I want something else!

When my niece Elizabeth was two or three years old, she had an emphatic way of letting all who were present know when she was displeased, usually with a snack-time food choice. “I want something else!” she’d cry, her face contorting, tears bursting from her eyes. She was unable to articulate what she did want, only that she did not want what was being offered at that particular moment.

My predictable response was to seek hurriedly about for options that would make Elizabeth happy. I’d present each before her. “I want something else! I want something else!” she’d continue to cry in increasing decibels and with growing frustration until her eyes lit upon that “something else.” Then the sobs would cease, her tears evaporate, and peace would be restored, at least for a time.

I love this recollection because it so brilliantly typifies the dynamic of the tantrum-prone inner toddler that is still alive within me, even in my advanced middle age. I would like to think that at 50-plus, I’m not as overtly expressive as my three-year-old niece sometimes was, but my inner toddler is certainly capable of putting up a fuss, whether in the form of resistance when something is not to my liking or a painful wanting for something more or different when circumstances fail to satisfy.

We all struggle with discontent and resistance to one degree or another. It’s just how we’re wired as human beings, and most of us don’t have a doting aunt willing to scurry about in search of a pacifier to quell our every upset. Yet this is a good thing, because the real world can be coldly indifferent to our demands that it deliver in accordance with our personal desires. Held gently, our discomfort can be a powerful teacher, leading us to discover that it is our very cravings for more, less, better, different and otherwise that can lead to unhappiness.

I’ve had to learn the hard way and many times over that the world owes me nothing – not agreement and certainly not comfort. Paradoxically, it’s only been in accepting this truth that I have begun to taste the peace and comfort I’ve always sought.

Meditation is my salve, a daily opportunity to sit with the leanings of the mind. Sometimes this means sitting in a simmering stew of discordant emotions until time, temperature and the light of attention soften them into a blend the palate can tolerate and even enjoy. My inner toddler may also make an occasional appearance, her emotional extremes always bearing some truth and simply in need of equal parts attention, compassion and acceptance in order to settle into quietude. Whatever arises, I’ve come to look forward to each meditation as an adventure yielding grist for awareness, insight and always compassion – and the opportunity to loosen my desire for “something else.”

Our paths as humans can sometimes be trying, but we have the power to transform our relationship to the difficulties we face. This is my prayer for us all, drawn from loving kindness meditation in the Buddhist Thai Forest tradition: May we hold ourselves and others in compassion. May we be safe. May we be peaceful. May we live with ease.

[And in case you were wondering, my niece Elizabeth is now 22 and will soon graduate from college with a major in dance and wellness. She is a lovely, reverent and wise young woman whom I treasure, and the toddler she was of almost 20 years past is both a tiny teacher and a wonderful memory.]

 

Kathy Simpson is a freelance writer with Copper Beech Institute who specializes in mindful living and holistic health. She is a regular contributor to Copper Beech Institute’s mindfulness and contemplative practice blog, Awaken Everyday.

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Platitude of Gratitude: The Shadow Side of Being Thankful

by Brandon Nappi
In these November days, we are hearing a cornucopia of encouragement to be thankful. Even as the marketplace rushes us from trick or treating to tinsel and wrapping, the wisest among us will stop for a moment to be thankful for all that we have in life.

Somehow the gray November horizon and the crunch of leaves underfoot inspire me to be mindful of the countless gifts I‘ve received in my life. I have enough to eat. My persistent flaws aren’t often embarrassingly visible. I have enough documentaries on my smart TV to fill two lifetimes. My tween children mostly like me. What did I do to earn or deserve this embarrassment of riches? Precious little, if I’m honest.

Here at Copper Beech Institute where we practice mindfulness and gratitude year ’round, we want to celebrate this annual American cultivation of gratitude even if it ends with a tryptophan-induced coma and a Thanksgiving day food-baby. I’m a big fan of gratitude and with all the research lately, it’s hard to argue with being thankful. After all, gratitude is a part of nearly every spiritual tradition and research suggests that practicing gratitude can foster better immune function, reduce stress and lead to greater levels of happiness. We’re learning that sometimes happiness is the source of your gratitude and sometimes your gratitude is the source of your happiness. So let’s be thankful, and let’s also take a moment to explore the very purpose of gratitude.

As a mindfulness teacher, I am very thankful for all the November encouragement to be thankful. In these days, social media will hypnotize us with images of fuzzy kittens sharing messages of gratitude and impossibly toned women in expensive yoga gear thanking the sunset with outstretched arms. Still, I’m also reminded by the poet Goethe that “there is a strong shadow where there is much light.” Even gratitude can have a dark side.

Sometimes I wonder if gratitude can become a pretty mask for narcissistic consumerism – a permission slip to attain more. It can lead us to become tone deaf to the needs of others and reinforce our own craving for what we think will bring happiness but ultimately can never satisfy the deepest longing of the heart. Gratitude can quickly become an elite privilege when it neatly reinforces our sense of entitlement.

I struggle with the reality that I’m thankful for all that I have even when I have ridiculously more than I need. It’s a fantastic irony that the day after we celebrate being thankful for what we do have, we celebrate shopping for what we don’t have. In our culture, there is a well-worn path in which gratitude seems to flow effortlessly into greed. While we are busy feeling grateful and blessed, there is untold need in our world, in our neighborhoods and in our own families. Can we cultivate thankfulness in a way that doesn’t reduce gratitude to a self-help gimmick akin to fad diets and beach-body workouts?

Gratitude as it is practiced by the great spiritual traditions is no insulation from the world but a platform from which to be a light with and for the world. In the end, true gratitude reveals connection. The art of being thankful connects us to those who have given us gifts while inspiring us to be gift-givers in the world. The truth is that our wellbeing and the wellbeing of others are connected. Everything and everyone is connected to everything and everyone else. So I’m all for “following your bliss” as long as the bliss is actually “our bliss” – one that includes a vision for the way we can all thrive as a human family.

The purpose of any spiritual practice is to foster the opening of the heart in service to all people, especially to those who are most vulnerable. As I practice gratitude more intentionally this month, I seek to discover how my gratitude might help me to be more connected to Syrian refugees or to listen to the grief of Parisian families or to turn toward the suffering of those I encounter on a daily basis. I commit to exploring how gratitude might even help me to be conscious of my own suffering so that I do not pass more suffering along to others. As so many sages have taught us, suffering that is not transformed within us is eventually transferred to those around us.

Gratitude reminds us that we belong to each other. This reality of connectedness, monetized by Facebook and easily forgotten by armchair quarterbacks, is at the heart of giving thanks. When thankfulness flows into compassion and compassion blossoms into action, then the true power of gratitude is realized. So whether we are thankful for the cat, a football team, or the love of family and friends, may our gratitude remind us that we are all in this together.

Dr. Brandon Nappi is founder and executive director of Copper Beech Institute, the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice. Copper Beech Institute offers more than 40 transformational programs to foster peace and resilience in everyday life. Brandon and his wife Susan will lead the retreat, “Walking the Path Together: Mindfulness Weekend for Couples,” May 6-7, 2016. All couples are welcome.

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What is Mindfulness?

by John Carbone, M.D.

One clear definition of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: “Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way — on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Personally, my favorite definition is by my primary mindfulness teacher, Shinzen Young: “Mindfulness is a set of attentional skills which can be cultivated with systematic practice. These skills are concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity.”

Concentration

Fundamentally, concentration is the ability to focus on what is deemed relevant and to let go of what is deemed irrelevant. Without the ability to direct and maintain attention, learning would be impossible, regardless of the subject.

Why do we find it hard to concentrate, then? Suffice it to say that in our rapid-fire, sound-byte, multi-tasking, hyper-connected, over-stimulated, and under-exercised society, concentration can be extremely challenging for anyone. On top of that, it’s not generally taught that concentration is a skill that can be developed with practice.

So let me repeat the good news: Concentration is a skill that can be developed with practice — and it’s not rocket science.

Let’s take as an example a basic breath meditation. The instructions are simple. For 20 minutes, keep the attention on the breath, and if the attention wanders off the breath, as soon as you notice that, let go of that distraction, and bring the attention back to the breath.

The instructions are simple but the practice is not easy. What most people find is that the mind wanders off countless times to countless distractions: plans, fantasies, memories, body sensations, and emotions. But with time and practice, it’s possible to maintain the attention on the breath for longer and longer periods of time with less and less time spent in distraction. Just like working out at the gym helps a person develop strength, formal meditation practice helps a person focus on whatever he/she deems important, whether it’s the professor’s lecture, the coach’s instructions, the book, the basketball hoop or any other goal, making it that much more likely that he/she will learn the topic, or succeed in whatever the endeavor.

Sensory Clarity

Sensory clarity is the ability to experience precisely what is occurring in one’s own sensory experience. To develop sensory clarity, we focus our concentration on our senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling.

Let’s take the example of eating a meal. With our eyes we observe the presentation of the dish, the colors and visual textures; with our nose we smell the aromas; with our tongues and mouths, we taste the flavors and feel the textures of the food. Paying attention to experience can increase our delight and satisfaction. Even a simple meal attended to in this way can be incredibly interesting and fulfilling.

One of the first mindfulness exercises we do in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course is to eat a raisin mindfully, and it’s common to hear people report things like, “I never realized how much flavor one raisin could have.” This may not be our habit and may take effort in daily life, but the experience is fulfilling – much more so than zoning out in front of the TV while mindlessly polishing off a bag of chips.

A high degree of sensory clarity is important for many professions. Chefs, wine sommeliers, coffee roasters, perfume designers — any worth their salt have diligently worked to enhance their sensory clarity. So do artists, musicians, architects, and many others in specialized fields. While some degree of natural talent plays a role, systematic training is essential.

Thought is also considered to be a sense phenomena. Just as the eye receives and transmits external sights, and the ear registers external sounds, the mind perceives thoughts consisting of mental images and mental talk. Sometimes people are astonished to discover that thoughts can be both auditory and visual.

Emotion also figures in to our experience. It can be broken down into the component parts of thoughts and certain flavors of body sensation. Let’s take, for example, the emotion of anger. How do you know when you’re angry? If you’re mindful, you might notice an increased heart rate, shallow breath, clenched jaw, tension around the eyes, and a heated sensation that is most pronounced in the upper chest and neck. Certain angry thoughts accompany the bodily sensations. On the other hand, if you feel amusement, a smile may take over your face and and a subtle humor/amusement flavor will rise in the face.

Basically, our human experience consists of the five classical senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling) plus thought. When we recognize that emotion is a combination of thinking and feeling, it turns out that no matter how complicated our lives might seem, every single experience we will ever have will consist of some combination of only six total component parts! There is enormous freedom, power, and creativity when we can become consciously aware of that fact.

Equanimity

Equanimity is the ability to allow sensory experience to come and go without pushing it away or pulling it in. In my opinion, this is the most important skill a person can learn to reduce stress and suffering. The best explanation for why this is the case is this equation from Shinzen Young:

S=PxR

Suffering = Pain x Resistance

Note: In Shinzen Young’s definition, pain includes discomforts that we wouldn’t necessarily identify as pain per se, such as itches, mild aches, agitation, irritation, too hot, too cold, as well as any uncomfortable emotions such as sadness, embarrassment, etc.  

For any given pain, the lower the resistance, the lower the suffering. And, if resistance is zero (that is, the person experiences pain with perfect equanimity), the pain will not cause suffering. So, if pain is 5 and resistance is 2, 5×2=10 degrees of suffering. If pain is 5 and resistance is 0, 5×0=no suffering.

You may have heard the phrase, “pain is mandatory; suffering is optional.” This personal example will help demonstrate that.

I was three days into a demanding retreat, sitting still in formal meditation for many hours each day. After a couple of days, I was really hurting. My knee, my hip, my buttocks and my back would all take turns grabbing my attention with various aches and pains. Then I remembered Shinzen’s equation, S=PxR. If the equation is accurate, I realized that I must be resisting something somewhere. But where?

With real curiosity, I scanned my body, starting with the most obvious place at the time: my right knee, which was throbbing and burning. I was surprised to find no resistance there, though. I continued scanning down the right leg into the shin and foot, up into my upper leg and hip. No resistance there either. Then I brought my attention into the abdomen and to right upper quadrant of my abdomen, and there it was, just below my ribs: Resistance!

Instantaneously, the resistance disappeared, and the suffering did, too, along with the pain. This was my first tangible, personal experience of the equation at work, and the rest of the retreat, and my life, has never been the same. I still enjoy my creature comforts and am not against using more conventional methods of relieving discomfort, but now I know that the suffering that often comes with pain and discomfort can be reduced or eliminated simply by letting go of resistance.

To summarize, mindfulness can be defined as a threefold attentional skill set consisting of concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity. These skills can be increased with systematic practice. And, it’s worth the effort, because over time, these skills can markedly decrease stress and suffering while increasing joy and fulfillment.

John Carbone, M.D. is a board certified family physician with extensive experience in mindfulness meditation. In his primary care practice, Dr. Carbone has witnessed the suffering caused by stress and stress-related illnesses and the benefits of mindfulness meditation, both in his own life and the lives of others. Dr. Carbone will be leading Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Courses and a Mindfulness Workshop for Healthcare Professionals at Copper Beech Institute in 2016. Read more about Dr. Carbone.

Copper Beech Institute offers more than 40 transformational programs to foster peace and resilience in everyday life.

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Gratitude: Turning to the Unpleasant

by Miranda Chapman

The practice of gratitude is powerful and can transform the lens through which I view the world and often I turn toward the pleasant rather than the unpleasant to focus my gaze.

Lately, I have been working with turning my gratitude toward the difficult, the challenging, the uncomfortable in my life:

I am grateful for the pain in my body which is a constant reminder of this vessel that carries me through each day, imperfectly but beautifully.

I am grateful for my addictions that demand I look at where I feel disconnected.

I am grateful for moments of total confusion as a reminder of how little is known to me or can ever be known.

I am grateful for incapacitating doubt because it is a guide into the self-imposed beliefs I carry that limit me and others.

I am grateful for conflicts internally and externally that continue to invite me to show up in kindness rather than to do harm to myself or others.

I am grateful for moments of total overwhelm that remind me to surrender the insatiable illusion of control.

I am grateful for procrastination since it helps me see the allure of resistance as well as to see what I am truly drawn towards.

I am grateful for fear as it demands I keep showing up unless I choose to give up.

As I turn toward the unpleasant I begin to honor my wholeness in a way that only shining light on the pleasant simply cannot. I begin to open more to the great wisdom that comes from difficulty and to the boundless lessons I can learn, if I am willing, from the inevitable obstacles of life.

Of course I am still grateful for all of the beauty and joy that surrounds me but that’s easy:  this — the turning toward the shadow — is where the wholeness resides.

Miranda Chapman is the founding Program Director and Senior Faculty at Copper Beech Institute, the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice. Copper Beech Institute offers more than 40 transformational retreats and courses, as well as mindfulness practice and mindfulness at work offerings to help you awaken to the beauty of your life. Miranda will be co-leading a Knitting and Mindfulness retreat November 20 – 22, 2015 and the New Year retreat, Connecting to Your Light, January 22 – 24, 2016. Both retreats are opportunities to journey within and with Miranda. 

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On Being Me, Now

by Angela Martin

I walk out onto the balcony of our hotel room that overlooks Sarasota Bay.

I am so grateful to be here, I tell myself as I sit down on a grey aluminum chair and set my computer on the small circular table in front of me. Resting both feet on the cement floor, I press the start arrow on my body scan audio, part of the homework from my Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Course I’m taking at Copper Beech Institute this fall.

It’s more lifework than homework, really.

There are so many sounds I’m aware of as I begin. The rush of traffic on a nearby highway, the wind blowing so hard it nearly obscures the voice of my instructor, the voices and laughter of people below going in and out of the hotel. But I sit, bringing my attention to the bottom of my left foot, as the instructor guides me to, and from there to the toes of my left foot: the big toe, the second toe, the third and fourth toes, and then the baby toe.

In time, my mind wanders to Ryan, our oldest son, who we are visiting here for family weekend at Ringling College of Art and Design. He is busy this weekend; we won’t see him as much as we would like. I picture his smile and his auburn beard when I bring my attention back to my left knee, where the body scan now directs me. I don’t judge myself for going off task. I’m learning that this is the nature of the busy mind.

This is a practice. No judgment.

In a decade-long writing project with my best friend Noelle, we learned about the beauty of imperfection – that we all are perfectly imperfect. But I still fall off the wagon all the time, looking back and wishing I had done a better job in some aspect of my work, my mothering, or my relationships. And here again with MBSR, I’m learning that there is nothing better than simply being who I am.

And knowing I am enough.

We are now moving from the left hip to the right. I’m feeling rooted here in the chair, following the guidance within. But just as quickly my awareness moves into the distance, when I hear someone signing lyrics from John Denver’s ballad, “Annie’s Song.”

“You fill up my senses like a night in the forest…”

And I journey back to my childhood. My parents used to play John Denver’s Greatest Hits album often and this is still one of my favorite songs from it. My eyes begin to well up, listening to the words as if for the first time. I am keenly aware of the passage of time.

I don’t want to miss out on my life, I vow as I have countless times since I began my mindfulness practice, and shift attention to my left knee.

I continue with the scan and move into my chest, a place in the scan where I often fall asleep when I’m lying down at home – part of the reason I’m sitting up today. I have asthma and this is a place I want to pay attention to. I want to see what’s here now. We get to the middle back area when I hear our neighbor on her balcony, “Ah, look at the beautiful bride. Her life ends today – and a new one begins.”

I had to open my eyes. There below was a black stretch limo and a bride taking a few photos before stepping into her car. I think back 25 years to my own wedding day – a day that seems so far off and so near all at once.

Your love will grow more than you can even imagine, I whisper to her.

I sit back down and pick up with the body scan, which has already moved to the head. I have missed the arms and the neck.

It’s okay, not a worry, I tell myself and bring awareness to the base of the head and jaw where I carry so much of my stress. Headaches have been a problem for me too over the past few months. I connect how unhealthy it is for me to have these physical reactions to life.

This is such a good way to care for myself.

The scan closes with the instructor suggesting a note of self-gratitude for making the time for practice. She closes her guidance by asking us to breathe through the whole body in awareness and appreciation of what it is to be alive.

Three bells chime and I open my eyes – the world so vibrant and clear.

And I am so grateful to be here now – after a perfectly, imperfect body scan, interruptions and all.

Angela Martin is a writer, author, and director of marketing communications at Copper Beech Institute. She writes about the power of friendship and compassion – and her new mindfulness journey as an empty nester. Copper Beech Institute offers more than 40 retreats, courses, and events to foster peace and resilience in everyday life, including 8-Week MBSR Courses, as well as an Introduction to MBSR Overnight Retreat.

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