Experience life

Those who don’t feel this Love pulling them like a river, those who don’t drink dawn like a cup of spring water, or take in sunset like supper, those who don’t want to change, let them sleep.

This Love is beyond the study of theology, that old trickery and hypocrisy. If you want to improve your mind that way, sleep on. I’ve given up on my brain. I’ve torn the cloth to shreds and thrown it away.

If you’re not completely naked, wrap your beautiful robe of words around you, and sleep.


Not taking ourselves too seriously

I faciliated a Day Silent Retreat this weekend which was really a lovely gentle experience. It passed so quickly and all participants expressed a deep contentment with the day and the time they had spent silently sitting or walking. It really confirmed for me how finding some time for quiet in our lives is not a luxury but rather is essential for protecting our health.

Retreat days and reflection aims to develop our capacity to drop into our lives as they actually are. However, sometimes, they can feed into our ever-present need to change or fix ourselves. If this happens, our awareness of  self can become a full-time preoccupation and  take away some of the naturalness of life. It is good that we try to change in ways that allow us become more healthy and happy, but sometimes we can feel pressure to change because of an unconscious sense that we are not good enough or we are unacceptable as we are. Some of the self-help culture visible today feeds into this unhappiness with how we actually are, by continually encouraging us to take on one self-improvement after another. And even noble self-improvement projects, such as “I want to be more calm“, or “I want to be more happy“, can simply substitute one type of discontent with ourselves with another. The reason they do this is that they actually strengthen our premise that we are broken and need fixing.

Even sometimes the reason we come to meditation is precisely because we want to change something inside us. We wish to be calmer, better, more spiritual, more together, more integrated. And if we examine deep enough under that wish we will find that it arisies from a belief that there is something wrong with us as we are. We look to put order on the parts of ourselves that frighten us.

But real life is not necessarily ordered; it is immediate, messy, incomplete. We are in danger of taking things too seriously and not allowing enough room for our chaotic and playful side. Part of the joy and spice of life comes from seeing that our mistakes and wrong turns, our compulsions to do too much, or our tendency to veg out, all add up to our unique personality. The end goal of all our work is not to become some ideal version of ourselves, based on ideas passed on by others or in books. We are to become ourselves fully, with all our quirks and exaggerations. Our natural selves, unaffected; not the one where we pass the time continually checking in on how are doing.

The only way out of this struggle is to leave our mind alone, to fully accept the mind that we have, anger, dualisms and all. And when we no longer judge ourselves or try to emotionally neuter ourselves, the internal conflicts and tensions gradually begin to quiet down. We might say this is the most basic psychological insight: I cannot escape myself, so I have to come to terms with the mind that I have.

Barry Magid, Ending the Pursuit of Happiness

No regrets

I am reading  some books by Stephen Levine. He has worked extensively with those who are dying, and writes about grief and loss. What he has found is that many arrive at the end of their life with regrets, wishing that they had done this or that, lived more fully here or there, realized their potential in this way or that. This has led him to emphasize living each moment fully, not limiting ourselves in this moment to our past or waiting for our future,  in order to have no regrets:

Most of life only lasts a moment. Then our life becomes a memory, a dream. We are only alive a millisecond at at time. This moment! Or as one teacher put it, holding his thumb and forefinger about a quarter inch apart, “All of life is only just this much–just a moment in time.” When we open to this very instant in which awareness produces consciousness, we are fully alive. Completely preent. Big-minded.

To the degree we are present for “just this much” this living moment, we are alive. Otherwise we numb to the vibrancy and beg upon our deathbed for one more chance.

Most think that living a “full life” means living into old age. But if you are not alive this moment, what makes you think you’ll be alive then? To live fully is to be filled with this moment. Present for this millisecond, this day, this week, this life.

Stephen and Ondrea Levine, Embracing the Beloved

In this he echoes the words of Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness. He too draws attention to not neglecting to do the things we want, to dare to choose certain paths that open up in front of us.

... most people think they will regret foolish actions more than foolish inactions. But studies show that nine out of ten people are wrong. Indeed, in the long run, people of every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did.

Accepting our limits

There is a Japanese saying: The elbow does not bend outward. It is a smart saying. The freedom of the elbow, the wonderfulness of the elbow, is precisely because of its limitations. This is our awakened attitude. We are free to be completely human. We are not free to be aliens or cartoon creatures. We are free to be ourselves, with all of our imperfections and bruises.

Jason Shulman, The Instruction Manual for Receiving God

Meditation reduces the perception of pain.

A recent study, conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford,  has found that our physical experience of pain is influenced by the mood we are in at that moment. In other words,  our brain influences how we perceive and deal with the pain we are going through, as a low or anxious mood  disrupts a portion of our neurocircuitry related to regulating emotion, causing an enhanced perception of pain. The low mood may go as far as to drive the pain and make it feel worse. Mind and body are intimately linked when it comes to health and wellness.

Mindfulness meditation has been shown to affect the way we attend to what is happening in our lives at any moment,  and can impact upon mood in a positive manner. Therefore it is probably not surprising to read that a 2010 University of Manchester study, to be published in the Journal Pain,  noted that experienced meditators found pain  less unpleasant than did non-meditators. It seems that regular meditation can train the brain to anticipate pain less and reduce its emotional impact.

Dr Christopher Brown, who led the research,  stated “Meditation is becoming increasingly popular as a way to treat chronic illness such as the pain caused by arthritis. Recently, a mental health charity called for meditation to be routinely available on the NHS (the National Health Service)  to treat depression, which occurs in up to 50% of people with chronic pain.”

The finding is a potential boon to the estimated 40% of people who are unable to adequately manage their chronic pain. Dr Brown suggests that the reason meditation works  is due to the fact that it is a training in remaining focused on the present moment and not anticipating future problems: “The results of the study confirm how we suspected meditation might affect the brain. Meditation trains the brain to be more present-focused and therefore to spend less time anticipating future negative events. This may be why meditation is effective at reducing the recurrence of depression, which makes chronic pain considerably worse.”

You can read more on the University’s website: http://www.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/news/display/?id=5801

A simple practice for reducing stress today

If at times today you find yourself getting anxious or stressed,  you may like to try this simple practice of dropping into your breathing. We use the breath as an anchor to steady us at moments of confusion or distress. The breath is always with us. We do not need any special skills or practices to simply notice it. We do not need to go anywhere, other than where we are at that moment:

Our breathing is a stable solid ground that we can take refuge in. Regardless of our internal weather- our thoughts, emotions and perceptions- our breathing is always with us like a faithful friend. Whenever we feel carried away, or sunken in a deep emotion, or scattered in worries and projects, we return to our breathing to collect and anchor our mind.

We feel the flow of air coming in and going out of our nose. We feel how light and natural, how calm and peaceful our breathing functions. At any time, we can return to this peaceful source of life.

We may like to recite: Breathing in I know that I am breathing in.
Breathing out I know that I am breathing out.”

We do not need to control our breath. Feel the breath as it actually is. It may be long or short, deep or shallow. Conscious breathing is the key to uniting body and mind and bringing the energy of mindfulness into everyday life.

Thich Nhat Hahn