On Truth, Transparency, and Therapy

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I recently came across a video by an educational youtube channel/company (Can you Trust Kurzgesagt). The video goes to great lengths to demonstrate a few key things: first, what it means to trust them in an age of information, disinformation, and opinion; second, it demonstrates that two of the site’s most viewed videos were ones that it is least proud of. Least proud because the information presented were not well researched, one sided, or created out of emotional investment rather than the available data/research.

I think this is great. It’s great because it demonstrates what I hope we can all come to as honest people: the ability to be trusting and open about how we operate (when safe to do so) and take responsibility when we are in error. Depending on one’s orientation in the world of therapy, one of the the things that allows a therapist to do their work is the ability to be truthful in the moment with the client about what is going on. To create a space where two people can meet and discuss issues in the safety of the office. Ideally, this artificial space helps create an internal safety which can then be translated to the outside world. This is not common phenomenon in the world at large, for a whole bunch of reasons, but in particular because we are not able to show our vulnerabilities without total fear that they will be exploited.

Now, I know that exposing one’s own faults in a youtube channel is not exactly the same, but it demonstrates to us, the viewers, the simple principle of responsibility. A company that takes real responsibility for it’s regrettable work opens up the conversation that mistakes can be made and we do not need to shy away from them. I personally have shared one of their regrettable videos (the one on addiction) because it espoused a view that I subscribed to. I allowed the echo chamber of my own biases to obscure the one-sidedness of the video. As I see this happening more and more online, I am worried that it leaks into our personal lives: the inability to admit error, the inability to meet in a common space of understanding, the unwillingness to be vulnerable. What I fear the most is that if we become insulated in our own silos of belief and refusal to see outside of them, how are we to ever learn?

There is a relation here to therapy. Often, therapy progresses on an uneven line. It usually dips and peaks at times when the foundation of our beliefs about self and other are challenged. When we hear about behaviours or actions we are ashamed of, we retreat into our own silos, telling ourselves stories that reaffirm our position, justify our actions, or let us ignore and shut out the voices that don’t agree. The most change I have seen from clients comes not from advice or intervention from me, it comes from the choice of individuals to step out of their silos, hold the pain of confronting their actions and internal beliefs, and creating space to listen and respond (mostly to their own internal stories) compassionately.

Fundamentally, we are people who want to be close to other people. I think that the ability to trust, be transparent and be close is being eroded by the mass of disinformation and lack of responsibility in our online worlds. We constantly bear witness to trusted sources taking advantage of that trust to peddle specific viewpoints while espousing neutrality. What does this model for us as consumers and people? I would wager it is not positive, community-building, or connection-inspiring. If we truly value these things, why don’t we ask for it in the places we access most, the places our children watch the most content, the places that inform the opinions we take forward and share in our personal worlds?

I have been busy, and have missed connecting with people about things that matter. I am glad to be posting again, and as always look forward to conversation and engagement.

Take care of one another and be well friends,

J

The Hardship of Caring - MiniPost

I recently came across this quote by Normal Fischer:

We become numb and isolated because we want to avoid the suffering, but it’s the

numbness and isolation that feel the worst. When we break through the unnecessary

suffering and connect with others, it’s hard and it’s painful, but it’s also better. When we

open up to the real pain of caring for others, we do feel better

This speaks volumes about how I once dealt with close relationships. I had become quite proficient at distancing in order to maintain my own sense of “safety.” By avoiding the suffering of friendship and caring for others (particularly new people) I had learned how to be able to avoid the potential hurt of caring for others.

This has changed for me in the past few years, but it takes a lot of work (and is on-going). I find myself often overwhelmed (when I am not doing my own self-care) by the sheer pain/dissatisfaction/sadness of other people. This is a gentle reminder that it is through facing this vulnerability we build stronger connective tissue. Strong connections take work. They involve suffering, and they are not pleasant. It is, however, in moving through this unpleasantness that we can build the safety nets of true community participation that I think we all really crave.

Be well, friends

Jesse

***As an aside, “suffering” here denotes a personal uncomfortability and emotional turmoil/unpleasantness. If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship that is something to correct/leave/ find support for as soon as is safely possible. Look out for one another. ***

Community as Participation and Reciprocity

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Community as Participation

A Meditation on Punk Rock, Citizenship and Reciprocity

Here are two things that you may not know about me: the first is that very late last year, I officially became a Canadian citizen. The second, is that I grew up deeply entrenched in the music and ethic of punk rock thanks in no small part to my father (something for which I am eternally grateful). I share these things because I have been thinking about community, belonging, and reciprocity a lot lately. More specifically, I have been considering what it means to belong to a community, how I feel about it, and what gives rise to a strong sense of give and take in the communities in which I am involved.

For most of my life, I have felt kind of like my legal status; a landed immigrant (before the days of ‘Permanent Resident’). When I traveled, my passport was different, I said things with a weird hold-over pronunciation from preschool years in California, and I had no ‘roots’ here - no local family lineage or history. Thankfully, as I grew older most of those things mattered less to me. I considered myself Canadian, my parents and siblings began to set our own roots, and I got used to pronouncing pasta in a way that got laughs.

What all this means is that I began to become a part of the place that I resided.

That happened in a multitude of ways. First, I simply existed - I am in class pictures in elementary and secondary schools, in faded newspaper clippings for random community events, and in the memories of those that shared those years with me. Second, I made this place a Place: a piece of land and landmark that carries significance to me. A multitude of memories and feelings and experiences (both good and bad) that tie me to the physical landscape of my town. Third, I have come to accept that this is where I a from. It is not shameful (as it was in my youth), it is a point of pride. This distinction is important because it denotes choice. An adoption, rather than a circumstance one is born (or moved) into. I like that people (mostly) smile and nod on the streets, know each other by sight if not by name, and genuinely seem interested with what is going on.

All this is to say that community is a multifaceted and complex idea. I think that it involves not only circumstantial events, like moving somewhere for work or to be closer to family, or to simply start again, but also includes things like participation, a sense of belonging, and a reciprocal attitude.

Quesnel feels more like a place I want to be the more I treat it like I care that it exists, and imagine it thriving in a future not yet come.

So where does punk rock fit? It matters in my own story because as a newer Canadian citizen, I now have the privilege of voting. I can partake in our chosen form of democracy, and ideally effect the change I want to see.

I will say right here, I don’t care what your political affiliation is, the following thoughts are on participation and giving back as a ethic of community, not as a persuasive argument for any political party or candidate.

The punk rock I grew up on was staunchly anti-authority. Lyrics usually fell into general genres of rallying against oppression, defeating the status quo, or just lamenting a feeling on non-belonging and (perceived) powerlessness. As such, I came to really develop a cynical view of power structures. I didn’t trust them, I didn’t believe they told the truth, and I thought participation in the system was a form of ‘selling out’. It was a convenient way, ironically, of finding my own sense of community, and opting out of any real participation.

Looking back on it now, it reminds me of William Golding’s essay “Thinking as a Hobby” where he outlines different levels of thinking. In his three grades, I was definitely caught in Grade Two Thinking, characterized by reveling in tearing things down without being able to build them back up again. As Golding puts it, “To find out the deficiencies of our elders bolsters the young ego but does not make for personal security.” I would interpret that also as not making meaningful personal connection - a fundamental component to building community. See, Golding says that the real goal should be to reach Grade One Thinking: the place where one not only wants to point out deficiencies, but also wants to work (and I think this requires others to work with) to build up something more meaningful in it’s place.

Luckily, I have been able - through introspection, lots of reading, and wonderfully intelligent friends who like to talk - to figure out what it means to be a Grade One thinker. It means to give back. Punk Rock made me really proficient at taking; taking my good fortune for granted, taking a critical eye to positions of power, and taking nothing at face value (which encouraged me to read and write and explore and think). But what I have come to see, especially as a counsellor, citizen, son, brother and husband, is that I need to rebuild as well. To ask the question: now that the buildings have crumbled, what do we erect in their place? I need to give energy back in the form of participation, volunteerism, kindness, openness, and compassion. I need to be mindful of my impact on the communities (geographic, political, familial [including friends], collegial to name a few…) of which I have the honor to be apart.

The truth is, all of this thinking came to a head when my wife and I began discussing the voting coming up in the next few days and weeks. I am a little older, and my conceptions of what matters has changed, and I really do think that taking part means showing up. I am saying this as a man with a little cynical devil that still holds permanent residence in my mind, one that tries to convince me that doing nothing is as effective as casting a ballot.

Comments on WTF Facebook pages don’t make change, showing up and giving back does.

I’ll see you at the polls, band t-shirt and ripped jeans and all.

Be well, friends,

Jesse

Between Me and the Trees

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Between Me and the Trees

On the Circularity of Community

When I think back on my childhood, I don’t necessarily remember doing the Riverfront Walk a bunch. Instead, I remember wandering around in the woods behind my parent’s house, in our out-of-city-limits neighborhood, and simply exploring the forest season by season. We would hunt grouse (and never get any) in the summer months, throw rocks at wasps nests (I got stung on the face that one time) and walk in each others’ footprints when the snow got really deep. The point is, though I didn’t think about it this way then, I was deeply connected to the physical (and imaginative) world that I lived in.

As is the way of some things, over the years, those connections faded as I developed a resistant stance on my home town: I needed to escape everything it stood for in order to grow, flourish, and ‘experience the world.’ I left for a bit (though I didn’t go far) and eventually, about 6 years ago I returned.

That was when I started walking the Walk.

For those of you that are not locals, the Riverfront Walk, in it’s most basic configuration, is a 5 km paved path that encircles the downtown of Quesnel (though it has offshoots and other wider circles as well). In my opinion, it is hands-down one of the highlights of the downtown area. Since Quesnel sits where 2 rivers meet, the Quesnel and Fraser Rivers, the walk takes you along side of each and right past their confluence.

I have been writing lately about community and as I walked the Riverfront today, I couldn’t help but think about the writings of Gregory Cajete, and the aspect of Indigenous knowledge as a series of connected and/or concentric circles. As I looked up at the trees, whose leaves have turned golden, red and a host of other autumn colors, I was overwhelmed by this sense of the cyclic, the circularity of the seasons. I have literally circled the downtown core, either running or walking or biking hundreds of times. Over and over, as the rivers rose and fell, as ice began to form in little islands on the Fraser, and trees went through the process of budding, flowering and eventually dropping their leaves. The people are no different. When you walk it enough, you see other regulars, you see tourists in the summer months (lost on a circular path), and you see the clothing bundle and be shed again of other Walkers as the seasons undulate along.

I see the community as a series of connected circles. Not only the physical circles I walk in and around town, but also the mental circles of seasonal affect, politics and social changes. I see these elements as sometimes greatly overlapping, and other times simply nudging up against one another. But what strikes me most is that in order to really feel my community, I have to be a part of it. My walks connect me to the actual place I inhabit. At the risk of sounding old-fashion, I really do believe that my phone and car and internet and devices really keep my mental space not here. It takes a walk, and the smells of leaves, and the sunlight, and bear poop piles to reacquaint me with the connection that came natural as a kid.

Community is participatory after all. It is one thing to be in a community and an entirely different thing to be of a community. I am writing about this because I often forget it. Often I find it easier to retreat, read a never-ending twitter feed, and avoid other people and this place all together. I guess it took the smell of decay and a hint of cold to remind me.

We are about to enter into the darker months of winter and I am of the belief that there is no better time to shore up those links to your own community. When it is cold and dark and cars are reluctant to get warm, we need other people the most. I also think we need our places in those times too - the familiarity of landscapes and views that remind us where we are and how we exist there. A reminder that if we wait long enough, everything can be seen as a series of circles gravitating around and occasionally bumping into one another.

For now, while the weather holds, I will continue to simply walk the Walk.

Be well, friends

Jesse

(Re) Discovering Connection

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(Re) Discovering Connection

The Beginning of an Inquiry into Community

The potatoes pictured above came from the garden my wife and I planted earlier this spring. We are not “green thumbs” by any means, and potatoes have the reputation of being a little more resilient to our neglect than other vegetables. So, the season went on, and true to form we allowed the potatoes to (mostly) raise themselves in our little garden boxes in our yard. As we came and went over the season, we could see the green leaves climb towards the sky and marveled at just how little we had to be involved in order to see something grow so large. For me, potatoes are a neat little treasure: unlike the squash that balloons out in your face, barely hid by it’s own wide leaves, potatoes are hidden. They find their way to maturation out of sight, and so you can only mound and wait and hope they are going to be alright.

In both my counselling, my recent education (a Master’s of Education) and in the world at large, I have been drawn over and over to the sense that there is a massive disconnection. A community-sized void that people are trying to fill with all kinds of non-community things: TV, the internet, drugs, alcohol, outrage, denial, and lonliness. I am one of those people. I find it easier and easier to stay at home and comfortably watch TV or play video games than to go out to socialize and risk awkwardness, boredom, or uncertainty in the name of community building. I am also very lucky. I have found and managed to retain a few important friends that have become my family. I can rely on them when I am in trouble, and whine to them when I am sad, and just be nurtured by their presence when all is well. In some ways it reminds me of the potatoes - when you find a good community, you just kind of exist, mounding experience and time on to your friendships, hoping those pale-skinned nuggets of trust and connection are growing. Then, when you need them the most, you can plunge your hands into the soil, and hope they are going to be there for you, to nourish you or to simply brighten your day with their presence. If I am fortunate, some days I can provide the same thing back for those same people. We plant and tend and grow and rely on one another over and over again, season by season.

All that being said, I truly do think I am lucky. Lucky in that my particular community has slowly grown in ways that are working. As I said before, there is a theme in my work that is telling me this is not the case in most areas of many of our lives. We buy our potatoes, cleaned, semi-symmetrical, sterile, and trade them for money. This often mirrors our engagement with community - that it comes (usually in the form of syndicated comedy or drama) in clean, 30 to 60 min packages ready to be consumed and told how to laugh or cry or connect with characters we see in ourselves and in our struggles and we get the added bonus of shutting it off whenever it becomes too much. I would argue that in both cases, we are missing something. We are missing the dirty hands, the discovery of ants in the roots of the plants, the uncomfortability of not knowing how things will turn out, and the drawing together of people (or food, or both) when things do work out. The image of roots comes to mind, and how they draw their nourishment from everything around them, they don’t get to pick and choose, and together they help their common goal (to grow) come to fruition.

I think that some our communities (spiritual, regional, familial, occupational, and all others) have suffered the same fate of disconnection that I have with my store-bought potatoes. They can feel transactional and distant and not really grounded in substance. They lack the dirt, the care and the giving of yourself that makes them valuable. This may sound naive to the farmers out there, but I have a much harder time throwing out or wasting the things I grow than the stuff I buy. There is something of me in these potatoes, and I don’t want to do that a disservice. Our communities and friendships and home environments should model this, I think. They should be places where we have vested interest, we care for one another because we are in it together, period. We plant in the spring because we expect there to be a need for potatoes in fall, because one day, we might not be able to simply drive to the store and get them. What would happen if we treated our communities like this?

I will continue to write on this subject every few weeks for those that would like to follow along. I welcome your voice on anything that comes up during the journey.

J

Radical Acceptance

What is Radical Acceptance?

Radical acceptance is the act of deciding that the thoughts, feelings, fears, and self-judgement we feel do not go away by engaging in negative self-talk and avoidance. It is the practice of learning to take a pause and break the old, unhelpful cycles.  While it will start off as a mechanical reminder of how to change, it will develop into a way of being, a natural response to unhealthy, maladaptive thinking.  It is also a way of learning how to be yourself, and be okay with who that person is.

How do I practice Radical Acceptance?

Radical Acceptance has many books and articles written on it, so I will introduce it with 3 main exercises, so you can get started right now: Pausing, Accepting and Being with Breath.

Pausing: The cycles we get into can drive us insane.  Pausing is a way to interrupt these cycles.  The next time you are in a situation where you feel totally out of control, angry or impulsive, work on pausing.  Take a moment, breathe deeply and answer these question: Why am I feeling this way? Is what I am about to do really going to help me?  You may be surprised by the answer.  If you are caught in a loop of self-destructive or self-loathing behaviour, try putting on the brakes and asking, is this where I really want to go?

Accepting: It is bad enough that we find ourselves in uncomfortable emotional states.  We also have a tendency to feel bad about feeling bad.  Inside we say might be something like I shouldn’t be feeling so bad about feeling bad right now, jeez, I’m an idiot. So now, you are feeling bad and feel bad about feeling bad.  See how this could go on forever?  Accepting is the act of noticing your thoughts and mood, and giving yourself the space to feel that way, without judgement.  It is the freedom to feel and then move on.  It may not make uncomfortable feelings any easier, but when they are done, it can stop there.  It is the first major step in accepting who you are.

Being with Breath:  Remember to breathe.  It is the first thing that starts to get fast and short when we feel threatened, shameful, anxious and scared.  This is a gentle reminder to break up those uncomfortable moments with a deep, belly-out, puffed-chest breathe.  Take it all in (count to 4), pause for a moment, and slowly exhale (count to 4).  This exercise refocuses the mind on the present moment, and tells the body that everything is going to be alright.  The term “breathe easy” came from somewhere right?  Well, make it your personal mission, and you’ll be calmer in no time. Breathe in what you want, and exhale everything that needs to go.

5 Tips for Clearing a Toxic Mind

In the same way that many of us approach diet as a means to detoxify our bodies, we can also take steps to clear unwanted, unhelpful, toxic patterns of thinking.  Unlike the food we eat, the thoughts we consume and digest are a lot less tangible.  This means that often we are sitting at a buffet of “bad thoughts” filling ourselves until we explode, and we aren’t even aware it’s happening.  This is why it is important to find ways to step away, cleanse your palate, are start fresh when it comes to thoughts, feelings and emotions.  Below are 5 different methods of beginning that journey, mix and match to find what works for you:

●  Find some time for nature: Our bodies and minds have lived for eons with the sights and sounds of the natural world.  No matter the season, find some time to spend outdoors each day.  With the appropriate clothing and gear, all seasons offer a free mind-cleansing experience: fresh air, natural light, and little exercise.  Take the time to frequent your favorite trail, watch the full moon, or walk the dog one more time.

●  Talk it out.  Our minds can be a cluttered place.  We don’t think in nice neat sentences like, I am feeling bad today.  Instead, we tend to think in fragments, images and feelings.  Finding a trusted friend (this includes your favorite furry friend) that you can talk to helps tidy up the clutter.  But putting your thoughts into words, they seem more manageable, less oppressive and it gives them somewhere to go.

●  Breathe.  I am sure you have heard this one before, but it’s important enough to bear repeating.  Slowing your breathing down fundamental changes the way your brain functions.  A shallow, quick breathe signals to the body that you are very likely in danger.  This tenses your muscles, and leads to a more frantic thought process.  Over time, these things can add up to feeling overwhelmed, scattered, forgetful, and tired.  A couple times a day, make sure to slowly inhale over 4 seconds, and exhale over for seconds, focusing specifically on the way the body relaxes as you let your air flow out.

●  Create a Safe Space: Your thoughts come from you, right?  Well, why not take some time to sit and create a sanctuary for you to go when you are feeling overwhelmed. IN a comfortable sitting position imagine the place that you feel the safest.  Imagine the smells, the temperature, your clothes.  Imagine the colors and the other inhabitants of this place (if there are any).  Ask yourself if you are sitting, standing or lying down.  Now that you have your safe space, give it a name.  A phrase that just puts you in that place.  Notice how this word effects you; do your shoulders drop?  Does that knot in your stomach begin to unwind?  Do you release your clenched jaw?  Good.  Now use it everyday and make it your own!

●  Be a duck. Growing up, whenever I got upset about something, my aunt would say, be like a duck, let it roll like water off your back. Back then, I didn’t really appreciate what this meant. I do now.  Be a duck, and don’t let things get to you.  A duck exists the same whether the rain comes or not, because it doesn’t let the wet effect it.  We can choose to do the same with toxic thoughts and experiences.  When you approach situations that cause stress or invasive thoughts, ask yourself, how is fighting this going to help me?  What would happen if I just let the thoughts come, and then go?  We often end up holding on to negative ways of thinking by engaging those thoughts in a battle of wills.  Instead, let the rain just keep on raining, and remind yourself that it is better to be uncomfortable for a short time, then be locked in battle with undesirable emotions forever.  Remember, be a duck and actually let those drops roll off and away.

Like any skill, these tips and exercises are best utilized when they are practiced regularly.  Take it slow, try one at a time, and soon enough you’ll be filling your plate with things that keep your mind and body healthy, balanced, and clear.

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 13 - 90 Days of Sitting

This is the thirteenth (and final) in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

The end, my friends!  It has been 90 days.  I was asked recently by a student who knew I was undertaking this challenge, whether I had “stuck with it.” I had to answer honestly: for the most part, yes.  Did I miss some days? Yes.  Did I meditate when I really didn’t feel like it? Also yes.  Do I regret committing publicly to meditating for 90 days? Not in the slightest. 

It has been over a week since the 90 days officially ended.  I have had a hard time sitting down to write this, the final post in this series.  It has felt like I have been doing this for a long time. Perhaps it’s ending has put off my writing.

Hopefully, I have begun the process of charting a path for some of you through the murky waters of engaging in a meditation practice.  I know I have begun that process myself.  I am still unclear where I am going, but I am at least a little more familiar with what the journey feels like.

As a way of bookending this little experiment, I would like to offer a few of the things that I learned along the way.  This list is personal, so your experience may (will) vary.

1)      Consistency is Key. I obviously missed some days.  What I found was that this was more likely to happen when I got out of the practice of practice.  As I have stated in a previous post, I like to meditate in the morning, after a few sips of coffee, before doing anything else.  For a while, I got into the habit of telling myself that I would meditate later in the day, or that evening.  While I sometimes would follow through, I was much more likely to skip these days if I broke up my routine.  My word of advice here is to sit, even if it is only for a few minutes (instead of the length of your regular practice) just to keep the mind and body on a schedule it can grow into.

2)      Presence is Passing. I very rarely found myself in the state that one might consider “present.”  My mind was a chaotic mess most of the time.  Thoughts about the day, my family, my work, the news, it all became a constant parade behind my closed lids.  Much of the “work” was just becoming aware that this was happening.  I would re-center, focus on the breath, relax my clenched jaw, and sink into an exhale. For that moment, I really felt lighter, and at rest. Then I would think about feeling that way, and off I would go again!  I really think this is a “enjoy the journey, not the destination” type of activity.  My insights came from doing the practice, not getting to any sort of enlightened state.  My advice here is to be okay with the process.  Be process-oriented and sit and watch and learn and breathe.

3)      The Body Speaks.  Sitting still for 10-30 minutes can be a strain on the body.  Even if one has mastered the art of aligning the body in a way that this is less of an issue, my experience is that when you aim to quiet the mind, the body’s voice can be heard.  In sitting, I became aware of imbalances in my flexibility, aches that didn’t exist previously, the internal sounds that are usually drown out by living and I found places that were doing just fine.  Our minds and our bodies are often seen as separate.   I found that sitting helped the process of reintegration of mind and body.  Emotional thoughts brought tensions in different places.  Relaxation was as much held in my hips as in my head.  On the days that frustration grew, it was often because I was nurturing a disdain for the body – feeling like the soreness of the knees or back or jaw was a betrayal.  It is no surprise that when one demonizes their own flesh, they end up in a foul mood.  My advice here is simply to listen.  In the same way we should listen to the other people in our lives with compassion and openness, we can extend this practice to our bones, our blood, our joints and our scars. 

4)      Complexity is Compassion.  I am reminded of something a teacher of mine once said (paraphrased): Becoming intimate with anything makes it less personal.  My practice opened my awareness to the complexity of my inner life.  The dialogues always running in the background, layer upon layer until it all just felt like white noise.  By really seeing the depth of that conversation with myself, I gained a much greater appreciation for the dialogue that must be going on in others.  If I am this way, then it is difficult to imagine that anyone else is less so.  This has allowed me to become more compassionate in my living.  Each person I meet has this same cacophony of voices all wanting to be heard.  They are complex constructs of experience and feeling and competing desires.  Knowing that, makes it all less personal.  It reminds me that I am not the center of anyone else’s actions, decisions, and needs.  A slight I might feel is more about me than them, and it is my job to remind myself of this reality.  My advice here is to be intimate with the world.  Know that very little is ever personal.  Most people are just trying to navigate their own way, just as you are.

This is it! As far as writing on this experience is concerned anyways.  It has truly been an honor to share a piece of me with those of you who have followed me on this path.  I will continue to sit, to reflect and to share.  I hope you find the time to do the same.

 

Be well, friends.

 

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 12 - Unpacking Our Own Stories

This is the twelfth in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

For another project I am working on, I have been writing a lot about the concept of contemplation.  While contemplation can take many forms, my own contemplative practice is meditation.  I use meditation to unpack the thoughts that are taking up space in my mind.  I do not clear my mind, instead I flit from one thought to another to my breath, then back off to another thought again.  While ultimately, I believe the goal of meditation is to flit less and less, this way of practicing has yielded some really great insights into my personal narrative.

What I mean by narrative is the story that I tell myself about the events in my life.  When I sit down, I have a view of my street, and as I see snow clouds rolling in, I am likely to think, “Can you believe it, snow again, what an inconvenience!”  This is a natural response.  Another way of approaching this thought, however, is to look for the way I am telling the story: These clouds are a problem for who?  For me.  Why? Because they don’t give me the weather that I want. I am inconvenienced, the injustice! So, I take it kind of personally.  If nothing else, I find my mood souring, or I begin thinking about all the things I am missing out on because of the selfishness of weather patterns. 

Either way, I am telling the story of disappointment.  I am let down.  I am not getting what I want. 

These sentiments are now going to affect the next thing I do, and the next.  Usually, this can go on for quite a while. Usually, there is a cascade of emotions depending on how I have written my own story.   What meditation has done, however, is allow me to engage in a contemplative way with my emotions.

By unpacking the narrative, the flavor of the story, I can become far aware of my own effect on my day.  I can instead choose a narrative that supports growth and happiness.  I can choose to say, “More rain clouds, I guess that means I work inside today!” or “That’s the weather for you, what can you do!”  The difference, though subtle, is noticeable if one is paying attention.

Spring arriving has me thinking about how we tell our stories.  It is a time of growth and renewal and, naturally, the end of winter.  In each season we see how the cycle keeps moving forward: growth, life, death, birth.  We often get stuck in our preferences - like a preference for personal/environmental and spiritual growth - or get preoccupied with our fears  - ones surrounding stagnation, change and death - and this flavors all the other aspects of our lives.  As Maezumi points out, each of these states serves as a teaching point.  None are intrinsically good or bad – they offer us a perspective through which to see events as they are presented to us:

“So what is life? What is sickness? Who is getting old? Who is dying? What are these different perspectives teaching us? 

It is not a matter of four kinds or two kinds of perspectives as such. Each one of us has a different life and yet the same life-the life of birth, illness, old age, and death. How do we best live this life…?”

For me, contemplation and meditation are about answering Maezumi’s question.  How do we best live this life?  Do we taint our experience with (often unconscious) obsessive insecurity and fear, or do we take the lessons, realize that we each have the same life and work to unpack our thoughts one day at a time?  My practice has allowed me glimpses of the stories I tell myself, and I look forward to learning many more.  This week, consider your own stories.  What are they tell you and what perspective does that bring?

Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 11 - The Perks of Guidance

This is the eleventh in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

I have officially reached 75 days of practice.  75 days of sitting and contemplating, feeling successful, feeling frustrated, feeling here.  Thank you for coming along on for the ride.

Meditation is a practice, and not all practice days are your best.  As I have said before, I started writing this blog as a means to normalize meditation.  To show you that it is not all “sit and clear your mind and everything else is going to be alright.” I came up against this hurdle when I started sitting years ago, feeling like there was a wrong way to do it, feeling like I wasn’t getting it.  It is hard to stick with something when you don’t feel like you “get it” or that progress is not being made.  I think it is hard to track the progress of mental attunement, especially when you don’t exactly know what progress means!

I have been fortunate to have been taught about meditation, both in person and in books and podcasts, by people who stress the importance of just showing up.  I think that has inspired me to write this series of posts.  And it has inspired the theme of this week’s post: having some guidance can be a really great thing.  Now, I live in a northern town where meditation teachers are not exactly plentiful.  As such, I have had to find guidance through podcasts, books, and a lot of question-asking.  I have not had the perks of an in-person teacher for more than a few days at a time, but that does not mean that guidance wasn’t accessible.  The internet is your friend.

The reason I have been thinking about this so much is that this week I have been using the aid of guided meditation to help me when I sit.  For the first several years that I dabbled in meditation, I never sat without an audio guide.  I just couldn’t sit in the silence. My mind was too loud and distracting.  I found that by making someone else’s voice the focal point of my sit, I could at least anchor my thoughts to that. 

Some days I feel like my mind is a wide-open plain, and as gusts of wind just keep flashing thoughts through my mind, I have no way to anchor myself and not get swept up with them.

Listening to a guided meditation helped me to find my way back.  This week, I have been going through a fairly typical upswing in deadlines and workloads and have found that sitting with myself has become a fertile ground for all kinds of thinking, and not a lot of letting thinking go.  After a few days of this, I decided to meditate with the guidance of an old teacher, Michael Stone, through one of his podcast episodes.  The episode is a meditation of breath and lasts about 15 minutes (link here).  This aid was anchor I was looking for.  These kinds of guided meditations often remind you to focus on the breath, bring your thoughts back, or pay attention to the body – things that can get away from us when we are left with our own silence.

So that is what has come to me after 75 days of sitting - more acceptance of the process, more struggle, more success, more redefinitions of both.  Of course, Maezumi’s excerpts have also been there the whole time.  This week I want to share one of those excerpts just because I think the message is a wonderful one:

In your daily life, please accept yourself as you are and appreciate your life as it is. Be intimate with yourself. Taking good care of yourself is always the best way to take care of everything. Then your life, I am sure, will go all right. I want you to be a truly intimate being. Beneath your robe is the same as outside your robe. Inside and outside the robe are one. There is no division. Please take good care of this life. Enjoy yourself!”

Taking good care of yourself also means accepting your practice as it is right now.  Sit, breathe, enjoy yourself.

In the coming week, where can you let go of non-acceptance? Where is there room to let in some enjoyment? Is there a form of guidance that you can accept to have a little help on your journey?

Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 10 - Finding the Abundance in Less

This is the tenth in a series of blog posts (I took week nine off writing) aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

My practice is my refuge.  Even though my mind always ends up distracted, obsessive or wandering to some degree or another, I find that in the moments I sit, I feel like I am all there is.  This is an important aspect of meditation for me as I am the kind of person who can become easily overwhelmed by the current events, day-to-day minutiae, and simple inconveniences of life.  I can find myself lost in the stories of suffering worldwide and right at home. At times this manifests in an overarching sense of hopelessness – what can I do, how can I do it, is it even worth it?

In Buddhist philosophy, this sense of hopeless can be likened to a feeling of scarcity.  Scarcity is the idea that we cannot have enough, do enough, or be enough. That we are so afraid that the danger/sadness/travesty/change to come will overtake us, that we stockpile everything possible to see out the storm.  But the truth is there will never be enough “things” to make that feeling go away. Scarcity is an internal need that cannot be fulfilled by external material objects. My process has been one of identifying when and why the feeling of scarcity occurs, and look instead for the intrinsic abundance I carry.  So I sit.

My practice has helped me carve a safe space to simply be in the moment.  It allows me to step back from the cataclysmic thinking of future-me. To stop grasping. It reminds me that thoughts can become runaways, forging their own adventures, triumphs, and defeats without ever leaving my head.  I become aware of the waves of emotions that these possibilities can hold and I acknowledge them and bid them farewell. If they can happen when I am sitting and intently listening, they must also be happening when I am busy, distracted and not listening.

The interesting thing is this; the more I listen, the more my thoughts tell me about myself.  The flavor of my thinking tells me what I am afraid of, where my insecurities lie, what I think is important in life, and where I feel scarce – emotionally, physically, and spiritually.  I believe this is why people really shy away from meditation. Movies, music, activities and our phones provide convenient and effective ways to not look at our inner workings, the constant dialogue of our subtle thoughts, the “darker” side of selfhood.  It is easier to buy the things we think we need and ride that good feeling all the way until we sleep. When that high ends, we find something new -  a new toy, relationship, job, or even some new inter-personal drama.

This week I am reflecting on  this sense of scarcity and its opposite, abundance.  Scarcity causes a clinging - so that we don’t feel, fear, or fret.  To cling is to hold on, to brace for impact, to gather everything possible because it feels like the house is burning down around you.  To stop letting go.

Maezumi talks about the innate abundance of self, of knowing that what we really have is our own being:

“...Know how to be satisfied with the things that we already have. When we think about this, we see that we truly have enough. We have this life. To some degree, we can say that the less we have, the more abundance we have. When we don't own anything at all, we have the abundance of the entire universe.

I am clearly not a monk.  I am not going to give up my worldly possessions and sit with the notion that to have nothing is to have the entire universe.  However, I think there is a watered-down version of this that we can all work into our daily practice. We can learn to be satisfied with what we have.  We can sit (or lay, or walk) and contemplate the abundance of living, in its losses as well as it’s boons. We can take stock of our own existence and be satisfied with the fact that we have the ability to take stock.  In my years of teaching psychology, there is one thing about the human condition that has always stood out to me: we survive. We adapt to circumstances great and terrible and find ways to make the most of them. We sing songs, form friendships, face adversity, and love one another.

Sitting to meditate reminds me that all of those things are possible right there on the cushion.  That the new toy or TV show or game is just more stuff to be had, but the meaningful connections, hope, and change are all intrinsic to being human.  This is how I interpret Maezumi’s quote: Having less allows us to focus more on the abundance of self and each other.

This week, I invite you to ask yourself where your feelings of scarcity come from.  Is it possible to wrangle a sense of abundance with the things that you already have?  Maezumi believes this abundance is found as much in sickness, death and grief as it is in happiness, health, and joy.  The common denominator is you.

Be well, friends.

 

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 8 - Prioritizing this Moment

This is the eighth in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

Writing this blog has made meditation a big part of my life.  I read, I sit and I write.  It’s a sort of rhythm that runs in the background of my normal daily routines, a rhythm that pervades my interactions, my choices and my internal dialogue. It has made me more aware of the thinking me and is, slowly but surely, helping me prioritize my thoughts and time.

There is a common instruction for meditation:  If you choose to keep your eyes open during the practice, choose a spot just a little in front of you, on the floor and focus on that spot. Your gaze should not be too far, nor too near, when you are practicing.  This instruction is designed to place your focus on what is right in front of you, as you breathe and move with your breath. Too often, both our minds and our thoughts are so far ahead of us they are distorted by the curvature of the earth.  When we focus too much on the future, we stop living right now – we live in a distorted possible future instead of an experiential present.

My experience is no exception.  In the same way that I have found a meditation rhythm that gently plays in the background of my life, I have also found a future-focused rhythm that dominates my weeks.  I start Sunday nights thinking about all the work I must do the coming week.  I am focused on the classes I’m teaching and the clients I’m seeing, I think about my schedule and the work that needs to be done and all my deadlines.  I wonder if I’ve forgotten to schedule or plan for something the following week. I begin to plan my “free time” so as to not lose out on an opportunity for maximizing the space between work and sleep.  Even writing it all down is exhausting.

But then, every week, it all passes and I wonder where it went.  Sometimes on Friday afternoons, I step out of my office and I’m suddenly aware of the present moment.  I have the conscious thought that it is all done, that I have a brief reprieve from the things that I was so worried about.  There is a sense of relief, like a light switch being clicked off.   The difference now is that my meditation practice  has added another thought to this process: “Where was I during the last week?  How did it all go by so fast?  Why does it feel like I was just going through the motions while worrying about getting it all done the whole time?”

This same mindset can be applied to the practice itself.  We can sit down at our practice thinking: When am I going to get it? Am I doing this right?  Did I think too much?  What is enlightenment, anyways?  Maezumi states that this kind of far-gazing is really doing us no favors:

The awakening experience is important, but relatively speaking, it is rather minor. What is more important? This life that we are constantly living minute after minute is most important. Our practice is here! Now! How to do it? In fact, you are doing it.

 He reminds us not to completely abandon our “important” things, but rather see them as a part of a whole.  That the week to come is not to be ignored, but perhaps put into perspective.  The things we feel are of huge importance on Sunday night come and go in the same way as every other moment leading up to and following them comes and goes.

 It is easy, and natural, to get lost in the far-off horizon.  To look for what is to come in order to prepare, worry about, and try to get ahead of it.  However, being in the moment is also important, and you are right here right now.  This coming week, invite yourself to prioritize your moments, giving the present moment the top spot.  How does that change your week?  Is there something to be gained from letting go of the distant future?  What does this minute have to offer, and what are you doing with it?

 

Be well, friends.

 

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 7 - The Fabric of Crazy Thinking

This is the seventh in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

As I sat down to write today’s blog post, I was a little lost.  I didn’t feel like I had any great insights this week or had experienced anything that was worthy of a blog post.  I was restless and kept getting up from my computer to pace around the house, trying to think up some great lesson or hurdle or experience that I could share.  I was feeling the need to perform, to produce interesting content without sounding too cliché.   The truth of the last week is that I had been practicing, had missed a couple sittings, had “made up” for them by sitting twice a couple days, and just generally struggled with balance and finding time in an otherwise busy-feeling schedule.

The truth, as I expressed it to my partner, was that without that nugget of wisdom, I felt like a fraud.

She asked me why I didn’t just write that?  I couldn’t, I said, it was way too vulnerable.  It would be too much of me, just…out there.

Meditation is as much about personal practice as it is about the practice of a community: as Rumi puts it, a community of spirit.  Somehow, in my feelings of inadequacy, in my need to produce a weekly blog, I convinced myself that vulnerability, openness, and raw experience should be cordoned off. It was a subtle script running in my head: You can be vulnerable only when you feel strong, on-track, and capable.  

I think we all really know that those moments are not when vulnerability yields its greatest rewards.  We like to see the struggle in the other and to know that struggle is universal and normal.  We have enough people that only show us their “good face.” We need to know we are all human. 

So I felt like a fraud. Though strangely enough, as I confess this in the moment, this process is absolving me of that feeling.  I think we can only feel like a fraud when we hide, deny, mask and pretty-up our surface.  When we believe the fraudulent story we tell ourselves – the story that we should obfuscate real emotion, real experiential personhood.

Maezumi has something to say about this too:

"Regardless of what you think, even your crazy thinking itself is nothing but that, do you see? It is no other than the dharma."

What this says to me is that, like everything else, our “crazy thinking” is still the practice.  We are not just taking part in finding clarity on the cushion.  We are exploring the dharma, the Zen principles of living, even in our crazy-making.  Even in my feeling like a fraud, I am practicing the way of meditation as clarity.  To put it simply: Crazy thinking and the associated stories are all you, they are me, they are as much the fabric of our lives as every other thing. 

What a relief! Our stories are all equal in that they are just stories.  Under close examination the fabric of those stories comes undone and unravels. What is left is just your experience, here and now.

As you move through the next week, I invite you to take a look at your stories.  If they were all made of the same stuff – nothing, or everything - how does that inform the way you move through your day, your week, your life?

 Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 6 - The Unforeseen Benefits of Living the Practice

This is the sixth in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

After two days in a row without a formal practice, I sat down this morning a little shamed and guilty.  The weekend had been a whirlwind, and I had not made it a priority to find time away to sit in the midst of out-of-town company.  In all honesty, I am still a touch protective/private about my practice – though my friends know I am writing this blog and that I have a regular practice, I still do not go out of my way to put it out there and ask for some time away.  Perhaps it feels selfish, or maybe I just don’t want to be that “in your face” about it with other people.  Whatever the motivation, I don’t excuse myself to sit when I have people in my home – which means sometimes it doesn’t happen.

However, today with the week staring anew, I decided I too would start anew and get to my cushion early in the morning – no more excuses!

This is what greeted me:

"Please do not forget that your life itself is the practice. Practice is no other than your life."

All my insecurities left me.  I gazed out the window, started my timer, and just began to breathe. 

As I sat there, I reflected on those words, that life itself is the practice, and I asked myself, was that true for me?  Has my practice worked its way into my life?  I thought back to my busy weekend, where I had been able to connect with friends I had not seen in a long time, and I thought on our conversations.  I thought about the honest and openness of our talks, of the genuine sense of connectedness and the ability to share where we were in the moment.

That was where I was living my practice.  

I believe that being able to sit on a regular basis and be with my thoughts has yielded a few different things, but of them, an appreciation for the important people in my life has surfaced time and time again.  Actually, I think that I have always known I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by some amazing individuals but contemplating this aspect of my life has given me the ability to verbalize these thoughts.  From my perspective, one of the differences of this weekend was that I felt comfortable enough with my own internal process to freely acknowledge that deep appreciation.  To allow for connection, bolstered by the afterglow of sitting and connecting with myself.

So here I am, picking right back up and sitting right back down!  I will continue to practice both on the cushion, and off.  As Maezumi points out, I don’t really think we get the choice.  Life is our practice, there is nothing else we have but this moment.

In the coming week, I invite you to ask yourself the same question:  Is your life your practice? Where is your sitting/meditating/writing/creating/contemplation practice effecting, improving and deepening your moment to moment living?  Looking on it now, is there somewhere you could invite it in?  So many possibilities! Until next week,

Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 5 - Examining the Other Shore

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

There was something redeeming about opening my email a couple of days ago and seeing that I had made it to Day 30.  One of the reasons that I decided to write these blog posts was to create some accountability for myself, and to semi-publicly proclaim that I was going to actually follow through on a 90-day commitment.  As I write this, I sit with 32 days (having missed a total of 2) of regular meditation under my belt.  As these blogs hopefully convey, it has been a learning experience.  Each week brings new insights, new obstacles, new perspectives on the way my mind works and has allowed me to connect and speak to a community of people who also have an interest in meditation.

One of the things I have been exploring through this process is the idea that meditation “solves” some of the problems that we have in life.  These can manifest as stress, anxiety, bills, loss, grudges, worries, fears and a whole host of other unpleasant emotions.  When you dive into the literature on Zen meditation, however, it becomes clear that this  is not the intent of developing a practice.  Meditation is not an escape, but a return.  A return from the thoughts listed above, back to the body, the breath, the presence of now.  As Meazumi puts it:

“We have a practice know as the paramitas. Paramita means "to have reached the other shore." Dogen Zenji says, "The other shore is already reached." In other words, the meaning of reaching the other shore is to realize that this shore is the other shore. This life is the unsurpassable, realized life. There is no gap.

So if there is purpose to our practice, it is to realize that this shore and the other shore are the same. The purpose is to close the gap, to realize that there is just one shore, there is just one life. To reach is extra. Until you realize that this shore where you stand, this life that you are living, and the other shore, the life of the buddhas, are the same shore, you cannot appreciate your life to the fullest.”

As I see it, Maezumi is reminding us that when we sit, that sometimes we can get caught reaching for a better version of us.  A version that doesn’t worry, or fear, or love too deeply, or have the aches and pains of living. 

A version detached from suffering. 

In this same excerpt, he brings our attention the idea that reaching for the other shore allows us to convince ourselves that there is another shore.  That there is something outside of us that we can get to that will solve our issues.  When I sit to solve the problem of interpersonal strife or work stress, I am reinforcing the idea that I am that stress, that thoughts are things to be solved.  That they can be escaped by receding into practice.

I have come to realise that this is not the case.  That as Maezumi points out, I was (and am) already that other version of me.  I am that version of me because there is no other shore, and as such no other me.  The grass isn’t greener on the other side because the other side is make-believe.  The stress we try to escape in practice is a pattern of thoughts that you can not get away from, because things that are not real can follow you anywhere.  Instead, we turn to those things and sit with them.  We look at them and try to internalize the thought there is no other shore, and in doing this, we sit with who we are here-and-now.

To be clear, I am not saying that there are not real problems and concerns that we face in our lives.  There can be many, and they may pose real risks and hardship.  However, the thinking portion of these problems exist only in the space between the neurons and atoms of our mind.  The anxiety of returning to work tomorrow steals from me the option of being here right now, fingers on keys, contemplating mindfulness and enjoying the view from my living room window.  There is no meditating practice that will banish my obligation from work.  There is, however, a practice that will “close the gap” between the ideal me, who doesn’t worry, and the experiencing me, who is here, enjoying my afternoon.

My goal moving into this next week is remind myself that there is no other shore. That this is the moment I exist in, and that it is my sitting practice that can bring me back to that.  I do not sit to be another version of me, I sit to actualize that I am (and that is all there is).

This week, I encourage you too take some time to look at where you might be reaching in your own life.  How much of your time is thinking about who you should be or could be.  What would happen if you looked around to realize that you have everything you need in this moment? That you were already standing on the other shore?

Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 4 - The Complexity of Peace and Learning to Live

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

This was one of those weeks where everything just felt like it got away from me.  I sat and practiced -  though my partner was unable to join me a few times - but I went through bouts of feeling like sitting was an obligation instead of a privilege.  I kept feeling rushed to sit. Trying to eek out a little time to just breathe and contemplate the daily excerpts.  I kept thinking of the quote, “If you can’t find 5 minutes to sit, then sit for an hour” and silently beating myself up for not making the time to find space.   I found myself waiting for a majority of my sits to just be done, so I could move on to the next thing I was supposed to do.

I don’t have an answer for this, the truth is, I am still working on the process of finding that balance – I’ll keep you updated.

What I can tell you is that I was taught a lesson about finding peace this week, a lesson about how I was living.  I was taught this lesson from my old, needy dog, Edi.

 First, the excerpt from Maezumi:

"Remember the four steps of practice that we described in the beginning: listen to the teachings, reflect on them, practice them, and finally experience them in your life. Examine your practice. Refresh and encourage yourself. Realize your life as peace itself, your life as it is now. We do not need to expect anything; in a sense we do not need to try to do something about being peaceful. The reason is simple: peace is already here as your life. Isn't it fascinating? Realizing constant change and no fixed self, you yourself are peace. Then being peace, how are you living?"

How am I living? Is a pretty constant question for me.  So, after reading this excerpt, I chimed the bowl, adjusted my body and sat.  As I mostly failed to clear my mind, I thought about this question.  What does it mean to live peacefully, to live as though this moment was the only real thing that I was experiencing, that everything is in flux and change and that stability is an illusion?  Shouldn’t that allow me to just let go of the things that bother me?  The self-criticism, judgement, and go-go-going-ness of my life.  Is there a place in there for the peace that Maezumi talks about?

As I delve into these seemingly unanswerable questions, I hear the familiar tinkling of tag-on-collar.  Edi, our black lab-collie cross has decided to come join us for a sit.  Not just that but she has decided to come and nudge her nose into and under my partner’s arm, creating a force-petting situation.  I open my eyes and look over, and see that despite my partners’ resistance, Edi is winning. 

Her insistence on getting pets is one of her defining traits. 

And here is where I learn my lesson.  Instead of being peace and living my life in the way that I think encapsulates this ideal, I tell Edi to go lie down.  She doesn’t even acknowledge me.  I repeat the command and she responds by panting heavily but holding her ground.  So, in my quest to not be interrupted from finding peace, I lean over and nudge her back, repeat go lie down!  This time she acquiesces, backs up a foot and plops down onto the ground, looking at me, with very cloudy but loving eyes.

I turn back to my cushion, and think How am I living?

The irony of the moment then dawns on me, and I am rocked by it’s implications:  In sitting to contemplate peace, I just separated myself from an animal that has, as far as I can tell, unlimited and unconditional reserves of love.  I feel pretty dumb - my intensity of practice blinded me to the experiencing of which Maezumi speaks.  I sit with that a while longer.

So, this is my takeaway this week.  That we can get so wrapped up in our own stories about living in the now, that we forget that we are connected.  That we can be blinded by our own narratives so fully that the perspective and compassion and interconnectivity of everything is obscured.  That we can literally push love away while sitting and asking how to find it.

I have thought about this a lot since that day.  Edi has gotten a lot more attention, and a few apologies.  I have aimed to live my practice at the same time as I practice my practice. 

As you move through the coming week, I invite you to ask yourself: How can I invite peace into the moment to moment spaces in my day?  How can I move out of my head and into my life in a way that supports and pays tribute to the person I aim to be? How do I experience my practice – How am I living?

Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 3 - Noticing What Comes

This is the third in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on a excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

Another week has passed, another seven days of sitting, and another string of learning, growing, and slowing down.  This week I noticed a few things came up for me:  The first was timing.  As work and life gets a little bit busier, I am finding that I must be more flexible in the way and time that I approach meditation.  I am a creature of habit, at least when I am successful.  How this translates to meditation is that I like to sit in the same place, do the same things, and roughly at the same time each night. 

Because of this, I must admit, I missed a day of practice this week…

…which is ok. 

It is ok because I am learning to practice compassion with myself.  To be in this moment and not belabor the past or think about catastrophic futures.  I have a tendency to think that if I break a “streak” then all the work before was for nothing.  This is just simply not true, and luckily, one of the more memorable excerpts this week speaks to just that idea:

"So mere sitting is not enough. You must reveal this wisdom in the way you live. How can we live this realization? Just living in a realized way is still not enough. We must share it together, with each other. How can we share it best with everybody, so that all of us can live the enlightened life?"

As this reflection indicates, our practice is not simply on the cushion.  It is in our actions, how we live with one another, and how we show compassion.  I chose to sit twice the following day after I missed my practice, but I also was able to remind myself that I am trying to live the practice as well.  In my interactions, I aim to be more present, in my work, I aim for vulnerability and authenticity, and in my self, I aim to show some compassion – to understand that a ‘missed’ day is just that.  There is always the opportunity to recommit, sit, and breathe.  There is nothing compassionate in beating ourselves up – especially when we are talking about presence and living mindfully.

Another thing that came up for me was an intense desire to return more and more to the cushion.

The more I sit, the more I crave sitting.

I wrote this after wandering over to my meditation space a few days ago in the middle of the day.  My space is not fancy: I have a singing bowl, which I use to chime me into and out of practice, I have my cushion, a mat for the cushion to sit on, and some sage.  There is something comforting and homey about burning sage, so I find the fragrance in the air a nice addition to my meditation practice.  Occasionally, I will just sit on my cushion, morning coffee in hand, and stare out the window – at trees, or snow, or if I am lucky, a passing bird or fox.  I think this signifies an important movement in my practice, a bodily recognition of the comfort, balance, and release that the meditation space has created for me.  I firmly believe the consistency of practice has led to more of a desire for consistency.  It also helps me plant and ground much more effectively when it comes time to sit and be still.

So – the journey continues!  As my practice and thoughts evolve, I hope yours do as well.  As you move into the next week, remember there are more ways to practice than sitting, and that it never hurts to direct some of your compassion, understanding, and openness to yourself.

Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 2 - Still Settling In

 

In case you are unfamiliar, this is the second in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on a excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

Whew! I made it through 11 whole days of a consistent meditation practice.  Though I didn’t mention this before, one of the things I wanted to do was increase the amount of time I sat each day.  Since I wanted to set a modest goal, I set a daily increase at just 10 sec.  10 seconds seemed like enough to make a difference, but not enough to really feel like I was sitting longer. 

My partner is also joining me on this 90-day commitment and she thought 10 sec was also a good choice – until it wasn’t.   Somewhere along the line she expressed that 11 min was good enough for now and didn’t want to increase. 

This was great to hear. 

Since I am the kind of person that will force myself to move forward and keep pushing, I often don’t listen to that inner part of me that says ‘This isn ‘t a competition, it is OK to take it easy.’ Her reminder that we should check in on our practice, that it is organic and evolving and open to change was just what I needed to hear.  My goal with this blog is to relate the real experience of this practice, not the perfect one we convince ourselves that it should be.  I am happy to report we are staying at 11 min for now, which is just fine.

The other major thing that happened this week was the rising of irritation.  I have had this happen before, but it catches me off guard every time.  I think it is because I get into the mindset that I described above: keep moving, don’t mess up, better, better, better.  I have no doubt that the irritation coincided with stressful days, nagging obligations and plain irritability, but the truth is that I let myself get out of the practice by focusing too much on the practice.  What I mean is that I let my sitting become an object to acquire, a tangible thing that I could lose or fail to grasp.  I think this defeats the whole purpose of sitting, of meditating, of falling away from those self-imposed expectations that imprison us in our own not-enough-ness.  Which brings me to the quote I wanted to share:

In art, in sports, in music, in anything, we practice basic things over and over.  When we do this kind of practice we become stronger both mentally and physically.  Even with all this practicing, I am still a rough man.”

This excerpt really got me at the right time.  With a few difficult days on the cushion, I was disheartened, I felt “rough,” but in a way that carried a lot of shame and feelings of failure.  After all, I was supposed to be doing this whole thing to show how accessible and achievable meditation was, right? How could I not sit through 10 measly minutes?  After this excerpt however, I sat with this in mind: You are rough, and that is ok.  Being rough is the process, this is about the form, the doing, not the finished product.  With this, I let some of the expectation fall away. 

This is a good reminder for anyone going through this process: the practice is the work.  If we sit, and we breathe, and we try to let thoughts be, we are dong the work.  Some days work is a breeze, and we wonder why we ever felt any other way, while other days, we wonder what the point was of showing up in the first place.  Both are normal, both are expected and most importantly both reflect our truest, roughest, nature. Which is great.

As always, I am looking forward to what the coming days bring.  On a final note, I wanted to say that I have found it really beneficial to write down my thoughts right after sitting, before much else has had time to vie for my attention.  If you have your own practice, consider starting a brief meditation journal, you might be surprised by what comes up.

Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 1 - Settling In

In case you are unfamiliar, this is the first in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on a excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

I think the first week of any new practice is a difficult one.  This week was no different, but I am happy to report that I completed all 4 days of sitting this week.  It was particularly hard, because two of those days I was out of town.  This traditionally disrupts my routines, as I am staying in someone else’s home, not really on my own schedule, and just generally out of my comfort zone.  What made this time different for me, and led to my success, was two-fold; one, I felt accountable to you – I said that I was going to write on this experience, and I really felt like I should try to not crumble to the first obstacle that came my way.  Two, I didn’t let myself rationalize or talk myself out of it.  I am really good at coming up with all the excuses for why I don’t/can’t follow through on commitments.  This time (maybe it was because of the practice) I caught that inner dialogue, identified what was happening, and simply told myself that when I could find some time before bed (I was chatting late into the evening with my hosts), it would be fine to sleep a little bit less so that I could stick to my guns.  I short, I didn’t give myself the opportunity to talk myself out of my commitment.

In terms of length, the program doesn’t specify any predetermined amount of time.  Though I have had a practice of sitting on and off, I opted for a goal of 10 mins of meditation.  For me, this is a pretty attainable amount of time, and it set me up for the highest chance of success (if my life gets crazy, I would even be ok with 5 min).  If this is your first go at meditation, choose a time that works for you.  1 min is better than nothing at all.  As I see it, if I want to overshoot that goal, great! But I don’t want to find myself in a situation where I am feeling like I let myself down if I don’t sit for 30 min every day.

I found the excerpts that come with each daily email to be really nice.  Focusing on a specific feeling or thought is a little outside of my comfort zone; I usually practice with a focus on the breath only.  These emails usually suggest a specific focal point, and I tried to stick to that.  Here is the excerpt this week that most resonated with me:

I encourage you. Please enjoy this wonderful life together.  Appreciate the world of just this! There is nothing extra. Genuinely appreciate your life as the most precious treasure and take good care of it.

I read this right after scanning through news headlines on my phone.  As I am sure you can imagine, there is a disproportionate amount of negative versus positive news.  I find it quite easy to get bogged down in all that negativity, so to have this gentle reminder to come back to this moment, feel myself in my space, listen to my body breathe, and practice appreciation, allowed me to let the news of the world melt away – making room for silence, calm and genuine appreciation.

I think that is enough for this week, though I am looking forward to what the next several months brings.  If you have any questions of comments, please reply below, or email me and I would be happy to talk about your questions, experiences, or reflections.

Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit

Welcome, friends!

It has been my experience that a sitting practice takes time, commitment, and can be fraught with doubt, missteps, and confusion.  In committing myself to the New York Zen Center's 90 day program, I thought it might be beneficial to use this space to share my own experience.  It is an effort to build a little bit of community, to reinvigorate my own reflective writing, and to give you the opportunity to share your own successes, misgivings, and epiphanies.

My intention is to share a post weekly for the 90 days, aiming for a Sunday evening post each week.  Looking forward to all that Zen, meditation, scholarship and community can bring us!

Jesse