With Gratitude

I just finished co-teaching the summer MBSR class at the University of Missouri with Dr. Lynn Rossy. What a wonderful learning opportunity it was for me! I was very fortunate to get to work with Dr. Rossy, who is currently promoting her new book, The Mindfulness-Based Eating Solution. I’ll be teaching the MBSR classes for upcoming school year and am already busy planning for the next class starting September 27th. The classes are offered through the employee wellness program at the University and participants are all employees of the University.
I’m always struck by the courage of the participants of an MBSR class. Watching people learn to turn toward discomfort instead of mindlessly attempting to avoid it is an exhilarating process for me. I will never grow tired of it. There is something essential and heroic about it. At first many people are bewildered to find that they are supposed to be curious about what’s uncomfortable for them. They signed up for an MBSR class to have less stress, not more. I find this initial confusion beautiful, actually. It is the blank canvass upon which a work of art is about to be wrought.
From the outset, this initial upsetting of habitual ways of being and doing is met with empathy and connection from the others in the class, many of whom are also feeling the rug being pulled gently out from under them. A safe container of practice takes hold and we all rely on each other to provide the whole-heartedness necessary to continue this path of fearless yet gentle exploration. “When we train our mind to embrace what’s hard instead of trying to get rid of it, we have begun to walk a path of growth, happiness, and true resilience. Our very difficulties and sufferings, if we hold them the right way, can be wedges to pry open our smallness”, says Norman Fischer, in Training in Compassion. Indeed.
GratitudeWatching people transform themselves is a gift, a true miracle. This is what we are capable of – meeting the vicissitudes of life in a way that creates connection and compassion. May it be so for all beings.

Goodbye to winter (for now)

IMG_1429It looks to me as though the winter here in Columbia is drawing to a close. Staring out at the brown, bare forest I see the tiny branches beginning to get fuzzy. The birds are behaving differently; the sun seems to be rising earlier. Being from Texas I’m happy with hot weather, but I’ve learned to enjoy a cold season. When I came here just over two months ago there was snow on the ground, a rarity in Austin. I’ve enjoyed the clear, cold days filled with intense light. The fat hawks surveying a field from a large, white oak. I’ve learned from the close observation of nature to value this time of dormancy. Before it yields to the abundant energy of spring I would like to honor its passing with a poem from Wallace Stevens that I think has a lot to say about the implications of living a mindful life.

This poem spoke to me because I have been gifted with a “mind of winter” by being here in Columbia and by having learned to see not only my mind but also the mind of nature, and I have come to understand the ways in which they are the same.

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

–Wallace Stevens

Who desires?

My stepson gave me a CD for Christmas from a band called the “Manic Street Preachers”. I had heard of them before but was not familiar with with their music. As I was nosing around on the internet looking for a little background information I stumbled across a BBC documentary about them called, “From There To Here” that I thought was quite interesting.

There was a charismatic but troubled lead singer that captured my attention with something he said. In one interview clip he talks about how life seems to be a never-ending series of disappointments. He observed that he would pursue something he thought he wanted only to find that he eventually lost it somehow. It would go away or he would lose interest. Either way grief or suffering was the result. He told the interviewer that he thought surely rock stardom would provide a lasting sense of satisfaction but like everything else it lost its luster. “Everything in life is like that” he said, seemingly resigned to this fate. I felt a deep kinship for this man. He was an astute observer of the human condition and had come to a realization many of us never get to. We are motivated by desire and aversion and desire looks like this: “I saw it, I recognized it, I wanted it, I pursued it, I got it, I enjoyed it, I lost it, I grieved.”

Many of us get hung up on the way to the lead singer’s revelation. Either we don’t exactly know what we want or we want things that hurt us over and over and we don’t know why. We pursue what we want but cannot get it. We get it but we cannot hang on to it. We hang on to it but it is torn from us or we lose interest. Stumbling along this path we may decide other people or circumstances are responsible for our failure or that we are responsible for our failure or that what is happening IS failure. Alternatively we may be extremely successful at the cycle of desire and repeat it over and over in an effort to accumulate material things or a sense of peace, happiness, or accomplishment. Some people are happy with this state of affairs, content to continually find something new to chase after.  Some people I think are not calibrated to be particularly self aware, and this is OK. Others like myself and apparently this troubled singer suspect the game as it is being played is rigged. With this realization one arrives at what I call the jumping off place.

Some spiritual lines of thought suggest desire itself is the culprit but I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure desire is the solution to a problem but that is for another blog. I think that the troubled but perceptive lead singer of the Manic Street Preachers unfortunately decided to give up on life with his realization of the never-ending cycle of desire. He disappeared one day without a trace and has never been seen since. I wish I could have known him and told him that I have been a prisoner inside the cycle of desire for many years. I’ve gotten stuck at almost every place there is to be stuck. I’ve known failure and I’ve known success, and at last I knew that I was on an endless cycle of desire and much if not all of life is this way. Then by luck or grace, and with the help of compassionate others I discovered a way out, or better put, a way IN.

“I saw it, I recognized it, I wanted it, I pursued it, I got it, I enjoyed it, I lost it, I grieved.”

What if the problem were not desire itself or the notion of a never-ending cycle but the conception of an “I” that is repeating this over and over? Exactly who is the “I” that desires? This is the ultimate question that meditation and mindfulness practice seeks to engage. Notice I didn’t say “answer” but “engage”. I’m not suggesting here that you don’t exist – I’m suggesting that you consider taking up the exploration of who the “I” is that desires. If you find the notion of deconstructing your sense of self alarming then by all means go back to the cycle of desire – have at it. But maybe you are at the jumping off place too. Maybe you are ready to pay close attention to this “I” in an effort to see what it really is, and see how it lives and loves and loses and ultimately, IF it is.

I wish I could have told the lead singer of the Manic Street Preachers that yes, human beings are driven by desire and aversion, endlessly, but this fact need not resign you to a life of being unfulfilled.  When I exhausted my search for a way out of the cycle of desire I began to question who was experiencing the cycle to begin with. That exploration continues to this day and I cannot shake the feeling that somehow I jumped the tracks. I can See the part of the mind that desires and have compassion for it.  I gained a perspective of myself as not separate and therefore at home and at peace in the midst of striving. John Lennon, perhaps talking about something closely related, put it a great way when he said, “no longer riding on the merry-go-round, I just had to let it go.”

Take a close look at the mind. Learn to See the mind with intention, curiosity, and compassion and watch your desire lead you to freedom.

Three things to know about mindfulness

When someone expresses interest in beginning a mindfulness practice in earnest there are usually 3 things that I want them to understand. First, mindfulness is a practice and will involve practicing regularly. Second, it involves turning toward the uncomfortable, not away from it, and third, the consistent practice of it will change your life beyond words.

I went to a yoga class yesterday at a new studio. Throughout the class, the teacher’s constant talk seemed to be an attempt to get us to catch some sort of mystical wave. We were encouraged to “soothe the amygdala” and “travel across the corpus callosum.” While I appreciated her blissful orientation to life I don’t think her approach was the best way to help someone learn yoga because her words were an invitation to leave the body and breath and focus instead on a soothing fantasy.

Similarly I often meet people who think that to begin mindfulness practice they must first adopt some sort of mystical orientation to their life and everything else will flow from there with little or no effort. The mystical orientation may or may not come later but the effort definitely comes first. In my experience, the path to the extraordinary always goes through the ordinary. Many of us in our understandable desire to be free of mental or physical pain try to put the cart before the horse, as it were. We want to leap clear of the uncomfortable stuff: the fear, the boredom, the monotony, the overwhelm, and simply relocate ourselves in a wonderful new mind-set. One day you may look back and say you have achieved this, but if so it will be because you started at the beginning, you started where you were, on the ground floor where the dirt is. One accepts and cherishes the journey.

Mindfulness is not magic, it is a human capacity. It can be developed by anyone with proper training and practice. If you find the notion of practice intimidating, fear not. Starting small and keeping it simple is a sure way to find your footing and ensure that you will not be dissuaded by difficulty. In turning toward your pain or unease with compassion you will automatically summon the courage to face it and begin a process of integration and dissolution. Embracing and understanding our inherent vulnerability is usually a part of this process and paradoxically enables us to accept the support and encouragement of others which we come to find in abundant supply. No matter who you are or how much or little burden you carry, mindfulness practice reveals an ordinary human capacity to come alive and thrive. I hope you will consider embarking on this journey to See The Mind.