Three Powerful Ways To Address Fear and Anxiety

by Nadia Colburn

This is a time of heightened anxiety for many of us in America. But whether you’re anxious and fearful about what you read in the news or something happening closer to home or even in your own body, fear and anxiety have a way of contracting our muscles and our minds.

Sent down a long tunnel of worry, our bodies contract and our shoulders hunch over, as if forced to fit too small a space. The form our bodies assume is self-protective: we try to create a shield over our own heart.

The problem is, this strategy doesn’t work; fear and anxiety don’t actually protect us. It takes many of us a long time to realize this—it certainly took me a long time. For much of my life, I thought on some unconscious level that if I weren’t anxious and fearful about danger, I would be deluding myself, and therefore would be more vulnerable, more exposed, and unable to make wise and prudent decisions.

But over time, I came to realize that, in fact, the opposite is true: being able to breathe through our fear and anxiety, actively working to mitigate them, does not make us more naïve, but instead makes us more awake, more alive and more able to make good decisions that will actually protect and help us and others.

The Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the best teachers on fear. A peace activist in the Vietnam War, he had many experiences of life-threatening danger. He lived with the threat of death by violence, saw great suffering firsthand and lost many close friends.

And yet, he teaches us that when we are in a place of fear and anxiety, we are less able to make good decisions.

After the war, Thich Nhat Hanh helped countless Vietnamese “boat people,” refugees who escaped the communist regime on small, dangerous boats. Time and again, he saw that those who were able to remain calm—who did not succumb to their anxiety and panic— were more likely to survive their rocky boats and the dangerous journey.

So if we are in a state of fear and anxiety, here are three things I recommend doing:

1) Breathe. Remember you are here now. Come back to the present moment.  Come back to your body. Come out of your head and into your experience right now, without judgment. Drop the story of what you are feeling and just feel. I also recommend chanting meditations that can help stop our spinning minds and allow us to come back to a sense of joy.

2) Choose an action to do and do it. If you are worried about something, your worry won’t create positive change. Find one or two new things you can do to address your concerns. If you are worried about the political situation, for example, make a realistic practical plan for what you can do to be actively engaged in creating change and stick to it. Then, when worry arises, you can channel your energy into action itself.

3) Remember that worry, anxiety, violence and illness are only facets of human experience, and perennial parts of what it means to be a human. Find the full richness of your human experience. What you are experiencing is not unique to you. And there are always many other sides to human experience—joy, love, friendship, compassion—that are all equally important parts of what it means to be human. Try to water the seeds of positive qualities you want to cultivate. The more you feed and water the seeds you want more of, the more they will grow and bloom for you, so don’t forget to feed what you love.

Nadia Colburn brings together mind, body, and spirit through online and in-person classes, and through meditation, yoga and writing retreats. She is a published writer with a Ph.D. in English from Columbia and B.A. in from Harvard. Nadia will be offering the day retreat, Breathing Out Fear: Facing the World with Equanimity and Courage, April 29, 2017. You can learn more about Nadia at www.nadiacolburn.com

Photo by Mae Chevrette.

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The Beauty of What You Love

by Brandon Nappi

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened…. Let the beauty we love be what we do. – Rumi, as interpreted by Coleman Barks

The most widely read poet today has been dead for 700 years. Yet the voice of Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī, otherwise known as Rumi, is as alive as ever. It’s a rather peculiar fact that despite many Americans’ political suspicion of things Middle Eastern, we can’t seem to get enough of this medieval Muslim mystic from thirteenth-century Afghanistan. Why is this? As I prepare to offer a day retreat this spring on the intersection of Rumi’s poetry and mindfulness practice, I’ve been giving my mind and heart to this question. Here are some initial hypotheses:

1. Ageless Wisdom for Our Age

We live in an era of multiplicity. From toilet paper to breakfast cereal, we have exponentially more choices than ever. When we truly look more deeply, many of these options are hollow: we read fake news, wear synthetic clothing, eat artificial food and create superficial relationships. As we process more information than ever before, we crave the truth. If wisdom is the capacity to live the truth in love, then many are longing to discover, experience and live what is lasting and grounded in this rapidly changing world. Rumi’s wisdom offers true nourishment for souls who are hungry for real food.

2. Nonduality

We are coming to understand how interconnected the world is. The daily choices we make impact everyone and everything. Nearly every spiritual tradition teaches at its essence that there is no separation between what is ultimate, which many name as God, and the world of material phenomena. The creator and the created are inseparably intertwined.

When we fail to recognize this essential oneness, we suffer and we cause others to suffer. When we act from the understanding of unity, we contribute to the flourishing and wellbeing of the world. This act of acting from a place of wholeness and connection with the divine and one another is called love. In a world that is increasingly fragmented, Rumi celebrates this unity and invites us to know it ourselves.

3. Spiritual (but Not Religious) Longing

While Rumi’s wise insight is born from deep within the Islamic tradition, many Americans struggle to find a home within mainstream religious institutions. While fewer Americans are participating in the traditional structures of religion, the deep spiritual hungers of the soul have not gone away. Questions of purpose and meaning along with the longing for connection and love surge within the human heart as much today as ever. Fundamentally, many of us are wondering: Who am I in relationship to the universe, to God and to my neighbor? Fresh translations of Rumi’s verse persistently meet these deep questions which leap forth from within us. Many find in Rumi a guide and friend to assure us that we are not alone in this spiritual odyssey of life.

Join me and my dear friend Helen BetGivargis for an exploration of Rumi’s most captivating and enduring themes in the day retreat, What You Seek Is Seeking You, The Wisdom of Rumi, on May 13, 2017. We’ll hear Rumi in his original Persian voice and explore mindfulness practices that resonate with his wisdom.

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 50 transformational programs annually to foster peace, resilience, and compassion in everyday life. For a listing of all retreats led by Brandon, click here.

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13 Ways Mindfulness Makes Me a Better Parent

By Carla Naumburg

I recently got the following question on my Twitter feed: Do you feel meditation has really changed you? More relaxing, less stress? So on?

The short answer to these questions is YES! All of the above! But that answer isn’t terribly helpful, so I thought it would be useful to share just how my meditation and mindfulness practice helps me to be a better parent.

Before we get into the details, I feel compelled to clarify something. As I have said many times, I am not the Dalai Mama. If any of you were to follow me around for a few days, or spy on me (in a totally non-creep way, of course), you would probably see me snap at my kids or sneak a peek at my smartphone or hide in the kitchen for a break.

You would see me being anything but mindful.

cNaumburg

Carla Naumburg

The reality is that I’m doing all of these things less often than I was before I started meditating, and when I do find myself doing them, I am able to calm down, center myself, and make better choices more quickly than before. That’s just what happens when you learn to pay attention to the present moment without judging it or fighting with it. (I actually have a huge amount of experience fighting with reality. I never win.)

Here are the ways in which my meditation and mindfulness practice make me a better mother (in no particular order):

  1. I’m less anxious. Anxiety is worrying about the future, usually about things I can’t predict or control. I am an expert worrier (especially when it comes to parenting), but the practice of mindfulness helps me see those anxious thoughts for what they are – just thoughts – and then let them go.
  2. I sleep better. Perhaps it’s because I’m worrying less, perhaps it’s because I have more skills for quieting the endless chatter of my brain. Either way, I know I sleep better when I’ve been meditating. (Needless to say, I’m a better mother when I’m well rested.)
  3. I’m less reactive. My kids, like most children, are highly skilled at pushing buttons (especially mine). Before I started meditating, I was basically one giant button waiting to be pushed. It’s starting to get better. Maybe I don’t respond the first time they push, or even the second, or maybe my response isn’t quite as intense as it used to be. This is awesome, because I feel a lot less like a crazy person who freaks out at every little thing.
  4. I can calm myself down faster. As helpful as meditation is, I still lose my temper. I still get frustrated and annoyed and angry and impatient. Rather than losing myself in whatever crappy mood I’ve gotten myself into, rather than spiraling out of control, I’m getting better at taking a few deep breaths and getting myself into a better headspace.
  5. I’m better at being bored. Let’s face it. Parenthood can be really boring. If you don’t believe me, I have three words for you: Chutes and Ladders. Every time I meditate, I’m practicing tolerating boredom, because there is nothing less interesting than following your own breath.
  6. I’m more grateful. I’m so good at working myself into a tizzy about every little thing. When I slow down, breathe, and pay attention to what is actually in front of me, I realize that life is pretty amazing. Even when it isn’t that amazing, I still have a lot to be grateful for; if nothing else, my children and husband are healthy and I get to spend time with them. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Mindfulness is the energy that helps us recognize the conditions of happiness that are already present in our lives.”
  7. I’m comparing myself to others less. I used to spend a lot of time noticing all of the ways in which other mothers are “better” than me: they cook more, they’re fitter or more crafty, they’ve achieved more professionally… the list goes on and on, and it makes me miserable. Coming back to the present moment, to the here and now, gets my mind off the merry-go-round of constant comparisons.
  8. I’m learning to loosen my grasp on the future. It’s easy to get caught up in my fantasies about who my children will become and what they will achieve. High school, college, successful careers, healthy relationship, white picket fence, 2.5 children, etc. etc. If I get too attached to my dreams for my kids, I won’t be as open to who they are becoming and what they want. Mindfulness helps me let go just a little bit, so I can focus on strengthening my relationship with my children, regardless of what path they are traveling.
  9. I beat myself up less about the past. I make a lot of mistakes in parenting (and life) and then I obsess about them. I replay them in my mind, judge myself harshly, and end up hosting my own one-person pity party. I get into a terrible headspace, and often take it out on my kids. Mindfulness helps me let go of the self-critical thoughts and come back to the present moment.
  10. It’s getting easier to access joy. When I let go of my worries and obsessions about the future and all of my frustrations about the past, there’s a lot more room in my mind for happiness. That’s all.
  11. I’m better at just being present. This sounds fairly obvious, but it’s worth re-stating. Each time I am able to put down my smartphone or get out of my crazy brain and be fully present for my girls, I am actually communicating something really important to them. I am telling them that they matter to me, that they are worth my time and attention, and that I care about what they have to say. That’s a big deal for children (and for parents).
  12. I’m kinder. I’m not sure I can explain this one, but I know it’s true. The more I meditate, the nicer I am. I’m less snappy, less impatient, less grumpy, less likely to interrupt or rush or snap at my kids. I’m just plain nicer.
  13. I enjoy parenting more. That’s the bottom line, and that makes me a better mother. That makes it all worth it.

Carla Naumburg is a clinical social worker, writer, and mindfulness practitioner. She is the author of “Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness with Your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family” and “Parenting in the Present Moment: How to Stay Focused on What Really Matters.” Carla will be offering “Mindfulness and Yoga Retreat for Mothers,” a weekend retreat at Copper Beech Institute, March 31–April 2, 2017. 

Main photo by Heidi.

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Everything Is Our Teacher

by Brandon Nappi

As the late winter sunlight grows stronger each day, I look out beyond the terrace here at Copper Beech Institute and watch the koi happily dancing within our small pond. I remember the last time I stood here on a steamy summer day, peering down through the black water and following the long slimy stems downward until they disappeared into the murky depths. It’s amazing that these magnificent blooms which begin in the mud can courageously stretch their way toward the surface until they finally drink in the full radiance of the sun.

The waterlily and the lotus flower, its Asian cousin, share this dual life in sunlight and mud. Both are necessary for blooming. For this reason, these plants have become a poignant symbol of the contemplative life.

Spiritual practice is about stretching the heart open to contain both the darkness of pain and the lightness of joy. I’m aware of my own inclination to hoard the light—to accumulate as much pleasant experience as possible. Of course, it’s only natural to desire as much pleasure as possible in the form of laughter, happiness, fun, and positive experience. Yet, the waterlily reminds us that this is only half the story. Life is always a combination of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral experiences, a mix of light, dark, and many shades of gray. Our mindfulness practice helps us to welcome the reality of all aspects of life so that we are not enslaved by the constant need to get our own way.  

We practice not to minimize negative emotions and maximize positive emotions; rather, we practice so that no matter what happens, we can receive whatever arises with equanimity and grace. We practice so that whether we are experience the mud of life or life’s sunshine, we remember that both are necessary for growth, both are necessary for blooming. When you realize that you can feel everything and anything—including unpleasant emotions and sensations, then you are free.  

Only the soft heart can stretch open to contain both the beauty and brokenness of the world. The hardened heart is brittle; it fractures easily and its fragility needs to be carefully guarded. Yet for the soft heart, everything becomes a teacher. All of life is a classroom, an opportunity to grow in wisdom in awareness. The availability of this freedom brings us to practice over and over again.

In these days of growing light, the warming mud will incubate the awakening roots of the waterlilies here at Copper Beech Institute. In the coming months, we’ll enjoy the blooms, not in spite of the darkness, but because of it. Soon, this courageous flower will reach up to greet our guests who come to Copper Beech to practice mindfulness and learn this central lesson of embracing the intermingling of light and dark as we seek together to remember that everything is our teacher.

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 is the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice offering more than 50 transformational programs to foster peace, resilience, and compassion in everyday life. For a listing of all retreats led by Brandon, click here.

Learn more about Copper Beech Institute | Follow our Awaken Everyday blog | Subscribe to our eNewsletters | Come on retreat | Friend us on Facebook | Follow us on Twitter