We come to meditation practice perhaps seeking greater calm, better health, and a respite from the stresses of life. But we eventually realize that our deepest desire is also independence — not so much from external oppressors, but rather from the suffering we inflict upon ourselves; from the ways in which we make ourselves crazy; from our inability to accept, let go, and remain present for what is actually happening; from our hobbled capacity to embrace reality in all its glory, terror, perfection, and brokenness.
Just as humans the world over have fought and still fight to become independent from unhealthy power dynamics in relationships at macro and micro levels, we must bring this same courage and passion to our practice if we wish to free ourselves from our dependence upon our untrained minds, the stories they tell, and the deleterious effects these stories have on our well being.
So we practice in order to cultivate reliance upon our truest selves — rather than on some external or even internal authority — by utilizing our direct experience and our mindfulness as our wisest teachers and most trustworthy allies. We practice to release our intentions, words and actions from the restrictive domination of concepts, habits, craving and addiction. We practice to employ kindness, unconditional love and wise understanding as antidotes to the suppression and limitations created by our own greed, hatred and delusion. We practice to learn how to truly live…hearts open, minds awake, beings free from suffering.
It’s really all the same — freedom within, freedom without. Just as labeling our pain as “The Pain” rather than “My Pain” helps connect us with the universal nature of suffering, we can remember that peace and freedom come in many forms and exist on many scales, and that we must consistently work to develop these qualities and capacities within ourselves if we have any hope of manifesting them also in the world. If there even is any difference after all.
So on this anniversary of a certain kind of independence, I wish us all freedom from the ways in which we bind, suppress, capture and imprison ourselves, and each other. I wish us independence from whatever forces keep us small, afraid, angry, blind, and immune to the truth of our inter-being. And that our efforts may ripple out in whatever magical and tiny and large ways they tend to do, out into the universe, for the benefit of all.
May all beings be free.
I attended my first week-long silent retreat at the end of January. It was powerful and scary and instructive and illuminating and difficult and heart-opening and confusing and insight-provoking and wonderful and sad and mindless and mindful.
A lot happened but here are some observations that I feel are relevant to our attempts to integrate this practice into our daily lives and hearts.
First, the level of mindfulness that entered my body as a result of that much slowing down was profound and welcome. I have not managed to retain the same level of attention and presence here in daily, busy, distracting “life”, but certainly some amount and understanding of it remains. I feel generally slower, and I’m working on being ok with that — no simple task here in our culture that pushes action, productivity, accomplishment, competition, speed, and more, more, more of everything, all the time!
The other big shift was having the time and space to open up to some very difficult emotions I don’t normally allow full expression of in my busy life, even with a consistent daily meditation practice for support. By repeatedly witnessing the feelings as they arose, and my desperate and methodical attempts to stuff them or push them away or obsessively problem-solve in order to fix (ha!) the external circumstances I associated with them, I learned so much about the particular habits, patterns and types of thinking I use (yes, use) to escape from these feelings and fears. So I’m watching all of that with keener vision and more compassion now that I’m “back”.
Finally, here is one of my favorite quotes from the retreat:
“There is suffering that leads to the end of suffering, and suffering that leads to more suffering. The less willing we are to experience the former, the more of the latter we will receive.”
I find this fascinating, profound, true, scary, and helpful. It’s a reminder that sometimes the way to freedom isn’t all easy, simple, clear, joyful and light. There is usually work, and effort, and murk, and pain and heaviness along the way. Typically when we “give up” or “let go” of something we know is not in the service of our highest good, we do suffer — we are faced with uncertainty, loss, fear, emptiness, loneliness, and all sorts of discomfort. And this suffering is not necessarily a signal that we are on the wrong track! Rather, it is potentially leading us to a release of some clinging or attachment that has had us hooked and miserable (the suffering that leads to more suffering!) and therefore, ultimately, to a lightening of our load. It is helping rather than harming. It is part of the end of our suffering, and, consequently, our healing.
As amazing as it was to dedicate a solid week to this work in a retreat context — and I am so grateful for the opportunity — this is not always an option. Fortunately, just as valid and important is the work we have the opportunity to do every day, every hour, every moment, here, in daily “real” life, within the containers of our jobs, our families, our communities, our hopes and dreams, our selves.
It’s the work of slowing down, paying attention, honoring what’s really happening, and gaining a deeper understanding of our relationship to our own suffering and that of the world. In a nutshell, it’s the work of mindfulness. And, thankfully, there are no barriers to entry.
In conjunction with the birth of the new year, we are very excited to announce the birth of a new JAM project:
Sit Breathe Love:
Guided Meditations for Children and their Grown-Ups
Our intention is to share every month or so a new guided meditation you can listen to and practice with the children in your family or classroom. Click the “Follow” button on the download page to be notified when we add new ones.
These meditations will be in the mindfulness vein, and will touch on such areas as awareness of breath, cultivation of lovingkindness and non-harming, mindful listening, body scans, gratitude, joy, difficult feelings, and beyond.
Our January offering is called “Ball of Light Meditation”. You can use this guided meditation with your children when you’d like to cultivate a little peace and love. Try it at bedtime, or perhaps in the morning before leaving the house, to plant seeds of presence, calm and kindness. Listen, relax, and enjoy!
I use these meditations in my JAMcamps with children aged 4-10, but you can try with younger and older children, too, and see what happens.
Perhaps the most important thing is to model for your children your commitment to cultivating your own mindfulness. So do the practices with them as often as you can! You will show them, via embodiment, that it is important to you, too, and that you have faith in its value.
We would love to hear about how, where and when you use these practices, and how your children respond to them. So stay in touch!
May you be happy, healthy, safe and at peace in the new year and always 😉
This is one of my favorite statements from the Buddha. It’s a powerful reminder that no matter what is going on in our external environment, we do still have agency in our lives, in a very straightforward and meaningful way — we can train our minds to default to the path of love.
So often, we dwell on the negative, or practice judgement, or worry obsessively about the future or the past, or harbor anger and hatred or even simple irritation toward another. When we inhabit these mental spaces, we are carving deeper and deeper the pathways in our brain for this type of thinking, making it more likely that we will continue to think this way automatically in the future.
That’s why it’s called a “rut” — we are literally priming the neural pathways in the brain to have a particular type of response to the world, following the well-worn footsteps we’ve often unknowingly left in the sand of the mind.
So if we instead put some effort into cultivating forgiveness, lovingkindness, patience, non-judgement, understanding and love, we are strengthening THOSE pathways in the mind, and our thoughts are more likely to fall into THOSE ruts, trace those outlines, follow those stream beds. If we’re going to create ruts anyway — if that is what the brain does — we might as well carve them out of love!
Certainly, then, we would like to transition our thinking from defaulting more frequently to the negative side of things to defaulting more frequently to the positive. But we will never be successful at this unless we understand our thinking in the first place, and observe firsthand the suffering and patterning and habits we are causing and creating ourselves. This is one of the main reasons to practice meditation — to begin to know the mind, to befriend the mind, to start having enough space around our thinking that we can (at least sometimes) NOTICE we are going down an old harmful road, and, in that moment, choose a more healthy path.
This is NOT, by the way, a prescription for ignoring or avoiding our emotions or pain or feelings or reality. It’s also not the same as the law of attraction where one tries to magnetize certain experiences or things into one’s life using positive thinking. Quite the opposite, this is about looking squarely in the face of what’s actually happening, noticing what kind of thinking we are creating about it, and seeing if that type of thinking is something we really want to be “doing” to ourselves. This is like considering whether to choose a bowl of steamed kale or a can of Coke once we truly understand the health benefits/hazards of both (sorry if you love Coke!)
The questions are: What kind of life do we want to live in this moment, how do we want to feel about our choices in the next moment after they’ve been made, and how do we want our choices in this lifetime to affect others? So often, making healthy, helpful (to self and other) choices starts with awareness. When we are aware of our motivations and the workings of the mind, we simply have the tools and capacity to love better.
Perhaps something here resonates with you, speaks to you, calls to you. If so, consider setting an intention for the New Year around your meditation practice, or around some beautiful and healing quality of heart or mind you would like to cultivate this year, or around some harmful “thought rut” you would like to understand better and perhaps let go of or at least allow to have less of a stranglehold on you going forward.
Let us “bend and incline” our hearts and mind toward love, peace and freedom from suffering for all beings, this year and always.
May you be happy, healthy, safe and at peace!
I am constantly struck by how many opportunities we have as humans to be more present and more compassionate. We have truly been given a precious opportunity to continue growing up into more wise and loving creatures. This is one fact that helps me remain in love with and committed to life despite its outrageous challenges and seemingly never-ending pitfalls.
I hosted one of my JAMcamps this past Monday for 14 children ages five through eight. Our theme for the day was “non-harming”. In addition to singing songs and making art and books related to this theme, we practiced a little meditation I call Finger Meditation. Basically, we “promise” or set an intention that “we will NOT HARM people, animals, plants, the earth, or ourselves.” We also “promise” or set an intention that “we will HELP people, animals, plants, the earth, and ourselves.” And we simply commit to doing our best in these areas, and to staying present for opportunities where we can choose non-harming over harming, and choose helping over doing nothing.
These little children understand immediately the power and relevance of these promises and intentions. They comprehend deeply the necessity of making them. They unabashedly want to follow through on them. They literally shine with light and love as we discuss things like why it’s important not to intentionally squash a spider, why it’s a worthwhile endeavor to respect the incredible complexity and intelligence of an ocean and its creatures, why it’s crucial that we treat each other and everything with respect, why it might be a healthy choice to shake off our hands after washing them rather than use yet another tree-born paper towel. The brilliance, intelligence and heart I continually witness in the children I share time with gives me more hope for the future of our planet than most things. They GET it.
It is important for us to find and nourish these sources of inspiration, lest we fall into the traps of apathy, depression, overwhelmth, and fear. For apparently we have been born into a time of great upheaval, change, chaos, even darkness. Most of our political, economic, social and environmental systems are desperately off balance and increasingly sick. If you are awake to what is actually occurring, you certainly feel at times overwhelmed, paralyzed, confused, angry and/or apathetic. Yet we are tasked with the seemingly crazy and impossible job of making sense of all of this, while somehow continuing on with our lives with a modicum of equanimity, compassion, joy and ideally also a dash of optimism and a dose of helpful action.
So what are we to do about it all?
Obviously, there’s no “top ten” list to answer that question. Yes, we should change our light bulbs, but that can’t be where we stop. Unfortunately there’s no single big “fix” we can make in our own personal lives (like moving to the land), or in the workings of the systems of which we are an inseparable part (like gaining control of the Senate), that will turn this ship around. But there is very important work to be done in the world, so we do continue to make choices that are healthy for ourselves and our communities and our environment — some of them big and radical and transformative — and we certainly must continue to vote. And there is VERY important work to be done on ourselves — to awaken to and shatter the forces of greed, hatred and delusion within our own hearts and minds. This has always been true, and it is perhaps even more true and urgent now.
There’s a wonderful Pali word that speaks to this moment we inhabit and how we feel about it: samvega. It basically means, “a sense of shock, anxiety and spiritual urgency leading to wise action.” Certainly one of the best and most effective forms of wise action for us as human beings in the face of today’s immense challenges and the associated difficult emotions that come up for us is to continue and deepen our meditation practice. For this practice has as one of its fruits the strengthening and fortification of our ability to bring more presence and awareness to everything — every moment, person, situation, emotion, thought, experience. And the better able we are to be present, non-reactive, non-judgmental and clear, the better chance we have of behaving in a way that helps rather than harms.
We need to practice (ideally, daily!) in order to strengthen these tendencies and habits — in order to water the seeds of kindness, generosity, gratitude, forgiveness, and love inside of us, rather than the seeds of greed, hatred, fear, doubt and delusion which we all also carry within. Training our minds and hearts and changing ourselves in this way WILL ultimately change the “outside” world, for we are inextricably woven through with that entire world — all of its molecules, all of its energy, all of its beings and non-beings. There is no true separation we can actually measure. Inter-being is a fact. So the transformative effect of this work we do with and inside of ourselves in meditation practice is not something to underestimate.
Merriam-Webster defines crisis as follows: “a difficult or dangerous situation that needs serious attention” and “the turning point for better or worse in an acute disease or fever”. I just love this! For certainly, we are, here and now, alive during a time that “needs serious attention”. And certainly things are both “difficult” and “dangerous”. But notice the “better or worse” clause. It is as if the earth and humanity were infected with an acute disease, and we are right now at or approaching the height of the infection. In which direction will the illness go? Toward death, or toward life? Toward annihilation, or toward a great turning? I firmly believe we can do our part to turn this crisis in the direction of love and healing, starting from our very own meditation cushions.
One beautiful and effective way to fortify the mind and heart and create stability in your practice, especially during difficult times or when emotions are running high, is to practice Metta, or Lovingkindness, meditation, on a regular basis. There are some wonderful guided meditations available on the internet here and here and here, and you can read more about the practice here and here and here. The basic idea is to generate feelings of goodwill in ever-widening circles, beginning with yourself. The technique employed in the meditation is to repeat certain phrases over and over again, dropping them into your heart, cultivating this sense of wishing others well as you go along:
“May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be safe. May I be at peace.
May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you be at peace.”
In addition to a very beautiful way of loving and caring for ourselves, this practice nourishes the heart, stabilizes the mind, and is generally a comforting place to land. Certainly, we can all use all the comfort we can get these days. And the odds of us being able to find and cultivate this comfort within, taking charge of our own suffering and our own karma, are a lot higher than finding it in any leader or system or anything external for that matter. Yes, we have to mother ourselves. And, in doing so, we mother the world.
So, we must find ways to act, and we must find ways to sit and do nothing. Start off be getting inspired by some human beings practicing courageous and dramatic action in support of the healing of our earth — the Pacific Climate Warriors’ recent efforts in the seas off Australia. And then spend some time on your cushion, loving the earth by loving yourself, being kind to the earth by being kind to yourself, cultivating the wish for ALL BEINGS to be happy, healthy, safe and at peace. This is certainly something we can do.
October Mindfulness Tip: Practice Lovingkindness Often!
Experiment with adding a short (5-minute) or longer (25-minute) lovingkindness practice to your meditation schedule. Perhaps 2-3 times per week for the next month, replace your daily meditation with a period of lovingkindness. Alternately, you can end each of your regular sits with a short period of lovingkindness practice. Or even expand your practice to add a lovingkindness meditation on a day you’ll also do your regular mindfulness practice (For example, when I can make the time, I like to practice Lovingkindness in the morning, and do a regular sit later on. It starts my day off in such a gentle way and sets the stage for kindness and a more open heart all day long). This is also a wonderful practice to do as a “last thing” before you go to sleep. Get cozy, release your the worries and anxieties and stress of your day into the bed/floor/earth, and give yourself a little extra love! Finally, if it feels overwhelming to do the whole practice (starting with yourself, moving to a benefactor or friend, then a neutral person, then a difficult person, then all beings), just stay with yourself and practice there. You’re worth it!
I will leave you with a song. It’s about lovingkindness and sharing our love, all around. Sing it in the shower. Sing it with your kids. Sing it to your partner. Sing it to the trees and the oceans and the rivers and the skies and the breeze. And sing it to your very own heart.
I love you.
“The point of spiritual practice isn’t to perfect yourself; it’s to perfect your love.”
— Jack Kornfield
My kids started school this week, with all the attendant excitement and nervousness. Their feelings around it were somewhat complicated: a mixture of gratitude about getting back into a rhythm with friends and teachers, plus excitement about new opportunities for learning and expanding and socializing, combined with the dread of homework and the loss of free time to follow their heart’s desire that summer represents.
It is always a bittersweet transition as a parent, comforting and upsetting at the same time. I am always left wondering if I have done right by my kids, by requiring them to spend the better part of their waking life in school, despite my own internal resistance to how the education of our children is often approached and handled.
Thankfully, this somewhat anxious wondering always transforms after time into a remembering of one fundamental truth: we cannot “protect” our children from life. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we cannot create the “perfect” life — in terms of external circumstances — for our kids. We need to do our best to set them up well, and then realize that heartache will come, in one form or another. And that this is not bad, and it doesn’t mean we have failed. It just means we are — all of us — alive. And that as long as we remain authentic and present for and madly in love with them as they go through life’s challenges and ups and downs, this is truly all that is required.
One of my favorite books is When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron. Notice that the title reads “When” rather than “If”. Things WILL fall apart. Our job is to continue the work of “perfecting our love” so we have the best chance possible of meeting the tough times (our own, loved ones’, and those of strangers, too) with understanding, compassion, acceptance, and truth.
And just as we cannot actually protect our loved ones from pain, neither can we protect ourselves from bad things happening, or from our difficult feelings. We do ourselves no favors by armoring ourselves against the pain of being human. We do ourselves far more favors by opening ourselves to the tenderness of being alive — learning how to sit with difficult feelings, learning how to let go of control of circumstances outside our control, learning how embrace ALL of our experience.
This is what meditation has the power to teach us, through repeated practice of simple techniques like staying with the breath, bringing our mindful awareness to our difficult emotions, learning how to accept our thoughts but not be dominated by them. There is huge relief and healing in these practices. And when we practice — really practice — we find, bit by bit, that we are perfecting our love.
Meditation Tip: Take Time Out for Difficult Emotions
The next time you feel a difficult emotion coming up, actually put effort into carving out some time to just sit with the feeling. It could be a feeling of sadness, anger, frustration, jealousy, grief, loneliness, anxiety, worry, or anything else uncomfortable. Rather than pushing it away or down (denial), being upset that it’s happening (aversion), or moving into story about it (enmeshment), just sit with the feeling itself, allowing it time and space to have it’s natural movement through your body and heart. Resist attempts to disappear into thoughts and ideas “about” the emotion (a running commentary analyzing why you feel this way, whose fault it is, how you’re going to fix it), and instead stay with the energy of the emotion in your body: what does it feel like? where in the body do you feel it? is it changing, staying the same, growing, shrinking, disappearing? Just “hold it”, like you would a crying baby, caring for the feeling with a non-attached, kind, strong and patient love and presence. And see what happens!