The Answer Is Practice

by Karen Maezen Miller

Q: I am confused when you say, “Mindfulness without meditation is just a word.” Do you mean that in addition to practicing mindfulness whenever we can throughout the day, we also need to spend time in quiet mindfulness meditation?

A: I understand the confusion. The current mindfulness movement originated as a way to share the benefits of meditation in a medical or therapeutic setting. Although the practice of meditation was retained, the word “meditation” was not, perhaps because of its association with Eastern traditions. As a result, today there is some confusion that mindfulness and meditation are not related. Mindfulness is attention, true, but meditation is the cultivation of one’s attention. We cannot be mindful without practicing paying attention. If we are only thinking, “I am mindful,” it doesn’t get us very far. The old masters didn’t worry about words, but having practiced seated meditation, they took their concentrated mind with them throughout the day in all activities.

If one happens to only read books about mindfulness, the practice aspect may be overlooked.

Another analogy might be telling ourselves that we are full, when in fact we have failed to eat.

Good places to eat:

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, Sept. 11, 9 am-3 pm
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles

Quiet Joy: A Zen Retreat for Busy People
Oct. 28-30
Copper Beech Institute
West Hartford, CT

Karen Maezen Miller is a Zen priest and teacher at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. A wife and mother, she is the author of books about spirituality in everyday life, including “Paradise in Plain Sight,” “Hand Wash Cold,” and “Momma Zen.” 

This post is republished from Cheerio Road with permission from Karen Maezen Miller.

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Mindfulness for Every Day and Every Body

by Jackie Johnson

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”  –Jon Kabat-Zinn

Recent research says that most of us spend up to 50 percent of our time caught up in thoughts, usually replaying events of the past or worrying about an imagined future, both contributing to stress and unhappiness.

Mindfulness is a way of bringing awareness to the present moment with a sense of openness and curiosity. With consistent practice and by bringing mindfulness to the simple tasks of daily life, we discover more about ourselves: our thought patterns, emotions and response to our experiences. We become more attuned to others and our environment. We move in a calmer, less hurried way yet often accomplish more.

Neuroscience research conducted by pioneers like Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds confirms that the practice of mindfulness increases the brain’s ability to function more effectively and to change itself. Daily practice, even of short duration, is shown to improve focus and clarity, reduce stress, expand awareness, and improve overall wellbeing.

Mindfulness training may or may not involve meditating on a cushion. Regular practice of yoga, mindful walking or other spiritual and creative practices help to build a sort of mindful muscle, much like strength training does. Consistent exercise supports the ability to bring mindful pauses into the day.

Some Simple Daily Mindfulness Tips

  • Notice your first waking breath as a way of starting your day rather than having the day start you.
  • Choose to “mono task.” Be aware of the temptation to multitask (such as emailing while on a phone call). Choose one activity and devote your full attention to it.
  • Purposefully pause and take a breath before picking up the phone or beginning a conversation that you imagine may be challenging. A simple slow and deep breath activates the parasympathetic nervous system, helping to calm the body and mind.
  • Take a break and try a new lens. Go for a brief walk between tasks, particularly those requiring concentration, and open your awareness to discover three things you have not noticed before.
  • Choose one or two days a week to drive to or from work or errands without the radio or phone. Simply experiencing the nuances of driving your car.
  • Develop simple cues and reminders to pause during the day. Notice body sensations, sounds, or the “climate” of your thoughts and emotions. By adding momentary spaces, we can cultivate the ability to respond more thoughtfully, clearly and compassionately to whatever circumstances we meet in life.

Jackie Johnson is a longtime practitioner of mindfulness meditation with deep personal retreat experience. She has completed teacher training in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the UMass Center for Mindfulness, and believes passionately in the potential that exists through living and leading mindfully. Jackie will be offering the workshop, Beginner’s Mind: An Introduction to Mindfulness on October 2, 2016.

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Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: A Beacon of Hope

by Tracey Sondik

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.
— Wendy Mass, author of the childhood book, “The Candymakers”

We all have our battle to fight. We live with pain, whether it is physical pain from an illness, accident, or genetic condition, or emotional pain that often takes the form of anxiety, depression, or a stress disorder following a traumatic event. We often try to find ways to make the pain go away by seeking help from a doctor or therapist only to discover that the treatment alleviates the pain temporarily or actually makes the condition worse. We end up feeling discouraged and disempowered.

As a clinical psychologist and mindfulness instructor, I see this cycle of pain with many of the clients that come to me for help. They are suffering and want to find a way out but don’t know where to begin. One of the most important things I can teach them is that they already have one of the most important resources they need to heal themselves: the power of their own mind.

All human beings tend to get caught up in mental agitation that creates inner pain, aggravation and suffering. With instruction in mindfulness meditation and self-compassion, we can learn foundational skills to develop a basic sense of acceptance and gentleness toward ourselves and ultimately toward others. We just need to learn the skills and practice them.

I decided to learn Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) as part of my own journey of healing from anxiety. I was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma at age 27 and developed significant anxiety as a result of this health scare. Even though I healed physically and my disease went into remission, I would have to “white knuckle it” when I had waves of panic and anxiety. I would notice a small red bump or rash on my skin and feel a sharp pang of fear in my stomach: Is the cancer coming back? Am I going to die? My heart would begin to pound, my palms grew damp, and my thoughts would start to race.

I felt helpless against these waves of anxiety at first. I tried to hide my feelings from the outside world and wait for them to subside, but they seemed to last forever, particularly the racing thoughts. Sometimes, I would struggle with racing thoughts for an entire day. Only sleep brought relief.

I knew there must be a better way to manage my fear. I began researching ways to cope with anxiety. I bought self-help books, tried anti-anxiety medication, and tried to distract myself by going out in nature, reading, eating, etc. Some of these strategies brought temporary relief, but the feelings of panic and anxiety often came back, sometimes even stronger.

I decided that there must be something out there that I can do. I had heard that mindfulness meditation can decrease anxiety and decided to give it a try. I began a home practice. Mindfulness meditation helped me to steady my mind and quiet my fearful thoughts. By focusing on my breath as an anchor, I learned how to stay in my body and ride the waves of anxiety that would come and go.

The effects were immediate, even in those early days of a home practice. After a few minutes, I felt noticeably less anxious. My body went from a state of fight/flight to a more relaxed, balanced and open state of being. Within a few weeks, the frequency and the intensity of the anxious feelings decreased. I no longer had to “white knuckle it” when a fearful thought struck. Instead, I would close my eyes and gently breathe. The waves would pass and I would be able to return to my activities.

As a psychologist, I recognized the potential in teaching my clients some of the same skills. I became an MBSR teacher in 2008, completing the MBSR professional training at the UMass Medical School Center for Mindfulness, and began teaching my clients how to use mindfulness meditation to work with their physical and emotional pain.

We would practice mindfulness together in my office and I would give them specific homework practices so that they could develop these same skills on their own. Sometimes they would use guided instructions, a recorded CD, or an app on their phone. Overall, many of my clients reported that they felt more relaxed, grounded, and could manage their stress more effectively after practicing mindfulness regularly.

One client came to me for treatment several months after her mother passed away. She was having difficulty concentrating, frequent crying episodes, and feelings of panic when she first woke up in the morning. We began practicing mindfulness meditation in session, beginning with a body scan and awareness of breath. She was able to express that she felt better after the session, more connected and less spacey and lost in her grief of losing her mom.

I provided her with mindfulness exercises to do each morning, including a body scan while lying in bed, a five-minute mindful pause several times per day, and grounding techniques when she felt overwhelmed by her feelings. Grounding techniques included having her feeling her “feel” her body (such as feet on the ground, her back in the chair), placing her hand on her heart and taking several integrative breaths until she feels ready to resume her activities.

Several months later, this client is doing well. She joined a grief support group, returned to work, and has begun taking long walks in nature each day. She does her mindfulness practice every morning and she says that this has been key to moving on with her life.

Mindfulness meditation, the foundation practice of MBSR, has been instrumental in my life. Initially, it was the primary way I learned how to cope with crippling anxiety following a cancer diagnosis, and then it became an important tool that I could teach to my clients to help them navigate through their personal challenges. Mindfulness meditation provides a beacon of light when facing an emotional battle, crisis, or general physical and emotional pain. Instead of trying to push away difficult feelings, mindfulness teaches us how to stay present. We can learn how to be with our painful or challenging sensations and emotions in a compassionate way that can be both healing and transformative.

The ancient Sufi poet Rumi says, “Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.”

Tracey Sondik is a licensed clinical psychologist who works in both hospital and private practice settings. She has been teaching MBSR for the past eight years in hospitals, outpatient clinics, and yoga studios. Tracey will be the instructor for the 8-week MBSR course at Copper Beech Institute in the winter of 2017.

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How I Know I’m Not a Zen Master

by Brandon Nappi

After dinner, I climb the splintered rungs of a lifeguard chair with my daughter along a misty beach in Narraganset, Rhode Island. The rest of my family had taken refuge from the darkening skies in our cozy cottage rental. My ten-year-old and I are intrigued by the drama of the slate sky and the even roar of waves upon a deserted coastline. We snap a selfie and she sprints toward the water giggling and frolicking in her own introverted ocean festival. I watch her dance in the spray with a tangle of salty hair still knotted from a day of beach life. In my mind, she’s a little girl. She still holds my hand as she did when she was a toddler, but not as often now (she reminds me that she is technically a tween). This is just the way I want everything. I am happy.

I remain on my lifeguard perch as my gaze shifts to the Atlantic. Each wave is completely new and distinctive. No matter the size of the wave or its intensity, the beach gladly accepts each one as an offering from the sea. I smile and feel the rise of gratitude in my body for this lesson and for my teacher, the seashore. Without any fanfare, the sea meets the land and the message is simple: welcome everything.

When you can feel any and every feeling, then you are free. We suffer to the degree that we resist whatever sensations or feelings that are emerging. There are no difficult situations or difficult people; there are only emotions that we resist. We spend precious life energy trying to control life and others so we might avoid certain emotional states. All control is based on fear. We try to control things because we are fearful of what we might feel if things don’t go according to plan. We fear because we want some things and because we don’t want other things. Mindfulness meets us precisely in this human condition—within the frustrating cycle of having what we don’t want or wanting what we don’t have.

Mindfulness is a practice of intimacy with your direct experience and with life itself. There is no need to run away. There is no need to avoid or to cling. With some training, we can learn, more and more, to ‘be with’ any and every feeling without running away. We can ‘be with’ a five-mile traffic backup. We can ‘be with’ a relationship that is not going the way we would like. We can ‘be with’ sickness or pain. We can learn to ‘be with’ that thing that wakes us up at 3 am. This ‘being with’ is mindfulness. Mindfulness is not esoteric or otherworldly. Mindfulness is the most ordinary thing there is—it’s hanging out with life the way it is.

Welcoming everything doesn’t mean accepting injustice or violence. It’s not a convenient excuse to remain passive or to be silent amid all that threatens human flourishing. Rather, this kind of stability and freedom to ‘be with’ the full range of human experience allows us to be grounded and radiantly compassionate as ignorance, hatred and division rage in our world and at our dinner tables. The perennial wisdom of mindfulness practice is that presence itself is healing. The courageous capacity to feel everything and anything is our enduring gift to the world. This welcoming presence makes fierce love and tender compassion possible.

A few weeks after my poignant moment at the beach, my daughter and I were telling bedtime stories to one another during the kind of late summer evening when we can talk for hours without any worry of waking early for school. Our story time was shattered by her sister’s shrieks from the next room continuing an earlier searing argument about a lost hairbrush (hair is serious business in our house).

Looking for a way to convince my daughter to remain unaffected by the taunts of her sister, I remembered the image from our summer vacation. “Be the wave,” I said, as I steadied myself for an epic Zen-master dad moment. This is the kind of moment that every dad awaits when he imparts earth-shattering wisdom upon his blank slate of a child which will be treasured and recalled at his deathbed. She interrupted my sermon after three words.

In sleepy nonchalance, she spoke out into the darkness, “The water doesn’t say to the wave, ‘I won’t allow you through. I don’t want you—you are too strong or too big or too unpleasant.’ The water doesn’t argue with the wave. The water simply lets the wave pass through it without getting upset about it.” She didn’t need me to teach her this wisdom. My daughter simply needed the space to realize it for herself. And in that moment, I remembered that the irrefutable sign that you are not a Zen master is that you think of yourself as a Zen master.

Rather than battle through a wall, she mindfully chose to be water and to allow the sonic energy and emotional charge of her sister flow right through her. When drops welcome the flow of water, they become a wave. When a shoreline welcomes every wave, it becomes a beach—a haven for play, ease and rest. When a person welcomes each moment as it is, she becomes a channel of peace. I see clearly that the day will come when my daughter’s wisdom eclipses my own. I feel a surge of emotion. What else could I ever wish for?

In silence, below the canopy that a 30-something dad made for his little girl so many years before, we lay like a beach while her sister’s grievances barked through the plaster. The hardwood shook and the decibels crashed upon our shores for awhile. At my side, my daughter knew there was no need to fight or resist. Yelling at someone for yelling at you only creates more yelling. Instead, she was content to be the beach giggling at the foam undisturbed by the rising tide. Her equanimity and willingness to ‘be with’ what is happening without fighting or fleeing is the work of mindfulness. Even a sister screaming over a missing hairbrush could be welcomed. This is why I practice mindfulness.

One of the most important roles we have as parents is to teach wisdom. Yet wisdom isn’t passed along like a toasted-everything bagel ripped in half and shared at the breakfast table. Wisdom isn’t given or downloaded as an accumulation of facts passed from one mind to another. More information will not lead to transformation. True wisdom is embodied; it’s what happens when we stop fighting and learn to merge with the way things are. Wisdom is the freedom we experience when we recognize that we have the ability to feel everything and anything. Therefore, the best lessons we can teach our children are not the one’s we teach them, but the ones we witness and celebrate when they learn them on their own. For the moment, I’m incredibly honored and grateful to be my daughter’s teacher until the day she realizes she doesn’t need one.

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, resilience, and compassion in everyday life. Brandon Nappi and harpist Marcie Swift will lead the mindfulness day retreat, Practicing Peace, September 11, 2016. All are welcome. 

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