Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What does my nervous system have to do with meditation? Or “Get this monkey off my back.”

Do you replay things in your mind that happened yesterday, last week, years ago? Or maybe you awaken in the night to rehearse what you will do if such-and-such happens in the future? If so, you know the effects of thoughts-gone-wild: muscle tension, headache, stomachache, anxiety, sleep disturbance, increased blood pressure, and more. The fight-or-flight chemicals that allowed cavemen to outrun saber-toothed tigers still surge today, with many of us able to do little more than hold on for dear life in the midst of our incessant mind chatter (aka “monkey mind”).
This is not helping.
Mindfulness practice involves dropping beneath monkey mind to simply be with things as they are; it’s a practice of “coming back” to what the moment actually entails. Do you remember home base in the game of hide-and-seek? “Coming back” during the practice of mindfulness is like making it to home base: we’re still in the game, but we’re relating to it from a totally different vantage point than from when we were hiding or running around trying to avoid being caught.

And avoiding being caught is so very natural for us; we’re hardwired to scan the environment for threats, and the nervous system supports us in this. When an event is perceived as a threat (whether that event is, say, being followed by someone in a dark alley or being belittled by someone in a business meeting), the autonomic nervous system (ANS) kicks it up a notch, releasing stress hormones into the bloodstream. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) then responds by preparing us to fight, flee, or freeze. 

This is a brilliant system. If we are in fact being followed in a dark alley, we need increased heart rate, rapid breathing, more blood flow to the muscles, adrenaline rush, and so on; it’s time to run away! But in a business meeting? There’s the rub. We’re almost never in imminent danger, yet many of us are in a state of autonomic dysregulation, feeling as though our SNS switch is stuck in the “powered up” position. This can make it feel as though even when things are going okay, it’s certainly only a matter of time before the ball drops again.
I've lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened. 
                                                                                                            -Mark Twain
Enter mindfulness practice, which, again, allows us to return to the present moment. One practice of mindfulness involves coming back, again and again and again, to the sensation of breathing as a way to be present. This repeated coming back can be about as exciting as brushing our teeth at times. But just as our desire for good dental health keeps us brushing, the desire for good mind-body health can keep us practicing mindfulness meditation. With this return to the breath, we learn to return to the present moment, without the accompanying pain, anger, anxiety, depression, and myriad of other monkey mind outcomes. The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) can serve to return us to a sense of calm. 
A favorite "coming back" spot at Karme Choling, Vermont
Without this ability to come back, we have no choice but to continue to spin our story lines until we pop back to the moment by happenstance. Mindfulness meditation is the practice of attending to the moment fully and intentionally, not by happenstance. Unlimited choice exists in the little gap of clear-headedness that comes from realizing that we’re lost in thought, at which point we’re no longer lost at all. Of course we also have the choice to go right back to letting our story lines about past and future spin themselves and pull us around like puppets, but ideally we choose to stop thinking our life and get back to living it. 

Between stimulus and response there is a space. 
In that space is our power to choose our response. 
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
-Viktor Frankl
This 12-minute video features a BBC correspondent who describes his initial skepticism at being asked to participate in an 8-week mindfulness course: “I was totally phobic about beards, sandals, incense, and anything to do with Eastern mysticism.” Hear how once he understands that these things have nothing to do with taking a mindfulness course (and that even Marines practice mindfulness), he takes the course and finds himself quite transformed (also see what his brain scan shows after he participates in the course). And hear a woman with chronic pain talk about what the practice of mindfulness does for her.

Challenge: See if you can identify the female reporter’s misunderstanding of what occurs during mindfulness practice (listen to what she says beginning at the 9:13 mark).

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A meditation for loving-kindness

Click the link below to hear an 18-minute audio for practicing loving-kindness; pass it on.

Loving-kindness meditation

A practice of loving-kindness can certainly have physiological effects—lowering our cortisol level and increasing oxytocin, which can improve our ability to give love and to receive love. But it also softens the relationship to mind states that feel toxic—mind states that sideswipe us, or keep us stuck, such as rage, jealousy, and so on. 

With practice, may we always dwell in our natural ability to love.
I believe in love.
The Love Religion, by Ibn Arabi

The inner space inside
that we call the heart
has become many different
living scenes and stories.

A pasture for sleek gazelles,
a monastery for Christian monks,
a temple with Shiva dancing,
a kaaba for pilgrimage.

The tablets of Moses are there,
the Qur’an, the Vedas, 
the sutras, and the gospels.

Love is the religion in me.
Whichever way love’s camel goes,
that way becomes my faith,
the source of beauty, and a light
of sacredness over everything.

Monday, November 12, 2012

What draws us to meditation? Or "Cut it out or I'll bean you with a rock."

Nobody comes to meditation because they have it all together. Nobody comes thinking, My life, my body, my marriage—perfect. I have no money concerns, can’t wait for Monday mornings, my sciatica is a beautiful reminder that I’m alive, and, hey, I think I’ll learn to meditate.

We all come to meditation feeling that our lives could be better somehow—that we could be better. We all come feeling, to some degree, not okay. Within the last month, the last week, maybe the last 15 minutes, we’ve likely felt impatient, angry, phony, petty, judgmental, vengeful, apathetic, or something else that doesn't mesh with who we want to be. 

Not every moment is like this, of course. Sometimes we feel lovely. We sit on a bench to enjoy a quiet lunch. The sun shines on us at precisely the right angle. Our shoulders relax and so does our breathing. Then a car trawls by, stereo booming its bass into our very heart center. In 2 seconds flat we go from being at one with nature to wanting to run after the car and hurl a large rock.
I would have turned it down!
Of course we’d never actually throw a rock, on most days, but thinking about lobbing a hefty one at the dolt who isn’t nearly as enlightened as we are really gets the adrenaline pumping. But in our mind we do throw rocks, and those mental rocks pile up. They form walls that fortify our neuroses and cut us off from our highest self, from one another, and from the phenomenal world. 

Suddenly we snap back to awareness that we are still sitting on the bench. The sandwich wrapper is empty but we don’t remember chewing, tasting, swallowing. And when did those clouds roll in? Why does something always happen to mess things up, dammit? Most of us come to meditation at the dammit point. 

But we need not get stuck there. Through the practice of mindfulness meditation we can get unstuck: stop being swept away by emotion and yanked from thought to thought to thought. This all starts with accessing the stillness that already exists within each of us. Through this stillness we discipline the mind for clearer seeing so that perspective is restored and wise decisions can be made; we relearn respect for the body's abilities as well as for its limitations; we keep the heart moist and open. We wake up. 

I remember the phrase "If I should die before I wake" from a childhood prayer. Back then I thought that just by my falling asleep that I was somehow increasing my chance of dying—of not ever waking up again. 

Some semblance of that prayer still lives inside of me: May I not fall asleep. May I, and may all beings, awaken now.
I'm awake and very sweet.
Awakening Now, by Danna Faulds

Why wait for your awakening?
The moment your eyes are open, seize the day.
Would you hold back when the Beloved beckons?
Would you deliver your litany of sins
like a child's collection of sea shells, prized and labeled?
"No, I can't step across the threshold," you say, eyes downcast.
"I'm not worthy, I'm afraid, and my motives aren't pure.
I'm not perfect, and surely I haven't practiced nearly enough.
My meditation isn't deep, and my prayers are sometimes insincere.
I still chew my fingernails, and the refrigerator isn't clean."
Do you value your reasons for staying small
more than the light shining through the open door?
Forgive yourself.
Now is the only time you have to be whole.
Now is the sole moment that exists to live in the light of your true Self.
Perfection is not a prerequisite to anything but pain.
Please, oh please, don't continue to believe in your disbelief.
This is the day of your awakening.

Monday, November 5, 2012

When we can’t feel love: Or “Meditation for a Squirrel”

So far in my life I’ve meditated for a squirrel twice. Both times were during periods of feeling numbed out on the love front. It wasn’t that I didn’t love people during this period; I did. I just couldn’t quite feel love—delight in its tender quality. We all have these lack-of-love power outages, even in regard to our children, partners, best friends—people we’d give our life for, but who, on some days, occupy the “I’m just not that into you at the moment” space.

Most times this is nothing to worry about. Our partner shows up in the kitchen with sleepy morning hair, and we pick up the thread of affection. Our child comes out to the car to help us bring in a bag of groceries, and suddenly we’re back on the loving track. But there’s never a guarantee that a felt sense of love will arise again, so it makes sense that we might put forth intentional effort to keep our heart tuned to love.

It was during a loving-kindness meditation, which involves bringing to mind someone for whom we can easily feel love, that I realized that I couldn’t easily feel love for anyone in that particular moment. I ran down my list of usual people, checking in with my heart to see if a feeling of tenderness arose. Nada. I couldn’t even tap into a feeling of love for myself on this morning, which, of course, is precisely why I couldn’t tap into feeling love beyond myself, so I just continued to sit and focus on my breath. Some days this is simply what happens, and I reminded myself that during these “beige” times that a meditation practice supports our best intention of just extending a sense of friendliness to ourselves...period. 
Sometimes I don't
But suddenly I saw a squirrel walk across my deck rail and stop at a flower pot. I had noticed him weeks before and had named him Mr. White Chest, watching him return again and again to bury nuts. This day I watched him dig up a nut and stand on his hind legs to crack it with his teeth. I felt a tenderness. It wasn’t a tears-rolling-down-the-cheeks tenderness, but there was a softness that hadn’t come from thinking of, say, even my mother, whom I love dearly. On this morning, tapping into how I felt about Mr. White Chest had allowed me to reconnect with the tender heart that I knew was there all along, but that I just couldn’t find my way back to.

The second time that a squirrel brought me back to feeling love was while I was on a solo retreat. I had traveled from my Virginia home to spend 5 weeks alone in a remote area of Pennsylvania. It was solidly winter when I arrived, and my days consisted of meditating, building fires, meditating, preparing and eating meals, meditating, sleeping, meditating, and more meditating. The morning after I arrived I awoke to the sound of frantic scratching coming from inside the wall behind my head. I grabbed my phone and called Javier back home in Virginia. And while it felt oh-so-soothing to hear his voice, when I hung up, I was still alone, and the scratching was still there. 
Frozen: February 2009, Nuangola, PA

The scratcher had fallen down an old chimney that had no escape route. The exterminator said that it was likely a squirrel that was doing the scratching, probably being kept alive by snow and the nuts that had fallen from trees, and that it could go on for a bit, but that it wouldn’t be permanent. As l heard him say that it was likely a squirrel, my mind went to a weird place—that maybe it wasn't a squirrel at all, that maybe it was some creepy person who was watching me sleep at night and trying to scratch its way through the wall during the day. 

I continued to meditate, ending each meditation with the usual dedication that we all stop suffering (by now I really meant that for myself in a big way). Eventually I was able to genuinely include even “the scratcher.” During one of my meditations the scratching got so loud that I yelled, “May you be free from suffering, you little bastard.” Later that day I looked up to see a tiny hole in the wall. It was trying to enter my space; I wanted the bastard to suffer a lot. I grabbed the phone and called Javier again, who advised me to push a piece of furniture against the wall. I was sleep-deprived and weepy, but I was determined not to go home because of a maybe squirrel.

Later that day the scratching got less and less, like something done out of sheer habit in the absence of actual hope. I cried like a baby for the poor thing that was stuck. It was alone. So was I. It was frantic. So was I. It was dying. So was I. In that moment the love that I felt for the squirrel, and for myself, was full and honest; in fact (and it feels silly to even say this), I still have a deepened feeling for squirrels. I write about this because I see that, once again, the squirrels are visiting the flower pots on the back deck. Each year this opens my heart in a way that many other things don’t. 

May my heart continue to be touched in unexpected ways, and may the genuine heart of love expand to all living beings. Squirrels included.

Spring works miracles on the heart
I Know the Way You Can Get

I know the way you can get
When you have not had a drink of Love:

Your face hardens,
Your sweet muscles cramp.
Children become concerned
About a strange look that appears in your eyes
Which even begins to worry your own mirror
And nose.

Squirrels and birds sense your sadness
And call an important conference in a tall tree.
They decide which secret code to chant
To help your mind and soul.

Even angels fear that brand of madness
That arrays itself against the world
And throws sharp stones and spears into
The innocent
And into one’s self.

O I know the way you can get
If you have not been drinking Love:

You might rip apart
Every sentence your friends and teachers say,
Looking for hidden clauses.

You might weigh every word on a scale
Like a dead fish.

You might pull out a ruler to measure
From every angle in your darkness
The beautiful dimensions of a heart you once

I know the way you can get
If you have not had a drink from Love’s

That is why all the Great Ones speak of
The vital need
To keep remembering God,
So you will come to know and see Him
As being so Playful
And Wanting,
Just Wanting to help.

That is why Hafiz says:
Bring your cup near me.
For all I care about
Is Quenching your thirst for freedom!

All a Sane man can ever care about
Is giving Love!