We had a rich discussion in class this week on our relationship to our bodies, and especially about continually coming to terms with the changes that occur as the body is affected by a combination of gravity, time, sun exposure, stress and health care. More and more the mirror belies the person we feel we are. My mother removed all the mirrors in her house except a small one on the back of the bathroom door, and she only used it to make sure nothing was stuck in her teeth. She had sailed for four years and her Anglo-Irish skin was so deeply wrinkled from sun exposure that she couldn’t handle the sight of herself! She was a lively vibrant woman, regardless of her wrinkles, but every time she got a glimpse of that ‘hag’ she was dragged down.
Have you ever had that feeling? You get a glimpse of yourself in a shop window and wonder who that is? Not you! Or have you ever been out in the evening having a wonderful time and then you excuse yourself to go to the lady’s room where the lights are harsh and you return to the party chastened by that cruel sight of yourself in the mirror? As a kindness to each other we should all make sure our bathroom lighting is soft enough to make any guest look as beautiful as she feels inside. Now that’s a good hostess!
The class seemed to be in agreement that the numbers we are awarded on our birthdays seem less and less a fit to our ideas of who we are. But why would a number match? As children the age number was a pretty predictable indicator of size and behavior of a majority of kids. But the bigger the number, the less predictable it is, because so much of how our bodies age has to do with how we treat them. My mother died at 73 of emphysema, the same age her mother died. They both smoked. My mother’s younger sister was convinced she would also die at 73, a family tradition. But she never smoked and she lives on in pretty good health and happier than ever at the age of 88 in a loving relationship with a much younger man.
This week my youngest granddaughters turn three and five, and the number is such a big deal. A friend of mine taught the older one the Barbara Streisand song ‘I’m five, I’m five, I’m a big girl now, I’m five!’ and she was thrilled to be such a big girl. But for us by now the thrill of the number is gone. The older we get the less that number means, and our attachment to it really doesn’t serve us. Let’s celebrate each birthday as the anniversary of our birth, with gratitude for the great gift of life. But let’s let go of the numbers game that is such an inaccurate a reflection of reality.
The practice of mindfulness can help us take care of our bodies in a way that supports health and strength. I’ll never forget when a doctor told me ‘as a kindness to your heart you could lose some weight.’ That was such a wonderful way to put it, and as a result I have lost a pound a month over the past eighteen months without any real effort except remembering to be kinder to my heart.
Being mindful we can notice when we are holding two contrary opinions. One student in class recognized that she was grateful for her body enabling her to experience life but at the same time unhappy with her aging body. Such skillful noticing! What contrary pairings do you notice about your body? Can you hold them up to the light of your awareness with compassion? Not making yourself wrong? Just noticing, and maybe marveling at the complexity of the human mind?
Wisdom from one student’s grandmother: ‘There are only two ages: alive and dead.’
Of course we all die, but our routes to that common destination are very different. My aunt’s belief that she would die at 73 is a good example of how we make assumptions based on what we have observed of other people’s experience. But we will have different experiences because we are in different bodies, and even if we have a similar experience we will experience it in our own unique way. If we’re raging about the unfairness of it, if we’re in denial, if we are doing everything we can to escape from it, we’ll no doubt suffer. But here we are practicing opening to whatever the present moment brings, and who knows? Maybe this practice will serve us well whatever we face in the future.
In the group there was also a collective nostalgia for the young girls we once were. But then there was a recognition that that little girl is still here, still part of who we are, still alive and well. And this reminded me of my recent intention to include all of who I am in everything I do. Leave no part of me out, not that little girl, not that young woman, and not the old woman yet to be. Her wisdom has often guided me at difficult turns, and I certainly don’t intend to deny her now that I see her appearing in the mirror.
When we are fully present, conscious of the fleeting precious gift that is this moment, we are less likely to think that having a ‘perfect’ body is going to make us more lovable. We can see how obsessing about supposed imperfections and spending time and money grasping at youth is a sure way to isolate ourselves. Through mindfulness we activate compassion, both for ourselves and others, creating true loving connection. And much more fun!
When I really began to have a regular practice of meditation, I noticed a shift in my awareness as I started to sense more deeply my surroundings and perceive the nature of my thoughts and emotions. While driving, I saw how I would get frustrated by the lack of manners or even common sense of fellow drivers, how easily I would get unsettled, letting their action throw me into a mental tizzy. My regular drive to and from home went by a hospital, and it seemed there were even more unskillful drivers there. One day it dawned on me that the person who had just cut me off in their big hurry was probably rushing to the hospital because his wife was giving birth or his father was dying. This recognition created a sense of compassion within me that had not been there before. I had both given birth at that hospital and had sat at my mother’s deathbed there. I knew how mindless I can be, especially when distraught. (In retrospect I am shocked that I even got behind the wheel, but we tend to see our cars as extensions of our bodies, not as the potentially fatal metal projectiles we so casually hurl through space.)
That recognition shifted something within me. It didn’t take long before I understood that drivers anywhere could be going through anything. I remember thinking that someone could be driving extra slowly because they have a wedding cake in the backseat. I began to allow for the possibility that there was a lot going on in the lives of other drivers. So instead of getting upset with them, their unskillfulness activated a sense of compassion and a desire to send them metta, loving-kindness.
Mindfulness and Meditation
In the past decade the word ‘mindfulness’ has become associated with Jon Kabat Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, and to a degree ‘mindfulness’ has been used instead of ‘meditation.’ But the two words are not interchangeable. Meditation is a practice done in all spiritual traditions in one form or another. Jon Kabat Zinn studied in the Vipassana Buddhist tradition, so it’s not surprising that his program teaches a similar form: with eyes closed, sitting, focused on the physical sensation of the breath.
So then why didn’t he just call it meditation? At the time the word was too associated with religious practice for those in the scientific and medical communities he was working with to feel comfortable, so he called it mindfulness and proved its value to the point that it is taught in hospitals, schools and prisons. Since then the word ‘meditation’ has been better understood, that it is not inherently religious and can certainly include secular practice, so you might hear or read a news story about meditation being taught in schools (with a resulting ‘15% increase in math test scores’ I just read in one article) and there is no concern that people will think religion is being taught in school. It is a simple practice anyone can do at any age.
Mindfulness is what arises out of the regular practice of meditation: an ability to be present, noticing with what American poet Mary Oliver calls ‘convivial’ attention. She is describing her attention as she is out in nature opening her creative mind to write, but it perfectly applies to mindfulness because it is alert, non-judgmental, friendly but not sticky.
The regular practice of meditation leads to mindfulness, and mindfulness has so many benefits that we continue to meditate regularly. On the rare occasion when I have gone a few weeks without meditating, I see how mindfulness begins to slip away, and with it creativity, compassion, peace of mind, skillfulness in relationships and a sense of gratitude for being alive. So meditation is a lifelong practice for me, the first thing I do every morning. I teach it to share the value of it, but also to remind myself to keep meditating. How easy it is to forget that it is definitely worth putting in the regular time training the mind to return to the present moment again and again with great compassion.
Meditation is the practice that naturally brings about mindfulness, but we can also ‘practice’ mindfulness throughout the day, whatever we are doing. When we are driving and we come to a stop light, we can think of it as a reminder to pause our thinking-planning-worrying and focus on the experience of driving, feeling our hands on the wheel, being alert. One student in class said that she is currently taking a California state online refresher driving course and that the main focus of the course is on being mindful, present and focused on the task at hand. Makes sense!
In line at the grocery store, instead of being impatient to get done and on our way, we can practice being mindful, not just noticing what is going on but noticing with compassion. We can question our assumption that we are in a hurry, that we don’t have time to ‘wait’ — oh, how we hate that word! So let’s not ‘wait’! Instead let’s be present and mindful and enjoy this moment of humanity. Here are a few other creative ways to be present in that line:
If you enjoy looking at paintings, see the painting before you — the bright colors, the figures, the contrasts and values.
If you read novels, in this situation there are a whole cast of characters, each with enough life experience to fill many novels, people just like you with all their worries and concerns. You don’t need to make up stories about them, only to understand that there are stories there, each one creating the causes and conditions which influence their actions, just as yours do.
Sense gratitude as you stand there with your basket full of bounty you are able to afford.
There are SO many ways we can experience any moment. Why choose the one that has us irritated and complaining? Why not take the opportunity to be kind, to smile, to wish someone well? Isn’t that the world you’d rather live in? Well it’s not some other place. It’s right here if you choose to notice it and participate with loving-kindness.
This moment, just as it is, is the one and only gift we are given. How we relate to it, what we do with it, sets the pattern of our lives.
In class we discussed some of the practical benefits of mindfulness:
We are more skillful and less prone to accidents because accidents tend to happen when we aren’t paying attention.
We are much better able to listen to other people and to hear what they say without the filters of defensiveness. We are really listening, hearing the nuances. We are not busy formulating what we plan to say next to further push our own agenda or make points.
We eat with more appreciation and the ability to notice when we are full; and to recognize when our desire to eat something doesn’t spring from hunger. As an example, when I am being mindful I can notice that my sweet tooth is aptly named because the sensation is focused in my mouth. Since it is not my stomach that is egging me on to eat that piece of candy, I can find a way to sweeten the taste in my mouth, like sucking on a breath mint or brushing my teeth. Eating is the area where I have the greatest challenge to be mindful, so I celebrate even small mindful miracles.
We’ll continue the discussion next week, because there are so many benefits to being mindful and recognizing them helps us to be consistent in our practice of meditation. So stay tuned, and meditate!
When we spend time considering all of this, we are definitely in the territory of Wise View. Don’t get too excited, but a sighting is increasingly likely.