Try a Little Tenderness

As humans, we can be awfully hard on ourselves. On the one hand, we have an inner champion that supports and encourages our every success, but we also have a harsh inner critic that can be our own worst enemy. It’s critical of how we look, think and feel, judges our perceived mistakes and inadequacies, and finds fault when we fall short of expectations, no matter how unrealistic they may be. This side of us can be crippling, and cause us much suffering.

We tend to carry a deep-seated conviction that self-judgment is an effective strategy for self-improvement, but research shows it does not work that way. Rather than help us achieve our goals, self-criticism undermines our ability to thrive, and makes us more emotional and less likely to learn from our mistakes. Attending to ourselves with compassion is a much more helpful way to respond.

Self-compassion loosens the grip of the inner critic so that we can live life with greater happiness and ease. It’s not contingent upon what we accomplish, but is instead an ongoing practice of offering unconditional kindness to ourselves no matter what, just as we would do for a valued friend. Rather than piling on harsh judgments, we meet ourselves with gentleness and warmth, and the desire to ease our own suffering. According to Dr. Kristin Neff, author of “Self-Compassion” and founder of the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program, self-compassion can lead to greater resilience, more caring relationship behavior, and less reactivity and anger.

Undoing a lifetime of self-criticism doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, practice and patience. Most importantly, it requires mindfulness of the thoughts and feelings that undermine our sense of wellbeing. It’s only by becoming aware of our negative self-talk and the harm is causes that we can begin to choose compassion instead.

So try a little tenderness. According to Christopher Germer, co-founder of MSC, “A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.”

If you’d like to evaluate your capacity for self-compassion, take this short quiz by Dr. Neff.

 

Kathy Simpson is a freelance writer with Copper Beech Institute who specializes in mindful living and holistic health.

To learn the life-changing practice of self-compassion for yourself, we invite you to explore the eight-week courses in Mindful Self-Compassion and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction that will be offered at Copper Beech Institute beginning January 2017.

 

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Reflections on a Silent Retreat

by Douglas Scherer

In the chapel where Copper Beech Institute holds meditation sessions, light streams from east to west, illuminating the floor and radiating through the hair of morning sitters. Above them, the large stained glass windows glow in deep bright colors with repeating images of outstretched arms, simultaneously an invitation and a reminder to hold an open heart and a beginner’s mind.

The images echo the environment created by the two instructors, Beth Mulligan and Jon Aaron, who led the institute’s recent five-night silent retreat that was held during the first week of October 2016. For those who have not attended one of these retreats, they are wonderful opportunities to foster your meditation practice in a supportive setting.

The retreat was designed for intermediate and advanced level participants. I attended this specific retreat because it fulfilled one of the requirements for becoming an MBSR instructor. While I was prepared to advance my understanding of meditation, relaxation, and stress management, I took away all of that plus a strengthened knowledge of what I’d learned in the MBSR eight-week course. The impact of the retreat was just as the program’s description forecasted: life enhancing.

One of the most liberating learnings was the power of silence and stillness, which I interpret respectively as quiet among others, and quiet within yourself. The instructors’ overview of the retreat set the stage for the potential of silent learning:

“Extended silent retreat practice is a vital way to nourish our practice, deepen our awareness, and cultivate our capacity for compassion and kindness toward ourselves and others.” 1

I found the last bit of that description engaging. How can days of no interaction—and what to an outside observer must look like a bunch of folks ignoring each other for a week—cultivate compassion and kindness? I’d like to share two of the ways I encountered both qualities while on the retreat.

Silence and Safety

On the first night of the retreat, we dined with each other, then entered into silence soon after. As a group, our focus shifted from sharing our individual stories (such as what challenges brought us to the retreat) to supporting each other through common elements of meditation practice. Even meditating near one another sometimes became a pillar to help practice.

Silence helped nurture our safe-practice space, which bolstered our learning and encouraged a deepening awareness of our own inner experience. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created MBSR, refers to this effect as a “context of emotional safety”2 in which we feel supported, and within that setting, can expand our ability to look directly into physical pain, for example, and the associated sensations in our bodies and reactions in our minds, and then rest with that awareness without having to do anything. This helps practitioners open to new ways of relating to experience as it unfolds.

During the retreat, we met with Beth and Jon in a couple of quick group and individual check-in sessions. They guided us to share questions about our meditation process, which reinforced our continued focus on the key learnings of the retreat.

Neutrality and Stillness

I once received a birthday card with a drawing of a smiling Dalai Lama opening an empty box and happily exclaiming, “Nothing! Just what I always wanted!”

Beth’s discussion on the value of neutral within the context of suffering carried an analogous and potent message. When we are suffering, it’s not unusual to try finding our way to happiness. For some, that may be a very long and exhausting journey that exacerbates their suffering. So simply accepting our arrival at neutral can transform it into a welcome rest area.

To me, neutrality felt like stillness. One night Beth focused our practice on compassion, which included lovingkindness intention, starting with our selves and emanating outward to all beings. She shared that wishes for others come back to us in return, which brought a sense of healing into the room, and somehow directed the flow of compassion to each of us.

lk-doug 

Based on Copper Beech Institute’s Lovingkindness Intention Card

On another night, Jon guided us through a full body scan, and as he was closing I felt briefly weightless. There is something so welcoming in this stillness. Maybe it’s the permission it grants us to accept shelter right exactly where we’ve found it, or maybe it’s the opportunity to feel moments that are pain-free and to confirm that they do exist. Stillness whispers that we haven’t failed by anchoring at the island of neutrality.
We’ve just
for a moment,
rested.

Closing

On the final day of the retreat we each took a few minutes to address the group as we came out of silence. Several retreatants spoke of ways they’d reconnect to our week when they returned to their normal daily lives — by returning to the breath, planting Post-It notes around the house, or pausing before a statue of the Buddha. Jon Kabat-Zinn also invites us to take the practice with us when we leave a retreat.

But while participating in periodic long retreats may be necessary and extremely important for one’s own development and understanding, by itself it is not sufficient. Mindfulness in everyday life is the ultimate challenge and practice. Of course, the two are complementary and mutually reinforcing and deepening. And once again, we can remind ourselves that ultimately there is no separation between them, because life itself is one seamless whole.2

The image that reintegrates me with the retreat is the Copper Beech Institute campus. Four large copper beech trees are the institute’s namesake, and its buildings are surrounded by many other trees and trails. Recent research shows that trees communicate through a complex underground mechanism. Tiny root hairs receive and send messages through mycorrhizal (fungus) networks that spread from one tree to the next (Simard, 2016)3. The surroundings, the practice, the dharma talks, and the silent cohort, seemingly connect across miles by that endless networked mesh…and then to stillness.

To experience a weekend retreat in silence, we invite you to Waking Up Together: A Weekend of Zen Practice with Fr. Robert Kennedy Roshi, February 3–7, 2017.

Douglas Scherer Ed.D., CISA, leads a dual existence as an independent researcher in adult and leadership journeys, and as a technology leader. His current research interests explore ways that reflective learning and mindfulness help responders during real time crises. He can be reached at d_scherer@hotmail.com.

© Photo by Andrew Hill. Licensed by Creative Commons

References
1 Aaron, J., & Mulligan, B. (2016). Silent 5-night teacher led mindfulness meditation retreat.
2 Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011). Some reflections on the origins of MBSR, skillful means, and the trouble with maps. Contemporary Buddhism, 12(1), 281-306.
3 Simard, S. (2016). How Trees Talk to Each Other

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Mindful Eating: Rediscovering Our True Hunger

By Theresa Nygren

When food is introduced to infants around the age of six months, they intuitively know when they have had enough to eat. They naturally push the food away, and may even fling it to the floor as a clear statement that they are finished eating. As the infant develops and becomes a child more connected to the world, they often become disconnected from their true hunger and fullness.

Think of your own experience: How many times after dinner do you find yourself opening the refrigerator in search of options to snack on? Hunger isn’t driving this pursuit of food. Instead, it is food manufacturers and advertisers that know how to get us salivating and wanting more. We have moved far away from our “internal knowing” of when and what to eat. Many of us are probably unaware of the constant bombardment of external stimuli that prompt us to reach for another bite, lick, taste, or hunk of something.

There has been a frightening increase in obesity and weight-related diseases over the past 30 or more years. With one out of three children overweight in our country, it is time to wake up and become aware of our relationship to food and pay attention to what we feed ourselves and our loved ones. Yes, we live in a fast-paced culture. Forty to 50 years ago, there was not a convenience store at every street corner. Gas stations back then did not have the lure of prepackaged, unhealthy sugar-loaded snacks at the ready.

A huge shift needs to occur for all of us. We desperately need a return to simple, nourishing, life-sustaining food plans. Instead of grabbing the “diet magazine” of the month, it is time to step off the fast track and turn within. This is where mindful eating shines bright.

House lights up, please: Yes, there is another way of sustaining your body and mind, and it doesn’t mean following every new diet or quick fix out there. Let’s take the lead from our younger six-month-old selves and relearn how to push away the plate when we have had enough.

This may sound simple, but it is a process of untangling all of the misinformed beliefs about food and how we should look. For decades, advertisers have sought to influence what we should eat and how we should look, often to our detriment. What happened to honoring who we are with our individual body types and needs? So much money and effort is wasted in efforts to force ourselves to become something our genetics will never allow.

So, back to mindful eating. Imagine at your next meal, you quiet yourself and notice what you are truly hungry for. This takes some practice but is so worth it in the long run. The knowledge of what you need nutritionally rests inside of you.

Then imagine taking the time to prepare the food. Not making calls or watching TV or some other multitasking operation, but simply gathering the ingredients and preparing them step by step as you enjoy the tactile and sensory experience of creating a nourishing meal.

My recent zucchini soup endeavor is an example of putting mindfulness into play. I selected the right size zucchinis from a large stack gathered from our garden, taking a moment to appreciate all the efforts involved to bring these vegetables before me. After fully rinsing the remaining dirt from each of my selections, I lovingly sliced each zucchini into one-quarter inch slabs. It was a wonderful process of paying attention to each step: the easy way my knife sliced through each piece, the savory smell of the garlic and onion sizzling in the oil and butter, the process of adding the zucchini slices to the skillet, and the delight in seeing all the ingredients boil down into a dense, hearty soup.

After the cooking was complete, I marveled at the transformation that occurred as my hand-held blender thickened the soup into a creaminess that begged tasting. My taste buds were well prepped for the first amazing sip of this summer soup. Throughout the entire time, my focus continued to be in the moment. I slowly savored each spoonful and could more easily track my hunger and fullness.

You may have gotten the gist of this mindful eating strategy. The basic component is paying attention on purpose and getting in touch with the deeper place within that knows what we need nutritionally. We have the answers if we slow down and trust the wisdom inside rather than the conditioning of the world around us—and there’s no better time to cultivate this wholesome wisdom than now as we stand at the threshold of the holiday season.

Theresa Nygren, LCSW has been in the field of social work for over 30 years. She has counseled individuals and groups at an outpatient substance abuse facility, served as a social worker for the Town of Farmington, and has a private practice in both Avon and Farmington. She leads mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindful self-compassion groups, and has co-led Mindful Eating groups and workshops with Angela Mazur. Theresa and Angela will be co-leading “Mindful Eating: Free Yourself from the Diet Mentality,” at Copper Beech Institute, March 18, 2017 from 1–5 p.m. as well as the 8-week Mindful Self Compassion Course that begins January 17, 2017.

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Healing the Soul of America (and Your Own Soul, Too)

by Brandon Nappi

While a band of Trump supporters have found in their candidate a straight talking messiah and a gaggle of Hillary faithfuls have crossed their fingers extra hard, what I’m sensing from most Americans is a battle-weary exhaustion. Most of us are wondering how we got to this point. After nearly 250 years of democracy under our belt, is this the best we could do? Continue reading

Bringing Mindfulness Into the Community

by Sandrine Harris

Grace Academy is on a mission. This school in the City of Hartford offers tuition-free education to disadvantaged girls in grades 5 through 8, and puts great care into each moment of their programming and the rhythms of the school day. One of the Academy’s emerging core values is to create an environment that cultivates personal growth, awareness, and connection through mindful practice. This is where I come in.

Schools around the world are recognizing the benefits of mindfulness for all ages and are increasingly bringing it into their daily flow. It is a joy to be a part of this process. Through Copper Beech Institute, where I have been a facilitator of retreats and a teacher in outreach programs for contemplative practice and mindfulness, I recently began a journey with the Academy’s students and teachers.

In August, my work began with a mini-retreat with the Academy’s teachers as well as the head of school and the dean of students—pictured here in our “selfie”! (Sandrine is on the right end of the back row and wearing dark-rimmed glasses). Our starting point was a shared interest in learning accessible mindfulness practices, inviting our experiences into the fold of the energy of the new school year, and beginning to understand — through our experiential learning together — how these might become a part of the students’ daily practices at the school.

grace-academy-selfie

As we set out to explore mindfulness practices in our time together, there was a mix of excitement and curiosity — a perfect combination, in fact, for good learning! We began with a series of movements to bring our attention to our bodies, and to awaken a spirit of mind-body presence and playfulness. Everyone dove in with laughter and a healthy dose of wondering, “What on earth are we doing?” As a facilitator, I welcome and relish these moments of question marks, so that we can launch into our learning with a sense of novelty and expansiveness.

With curiosity peaked, we gently settled into a sitting meditative practice. Connecting with the present moment and the breath to quiet the mind, we found stillness together. This is the fruit: when all of the energy in the room comes into the practice itself, and we are listening, breathing, and being — as individuals and together.

We emerged from our sitting practice with serene expressions, smiles, and discovery. One participant experienced a wave-like sensation, like the ocean’s water moving through her as her awareness of her breathing deepened. Another offered the valuable insight that she experienced moments of searching for “safety” during her practice. She bravely articulated that the act of slowing down, quieting, and becoming fully present brought up feelings of uncertainty. From this place, we talked about how we experience “being” less than we experience “doing,” and how allowing all feelings and sensations to be a part of our process of non-judgmental awareness is one of the cornerstones of becoming more fully present in our lives.

We completed our time together with writing intentions on the board. Participants shared such thoughtful goals as: one thing at a time, gratitude, patience, heart, presence, self-care, and love for learning. The result of our practice together became a collective wish to inhabit the best parts of who we are, both within ourselves and in connection with others.

As a facilitator, I always hold a beginner’s mind on the continuum of my own learning and am consistently in awe of what emerges from seemingly “simple” practices. Our internal lives thrive on this slowness, this listening, this quiet; and from this springs a natural shift into feelings of well-being, kindness, compassion, and community. In these moments of clarity and sharing, I feel yet more alive in myself, deeply connected to others, and truly fortunate to be doing this work.

Our work together with Grace Academy is ongoing and rich. Through this fall and winter, I am continuing to work with faculty to help them develop their own paths of mindfulness, both as individuals and as it informs their presence in the classroom and their work with the students. I have also been teaching the students in grades 5­–8 about mindfulness and providing tools they can use in their lives, starting now. Eighth graders are getting special instruction on how to lead mindful moments to the lower grades.

There is so much more to come, and I look forward to the upcoming sessions with the students and staff at Grace. We are unfolding our journey of being mindful together, and I hold so much gratitude for the learning ahead.

Sandrine Harris is a movement educator, guild-certified Feldenkrais Practitioner℠, mindfulness teacher, and dancer. She is the founder of KINESOMA℠, a wellness approach dedicated to the pursuit of learning through mindful movement. Through Copper Beech Institute, Sandrine will be offering her wisdom, enthusiasm and experience in mindfulness to faculty and students at Grace Academy throughout the 2016–2017 school year.

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