November 18, 2014

How Do You Want to be Remembered?

Before dad's heart surgery, we had interesting conversations about death. Funerals, obituaries, and end-of-life care. I knew dad would survive the surgery, but it was a prompt for honest discussion of death. Thought-provoking ideas for anyone, at any time.

One of the questions I asked him: after you die, how do you hope friends and family remember you? I like this question, for all of us. How do I want to be remembered? It's helpful to ponder and feel my answer, and articulate it in detail. Then compare this answer to how I'm living life right now. Are my daily actions aligned with how I hope to be remembered? If not, what changes can I make?

We all pretend death is far in the future. A future we hope never comes. Yet being curious about death allows us to fully live life; to live life according to what we most value; to live life true to ourselves.

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November 17, 2014

What is Mindfulness?

I typed "mindfulness" into Google. There were 22,700,000 results. Mindfulness is a big hit, or maybe a buzzword? It feels intuitive, as if we know what it means yet a definition eludes us. I appreciate when someone asks me, "what is a mindfulness teacher?" Indeed, what is mindfulness, really? I'll take a crack at an answer:

Mindfulness is an embodied awareness of the present moment; an open yet focused awareness of what is--not in the past or the future, but right now. And mindfulness doesn't expect things to be a certain way. It allows for the current experience, as is. 

If this definition feels foreign, it's because we live few mindful moments. We don't know what is, because we think, judge, numb, ignore, and distract. Busyness leaves no space for what is. We don't know how to allow, because we crave what we don't have and we resist what we do have. We continually search for something else. This is human nature. So if you feel mind-less, you're not alone. Yet there are good reasons to be mindful. Neuroscientists say we can retrain and change our brains. If we practice mindfulness, we more effectively pay attention, regulate emotions, and process information. We reduce anxiety and boost immunity.

Mindfulness is a life-saving path, but it's not easy. In my experience, three pieces of wisdom light the way:

Regular meditation is necessary. Meditation is a direct lens into our minds. At first we see wild, untamed thoughts. Then we see gaps. Eventually we see connections: a thought leads to a sensation leads to an action. We also see the impermanent nature of thoughts and feelings. Nothing lasts forever. 

It's helpful to pause throughout the day. Pause and ask the question: what's going on inside of me? These pauses enhance everyday mindfulness, but they aren't meditation. Formal mediation allows for deeper inquiry. And it's a bigger commitment. There's a different quality when I set a timer and stay; stay with whatever arises--busy mind, doubt, fear--gently coming back to my breath, over and over. I stay until the bell rings. Daily meditation (even 5 minutes) is a direct route to mindfulness. 

Resistance happens. The modes of resistance are many: I don't have time, my mind is too busy, this is stupid, I feel uncomfortable, I'd rather do something else. Resistance occurs initially and it reoccurs far down the meditation path. I find this comforting: I'm not alone; my resistance is normal. A commitment to mindfulness requires both honesty and gentleness. It's an honest look at whatever arises--no turning away from unpleasant discoveries (including resistance). Yet the practice is gentle--again and again, with kindness, return to the present moment. 

You will resist. You will come back. And it's all okay.

Awareness brings freedom. Mindfulness is a practice. Results appear gradually and in surprising ways. If we meditate, work with resistance, and stay with our experience, we live more mindful moments. We see differently. We love differently. We're at peace, not war, with life.

My two most important personal insights: 1) it takes more energy to push away my pain than it does to feel it, and 2) until I love myself, as is, I can't fully love others. These insights came through years of practice. They arrived first in a heady way and then in an embodied way. I eventually trusted my ability to be present. The insights led me to intentional action and they uncovered choices. My awareness brings me freedom.

The journey inward is difficult. We resist dark places and we crave happiness. We re-learn the same lessons in different ways. But if we're patient, we come to awareness. Mindful awareness. Open awareness. Alive awareness. And that's a beautiful way to spend a life.

November 12, 2014


As I write this post, urgency nags me. Not an urgent need to finish my work, but a sense I should be elsewhere; that I should be doing something else, being someone else. This is one way I resist the present moment. While in the act of doing one thing, I feel I should be doing something else. It's also a strong signal: listen inward, what's happening right now?

[I just took a 10-minute break to sit quietly with myself.]

Thoughts rule our world. We construct elaborate stories in our minds. We plan, fantasize, ruminate, judge, and doubt. We're addicted to thinking. And we're trained to believe our thoughts, no matter what. Here's one of my most-believed thoughts: "There is something wrong with me." This thought drives my urgency, my pressing, my wish to be anywhere but the present moment. "There is something wrong with me." A believed thought that is completely untrue. I lost hours working from a false hypothesis. Yet this is what it means to be human: we fall into trance and then we come back. The noticing--the coming back--is a revelation. It's worthy of celebration.

My 10-minute timeout is all I needed. I sat, embodied, with myself. I saw my believed-but-false thought for what it was.  And I came back. The urgency lingers lightly in the background, but I'm myself again. 

What are your most believed thoughts? How do they drive your actions? How do they make you feel? And, most importantly, are they really true? 

October 21, 2014

A Different View of Kindness

My dad recently had heart surgery. It was successful and he's healing beautifully. Yet those days at Mayo Clinic were intense--long hours, rolling emotions, and bedside caretaking. Amid the intensity, I still noticed kindness. The hotel worker who warmly checked me in. The locals who smiled and said, "hello." The nurse who found me black pepper for dad's dinner. 

In the words of Mary Webb: "If you stop to be kind, you must swerve often from your path." Kindness comes in different flavors. Most of us prefer not to swerve from our path. We don't like changing our schedules or plans. We want to be kind while we hold our course. I love Webb's quote because it shakes me up. It re-frames life. The kindness I practice is often convenient. Here's the real question: do I choose kindness when the action takes me out of my way? (Sometimes, not always.) And when I make that choice, does kindness remain or does it shift to annoyance? (Depends.)

I want to be truly kind. I want to swerve, always. The swerves are great teachers. When I'm my best self, I remember. Other times I forget. But now I'm curious. And curiosity leads to growth; curiosity leads to new paths.

October 1, 2014

Our Stories

We hold our stories in our bones, in our very existence. Stories of sadness, trauma, and hardship. The telling of these stories is important. Saying the words out loud, unearthing the secrets--these actions honor and empower us. They declare: my life matters.

I've written my stories. I've spoken my stories. I've owned my stories. And now it's time to let go. Freedom came when I told these stories. Prison remains when I live in them. When I think, "I wasn't nurtured enough as a child" or "I felt unseen" or "I sacrificed too much for academia," I enter a box--an identity that no longer fits. Wholeness exists when I nurture, see, and stay true to myself

It's an act of kindness to honor my past yet live in the present. I'll continue to tell my stories as they occur. It's how I learn and grow. But the tired stories, they can return to the earth. I don't need them anymore.

September 24, 2014

I Survived

Last fall I committed to one year of unplugged Saturdays. Fifty-two Saturdays, no computer, no Internet, no exceptions. At first this seemed radical. Now it's normal. Not only did I survive the year, I thrived. Saturdays free of search engines, email, and social media are a relief not a burden.

One year ago, these were my thoughts: "I can't be unplugged every Saturday. I'll miss opportunities. I'll limit myself." These thoughts felt real, but they weren't true. The truth: I can unplug every Saturday; I missed nothing; I'm not limited, I'm free.

It's easy to believe the stories in our heads. They seem real. They are real, because that's our experience. But they're not always true. I see this regularly in meditation. Thoughts arise, I come back to the breath, thoughts arise with more fervor, I come back to the breath, different thoughts arise (wait, what happened to the previous storyline?), I come back to the breath, fear arises, I come back to the breath, different thoughts arise (wait, what happened to the fear?), I come back to the breath, thoughts arise, I come back to the breath.

Mindfulness provides a clearer lens. I don't believe all my thoughts. I try not to know for sure. Instead, I stay open to people and ideas. I surprise myself. And I savor my unplugged Saturdays.