Sunday, October 18, 2015

Unpacking Mindful Communication

How we communicate with one another, especially our speech, is the glue that enables relationship. One could say that communication IS relationship. So this is an important area, and a powerful one, to apply mindfulness. It would seem when considering a practice anchored in meditation, however,  that communication wouldn’t factor in at all.. after all, aren’t we just sitting by ourselves and watching the sensations of the breath for the most part? How does this translate to mindfulness in daily life, and mindfulness in communication in particular?

The answer to that becomes clear fairly quickly to practitioners of mindfulness… it tends to be an exciting revelation early on in practice; suddenly people notice that not only do they feel a little more centered themselves, but it seems to also have an effect on their relationships. They find others tend to respond differently to them – and that’s without ever learning any mindful communication techniques or giving it any thought at all! The key to mindful communication lies in first cultivating an ability to drop into 'mindful awareness', and then in recognizing our intentions when engaged with others. 

As Gandhi has stated, all change starts with the individual; 
"Be the change
you wish to see in the world"
... so it makes sense that the more we know ourselves, the better we function in the world. As I’ve mentioned before, in spite of the seemingly ‘selfish’ nature of mindfulness practice, it is, in fact, a generous act; transforming not only ourselves, but the relationships around us and our relationship with the world. However, as we make our way through the MBSR program we do move from the solitary practices of awareness of breathing, etc., into directly examining our communication from a mindful perspective. What does mindful communication look like, then, and what are some of the priniciples of mindful speech? 

Cultivating Mindful Attention

First, it’s important to mention that utilizing mindfulness techniques in daily life can be difficult to do without having a foundation in mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention, there is a quality of attention that is different from what is generally meant by ‘paying attention’, and it’s this that is developed and cultivated when we take time out for meditation practice each day. Once this is learned, however, it becomes easier and easier to ‘drop in’ to a mindful awareness in our daily life activities– and eventually even shifts into a default mode of operation. So, when we talk about the techniques for mindful communication, it’s helpful to understand that the quality of attention is different from just being aware of what’s going on the way we usually think of it.  A description of how mindfulness is engaged in communication may be helpful to understanding what that kind of awareness involves. 

How to Practice Mindful Communication

Mindful awareness in relation to communication involves being able to feel the sensations of the body; in our culture most of us aren’t in touch with our physical bodies at all unless some very strong experience demands it such as pain or very uncomfortable sensations. Learning to shift our awareness into the body is an extremely important aspect of bringing mindfulness to communication.  When we can notice what kinds of reactions are happening in the body in real-time we can become more responsive to stressful situations; after all, the stress response is a whole body-mind dynamic, only being aware of the content of our thoughts, for example, is not a full awareness of what is happening. Mindful awareness includes it all: Thoughts, sensations, emotions.  We can also use this kind of feedback to help us cultivate positive and nurturing patterns of communicating. 

Noticing Unpleasant Communication

Noticing tension or heat arising can be a cue that we are having a strong response, and having a mindful awareness of this allows us not to get pulled along by that into old patterns of reactivity that don’t tend to serve us well. It gives us a chance to become aware of whatever stories are present about the situation, and to check in with our intentions and desired results, and short-circuit the stress-response instead of reacting in the moment. 

Noticing Pleasant Communication

Bringing mindful awareness to pleasant communication can also be extremely beneficial; in his book Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson, a Neuropsychologist describes how we can re-wire our brains to default toward a more positive outlook.. something that scientists had believed was impossible for adults until recent research in neuroplasticity proved them wrong. By becoming more aware while engaging in happy, pro-active and nurturing communications, we begin to notice those pleasant experiences more, and the intentions and behaviors that enable those experiences. We also notice the kinds of responses we get when we are able to be more present with another. When we become conscious of this we become more able to intentionally apply that to communication when it’s not present; giving us the tools needed, through personal insight (not some list of techniques someone gave us that we’ll never be able to access in the heat of the moment!) to negotiate and change in mid-course.  As a teacher of mindfulness, I’ve heard some beautiful stories of this kind of insight arising in the midst of difficult conversations as we work with the mindful communication homework. 

In in the 4th and 5th week of the MBSR program we provide a ‘communication calendar’ where students can track communications over the course of each week: one week tracking ‘pleasant’ communications and in the next, ‘unpleasant’ communications. The following questions are what we are directing our awareness to in tracking our interactions: 

  1. Describe the communication. With Whom? Subject?
  2. How did the situation come about?
  3. What did you really want from the person or situation? What did you actually get? 
  4. What did the other person seem to want? What did they actually get?
  5. How did you feel (physically & emotionally) during and after?

When looking at this list, one can notice the other major aspect involved in mindful communication: what motivations or intentions are present. When we notice what our intentions are and, for instance, recognizing when we have an intention to connect, as is often the intention present in a pleasant communication, we can see the results both in our internal experience and in the interaction. When we start to experience, consciously, how this dynamic feels often what arises is an interest in listening more and a natural manifestation of compassion – as well as an interest in cultivating this more intentionally in other interactions. We then can begin to apply this in what we’d normally consider unpleasant discussions; where can we find common ground, where can we find an intention to connect where we’d previously focused on what we’re trying to get out of the interaction?  In our awareness in difficult or unpleasant communication, we start to recognize how certain patterns of reactivity toward a challenge don’t serve our purposes. Noticing both pleasant and unpleasant communication, mindfully, we begin to be able to negotiate our relationships more skillfully and intentionally. 

In class, after we’ve spent a couple of weeks noticing our communication patterns, we engage in some fun exercises acting out common patterns of interaction based on Aikido, a martial art focusing on the resolution of conflict and coming into harmony.  The first exercises focus on what it feels like to take on the role of the victim, the passive-aggressive or avoidant participant, and the aggressor – roles we’ve each taken at some point - and the way in which they interact with one-another. Our last exercise focuses on working proactively with a perceived threat, by ‘entering and blending’: holding our own center and boundaries while moving toward a threat or ‘attacker’ in a way that engages and redirects energy without becoming confrontational. In the experiential acting out of these patterns, and the recognition of the physical sensations and emotional responses that accompany them, we internalize the sense of how each feels, something we can reference when we notice these patterns emerging in our daily life.  For instance, most recognize that when we get to engage in a mutual  “I’m right, you’re wrong”  stand-off there is a bit of a pleasant charge to it initially, but that it's eventually just frustrating- there isn’t a ‘winner’.  Having a more pro-active way of engaging up our sleeves can help inform the way we might respond to something that triggers us in the future. 

Principles of Wise Communication

Some further guiding principles in mindfully engaging skillful speech come from a Buddhist perspective. These are questions we can keep in mind that help frame our intentions to enable mindful communication. The Buddha stated that in order to qualify as skillful speech, it must include all of the following: 

Is it necessary? 

Is it helpful?

Is it timely? 

Is it kind? 

When we hold these higher intentions with our speech, and become mindful of the intentions that are guiding us in the moment, we can see the direct experience when we do and don’t end up following them. What happens in the body and mind when we end up making unkind comments? What is the result of an interaction when these guidelines aren’t held? Often we’re not so aware of these when we are focused on what we want to get or are triggered by someone else’s behavior. Bringing mindful awareness to our speech can drive more harmonious interactions, not because we ‘know we should..’ but because we see the way it affects us, others, and drives outcomes. 

All of this, though, boils down to a couple of ‘techniques’ to remember in mindful communication:

1) Cultivate the ability to ‘drop into’ the body when engaging with others. To orient to the body’s sensations you can connect with the felt-sense of the feet against the ground (i.e.; pressure, warmth), as well as to the sensations of breathing in the belly or the chest. Once this connection is established, notice whatever other sensations in the body are arising; tension, heat, tingling or vibration, etc.) This is something that becomes second nature in the course of a meditation practice.

2) Noticing the intentions involved in any communications; what are you wanting to get from the interaction? Is it information, a particular response, or simply to connect?

You’ll be surprised how very powerful it is to simply connect with the body’s responses in real-time and to notice your motivations and intentions as you are engaging with another. Mindfulness in our interactions doesn’t take anything more than an intention to notice what’s happening in the moment when paired with an ability to access mindful awareness. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Forgiveness as a Quality of Mindfulness

Although ‘mindfulness’ as a practice is not easily definable,  the father of secular mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD., is most widely quoted with his definition: "...paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment." It’s this ‘non-judgmental' aspect which connects us with the forgiving nature of mindful awareness. 

Although it is possible to find our way to this non-judgmental acceptance of the ‘way things are’ through the practice of awareness alone, it’s helpful to cultivate the heart as well; the ‘heart practices’ directly connect us to a non-judgmental way of being. Forgiveness can be cultivated through practice, similarly to other ‘divine' states, or heart practices which include Lovingkindness and Compassion.

Some of these heart practices are also taught within the MindfulnessBased Stress Reduction curriculum in order to help cultivate a ‘non-judgmental’ heart. Ultimately, mindfulness is not different from this way of engaging the world, as true kindness is open and aware, not holding onto anything; and awareness is inherently compassionate and forgiving. Two sides, really, of the same coin.

Mindful awareness is a way of relating in the world without clinging to how we would rather have things be, and instead being present fully with whatever  is actually happening. This is a constant act of forgiveness. We begin to notice the way in which the mind constantly looks for ‘something else’ when engaging in the practice of mindfulness, and we begin to see how uncomfortable this is. In essence, staying present is a continuous act of forgiving ourselves and forgiving our experience for not being what we’d like. So forgiveness practice is not only an adjunct practice to mindfulness, it is inherent within it. In addition, at times when there is agitation or stress, forgiveness practice can help to calm the mind and help it to more easily ‘accept’ things as they are and create more ease in accessing non-judgmental awareness, (and, we can also learn to be mindful and forgiving of our non-acceptance!)  

Quite often the person we most need to forgive first is ourselves.

Even if we are upset with another, it is in soothing our self-judgment that enables us to forgive someone else; I have found this to be the key to forgiving others, finding the place of injury in myself and bringing a kind and forgiving awareness toward this, as we are often caught in self-recriminations for some part we played in allowing another to cause us harm. (“Why did I trust this person…?”, “If only I’d done X instead of Y, I wouldn’t have been in that position…”)

Usually when we think of forgiveness, however, we think about extending forgiveness toward another who has caused us harm. One of the important things to recognize in this regard is that cultivating a forgiving heart and the act of forgiveness is not something that can necessarily be done quickly or easily. Often times, when someone ‘forgives’ too quickly, it is not a true forgiveness that comes from the heart. And it’s also important to recognize that there is a difference between ‘reconciliation’ and forgiveness. Reconciliation involves a re-establishment of trust and mutual understanding when there has been a rupture in a relationship, and that is something that must happen with both parties involvement and intention to heal. Forgiveness, however, doesn’t require another’s participation, but rather relies on our own recognition that many factors came together and created the situation, and the suffering and delusion from which it arose. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean that we continue to enable another’s harmful behavior; it doesn’t mean we don’t take care of ourselves or don’t pursue corrective actions. Forgiveness does have us recognize the others’ humanity and it releases us from holding onto to negativity and anger. 

The 5th century Buddhist scholar, Buddhaghosa, gave us a quote regarding the result of holding onto anger toward another; “… By doing this you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink.” It’s also important to remember that forgiveness practice is really mostly for ourselves, even when it is directed toward another. However, by finding forgiveness in our own hearts we may end up affecting those around us as well.

Forgiveness phrases, how to cultivate forgiveness

There are practices which can help us to incline the mind toward forgiveness, and by inclining the mind the heart will follow. The recitation of phrases, intentions or prayers, over time, can rewire our brain toward a different default; instead of going directly to blame and anger, our thoughts fall more easily into what we have cultivated instead.

The following phrases are those which have been offered to me by my Buddhist teachers:

For any way that I have caused harm to myself
Through Judgment, action, self-blame, indifference
Knowingly or unknowingly
In thought, word, or deed,
May I forgive myself.

May I allow myself to be a student of life
And to make mistakes.
May I forgive myself.
And if I cannot do so in this moment
May I be able to forgive myself in the future

For any way that I have caused harm to you
Knowingly or unknowingly
In thought, word, or deed
I ask for your forgiveness

May you accept me with my imperfections and mistakes
May you allow me to learn from my actions
May you forgive me
And if you cannot do so in this moment
May you be able to forgive me in the future

For any way that you have caused harm to me
Knowingly or unknowingly
In thought, word, or deed
May I forgive you
May I allow you, too, to be a student of life and to make mistakes
May I recognize your humanity, in the midst of my pain
May I forgive you, and if I cannot do so in this moment
May I be able to forgive you in the future

May I let go of wanting the present moment to be anything other than it is
May forgiveness naturally flow through the pain and suffering of the mistakes and injuries of life

The prayer of St. Francis can also be very helpful in cultivating a forgiving heart:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

In the end, the practices of mindfulness, compassion, kindness and forgiveness converge and there is no longer any difference. The skill in developing a stable and open heart comes out of becoming more fluent in them all.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Why Sit in Meditation Every Day?

As I prepare to go off on retreat for a couple of weeks this month, I’ve been reflecting more on the cultivation of Mindfulness through formal practice.  Mindfulness practices do not necessarily involve sitting quietly and watching the breath, sensations in the body, sounds or thoughts, or, as is also taught in the MBSR curriculum, attention directed sequentially throughout the body into its ‘felt sense’ in a practice called the 'Body Scan'. However, it is these formal practices which teach us how to ‘informally’ drop into our experience mindfully in our day-to-day lives. Becoming mindful in our daily life activities is possible because of the way we cultivate the practice formally. This understanding informs the structure of the highly regarded MBSR curriculum (MindfulnessBased Stress Reduction – the originalsecular mindfulness curriculum created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD.)

Formal Practice as a 'Container': 

How Mindfulness is Taught in MBSR

In the MBSR program we start by learning the formal practices and how to integrate time for this into our lives in a way that works for each of us individually. We work with the challenges of the practice itself; learning how to navigate mindfulness beyond ‘techniques’ and into the living practice that it is, as well as working with the challenges that inevitably come up when trying to create a new habit.

By learning this in a group setting and over a designated period of time we create a ‘container’ for engaging the practice. It’s harder to blow it off, procrastinate or rationalize when we’ve made a commitment with others to go on this journey of learning. I’ve had many tell me that they’d tried to learn the practice through books and on their own without much success; so having this container for learning is actually an integral part of learning the practice. This parallels the importance of the formal practices themselves as a ‘container’; when we take a seat and set a timer and resolve to, for example,  watch our breath for 30 minutes regardless of whatever comes up in our body or mind (discomfort, restlessness, sleepiness, the thought that we need to ‘get something done’, doubt about what we’re doing.. etc.) we are likewise creating a container for ourselves so that we begin to actually see all these ways in which we try to run away from the experience of the present moment, and this is a critical aspect of learning a new way of relating to our experience. This is the crux of what we are training ourselves to do with mindfulness.

As we’re establishing a certain level of understanding or insight about what the practice actually is, and how to do it, we begin to see some results  in our internal experience. Often there is insight into some personal patterns that we never recognized before, and a surprising ability to hold some of our own experiences in a new way; without reactivity.

This internal understanding then begins to influence how we relate to our external experiences as well. We begin with our relationship with ourselves and this naturally evolves into an understanding of how we relate to others. The MBSR curriculum actively engages this unfolding of understanding by providing exercises and reflections with regard to mindfulness with our daily life experience and mindful communication. And, finally, as our practice begins to develop more robustly, and mindfulness becomes more of a natural way of being that we come back to throughout our day, we begin to see how we not only influence our internal experience through mindful awareness, but also how we are in relation to others and to the world. All the while, our formal practice time informs and deepens our understanding of how we hold ourselves and our experience in our day-to-day lives.

Through this process we begin to become mindful more and more in our daily 
life activities outside of any ‘formal’ practice time, and the formal practice maintains and cultivates our ability to do so. The pianist and composer Ignacy Jan Paderewski said of himself: 
“If I do not practice one day, I notice it. If I do not practice a second day, the orchestra notices it. If I do not practice a third day, the world notices it.”

Mindful Awareness Goes Beyond Mundane Awareness

In order to fully engage  mindfulness practice we must learn the formal practices, since mindful awareness is something that is beyond a mundane awareness and is difficult to comprehend or access without creating the kind of container that a formal practice time allows. One of my friends who has been a long-time practitioner reflected to me about establishing and maintaining a regular ‘sitting’ practice, she says;
“The ability to step back from myself in this way, stepping back from ‘conventional’ experience, gives me the space to see my own reactivity and to create the stability that is needed to find that pause in my daily life.”

While mindfulness is something larger than any technique and cannot be defined by any particular formal practice, it is the formal practices which cultivate our ability to engage our experience mindfully. Because mindfulness practice is something that continues to deepen and unfold over our lives, it is a habit that is worth cultivation. Most of us take the few minutes a day to brush our teeth because we know that this practice will support our health and our quality of life, it’s not even something that most of us think too much about since our parents enforced the practice when we were very young; we just do it. When we don’t, we notice the effects. Likewise, formal mindfulness practice can become a habit that we ‘just do’ – and when we don’t practice we feel the results; like a fuzzy-feeling mouth after forgetting to brush the night before- we begin to notice the effects its absence.

Integrating formal practice time into our daily schedule plants the seed of mindfulness in order to become more present and skillful in relating to life. The MBSR program is one of the best ways to learn the practice in a totally secular environment, though attending a retreat or connecting with a local practice group (meditation groups practicing ‘Vipassana’ or ‘Insight’ are practicing mindfulness in a Western Buddhist container) are also great ways to learn or to deepen practice (the Buddhist container is held quite lightly in this tradition.) 

I feel fortunate and grateful to have the opportunity over the next few weeks to take the time out of my life in the container of a formal retreat atmosphere. I continue to cultivate my own practice to deepen my practice and become more skillful and aware in my life.  If you are interested in taking time out to practice for 5, 7, or 9 days, or even longer, you might check out the opportunities at places like Insight Retreat Center and Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, or Insight RetreatSociety in Massachusetts. Of course, taking the 8 week MBSR program is also a great way to learn and integrate the practices of mindfulness into your day-to-day life.  

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Meditation at Work

Why set aside time each day to sit quietly? I mean, we’re all pretty busy these days, and taking time out to do ‘nothing’ seems pretty selfish. There are still references to ‘navel gazing’ in some sectors of our Western culture, and worse yet, taking time during a busy workday... that's just counter-intuitive!

I remember going to look for a job after coming out of a long retreat at one point; I’d spent the previous year recovering from a back injury and doing a lot of meditation practice. I’d ended that period with a two-month retreat. I was exuberant about my practice and very dedicated. I was in awe of the transformational power of meditation. I was doing volunteer work was working on an Excel file and scrolling through a spreadsheet; when previously all I’d ever seen was a blur as I scrolled, this time I saw each individual cell stand out in crisp relief as I whizzed down the columns. It was pretty amazing; I was able to focus and see things at an entirely different level, both physically -as with the spreadsheet, visually- but also on a comprehensive level. 

Anyway, I was pretty passionate about all of that, and when I went to interview for a job I talked a little too much about my meditation practice and what I'd been doing, thinking they’d see what a great benefit it would be to have such a reliable, honest and effective person working for them; things I felt that a dedicated meditator personified. So I was pretty surprised when the woman interviewing me seemed concerned and asked me, “You’re not going to be meditating at work, are you?” Ummm... Hmmm. Ok, so she didn’t have a clue what it was all about. Lesson learned (well, sort of anyway…  I’m kind of a hopeless case on this theme… ) Rather than understanding that having a meditating employee would actually be a great benefit to her organization, she saw it as a liability. Sad.  (Next!)  

I realized then that most people who aren’t familiar with meditation don’t really understand what it’s all about. They think meditation is an escape or that meditators are space-cadets or just ‘out there,’ as much as mindfulness is popular these days, meditation is still not always considered mainstream. 

Many don’t get that meditation practices, especially mindfulness, are not only an enormous benefit to the meditator, but that having an employee with the skills of meditation can affect the interactions of those around them as well as the bottom-line for the organization.  (Nevertheless, I tried to talk a little less about my meditation in subsequent interviews…)

However, happily, more and more organizations have seen the effects and the numbers and are offering mindfulness training as part of their benefit package, Google has even created its own mindfulness program called ‘Search Inside Yourself’. A few other large companies offering mindfulness programs include Aetna, Genentech, Ford, Target, Adobe, Goldman Sachs, General Mills, Apple, Nike, Proctor & Gamble, Huffington Post and AOL. 

In general, mindfulness training not only improves personal well-being, but studies also have shown its positive impacts on relationships, productivity and health outcomes. Mindfulness meditation in the workplace has been shown to decrease sick days and healthcare costs, as well as increase focus and productivity. Research has indicated that for care-giving professionals such as doctors, nurses, psychologists, social workers, hospice workers, etc., mindfulness programs decrease burnout  and increase skills in patient-centered communication (which translates to better patient outcomes).  I would hope that it has become harder for an employer to begrudge an employee a few minutes of meditation throughout the day for the benefit it reaps all around. There's an old Zen adage that says, "You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day, unless you're too busy, and then you should sit for an hour!" Which just might have been an early version of a corporate slogan recognizing the benefit to the bottom-line

Meditation – at least mindfulness meditation – isn’t selfish at all. Mindfulness meditation is a practice of awareness. Supporting the cultivation of a greater level of awareness, focus, and balance should be a no-brainer for any employer. When we become more self-aware, we become better able to respond to internal stressors as well as to the people and situations around us, and, as we all know, it’s difficult to attend to others when we aren’t able to attend to ourselves.  

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Think you need a quiet mind to meditate? You don't!

(Or, how watching your busy mind can help to calm it)

One of the comments I hear most often when I talk to people and tell them that I teach meditation is some variation of; “I've always wanted to learn how to meditate but I can’t do it (…I've tried!…), I can’t quiet my mind… it’s too busy” Well, therein lies the rub… we want some peace in our mind but think we can’t get there because our mind isn’t quiet enough. While there is an aspect of paradox in this supposed dilemma (and you may wish to read my last post, which discusses more about paradox in mindfulness,) in essence, mindfulness meditation doesn’t require a ‘calm’ mind. 

Mindfulness meditation, in particular, works with whatever is present in the mind; whether it is agitated and out of control, happy or sad, or distracted (yes, even those of you with ADD/ADHD can do mindfulness meditation, and can experience it’s benefits.) As a matter of fact, the first insight that most everyone experiences when starting a mindfulness practice is that their mind is out of control! Bhante Gunaratana, the author of Mindfulness in Plain English (here's a link to a free online published version) a book which is generally considered one of the most clear and helpful about mindfulness practice, describes this realization: 

“Somewhere in this process you will come face-to-face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday.”

Mindfulness meditation and mindfulness practices do not require anyone to start out with a calm or quiet mind. They will likely help to access more quiet states of mind, but it isn’t necessary, or even the end goal of this practice. 

Mindfulness and Concentration: Two Different Kinds of Practice 

(and how you can meditate with a 'busy' mind...)

There are basically two types of meditation, ‘insight’ practices and ‘concentration’ practices. Concentration practices are those that fix the attention with ‘one-pointedness’.  Concentration practices include reciting mantras and visualizations; Transcendental Meditation (TM) is a concentration practice, for example.  Concentration practices on their own can provide a temporary feeling of calm or relaxation, and they can be beneficial in cultivating access to a calm state. But for those who have difficulty focusing their attention or suffer from attention deficit conditions, these practices may be more difficult to access right out of the box.  

The other kind of meditation, insight practice, is the practice of mindfulness. Insight, or mindfulness, is a practice which enables seeing what is really happening moment-to-moment. It does not require a perfectly-fixed attention, in fact, if concentration is too narrowly focused insight will be inaccessible. However, the process of mindfulness meditation does involve training the mind in an aspect of concentration too; it can actually help to bring about a certain level of concentration, and therefore, especially for those who have difficulty with accessing a calm mind, it can provide a doorway to that as well. More importantly, it cultivates equanimity in the dynamic experiences of day to day life; not only in a particular meditative state. 

Mindfulness meditation usually begins with the attention on the sensations of breathing (sensations like expansion, contraction, coolness, warmth, etc.) in one selected location in the body where the meditator finds sensations are most predominant: generally focusing attention on the tip of the nostrils, or the chest, or at the abdomen (picking only one location and sticking with it.) But wait, you say, … isn’t focusing attention the way you described concentration practice?Since the breath itself as the ‘object of attention’ is not static (the sensations of the breath are ever-changing), having such a dynamic object ensures it will function as an insight practice rather than a strictly concentration-type practice. While the process of training mindfulness does involve keeping the focus on the breath, because it is challenging to maintain focus on the dynamic and changing sensations involved with the breath, the process involves returning over and over again to this object of attention. The mind ‘does its thing’ and constantly wanders away from this object, so the practice of mindfulness begins with bringing attention back to the present moment experience of the breath every time it wanders away. It's actually the failure to keep the mind solidly on the object that helps to inform and train the mind. Through this process we begin to see the nature of our mind, the nature of sensations, and as a result, begin to recognize subtle patterns in our experience that we have not previously noticed. 

This process is the cultivation of mindfulness. As one cultivates mindfulness, the ability to stay focused on the breath (which is always in the present) for longer periods of time develops, and, as such, an element of concentration develops as well, right along with the mindfulness; they begin to work together. The element of concentration provides the benefit creating stability of mind and calming it, and this calm and stability provides access to a greater, more subtle, level of mindfulness. Concentration can eventually be developed to a degree which enables a more subtle awareness and mindfulness, and an equanimity with whatever is happening. 

Mindfulness practices are accessible for most people!

Many people feel intimidated by meditation and don’t think it’s accessible to them. Along with the belief that they 'just can't do it', many also view it as some kind of obscure, religious, unattainable ‘experience’. But meditation is a skill that can be learned by almost anyone.  It’s a mind training, and the skill can be cultivated just as much as any physical exercise.  To say I can’t meditate because my mind is ‘too busy’ is akin to saying I can’t go to the gym because I'm out of shape. (Although some might say that too…)

There are no special requirements to begin a meditation practice, no special ‘lifestyle’ (aside from making time to do the practice), no need to be or feel ‘spiritual’. And mindfulness meditation, in particular, is very much oriented to our grounded, bodily experience; it is not esoteric. This understanding, and the demonstrated efficacy of mindfulness through hundreds of research outcomes over the last years make a strong argument that the practice of mindfulness meditation is quite accessible, and can be of great benefit to most people in the many aspects of their lives. 

Learning how to meditate is one of the most worthwhile skills anyone can learn; even (and especially!) for all of us with ‘busy’ minds. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

   The Paradox of Mindfulness:

Most come to Mindfulness practice out of a desire to change something; health, state of mind, understanding, relationships... 

It is the human condition that we seek to improve our situation in one way or another.  Meditation was a response to suffering in its original Buddhist origins, and the offering of this practice in a secular context has been widely accepted today because an inherent state of discomfort -and our wish to relieve it- is relatable to everyone's human experience at one time or another. 

It is true, also, that the original secular Mindfulness program (MBSR), which has served as the forerunner of today’s cultural love-affair with mindfulness, was created and geared for those who were seeking relief from difficult physical and emotional problems.*

Cultivating Mindfulness does change us in radical ways. It changes the way we relate to ourselves, each other and the world around us. It can have the effect of reducing physical pain, has helped those with physical and emotional conditions to heal, and is a very effective approach to dealing with stress-related problems and in approaching any kind of health-behavior change. So, it’s interesting to understand that the practice of Mindfulness is not, at its heart, about changing anything at all. 

The heart of the paradox. 

While it is quite human to want things to be different than they are, it is in accepting how things are that best enables us to make change. By focusing on what we don’t want or where we’d rather be we are no longer accessing the information available to us in the moment; and that's the information that can help us recognize how we might get to the place we want to go or affect the change we’d like to see. Consider rock climbing; it is good to know where you want to go, but if you don’t pay attention to where you are placing each hand and foot, it would be hard to navigate the path to the top. 

Mindfulness practice is similar in that it picks some aspect of experience (such as the sensations of the breath) that helps us learn the terrain of the present moment. Mindfulness practice cultivates our ability to stay entirely present with experience as it arises, moment-to-moment, training our attention to recognize our real-time experience. Just as when a rock climber finds herself in a challenging terrain, her attention must be completely absorbed with the feel and placement of her feet and hands and the balance of her body on the rock otherwise she risks falling; any move of focus away from what is happening in the moment could end in tragedy. The top of the mountain or even the next step is not important, only what is happening now. It isn’t a mindset of ‘in order to do’, it’s the act of ‘being’ exactly where we are. Mindfulness isn’t actually about making change or navigating anywhere: Mindfulness is the practice of becoming entirely present with things as they are, and paradoxically it’s in doing this that enables us to much more effectively move forward. 

Here’s something I heard one of my Buddhist teachers say that I think illustrates this really well: In order to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’, first one has to be entirely at point ‘A’. Mindfulness is the act of bringing ourselves, over and over again, to point ‘A’ so that we become intimately familiar with how to do this intentionally and more fluently in our day to day life. Sometimes just the very ability to orient ourselves fully at point A brings with it a spontaneous movement toward point B, and sometimes it just provides the firm ground from which to move in the direction we wish to go. Especially in our Western culture we want everything immediately, we like to skip over as many steps as we can to get where we want to go… unfortunately, we often end up tripping over ourselves this way. As efficient as we may like to think we are in doing this, the truth is that we inevitably have to go back and deal with many of those skipped steps in order to finally completely arrive at our intended destination. (...and then have you ever noticed that by the time you've arrived anywhere, you’re already ready to be somewhere else… ??)


OK, that all sounds interesting in theory, but what does this mean in concrete terms? What does it look like to do this ‘practice’? 

The cultivation of present-moment awareness involves becoming intimately aware in our body; “embodied awareness”. Why? The body is always completely present. Learning how to inhabit and be aware of the sensations in our own bodies is therefore the primary path to mindfulness. One of the most easily accessible ways to embody awareness is through Mindfulness of the breath. Mindfulness practices also incorporate other sensations in the body, but the breath offers an entry-point. Many who begin to practice are surprised to realize that they hadn’t been in touch with their bodily sensations at all. The sensations of breathing lead us to the recognition of more subtle physical sensation and provide an ‘anchor’ for us to return to again and again as we train our minds to stay present and more fully ‘inhabit’ our bodies. Eventually we can also become mindfully aware of thoughts and emotions and begin to see the connections between these and the body and how they all influence one-another. Thus, Mindfulness is experiential, not a philosophy or so much a ‘technique’ (although there are techniques involved in the cultivation of mindfulness). It is a different way of relating to our experience than the way we usually interact; filtered through our conceptual and abstract minds. Mindfulness meditation is a training in intimately relating with our direct moment-to-moment experience, and with this cultivation comes the ability to bring a new way of relating into our daily lives and wonderful transformations along with it. 

To Do, or Not To Do, that is the question… 

Although the practice is of non-doing, the way to Mindfulness requires learning and practicing; so, reading a book (or a blog...) about mindfulness or talking about mindfulness can be an illuminating experience, but it's not the same thing as sitting down and engaging mindfulness practice – Mindfulness is something we must cultivate. Training the mind in this practice is no different than developing a muscle; the more training, the more strength is developed. The ability to ‘be mindful’ requires learning how to strengthen the ‘muscle’ of mindfulness and then doing the exercises which target that muscle, both formal (sitting meditation) and informal (daily life mindfulness). Scientific research now shows us that, just like physical exercise changes the body, Mindfulness practices change the physical neural pathways in our brain. We really can change our brains and our way of being in the world by learning how to become completely present with what’s happening without the desire to change it. A paradox which makes the complex so very simple; Just Do the practice of Not Doing in order to do things differently. 

*The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, the original secular program teaching Mindfulness created by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979, was originally offered to help people suffering from serious and conventionally untreatable health conditions at the UMass Medical Center. Physicians sent the patients that they couldn’t help to the program as an experiment, and the results were significant and changed the quality of life for many dealing with serious chronic pain and illness. (watch this 40 minute video of the Bill Moyers special, which aired in 1993, about the MBSR program) Although subsequent use of the MBSR program has also proven radically beneficial for people who don’t perceive themselves as sick or in pain, and many adaptations of the program are offered in corporate environments for stress relief and improved focus, balance and resilence (Google, Target, General Mills, IBM, Genentech for example), in schoolspolice departments, senior centers, and for health care practitioners and care-givers, and parents to name just a few!