do was sit down and write it. And reader, I did! The inner critics must have been overwhelmed by the flow and were flushed away! Hooray! Six weeks later I had over three hundred pages of my first draft. For two hours every morning in my bedroom while my children were in nursery school I typed out two more drafts on my IBM Selectric that had replaced my dear old Underwood, and within nine months I had a novel. (That remains in ‘the drawer’ to this very day but that’s another story!)

I felt like my meditation practice cleared a wide column in the center of my being, allowing creative expression to rise up without blockage.

Why does meditation open the creative channel?
I can only speak to my own experience in writing and painting. But it makes sense when you think about how through the regular practice of meditation we begin to notice the harsh inner critics that rattle around in our thoughts constantly spouting cruel opinions about us. How likely are we to subject ourselves to such bad feelings by doing something creative? Why not avoid the whole thing? And yet there is this flicker of an eternal flame inside each of us that is ready to radiate, if only it were given even a little oxygen, a little kindness, a little encouragement. The creative impulse takes many different forms, not just in the arts. It’s where we feel truly alive and engaged in the process of creation, whether it’s an equation, a poem or a mural.

Without meditation to reveal what’s going on, we may assume that we are afraid of what other people might think. But it’s the inner critics that keep us from doing creative things. If we spend time with them in a compassionate way, we may begin to see where they come from. We might recognize what person who had a great deal of influence on us when we were young has been internalized and given power to keep us from living a full and meaningful life.

If you have a meditation practice, in the few minutes after you finish and your mind is clearer and kinder, throw out a question like “Why am I so resistant to ____________ (fill in your creative pursuit)?” (If you don’t have a practice, try it anyway after a quiet time with no distractions.)

Relax, look around, maybe yawn and rest — eyes open or shut, it doesn’t matter. Don’t search for answers. Just be open and easy. By asking the question, you are activating your own inner wisdom which has just been waiting to be asked. So notice answers as they arise. They come in many forms: visual or aural memories, some object you never noticed before, a book jumping off the shelf, the impulse to talk to a certain friend or family member.

I just happened to pose a question years ago around a problem I had, asking “Why am I so screwed up about ______?” I did not expect an answer, I was just in that state of quandary, and it may have been commentary, but I did pose it as a question. Then I just happen to lie there doing nothing, those last few precious moments before I make myself get out of bed, and much to my surprise within five minutes three different images came up for me out of the blue. Images of people and places I’d almost forgotten, words said to me that were cruel by people whose opinions mattered to me. At the time. And those three long-forgotten comments had been shaping my relationship to what I was ‘so screwed up about’! Wow! I had not thought about those people, and certainly not those words, in decades, but deep inside they were as fresh and wounding as if they were still being said.

And they were. Because I had internalized them. Those words were the daggers I used to make myself miserable. Exposed to the light of day by a simple question years later, I could see what had happened and how I had given away my power. And I said to myself “Why would I give those people so much power? They were clueless, troubled and unskillful. They didn’t know what they were doing, and even if they did, it had nothing to do with me.”

A big shift happen in my relationship to what I had been pondering. I managed to defang the viper that had sabotaged my ability to enjoy that part of my life! This is the power of insight meditation. It is not an escape from the daily grind, though it can be very pleasant. It empowers us to see clearly and to have compassion, to come into more skillful relationship with all that arises in our experience, even the ones so deeply hidden we hadn’t even known they were there. And it works especially well in relationship to creativity because, let’s face it, there were so many people when we were young — parents, teachers, classmates, the culture at large — telling us we couldn’t do it, that we weren’t doing it right, or asking who did we think we were to even try?

Suggestions for opening your creative channel

  • If your creative impulses get thwarted by inner scoffing and ridicule, up your meditation game. Meditate every morning to open the wide wondrous channel of your own creative expression.
  • Find your creative sangha. I bet you can find courses at a local community college or adult ed program where you will meet like-minded people with whom you can share the joy of creativity. It can feel silly on your own to buy art supplies and set up an easel in your home, but joining a class is empowering, and finding the friendship and encouragement of others who are also trying something new is very comforting. (I have a painting group I continue to meet with even though I haven’t painted in fifteen years. We meet every few months, share our creative efforts (I share my poetry) and enjoy each other’s company. For writing poetry, I belong to an ongoing poetry group where we are challenged but also feel safe in writing and sharing.)
  • Just before beginning writing or painting or whatever creative project you are working on, give yourself a moment of meditation focus, grounding, centering, letting go of the hyper-critical self-doubt and scolding that hampers the free flow of your imagination.
  • When you are not actively creating, stay alert to thought-threads and wisps of dreams that arise that might want to be expressed. Carry, and keep by your bedside, something to jot notes or sketches.
  • Focus on the process, not the product. Creativity is process. The product is a byproduct of that process and focusing on that byproduct is counterproductive. It is infinitely more joyful to activate a creative field of expansive celebratory exploration, rather than keeping your eye on the supposed prize. There is no prize but this very experience right here and now. Focusing on the end result sabotages the end result because it limits the possibilities, disturbs the flow and sets you up for disappointment when what you had imagined and what you have created don’t match, leaving you unhappy, but also blind to what is actually there.
  • Stay attuned to the creative flow and notice when it’s not ‘sparking joy’. Pause, walk away, refresh, renew, and then revisit when you feel ready.
  • Remember that you are in collaboration with some synergistic serendipitous field of energy. Sounds woo woo until you’re in it, and synchronicity provides exactly what you need when you need it. That’s being in the flow, whether you’re working on a creative project or just living.
  • The project is done when it satisfies some sense of wholeness, some intrinsic ‘yes!’ Not because you think it’s what the market wants or your teacher or friends like it, but because it satisfies something in you.

In my experience there are four clearly delineated stages of creativity that suffer when they overlap. I will use writing as my creative example, but it could just as well be used in other kinds of creative endeavors.

THE FOUR STAGES OF CREATIVITY

  • Stage 1: Open
    You have a thought, a dream, a phrase, an impulse — the stirrings of creativity arising. You might jot down a little something or keep toying with the words in your head, or it may arrive full blown and you can write it out. But if you sit down to write before the stirrings have inspired something, it may take a while to get to the heart of the matter, or you might never get there because the writing process without the stirrings can be laden with complicated self-talk.
  • Stage 2: Write
    When you are ready simply pour the words onto the page. Don’t hold back, don’t overthink, don’t edit. Just breathe life into the experience with the senses and specifics. If something needs researching, just make a note in the margin “RESEARCH:______________” Don’t look anything up right now or your attention will be stolen by the internet gremlins.
  • Stage 3: Edit
    Editing use a very different set of tools than writing. Trying to use them both at the same time stops the flow and gums up the works. Give your piece a little cooling off period before revisiting with an eye to where it comes alive, what contributes and what dulls it down. Then edit with fresh eyes. You might hang the piece somewhere you will see it often, and it will stay alive and reveal what may need to happen.
  • Stage 4: Share 
    Showing your work to others is a completely separate stage. Thinking about sharing it during the other stages will thwart the process. Sharing the work out loud or in print with others is both illuminating for the writer and the listener/reader. But the writer is not obligated to share, and except for reading well and providing a satisfying print environment for the piece, the writer’s work is done. The reader’s creative engagement and what they do with it is their own experience.

So there are a few ideas to use to stir up your inner creative impulse. Enjoy! But remember it all starts with a daily practice of meditation so the channel of creativity can open fully.

Who are you letting shape your reality?

One day Ron Finley put two and two together. He realized that while his home was in a food desert in South Central Los Angeles, he could plant vegetables in the parking strip to benefit the whole neighborhood. Neighbors started pitching in and the project expanded.

Imagine what a difference that must have made, not just in the physical health of all who now had access to fresh produce, but to their mental health, the feeling of community, and being empowered to create a more self-directed and meaningful life. What an inspiration he must be to all who saw what he had done, and how much of a difference one person with a simple idea can make in the world!

What did it take for Ron Finley to do what he did? What would it take for any of us to make a positive impact on our community? It takes wise view, wise intention and wise effort, and Ron Finley clearly had all three.

What is this wise view?
At one point a friend asked Ron if he wasn’t worried about people stealing what he’d grown, and he replied, “That’s why it’s in the street! I want them to take it!”
The two men clearly had different views of life. The friend, like so many of us, saw the world as a dangerous place where we must protect ourselves and our stuff from others who want to take what we have. But Ron Finley saw a community and an opportunity to bring health and joy. He says, “I manufacture my own reality.”

Most of us accept the reality manufactured for us. We are endlessly subjected to the self-limiting perception of the need to name and claim instead of expanding our sense of who we are — intrinsic interconnected aspects of life in a state of continuous flux. Everything we experience informs our understanding of reality, so our sense of reality is in a state of flux as well. That can feel unnerving if what we crave is something solid and unchanging. So we shut down, lock the doors and isolate ourselves in a protective shell. But this doesn’t protect us. It exacerbates our sense of emptiness, and the habit of craving, grasping and clinging — the very definition of suffering.

If we take a break from craving, grasping and clinging, we discover that we can find joy and share it in any situation. It takes a shift of view, but that shift is ours for the taking.

Our innate ability to make the best of whatever arises in life is not what most industries want for their potential customers. They are bent on making their products seem like the answer to our prayers. If only we had this new (fill in the blank) it would assuage our sense of emptiness and satisfy our cravings. Sure, sometimes a product makes life easier, but believing that it will meet our deepest needs is delusional. Believing that a different outfit, a new house, a different job, a perfect wedding, a different mate, a more ideal body — a different anything! — will fill the emptiness of our lives is accepting a manufactured reality that is inconsistent with the nature of joy.

Mine
The word ‘mine’ is one of the most undermining words in the English language. It creates barriers, tension, withholding, and misperception of the reality of our situation. It’s challenging because for most of us who live in developed countries, that may seem like the natural order: I, me, my, mine, and ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’. Caught up in the pattern of desire, there are never enough toys, and other people’s toys always manage to look shinier.

Wow, what a set up, right?  Look at what we as a culture have collectively created: A system that activates fear, craving, grasping and clinging, advertising that makes insidious use of psychology to activate fear, making people feel like they aren’t enough just as they are and that this product will make that feeling of emptiness go away.

Emptiness
Many of us at times experience a sense of ‘feeling empty inside’. Paired with depression or despair, emptiness doesn’t feel good. But what would happen if we embraced the emptiness? In Buddhism ’emptiness’ is not a painful vacuum, a sense of something missing from our lives. It is seeing clearly all that arises in our experience as ever-changing. Nothing is permanent. Nothing exists in isolation. Everything is made of all that went before and continues in an intricate relationship with all that exists in this moment in an ongoing dance of molecules interacting, coming together and falling apart and reconfiguring. There is no solidity.

Let me repeat: Nothing is solid here. This is the nature of life. Look around! If you’re thinking that the leaves falling off trees and the seasons changing don’t apply to you, then here are a few assignments: 

  • Look through your family album and observe all the changes, the new additions, the growth and the faces of loved ones no longer alive. 
  • When you vacuum, contemplate what you are vacuuming up. A lot of it is the detritus of your body — hair, particles of skin, etc.
  • When you clean out the lint filter of the dryer, consider that even your clothes are in a constant state of change, leaving a little fabric behind with each washing.

I could go on but you get the idea. If you are uncomfortable with these reminders of the transitory nature of life, then you are causing yourself unnecessary suffering. And yet you believe that you are avoiding suffering! You want things to stay the same, or you want a set of changes that you craft to match a perfect future you envision. If that future is shiny and you see yourself enshrined, it probably arises out of craving. If you achieve it you will be disappointed and set your sights on yet another shiny future, because that is the forward-leaning pattern you have created for yourself.

Wise view cultivates the kind of present that organically grows into a fulfilling future. If you are collaboratively creating a world full of respect, patience, kindness, compassion and joy, then you can relax about the future. It’s got good roots!

If however you can see that you are stuck in a world view manufactured to keep you craving and clinging, then congratulations on recognizing the pattern. Keep noticing for yourself how this cycle of suffering plays out, how the pattern of craving, grasping and clinging causes a sense of suffering. Know that you are not alone. And know that we didn’t invent the pattern. We inherited it and we are encouraged to keep suffering from it, while calling it the pursuit of happiness. But we can release it and discover how much more joyful it is to open to the beauty of the fluidity of all life.

This is much more fun than struggling to build a safe and impressive fortress of being in the shape of this person we so call ‘I’ and ‘me’ full of things we call ‘mine’. Why claim a little patch of life and call it ‘mine’ when in truth we are welcome to experience the whole garden?

Which brings us back to Ron Finley who planting vegetables in his parking strip, and to his friend who was stuck in a world of ‘mine’ and found Ron’s more expansive view alarming, worried that people would steal his vegetables. Here’s Ron’s TED Talk for you to enjoy:

Ron says, “I manufacture my own reality.” We can ask ourselves whose view of reality we are accepting unquestioned? If that view of reality is making us feel miserable, isolated and depressed, it’s not one that serves us very well, is it? We can wake up and live fully in each moment, alive, ever-changing and deeply interconnected.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? I’d love to hear them. And if this speaks to you, please share!

A wacky way into wordless wonder

Thoughts are formed by words that prompt images of places and times that pull our attention away from here and now, the only moment that actually exists. (All others are memories or imagined futures. Only in this moment are we alive and empowered to set intention, make choices, speak and take action.)

In Vipassana meditation practice, we stay in the present moment by focusing our attention on physical senses, most likely the breath, to release our tight hold on the mental formations that take us far away from this moment.

In many other traditions, Buddhist or not, the mind attains clarity by the repetition of sacred phrases, thus replacing the ongoing thinking-thinking words with ones formulated to create a sense of tranquility, awe, transcendence and even ecstasy. 

These repeated phrases may feel even more powerful when they are in a foreign language. Consider how when the Catholic Church decided to conduct services in everyday language rather than Latin, many worshipers felt a great loss. What was that loss if not for the sense of wonder and mystery from stepping out of the ordinary language used to negotiate everyday life?

Of course, everyday words can form imagery and ideas that expand our understanding and sense of awakening. Think of a wise teaching or a poem that has spoken to you, how it caused an internal shift — an insight that shook up the status quo and sparked empathy, a sense of connection and perhaps a glimpse into oneness that resonates inside you. But breaking out of the patterns of word-thoughts altogether can free our brains to open to this expanded state in a more direct and spontaneous way. You might think of it as the difference between being inspired by a photo of a sunset and experiencing the sunset itself, with all the senses engaged.

Sacred chants from any tradition are powerful for those so inclined. But what if you feel uncomfortable chanting or even silently repeating spiritual words? Perhaps saying them feels false to your sense of self, or feels like appropriation of another culture, or maybe you feel it could be some magical incantation and you don’t know what you’re accidentally conjuring up. Whatever the reason, if it’s not your thing, it’s not your thing. But what if you want to meditate but you find focusing on physical sensation doesn’t calm your busy thinking mind?

If you have tried various concentration practices that help you focus on the breath but you still feel like your drowning in your thoughts, you might try this and see if it works for you:

Replace those thought-laden daily pattern of words endlessly churning in your brain
with nonsense phrases that don’t activate any concerns.

Settle in to meditate, take a breath or two, releasing any tension, and
then repeat these words in your mind: Mumbo jumbo and gobbledegook.

Mumbo jumbo and gobbledegook? Good grief! What nonsense is this?

Exactly. It’s so silly it works! It’s an effective replacement for all the words that stream through the mind, weaving images, memories, worries and plans. Mumbo jumbo and gobbledegook — or any nonsense words you choose — are not entangling. No guarantee of ecstasy, but at least you may find a temporary release from the daily grind of regretting, wishing, calculating, puzzling, etc. that cause more anxiety, stress and tension in the body. And that’s no small benefit! The health effects of meditating have been long proven, and you can feel it for yourself.

This silly phrase is also a non-judgmental way to bring your attention back to the breath when you’re mind has wandered and you discover you’re entangled. Mumbo jumbo and gobbledegook may feel like an accurate description of all that thinking, and it’s a lighthearted labeling that can then transport you back to your focus on the breath without self-recrimination.

If you struggle to meditate or you have never meditated because you ‘think too much’, then maybe this is just wacky enough to work for you. Worth a try!

Feeling stuck?

For years we’ve had two patio tables that serve no purpose in our garden. I would occasionally think I needed to get rid of them, but there they sat, year in and year out, unused and unappreciated.

Then — who knows why — yesterday morning I got on my rubber gloves, grabbed some rags, soap and water and went out to scrub down the tables. Ten minutes later they were clean enough to give away. I grabbed my phone, took photos and posted them on the Nextdoor app. That’s fifteen minutes that hardly made a dent in my day, and done! Within twenty minutes a neighbor replied, and an hour later she came and picked them up, saying how they would fit perfectly in her little garden. Now instead of sitting out with no purpose, they are being transformed into appreciated items in someone else’s life.

That’s a small example, but often our lives are filled with small things that can add up to an overwhelming feeling of being stuck. It’s a reminder that it often doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to get unstuck. In this case it took intention and minimal effort. Obviously intention alone doesn’t work, because I intended to get rid of those two tables for years. But I had overestimated the amount of effort it would take to fulfill my intention, so I kept putting it off.

We may overestimate the amount of effort
it would take to accomplish our intention.

Here are three important things to notice about being stuck:

  1. The weight of dread from repeatedly thinking about doing something is more burdensome and time-consuming than actually doing it. In the above example, the time I spent reminding myself to get rid of those tables every time I noticed them was much more time than it took to do it. Many things we put off doing are more time consuming than this example, but for me, regardless of the size of the project, the ratio of dread to the actual doing remains the same.
  2. For bigger projects than cleaning tables, it’s a matter of breaking the project down into a series of smaller tasks. I used to take on a big project with intense determination not to quit until I was done. No wonder I would put the project off! it was exhausting! Now I approach large projects in incremental doses, doing them mindfully like my daily yogi job on a meditation retreat. I found out the hard way that there is no benefit in driving myself to exhaustion. In many cases the quality of the work will suffer, but more importantly, we suffer.
  3. When we think of the big project awaiting us, if we don’t break it down into doable daily bits, we don’t do it at all. Is that not the truth? And so there we are with the dread of doing it at all, and a feeling of being stuck.

These are very practical household examples of liberating ourselves from a sense of being stuck, but of course life offers many ways we might feel stuck — in our work, in our relationships, in our practice, in our sense of coming home to our most authentic self.

Where are you feeling stuck?

Where in your life do dreaded chores, research, outreach or decisions weigh heavily on you? 
Take a moment to write down anything that comes up: Things you know you need to do but keep putting off. Maybe you’ve been putting off making an appointment with your doctor, dentist or financial advisor. Perhaps you keep putting off getting in touch with a loved one. Explore the feelings that get in your way: What am I afraid of?

Explore your intention. In my little example the intention would be: ‘To get rid of those two tables!’ With that intention, a quick ride to the dump would have been an easy solution. But the deeper intention, the more wholesome intention, included ‘to enhance someone else’s life as well as my own by finding the tables a home where they can be appreciated.’ So, ask yourself what is your intention, and then see if there’s a wiser intention there. Sometimes without making room for the wise intention to be voiced, we get more stuck. We’re not seeing the bigger picture.

Explore your dread, the fear that paralyzes you from moving ahead with your intention. What is it you think will happen? There may be some dread of what the doctor will find, what the finances will reveal, what the conversation with a loved one might bring up. But the truth is that you don’t know what the doctor or the dental x-rays or the loved one will say, but in general these things don’t improve with time. Holding off from an action out of fear for what will be revealed generally exacerbates the problem. Haven’t you found that to be true? Is there any time in your life when postponing the inevitable paid off? Maybe. But how often did it create bigger problems? Check in with your wiser intention, the intention to be well and to maintain a healthy body, mind and relationships.

Once you have identified where you feel stuck and what’s holding you there in that stuck place, and you’ve set a wiser intention, ask yourself what wise effort would be in this case. Often it’s just ‘make the call’ or scrub the table. But larger challenges may benefit by making a few notes on the various steps that need to be taken, in the order that makes the most sense, and how much time per day will you give the project. (Also, if you have the means to do so, consider hiring someone to do the project or help you manage it. You will be contributing to their well being and giving yourself time to focus on something that has more meaning for you.)

Sometimes the dread has to do with misgivings about our abilities or whether we deserve what we intend to pursue. Dread of a dream come true is a real thing, and if that is what’s happening for you, take time to examine your fears, your opinions about your own self-worth, your patterns of comparing yourself to others and coming up short, or, conversely, thinking the path should be easier for you than it has been for others. Every path begins with one step, as the saying goes, and the path may be uneven and full of challenges. Being on the path is its own reward, if its the path you chose with wise intention. Living wise effort is living in the moment, letting the doing be spacious, pleasurable and sensate. Wise effort is not focused on imagined outcomes, fearful that things won’t turn out the way we hoped.

Living in fear is punitive, and delaying doing something is a way of compounding whatever problem we are afraid of. This is how we get stuck. How we get unstuck is to notice that we are stuck, to really examine the nature of that sense of ‘stuckness’ in a non-judgmental way, to see how uncomfortable it is, how much time it takes to think about, how many ways, often unskillful ways, we go about avoiding thinking about it or doing anything about it. Then we can see that we are creating this feeling of stuckness and that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Wishing won’t change it, but looking at our intention, making sure it is wise, and then acting on that intention with wise effort, causes a shift for the better.

Image by suju from Pixabay

What is the sound of many cell phones ringing?

The sweetest thing in the world — besides a baby of any species — is a sangha in silence on a meditation retreat. The quiet is delicious, like fine wine mellowing as it ages. Each day of the retreat the sangha (community of meditators) becomes more synchronized and sensate. Slowing down in the silence, there’s presence, awareness and a loving sense of mutual support.

Silence is golden and a sangha in silence is magical. So it was surprising to hear from a student about her husband’s experience at a meditation led by Mark Epstein where attendees were asked to keep their phone ringers on.

Whaa? Phones ON? Anyone who’s ever attended a meditation class or retreat (or a yoga class or pretty much any kind of civilized gathering) knows to at least turn their phones off and preferably abandon them altogether. It has become increasingly difficult to do as these phones have become extensions of ourselves, either in hand or close at hand, the part of ourselves that is connected to the wider world. To silence that connection may cause FOMO (fear of missing out). But meditators have learned to do this, especially in community, respectful of the silence we are co-creating. So to hear that a meditation teacher requested everyone keep their phones on was surprising. 

Well, not really. After all what we are practicing is how to cultivate calm in the middle of a busy world. So learning how to be with the sounds of cell phones going off randomly throughout a meditation is a worthy practice. We are cultivating internal silence, not expecting the world around us to cease making noise. If we can meditate in a room full of cell phones ringing, beeping and buzzing, we can meditate in an airport lounge or anywhere else. And this is a great gift!

We can notice how we create enemies of sound, as well as anyone responsible for a sound we don’t like. We can see how we pick and choose between pleasant sounds (maybe birds chirping, water flowing, rain, etc.) and unpleasant sounds (maybe leaf blowers, jack hammers, traffic and the errant cell phone accidentally left on by a fellow meditator). 

At the moment we notice that we are reacting to a sound, identifying it as pleasant or unpleasant, we have the opportunity to recognize that this reactivity is a jumping off point into thoughts that will take us on a journey far away from ‘here and now’. It all happens so fast we may not even realize how we ended up twenty years ago or a thousand miles away to a place or time that the sound triggered in our brains. Fortunately, once we notice it, it only takes an instant of awareness to gently bring our attention back to the moment. This moment, just as it is. Sounds and all.

Here’s a poem I wrote back in 2006 about an experience on a retreat at Spirit Rock:

Breakfast, Day Four

The dining hall clatter becomes symphonic.
The ecstasy of scraping chairs and utensils!
I have never heard anything so beautiful
as the sound of a sangha in silence
earnestly clearing their plates.

Sound can remind us to be present, and to cultivate a pattern of receptivity, kindness, compassion and equanimity, returning again and again to the calm rising and falling of the breath, letting whatever sounds arise to be simply sounds, part of the Symphony of Now, never to be repeated in just this way. How precious is this unique moment in every way. And phhp! It’s gone and now this one, oh so precious, and phhp! Can we gently greet and release all that arises in our spacious field of experience?

On another retreat I attended, teacher Howie Cohn brought all the bells from the Spirit Rock store into the meditation hall and rang them in a random pattern throughout the meditation. It was both pleasurable and helpful in bringing me back again and again from wherever my mind would wander, back to the sensory moment here and now. 

A cell phone symphony might be like that. Still, I hope it was a one-off experiment and not a trend. Because truly there is almost nothing as sweet as the sound of a sangha in silence.

Image above digitally created using an image by Gordon Johnson and an image by David Schwarzenberg, both from Pixabay