Why Practice Mindfulness & Compassion During These Challenging Times

Audio of this post. Useful if you want guidance during the reflections and meditations.

Welcome! Thank you for joining me as I share with you some reasons to practice mindfulness and compassion during this time of global crisis and societal change. Throughout this talk, we will engage in brief and simple practices that can  be used immediately.

To move into a space of exploration, let us begin with a simple grounding practice where we focus on touch points (feet and hands) to anchor us in the moment and calm our sympathetic nervous system. This practice will support you as we engage in the heaviness of the topic at hand.

Let us begin…

Please find a comfortable posture with your feet on the floor and hands on your lap. Gently close your eyes or soften your gaze. Whatever makes you feel at ease. Taking a deep breath in through your nose and exhaling out through the mouth, like a deep sigh. Now letting your breath find its own rhythm in and out through the nose. Bring your attention to your feet touching the floor.  Notice your right foot touching the floor, now your left foot. Taking a deep breath in and out. Now bring your attention to your hands. Wiggle your fingers. Notice your right hand and what it feels like, now your left. Taking another deep breath in and out. Now shifting your attention to where your body contacts the chair. Knowing that you’re right here, safe and grounded in this moment. Taking another deep breath in and out. Noticing how your body feels right now, in this moment. Did anything shift from when we first began? And when you’re ready, flutter your eyes open and come back into your surroundings.

You can use this simple mindfulness practice any time during the day and even before bed. I have found it particularly helpful when I am agitated, restless, overwhelmed or lost in thought or reactivity. 

Just the other day, I guided my daughter in using this practice on our way to school. It was her first full day back (we currently are in a hybrid model – where kids are home one day working and in school the other day) and she was feeling intense anxiety, so much so that she felt nauseous. Together, we focused on our feet touching the car floor and our body contacting the seat. These few seconds helped calm her nervous system enough that her stomach settled and she was able to exit the car with a smile. 

So why practice mindfulness and compassion right now? Well, we (individually and collectively) are grappling with multiple crises and a society that is transforming before our eyes. 

This reality can be scary. And yet, I also believe, along with many others, that there is a lot of hope. Perhaps, this time is calling us to remember what is important and find new ways to express it.

First, mindfulness in its simplest definition is the deliberate act of paying attention to the present moment without expectations or judgment. Compassion arises from our natural inclination to care for and connect with others, including ourselves. It is the act of recognizing suffering, the willingness to turn toward it and the motivation to relieve it. 

To quote Sharon Salzberg, one of my most admired meditation teachers, “In order to do anything about the suffering of the world, we must have the strength to face it without turning away.”

Mindfulness and compassion practices do just that. Together, like two wings of a bird, these practices help us cultivate and activate inner strength and hope while revealing our capacity to hold our fear, anxiety and anger (and many other intense emotions) – not ignore them, cover them up or stuff them away. 

These emotions are completely natural. It’s the way our bodies try to protect us. 

As we learn to become more aware of them, especially how they arise in the body, we can acknowledge them with kindness insomuch that they do not possess us or become our lens, because this narrows our attention. When our attention has blinders on, we tend to react rather than respond skillfully to our experiences, thus potentially harming others and ourselves. 

When in the car with my daughter, and she shared her anxiety, I noticed the physical sensation of anxiety arise in my body. Fearful thoughts entered my mind. Because of my practice, within seconds I recognized what was occurring in my body and mind, was able to allow them to be there; in essence, holding them like one might hold an injured baby bird, so that I could respond compassionately to my daughter rather than reacting out of my fear. 

These practices cultivate such inner strength and resources, even an inner refuge, so that we can respond from a place that not only reflects what we care about, how we want to live and show up in the world, but as Jack Kornfield, a renowned meditation teacher, says, “to connect with something greater and deeper than the storms that are swirling around” us. 

I have come to believe that we can stand in the eye of the storm as we take action to change the conditions that created the storm. This is how mindfulness and compassion practices are serving me during this most challenging time. 

Recently, I attended a virtual book launch for Sharon Salberg’s new book Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World” where she posed these two questions:

  1. What’s still true in this time of uncertainty, crisis, and grief?
  2. What can I rely on that is fundamental?

I was moved by these questions. And what I realized is that I rely on my breath to anchor me in the present moment. I can pause and know I am breathing without any effort. In the midst of the chaos I am witnessing and often feeling, I find stability in both my breath and my body like feeling my feet on the floor, and taking a deep breath in and out. My partner will ask at times, “Why are you sighing?” And my response is, “Because I am calming my sympathetic nervous system and coming back into presence.” 

Sharon’s answer is love. She shares that “we are not defined by isolation and fear, but rather wisdom, generosity and love.”  This is a beautiful reflection of these practices.

Mindfulness cultivates our inner wisdom through our present moment awareness. We can notice when we get lost in thought or hijacked by intense emotions, as well as remember what is fundamental to us.

Compassion opens up the heart, accessing it’s wisdom, and cultivating both our generosity and love. Increasing our courage to turn toward suffering and try to ease it. Seeing more clearly our shared common humanity – that we all want to be safe, secure, happy, healthy, to belong and to feel purpose.

So let’s reflect for a moment…What is still true for you right now in this time of uncertainty, crisis and grief? What can you rely on that is fundamental? 

Perhaps it’s simply feeling your feet on the ground and knowing you’re still breathing; maybe it’s the smile of your child, or the wagging tail of your dog. Maybe it’s friendship. The answers are personal and endless.

Dr. Rick Hanson, whose work connects neuroscience, psychology and mindfulness, writes about growing the good in our brains – decreasing the stress of negative experience and increasing the positive in the mind. He suggests when we are experiencing a positive moment, to pause and soak it in for 20-30 seconds. This not only feels good in the moment, it grows new neural circuits in the brain, thus hardwiring happiness. 

In other words, as we take in the “good” that does exist even when it appears there’s none, we move more quickly out of the grips of fear, anxiety and anger towards hope, peace and action. 

Pause here and think upon one small, perhaps brief, positive experience you had today. Close your eyes and allow the memory of it to warm your body like rays of the sun touching your face.

Mindfulness and compassion practices cultivate our courage to be with reality, cultivate the love we need to hold our own and others’ suffering, the resiliency to weather our emotions and experiences and the agency to act.

Let us practice one again…

Settling back into our bodies. Taking a deep breath in and out. And feeling our body relax. Closing your eyes if that feels comfortable for you. I invite you to place a hand or hands over your heart center. This tender touch is another way of easing our nervous system and allowing our hearts to open up. Turning your attention to how your heart feels right now. See if you can make room for whatever you are feeling. Allow it to arise without judgment. Now think about someone or some place that makes you smile or feel cared about. Allow the warmth of this person or place to grow in your heart, to spread throughout your body. Invite whatever feelings you’re experiencing into this kind and gentle space of love. Seeing if you can allow these feelings to bask in love’s warmth. If you feel resistance, that is ok. See if you can be gentle and allow your feeling to be just as it needs to be right now. Think about holding that feeling with tenderness as if you were holding an injured baby bird.This is mindfulness. This is compassion. And when you’re ready, flutter your eyes open and return to your surroundings.

Meditation is an invitation. There are no right or wrong ways to experience these practices. And yet, to benefit from them, we need to deliberately practice.

First we can meditate formally like we just did to form new habits in how we relate to our experience. This is especially useful during challenging times like these. We can more easily access these skills and respond to our experiences from a more wise and centered place.

We can also practice informally when we are moving throughout our day, such as scrolling our phone and noticing what is arising in our bodies and minds, sitting with an upset child and calling upon our compassion, soaking in the joy of finally seeing a friend or loved one in person. 

Sharon Salzberg says, “We practice in order to cultivate a sense of agency, to understand that a range of responses is open to us. We practice to remember to breathe, to have the space in the midst of adversity to recall our values, what we really care about–and to find support in our inner strength, and in one another.”

If you would like to explore mindfulness and compassion more, I invite you to join my free, drop-in virtual meditation group. Go to my website www.growingourvoice.com for details.

I leave you with a quote from the late John Lewis. May it inspire you as much as it has inspired me. 

“So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.” 

Thank you for your presence and may you be happy, healthy, safe and at ease.

Showing Up For Life: Daily Intention Setting

Today, February 19th, marks six months since I started writing down a daily intention. The truth behind the maxim “what we practice gets stronger” has moved from intellect to embodiment for me. In August, my daughter came across a a 5 year memory journal at a gift shop. I had been exploring the power of intention setting as an important aspect of mindfulness practice and decided at that moment to commit to setting a daily intention.

How do I want to show up today?

My first intention was inspired by this Rumi quote that popped up in my daily gratitude app. Tuning in for a few minutes every morning and contemplating how I want to show up for this life is liberating. It is a deliberate and meaningful act of courage, compassion and connection. Over these past six months, this practice has deepened my awareness of how my actions reflect my values. This further strengthens my inner resources to be forgiving of my imperfections and to support my effort to contribute to an inclusive and just world. Tuning in so that I can be truthful of what is happening in my body, heart and mind encourages me to be open to how my perspectives and interactions affect my immediate world (family and friends) and the larger society. It is an act of embracing change and seeing clearly when we are resisting change. Clinging to the status quo in our inner and outer lives becomes a self-imposed prison. Setting a daily intention can uncover the keys to freedom.

Intention Setting: A Brief Yet Powerful Meditation Practice

Every morning, I take a few minutes to tune in to what is happening inside, in my relationships and in the world. Usually, I will sit in a quiet place with my eyes closed. I will take a few deep breaths to help me settle into the space. I will notice the weight of my body sitting and usually place my hands over my heart center. I find this gentle touch helps me ease into being honest with what is occurring in my inner and outer life. I will ask myself, “How do I want to show up today? How can I support the living of my values?” I will notice the sensations in my body as they will reveal feelings and emotions that I may have ignored. I will consider any interactions I already had that morning and may have throughout the day. I often start my intention with the words, “May I…” I try to dig deep and come up with something expansive and inclusive. It can be anything you want. Some days it is super simple – May I be at ease. Other days it is more expansive – May I be present in all conversations. May I bring a loving awareness to all my experiences. May I pause periodically to help me remember. Sometimes I am repeating the same intention with different words. It is unique and personal to you! It only needs to take a couple of minutes. I write it down because I like reading it out loud to etch it into my heart and mind. I also enjoy looking back at my intentions. It further integrates my effort to live my values and be the change I want to see in the world. That is the essence of this brief meditation – to be the change we want to see in the world. Our world needs us to show up!

[E]xpanding our ability to feel comfortable in our own skin and in the world, so that we can be there as much as possible for other people, is a very worthy way to spend a human life.

Pema Chodron, from Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World

I encourage you to try setting a daily intention even for just a week. See the effects. You can decide when, where and how to do this. At minimum, this will give you a couple of minutes of stillness and practice in listening to your heart. What matters to you? How do you want to live your life? Intention is the beginning. It is the planting of a seed. Water it and watch what grows.

Meditation On Vacation With Kids

My family and I have begun our first day of vacation. I have always found maintaining my meditation practice on vacation with kids to be particularly challenging. This vacation I have vowed to meditate every morning. Well, if you saw me this morning, you would have seen someone quietly sitting on the hotel couch with eyes closed and back upright and relaxed. How peaceful she looks, you might say, just like an Instagram photo. If only you could have seen and heard what was going on in my body and mind. The kids were wrestling and screeching, the television was on with Sunday news shows and my husband was in the shower. Previous to sitting, I tried to get my kids to pack up their belongings and get dressed to no avail. My grip on controlling my environment and those in it’s vicinity was tight. Irritation was moving through my body at lightening speed. The previous day was a long travel day and we still had a few hours to go until our final destination. I was tired and fell into my habitual response of “I want things stable, on time, and my way.” Who am I kidding? It never works out that way. Nonetheless, I felt this desire flowing through my body and the tone of my words were not reflective of my intention to be kind, flexible and understanding. I knew meditation was necessary to help me relate to all that is happening with this intention.

So there I sat for 20 minutes in silence, almost. Housekeeping knocked on the door and my son wanted to share something about a video game he was playing. How is one to meditate in these circumstances? My kids are not babies, so I can say, “Give me this time, I’m meditating,” and they usually leave me be. As I sat, I focused on my body sitting, my in and out breath, and noting every noise that took away my attention. About half way through I started to feel more relaxed and the phrase “release your grip” arose in my mind. It’s a phrase I’ll repeat when I notice that I’m in inflexible control mode. Prior to all this practice, I would have lost my sh**.

As we individuals grow in resilience–as we become better at staying conscious and not losing heart–we will be able to remain strong in challenging conditions for the long haul.

Pema Chodron, Welcoming the Unwelcome

Now, I won’t claim that the next hour or so after meditating was peaceful and chill. Perhaps if I were alone it would have been, but I was in close proximity with two kids and a spouse. However, meditating did give me time to tune in and consider how I was responding, how I wanted to show up for my family, and just enough time to sit without needing to do anything (even if only for 15 minutes since the first 5 were interrupted). This reprieve supported the integration of my intention to be kind, flexible and understanding with my family and myself. It helped to shift my relationship to my emotions so that I would be more likely to show up for the day in the way I intended.

It is not always easy to find time to meditate with our busy schedules and the demands of our family, but the effort is worth it. Even if you have to meditate in the bathroom so no one bothers you – your body, mind, heart and family will reap the benefits of kind awareness and compassionate response.

Mindfulness, as described by Frank Ostaseki in his book The Five Invitations, “illuminates how our relationship to our experience can either cause suffering or cultivate wisdom. This enables us to nurture a different, more helpful response the next time we encounter a challenging situation, person or thought. It helps us to remain calm and grounded when in the midst of an argument with a child, neighbor, boss, or partner, when we confront illness; when we face loss. We can draw on our cultivated tranquility and access a wiser inner guidance.” I needed to access that wise inner guidance and will continue to throughout this vacation.

May you find the time, as brief as it may be, to cultivate mindfulness so that you can be present for and respond to your experience with kindness and compassion.

Offering Compassionate Presence

Compassion is not passive. It is a recognition of suffering – the quivering of the heart – followed by the motivation to do something about it. Yet, there are times we cannot take away the suffering. Think about someone you know who was upset, sad or frustrated. You recognized their suffering and the feeling of wanting to ease it. What did you do? Did it help?

Often times we want to fix the problem, offer advice, or speak in a way that we think will remove the suffering. These actions can be useful, but sometimes they are futile. This can leave us feeling helpless. Offering our presence, simply being with the person as they move through their suffering is often the most meaningful action we can take. How does one offer presence?

First, as you recognize another’s suffering and your pull to ease it, pause and notice where you feel this compassion arise in your body. Also, see if you can recognize any feelings of discomfort in recognizing another’s suffering. Becoming aware of our physical responses to suffering, our own and other’s, will allow us to be more present. It is normal to feel triggered by another’s suffering. If you want to be present for another, do not deny what is happening within you. You do not have to share this with the person you are trying to support, as your intent is to be there for them. You can bring a kind and loving awareness and reflect upon it more later- I am feeling tightness in my stomach. Let me breathe and focus on this person right now. Later, check in with yourself so not to deny your experience, but to deepen your awareness and compassion for yourself.

Second, listen to the person even if there is silence. Let them know they are not alone – I am here for you. You are not alone. What do you need? If the person does not know, then take their hand or offer a hug, or simply sit silently. I find imagining that I am breathing out loving-kindness from the center of my heart supports my offering of presence and supports any discomfort that may arise within me.

Offering compassion through our presence takes courage. It asks us to admit the truth that we cannot remove all suffering but we can hold it with tenderness. This nurtures connection sending the message that even in the midst of our suffering we are not alone and that we are worthy of love. We all have this capacity to offer compassionate presence. It is a practice worthy of our time.

The more we fully offer our attention, the more deeply we realize that what matters most in life is being kind. As we open to the vulnerability of others, the veil of separation falls away, and our natural response is to reach out a helping hand.

Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance

“What if this right now was enough?”

“What if this right now was enough?” is the question Anne Cushman, one of the four amazing mindfulness meditation teachers leading the 7 day silent retreat, asked as we began the week. This question became a seed planted in my heart, cultivated through 7 days of embodied mindfulness practices. The question became my guide through the weeds and the clearings of my silent retreat journey.

So what does this question even mean? Well, that depends on you! Let’s try a brief experiment. Find a comfortable position where you can remain alert and relaxed for about 2 minutes. Take a couple of deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. When you’re done, breathe naturally. Close your eyes, softly. Now ask yourself – what am I feeling in my body? Perhaps you are feeling tension, tingling, pulsating, tightness, etc. See if you can be a witness to the sensation, allowing it to be there without your mind trying to change it. Now ask yourself – what am I believing about myself or my life right now? Allow whatever images or words to arise. Again, trying to be a witness to your experience. Now ask yourself – what if this moment, with these sensations and beliefs, were enough? See what happens as you feel into this question…

Throughout the retreat I experienced moments of peace and awe, deep sadness and flashbacks to a childhood traumatic experience, and awareness of some habitual ways I respond to life. Each time I found myself noticing the moment, regardless of it being pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, I asked myself, what if this right now was enough? This question challenged me to truly experience the moment and remember that the moment changes and so do my experiences of it.

It was extremely hard to accept the moment, especially when it was unpleasant. Nonetheless, I was committed to trying and as I continued to open to the moment using this question as a guide, I began to release my grip on the moment. Like so many, I want constant stability in every aspect of life, which is simply impossible. Instability is a part of life, an essential aspect of being human. We have all learned ways, knowingly and unknowingly, to cope with this truth. And when I sit quietly for a moment and feel into this question, I get a little closer to accepting the reality of instability along with the truth of its impermanence. I begin to cease blaming myself and begin to uncover the unskillful ways I respond to this human reality. For example, as I meditated during the week, I noticed my mind going into planning mode. As I held this with a loving awareness, I noticed that underneath this planning mode was a striving mind. What was I striving for? Because I had so much time to settle into stillness and quiet (this is the beauty and challenge of silent retreats), I was able to connect the feelings associated with this striving mind with past experiences of trying to control the instability of life. My mind kept “striving for” external accomplishments so that I could feel a certain way (i.e., successful, significant, worthy, etc.).

What if this right now was enough? Yes, what if my life just as it is right now was enough? Is this not all that I have…this moment? What if I could even for the moment release my grip and let myself just be without judgment? With a deep breath in and out, I feel lighter. Ah, I feel a moment of peace.

Peace is This Moment Without Judgment by Dorothy Hunt

Do you think peace requires an end to war?
Or tigers eating only vegetables?
Does peace require an absence from
your boss, your spouse, yourself?…
Do you think peace will come some other place than here?
Some other time than Now?
In some other heart than yours? 

Peace is this moment without judgment.
That is all. This moment in the Heart-space
where everything that is is welcome.
Peace is this moment without thinking
that it should be some other way,
that you should feel some other thing,
that your life should unfold according to your plans. 

Peace is this moment without judgment,
this moment in the heart-space where
everything that is is welcome.

Trippin’ Over Rocks – A Poem

Day after day
Trippin’ over rocks
Sometimes I forgot
My own two feet.
So I stand up tall
Touching the Earth
Rooted deep
Like an ancient oak tree
In search of stability.

Truth be told –
I keep trippin’ over rocks
Day after day
The mind forsaking me.
So I slow my pace
Take a break from the race
To tend to each step
In search of awakening.

Yet, I keep trippin’ over rocks
On a path
Envisioned in the past,
A conditioned mind
Keeping me blind.
This time,
I listen to the wind
As it wrestles through the leaves
Of the rooted oak tree
Breathing in the wisdom
To let this search be.

For a moment I feel free
Skippin’ over rocks
Breathing a sigh of relief
Ah, my life is finally at ease!

Then it happens again,
Trippin’ over rocks
A deep wound bringing me
To my hands and knees.
Blurry eyed I may be
I still notice a sapling
Pushing through the dirt
And I laugh loudly
Ah, the insanity!

Picking up a rock
I hold it tenderly
And thank the Earth for the insight
It continues to bestow upon me.

The Echo of Kindness

Standing at the edge of the mountain
Two hands cupped around my mouth,
Where do I belong? I shout.
Right here! The echo returns.
What is my purpose? I call back.
To love! The echo sings
As the chirp of the birds,
The rustling of the trees,
The dance of the clouds
Gently move my hands from my mouth to over my heart.

The clouds form into pictures of my loved ones, my friends, my neighbors, my community, my country, the Earth.
As I stand there still, I know I am not alone.
I know what I have to do.
With hands over my heart, I walk down the mountain
Into the bustling city
Smiling at every person I pass.
And when a smile is returned, I hear the echo of kindness
Become louder and louder inside and out.

The gesture may be small,
It may seem imperfect,
It may even be rejected.

Nonetheless, we must be courageous
And open our hearts, over and over again.
For each offering cultivates a connection between the hearts of others,
And the heart of the Earth.

And the echo of kindness will be heard around the world. 

Written by Wendy Heckert

Busy Mind, No Time? Try the Toasting Waffles Meditation.

Every morning my son loves to eat toasted waffles. It takes about 6 minutes for these frozen waffles to be ready for consumption. Some days I find myself standing there, gulping my coffee trying to wake up, zoning out or micro-managing everything. It dawned on me the other day that these 6 minutes are an untapped opportunity to practice mindful meditation!

So a couple of times this week, I stood next to the toaster oven with my eyes closed and my hands on my heart center (a tender touch can be so relaxing, especially when we feel frantic), and focused on my breath. Of course my mind wandered. I noticed I was planning what to do next or that my son was being real slow at getting dressed. Nonetheless, I was committed to using this waffle toasting time to practice mindfulness of the breath. Every time I noticed my mind begin to wander, I noted, “Planning, planning,” and then returned to my breath. I attempted to anchor my attention in the rise and fall of my chest as my hands remained on my heart center. I returned my attention to my breath over and over within those 6 minutes. The key was to remember and return with kindness, without judgment (I stink at meditating, my mind is crazy busy, or I am wasting precious time).

The results have been interesting. Not only do I move through my morning with less anxiety, my interactions with my children become easier. My expectations become less about what I want in order to lessen my anxiety, and more about supporting my children’s autonomy in caring for themselves and preparing for school. When I engage in my waffle meditation, my family’s morning becomes more pleasant. These 6 minutes have become a gift for myself and my family.

Meditation is challenging at times, especially when we first begin, because it goes against our habitual ways of relating to our feelings, thoughts and emotions. Our minds are busy. We have long to-do lists, demands of family and work, and information coming at us from our phones dinging non-stop and other devices reminding us there’s more to be done, more news to digest. Who has the time to pause and breathe, even for the duration of waffles toasting? You do! We do! And our well-being depends on it.

In meditation, the practice of calming, resting, and dwelling happily in the present moment can be difficult at first because our minds are always racing. The more you try to stop your racing mind, the more it resists. Mindfulness is not meant to suppress or get rid of the racing mind, but simply to recognize its presence.

Thich Nhat Hahn

Why would anyone want to sit quietly and experience the pinball nature of the mind? When we pause, even for a minute, and notice with gentle curiosity where our attention is and the quality of that attention, we experience the present. The present is all that truly exists, yet most often we are attending to the past or projecting into the future. While reflection and goal setting is helpful and necessary at times, tending to the present is essential for the well-being of ourselves, our relationships, our families, the workplace and society. Being aware of what is happening in the present as it relates to our thoughts, emotions, physiology, etc., with a gentle curiosity opens up space for us to choose how we want to respond or relate to the experience. We break away from our habitual conditioned responses, which can often cause more pain and suffering. At the very least, it provides a brief reprieve from our frenetic lifestyles.

So, you know you have a busy mind. And, you have no idea when you could fit in meditation. Well, try a version of the toasting waffle meditation every day for a week. Choose an activity or two in which you engage daily like brewing coffee or tea, heating up your lunch, waiting for the water to heat up in the shower, etc., as a time to pause and meditate. This may only be for 2 minutes. That’s ok. Just do it EVERY DAY! Anchor your attention on the in-flow and out-flow of the breath or sensations in the body, such as the feeling of your feet on the ground. As you anchor your attention over and over again, just notice without expectations or evaluation where your attention is and how the body feels. The results are worth it!

Here are some tips to help anchor in your breath.

Carried by a River of Kindness

The inner critic, who lives inside all of us, can be quite pushy. My inner critic has become tamer as I deepen my mindfulness and compassion practice. While she may not bully me all day long anymore, her claws still attempt to wound me at times.

Sharon Salzberg teaches that, “Mindfulness helps us get better at seeing the difference between what’s happening and the stories we tell ourselves.” For me, the story I heard through the voice of my inner critic dug so deep, I buckled over with suffering. What happened afterwards is a testament to the benefits of mindfulness as well as the importance of loving and compassionate friendships.

Here is the story…I sat at my computer, pulled up Facebook and came across someone’s post that unleashed my inner critic. Sound familiar? Instead of experiencing joy for this person’s success, I found myself in an old storybook, the one I have been trying to toss away. The story is about a woman who has never quite measured up even though she tries. The voice whispers, “Perhaps you do not try hard enough. Perhaps you are innately mediocre. Perhaps you are a victim of your idiocy. Perhaps you should just accept that you are unworthy and give up.” And on and on, the voice repeats harshly all the doubts, all the fears, all the stories of unworthiness that have held me hostage throughout my life.

Yet, this time the opening of this sad story book was different. I did not try to stop it from opening, try to stop the critical voice from speaking. As I sat in my chair with my hands over my heart, I went through the first three steps of RAIN: Recognize what is going on; Allow the experience to be just as it is as this gives entry to transform; Investigate with interest and care, What am I believing? Where am I feeling this in my body?

I opened up to the painful physical sensations that I felt in my stomach, in my chest, and in my face. I listened to the harsh words as a way to understand what I was believing about myself and about my life. I allowed myself to feel the sadness that underlies this story without judging myself or the story (I should not be feeling this, etc.). Judgment would have only fueled the fiery tongue of my inner critic and kept me stuck in this story.

When the downward spiral of judging and misunderstanding is stopped even for a brief time, it becomes possible to recognize the unconscious beliefs and feelings that lie behind the problem. Such insight naturally leads to making wiser choices.

Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance

So what about the the “N” of RAIN – Nurture? This time I saw the three faces of my dear CCT teacher friends with whom I have engaged in a weekly Zoom meeting for the last 8 months. While they were not present physically, I heard their words of encouragement, saw the love on their faces, felt embraced by their compassion. I have come to trust the hearts of these friends, which became a river of kindness flowing through me. I stepped onto the raft of compassion, pushed away from the shore of this story, and moved through the water of suffering and witness it transform into a river of kindness.

Mindfulness practice does not eradicate suffering. It strengthens our inner resources to relate to what is happening moment to moment with openness, compassion and kindness so that we can choose what to believe and how to respond. Forming mindful and compassionate friendships is deeply helpful in seeing our innate goodness, in facing our inner critic, in “interrupting our destructive habits and awakening our heart” (Pema Chodron). We need each other even when we do not realize it.

It takes courage to be with ourselves, to be in the present moment, to be kind and compassionate. Through courage and compassion, we can connect deeply and meaningfully with ourselves and others, with the world.
“When we bring respect and honor to those around us, we open a channel to their own goodness” (Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart).

With hands over my heart, I thank you Kelly, Laura and Wayne. You carried me in this moment of suffering, opened a channel to my goodness and I am forever grateful. May we all be carried by the river of kindness.

No Mud No Lotus – Nurturing Love Through Our Suffering

No Mud, No Lotus is a well-known quote by the renowned Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn. When I first read this quote, it did not resonate with me. Sure, plants need dirt to grow, but what does this have to do with mindfulness practice? Well, today I listened to a talk by Tara Brach – Navigating Conflict with a Wise Heart – and I had an aha moment.

Tara opened with this quote and then shared how conflict is a portal to further awakening; how through the suffering (i.e. conflict or mud), we can grow like the lotus. In other words, every experience whether we label it “good or bad” is an opportunity for us to uncover our wounds, our unmet needs, attend to them and befriend ourselves. She describes personal conflict as “a clash of strategies to meet basic needs.” And that our primary strategy is blame, which typically is viewed outside of ourselves. As a result, “We get habituated to in some way creating distance because we feel the other has not been who they should be for us. We withhold affection. We criticize.”

Ah, yes!!! As I sat on my cushion listening to this talk and following her guided reflection and meditation on a conflict I’ve had recently with my partner, my heart broke open and tears fell down my cheeks. One of the reasons I began to practice mindfulness meditation was to address my inner conflict, which had been (and still does, while not as much) projected outside toward my partner. For over 2 decades of our relationship, I covered up and tried to meet my needs from the outside in only to be disappointed over and over again, only to continue to perpetuate conflict. This has not only challenged our relationship, but caused me to be stuck in the mud. I was mostly unaware of how to care for my unmet needs (my suffering) from the inside out, so that both my relationship and myself could grow like a beautiful lotus. As Tara shared, blame is a strong hook and whatever we practice grows stronger. This is true for me. Is it true for you?

Her guided meditation supported my access to the unmet needs that led to my anger, blame, criticism and rejection during a recent situation with my partner. In uncovering these needs, I was then able to practice what she calls the “U-Turn” – bringing attention to the hurt and unmet needs. This experience reminded me that I can access my mindfulness and compassion for myself, especially during these moments of suffering (the mud). While I may not condone the actions of my partner, I can choose to work with the conflict in a manner that is more effective for our relationship, for my own well-being. Tara reminds us that “our well-being is not hitched to how others act.” How liberating! Today, I needed to be reminded of this. We can forget or not notice when we are stuck in the mud and therefore get caught up in our fight. This stuckness was the impetus to me beginning to practice mindfulness meditation. And my relationship with my partner and children has grown out of the mud and into a lotus, and I practice daily as a means to tend to this garden.

Now, I admit that this is challenging because it requires that I continue to become aware of my habitual conditioning, the ingrained patterns of responding to personal conflict. This is where meditation can be extremely helpful. When we sit, even for just a couple of minutes, we pause or create a gap between stimulus and response, so that we can bring a gentle curiosity to the messages our body is sending us. If we sit and reflect upon a conflict and ask ourselves how am I feeling in this moment? where am I feeling it in my body? what is this revealing about an unmet need? do I want to feel respected, loved, etc.? how can I attend to myself right now? As Jack Kornfield often says, “The heart will know the answer.” It’s important to say that anger is not necessarily bad. It is a message, and we can listen to it mindfully so that we can choose what to do with this message. My anger toward my partner in that recent conflict was a message of disappointment, fear, and feeling unworthy of love. Instead of rejecting my partner or criticizing him (because truth be told – he does not want me to feel this way), I can attend to these unmet needs through self-compassion and then talk with him in a way that supports the flowering of our relationship.

As Thich Nhat Hahn writes, “There can be no lotus flower without the mud.” Let us practice attending to our suffering with love and compassion so that we transform it into awakening.