Monthly Archives: April 2014

North Platte of the Mind

In the late 60’s or early 70’s, for some reason my mother drove on her own from Philadelphia across the Midwest. She happened to be in North Platte, Nebraska at dusk, so that’s where she decided to spend the night. As she settled into her motel room, she realized that for the first time in her whole life no one knew where she was spending the night.

The cell phone hadn’t been invented yet and to make a long distance call for most people was costly. So Mom would have felt no need to call my father to tell him where she was or even that she was okay. He would have been alarmed to receive a phone call, assuming something bad must have happened.

How different from today! As long as our loved ones have their phones with them,we figure we can get in touch with them. Which is comforting, right?

But imagine my mother sitting in her motel room in the very center of a vast country, considering her solitude. Did it make her feel afraid or lost? No. She told me later that it made her feel wonderful to be so completely unaccounted for. Part of her feeling was the sense of not having anyone anywhere expecting anything from her in that moment. She could eat whatever she wanted, or not eat anything. She could go to bed early or go to bed late. She was free to simply be. She could simply sit in silence without explaining ‘what’s wrong’. (The word meditation wasn’t a part of daily life in most of western culture either.)

I thought of this the other morning in meditation when I realized that in this moment no one anywhere expects anything from me. There was still a to-do list and later in the day there would be certain expectations from others. But IN THIS MOMENT no one anywhere expected anything from me. Tension I didn’t even know I had began to soften and melt away.

So we might say that meditating, or even just pausing in the moment in the midst of busyness, creates a kind of North Platte, Nebraska of the mind.

But the key is that we have to acknowledge it, the way my mother did. She could kept her mind busy with worry about what was going on at home in her absence, or speculation about how the traveling would go the next day, or wondering about what would happen when she got to her destination. There were a million places her thoughts could have gone. But she let them rest in the awareness of being at ease in her body and mind.

When we don’t take the time to acknowledge it, the mind operates under the assumption that we are still on duty, or at least on call, that there is something we should be doing, planning, reviewing or stewing about.

The mind relies on our cues to let it know when it is off duty. So learning how to send these cues is very important for our well being.

In meditation class there are simple common rituals that tell our mind we are switching gear here. We arrive, we find our spot, we turn off our cell phones. Our mind understands that we have made this choice. The very sight and feel of the room where all we ever do is meditate is a cue that our body-mind understands. (When we do these things on auto-pilot, the mind fails to notice the transition and we have a difficult time settling in.)

What about when we are not in class? Hopefully we have a time and place we set aside to meditate on a regular basis. But what happens when we are traveling? What happens throughout the day when we very much need a sense of ‘North Platte’? What are the cues we can give the body mind to let it relax?

First and always, we anchor into physical sensations. Pleasant and unpleasant sensations make themselves known. With mindfulness practice, we can simply note these preferences, and return to our focus of the breath, rather than following the lure of associated stories, judgments and physical reactions. The more we can see this process, the more we can stay present in this moment in all the senses.

Notice the next sensation that comes up in your body. An itch, twinge, or restless limb perhaps. Quite naturally you will have the urge to react in some way, ‘to fix the problem.’ This might be scratching an itch, adjusting a strap, or clearing the throat. Now try NOT doing whatever the urge is to do, at least for a moment. Just be still with the sensation. This is not torture. This is an opportunity to notice that the sensation changes over time on its own whether or not we react to it.

If the urge is still there after sitting with it for a bit, feel free to go ahead and act. Sometimes the denial of the ability to react will make the sensation more pronounced. The mind gets worried and tension sets in. Maybe the whole body gets itchy or squirmy. But when the mind is relaxed and we simply notice the sensation, it generally transforms into some other sensation or disappears altogether.

When we do this kind of practice during meditation and throughout the day whenever we think of it, and especially when we notice tension arising in the place our body chronically holds tension, we create a spaciousness and ease, a place where nothing is required of us in that moment except to be here, present for whatever arises. A kind of North Platte of the mind. Thanks Mom!

Tied up in Bows

Often when I am going about my day, I notice varying levels of tension in my body stemming from my sense of need to get things done, to have everything on my to do list completed and tied up with a bow. Even if my body is telling me, sometimes begging me, to relax and rest, I can’t rest until the project I am working on is done.

But what is ‘done’? In the scheme of things, there is no ‘done’. One project comes to a state of completion for the moment, and another that I hadn’t been paying attention to rises up to take its place. Where is this state of doneness?

Even death isn’t done. It too is a transition of some sort, certainly physically, and perhaps on some other level as well. I don’t know. None of us knows for certain. We each have our own views or beliefs, our hopes, but these are all just guesses about the great mystery that awaits us all. It is part of our practice to rest with that great ‘I don’t know.’

Have you noticed how in life things always need doing. Just the daily necessities of taking care of ourselves call us to take action. Right now my stomach is saying, ‘Breakfast!’ and my thoughts are saying, ‘Hang in there! I just want to get this post edited and then…’ 😉

As much as we might like to think it’s possible, we can’t tie everything in our lives up with tidy little bows. When we believe we can, we get ourselves tied up in knots of anxiety.

But instead of focusing on all that wrapping and tying perfect bows, what if we pause to notice the gift that exists in each moment? Whatever our circumstances, whatever is going on, there is a gift here. Can we notice the bow itself, the pattern of the paper, the shape of the box, the colors, and the texture?

Let’s take our time as we unwrap this moment, as ordinary a moment as this may seem. Let’s really notice sensations, thoughts and emotions arising and falling away. Whatever is inside, we can give it this moment to unfold in its own way, to reveal itself, to allow ourselves a sense of wonder.

This gift is present in every ordinary moment. For example, next time you are standing in a checkout line, instead of succumbing to the impatience of getting past this experience so you can ‘get on with your life’, take a breath, tune in to physical sensations, and allow yourself to be present for the gift. Savor this little postcard from the intersection of humanity. What a gift to be alive and in community! Enjoy the exchange of words, practice kindness that is only possible when we slow down enough to be present.

These gifts are not are under someone else’s Christmas tree. We are not outside of life,  looking through the window, wishing it was ours. The gifts are offered in every moment of life as part of the direct experience of having a body-mind to experience it.

Often when we are busy tying things up in bows, we are striving to please someone else — a friend, a family member, a boss, a client, a work or volunteer community — and we get so caught up in wanting to provide perfection that we become tied up in knots and difficult to be around. What kind of gift is that?

Next time you are doing something for someone else, notice what is present in your experience as you endeavor. Is there ease? Or is there anxiety? Is there love? Or is there fear?

What could we put in the gift we are wrapping that could possibly be enjoyed by anyone if we do it with this sense urgency and unease?

The real gift we bring to the table is our ability to savor and appreciate the many gifts that are given in any moment. Even our most fundamental activities can be regarded in this way — not as demands on a rigorous to do list, but as the gift of simply being alive to experience the doing in a way that is less driven, creates less stress and more joy.

I know when I rush around as if my to do list is a whip being cracked on my back, the effort I make does not feel wise at all. I feel like a demanding whiny ingrate. ‘This is how I use the precious gift of life I’ve been given?’ I ask myself.

Then I feel worse, of course, because beating myself up about it is not very useful. So I do remember the practice. I pause. I sense in to notice where the tension is in my body. In my jaw? In my neck? Hmm. I notice other sensations as well, and by bringing my full attention to sensation I begin to release the tight knot I had been tying, thinking I was making a pretty bow.

Then I send myself some metta, loving-kindness, and some compassion. It’s okay. I resist the urge to get entangled in the name calling blame game that labels me ‘uptight’.

Sometimes it helps, when I feel the whole world is on my shoulders, to remind myself that this whole earth, is a tiny speck in a tiny universe, in the seemingly infinite cosmos. For some this might feel terrifying to recognize one’s personal insignificance in the grand scheme. For me it feels very restful. What a load off! Even if just speaking in earthly terms, there’s over six billion people on this planet. Surely I don’t have to ‘do it all’!

Isn’t living in the present moment, doing what needs to be done in a very present and loving way, the greatest gift I could give, to myself and others?

Sounds good. Let’s give it a try why don’t we? Let’s open the gift of this present moment. In every moment.

Think of your own to do list.
Now notice any physical sensations in your body, especially any tightening that might happen as you think about all you have to accomplish.
Let go of the thought of the to do list, and stay present with the sensations in the body.
There is that tightness, yes, but notice what else there is in this moment.
Close your eyes and sense into the overall energy in the body.
Notice temperature. Notice texture. Notice any sounds. Notice what you see — color, contrast of light and dark, patterns.
Allow this moment to be illuminated by your attention.
Notice thoughts and emotions as they arise, and see them as simply thoughts, simply emotions.
Rest in this state for as long as you like.

You may find that the tension in your body releases, that the inner struggle eases, and that there feels like a lot more room and time to do whatever needs to be done.

Then, if there is something on your to do list that stands out, see if you can let go of the end goal, the need to be done with it. Attend the task with kind attention. Feel your body as you do it. Feel the joy of simply being alive to move muscle or engage in mental activity in this way.

If you find tension arising, pause, let go of the goal, and return to the moment, this gift of a moment you are so joyfully unwrapping.