This is the second of an eight talk series on engaged mindfulness and compassion practices.
We began this second gathering of the Engaged Mindfulness Meditation group with a brief grounding practice. I invite you to listen to it (ends at minute 3.30) or read it below and gift yourself a few minutes of loving presence.
Find a comfortable posture, close your eyes or take on a soft gaze. Whatever makes you feel at ease. Take a few deep, relaxing breaths – breathing in through the nose, drawing the air all the way down into the belly and exhaling like a deep sigh. Do that a few more times and as you exhale visualize any tension in your body being released. Noticing yourself sitting, feeling your body contacting the chair, the floor. Knowing that you’re in the present moment. Your body is always present even when your mind is not. Seeing this moment of stillness as a gift to yourself, to your body, to your heart, and to your mind. Breathing in and breathing out. Taking this moment to check in with yourself. How are you feeling today? Seeing if a word or image arises in your mind that describes how you truly are right now. The poet, yung pueblo, writes, “courage + letting go + self love = a growing freedom.” Knowing that in this moment of stillness with your body present, you are cultivating a loving presence. And this truly is an act of courage.
In the previous talk, I shared this simple definition of mindfulness – the act of purposefully paying attention in a balanced and non-reactive way. As we practice, we may begin to realize how often we are not present as well as the ways in which we relate to our experience. Mindfulness meditation, both informal and formal practice, is a way of knowing and understanding ourselves. It “opens us to that which is unseen in our experience” (Jack Kornfield). You can think of this as a circle with a line through it, with our awareness being above the line and unawareness below the line. As we begin to tune in to ourselves, our field of awareness grows. We then begin to experience a sense of liberation or freedom because a deeper understanding provides us with more choice in the ways in which we engage in life.
A beautiful benefit of understanding ourselves more is that we begin to understand others more. We do not just practice for ourselves, we practice for others too. We begin to see the outcome of our practice in the way in which we engage with our families, our communities, and the world at large. Thich Nhat Hahn, a Zen monk and humanitarian, illustrates this point when he shares, “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” And the same is true for ourselves. As we begin to practice being present in a loving way, we begin to flourish. I like to use the analogy of the lotus. Perhaps you are familiar with the phrase No Mud No Lotus. The lotus grows out of mud, which we can think of as muckiness. Out of this muckiness blooms this beautiful flower. Right now or other times in your life, you may feel stuck in the mud, stuck in muckiness. It has been my experience and those of others I know that as we recognize and tenderly hold that stuck-ness with loving presence, we begin to grow and flourish. This is an act of courage – taking the time to tune in and listen to what is going on in the heart, mind and body – because we are accessing and opening to our vulnerability and that which is unseen.
Recently, I have been turning to the wisdom of Valarie Kaur, a civil rights activist and author, who recently published her first book See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love. She poses a deeply useful question, especially as it relates to our current social and political climate, “What if this is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” Through the challenges that we are all facing, through this stuck-ness or murkiness, we can birth something new. Like the lotus that comes out of the mud, there is hope, there is something beautiful that can come out of these challenges. The same is true for our inner lives.
We begin this exploration of our inner landscape by calming the mind and collecting our attention. As was mentioned in the previous talk, the role of anchor in meditation is a way of giving the mind an object of attention. As we tend to this anchor, we begin to see how our mind wanders. As we continue to return to our anchor over and over again, our minds begin to settle down. The thoughts are still there, but they are less demanding. We can compare this process to that of a snow globe. We shake up the globe and the glitter (the snow) moves wildly around. This represents the busyness of our minds. Once we stop shaking and the snow globe is still, over a little bit of time, the glitter settles down. This is true for our minds. As we practice, we gradually become less distracted. The point here is that we are training our minds to be less distracted. “As our minds become less distracted, we start feeling our bodies in a more direct and immediate way” (Joseph Goldstein). And this is essential to being present.
What is so interesting is that the capacity to be present is in our nature, yet we are more often on autopilot, constantly moving away from presence. Why does this happen? Our universal conditioning is to leave the present moment. When our experience is pleasant, we try to hold on to it. When our experience is unpleasant, we tend to pull away. Our survival mechanism is to control whereas our bodily experience is out of our control – we feel what we feel. The body is always present, but the mind is not. We tend to take refuge in the mind, our mental control tower. We find ourselves projecting into the future or ruminating about the past. Consequently, we experience a mind-body split, a disassociation between the mind and the body. This can be quite exhausting as it can cause fatigue and increase irritability, reactivity, and scatteredness, to name a few. Mindfulness helps bring us back to what we do have control over – experiencing the felt sense in the body and reigning in the wandering or obsessing mind.
A simple practice we can try to support the mind-body connection is PAUSING. Tara Brach, from whom I was first introduced to this practice, shares in her book Radical Acceptance, “Through the sacred art of pausing, we develop the capacity to stop hiding, to stop running away from our experience. We begin to trust in our natural intelligence, in our naturally wise heart, in our capacity to open to whatever arises.” I like the use of the word sacred because it encourages us to honor and respect our present experience whether it is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. As we press pause on the busyness of the mind, the doing mind, the obsessing mind, the wandering mind, we can tune in to our present experience.
I use this practice all the time, especially as a way to release my desire to control! One day this summer, I had an experience were I noticed I had this grip on how I wanted things to be that day. It was as if I was on the verge of an adult tantrum. My hands were clenched. I just wanted things to be a certain way. And I paused. I took a breath. I started to open and close my hands to connect with and access the wisdom of the body. Then, I was able to nurture my heart by asking, what is going? What is going on beneath this intense desire to control? I was able to inquire about the unmet needs that laid below my level of awareness. I was able to release my grip.
So we can pause and listen to the wisdom of the body. We can pause and find refuge in the breath. We can pause and kindly and curiously witness our thoughts. We can pause and feel what we feel without pulling away or gripping tightly. As a result, we begin to interrupt our habitual patterns by opening to what has been unseen in our experience.
In the previous talk and meditation, we began to practice the art of pausing as we explored the sensations in the body. This next meditation will use the body as our object of meditation so that we can practice witnessing our thoughts. Before moving into the meditation, here are a few points about thoughts. Mindfulness meditation is not about stopping thoughts. This is physically impossible. The point is to become a witness. Dr. Dan Siegel describes this as being both the spectator and player, the observer and the observed. We become the spectator observing the player on the field (the thought in the mind). We witness without judgment, without expectation. As we practice this attitude of kind curiosity, it become a part of how we engage with others. Remember, we do not just practice for ourselves, we practice for others, too.
As we begin to sit and settle the body and mind, we soon notice how prolific thoughts are. They are like popcorn, popping up all the time. Thoughts can be superficial or benign like adding to the shopping list, planning a to do list. Other times, thoughts be powerful, even malignant, like something’s wrong with me because x did not happen, or I am a failure because (fill in the blank). Over time as we pause and tune in, we may realize how loyal we are to certain thoughts. As we begin to observe these thoughts with kindness and curiosity, especially the ones that are malignant, they become less personal. And we begin to see the emotions beneath those thoughts, bringing that which is unseen into our field of awareness. I am experiencing disappointment is different than I am a disappointment. I am experiencing stress is different than I am falling a part, what’s wrong with me? In the weeks that follow, we will explore this dynamic more as we begin practicing compassion.
Let us practice listening with kind curiosity and loving presence (begins at minute 16.40)