Sunday, January 27, 2013

Eyes, Jaw, Shoulders, Belly: A practice in body awareness

Mindfulness students are used to hearing me say “Eyes, Jaw, Shoulders, Belly” as a reminder to check in on those areas of the body. Checking in like this helps us become familiar with where our unique body holds stress.

Here's how the practice works: We pause for a few seconds to become aware of how each area feels.

How are my eyes in this moment? Am I holding tension there? Experiment: Squint (as you might do while in front of a computer screen) while swinging your arms open as though you've just reached the top of a mountain. Bring the arms back down. Now release the tightness in your eyes, and swing the arms open again. Can you tell a difference in the entire body? in the breath? in the way that you feel?
Warrior eyes: Wide open!
Am I clenching my jaw, which probably means that I’m also holding my tongue tight in my mouth? Try clenching your jaw and smiling. Not too convincing, eh?

Are my shoulders rounded forward, or up around my ears? A study was done with a group of top college students: they were asked to slump 24/7 for an extended period of time. Overall, their grades went down and many of them reported an onset of depression. 

As I breathe in, my belly should expand. Is that happening in this moment, or am I holding my breath or chest breathing instead? (When I started taking piano lessons at age 40, I held my breath while playing through lines of musicmy teacher had to remind me, Breathe!) If we're holding tension in the belly, among other harm being done, our cells are not getting the oxygen they need to be healthy.

I've added this one—the sphincter muscleto the list. We have words for people who stay constricted in this area“tight ass,” “anal retentive,” etc. Even if there is total relaxation in your eyes, jaws, shoulders, and belly, if you’re holding on for dear life at the point of this muscle, you will not be invited to any fun parties.
A baby has open Eyes, Jaw, Shoulders, Belly, and probably Bum too
You may know of Shakira's hit song, Hips Don't Lie. Actually, no body part lies. If our body is constricted, our mind is constricted, and nobody can hide a tight mind behind eloquent words, good acts, or even a smile.

Let the Soul banish all that disturbs;
Let the Body that envelops it be still,
And all the frettings of the Body,
And all that surrounds it.
Let Earth and Sea and Air be still
And Heaven itself.
And then let the Body think
Of the Spirit as streaming, pouring,
Rushing and shining into it from
All sides while it stands quiet.
                         -Plotinus, AD 205

Friday, January 18, 2013

Returning to your senses when overwhelmed

In crazy times, the practice of returning to our 5 senses is a fundamental way to restore sanity, or at least to get us moving in that direction. For example, you've just learned that your nemesis at work has gotten a promotion, in part because they claimed ownership of work that you completed. Your face gets red, your heart pounds, your throat constricts, and your mind races. 

1. See.
Notice something small. Don't worry about what it is, just choose something close by and see it. Maybe it's a leaf or a corner of a table. You might notice its color, shape, movement, the way that light reflects on its surface, and so on. Let your visual awareness stay on this object for as long or as little as you like, then gradually allow your field of vision to broaden and return to fuller vision.
Figurine spotted during a walk outside Gampo Abbey
2. Smell.
Close your eyes and breathe in. As air enters the nostrils, notice the scents that register on the inbreath. Breathe out fully. Repeat. Does the scent change if you turn your head to the side, if you stand up or sit down, if you move to a different area of the room that you're in? If there seems to be an absence of scent, notice the breath itself in the nostrils—its temperature, and so on.

3. Taste.
If no food or drink is in your mouth, does taste still register? Does moving the tongue in the mouth affect taste? Does taste register more in the front of your mouth or at the back? Perhaps you'd like to drink water, bite into an apple, and so on. While closing your eyes, allow the flavors to register. Notice the world of sensations inside your mouth as you eat.

4. Hear.
Close your eyes and notice sounds. No need to label the source of sounds (footsteps, telephone, and so on); just hear the sounds: ping, bang, sssssss. Do the sounds seem to be near your ears or far away? inside of you or beyond yourself? Without reaching out for sounds in a seeking way, what sounds do you notice?
Screeching bats: Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne
5. Touch.
Place one or both of your hands on yourself: over your heart area, on your cheeks, your shoulders (perhaps give yourself a gentle shoulder massage), curved around your forehead, on your belly. Do this tenderly. Close your eyes and feel the sensation of your own gentle touch. We really do have at our fingertips what we need to bring ourselves back into balance.

Mindful, by Mary Oliver

Every day
I see or hear
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for -
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world -
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant -
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these -
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean's shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Mindful ownership: A vow to consider

I bought a great hat for this trip to Gampo Abbey. It has ear flaps and faux fur trim, and I admit to feeling a wee bit fierce while wearing it. But last week I gave it away. I didn't do this as a practice of generosity or as some show of asceticism. I did it because the hat seemed to belong to someone else more than it belonged to me.
It was the wicked and wild wind
Blew down the doors to let me in.

-Viva La Vida: Coldplay
The hat-belonging-to-someone-else awareness arose while I was taking my daily vowsspecifically the vow not to take what belongs to someone else. For 2 weeks I had zipped through that vow because I was confident that I wouldn't take something that doesn't belong to me. But then I became curious about what seems a logical offshoot of that vow: in addition to vowing not to take something that belongs to another, can I vow not to own something that belongs to another? In other words, are there things I have now that belong to someone else? 

Do you remember the matching exercise that children do, drawing a line to connect a picture with its corresponding imagebowl with spoon, sock with shoe, and so on? I pictured the fierce hat. I pictured myselfin Virginia with its temperate climate, and my head, with lots of hair. Then I pictured the monks and nuns herein blustery, snowy Cape Breton, and their heads, shaven. Even a child could recognize the better match for the hat. I dropped it in the Offering box. I felt no sense of doing a good thing by giving away the hat; I felt a sense of doing a smart thing. 

My actions are my only true belongings. -Thich Nhat Hanh

I don't know if this will turn into a practice of mindfully inventorying my belongings, and I realize that I'm talking about a hat—and not, say, a car. But it has me looking, considering, and so on, which is all part of mindfulness. Soon after I gave away the hat, I saw a book of Mary Oliver poems in the Offering box. Night after night I have lain warm in the bed, listening to the wind and reading her words, which in these moments suit me better than any hat I could ever imagine.
Messenger, by Mary Oliver

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters, 
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be 
The phoebe, the delpinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

6 points of mindful speech

Posted in a number of spots at Gampo Abbey are Chögyam Trungpa's 6 Points of Mindful Speech. I am working with these points as a practice (my comments are in blue below each one).
The eloquent silence of Gampo Abbey
1. Precision: Enunciate your words clearly.
Can I hear the beginning and end of the words that I speak? Do I trail off at the end of sentences? Do I project? Can I remember that when others have to strain to hear me, frustration and confusion can arise?

2. Simplicity: Choose your words well.
Do I need as many words as I'm using? Do I ramble? If so, is the rambling because of insecurity, cluttered thinking, a desire to monopolize the conversation, or something else?  

3. Pace: Speak slowly, without speed or aggression.
Do I speak as though I'm handing words to the listener, or as though I'm tossing words at the listener? When I “accost” people with fast talk (even though this may not be intentional), it increases anxiety and frustration.

4. Silence: Regard silence as an important part of speech.
Do I honor the silence between words? the silence between taking turns with another person when talking? When I don’t honor the silent spaces, I butt in, run my words together, and start thinking of what I'm going to say next instead of letting my words be informed by a bit of space. When I talk over top of silence, is it because I'm uncomfortable when things are quiet, that I think that my words are more important than those of the other person, or for some other reason? 

5. Others: Listen to the words, texture and quality of others’ speech.
Beyond listening to what another person is saying (the words), can I listen to how they speak? Hearing only the words of another person is like reading the lyrics of a song without hearing the accompanying music. I can glean a lot by listening also to pitch, rhythm, speed, and so on. I may find that they are saying something different from, or in addition to, what their words convey.

6. Self: Focus mindfulness on your speech.
When I bring awareness to exactly what I speak, as well as how I speak it, I can clarify instead of confuse, uplift instead of frustrate, and unify instead of divide.
Maybe having big Buddha ears would enhance our ability to listen.
On Talking, Kahlil Gibran from "The Prophet" 1923

You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts;
And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, 
and sound is a diversion and a pastime.
And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.
For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.
There are those among you who seek the talkative through fear of being alone.
The silence of aloneness reveals to their eyes their naked selves and they would escape.
And there are those who talk, and without knowledge or forethought reveal a truth 

which they themselves do not understand.
And there are those who have the truth within them, but they tell it not in words.
In the bosom of such as these the spirit dwells in rhythmic silence.
When you meet your friend on the roadside or in the market place, 
let the spirit in you move your lips and direct your tongue.
Let the voice within your voice speak to the ear of his ear;
For his soul will keep the truth of your heart as the taste of the wine is remembered
When the colour is forgotten and the vessel is no more.