I am 75 days and 9 countries into my journey around the world. As I move from place to place I have encountered a wide variety of different languages and dialects. Communicating with the locals is an essential part of immersing myself into the culture, understanding the people and learning about their way of life. At times it can be difficult to understand one another given the language barriers we face. Cultivating the skill of mindful listening has been an important tool in overcoming difficult moments of communication. Practice and persistence has made each encounter easier and when we finally reached mutual understanding, there was an obvious moment of pure joy felt by all. One of the most wonderful discoveries I have made is that at the very core of our beings, we all just want to be listened to, respected and understood. We all just want to matter.
Mindful listening is one of the most important skills a person can learn. When we practice mindful listening, many things are occurring. First, we are exercising our muscle of attention. We learn to focus our attention on the speaker, on the tone of their voice, on the movement of their mouths, on their body language and on the content of what is being said. The more we practice, the longer we are able to sustain attention and focus because we are actually changing the structure of our brain. The latest neuroscience research is proving that our brain has plasticity, meaning, we have the ability to change and strengthen its structure and connections with simple focus exercises. Concisely, whenever you practice mindful listening, you are training and changing your brain.
Second, we further cultivate and increase our level of awareness by noticing what is happening within us as we practice listening. We may notice that our mind wanders often, and rather quickly, to thoughts about our own experience of the subject or to how we are going to respond when we get the chance to speak. This tends to happen automatically especially when we strongly connect with what is being said or when we find ourselves in a challenging conversation. When this happens and our attention goes directly to our own thoughts, we are no longer listening. Many times we assume we already know what the other person means or what they are going to say. In some cases, we may be so driven by our own opinions, judgments or need to be heard, that we interrupt the speaker. Most of the time, we are wrong. As a result, we often have to ask the speaker to repeat or further clarify what they’ve said. Furthermore, these assumptions often lead to misunderstanding and unnecessary conflict. There is a dangerous arrogance in thinking that we know everything, and in assuming that there is nothing it be gained by giving our full attention to our present moment experience, whatever it may be. More importantly, there is a deep wisdom in admitting that we don’t know much at all and by allowing ourselves to be fully open to the experience itself, there is a lot for us to gain.
By mindfully listening to what is being said as well as our own thoughts, feelings and emotions, we can make important discoveries about ourselves. One of the most humbling discoveries may be that our attention for the most part, goes to our thoughts and that we rarely ever fully listen to what is being said. Some of these discoveries may not be so easy to look at or accept, but as we continue to practice, they will reveal important insights into who we truly are and how we operate, moment to moment. Practicing mindful listening cultivates compassion and builds understanding, both for the speaker and ourselves. It makes for deeper and more authentic relationships. Give it a try.
Mindful Listening Exercise.
Come to each conversation with a beginners mind. This means imagining that the person is speaking to you for the first time. This will help you to dispel assumptions and expectation about where the conversation may go or should end up. Next, listen using both sight and sound. Bring your attention to the sound, tone, inflection and conviction of the speaker and watch the movement of their mouth and their body language. This will help you understand the content of what is being said and will help to develop your intuition. With practice you may be able to pick up on what is not being said as well. This will allow you to ask questions at the right moment and accurately understand what is being said, which can be extremely helpful in avoiding misunderstandings because many people do not communicate clearly.
Finally, pay attention to how you are listening. This will allow you to catch yourself as your mind wanders off. Each time you become aware that your attention is no longer on the speaker, take notice of where your mind went, then very gently bring yourself back. You may need to do this dozens or hundreds of times. Be patient with yourself and be persistent. Recognize this as a practice; the more you do it, the easier it will get. I invite you to come back and share your observations and discoveries with this practice.
It doesn’t seem to matter where we are in the world or what we are doing; most often it is the endless attention we give to our own inner dialogue that constantly takes us away from the present moment reality of our lives. As we get into the practice of becoming mindful, it is important to become aware of the mental chatter that often steals our focus and diverts our attention away from what we are doing. Mental chatter is the voice inside our head that runs on and on nearly every waking moment of our lives. Sometimes it is a dialogue we are having with ourselves, but usually it is a voice of judgment that evaluates and critiques our every experience.
In order to become aware of our own mental chatter, we need to understand exactly what it is. By comparing our mental chatter with how we answer direct questions, we can learn to identify when we are attached to this chatter and avoid being sidetracked away from our present moment experience. What we are thinking about and our mental chatter are often confused. Someone may ask you what you are thinking about and you may reply, “I’m thinking about what I’m going to have for lunch.” but your mental chatter is going more like this…
“Gosh, I’m hungry? … Is it lunchtime yet? I wonder what kind of soup they have today? ... I shouldn’t have skipped breakfast … now I’m starving… geez, why don’t I just get up earlier? … Tomorrow I’ll get better prepared…maybe I should start bringing my lunch…I could make something healthy…. I’ve been eating too much lately… I should have worked out yesterday… I ate too many carbs… I could to the gym after work…yep, I’ll plan to go later… maybe I can get someone to go with me…then I’ll be motivated…gosh my stomach’s growling…. what time is it?...
By becoming aware of our mental chatter we can learn to control it by observing when our active attention to it is taking us away from what is actually happening in our lives. Being constantly engaged with this mental chatter can lead to stress and anxiety, especially when we are caught up in it in an effort to understand or analyze the circumstances of our lives. Practicing mindfulness of your mental chatter is the foundation to managing it. Learning to control and manage our mental chatter is one of the most fundamental elements to improving your life.
Through the practice of mindfulness you can begin to become aware of and investigate the attention you pay to your own inner dialogue. This takes practice and patience as well as a great deal of self-compassion, as in the beginning it can be quite alarming to discover how much of our lives we spend living in our heads.
Commit to cultivating this awareness by checking in with yourself frequently throughout the day. Sometimes it's helpful to ask the question “Where am I right now?” To answer, recognize whether you mind is focused on what you are doing or if it is off somewhere else, lost in thought and attached to your inner dialogue and mental chatter. Each time you realize that your mind has wandered, work with some effort to bring your awareness back to what you are actually doing. Use your senses to ground yourself into the present moment by bringing your attention to what you may be seeing, hearing, tasting, touching or smelling; your present moment experience. Another strategy is to recognize and acknowledge that regardless of where your mind wanders to, your body always remains in the present moment. Use your body as an anchor into the present moment. As soon as you become aware that your mind has drifted away from where you are, gently and compassionately bring your attention back to your physical body, particularly your breath moving in and out. As long as you are alive, you're breathing, so the breath is dependable and available all the time. Smile and enjoy the moment you have given to yourself. Practice again and again and again...
As I sail from country to country exploring the sources of stress and anxiety and it’s implications on our health and well being, I discover a condition that seems to be a root cause of this discontentment, no matter where I am in the world. I am not speaking of the stress caused by poverty, oppression, starvation, lack of healthcare or disease, as these conditions present a set of circumstances, more often than not, out of the individual’s control. Here, I’m talking about the stress we experience as a result of our continuous push away from living in the present, towards a future where we imagine ourselves to somehow be better off than we are right now. The majority of our stress and worry seems to result in our inability to be present in our lives as they unfold before us, moment by moment.
Why are we so terrified of being present? Why do we seek to become constantly numb to our life’s unfolding? How else could we be, having been beaten and often defeated by the sudden knocks and blunt strikes of life? Some unexpected, some of our own making, attempts to conceal what sneaks up between the cracks of this resistance to ourselves, just as we are. What we are left with is a constant and often empty struggle to fill in the cracks, attempting to stifle what emerges when we unconsciously let a little bit of ourselves seep out.
What we fail to recognize is that this is the suffering in itself, the stifling, the withholding, and the denying ourselves the opportunity to become familiar with who we are. It is not the pain of our anger, our sadness or even our loss that causes us the most suffering, it is our relentless determination to conceal from ourselves and others the fullness and beauty of who we actually are; what is exquisitely contained within all of our experiences, both the pleasant and the unpleasant.
Much of this comes by no fault of our own. We spend years in school studying, without learning to tap into the deep internal resources that are dependable and available to us at any moment, waiting to relieve us of this suffering. Instead our society continuously bombards us with offerings that promise richness and freedom, but instead lure us into continuous exploits of temporary self-satisfaction. The marketing is genius and put forth with a calculated consciousness; knowing we are terminally ill in this longing, sick with this insatiable hunger to know ourselves deeply. Consequently, the longer we attempt to satisfy this hunger with toxic prescriptions or possessions, trivial titles or authority, the more hollow and empty we become; frazzled, anxious and addicted to the pursuit.
The truth is, that each of us holds within us the capacity to alleviate our suffering by surrendering to the actuality of our lives unfolding before us. To allow the wisdom of loss, heartache, anger, guilt, sadness and joy to nourish us. . To understand that our suffering is not caused by what is contained within the cracks but results in our endless attempts to conceal, deny and extinguish who we actually are. To recognize that what is discovered within the cracks provides the sustenance we need to nurture our suffering, know ourselves deeply and obtain freedom.
Make an effort to be mindful of when you may be trying to use external means to take care of your inner turmoil. Instead, allow yourself a glimpse of what lies beneath the surface of your own withholding. Let your disappointment, heartache and loss be felt, trusting that the wisdom held within these experiences will gradually provide for lasting and sustainable freedom from your suffering. In doing so you will slowly begin to discover that stress and worry are not a result of what is happening, but results from what we refuse to allow to unfold, as it is. As always, practicing self-compassion and treat yourself kindly, moment, by moment, by moment.
As the ship neared the harbor of Yokohama, Japan, the sun was just beginning to rise and the sky was illuminated with vibrant layers of yellow, orange and red. A slice of moon and a bright shining star added to the magnificence of the welcoming sunrise. Filled with excitement that we’ve arrived at our first International port, I quickly dressed and headed to the back deck where clusters of students were gathered, buzzing with eagerness as the ship drew closer to the shore. The sound of cameras clicking filled my eardrums and although I felt a strong impulse to follow suit, my practice reminded me to resist this temptation and be present. My skin began to tingle and goose bumps spread across my arms and legs, in part to do with the powerful sense of wonderment that came over me in the moment and the other due to the brisk air and chilly wind coming across the ocean. Signs of springtime in Japan are just beginning to surface. The warm glow of the sky gives promise to a pleasant day. As I observe my being, I am overcome with a powerful sense of acknowledgment as to where I am standing in the world, at this moment, in my life. For a brief time, all that I have had to endure becomes tolerable as I stand in this place with recognition that pain and suffering are a significant ingredient in realizing my joy. My throat begins to tighten and a few tears filling up my eyes blur the landscape before me. I swallow hard, allowing one salty droplet to roll down my face, the wind taking it into the sea. I smile, breathing in and breathing out in this wonderful moment of pure presence, everything perfect just as it is.
After breakfast, I am scheduled to go on a field program to experience “the way of tea” and meditate with the Zen monks. However, before we are allowed to disembark on our respected trips, the ship must be cleared with Japanese customs. This takes quite a while as 700 passengers line up to meet Japanese officials face to face. Although the process can take over two hours, the excitement of stepping foot in Japan makes the wait bearable. At last I am called up to the table, met with an intoxicating smile and a gracious bow. I instantly feel myself blush, surprised and pleased to have been greeted with genuine kindness and respect. I clumsily return the bow, immediately noting my self-dissatisfaction with it. The official takes my passport, thumps in a few stamps, hands it back to me and once again bows and instructs me to enjoy my stay in Japan. I return the bow; this time more skillfully, carefully secure my passport and head outside. I’m in Japan!
The itinerary of my field program quickly immerses me into the daily life and culture of Japan. Our guides are again, three smiling and bowing Japanese men who seem genuinely excited to show us around Japan and just as interested in who we are and where we call home. After a brief introduction to the history of the Zen Temples we will be visiting, we line up to follow our guides, each donning bright green hats so we don’t lose them, and head to the subway station. As I become acutely aware of our sheep-like procession my mind wandered to trips to Niagara Falls where I’ve witnessed busloads of Japanese tourist being hustled by a guide from one place to the next, reminiscent of the position I find myself in. I couldn’t help but giggle. Although our guides speak very good English, most of the Japanese people only speak their native language. As we arrive at the station, I notice everything is written in Japanese with very little English. I stick close to the group as swarms of commuters pack into the trains. Some 4 million people make the daily commute to Tokyo and I am careful not to get lost in the shuffle.
After two subway changes, we arrive at the Engaku-ji temple, one of the most important Zen Buddhist complexes in Japan. It is situated in the city of Kamakura, located to the south of Tokyo. The temple was founded in 1282 by a Chinese monk at the request of the then ruler of Japan, Hoje Tokimune, built to honor the soldiers who died during a joint Mongolian-Korean invasion in Japan as well as serve as a center from which the influence of Zen could be spread. As is common in Zen, the Temple has two gates, one is the outer gate called Somon and the other is the inner gate called Sanmon. I passed through the magnificent outer gate, a double decker colossal structure to arrive at the Main Hall. As I step in the main hall, also called Taiko Myo-ho, I am greeted by an 8-foot tall sedentary statue of Shake Nyorai, the main object of worship, enthroned on a gigantic lotus support. In front of the Buddha I find a long wooden bench, lined with purple pillows used by the laity every morning. It is open to the public and anyone may join. I immediately imagine the appeal of a similar spot back at home. From here, the guides take us through several Zen gardens and to other temples around the grounds. Although it is early spring, the trees are beginning to show signs of bloom and the smell of jasmine and orchids sporadically make their way to my nose. The scent was so luscious that I found myself hurrying to take my next in-breath, attempting to make it last as long as possible, not to lose the enchanting scent between breaths. The calm and peacefulness surrounding me, makes me wish I had come alone, without a schedule, as I could imagine myself joyfully immersing in this beautiful stillness for hours. However, attached to an arm, I saw the green hat waving us along to our next stop. I hurried over; certain not to lose sight my group.
We walked approximately 10 minutes through a small town and proceeded up a long driveway to the Chojyu-ji Temple. Before heading into the temple to enjoy a tea ceremony and a sitting meditation with the monks, we were guided along a pathway through another Zen garden. Obvious signs of winter were still evident and the brisk air made the sparse trees tremble. Tiny buds were just forming on the trees and the branches seemed to be stretching and yawning, attempting to awaken themselves from a long slumber. Although the gardens had clearly been through a harsh winter, their refinement and elegance was still evident event though much of it was a wintery gray. I took some mental notes for plans of building my own Zen garden when I return home this spring. At the end of the path, we entered the temple, stopping to remove our shoes before heading in. The temperature inside the temple was comparable to the outside and I felt my feet beginning to tingle, my baby toe already starting to become numb. I quickly rubbed it to regain blood flow.
Our group gathered along the edges of the room where a red felt-like carpet lined the exterior. The room was very Zen-like with simple lines and minimal décor. Kneeling in front of us was Ms. Hasegawa, patiently waiting to present the tea ceremony. She was beautifully dressed in a traditional Japanese Kimono, her hair neatly tied back. She sat in a usual Japanese manner with her knees facing us, her buttocks resting on the back of her heels. Her posture was perfectly aligned and her petite hands were resting softly on her thighs. I looked around noticing a few others attempting the same posture. It looked so comfortable that I decided to try it myself. Within minutes I my left foot started to become numb and I immediately turned myself back around into a cross-legged posture. For a moment, I began to worry whether I’d be able to sit in the cold room to meditate without losing feeling in my feet. I acknowledged the thought and returned my awareness the tea. Ms. Hawegawa went through each step of the traditional “way of tea” in the Japanese culture. Afterwards, we ate a Japanese sweet and enjoyed a drink of tea before heading in for a sitting meditation with the head monk.
The smell of incense began to tingle the inside of my nose before I fully entered the room. Once inside, I took a seat on one of the many burgundy meditation pillows that lined the walls of the rectangular meditation hall. I was tempted to sit directly next to the tall jovial looking monk who would be leading the group, but opted to have him in my view. He was dressed in a customary long black robe with a dark red sash. His eyes were particularly squinty, so much so that it was hard to tell if they were open or closed. After the group settled in, he began to speak aloud in Japanese. Once he stopped, the gentleman seated to his left began to translate to us in English. He showed us how to sit comfortably on the mediation pillow by folding it in half and placing it under our sits bones to ensure a correct upright posture. We were told to keep our eyes open and softly gaze on the floor about a meter in front of us to keep from falling asleep. While doing so we were to inhale naturally and exhale for a count of 8-10 breaths, focusing on each breath. This was very familiar to me and I was happy we were about to begin. Lastly, the monk lifted up a rather large stick, approximately 6 feet in length and addressed the group in Japanese. Again the gentleman to his left explained that the stick was a discipline and posture correction tool used in traditional Zen training. The monk was open to allowing anyone to give it a try and if we wanted to, when he walked by us, all we had to do was place our hands together in prayer over our hearts and bow deeply. That would let him know you wanted a correction. Now we were about to begin.
I folded my pillow comfortably under my sits bones and sat cross-legged with my left foot resting on my right thigh. I felt rather comfortable at first but then became aware of thoughts about my cold foot falling asleep and becoming numb again. I acknowledged my worry and concentrated on finding my gazing spot three feet ahead. I spotted a very tiny red piece of lint on the carpet in front of me and decided to softly gaze there. Three loud bangs rang one after another as the monk rapped two large wooden blocks together signaling that our mediation had begun. I began focusing on my breath, one natural inhalation and a long exhalation. A few breaths in and I became aware of the woman to my left taking some rather loud inhalations and I wondered if she was going to be doing this the entire time. I acknowledged the thought and drew my attention back to my breath. I never heard her after that. Instead I became fully aware of where I was and again a powerful sense of acknowledgment came over me about where I was in the world, in my life in this moment. I was struck with an inner stillness and a sense of pure joy. For the second time, I sat with recognition that suffering has been a significant ingredient in realizing my joy. Thoughts of pain and suffering are made tolerable by the recognition of where I have arrived. Again, I feel a lump in my throat and the tiny red lint spot becomes blurred as my eyes glaze over, my ducts burning as I resist the flow of tears. Suddenly, I am distracted by the monk who has gotten up from his pillow and is now standing over someone. With all my might I resist the temptation to look away from my red dot. Without any warning, I am startled by the sound of two very hard whacks that have been delivered to the back of someone in the group. My entire body is jolted from the inside out, raising me a little bit off my pillow. I am stunned and no longer focused on my red dot. Thoughts come pouring into my mind. “Oh my goodness… that sounded like it hurt like hell...Did he really hit him that hard? ... How could that be of any use? … That sounded horrible!... Who would ask for that? … Did the man know he was going to be beaten? That sounded like a beating!! How could anyone feel calm after that? This is crazy! No thank you!” I tried to remain still, my eyes trying desperately to find my red fuzzy dot, although I concluded that when the monk walked by me, he must have moved it away. As best I could, I redirected my awareness back to my breath; natural inhale, longer exhale, I tried. “Whack, Whack,” I heard again. “Whack, Whack” went another. “Whack, Whack” yet again. Suddenly, I felt a fit of laughter beginning to arise within me. The kind that makes you feel like you’re about to explode because the last thing you want to do is burst out laughing. My face widened with an uncontrollable smile and my body begins to shake up and down as I struggle to hold it in. With each whack my horrified thoughts turn to humorous ones and my silent laughter intensifies. I am in disbelief as to how many in my group bowed for a beating. I am also fully aware that it is absolutely impossible, at least for me to concentrate on anything other than my anticipation of the next whack.
At last the monk returns to his seat and moments later I hear three loud bangs of the thick wooden blocks, indicating that our meditation is over. The monk thanks us and welcomes us to come again. Before rising, the woman to my left taps on my shoulder and tells me how beautiful my posture is. I recognize her from the tea ceremony. With a sweet genuine smile she says, “You should have tried the stick”. Of course I knew there was nothing violent or unkind about the stick. In fact, I did not encounter one unkind person during my entire stay in Japan. Everywhere we went we were greeted with a kind, genuine smile and an open heart. Part of me immediately wanted to explain every reason I didn’t want the correction, how awful it made me feel to even imagine getting hit for any reason at all, how my body reacted to hearing it, how just the sound of someone getting whacked sends my stress response system into high gear. But I didn’t. Instead I smiled back. “Maybe next time” I told her, maybe next time.”
Practice suffering. Allowing ourselves to experience our pain, whether it be in the form of anger, sadness, guilt, disappointment or envy, is an essential ingredient in being able to fully experiencing our moments of happiness and joy. However, we spend most of our time doing anything we can to avoid feeling, period. We grasp at external means to take care of our inner turmoil, and as a result, deprive ourselves of the wisdom contained in everything. This week, practice allowing yourself to be fully present with whatever is, even if you feel a resistance to it. In doing so, you will tap into the deep internal resources that we all have to take care of our suffering and consequently experience authentic joy.
Please come back and comment on your experience, both the difficult and the joyous.
My mindful journey around the world has begun. I safely arrived on the ship and settled into my cabin that I will call home for the next 4 months. The ship set sail from Ensenada Mexico after picking up the 550 college students who make up the majority of the population on the ship. As we set sail into the Pacific headed to Hilo, Hawaii, our first stop, we hit some rough waters right from the start. Although our ship is relatively large, holding 1,000 people including students, faculty, staff and crew, the 15-20 foot waves present quite the challenge as one attempts to navigate from one point to the next. Besides that challenge, came the inevitable plague of seasickness for a number of voyagers as we hit rocky seas on the first night. Luckily, genetics has blessed my family and I with rock solid digestive systems. Motions sickness is not a liability for us. However, several people on board have had a much more difficult time adjusting to the motion and our external awareness was heightened as we encountered pale-faced passengers spontaneously losing their dinner in various locations throughout the ship. Although the rocking of the ship does not make me prone to getting sick, I must admit that the mere sound of it happening to someone else immediately throws my gag reflex into high gear. Needless to say, I took cover, retreating to my room until my fellow passengers had a chance to adjust. Eventually it passed and students began emerging from their cabins rosy cheeked and relieved it was over. I was equally relieved, for now… We still have to cross the Pacific to Japan – that’s another 10 days at sea.
This evening we will be crossing the International Date Line. Tonight when I go to bed to it will be the evening of January 20, 2014. When I wake up tomorrow morning, it will be Wednesday January 22, 2014. This is an incredibly difficult concept to grasp! Where did Tuesday go? What happened to it? I know it existed for you back home, but not here. We erased it from the calendar as if it never happened.
In a very real way this is similar to the moments of our lives that we lose when we are not present, when we are stuck ruminating about the past or stressing about the future. We only have moments to live, however, day in and day out, most of us spend our lives, stuck in our heads, attached to thoughts about either the past or the future. We wake up, roll out of bed, eat our breakfast, take a shower and drive off to work without ever taking notice of what is happening in and around those precious moments of our lives. We are in a constant forward motion, doing, thinking and planning for times when our life will be better, when we will feel better, look better, be healthier, become more relaxed and have less stress. We fail to taste our food, enjoy the warm water of the shower on our backs or even remember to look at a beautiful sunrise, breath fresh air or notice the magnificence of the glistening snow. Other times, when we do take notice of something extraordinary, we dive for our cell phones so that we can take a picture, hurried to capture it for a time when we can look at it again and recall the beauty. As a result, we fail to experience the beauty at all. The real beauty exists in the experience of the moment, not in its photocopy. In fact, beauty exists in every moment of our lives, as do the conditions for happiness. But we fail to see and experience them. We forget and fail to acknowledge that we have peace and calm within us all the time. We don’t know how to enjoy our peace. Unfortunately, it’s not until we lose something that we realize how incredibly special it is. We rarely think about the magnificence of our eyes at all. We are constantly looking at things but we see very little. How many times have you driven to work and not remembered the ride at all? Sadly, some of us do this every day and as a result, we lose moments, days, weeks, and sometimes years of our lives, never to get them back again.
It is our sense of sight and all of our other senses that, when we choose to pay attention to them, allow us to experience the beauty of a flower, the gorgeous blue color of the sky or the precious face of a child. Imagine what we wish we could see if we lost our sight or hear if we suddenly became deaf. As we hurry around doing and striving to make something special happen in our lives, we fail to recognize that something special is already and always occurring, every moment of our lives. By making the choice and taking the time to pay attention to what is actually happening, instead of what has, could, should or would happen, we learn to enjoy the peace that exists within every single one of us, in every single moment.
Below is the mindfulness practice exercise for those of you who wish to participate.
Practice enjoying your peace. Investigate your inner peace. Examine times throughout the week when you find yourself searching externally for a solution to your inner turmoil, restlessness, anxiety or just plain boredom. Also, investigate the ways in which you may be doing this. For example, working, eating, drinking alcohol, smoking, shopping, playing on your phone, running around looking for something to do, etc. Each time you become aware that you are doing so, stop, take a breath, bring yourself back to the present moment and name everything that is right and beautiful about your life. We all have inner peace inside of us; we just have to practice enjoying it.
Please come back and share your inner peaceful discoveries in the comment section of this blog. I will be delighted to hear from you.
As I prepare to embark on the journey of a lifetime, I am filled with gratitude and awe for the multitude of blessings I continue to receive in this lifetime. I am particularly grateful to you, my family, friends and students who continue to enrich my life and my practice. Each and every one of you has generously given so much of yourselves, encouraging me to deepen my practice, to develop a greater sense of loving kindness and compassion and to continue to investigate how we as individuals and as a community can live our lives with less stress and more freedom and inner peace.
I invite you along on this journey. As many of you are aware, it is helpful to come together in the practice of mindfulness, to gain support from each other and as a community. Because of this, I have decided to make this blog instructional and open to anyone who wishes to participate. I will be teaching mindfulness on board the floating University Semester at Sea and the instruction will continue in the ports we visit, with every moment being an opportunity to deepen our practice. I encourage you to take part in the practice here at home and to come back and share your experiences and discoveries with each other in the comment sections of this blog. Most of the instruction will be based on the informal practices, cultivating mindfulness in action. However, our formal training continues to be the foundation of the practice and I encourage you to keep it up. Make the time to sit at least 30 -45 minutes a day, whenever possible. You must make the time, you won't find it. For those of you new to the practice of mindfulness, you may find some guided meditations as well as some additional information about mindfulness on my website at www.mindfulnesstraininssrc.com
The journey to the ship has already provided me with multiple opportunities to practice mindfulness, as a means of managing stress and worry. We were scheduled to leave out of Buffalo on Tuesday, January 7th and due to the blizzard conditions, three of our scheduled and rescheduled flights out of Buffalo were cancelled. The ship was set to leave San Diego on Thursday, January 9th and the airlines were not providing any way for us to get out of Buffalo until Saturday 1/11. This meant we would miss the ship and the trip of a lifetime we’ve been planning for over two years. As you may imagine, a plethora of negative emotions, stress and worry began to surface on the forefront of my mind, causing a domino effect of physical reactions tied to a stream of thoughts that were prefaced by a multitude of “what if’s”, with the potential to cloud reason, focus and judgment. But, here’s the thing about this mindfulness practice, if you practice, it’s dependable, especially when the stakes are high and they were high! Although I may not have been able to fully rest in the present moment while dealing with the likely possibility that a ship with 1,000 people on board would not wait for 3 of us, the awareness that my mindfulness practice has cultivated, allowed me to see the thoughts of stress and worry as “just thoughts”. As I became aware of the thoughts that kept arising, I applied my practice and simply began to notice them as part of what was happening. Yes, not making the ship was a “thought” that arose as a serious possibility along with several others that promoted my body to react with some serious sweat, pit in the stomach physical reactions tied to those thoughts. Without mindfulness, I can tell you with experience that attachment to those thoughts would wreak havoc on everyone dealing with the situation at hand. Attachment to thoughts of worry about what is not happening in the present moment, about what could happen, causes emotions to spiral out of control, tempers to become short and reason and focus to go flying out the window, usually resulting in negative consequences and regret.
We made it to the ship and we did it without too much stress and worry. In fact, I believe that the dependable awareness that mindfulness cultivates allowed me to see those thoughts of stress and worry as “just thoughts” and as I acknowledged them, they began to weaken and dissolve. What would emerge in their place became the ability to remain calm, to focus, to come up with an alternative plan, and to execute it as a family with as much ease as we could, considering all the “what if’s” that would enter our minds. So that’s what we did. Leaving from Buffalo was becoming an unlikely option as the minutes ticked away and the ship’s departure without us drew nearer and nearer. But mindfulness allowed us to choose a sense of adventure over panic and execute an alternative plan, Within 3 hours we convinced the airlines to re-route us out of a different city, rented a car, threw in our luggage and headed to Cleveland to catch a flight to the Ship. We made it, and thanks to the practice of mindfulness we did so with a sense of adventure and a collective kindness to each other. To those of you who may be saying that regardless of whether I was practicing mindfulness or not, we would have made it to the ship, I agree. But what I believe is more important, in terms of living well and maintaining healthy relationships and a sense of wellbeing is “how” we made it. Mindfulness allows you to see things as they are happening, both internally and externally. To know when emotions may be driving reaction, to know when stress and worry are clouding your ability to focus and make a proper judgment call. It cultivates the awareness to know what you are doing as you are doing it. It provides an opportunity to choose to respond, not react to whatever is happening. It informs you of the truth and how your true self is operating in every moment.
Mindfulness is dependable, however, only if you practice. To try to cultivate this sense of being when the stakes are high without a committed practice is similar to attempting to play a concerto on the piano without ever before placing your fingers on the keys. Mindfulness is a way of learning how to relate directly to your life; of getting to know whom you are and how you operate. Fortunately, it is not something you have to seek out; it’s something you already have within you. All you have to do is uncover it. All of us possess the innate capacity to pay attention to what is happening while it is happening. Only when we are aware and informed of what is truly happening in the present moment do we have the opportunity to make choices that serve our well-being and more importantly the well being of others.
Throughout this week, take as many opportunities as you can to begin to pay attention to where your mind is? Ask yourself “Where am I right now?” Whether you are driving in your car, at a business meeting, enjoying a meal or writing an email, take a moment to check in to see if your mind is focused on what you are doing in the present moment or if it is off somewhere else, pre-occupied with thoughts of the past or the future. By frequently checking in with yourself, with your mind, you will begin to cultivate an intimate awareness of yourself. How often are you living your life in the present moment? How often are you preoccupied with things that happened in the past or things that have not happened yet? Pay particular attention to your own inner dialogue (that conversation you are having with yourself). If you are not focused on the present moment, where are you finding yourself, your thoughts? Use awareness to follow the stream of thoughts that are taking you out of the present moment. You may also want to acknowledge how long you have been paying attention to thoughts and inner dialogue and have been absence from the real moments of your life. Sometimes we can go on for hours, days, weeks and for some, years without any awareness that we are living our lives in our minds and not in the present moment or, that we are not actually living in our lives at all.
Share your experiences and discoveries in the comment section of the blog.
In the beginning it may be difficult and even frustrating to learn how few moments we are present for, even if you’ve been practicing for some time. This is not a competition or a place where we should be judging ourselves, or others, but an opportunity for us to come together in support of one another in the practice of mindfulness. Above all, remember, it doesn’t matter how many times you find yourself wandering off to the past or future. The moment you realize you are not present, you have become present.
**Lastly, just a few notes about commenting in the blog. The comment section is here to serve as an opportunity for us to practice as a community and to share our experiences with each other in an effort to support one another in the practice. Feel free to comment as much or as little as you’d like about your own experiences with each exercise. If it helps to stay committed to the practice, you may comment every day if you wish. However, in an effort to respect that we are all on our own journey, please refrain from commenting on anyone else’s comments. We will automatically learn from one another’s shared experiences.
I look forward to your participation. The next blog post and exercise will be in one week.