June 29, 2015

Where's the Joy?

Two weeks ago I went to a silent meditation retreat. During a group interview, one student asked the teacher, "I see all these stern faces and I wonder, where's the joy?" I loved his question. Meditation can seem so serious: turning inward, facing our hidden places, and staying no matter what. This is serious business. And it's also a pathway to joy.

Moments of wonder, joy, and awe cannot be manufactured. They occur spontaneously. And they're easy to miss. If I'm lost in thoughts, I don't feel wonder as I view the evening sky. If my heart is armored, I don't feel joy as I witness an act of kindness. If my mind is closed, I don't feel awe when I experience something new.

To feel joy, I must be aware and non-judgmental; I must pay attention. If I cram my schedule, limit meditation, and disconnect from myself, there's no space for joy. Where's the joy? It's in little moments when I'm fully present; it's in daily life when my heart is wide open; it's in raw places when I feel the preciousness of human life.

Joy isn't forced laughter or planned fun. Joy isn't having things exactly as we want them to be. Joy happens in spacious awareness--when we're cracked open with grief or when we walk silently in nature. It's all around us, if we really pay attention; if we allow for our experience to be just as it is.

June 18, 2015

Learning to Stay

Our society cultivates busyness and urgency. It's easy to feel like we're "on our way" to something else, even as we do what's right in front of us. This uneasiness is baked into our DNA. We scan the horizon for predators and don't fully open to the moment. We flee the uneasiness, yet it remains. It remains until we learn to stay.

In my mind and body, there's an undercurrent of fear. It's my loyal companion. Regularly I try to escape: make to-do lists, drink wine, obsessively check Flickr, strive to improve (in every way), or sink into murky judging-mind. None of these escapes works. They feed my tension and dis-ease. So if I'm not mindful, I go through loops of empty escape.

The loop is broken once I stay. When I make the choice to pause and allow for fear, it morphs. Instead of a scream it's more like a background hum. Staying isn't easy, but it can be cultivated. And it must be re-applied again and again. Staying requires awareness, curiosity, and self-compassion. It's a way to be my own best friend. 

In meditation, I choose a posture I can maintain the entire session. If I feel the urge to move, I stay. If I get an itch, I stay. Movement isn't wrong, sometimes it's even necessary, but it's habituated; it's a reaction instead of a response. The experimental lab of meditation allows me to see all the ways I mindlessly react. If I feel an itch, I want to scratch it immediately. If I feel pain, I want it alleviated immediately. If I feel uneasy, I escape to my thoughts immediately. I notice these reactions while in meditation and, more importantly, I also notice gaps. Staying with my breath, I see space where I can make a choice; where I can respond mindfully. And this translates to my daily life.

Pushing away my uneasiness--escaping the present moment--takes more energy than actually staying with my experience, as is. Learning to stay is one of my greatest life lessons. It's allowed me to access the difficult and savor the positive. It lets me connect deeply with myself and others. And it provides real choice. I feel more present in my own life. I feel more free.

June 10, 2015

Practice Makes Imperfect

The title of this blog post is a purposeful exaggeration. Here's the real title: practice reveals everything. If you commit to a practice--any practice--you see all of yourself. You see resistance, curiosity, judgment, joy, freedom, and doubt. There's no escape from yourself and that's the point: you show up and you stay

I have many practices: meditation, photography, writing, gardening, and yoga. In all of these, the process itself is most important; the outcome is extraneous. What's essential is my commitment to practice, whatever the experience brings. I have long-term goals, but in the short term I have no expectations. This is when things flow. 

Yet regularly flow is interrupted by assumptions and judgments. I enter meditation expecting to feel good and then meet fear. I take photographs expecting beautiful images and then find dullness. I weed the garden expecting to finish--to wrap up life--and then spot more weeds. In these moments, things don't flow. They feel sticky and messy. And this is all part of practice. 

If I continue to show up, no matter what, then I experience flow and stuck-ness. I see the machinations of my mind yet I also see the love in my heart. Through this process, I develop trust in myself and faith in my practice.

Here's a mantra I repeat to my students: the most helpful practice is the one you'll actually use. The imaginary--often extravagant--practice does nothing; it sits on a shelf. (I can't meditate unless I have 30 minutes. I can't photograph unless the light is gorgeous. I can't write unless I have a clear idea.) We sabotage ourselves by not starting. Then self-judgment seeps in and things get ugly. Better to actually start an intentional practice. Dive in, see what happens (meet the ugliness).

So what is a helpful practice? That's up to you. Get quiet, listen inward, and set an intention--a realistic intention. Then make a commitment to show up no matter what. Show up even if you're busy or tired or cranky. Stay with the practice, pay attention, and get curious. Stay with your experience, whatever arises. Because practice reveals everything.

June 4, 2015


When I ask myself, "Am I happy?" it's not related to my particular mood or situation. It's an over-arching question about contentment, ease, and well-being. Happy moods pass, just as fearful moods pass. My brain--the human brain--is not structured to be continuously happy. And that's a freeing realization. I can stop chasing happiness. Society might tell me, "put on a happy face!" but I don't have to.  

There are different ways to work with the mind: let be, let go, or let in. I "let be" when I meditate--I don't change my experience; I watch it, as is. I "let go" when I allow for difficult emotions--when I form a new relationship with these feelings, I drop old story lines. I "let in" when I embody kindness, gratitude, and wonder. All these practices are essential to my well-being. And they're interrelated: if I can't open my heart to sadness, then I can't open my heart to love.

But my route to happiness is not the only path. And, interestingly, when I judge others--question their choices or actions--I decrease my own happiness. Rather than judge, it's best for me to "let be." Live my intentional life and let others do the same, even when their choices are far different from mine.

I've noticed happiness paradoxes: Initially a practice might be difficult, yet it brings immense well-being in the long term. A person might be miserable yet wear a smile. Another might be content yet show no facial expression. A certain experience might be life-changing for one person yet lifeless for another. There's no one path to happiness. But there's good news: we can change our brains; we can experience more well-being and ease. (If you need a starting place, visit Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.) 

We each have a unique path to walk, yet it's nice to have company along the way. So I'll share with you my laughter experiment, based on the premise that laughing out loud can shift your mood. I recorded the whole thing. Enjoy: