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Cultivating Compassion: Opening Our Hearts – Lovingkindness for Our Loved Ones & Selves

This third week’s talk begins with a brief settling and intention setting practice. Intention is our innate capacity to harness and direct our energy and effort at will. And as shared in session 1, intention is one of the three pillars of mindfulness – intention, attention and attitude. We began this series of talks with the basic definition of mindfulness as the act of purposefully paying attention in the present moment with non-reactivity and balance. Last week, we explored mindfulness practice as a way to better understand and know ourselves. This week, we add the element of choice. Mindfulness is not only about how we pay attention, but what we pay attention to. We have a choice as to where to place our attention. And tapping into our intentions is vital to exercising this choice.

Sometimes intentions can be simple and short-term, such as at the beginning of a sit. My intention is to practice with kindness. Other times, intentions can be deeper and long-term, such as May I continue to show up in conversations with compassion and an open mind. Setting an intention is another invitation for us to turn inward and access the wisdom of the heart, body and mind. For an entire year, I committed to writing down a daily intention as a way to gain clarity on how I wanted to show up that day or how I wanted to support myself and others. I have continued this practice because this informal practice has affected the way I relate and respond to my experience. Click here to read a post I wrote last February about this practice.

Opening Practice

Intention Setting

I invite you to listen to the guided practice or try it on your own with this guidance. Find a comfortable and dignified posture. Close your eyes if that helps you feel at ease. Take a few deep, relaxing breaths. Allow your breath to find its natural pace. Drop into the body. Feel yourself sitting, your feet touching the ground, visualizing them as tree roots, grounding into the Earth, providing stability and strength. Scan through your body beginning at the crown of the head down to the feet. Noticing any sensations and using your breath to release any tension…Now asking yourself “What do I really care about, that I value deeply? What, in the depth of my heart, do I wish for myself, loved ones, and for the world?” Stay with these questions for a moment and see if any answers arise. Perhaps place your hand on your chest, over your heart center. This tender touch can relax the body and allow the wisdom of the heart to be heard. If nothing specific arises, that’s ok. Simply stay open to the questions, listening with loving awareness to whatever arises….

Talk

This talk begins our exploration of compassion practice. This builds upon the last two talks focused on cultivating courage through listening with kind curiosity to the wisdom of our bodies and experiencing loving presence through connecting the mind and body. Specifically, this talk focuses on the heart opening practice of lovingkindness.

Here is a portion of a handout I created to illustrate the interdependence of mindfulness and compassion.

Compassion is the act of turning toward suffering as small or as huge as that suffering may be. It is the general wish for someone, including ourselves, to be relieved of emotional or physical burden. As we begin to access the sensation or feeling of compassion in the body, we may notice a tugging at the heart, a motivation to respond with care. Compassion is innate to us. It accesses our care response and it is a psychological resource that can be strengthened. It can be viewed as another muscle to be exercised. We can deepen our capacity to be compassionate. Mindfulness plays an important role in cultivating compassion. It supports our ability to come face to face with suffering. Therefore, mindfulness gives rise to compassion through the attitude of kindness and non-judgement. Compassion relies on mindfulness to help sustain us when in the face of suffering. Together, we gain the courage to turn towards suffering with strength, resilience and stability.

Lovingkindness practice helps us to access the wisdom of the heart. It helps us undo our false sense of separation, to honor our interconnection. Thus, lovingkindness supports our aspiration to live wholeheartedly and the wish for others to live wholeheartedly, too. Sharon Salzberg, a well-known meditation teacher who is attributed to bringing this beautiful practice to the West, shares, “To reteach a thing its loveliness is the nature of metta. Through loving-kindness, everyone and everything can flower from within.” Metta is the Pail word for lovingkindness. It is often translated as friendliness, an unconditional friendliness. From my experience, lovingkindness is about connection; it is love in action.

When I was considering how to dig deeper into these ideas of love and kindness, I turned to a recent book I purchased by Charlie Mackesy, a British visual artist, entitled The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. On the surface, this book is about friendship. Once you read through it, one learns that it is about lovingkindness. On the last page of his book, one of the characters shares this message, “Sometimes all you hear is the hate, but there is more love in this world than you could possibly imagine.” I believe this message is incredibly important for us to remember right now as we are bombarded with news (social media, television, print media) with what feels like an unrelenting hate in the world. We have become so polarized, at least here in the US, that our connection is undermined. We may even, unknowingly, hate aspects of ourselves or of other people; this subtle hate lays beneath our field of awareness. Lovingkindness helps bring this to light so we may heal these divisions and transform the hate. I believe love is not passive. It is active. In fact, love is an act of courage!

In the words of MLK, Jr., “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” This is how compassion changes the world – the world within us and the world in which we participate. We are not separate from each other, we are interconnected. And yet, this is easy to forget because we are brought up in a culture that promotes staunch individualism. So what do we do? Charlie Mackesy’s horse reminds us, “Nothing beats kindness…It sits quietly beyond all things.” As we begin to flex and strengthen our compassion muscle, we can take refuge in this simple truth that through the challenges, the hate, the hurt, the exhaustion, the pain, and the grief, we can still find kindness. It is there. It is always there sitting quietly within us. Lovingkindness practice is the seed that grows kindness, bringing it into our actions. And over time, our hearts open up to let love flow in and out.

Take a pause right now. Close your eyes. Tune into your body. What is arising in you right now? Can you be with it with a kind curiosity?

Here is a beautiful poem written by Chien Hong entitled Metta (Lovingkindness). Please take a moment to read it and notice with loving presence what arises for you.

In lovingkindness practice, our object of attention is two-fold.
1. We imagine someone (loved one/friend, ourselves, a neutral person, a difficult person, or all beings).
2. We send them general wishes of well-being, such as May you be happy, May you be free from pain, May you be healthy.

These phrases or wishes are an invitation to cultivate good intentions, to move our hearts in a positive direction. The phrases are designed to evoke goodwill, not good feelings. We are not trying to convince ourselves of anything or force a particular feeling to occur. Sharon Salzberg describes this feeling tone as “one of generosity or gift-giving, like handing someone a birthday card and saying, ‘May you have a great year.'”

My dear friend, Theresa Griffin, a mindfulness teacher, describes it this way, “The words serve as a conduit and guide for paying attention differently. Paying attention with heartfelt awareness. When we give our heartfelt attention and awareness to something or someone, it connects us. We see beyond the veil.” What is beyond the veil, is their humanness. We begin to tap into our common humanity, our interconnection.

In lovingkindness meditation, we are simply planting seeds and seeing what grows. Sometimes we experience growth within the practice itself and sometimes later on. Lastly, for some, lovingkindness can feel mechanical or awkward. If this is your experience, see if you can bring a loving and kind awareness to whatever arises for you.

Guided Meditation

Feel free to listen to me guide us through this practice or you may try it on your own by following these brief instructions.

Find a comfortable posture, close your eyes, and spend a few minutes tuning into your body and breath. Finding an anchor for your attention, perhaps turning toward an area that feels pleasant or neutral. And as your mind wanders, gently and kindly return it to your ancho, and take delight in this moment of waking up.

Now bring to mind one person who you care for, a loved one or friend. Hold this person in your mind’s eye. And as you do, allow any feelings of care and love to arise. Consider placing a hand on your chest, over your heart center to access the wisdom of the heart. As you picture this friend or loved one, silently repeat the following phrases (or any phrases that you come up with) as many times as you’d like –

May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you feel safe and secure
May you be free from suffering
May you live with ease

See if you can be with whatever feelings arise. You may feel a tug at the heart, a tear in the eye, or it may feel awkward. All is well and good; this is something to notice. Remember that you are planting a seed.

Feel free to repeat this with another friend or loved one…

Now, visualize yourself sitting in the center of a circle, surrounded by the most loving beings in your life (alive or deceased). This circle is one of safety and care so you can become the receiver of these offerings. Notice any feelings that arise as you take on the role of recipient. Silently repeat the same phrases (see above) for yourself…Repeat as many times as you want. Then you can let go of the visualization, take a deep breathe in and out, noticing any shifts that occurred.

Informal Practice

Lovingkindness practice can be integrated throughout your day. Before sending an email or text, pause and offer the recipient lovingkindness. When you pause throughout the day and tune into your body, offer yourself lovingkindness. When you are passing someone on the street, silently offer them lovingkindness. This is how you cultivate the garden of the heart, how you plant more seeds. Listen to Sharon Salzberg as she shares this informal practice. It is less than 2 minutes and worth the time!

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Cultivating Courage: Listening With Kind Curiosity & Loving Presence

This is the second of an eight talk series on engaged mindfulness and compassion practices.

Opening Meditation

I invite you to either listen to the guided meditation or read offering below. 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.

Talk

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.

Guided Meditation

Listening with Kind Curiosity and Loving Presence

Informal Practice

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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 its 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, 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.

Cultivating Connection: Sharing Joy

Welcome to the last session of the Engaged Mindfulness Meditation group talk series. For a quick recap, the first two sessions focused on cultivating courage – building the foundation of a mindfulness practice. The next four weeks focused on cultivating compassion – strengthening our capacity to turn toward suffering, our own and others. We relied on mindfulness to provide us stability and safety as we increased our willingness to not turn away but be face to face with the pain and suffering that exists within and without. These last two weeks focused on cultivating connection – growing awareness of our interconnectedness through practicing gratitude, generosity and joy.

Opening Meditation

This meditation weaves together several of the practices. It begins with settling and anchoring. Then brings one through a mindful check-in with the body, mind and heart. Then it brings together gratitude and lovingkindness practice.

Talk

The focus of this session is about joy – sharing our joy with others as well as practicing sympathetic joy. Sympathetic joy is the act of feeling happiness for someone’s success or good fortune. We can delight in someone else’s joy. We can do this even if we are not feeling our own joy. Tuere Sala, guiding teacher of the Seattle Meditation Society, calls this borrowing joy.

When I was a teacher in Massachusetts I worked alongside a veteran teacher, Jo-Ellen. Her mantra was “Choose Joy!” She embodied this mantra so much so that every gift she ever gave anyone had this mantra printed or sewn on it. She was able to bring her capacity for joy into her relationships with students, which created a positive and inspiring classroom community. Students were able to not only feel happy about their achievements but were able to take delight in their peers’ successes. She also brought this into her mentorship of new teachers. I always admired her for this and wondered why I could not embody it like her.

At that time, I was not practicing mindfulness meditation (although I wish I had). Once I began practicing mindfulness and studying about brain plasticity, I not only realized how wise Jo-Ellen was, but why it was challenging for me to choose joy. I also learned ways to cultivate my capacity for joy.

Why it is hard sometimes to choose joy? Our evolutionary brain has a negativity bias. For centuries we have trained the brain to scan for danger, physical threats, etc. This is not as helpful now that we are not running away from saber-toothed tigers, even though our bodies may react as if we were. This is why we experience anxiety and stress. Our bodies are reacting to a perceived threat even if there is no physical danger. Our brains tend to go toward the negative more easily. Dr. Rick Hanson describes negative experiences as Velcro to the brain whereas positive experiences are like Teflon.

There is good news! We can counteract evolution’s negativity bias by training our minds to turn toward moments of well-being and joy. In essence, we can gladden the mind by rewiring the neural circuitry in our brains, hence brain plasticity. One way to do this is through mindfulness practice.

Dr. Shauna Shapiro, professor and international expert on mindfulness and self-compassion, shares, “The magic of mindfulness is that it not only aids us in difficult times, but it also magnifies life’s inherent joy.”

We can prime the mind for joy by applying the 3 pillars of mindfulness we learned in session 1: intention, attention and attitude. The following description can be used as a quick daily practice or a longer practice. This is based on Dr. Rick Hanson’s work on growing the good. I like to call it the savoring practice. It only needs to take 30 seconds.

  • Intention: Have the intention to focus on an ordinary moment that brings you joy or happiness. It can be small like your first sip of coffee or your dog greeting you at the door. The other evening I did this practice while watching my partner cook our dinner. Looking at all the ingredients laid out filled me with excitement. So either focus on this moment if it brings smile to your face or recall a recent moment.
  • Attention: Now focus or dwell on this experience for 20 – 30 seconds. This is where we install or integrate the positive experience into our nervous system and neural circuitry.
  • Attitude: As we are attending to this experience, we do so with kindness and curiosity, allowing all our senses to embrace this experience. Hence, we are savoring this positive experience.

Overtime, our brains begin to tilt toward the positive. One can think of a gas gauge. When we are closer to empty, this is the negative tilt. As we fill up the tank by savoring moments of positive experience, our gauge moves toward full. Another common way to explain this is with the proverbial phrase is the glass half full or half empty.

Sounds easy, just Choose Joy, right? Well, that negativity bias can be quite alluring. It is important that we identify thoughts patterns that perpetuate this bias. We can do this through mindfulness practice as we practiced in the the second and fourth sessions.

There are three thought patterns that are helpful to uncover because what we practice grows stronger.

“If only mind” – This type of thinking uncovers a belief that something is missing in our lives, preventing our happiness. It may also uncover a sense that we never have enough. If only I had gone to that event, I would have gotten the job. If only I lost 10 lbs, I would finally be happy. My late grandmother was notorious for this type of thinking. Her version was “when x, then life is settled.” She would say things like, “When you get that job, then everything will be great.” This thinking not only keeps out of the moment, but it keeps us from the joy of the moment, from experiencing happiness in the here and now.

“The comparing mind” – This thought pattern is common and can be subtle too. It reveals an envy or jealousy of another because they have what we want. Why does she get to have success so easily, but I have to struggle? Social media perpetuates this harmful thought pattern, that we are never enough.

“Foreboding joy” – Brene Brown talks about this in her research on vulnerability and shame. This thought pattern is about dress rehearsing tragedy. For example, we are soon to go on vacation and instead of delighting in the excitement, one becomes afraid of missing the flight or someone getting sick. All attention is on what could go wrong rather than what is going right at the moment. This type of thinking sucks the joy out of the moment.

To bring this full circle to the first session, Brene Brown explains, “The foundation of courage is vulnerability – the ability to navigate uncertainty, risks, and emotional exposure. It takes courage to open ourselves up to joy.”

The benefits of cultivating a capacity for joy are worth the time it takes to practice. We all can embody joy like my former colleague, Jo-Ellen. When we open to the truth that happiness and joy are not limited commodities, we begin to trust our inner abundance. This is also the foundation of generosity. We further grow our connection to the world outside of ourselves. Hence, we move from the me (separate self) to the we (our interconnectedness). Overtime, we begin to notice more moments of happiness, good fortune, and joy for ourselves and others. We delight in all of our cups overflowing.

Guided Meditation – Sharing Joy

Rumi asks, “When you go to a garden, do you look at thorns or flowers? Spend more time with roses and jasmine.”

This meditation aims to cultivate one’s capacity to feel joy by first taking delight in another’s good fortune and then by sharing our joy. The meditation ends with long quote from Jack Kornfield’s book No Time Like the Present: Finding Freedom, Love and Joy Where You Are.

“Freedom and joy…are the innate wonder of spirit, the blessings of gratitude, the prayers of appreciation, the aliveness of being. They are the free heart rejoicing in the morning sunlight, the sturdy grasses and breath carried by the wind over the mountains. The world is a temple, a sanctuary, bathed even at night by the miraculous light of the ocean of stars that never stop shining upon us. Every meeting of eyes, every leafing oak, every taste of raspberry and warm-baked loaf is a blessing. These are sacred notes in the symphony of life, the invitation to discover freedom, the joyful magnificence of a free and loving heart. They are yours and everyone’s to share.”

repeated phrases come from Tuere Sala’s Ten Percent Happier App meditation

Cultivating Connection: Growing Gratitude & Generosity

Welcome to the seventh week of the Engaged Mindfulness Meditation talk series. This week begins the two week focus on the theme of cultivating connection with this talk and two meditations exploring the practices of gratitude and generosity.

The previous six weeks has been a journey of building and strengthening both our mindfulness practice and our compassionate hearts. I called this meditation group Engaged Mindfulness because as we engage with our inner lives, we then engage the world with more understanding, empathy, kindness, love, and courage to act on behalf of the well-being and humanity of others.

We are social beings with a deep need to belong and connect. We impact each other whether we are aware of it or not. Moreover, growing our awareness of our interconnectedness supports our well-being.

Mindfulness practice aims to bring that which is is out of our field of awareness (but still affecting our thoughts, feelings and behavior) into awareness. You may recall from session 2 my reference to the circle with the line through it. As we bring more into our field of awareness we gain more agency or choice in how we relate and respond to our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and our environment, including the social context in which we live.

The following meditations explore our interconnectedness, how we influence and are influenced by others, supporting a moving from a me to a we. The first meditation focuses on remembering our goodness by reflecting on our gifts we offer the world. The second meditation explores growing gratitude and generosity.

Tara Brach describes how gratitude and generosity reveal our interconnectedness – “Gratitude is like breathing in – letting ourselves be touched by the goodness in others and in our world. Generosity is like breathing out – sensing our mutual belonging and offering our care.”

Opening Meditation – Reflecting On Our Gifts

This meditation begins with a guided body scan, a settling of the mind and body, and a guided reflection on something you have done or said recently that was kind, generous or caring. You also are invited to to turn your attention to a quality you like about yourself, an ability or strength within yourself. You are invited to explore what arises within your body as you reflect on these invitations. The meditation ends with the following quote and dedication.

“To feel gratitude we have to be attuned to the good in our lives, and this gives rise to joy, which is pure and simple delight.” ~ Dr. Robert Emmons, gratitude scientist

Dedication: May all beings delight in the goodness of their lives. May all beings experience joy. May all beings know they matter and belong.

Talk

Over the past few years, I have dug deeper into both the practice and the science of gratitude. I have learned from Dr. Robert Emmons that there are two stages of processing gratitude: affirmation and recognition.

First, we affirm the good or “gift” offered and recognize that it came from outside of ourselves. We become the receiver of this “gift” freely given to us, not owed to us. When we feel grateful or thankful, we are acknowledging that we have received something of value from another and we appreciate the intention of the giver, even if it is small like holding the door open.

When the Covid-19 lockdown began my fourth grade son’s teacher asked her students to write a daily gratitude. I decided to participate in this as I wanted to model this exercise along with benefiting from it. I have recorded a daily gratitude for weeks at a time before and was amazed by the outcome. So my son and I each recorded a gratitude on a sticky note and posted them to my office door every day through June. I have saved them all. To the right is a picture taken in early April.

One of my son’s posts “I am grateful for my mom for cleaning my room.” This follows Dr. Emmons stages with the cleaning of room being freely given and not owed to him:) One that I wrote was, “I am grateful for the generosity and kindness of my friend, Bibi. She wrote me a beautiful card and brought me flowers.”

My friend’s generosity filled me with such joy when life seemed so dire as the pandemic surged in our area of New York. My appreciation for her deep kindness and thoughtfulness led me to offer my help to her Tulip Happiness Project. This project provided a bouquet of fresh tulips and a supportive note to many healthcare workers in our area. I lent my truck and time to help her pick up the tulips. We each put on a mask and gloves and drove 3 hours round trip. This was how I could pay forward her generosity to me.

Dr. Emmons explains that “gratitude is not simply a strategy or tactic for feeling better or for increasing happiness. It does something much more than that. Gratitude enables a person to feel good and also do good.” Gratitude inspires generosity. Generosity inspires gratitude.

As we practice both gratitude and generosity, we experience joy, happiness, awe, resilience to stress, etc.. There are many mental and physical health benefits to these practices (click here for a brief article on such benefits). Gratitude and generosity are also antidotes to greed and discontentment, pushing back on our transactional culture. They are also antidotes to loneliness, feelings of unworthiness or not “enoughness,” to shame, to feeling insignificant, etc.. One of the most beautiful benefits, in my opinion, of these practices or habits, is that they fill the cracks in our relationships, uplifting our interconnectedness.

“Giving connects two people, the giver and the receiver,” shares Deepak Chopra, “and this connection gives birth to a new sense of belonging.” This new sense of belonging comes out of us moving from me (as a separate self) to we (as interconnected beings).

Growing Gratitude & Generosity Meditation

Informal Practice

“Living gratefully begins with affirming the good and recognizing its sources.”
~ Dr. Robert Emmons.

  • Gratitude Sticky Notes or Journal: Pause for a moment each day and identify someone for whom you are grateful and write down that person’s action, how they supported you. Here’s a brief article with very short videos of Dr. Emmons taking about gratitude.  
  • Pause throughout the day recognizing the simple everyday/ordinary joys, and let this fill you with warmth and appreciation.

Active Compassion – The Agency of Inner Practice

Welcome to the sixth session of this eight session series on Engaged Mindfulness. This is the last session in cultivating compassion. The topic is Active Compassion where we explore the relationship between our inner practice and compassionate action. We will also engaged in the meditative practice of tonglen, which can be done formally or on the spot, for ourselves or for others.

Opening Meditation

Listen to the guided meditation or read the description below. Set a timer for as long as you like to sit. May this practice be supportive and nourishing.

I invite you to settle into your physical and virtual space by looking around. Notice what is on your walls, the light, sounds, etc. Take a deep breath in as you experience physiological safety. 

If it helps you feel more at ease, gently close your eyes for these next few moments while you check in with yourself. How are you feeling right now? And whatever you are feeling is fine, see if you can gently notice it without wanting it to be anything other than it is. 

What is most important is to take care inside, that you are resourced and available to respond in line with your values. This is the essence of mindfulness and compassion practice. 

As you continue to ground yourself, establish your home base through an anchor either in the breath, body or perhaps your physical surroundings, you can experience stability within all the noise inside and outside. 

This felt-sense of safety makes it easier for us to listen to what’s important to us, to listen to the wisdom of our hearts. I invite you to place a hand over your heart center to access your care response and to further ground yourself. Asking –

  • What is most important to me as I walk through these times?
  • How do I want to show up?
  • What is needed right now?

If no answers arise, that is ok too. See if you can just rest within the questions like Rumi says, “Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” 

Talk

Sharon Salzberg advises, “In order to do anything about the suffering of the world we must have the strength to face it without turning away.” This is compassionate action. And our inner practice, mindfulness, steadies us so that we can cultivate the courage and strength required to face suffering.

If you recall from last week, I shared the equation empathy + impulse to relieve suffering = compassion. 

We explored how deepening our understanding of our shared humanity (the fundamental truth that we all aspire to be happy and free from pain, etc.), helps us grow our willingness or impulse to alleviate the suffering of others, even those we do not know or see as different than ourselves. 

Additionally, two weeks ago we explored the 3 elements of self-compassion (mindfulness, common humanity and self-kindness). As we tend to and befriend our inner landscape, we open courageously to our vulnerability and gain a deeper awareness of ourselves.

A profound benefit of these practices is that we wake up to our agency or what Salzberg defines as “that purposeful, embodied, heartfelt movement from deep within…It’s like the ignition being turned on. We care for ourselves and others and don’t stop caring. Now we breathe vitality into that caring…and we cease being a bystander to life.”

As our inner practice turns outward, we see this potential to wake up in others; thus, we are more sensitive and understanding of other’s pain. And our impulse to relieve this pain becomes undeniable.

Our practice, by its nature, turns into social transformation because our hearts become vehicles for change. We become the driver for compassionate action. 

“Breathe it all in, love it all out,” writes poet Mary Oliver. This is the essence of the Tibetan practice Tonglen, also known as “giving and receiving.” Tong means sending out or letting go, and len means receiving or accepting.

Through the use of our imagination and respiratory system, we can practice transforming suffering throughout our bodies and minds via the wisdom and resilience of our heart. This practice supports us in staying present with difficult feelings, relationships, and experiences. 

Think about being outside on an extremely cold day. You breathe in cool or frigid air and it leaves as warm air. This is why we can see our breath. The air in a sense is transformed in our bodies, we do not hold on to it, yet our bodies are capable of this transformation. The same is true for this practice in compassionate action or tonglen. Our hearts act like a filter rather than sponge.

We begin by opening up to suffering, in so much that we can hold it and feel it. We call upon our mindfulness to ground us, to steady us, so that we may skillfully and safely turn toward suffering. 

In this practice, we imaginatively take in, breathe in, the suffering and pain of another or ourselves. This can be pictured as fog, a dark cloud, or whatever image is accessible for you. 

Staying anchored in our bodies and in the present moment, we then shift our focus to alleviating that suffering through lovingkindness and care. We do this by giving or sending, breathing out, good wishes, happiness, joy, well-being, etc., to this person(s). We may imagine this as fluffy clouds or bright rays of light, all of which dissolve into the bodies of those whose suffering we have just taken in and transformed. 

We can engage in this practice for ourselves or for others. For example, I have engaged in tonglen while sitting with my upset teenager as she shares her heavy heart. While I listen to her, I imagine breathing in her pain and breathing out ease and comfort. While I may not be able to take away her pain, I can turn towards it with love and care. I can fulfill my impulse to alleviate while not being overwhelmed by the pain. Another example is when we see from afar people suffering whether that be an ill parent in another state or the number of Covid-19 deaths rise. We can stay present with the suffering even when we cannot physically due something in that moment.

This practice reminds us of our strength, stability, and most importantly our agency to help ourselves and others. When we feel helpless, we can turn to this practice so that we do not lose ourselves in the suffering; instead, we engage with the suffering in supportive, skillful and safe ways. A benefit is that we are more likely to seek out ways to address suffering on a bigger scale – societally, politically, even psychologically.

I cannot say this enough: We do not just practice for ourselves! We practice for others. Through our mindfulness and self-compassion, we no longer turn away from the challenges of our day.

I invite you to place a hand on your heart center, and allow the words from poet Danna Faulds to support and inspire you as we move into the practice of tonglen.

BREATH OF LIFE
I breathe in All That Is-
Awareness expanding
to take everything in,
as if my heart beats
the world into being.
From the unnamed vastness beneath the mind,
I breathe my way into wholeness and healing.
Inhalation. Exhalation.
Each Breath a “yes,”
and a letting go, a journey, and a coming home.

Meditation – Tonglen Practice

Informal Practice

Tonglen on the Spot: As you go about your day and a difficulty comes up, try doing tonglen for yourself — breathe in the difficulty that is already there, and breathe out fresh air. Breathe in any unpleasantness you already experience, and transform it into peace and joy as you breathe out.

“Whenever you bear witness to suffering in your daily life, do Tonglen for one to three breaths. For example, if someone yells at someone else on the street, breathe in the argument and breathe out understanding. You can also do this for yourself if someone hurts your feelings. It can just be as quick as one cycle or breath. You don’t have to stop what you are doing; just invest enough energy to stay present with the suffering on the spot without overanalyzing it. In my experience, doing Tonglen on the spot even three times within a busy day builds the heart muscle of compassion in a truly transformative way.”
~Ethan Nichtern, from How to Live With More Love a Lion’s Roar Magazine Special Edition

Embracing Our Common Humanity – Widening Our Circle of Compassion

Welcome to this fifth session in the eight week series on Engaged Mindfulness. This is also the third session focused on cultivating compassion.

Opening Practice

Christopher Germer, PhD, co-founder of Mindful Self-Compassion program, states, “A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.” This week’s opening meditation focuses on cultivating self-compassion by focusing on an experience of love and inviting love’s warmth to grow in our heart and body, holding tenderly any sensations and feelings that arise.

Begin by moving into a comfortable posture (sitting, lying down, or standing) where you can remain alert, yet relaxed.

Held in Love Meditation

Talk

Embracing common humanity and widening our circle of compassion are in a way two sides of the same coin. The following two meditations are intended to cultivate such an understanding. With the election on the horizon, an unrelenting pandemic, and all the consequences of these realities, I believe we are at a crossroads. There are many people talking about this right now, so I know I am not alone in thinking this way. We can either go down the path of separation, mistrust, exclusion, and division or we can go choose the path of connection, understanding, belonging, and inclusivity. To choose the later path and to help others choose this path too, we must be willing to cultivate compassion for others. This includes people we do not know, people we feel are different from us, and those with whom we do not agree. This is not always easy, but our willingness is a necessity. The Dalai Lama makes the point that “love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.” Let us find the courage to dip our toe in the water and get more comfortable with this willingness to grow compassion for others, especially for those we do not know or find difficult to be compassionate towards.

“Compassion is a verb,” says Thich Nhat Hahn. It is an action; it is the turning toward suffering. We can think of compassion as an equation: empathy (feeling with another, to be in another’s shoes) + the impulse to alleviate this person’s suffering = compassion. We practiced this last week for ourselves. A benefit of self-compassion is the understanding of other’s pain and suffering. By practicing compassion for ourselves, we find it easier to have compassion for others.

Some people use empathy and compassion interchangeably, but they are not the same. Empathy is a part of or precursor to compassion. It is important that we tap into empathy if we want to get to compassion. So, how do we have empathy for people we do not know, we do not like, we see as different than us or hold differing views? We begin by embracing common humanity.

Common humanity is the recognition of the basic sameness of self and others in that we all share a common aspiration for happiness and freedom from suffering. In understanding this fundamental truth, we begin to see the humanness behind the mask, behind the behavior, behind the tweets. etc.. We begin to understand that just like me, regardless of our differences or disagreements, others want to be happy, be free from pain, live with ease, feel safe and secure. I believe that common humanity is on the ballot right now. If more people would embrace it, then more would choose the path of connection, belonging, justice and inclusivity. We would begin to see an important shift in our culture and in our governing. While it is likely those of you reading this have chosen such a path, I encourage us to remember that this change starts with us. This is why we practice. We practice for ourselves, but we also practice for others. So let us explore this through meditation.

Cultivating Common Humanity Meditation

If you found it difficult in this meditation to picture someone who is challenging for you, that is okay. This is why we practice self-compassion. Sometimes we are not ready to open our hearts, to have compassion for someone who has hurt us. Compassion, especially when we practice it for ourselves, helps us have a boundary. It is okay to say “no.” Cultivating common humanity and compassion does not mean we condone inappropriate, mean or malicious behavior. In this meditation, we are not saying the challenging person’s behavior is acceptable; instead, we are cultivating the capacity to see the person, the human being, beyond the behavior.

Tara Brach shares a story in which illustrates this point clearly. Here it is: Imagine you are walking in the woods and you see a small dog sitting by a tree. As you approach it, it suddenly lunges at you, teeth bared. You are frightened and angry. But then you notice that one of its legs is caught in a trap. Immediately your mood shifts from anger to concern. You see that the dog’s aggression is coming from a place of vulnerability and pain. This applies to all of us. When we behave in hurtful ways, it is because we are caught in some kind of trap. The more we look through the eyes of wisdom at ourselves and one another, the more we cultivate a compassionate heart. It can be quite helpful when we are dealing with someone who is challenging (and I have applied this to my child expressing his anger), to think as if they are caught in a trap. They are perhaps responding from a place of vulnerability and pain. This does not mean we have to go towards the lunging dog or the angry person. We have the choice to say not right now. What this helps us do is to understand that this person is not necessarily their behavior. This is an important distinction.

Another way to further cultivate compassion for others is to recognize their goodness, to see beneath the mask, beyond the trap. Last week I used the analogy of the orange. In this meditation we get past the bitter rind and experience the sweetness, the goodness, inside. Paul Gilbert, mental health expert and author, writes in his book Mindful Compassion, “[C]ompassion is not just about becoming aware of suffering and trying to relieve it in others; it is also about rejoicing in the possibility of others being happy and free of suffering.” We can think about the pain and suffering as well as rejoice in the fact we want people to be happy and to not suffer.

In this last practice, we will visualize three people again, but this time we will offer lovingkindness. We will focus more on their goodness, to see beyond the mask.

Lovingkindness – Seeing Beyond the Mask Meditation

Informal Practice

  • Pause and notice someone (a friend, a total stranger) and silently wish them to be happy, well, free from fear and at ease.
  • Try to really “see” other people in your life. At least once a day, notice someone you would otherwise not really “see,” and contemplate, “Just like me, this person wishes to be happy, healthy, and free from suffering.”
  • Look for an opportunity to reinterpret your reaction to a situation/interaction – “Just like me, this person wishes to be happy, loved, and appreciated.”
  • Discover what happens when you let someone know the goodness you are seeing in them.

Cultivating (Self) Compassion: Strengthening Our Inner Ally

Welcome to the fourth session of an eight week series on Engaged Mindfulness Meditation. This is also the second of the four sessions focused on cultivating compassion.

Opening Practice

We begin with a meditation aimed to settle us into our physical space, drop into the body, notice the breath, and relax into stillness.

We then build off of last week’s talk by setting our intention for practice and bringing lovingkindness to someone who know is suffering as well as ourselves. Here are the lovingkindness phrases:
May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you feel safe and secure
May you be free from pain and all its causes
May you know peace and joy
May you live with ease

We end with this quote from Thich Nhat Hahn, “We have a lamp inside us, the lamp of mindfulness, which we can light anytime. The oil of that lamp is our breathing, our steps, our peaceful smile. We have to light up that lamp of mindfulness so the light will shine out and the darkness will dissipate and cease. Our practice is to light up the lamp.”

Talk

I changed this week’s talk from Listening to the Wisdom of Our Hearts to Strengthening Our Inner Ally because I think we all could use an ally right now in these challenging times. Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet, wrote, “all doubt, despair, and fear become insignificant once the intention of life becomes love.” And this is what we are practicing in this series, the cultivation of love. Love within ourselves. Love shared outwardly. In a sense, we are practicing ways to be engaged in acts of love in the face of difficulty. Self-compassion is a deeply beautiful and moving practice that supports us in giving and receiving love even in, and perhaps because of, challenging times.

So what is an ally? Simply stated, an ally is a supporter of someone, who advocates for the well-being of another. Take this moment to pause and consider someone to whom you are an ally, someone you would say, I have their back. Think about a time this person came to you and shared an emotional burden, a challenge, or a hurt. This can be a real situation or hypothetical. Imagine this person says to you things like I am such a failure. I am not good enough. I just cannot do this. I am an idiot. What would you say to this person? Would you say, Yea, you are a failure, you do stink as a parent, you won’t get that job? Of course you would not say this. Why? Because they are in pain and you would not “kick them while their down.” And yet, we do this to ourselves ALL the time!

The parable of the second arrow is a well-known Buddhist story that reflects this notion of how we “add on” to our initial hurt or pain, thus causing ourselves to suffer further. It is said the Buddha once asks a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful? If the person is struck by a second arrow, is it even more painful?” He then explains, “In life, we can’t always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. This second arrow is optional.” Hence the equation pain x resistance = suffering, which helps us to explore the what and why of suffering.

First, suffering is a part of the human experience. I imagine you, the reader, has had some challenges today. It is what we add on to the initial pain (of being human) that extends our suffering. A simple example is when my son stubbed his toe on some water jugs that were left in the hallway. He hits the jug and feels pain in his toe. He then proceeds to get angry and blame others for the jugs being left out as well as himself for not seeing them. It is this add on to the initial painful experience that extends his suffering. We do this to ourselves all the time and it can come in the form of a pesky inner critic or harsh inner voice. Another example, you are having trouble with your internet which is essential for your job (initial pain) and the voice in your mind begins to tell you all the things that are going to be screwed up –You are going to miss your meeting and look foolish. You won’t meet your deadline and will look like a failure. I am such a fool for not upgrading this internet, why am I so forgetful? However, if you can begin to notice and disrupt these “add ons,” you are less likely to increase an already unpleasant experience. This is where mindfulness is essential, an important element of self-compassion.

According to Dr. Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion, there are three components that are important to understanding self-compassion. Mindfulness (presence), is one component, which counters overidentifying with an experience. In other words, mindfulness is our capacity to be open to the moment as it is, acknowledging our pain without judgment and without losing ourselves in emotional reactivity. Think back on my example of the stubbed toe. Bringing mindfulness to that experience would look something like, Oh, I stubbed my toe and feel an intense unpleasant sensation – without adding on to it, which is the judgment and reactivity. Common Humanity (connectedness), is another component, which counters the sense of isolation, of feeling alone in one’s experience. In last week’s practice on lovingkindness, we began to access our understanding of common humanity. It is helpful in times of pain and difficulty to remember that everyone makes mistakes and experiences pain. We are not alone in our experience, even though it may feel that way. It is important to remind ourselves that there is nothing wrong with us for having these unpleasant experiences because it is a part of being a human. Self-Kindness (loving), is another component of self-compassion, which is the antidote to self-judgment. It is about being supportive and understanding toward ourselves when we’re having a hard time, rather than being harshly self-critical. This is where we become our inner ally. In essence, self-compassion is feeling the hurt without judgment and finding out what the hurting part needs. For example, asking ourselves what a friend might say to us right now.

What are we doing when we practice self-compassion? I like to use the analogy or anatomy of an orange. The outer layer, the rind, is called the flavedo. It represents a thick covering that many of us have developed throughout our lives via our survival mechanism. In this way, the threats we have experienced growing up have been to our self-concept. We have learned through conditioning and socialization to respond to our emotions, our sensations, our thoughts in certain ways that have not always been helpful or even healthy. Hence, we have a protective covering. It may have served us at the time, but it may not be serving us now. Beneath the flavedo is the second layer of the rind, the albedo. This is the white fleshy part that can be difficult to take off when peeling the rind. This represents the painful experiences that we may not have processed in our lives. The experiences that contribute to the protective covering and particularly to the inner critic. The last and most significant part is the vesicle, the juice of the orange. This represents our true nature – our sweetness, our goodness, our worthiness as human beings. Getting to and remembering this is the benefit of self-compassion.

In practicing self-compassion, we begin to peel away the protective covering and notice the pain beneath, the harsh inner critic. Sometimes we can experience an unexpected flooding of difficult emotions. This is called “emotional backdraft.” Like in a fire, backdraft is the result of fresh air being introduced too fast into a building fire causing it to explode. Thus, holes are poked to expose the air slowly. The same is true for when we practice self-compassion. We sometimes need to begin slowly and gently to avoid emotional backdraft. If one does experience this flood, it is important to stabilize oneself through the use of an anchor or other resourcing techniques, like stopping the practice and taking a walk.

Self-compassion is about being with pain (emotional or physical) in a kind and supportive way, rather than trying to make the pain go away or fix the problem. R.A.I.N. practice (recognize, allow, investigate and nurture) helps us cultivate self-compassion. This meditation is about tuning in, uncovering and being a friend to ourselves. This practice is based on Tara Brach’s work. Check out her latest book Radical Compassion to learn more about this insightful and supportive practice.

Guided RAIN Meditation

The meditation ends with a poem by Rashani Rea.

Unbroken
There is a brokenness
out of which comes the unbroken,
a shatteredness
out of which blooms the unshatterable.
There is a sorrow
beyond all grief which leads to joy
and a fragility
out of whose depths emerges strength.

There is a hollow space
too vast for words
through which we pass with each loss,
out of whose darkness
we are sanctioned into being.

There is a cry deeper than all sound
whose serrated edges cut the heart
as we break open to the place inside
which is unbreakable and whole,
while learning to sing.

Informal Practice

For this week, I suggest trying out the self-compassion break as shared by Kristin Neff, Ph.D.. It is a quick way to apply the 3 components of self-compassion when feeling stressed, overwhelmed, sad, angry or any other difficult emotion. Here are some steps to follow…I suggest placing a hand over your heart center as you practice compassion for yourself. It helps access our care response and provide a sense of groundedness, which is particularly helpful when our sympathetic nervous system is activated.

  1. Pause what you are doing (or leave the room if in a heated conversation).
  2. Notice the sensations in the body – tingling, warmth, tension, etc.
  3. Say to yourself slowly –
    • This is a moment of pain (or suffering).
    • Pain (or suffering) is a part of life. I am not alone in experiencing this.
    • What does this hurt part need? How can I care for myself right now? What supportive message do I need to hear?

Cultivating Courage: Finding Refuge in the Body & Breath

This is the first of an eight talk series on engaged mindfulness and compassion practices.

Frank Ostaseki, co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project and author of The Five Invitations, shares, “The object of meditation isn’t to change ourselves, to throw out the old and bring in the new. It’s about making friends with ourselves, meeting each and every part of our lives with curiosity and compassion.”

This attitude of curiosity and compassion is at the heart of mindfulness practice. It debunks the myth that we practice mindfulness meditation to fix ourselves as if something were wrong with us. There is nothing wrong with us. Instead, we practice to get to know ourselves more, to bring this attitude of curiosity and compassion to that inner understanding. And as an important consequence, we bring this same attitude to our interactions, perceptions, and understanding of others. This attitude is even more essential now than ever.

Life has been quite challenging for many of us and just getting through the day can be an act of courage. Perhaps you are like me and have been grasping at courage for much of your life. About 15 years ago, I got a tattoo on the back of my neck that symbolizes courage because it is a way of being I have wanted to inhabit. It was not until I began studying and practicing mindfulness and compassion meditation that I experienced courage taking root in my life. I have begun to live my life more fully and be more open to sharing myself with others.

In reflecting upon the concept of courage, I looked into its etymology. The modern dictionary definition of courage is “the ability to do something that frightens one.” However, the root “cor” comes from Latin meaning “heart” or “of the heart.” According to Brene Brown, who has spent years researching shame, vulnerability and courage, shares that in its earliest form courage meant “to speak one’s mind by telling all of one’s heart.” She calls courage a heart word and has translated it to wholeheartedness. I appreciate this translation because so much about being courageous, especially during difficult times, is about our capacity to show up in the world without fear.

According to Jack Kornfield, who is one of my teachers, talks about the courageous heart as “one that is unafraid to open to the world, to care no matter what.” This reminds me of how much we need each other right now. How much courage is happening in our world with protestors, essential workers, teachers going back into schools. Consider John Lewis’ famous phrase “good trouble.” There are many of us getting into “good trouble” in response to this deeply uncertain and painful time in our history. For me, these past several months have felt like a long, nauseating amusement ride. I believe it is a necessity that we cultivate a courageous heart.

To be courageous, we have to be willing to open to our vulnerability, which Frank Ostaseki describes as “the doorway to the deepest dimensions of our inner nature.” Vulnerability can be quite scary and unsettling. Just saying the word, can activate stress and anxiety, particularly in this pandemic and economic instability. Many are vulnerable due to compromised immune systems, loss of employment, high levels of fear and uncertainty. Place this on top of our decades of conditioning where showing vulnerability was looked down upon, it is no wonder why our impulse is to attack, defend, or hide. This is a normal response because it is a survival mechanism, our bodies are always trying to protect us. However, our inner nature is strong, resilient, caring and good.

Brene Brown shares “you can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability.” I have experienced the truth of this statement throughout the years I have been practicing. Mindfulness meditation reveals to us that our vulnerability is an asset, a strength, rather than a liability or weakness. As we awaken more to our inner nature, our truest selves, we grow that courage to be compassionate to ourselves and others, including strangers and those we label as difficult, challenging, or impossible.

So how do we cultivate courage, relate to our vulnerability as a strength? This is where finding refuge in our body and breath becomes a profound practice. The word refuge means “a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger or trouble.” Learning to tend to our breath and befriend what arises in our bodies, we can take refuge from the turbulence happening within and outside of ourselves. We can create a safe container to explore and access our vulnerability. This is one of the many intentions people bring to practicing mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the act of purposefully paying attention to the present moment in a balanced and non-reactive way. Sounds simple, but can be quite challenging. That is why it is called a practice. The three pillars of mindfulness are intention, attention and attitude. Intention is the WHY of our practice. This is unique to each person. It can change and grow as one practices. My intention for sharing this talk is to offer a space where we can learn how to be more courageous, access our vulnerability through practicing mindfulness of the body and breath. Attention is the WHAT of our practice. We begin practicing by noticing what we are paying attention to, noticing where our attention is drawn. Attitude, a critical aspect of mindfulness practice, is the HOW of our attention, our response or relationship to what occupies our attention whether that be sensations in the body, thoughts, emotions, or our environment. Mindfulness practice asks us to shift our attitude from our usual judging or evaluating mindset to one of curiosity and kindness. This shift in attitude takes constant practice and the benefits are worth it!

Mindfulness practice is a whole person experience where we are awakening the connection between the mind, body and heart. I use the word awakening because much of what we experience is below the line of consciousness or awareness. As we spend time meditating (formally and informally), bringing a kind and curious attitude to our experience, we move what has been unconscious above the line, growing our field of awareness. This awareness becomes another refuge, a safe haven, by evoking trust in ourselves and our capacity to be with whatever arises, even when it is unpleasant, uncomfortable or undesirable. This is when we can begin to heal, to grow, to experience more joy, gratitude, love, happiness, agency, resiliency, connection and peace. 

Jill Satterfield, an international embodied mindfulness teacher and with whom I spent a week-long silent retreat, shares, “By witnessing how we are, in our body, heart and mind, we become armed with the necessary information needed to respond thoughtfully and with care…This intention to pay attention leads us to skillful action–in our own inner and more private world and in the shared world at large.”

This has become so true for me. Over the past several months, my body and mind have been flooded by stress, anxiety and fear. Perhaps, you can relate. What has changed for me over these years of practice is that I no longer react the same way to these floods. Instead, I respond more skillfully. In the past when in the throws of such a flood, I would lash out in anger or severe irritability, sitting in this state for hours. I easily became hijacked by these intense emotions. Consequently, I caused harm to myself and to my relationships. Through practice, I learned to take refuge in my body and breath insomuch that my impulsivity lessened. In a way, a gap was created between the stimulus and my response (how I was relating to the sensations, emotions or thoughts that were arising). A more recent benefit of this practice is my growing courage, the willingness to be vulnerable, to share my heart regardless of what is given back to me. This is all part of my daily practice.

Guided Meditation

Pre-Meditation Reminders: As we move into our meditation practice, remember that formal meditation is like the gym for our mind. It is our practice space so we can access this kind and curious attitude during our daily lives. Meditation is a way to listen to the wisdom of the body. Our body is always present even when our mind is not. The technique of anchoring is a useful way to enter our bodies and access its wisdom. Just like we secure a boat so it does not get lost at sea, we can anchor our attention in the present moment. As our attention moves away from the anchor, we gently guide our attention back without judgment or critique. In this meditation, we will us our breath (a common entry point into meditation) and our body to anchor us in the present moment.

Finding Refuge in the Breath & Body Meditation

Informal Practices

Apply these throughout your day to further integrate the skills practiced in formal meditation.

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.