March 19, 2015

Away and Unplugged

On Saturday Mark and I leave for Nevis, a small island in the West Indies. We rent a little cottage surrounded by beautiful gardens; a cottage by the sea. Our five weeks on Nevis are completely unplugged: no Internet, email, television, phone, or news. We're off the grid. And we're also amazingly alive.

I remember 12 years ago, Mark suggested our first long sabbatical in the Bahamas. Twelve years ago, I didn't have a meditation practice. I was addicted to busyness and achievement. I worried what people would think of me. For all these reasons my reaction was tense: can we really do this? And if we can, do I want to do this? 

My reactions came from fear. Fear of being alone with myself. Fear of losing my identities. Fear of non-doing. Fear of the unknown. I hear these same reactions when I tell people about our trip. I smile inwardly, knowing the place from which they come. And also knowing the other side.

This is our sixth long sabbatical, completely unplugged. The days are wondrously long. We read stacks of books. We meditate, do yoga, and swim in the ocean. Mark plays music. I write and photograph. We bike to the market; we cook food; we linger over dinner, talking in new ways.  For us individually and as a couple, this time is priceless. It's how we restore, reconnect, and reset. We come home more alive and aware of our choices. 

If your response to this post is "there's no way I could do that because [fill in the blank]," please think again. If there's a place in your heart that yearns to be heard and nourished, maybe you need a sabbatical. It might look different from ours, but it could restore you just the same. 

I'll be away for a while, friends. Away and unplugged. Please take very good care of your precious selves.

March 16, 2015

A Meaningful Thank You

Some years ago I spent time in New York City. One morning, I waited in a busy Starbucks while my latte was made. People rushed in and people rushed out. When the barista called my name, she quickly moved to another task. I paused and said clearly, "thank you very much." Her head shot up and she smiled, as if these words were a rare gift.

Based on this experience, I formed a new practice: look service people in the eye; really see them and genuinely thank them. It takes mere seconds, yet generates gratitude and well-being. When I pause to give a genuine thank-you, I pause to see and appreciate my life.

This process naturally extends to co-workers, neighbors, friends, and loved ones. We often say "thank you," but not in a meaningful way. The words are rushed or mumbled or automatic. Yet we can turn thank-yous into mindfulness practice. Each thank-you is a deep pause--a time to re-connect with ourselves and each other. This happens when we make space in our hearts and minds; space to feel the gratitude and to share the gratitude. It requires very little time, yet that time is meaningful. The thank-you lingers in a beautiful way.

March 13, 2015

Honest Yet Gentle, Bold Yet Patient

When I teach meditation, I describe the practice as honest yet gentle. We must take an honest look at ourselves, not turning away from difficult emotions or painful habits. We must also be gentle, returning again and again--with tenderness--to the present moment. If we bring only honesty, meditation becomes another way to criticize ourselves. If we bring only gentleness, we never see the truth of our experience.

The honest-yet-gentle approach applies to most of life: stay open, see clearly, be true; and in this process, treat yourself and others with kindness. When I feel irritable, it's because I lack gentleness. When I feel hollow, it's because I lack honesty. This balance is a practice. Honesty: I acted unkindly. Gentleness: Yes, you did; you're human; you can make amends and start over right now. Honesty: I wasn't mindful at all today. Gentleness: Okay, but you noticed; it's great that you noticed; you can sit in meditation, right now, for 5 minutes.

In my gap year between academia and mindfulness teaching, I noticed a similar balance: be bold yet be patient. It's important that I move forward, that I grow. But this forward motion can move too quickly, especially if my intentions aren't clear. At these times, my ego takes charge, and the best course of action is non-action. It's best to be patient--to pause until I find my center and my true intentions. Yet if I'm too patient, I get stuck in a rut. I don't actually get done what needs to be done. In these lulls, it's helpful to be bold; to listen inward and take the needed steps, even in the face of fear.

The more I practice, the more I trust the process: boldness will announce itself and patience will respond. The conversation is rich and interesting, but only if I pay close attention. Only if I listen deeply. 

March 6, 2015

Everyday Mindfulness

Mindfulness means being in the present moment in an open, non-judgmental way. We're not mindful when we abandon our bodies and escape into our thoughts. We're not mindful when we resist; when we want life to be different from how it actually is. Though we spend ample time in trance, we can always return to the aliveness of this moment. We can take three intentional breaths or walk while feeling the bottoms of our feet or notice--really notice--what our experience is right now. 

Regular meditation provides a path to mindfulness. But this practice is buoyed by small pauses throughout the day, what I call everyday mindfulness. There are many places to pause, so the process is personal. Each of knows best which practices will stick for us. Each of knows best where there's breathing room in our days or where we most need a mindful pause. And we know best by trying things, experimenting and paying attention.

A contented life requires both intention and attention. What are my intentions for this moment, this day, or this practice? How can I bring my full attention to my chosen purpose? I ask and answer these questions most easily when I'm mindful. Just like fear feeds fear, presence feeds presence, and I get to choose the seeds I water.

Here's an ever-growing list of my practices for everyday mindfulness:
Red lights
Hello and goodbye
Sensory experience
A Meaningful Thank You

March 3, 2015

Come as You Are

In my last years as a professor, I saw something clearly: we give students little space to make mistakes; to mess things up in a safe environment; to experiment, fail, and try again. And now, away from academia, I see this pattern still. We don't often come as we are, we come as we think we should be.

"I can't take yoga class until I know every pose."
"I shouldn't share my difficulties, because I'll seem like a downer."
"I can't start a new project until I'm an expert."
"I shouldn't dance, because I'll look silly."
"I shouldn't dream, because I might fail."

I know this place well. I lost swaths of my life trying to be perfect; to always appear smart, put-together, happy, knowledgeable, and flawless. I gained back my life when I showed up, as is. When I'm real and vulnerable, I'm more connected to others and more effective in my work. I still prepare. I'm still dependable and thoughtful. But I no longer try to be perfect. Instead, I try to be more present. 

The reality is we're all flawed and we're all beautiful. In the words of Rumi: "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there." Come as you are.

February 26, 2015

Everyday Mindfulness: Engage the Senses

There are many ways to escape the present moment and many ways to return. Our senses give us direct access to presence. They ground us in our bodies. When we actively engage the senses, we must be here, right now. And that's a beautiful thing.

I've been practicing with the senses--using them as pauses, sprinkled throughout the day. Instead of only photographing the sunset, I watch it for five deep breaths. If I bake bread, I linger over the smell. When I put lotion on my hands, I feel the sensations. While I walk, I listen to the birds, noticing the different songs. At mealtime, I bring my full attention to the first bite and all its flavors. Aware of my senses, I can't be lost in thoughts. The senses are only alive in this moment.

An easy place to practice is the shower, a regular activity. Senses abound in the shower and it's a pleasant experience. Yet we typically spend that time lost in thoughts. Until I started my shower experiment, I didn't realize what I was missing. I was using the shower as a place to think--not in a broad, open-awareness way, but in a replaying, obsessing, planning way. Now, when thoughts arise, I bring my attention back to the senses--to the feeling of water on my skin--again and again. Now, instead of a rushed 10 minutes, my shower is a mindful experience with my whole being.

February 23, 2015

Easing into Silence

When I go on meditation retreat, I often hear some version of these words: "You don't speak for three whole days? I couldn't do that." It's interesting that not talking is the deal breaker. There are many hard parts of a meditation retreat: judging mind, fear, doubt, and physical discomfort. On retreat, there's no place to hide. I get an honest look at myself and that's difficult territory. But not speaking, that's a gift.

Silence releases me from care-taking, performing, and focusing externally. Silence gives permission to look inward; to watch potential speech arise and discern my motivation. This gives me insight into daily conversation. Am I seeking approval? Am I merely filling space? Am I trying to be right? Or am I speaking truth in a kind, helpful way?

Karen Maezen Miller says "pure silence is the ultimate kindness." I think the word "pure" is important. We've all experienced the separating coldness of impure silence. Yet pure silence is a gift. It's the ultimate kindness. We're just not used to it. Silence isn't what our culture encourages or supports. But we can choose differently. In silence, we listen, we notice, we experience, no words necessary. There's beauty in the pure silence. There's wisdom, too. 

Imagine someone you dearly love. Now imagine being with that person in silence: taking a walk or watching a sunset or eating a meal. Purposeful silence for a short period. Ease into the silence and see what happens.