December 22, 2011

Quality Time

During the holiday season we often think about gifts to give the special people in our lives. These dark days of December are a cozy time to reflect on all the blessings in our lives, and perhaps particularly on the people in our lives. I purposefully (and with deep gratitude) surround myself with people who energize, accept, inspire, understand, and love me. Sometimes, I find a special gift to give these dear ones. But gifts are not something I force. In fact, an inauthentic gift does not reflect how deeply I value my loved ones. Yet what I can always give and give authentically is quality time: time when I'm fully present for and open-hearted with the special people in my life.

Last weekend, I took my dad to San Antonio for the women's volleyball final four. (This was a surprise birthday/Christmas present for him, and it was SO much fun to make it all work.) The trip was an excellent example of quality time. While in San Antonio, we were in the moment and we truly enjoyed each other's company. This was a special gift for both of us.

It's interesting that during the holidays our culture is focused on gift giving and socialization, yet many of us feel exhausted by it all; perhaps because it's not quality time, but rushed obligation or habituated internal expectations. Yet if we make just a little space, this can be a natural time for reflection. As Mary Oliver asks in "The Summer Day": "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

Maybe we can give ourselves and others the gift of open-hearted presence--a gift of quality time.

December 8, 2011

Reset Button

In early November, Mark and I attended a meditation retreat in Madison lead by teachers Cheri Maples and Sharon Salzberg. After months of prioritizing the "doing" part of me, I allowed myself to reacquaint and develop the "being" part of me. What a welcome relief! This was a lovely reset button for my soul.

I found myself reflecting on the teachings and the retreat experience as I re-immersed in busy academic life. For example, a typical distraction from the present moment (and the sometimes difficult emotions and feelings we experience there) is to ruminate on the past or plan obsessively for the future. Sharon told a story about someone who missed an airline flight, and then constructed an elaborate plan about what would happen for the rest of the travel day, ending with the person in despair about whether a cab could be found at midnight in Portland. (We can all imagine ourselves constructing similar stories in a variety of situations.) As Sharon says, we can lose ourselves in the future, OR we can choose to stay in the present and simply remind ourselves, "something will happen." What a great reminder. I gently said this phrase ("and then something will happen") to myself each time I found myself lost in a story of the future (e.g., how will I wrap up my courses? what exactly will my students learn? how will the students feel about the course?).

If we cultivate the practice of being, then we're more mindful of the gaps--e.g., the gap between experiencing a situation and responding to it, the gap between intention and action, or the gap between emotion and speech. If we allow for it, there are many gaps throughout our day, and we can decide how to mind those gaps most skillfully (as skillfully as we can in that moment).

During loving-kindness meditation, phrases (rather than the breath) are the focus of concentration. These phrases (e.g., may I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live with ease) are repeated for ourselves, then a benefactor, then a good friend, then a neutral person, then a difficult person, and then to all beings. (There are actually many different ways to do loving-kindness meditation). At the Madison retreat, we spent time both in seated meditation and walking meditation. Some of the walking meditation was done outside. Mark commented that it's really easy to send loving-kindness to ducks (how true!):

Duck or no duck,
May you be safe,
may you be happy,
may you be healthy,
may you live with ease.