Saturday, December 31, 2005

Compassion for oneself

If we are not compassionate toward ourselves we cannot truly be compassionate toward others. This is a fundamental reality of the spiritual life. Yes! magazine has a wonderful little article by Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim that speaks to this:

My grandfather, Maulana Hedayatullah, a Sufi Muslim teacher and healer in northern Bengal, often reminded his students to be compassionate with themselves.

“If I cannot be compassionate with myself, I cannot truly be compassionate with others,” he said.

To be compassionate with self does not mean that you avoid or deny what needs to be looked at and worked on in aspects of your personality.

“Work on what is necessary in your personality, but with the quality of soul,” he said. “The primary qualities of the soul are mercy, gentleness, and graciousness. The soul makes no judgment and is filled with unconditional love.”

When you are locked in a just combat with a wrongdoer, remember you are fighting the antagonism, not the antagonist. Do what is necessary but do not banish the antagonist from your heart.

Grandfather used to ask his students to add a word of endearment to their names and to use that affectionate term whenever talking to themselves. The truth is that we talk to ourselves very often and a lot of the talk is negative. Become aware of this internal conversation. Make it a practice to relate to yourself with affection and compassion. This practice, Grandfather claimed, encourages one’s divine identity to step forward.

What would happen if we chose the endearment that means the most to us and used that to address ourselves in our mind? Try "dear one" or "beloved" or "my friend" and see how that affects the tone of voice you use with yourself. I see this as being a powerful method of cultivating compassion and lovingkindness for oneself.

Bridging our divisions

In a world so torn apart by rivalry, anger, and hatred, we have the privileged vocation to be living signs of a love that can bridge all divisions and heal all wounds.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Friday cat blogging!

Here's Ethel basking in the sun. I'm amazed I got this picture. She's never let me get this close with the camera before:

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Meditation saves time!

Today I want to address once more the complaint people often voice about not having "enough time" to meditate. But suppose the truth is that you don't have enough time NOT to meditate? Here's a way of looking at it that I found on the website. This explanation is by Norman Fischer:
Spiritual practice is the the flesh and bones of our life. The truth is, although it may seem counter-intuitive, at least mathematically, prayer or meditation saves time! If you wake up a little earlier than usual, every day, and spend the first thirty minutes to an hour of your day in useless activity (which is what prayer or meditation is: the supremely useless activity, gratuitous, without practical benefit, coming out of and feeding into gratitude itself) then you will find that a lot of what you would otherwise be doing during the rest of your day- all that seems to prevent you from practice - just falls way.

So many of our busy daily tasks are really unnecessary- some because they are inherently unnecessary, and others that are necessary but would never have been on our list in the first place if we had been more mindful (such as "apologize to John for blowing up at him yesterday," or "go back to the store to buy the xerox paper I forgot to get yesterday when I was there").

When we begin our day with practice the whole day unfolds more beautifully and more smoothly. We find we have a lot more time that we thought we had. We
realize that what didn't get done today didn' t really need to get done.

There's always time for spiritual practice.The unfolding of time is in itself the most profound practice there is.

Things just go more smoothly when we meditate. And that's truly a time-saver!

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The cosmic surprise

The greatest surprise is that there is anything at all -- that we are here.

-- David Steindl-Rast

Patience and justice

When I was in Wild Oats last week shopping for my Christmas dinner, I picked up a copy of Yes! Magazine - subtitled, "A journal of positive futures". Matthew Fox was on the cover and the issue was entitled, "spiritual uprising". I thought I'd share with you a couple of observations by Matthew Fox from his interview by Yes! editor Sarah Ruth van Gelder:

Sarah: What impact do you think Katrina has had on our national consciousness?

Matthew: ...I think we've had a revelation about the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots., and it's time that we wake up. What is injustice is not sustainable, and what is unjust will eventually break open. In the Bible there is talk about the widow and the orphan - if they are treated unjustly, the whole Earth is off-kilter. I think people are beginning to sense that something is off-kilter here.

Sarah: Have you found concern for those left behind to be universal among spiritual traditions?

Matthew: Absolutely. Buddhism is explicit about compassion, for example, although I think that the Jewish and therefore Christian traditions are more explicit about justice - but justice is a part of compassion. The Western prophets bring a kind of moral outrage, what I call a holy impatience, whereas the East brings serenity and an emphasis on patience. I think there's a time for both, but I think we are in a time now of holy impatience.

It occurs to me that my two blogs represent my Buddhist and Christian commitments using Matthew Fox's model. Child of Illusion is certainly about my passion for justice and emerges from what could be called a "holy impatience". But the meditation blog right here is about serenity and patience. I agree that justice is a part of compassion. But I know that without serenity, without deep acceptance, we will burn out in striving for justice - so meditation is essential.

Update: In the interview I blogged above, Matthew Fox refers to the 95 theses he nailed to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany as did Martin Luther some 500 years ago. The Yes! website has those 95 theses listed. Here are the first ten (along with number 78 which is of obvious interest to me):

1. God is both Mother and Father.
2. At this time in history, God is more Mother than Father because the feminine is most missing and it is important to bring gender balance back.
3. God is always new, always young and always "in the beginning."
4. God the Punitive Father is not a God worth honoring but a false god and an idol that serves empire-builders. The notion of a punitive, all-male God, is contrary to the full nature of the Godhead who is as much female and motherly as it is masculine and fatherly.
5. "All the names we give to God come from an understanding of ourselves." (Eckhart) Thus people who worship a punitive father are themselves punitive.
6. Theism (the idea that God is "out there" or above and beyond the universe) is false. All things are in God and God is in all things (panentheism).
7. Everyone is born a mystic and a lover who experiences the unity of things and all are called to keep this mystic or lover of life alive.
8. All are called to be prophets which is to interfere with injustice.
9. Wisdom is Love of Life (See the Book of Wisdom: "This is wisdom: to love life" and Christ in John's Gospel: "I have come that you may have life and have it in abundance.")
10. God loves all of creation and science can help us more deeply penetrate and appreciate the mysteries and wisdom of God in creation. Science is no enemy of true religion.

78. Inner work is required of us all. Therefore spiritual practices of meditation should be available to all and this helps in calming the reptilian brain. Silence or contemplation and learning to be still can and ought to be taught to all children and adults.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Wednesday life form blogging

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From fear to peace

Did you ever think that gratitude could help dissolve fear? See what the wonderful website has to say about that:
Peace, rightly understood, is inseparable from gratefulness. When we are grateful, we peacefully accept what is. As long as we are merely thankful, we give thanks for what we perceive to be beneficial, but there always remains the lurking fear that something harmful may come our way instead. To be grateful is more. It is our courageous trust that life itself – kind or harsh, happy or sad -- is good, if only we receive it as gift.

The moment we trust in this truth, we are at peace. A person at peace will serve as an agent of peace in the world.

Activism for peace is necessary. Yet no matter how sincere and how admirable, it will have no effect unless our own heart is at peace, because gratefulness has made us fearless.

Since fear is at the root of all that is wrong with our world, we start healing the world by overcoming fear through gratefulness.

I am in a daily state of gratefulness about meditation. The fact that I am a meditator, that I have had the wonderful good fortune to receive meditation instruction, fills me with gratitude. No matter what else is going on in our lives, no matter what challenges beset us, we can be grateful for our meditative practice.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Tuesday dog blogging

This is Ginger, Cynthia's dog-niece. Earlier this year she broke her leg jumping off a deck. Then this month she fell on the ice and cracked her other knee. She just had surgery a week ago Thursday. So send some good healing energy her way, okay? Doesn't she have a sweet face?

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Wholeheartedness is a precious gift, but no one can actually give it to you. You have to find the path that has heart and then walk it impeccably....It's like someone laughing in your ear, challenging you to figure out what to do when you don't know what to do. It humbles you. It opens your heart.

-- Pema Chödrön, The Wisdom of No Escape


The week between Christmas Day and New Year's Day is a good time to reflect on the year that is past and to look forward to the year to come. One important practice in this regard is that of gratitude. I was interested today to stumble upon a website called Here's an excerpt from one of their pages entitled, Count Your Blessings.
We begin by waking up to the gifts around us. Although our webteam isn't omniscient, we can pretty much say for certain that you're in front of a computer. We also guess that you can read, which sets you apart from two billion people in the world who cannot. So already you can tally opportunities you have that not everyone can claim.

Look around at your surroundings, your own body included. What can you add to your list of blessings? You might mention such joys as comfortable clothing, good health, satisfying work, or a home to call your own. And what beyond your immediate surroundings: nourishing food, faithful friends, spiritual moorings? You may even discover less obvious blessings; for instance, a difficult relationship forces you to mature, or deep distress over violence spurs you to spread peace. On a sheet of paper or a word-processor at your fingertips, record a few of these gifts.

You might actually make this into a more leisurely project if you have time. Gather a little pile of magazines and catalogues, and make yourself comfortable. Make sure you have a pair of scissors and a glue stick at hand. Now you are ready to clip out pictures and words that remind you of your blessings. Then paste these into a gratefulness collage, and keep it in a prominent place as a reminder.

Collages are actually a lot of fun. They can be a part of your journaling practice. Here's an idea: Get a blank journal for the New Year and do both gratitude reflection exercises in it as well as small collages. Then, when the book is filled up, you go back and review what you have entered in it. Try living gratefully. Find something about every day that you are grateful for. There's so much in life to worry about and be distressed about that it takes real intention to bring gratitude into our consciousness. It's truly worth it to cultivate that intention.

Monday, December 26, 2005

How to be in love with everything!

There's an Episcopal monk named Prior Aelred who posts regularly on Eschaton. Yesterday he said this:
Someone asked an old monk on Mount Athos what they did & the monks answered, "We have died and are in love with everything."

Ah, yes, that's it, isn't it?

What holds you back? Which attachments? Go ahead and die to those things. The love is incredible!

Monday meditative picture blogging

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The interfaith perspective

Today I found a website called "Contemplative Outreach Ltd." It is basically about meditation from the Christian point of view (using the approach taught by meditation teacher John Main) but has this thoughtful passage about the role of faith and the value of interfaith practice:
What makes meditation Christian is your Christian faith. It isn't the technique that makes it Christian -- or Buddhist or Hindu. It is the faith that you bring to it. That is why it is such a marvelous way for each person, whatever their faith, to fulfill their faith journey and personally verify the truths of their faith while, at the same time, sharing deeply a spiritual experience with people of other faiths. The terrible error is saying, "Well, I believe in my faith, and that means that somebody else's faith must be wrong." Logically, intellectually, that is where we get stuck. But at the level of the spirit, we experience unity, and unity is what meditation leads us to. This becomes quite a perceptible reality as you meditate in a group. You don't communicate through language or through the body when you meditate. But there is a deeper communication at work. You will find, too, that when you have meditated with someone you relate to them quite differently and more easily, from a deeper level of personal unity.

And I found this encouragement about meditating with a group:
It is important to meditate on one’s own and most of the time this is our situation. However, many people find it difficult to keep up regularly on their own, especially when going through difficult times. John Main believed in the importance of the community that meditation creates. The silence in a group can often be deeper than when we are alone. The group gives support and encourages people to keep on practising on their own. People who meditate together find that the experience bonds them to each other at a deep level even when they do not know much about each other. Thus, groups have all these functions. But there are some people who do practice regularly on their own without the support of a group. They also know that whenever they meditate they are never alone, but are united to all other meditators around the world.

Perhaps the coming of the New Year will inspire you to embark on meditation anew if perhaps you have let it slide or to come back to class if that has fallen by the wayside. But remember, we can make a fresh beginning any day of the year and any time of the day!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

A Christmas blessing

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May you don the breastplate of Wisdom:
protection of evergreens guard your heart,
brightness of pine,
sharpness of holly,
protection of juniper,
courage of laurel,
nobility of cypress,
endurance of yew,
health of eucalyptus,
splendor of cedar,
beauty of arbutus.
Nine evergreens to guard your breast,
this Yuletide day
this Yuletide night.
- Caitlin Matthews (adapted)

Saturday, December 24, 2005

My little Christmas tree

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Calm in the chaos

I went to Wild Oats this morning to shop for my Christmas dinner and picked up a copy of Utne Magazine in the checkout lane because of the title of its cover story: "Calm in the Chaos". The subtitle is, "Find inner peace, then take it outside." One of the articles is called, "Spirited Dissent: Five activists talk about staying centered." Each activist is asked to describe both his or her challenges and practices. It thought I'd share with you what Karen Mahon said:
Challenges: Despair and burnout, and they're interrelated: One feeds the other. The greatest offering an activist can make is a positive vision, painting a picture of a new world and shepherding us there. But when we let despair and negativity overwhelm us, that's not possible. A positive vision helps people do the work in a more balanced way. Activism is not a balanced lifestyle - it never has been - but it can be livable. I have an ax to grind on this because the way that many people do activism is such that you can only do it in your 20s and 30s, when you have fewer responsibilities, so that means you grow no healthy elders. Reinventing activism from a place of love means being able to have an activist culture in which you can do this as a lifelong practice.

Practices: The only thing I truly do every day - and I teach people this - is a meditation in the shower, because I know I'll be there every day. I also do several spiritual retreats each year, sing in a weekly community choir, do yoga, and dance. I tell people to do whatever spiritual practices they can do and try to bring this into their work and into their lives. We do a little meditation before our staff meetings

Karen is the executive director of the Holyhock Leadership Institute which has a mission to reinvent social change activism so that it is deeply informed by spiritual traditions. She has also worked for Greenpeace.

Yes, if you shower mindfully rather than in a stupor, it becomes a meditation. And both dance and yoga are meditative practices. Get creative! Make meditation an integral part of your everyday life no matter what you do for a living.

If you are observing Christmas tonight, may it be a truly joyful and blessed occasion for you. Peace on earth, good will to all people!

Friday, December 23, 2005

Friday cat blogging!

Here's Henry holding down the sofa:

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Some distinctions

I just discovered a page on the web of questions and answers regarding meditation and I thought I'd share this particular question and answer with you:

How is meditation different from relaxation, thinking, concentration or self-hypnosis?

Relaxation is a common by-product of meditation. Relaxation itself can assume many forms, such as taking a hot bath or reclining in the Lazy-boy and watching tv, etc. Meditation is an active process where the meditator remains fully aware of what the awareness is doing. It also attempts to transcend the thought process whereas many forms of relaxation stil lengage the thought process. Meditation allows the body to relax and can offset the effects of stress both mentally and physically to a potentially much greater degree than passive relaxation.

Thoughts generally consume energy in the process of their formation. Constant thought-activity, especially of random nature, can tire the mind and even bring on headache. Meditation attempts to transcend this crude level of thought activity. Through regular practice one becomes aware that they are not their thoughts but that there is an awareness that exists independent of thought. Descartes ("I think, therefore I am") obviously was not a regular meditator!

Meditation begins with concentration, but after an initial period of concentration, thought activity decreases and keeping the awareness focused becomes more spontaneous. At this point the person may or may not continue to employ the object of concentration.

Self-hypnosis, like meditation, involves at least an initial period of concentration on an object. However, in hypnosis one does not try to maintain an awareness of the here-and-now, or to stay conscious of the process. Instead one essentially enters a sort of semi-conscious trance.

It's important to remember that meditation is meant to rest the mind. I sometimes use the phrase "rest the mind" as a mantra to help me settle when I begin to meditate. Don't allow your meditation to be strained or forced.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Body scan meditation

Here's a process I found on the HolisticOnline website:

1. Lie on your back with your legs uncrossed, your arms at your sides, palms up, and your eyes open or closed, as you wish.

2. Focus on your breathing, how the air moves in and out of your body.

3. After several deep breaths, as you begin to feel comfortable and relaxed, direct your attention to the toes of your left foot. Tune into any sensations in that part of your body while remaining aware of your breathing. It often helps to imagine each breath flowing to the spot where you're directing your attention. Focus on your left toes for one to two minutes.

4. Then move your focus to the sole of your left foot and hold it there for a minute or two while continuing to pay attention to your breathing.

5. Follow the same procedure as you move to your left ankle, calf, knee, thigh, hip and so on all around the body.

6. Pay particular attention to any areas that cause pain or are the focus of any medical condition (for asthma, the lungs; for diabetes, the pancreas).

7. Pay particular attention to the head: the jaw, chin, lips, tongue, roof of the mouth, nostrils, throat, cheeks, eyelids, eyes, eyebrows, forehead, temples and scalp.

8. Finally, focus on the very top of your hair, the uppermost part of your body. Then let go of the body altogether, and in your mind, hover above yourself as your breath reaches beyond you and touches the universe.

I would also say that this meditation can be done sitting or standing. It's a good process to use when it's difficult to settle for formal sitting. Use this as a warm-up, so to speak.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Wednesday life form blogging

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Here's a concluding remark by Laura Silva Quesada to a little article she wrote about meditation:
Meditation is done by choice, and is vital for overall well-being. It improves the quality of your health, relationships, job performance, creativity, and problem solving ability. It also allows for you to make better choices and decisions. With meditation you can make the most of your life, and enjoy it, and those you share it with to the fullest.

I really like the emphasis on choice. Choosing to meditate actually puts us more in touch with all our choices and is profoundly empowering.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Compassion and humility

Here's a meditation technique that is really more in the realm of a contemplation exercise. I found it on the Meditation Station website:
An ancient Buddhist meditation technique that is applicable to any religion and even to the non-religious, is wonderful at teaching appreciation and compassion for others. It is done thusly: Survival depends on the efforts of other people. Relax your mind, body, and emotions and contemplate on all the ways you are dependent on others. For example, if no one grew grain and no one brought it to market and no one manufactured it into bread, how would we eat? If no one dug up metal from the earth and no one turned it into steel and no one formed it into parts, how would we have a car to drive? And if no one cleared land and no one paved over it, how would we have a road to drive on? And so on and so on. With this meditation, one becomes warm toward others where previously coldness, uncaring, or even looking down upon others existed. The meditative tradition holds that compassion and humility are the two most important components of spiritual growth. This meditation generates both.

This is a good time of year to reflect on our connectedness with others. I commend this meditation to you.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Monday meditative picture blogging

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What meditation is not

I regularly tell students in the Foundations in Meditative Practice class what meditation is not during the first session because there are so many misconceptions out there. I was pleased to see that Jeffrey Brantley goes over this material as well in his wonderful book, Calming Your Anxious Mind:
Meditation is not "positive thinking." In fact, it is not thinking at all, but includes paying attention to thinking. In mindfulness practice, thoughts become objects of attention just like everything else.

Meditation is not just another relaxation technique. Although it is supported by relaxation and calm, mindfulness meditation is far more than that. Mindfulness meditation seeks increased awareness, and that awareness brings wisdom and freedom from habitual reactions.

Meditation practice does not mean going into a trance. You are not trying to leave or change the experience in this moment; you are trying to stay present with it.

Meditation does not mean trying to "blank your mind." By practicing mindfulness, you will become more conscious and will have a deeper connection with yourself and life, moment by moment.

Meditation is not just for priests, monks, and nuns. You don't have to do or be anything special. Meditation is a way of remembering and reconnecting with the natural quality of awareness and presence all humans have.

Meditation is not selfish. Self-full might be a better word to describe the changes that come with mindfulness meditation. True, you can neglect your duties and relationships in the name of meditation but this is a distortion of meditation. As you practice mindfulness meditation correctly, you will become more aware, and others will be more likely to experience you as helpful, present, and compassionate.

Scan your recent thoughts about meditation and see if you've slipped into any of these misconceptions. And then remember my favorite definition taught to me by Rob Nairn: Meditation is knowing what's happening while it's happening no matter what it is.

Sunday, December 18, 2005


I was wandering around over in Wikipedia today and came across the entry for compassion. Here's part of what it says:
Compassion (in Pali: Karuna) is a sense of shared suffering, most often combined with a desire to alleviate or reduce such suffering; to show special kindness to those who suffer.

Compassionate acts are generally considered those which take into account the suffering of others and attempt to alleviate that suffering as if it were one's own. In this sense, the various forms of the Golden Rule are clearly based on the concept of compassion.

Compassion differs from other forms of helpful or humane behavior in that its focus is primarily on the alleviation of suffering. Acts of kindness which seek primarily to confer benefit rather than relieve existing suffering are better classified as acts of altruism, although, in this sense, compassion itself can be seen as a subset of altruism, it being defined as the type of behavior which seeks to benefit others by reducing their suffering.

In the words of Dalai Lama - Compassion makes one clearly see the picture clearly; when emotions overtake us, the lack of seeing clearly clouds our perception of reality and hence the cause of many misunderstandings leading to quarrels (even wars).

Whatever we can do to cultivate compassion for ourselves and for others is all to the good.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Accepting everything

Jeffrey Brantley talks about accepting the full range of experience in his book, Calming Your Anxious Mind:
Remember that practicing mindfulness means exploring ways to be more aware and awake in all corners of your life. It calls for recognizing the entire range of inner experience and trusting yourself to connect with, and to allow, all of these experiences. It invites a compassionate connection with the contents of your inner life and a real willingness to allow and experience each one.

In this sense, practicing mindfulness becomes a process of growth and self-discovery supported by kindness and compassion for your own pain and distress. It is an art that you teach yourself. Give yourself permission to move at your own speed as you learn this art.

You are invited to discover a spaciousness within that can contain the flux of experience. You can learn to apply precise, noninterfering awareness and sensitivity to each element of life experience as it arises in the present moment. As you discover the spaciousness and stillness within, you will be able to listen for the song of each experience and to recognize the lesson it has for you.

Often, we accept the pleasurable experiences we have and we reject those that are not pleasurable. Let us make a commitment not to judge ourselves in that way but rather to practice deep acceptance about whatever arises within.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Friday cat blogging!

Here's Leroy with his demon eyes!

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Being grounded

Char Stone sent me this marvelous quote:

I like to walk alone on country paths, rice plants and wild grasses on both sides, putting each foot down on the earth in mindfulness, knowing that I walk on the wondrous earth. In such moments, existence is a miraculous and mysterious reality.

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child--our own two eyes. All is a miracle.

-Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The importance of experience

While it is valuable to read about mindfulness meditation for both information and inspiration, nothing can take the place of actual experience. Jeffrey Brantley speaks to this in his book, Calming Your Anxious Mind:
Mindfulness is a word in the English language. In any word, or concept which the word represents, there is limited understanding. If you read different books about mindfulness, or hear different people talk about it, you will likely hear different definitions. There are different cultural uses of the concept, as well as different word and symbols used to represent it. So from the beginning, you must recognize that simply to talk about mindfulness, to think about it, or to read about it is not adequate to understand mindfulness.

The words we use to convey ideas about mindfulness are only symbols, only a kind of map. The actual experience of mindfulness lies beyond words and ideas. You can only get this experience through your direct practice. In the truth of your own direct practice experience is the real understanding of mindfulness.

Here's where I remind you of the Nike slogan: Just do it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Wednesday life form blogging

True contemplation:

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More on loving-kindness meditation

I've talked to you before about the "metta" practice - or loving-kindness. Here's what Jeffrey Brantley has to say about it in Calming Your Anxious Mind:
With a kind and compassionate heart, all you attempt - including your practice of mindfulness - will flow more easily. Loving-kindness meditation uses repeated phrases, images, and feelings to evoke kindness and compassion. It is not exactly a mindfulness practice, yet the qualities it cultivates are crucial to the practice of mindfulness.

This meditation is not about sentimentality or about manufacturing "good" feelings. It is about connecting with and cultivating a capacity for kindness and friendliness that is already within you. At first it may feel mechanical or clumsy. It may arouse painful feelings like anger or grief. Don't let this disturb you. Keep up your practice and discover what happens next. When you have difficulty, hold yourself with
kindness and compassion.

As you remember, I have recommended the phrases, "May I be happy; may I be well; may everything be well in my life," and then extending that to others. Here is the formula Brantley recommends:
May I be happy.
May I be healed and healthy.
May I be filled with peace and ease.
May I be safe.

Then, of course, as you extend the practice out from you, change the pronoun to "he", "she" or "they".

As Brantley says:
With some practice a steady sense of kindness can develop. You will be able to work with directing kindness toward all kinds of people - even difficult people.

This is a good time of year to work on loving-kindness practice. It is a wonderful antidote to stress and tension and an overall sense of busyness.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Calm attention

Well, I've come across a very interesting book by Jeffrey Brantley called, Calming Your Anxious Mind. And the subtitle goes like this: "How mindfulness and compassion can free you from anxiety, fear, and panic."

Here's an excerpt on using the breath as a support:
This is a simple yet profound meditation practice. The sensation of the breath is the primary object of nonjudging, allowing awareness. You practice by simply paying attention on purpose to the direct sensations of breathing as they arise, change, and disappear. Whenever your attention moves off of the breath sensation, just notice that and gently escort your attention back to the breath.

Concentrating attention in this way connects mind and body to the present moment and to a deep inner calm and steadiness. In this practice you actually experience the capacity of your mind to be calm and stable, even in intense moments. The calm and steadiness extends to the body as you practice. Over time, in both formal meditation periods and informally in daily life, with consistent and regular practice, you can expect to feel a deeper sense of ease and relaxation in your body. You will discover a much more grounded and stable present-moment awareness.

With attention established on the breath, you can use this conscious breathing practice to stay connected in difficult situations. By learning to breathe consciously into and out with whatever is happening, you teach yourself to remain present with calm attention. The breath is truly the anchor in the present moment.

What Brantley describes is actually how a meditative practice can be applied to challenges in everyday life. We practice in formal sitting; that's where we get the hang of it and build up a back-log, so to speak, of mindfulness. (It is also where we learn to cultivate observer consciousness.) Then the mindfulness we learn in formal meditation carries over into all the situations in which we find ourselves thereby equipping us to work skillfully with any challenge we may happen to meet.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Monday meditative picture blogging

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Thoughts to ponder

Awareness of death is the very bedrock of the entire path. Until you have developed this awareness, all other practices are obstructed.

- The Dalai Lama

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

- Anne Frank

Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.

- Edmund Burke

Duct tape is like "the Force". It has a light side, and a dark side, and it holds the universe together.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Check out Wikipedia

Well, it never occurred to me before to look up "meditation" on the Wikipedia website. (I love Wikipedia!) Here's the link and here's an excerpt from the article:

Mindfulness meditation and related techniques are intended to train attention for the sake of provoking insight. Think of it as the opposite of attention deficit disorder. A wider, more flexible attention span makes it easier to be aware of a situation, easier to be objective in emotionally or morally difficult situations, and easier to achieve a state of responsive, creative awareness or "flow".

One theory, presented by Daniel Goleman & Tara Bennett-Goleman (2001), suggests that meditation works because of the relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. In very simple terms, the amygdala is the part of the brain that decides if we should get angry or anxious (among other things), and the pre-frontal cortex is the part that makes us stop and think about things (it is also known as the inhibitory centre).

So, the prefrontal cortex is very good at analyzing and planning, but it takes a long time to make decisions. The amygdala, on the other hand, is simpler (and older in evolutionary terms). It makes rapid judgements about a situation and has a powerful effect on our emotions and behaviour, linked to survival needs. For example, if a human sees a lion leaping out at them, the amygdala will trigger a fight or flight response long before the prefrontal cortex knows what's happening.

But in making snap judgments, our amygdalas are prone to error, seeing danger where there is none. This is particularly true in contemporary society where social conflicts are far more common than encounters with predators, and a basically harmless but emotionally charged situation can trigger uncontrollable fear or anger - leading to conflict, anxiety, and stress.

Because there is roughly a quarter of a second gap between the time an event occurs, and the time it takes the amygdala to react, a skilled meditator may be able to intervene before a fight or flight response takes over, and perhaps even redirect it into more constructive or positive feelings.

In meditation language this is about lengthening the gap between "thought arising" and "judgment of thought". It is in this gap that we are able to make decisions; it is where our choice making faculty resides. And now you know the physiology involved!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The door to happiness

Jim Mulcahy sent me the following quote. Definitely worth sharing:

"When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us."

– Helen Keller

Everyday mindfulness

I regularly recommend using prompts from our environment and from everyday life to train ourselves in mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn speaks to this in Wherever You Go There You Are:
Try to use ordinary, repetitive occasions in your own house as invitations to practice mindfulness. Going to the front door, answering the telephone, seeking out someone else in the house to speak with, going to the bathroom, getting the laundry out of the dryer, going to the refrigerator, can all be occasions to slow down and be more in touch with each present moment. Notice the inner feelings which push you toward the telephone or the doorbell on the first ring. Why does your response time have to be so fast that it pulls you out of the life your were living in the preceding moment? Can these transitions become more graceful? Can you be more where you find yourself, all the time?

This time of year it's very easy to lose mindfulness in all the rush and busyness of the holiday season. Let's use simple occasions like the above to help us settle and truly be in the moment.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Friday cat blogging!

Henry all curled up in a tight little ball!

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Photo by Ellie Finlay

Holiday donations

Please remember that animals are sentient beings too and need our concern and protection - particularly this time of year. So, when you're making your list for holiday gifts, don't forget PETA, The Humane Society and Noah's Wish. These organizations represent the principle of compassion in action.

You know, you don't have to give a lot to make a difference. As many of you know, I sent out an appeal letter for the Center asking for just $5 from everyone on our mailing list. Of course, some people ignored it (sadly, a LOT of people did) but enough people responded (many with small donations of just $5 - $25) that we made up our deficit for 2005. Try sending just a small amount to one of these animal welfare organizations. You'll be glad you did. And, more importantly, the animals will truly benefit.

Reverence for life

Late on the third day, at the very moment when, at sunset, we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed through my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase, "Reverence for Life." The iron door had yielded: the path in the thicket had become visible. Now I had found my way to the idea in which affirmation of world and life-affirmation and ethics are contained side by side!

Alsatian-born physician, organist, and philosopher

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Mindfulness and spirituality

Here's a paragraph by Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book, Wherever You Go There You Are, that explores the word "spiritual" in a helpful way, I think:
Mindfulness allows everything to shine with the luminosity that the word "spiritual" is meant to connote. Einstein spoke of "that cosmic religious feeling" he experienced contemplating the underlying order of the physical universe. The great geneticist Barbara McClintock, whose research was both ignored and disdained by her male colleagues for so many years until it was finally recognized at age eighty with a Nobel Prize, spoke of "a feeling for the organism" in her efforts to unravel and understand the intricacies of corn genetics. Perhaps ultimately, spiritual simply means experiencing wholeness and interconnectedness directly, a seeing that individuality and the totality are interwoven, that nothing is separate or extraneous. If you see in this way, then everything becomes spiritual in its deepest sense. Doing science is spiritual. So is washing the dishes. It is the inner experience which counts. And you have to be there for it. All else is mere thinking.

Meditation is the path by which we learn to "be there". And how wonderful that everything is connected - that we're not isolated, cut off, separate! Remember that interconnectedness whenever the word "spiritual" comes to your attention. That too is spiritual practice.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Wednesday life form blogging

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Photo by Cynthia Burgess

Meditation and healing

I found the following on the website of the Mind and Life Institute:

In "Healing Mind, Healing Body," Tricycle Magazine gives a short excerpt from Jon Kabat-Zinn's book, Coming to Our Senses, about a case study on how mindfulness practice can aid medical treatment. The story describes how Kabat-Zinn became involved with a study on the positive aspects of meditation with psoriasis patients at the University of Massachusetts Department of Medicine in the early 1980s.

After meeting with Jeff Bernhard, the chief of dermatology at the university, the two decided to test the effects of meditation on healing psoriasis. They offered standing meditation, breathing meditation, hearing meditation, and watching-the-mind-get-stressed-out meditation to psoriasis patients undergoing phototherapy treatments. They also included a visualization about the skin healing in response to the light as part of the meditation in the later stages of treatment. They used two groups of patients, one that meditated and one that did not.

Kabat-Zinn says, "We found that the meditators healed faster than the non-meditators, . . . almost four times as rapidly."

He notes, "The psoriasis study is an example of what is now being call 'integrative medicine,' because it integrates mind-body interventions such as meditations right into the delivery of more conventional medical treatments."

Kabat-Zinn further notes that the study has numerous implications. The mind can positively influence healing in some circumstances, and participatory medicine is a big money-saver for both the patient and the medical system.

One more piece of information to help us with motivation!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Tuesday meditative picture blogging

Sorry for not giving you a picture yesterday. The Blogger program was down so I was unable to post anything. Apologies for any meditative inconvenience!

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Photo by Bill Miller

Monday, December 05, 2005

Meditation and arthritis

Today I found an article called, "Meditation Makes RA Easier to Bear". Here's an excerpt:

SAN DIEGO - Meditation can ease the physical and psychological impacts of rheumatoid arthritis, a small randomized study suggests.

After two months of participating in weekly meditation classes and at-home meditation and relaxation techniques, patients in an intervention arm had significantly less disease activity and improved psychological well-being than those in the control arm, said a University of Maryland group.

It is not clear exactly how meditation improves the physical symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, said Elizabeth K. Pradhan, M.P.H., who will present the study results at the American College of Rheumatology meeting here on Thursday. She noted, however, that stress induces disease flare-ups in rheumatoid arthritis, so anything that decreases stress could help.

The investigators randomized 63 patients to immediate intervention or delayed intervention arms, matched for baseline disease and demographic characteristics.

Both physicians and the phlebotomists assessing the patients were blinded about who was in the active intervention arm and who were controls. Participants were predominantly female, college-educated and in a middle-to-high socio-economic status.

The researchers assessed disease symptoms using the Disease Activity Score for 28 Joints (DAS28), which measures swelling and discomfort in joints, as well as the erythrocyte sedimentation rate as an indicator of inflammation, and a visual analog scale for pain.

I encourage you to use information about research like this as motivation for being faithful to your own practice. Anything that can help us keep meditating is valuable material!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Consciousness based education

I happened to be in the car today while To the Best of our Knowledge was playing on NPR. The film maker, David Lynch, was being interviewed and he spent most of his time on the air singing the praises of meditation - in his case, Transcendental Meditation. He is so committed to this practice that he has started a foundation to promote what he calls, "Consciousness-Based Education". Here's part of what he says in the introduction:

“In today’s world of fear and uncertainty, every child should have one class period a day to dive within himself and experience the field of silence—bliss—the enormous reservoir of energy and intelligence that is deep within all of us. This is the way to save the coming generation.” These words from the great educator and scientist of consciousness, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, simply and beautifully describe the urgent need in education today.

I have been “diving within” through the Transcendental Meditation technique for over 30 years. It has changed my life, my world. I am not alone. Millions of other people of all ages, religions, and walks of life practice the technique and enjoy incredible benefits.

Someday, hopefully very soon, “diving within” as a preparation for learning and as a tool for developing the creative potential of the mind will be a standard part of every school’s curriculum. The stresses of today’s world are taking an enormous toll on our children right now. There are hundreds of schools, with thousands of students, who are eager to relieve this stress and bring out the full potential of every student by providing this Consciousness-Based education today.

Our Foundation was established to ensure that any child in America who wants to learn and practice the Transcendental Meditation program can do so. The TM program is the most thoroughly researched and widely practiced program in the world for developing the full creative potential of the brain and mind, improving health, reducing stress, and improving academic outcomes. We provide scholarships for students to learn the technique and to receive the complete follow-up program of instruction throughout their student years to ensure they receive the maximum benefits. We also provide scholarships for students who want to attend the growing number of highly successful schools, colleges, and universities founded on this Consciousness-Based approach to education.

I think this is quite marvelous. I do think, however, that the foundation will provoke intense opposition by fundamentalists who believe meditation is of the devil and that this opposition will prevent meditation from being taught in schools on a widespread basis.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Meditation: the benefits

It's been a while since I've brought you an article about the scientifically demonstrated benefits of meditation so I was happy to discover that the Boston Globe has published a piece called "The power of Om". Here's how it gets started:

Meditation seems to energize the sleep-deprived. It seems to help with concentration. It even seems to bolster the very structure of the brain as we age.

Neuroscientists presenting their latest research at a convention of 34,000 colleagues last week had so much praise for meditation that it was starting to sound like a mantra.

Their work fits into a growing body of data that tries to bring modern science to bear on age-old methods to quiet the mind. Enthusiasts have long touted the health benefits of meditative practices such as chanting, yoga, and prayer.

Now, using the latest high-tech tools of neuroscience and biochemistry, they are teasing out how those benefits work. And increasingly, they are focusing on how meditation may help not only the body but the brain.

''As time goes on, we're understanding this phenomenon in ever more advanced scientific terms," said Dr. Herbert Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute and a Harvard Medical School associate professor who has studied the body's ''relaxation response" for nearly 40 years. ''And why it's so important today is because over 60 percent of visits to the doctor are in the stress-related realm."

While some of the most striking studies have involved monks who were experts at meditation, the new research also backs up claims that garden-variety meditation can bring scientifically demonstrable benefits.

Let this be motivating for you this holiday season. Come to class - even though you're very busy. In fact, when you're stressed out from busyness is when you need to come to class the most! And don't neglect your daily meditation sitting. Even five minutes will bring benefits and nobody's too busy for five minutes!

Friday, December 02, 2005

Friday cat blogging!

Cynthia sent me this marvelous picture of Simon the other day. This is one photogenic cat!

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Photo by Cynthia Burgess

The importance of reflection

I often recommend the reflection process of dropping a question into the consciousness as if one were dropping a pebble into a pool of water and then writing down what bubbles up. In fact, we do a reflection question during every ongoing class at the Center. One helpful method is to write an issue in your life at the top of your paper. Then underneath it write, "What is this really about?" and reflect on that.

A powerful pay-off that the reflection process offers can be seen in this observation by Gerald Jampolsky and Diane Cirincione in their book Change Your Mind, Change Your Life:

One of the most difficult realities perhaps any of us has to face is the fact that what I dislike or cannot tolerate in other people is the personality trait that I still haven't come to terms with in my own life. Whatever is bothering me about the other person mirrors something that I have not forgiven either in myself or in someone from my past. My intolerance in my present relationships is ultimately an intolerance for myself or someone from my past. For example, let's say you become very upset by a person who has a very domineering attitude in the workplace. Though you're upset, you do not seem to be able to change the way you feel when you're around him. Then, one day, you realize that this person reminds you of your father, whose domineering ways frightened you when you were a child.

Another possibility is that you are a domineering person in your home life and you cannot face that. Or you control your tendency to be domineering but you have not really made peace with this personality trait.

Simply writing at the top of a piece of paper, "Can't stand domineering co-worker" and then underneath writing, "What is this really about?" will give you a powerful exercise for awareness. Always begin and end this process with simple mindfulness - that is, tranquility - meditation to settle the mind.

If you feel stuck after doing this process for a while or if very painful or distressing material comes up, be sure to seek out a skilled person to talk to about it. If you're already seeing a therapist or a spiritual director, going over reflection process results with that person can greatly enhance those conversations and support the inner work you're doing.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Standing meditation

In ongoing class we have been exploring concentration exercises. One of them involved standing meditation. Here's a description of standing meditation from Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn:

Standing meditation is best learned from trees. Stand close to one, or, better still, in a stand of trees and just peer out in one direction. Feel your feet developing roots into the ground. Feel your body sway gently, as it always will, just as trees do in a breeze. Staying put, in touch with your breathing, drink in what is in front of you, or keep your eyes closed and sense your surroundings. Sense the tree closest to you. Listen to it, feel its presence, touch it with your mind and body.

Use your breath to help you to stay in the moment... feeling your own body standing, breathing, being, moment by moment.

When mind or body first signals that perhaps it is time to move on, stay with the standing a while longer, remembering that trees stand still for years, occasionally lifetimes if they are fortunate. See if they do not have something to teach you about stillness and about being in touch. After all, they are touching the ground with roots and trunk, the air with trunk and branches, sunlight and the wind with their leaves; everything about a standing tree speaks of being in touch. Experiment with standing this way yourself, even for short periods of time. Work at being in touch with the air on your skin, the feel of the feet in contact with the ground, the sounds of the world, the dance of light and color and shadow, the dance of the mind.

The exercise Kabat-Zinn describes here is really a contemplation practice. And I think you can see how engaging in it will enhance one's ability to concentrate. It will also give one a great appreciation for the natural world.