Sympathetic Joy

“I’m so happy for you. Everything is going so well for you.” This is how we can feel when we learn of another’s success.

 

The term for this response to someone else’s happiness is called sympathetic joy. It is founded on the principle that love is expansive and everywhere. The more happiness and real joy you express for another person’s good fortune, the more happiness YOU genuinely feel.

 

Feeling tight and miserly with your response – thoughts like “why does she get all the breaks?” “he just sails through life” brings you nothing but a tightness in your chest, a clench in your jaw. While the object of your concern is carrying on, blissfully unaware of your pain and suffering. Why not share in this person’s happiness by feeling it as well?

 

Why not drop all jealousy and judgement and put a smile on your face and send kind, happy thoughts her way? You will benefit.  Joy (even in small, incremental doses) brings joy. You are tapping into the love that is available to you. Always.

Sounding Your Depths

Sounding Your Depths

 

Sometimes we find ourselves carried along by what feels like an inevitable force. We move through our days on auto pilot.  Home. Work. Home.

One day leads to another.  Before you know it, a year has turned.

 

And then comes a moment when everything is called into question. These decision points are often brought on by a crisis – your health, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job.

 

What brought you to this brink may be terrible and tragic but here you are – up in the air.

Where will you land?

 

Nothing feels the same anymore. You are seeking meaning in the face of the crisis. And sometimes that means recognizing that big changes are in order.  So, you begin considering your options and wonder what might be next.

 

It might seem antithetical to sit in stillness when contemplating a change but that is just what you should do.

 

Your heart speaks most clearly in stillness.  And listening to your heart is what is required now. Sitting in meditation, a thought may come “I should approach so-and-so, see if he’d be interested in hiring me.” Or, “I’d really like to be a digital nomad.” Whatever the thought, drop your attention to your heart center and note the physical and emotional sensations as your future plans come up.

 

When I was a child, sailing along the coast of Maine with my family, we’d come into sheltered coves among the islands and begin to search for safe harbor. We’d read the charts of course but to get very specific about where to put down anchor we’d pull out the lead line – a long length of rope with marks every fathom. At the end was a lead weight. The person sounding the depths would stand by the shrouds and throw the line out, feeling it plummet down, down until it came to rest on the bottom. Anticipation. When would it hit? How deep is the water? What would it hit? Is the bottom good? Mud, sand – yes; rocks not so much.

 

Careful sounding of the heart is like this. We are literally testing the waters, plumbing the depths and finding a new place to be.

 

If thoughts don’t arrive during meditation you can do this exercise off the cushion too. Envision your next move and pay attention to what comes up. Is there a dullness? A dread? Are you heading along this path because you are expected to? Is there fear? Is it warranted?

 

Or is there a brightness and sense of joy? Is the excitement thrumming and pulsing with energy and strength? What is your heart saying to you? Listen.

 

Come with me, the water is fine.

No Control

When many of us sit down to meditate the first thing we notice is that we can’t hold onto the stillness most of us are seeking.

One or two breaths in and that trickster mind is off and running. Back to the breath – maybe a centered second or so and then, again, off we go to make to-do lists or run virtual errands or rehash a long -ago conversation.

A student tells me she can’t meditate because whenever she sits, her mind churns with all the undone things. I say, ‘no problem’ that is meditation.

Recently, my sons’ father was diagnosed with early, severe dementia. This is not something your recover from. And my mind was swamped with tortuous memories of how this man once was – so verbal, engaging, full of stories and experiences most of us can only dream of – visiting the tin shack with Rita Marley where Bob wrote No Woman, No Cry; backstage with Bruce discussing The River, or Beckett with Bono. Etc…so many backstage conversations, books written, tours around the world. All mostly forgotten.  Now he walks in circles around the perimeter of the memory unit. I have experienced the deepest, most painful feelings, wishing this were not happening to him, wanting it to be otherwise. Agony.

All of my own making. Because the sadness is real, yes. This is certainly something to be sad about. But I am compounding the sadness by holding onto something that is gone.

Like wishing ice cream didn’t melt or flowers wouldn’t every fade, that my hair might not keep going gray.

We are set to die and fade as soon as we take our first breath.

The lesson of meditation is exactly this. You cannot hold onto anything, not even the idea that this moment of clarity and stillness will necessarily be followed by another. There are no sure bets.

This is no small lesson. It is one to be learned over and over on your cushion. Observing with friendly curiosity just how fickle your mind is – coming back to the breath, your home, your anchor. See that there really is nothing hold onto. Yes, your breath is what you can return to, but it too changes.

In this uncertainty can we find peace?

The illusion that we can control or fix a difficult situation is as wrong as it is painful. But letting go is NOT to stop engaging or caring. In this case, letting go is like the maybe apocryphal story of the guru who said – “I can’t stop the waves but I can learn to surf.”

And so, the waves crash and pull back from the shore. The water is cold and wild.

I’m no surfer but I am a strong swimmer. I raise my head above the waves and take a long breath.

You can too.

When You Are Struggling

 

For those of us who have a regular practice, it can be a real disappointment to come up against a situation that rocks us so deeply that we lose our balance.

And yet, this is the moment where we are being taught, once again, that when we struggle we are most alive.

If you think back to some of those most difficult moments in your life you can see that what you emerged with could be your deepest understanding of how to navigate and accept the dips and valleys that are inevitable throughout life.

And yet, it can be so discouraging to come from a place of hard won stability and peace and to discover that, once again, something has knocked us to the floor and we have little choice but to slowly clamber to our feet. And begin again.

They say that the great boxer Ali took punches, absorbed the shocks. And by absorbing them, limited their power. I have no idea if that is true (how do you even google that?) but it makes sense.

When you are subject to a new and upsetting situation, it never helps to rail against it, to resist it. Of course, if you are in danger, or anyone is in danger, you need to resolve that. I am not talking about accepting violence or danger.

For me, it was during one of the most upsetting moments in my professional career that I discovered the power of Loving Kindness Meditation. For weeks, I had to stay in a corporate environment where I was being pushed out (against my will) as I negotiated a safe exit. I had to attend group meetings and one on ones with a boss who was actively undermining me. So I did what any reasonable meditator would do. I recited the Loving Kindness Meditation directly to my boss. Over and over. I was a Love Warrior. And what was once a slow drip of torture just being in the same building with my boss became a place where I could practice compassion and acceptance and sincere wishes for her well-being and the well-being of all others. I felt my heart soften and my entire body release the anger and tension.

Of course, it came back over and over. So I practiced Loving Kindness over and over. Each time I felt the release.

It was the power of that experience that brought me to my teaching path. Without that struggle, I don’t know that I would have followed this direction.

And now, as usual, life has handed another challenge, another struggle. I know that the place to face it is on the cushion. When I sit, I drop into the peace and space that is available to all of us – even in the darkest of times. And when I rise from my seat, I can carry that knowledge. I can turn to my practice even in the midst of a difficult conversation or moment. Acknowledging the pain I am feeling, coming to my breath, decreasing my reactivity. And approaching each situation as it arises with love, compassion and freedom. Saying to myself – this isn’t the plan or even what I ever thought might happen – but here it is. And so we go on.

Try it. It works.

Concentration vs Mindfulness

 

I am often asked by students if concentration is the same as mindfulness. The answer? Yes and no. The two are related but there are important differences. Understanding each and how they differ offers insight into the practice of mindfulness.

 

As Jon Kabat Zinn explains in Wherever You Go There You Are, concentration and mindfulness do go hand in hand. As we learn to meditate, we are instructed to focus on the breath. This breath coming in, this one going out. That one-pointed attention allows us to build our ability to focus and to, eventually, broaden the scope of our awareness so that we can hold everything in our light awareness.

 

The more we practice mindfulness, the more we increase the Gamma Wave activity in our brains. These are the brain waves associated with cognition, attention information processing and memory.

 

Studies comparing meditators who practiced at least three years to those who were not meditators showed that the meditators had decreased activity in the ventral posteromedial cortex (vPMC). This is the region associated with wandering thoughts and spontaneous thoughts (you know, the ones you become painfully aware of as soon as you close your eyes and try to settle into meditation.) People who claim that they are not able to meditate can have particularly active vPMCs.

 

So, the more we practice, the more our mind settles and the more we are able to experience a stable, calm awareness – a quality we might associate with the word “concentration.”

But consider this: concentration is defined as focusing one’s attention.

A singular, one-pointed concentration can certainly be experienced in fits of anger or obsessive thoughts (pleasant or unpleasant) about anything or person.

 

Try this: Hold your palm open and concentrate. Really focus all your energy and attention on the palm of your hand. Can you feel the intensity of your focus? It begins to make sense that the phrase “frowning in concentration” is so familiar.

 

Now…. Apply mindfulness. That is, look at your palm, being present and aware to all the sensations without judgement. Can you note how the skin looks, its variations, the folds at the base of your fingers? Can you sense air on your palm? Is it warm or cool? Is your palm dry? What else can you note?

 

 Now broaden your awareness to note the quality of your mind.

Can you see how with highly focused attention there is a sort of hardness to the quality of your attention? Whereas with the mindfulness there is a feeling of spaciousness?

 

You have just held the difference between concentration and mindfulness in the palm of your hand.

 

This is not to say that concentration is not important. I definitely want my heart surgeon to be fully concentrated! Even as I write, I am concentrating on my choice of words, the structure of my sentences.

 

“You can only look deeply into something if you can sustain your looking without being constantly thrown off by the agitation of your own mind. The deeper your concentration, the deeper the potential for mindfulness.” Jon Kabat Zinn

 

That sense of stillness that Kabat Zinn expresses is powerful and very attractive. After listening to students describe what they hope for in meditation, a still mind is generally the goal. But, as with everything, we can be attached to that deep calm pool of quiet. And we can chase after it. The chase creates its own suffering.

 

When, in fact, it may be that the dog is scratching at the blanket you have placed on your lap, or a blue jay is calling outside. A car passes on the road.

 

This is not quiet. This is life. And you can let it all in with a gentle and open curiousity.

 

When we concentrate, we narrow our focus. With mindfulness, we are letting everything in. The beautiful, the stressful, the things we might rather not pay attention to or acknowledge. We are open and apply a gentle effort to our observations.

 

Welcome to you. Welcome to your life.

Why We Eat Just One Raisin

 

Raisins. They come in colorful little boxes. They are normal little wrinkle jobs existing somewhere on the fringes of life. Not special.  Just a solid little fact.  Maybe they were once packed in your lunch, discovered in a slice of carrot cake or swimming in the last bit of milk once you finished that bowl of Raisin Bran. You may love them, hate them. Have no feeling about them whatsoever.

But asked to focus on eating just one while bringing all your senses to bear as we do in the early days of mindfulness training, and the raisin becomes an entirely different thing.

 

The students are sitting in a circle, cross-legged on their bolsters, some up in chairs. I pass around a bowl and ask them to select a couple of the objects. I start and take two. Already by calling them objects instead of naming them “raisin” we are altering our perception; asking students to see what is versus what is expected.

 

I am aware of how small a raisin is. Tonight, they carry the weight of lifting the ordinary into the extraordinary.

 

And so, we begin. First, we just look and note whatever we can see. Students can call out words:  “glistening,” “tiny,” “wrinkled.” Then we touch the raisin, rolling it in our fingers. Mine is sticky. Someone says “sticky.” The raisin is soft. Someone says this too. We are all experiencing individually and yet also together.

 

We lift them to our nostrils and inhale. I experience a hit of sweet followed by muskiness. Earth. Sun. Time.

 

Listening comes next. Everyone lifts the raising to their ear and leans in to hear it.  There’s a distinct soft crackle as it rolls between my fingers. Later, a student says that was her favorite part. The newness and surprise of the raisin’s sound.

 

There is so much we miss by experiencing something the same way again and again without asking ourselves “what is truly available to me now?” “What else can I know about this moment, this object?”

 

And now, finally, we place it between our lips then onto our tongues where we roll it around a bit. There is something almost alien about the raisin now. It is in the mouth but not yet eaten in the normal way.

 

Finally, we bite once. And wait. And bite once again. Perhaps we wait again.

 

At this point, there’s often a desire to just get on with it already. Some might feel impatient with the fastidiousness or precision of our approach to the eating of one raisin. We chew. We swallow.

 

We are finished. Some might feel a sort of sadness – the relationship with the raisin is almost past. Some might feel definite relief – the agony of such attention!

 

We discuss. One student is surprised that the flavor of the raisin doesn’t hit at once. We talk about the mind’s ability to shortcut the actual experience which is not: add food to mouth, immediate hit of flavor. But that is our expectation and perception of the general experience of eating. And so, it becomes the reality.

 

Try it. Even with a sip of strong coffee, if you slow down the action and focus on each moment as best you can, you don’t immediately experience “flavor.”

 

The raisin is a terrific subject for mindful eating. So ordinary, so often a part of a childhood memory. Something we tend to throw by the handfuls into our mouths as we “snack.”

The raisin offers us a way to experience the ordinary in a new way, which is the promise of mindfulness. At the same time, we can recognize how we burden even the smallest things, the most habitual actions with our preconceptions.

Careful Observation

Careful observation takes practice. We are so often swept up in our own flurry of activity that we don’t even notice:

 

A tree alive with monarch butterflies

A woman framed in a window, reading

The first drops of rain on the roof before the storm.

 

On retreat we relinquish our phones (the first time I did this I was horrified… what? What if? The second time I felt a wash of relief.) No phone means no weather app. Which means looking at the sky to see what might be ahead. Smelling the air for snow. Because there is a smell for coming snow. And the sky goes green before a tornado. But that’s another story, another place and time.

Point is, we all have the capacity to notice the smallest things. And when we do the world comes alive, reveals itself to you.

Try this:

Take a stroll without any end in mind but the noting of details. Use all your senses if you can. Touch a surface. Smell what’s in the air. Let your eyes rest on the tiny and the vast. Give yourself over to the sounds around you.  Tasting might be a little much on your walk. Depends.

By the way, this experience might not be all pleasant. Don’t block anything out. Just note it. Awareness isn’t always calming. Your sense experience might include the whiff of garbage. No matter. The point is to wake up to what is around you. To stop and take a breath.

You might not smell roses but you will be more fully available for whatever comes your way.