Messy Mindfulness

“It is like this now.” ~ Ajahn Chah

I practice and study Buddhist Insight (Vipassana) meditation with a small local group of practitioners once a week. I discovered this form of Buddhism when my daughter was three years old and it has become an important anchor in my life. Vipassana can be translated as “insight,” a clear awareness of exactly what is happening as it happens. It is a direct and gradual cultivation of mindfulness or awareness. 

Through the process of mindfulness, you slowly becomes aware of what exists below the ego image. Vipassana is a form of mental training that teaches you to experience the world in an entirely new way. It is a process of self-discovery, an investigation in which you observe your own experiences, while participating in them as they occur.

Most of the members of my sangha are seasoned meditators, who have developed a committed and consistent daily practice over many years: sitting for lengthy periods of time, several times a day. They are all older than me, and they are either retired, single, or have grown children, so they are at a different stage and place in their lives. As an independent parent, working full-time, and caring for my aging parents, it can be challenging to fit in a formal sitting period once a day, let alone multiple times. It is easy to beat myself up about it and feel like a failure; or it is an invitation to recognize that this is the place I am at currently in my life. Mindfulness still provides me with refuge. It just shows up in a different form.

At the moment, I am allowed to visit my mom once a week in her assisted living facility. In addition her late stage Alzheimer’s Disease, we are also facing COVID-19 restrictions, so the visiting conditions are very limited. Our allotted half an hour is spent together in a small, boardroom with a large wooden table at its centre. I wear a surgical mask and I cannot hug my mom. We are allowed to hold hands, and as she needs to constantly move her body, we walk in circles around the perimeter of the table. My mom has lost her ability to use language. She talks with a nervous, non-stop energy, and the words tumbling out her mouth are mostly unrecognizable. We cannot carry on a conversation. She stoops and she cannot look me in the eyes. I listen and nod along to her monologue. I rub her back and I provide her with comforting responses and assurances when I think she needs them.

What I am noticing about our time together is that we are firmly rooted in the moment. There is no ability to escape and wander away from where we are with small talk or distractions. We are in this moment together, and then the next one, and the next, until the time in our proverbial hourglass elapses. It is a walking meditation, one which demands that I pay attention to my surroundings, and the subtle changes in my mother’s tone and demeanour. I notice the rhythm of my own breath and the pattern of our steps. We are learning relate to relate to one another in a new and unfamiliar way. There are no recognizable protocols. We make it up as we go. All that is constant is the love that connects us together.

As the parent of a young adolescent, I bear witness on a daily basis to the rapid physical and emotional changes taking place within my child. She is often flailing in deep waters of intense emotions and it is hard not to get pulled under with her. My daughter knows just what to say to evoke a response from me; she is smart and she never misses her target. It is easy to get caught up in an automatic response: a knee-jerk reaction, where I lose my temper and perspective, along with her. It is in these moments that I am being provided with an invitation to take a step back and pause for just a beat: to bear witness to the intense triggering that is occurring. To feel the anger and agitation that arises from deep inside and let it wash over me. To choose not to respond and instead take a moment to breathe in deeply and seek ways regulate my own body. Once I find my centre, I can then try to locate my child, and pull her into shore. This is my practice in motion.

During a busy day, it is easy to feel like there is no time for meditation, and so rather than doing a little bit, I do nothing. One of the members of my group, who used to be an emergency room nurse, provided me with some good advice, which has helped me to find a path forward. She shared that when she was working full-time she would fit in her daily practice in five minute increments. Much like getting up from your desk and stretching, or taking a short walk, a five-minute meditation is a mental break which can be easily fit in almost anywhere. I do not need a cushion or a quiet space: I only need awareness, the ability to scan my body, and my breath. This can be done while driving, walking or washing dishes. It can be achieved through generating thoughts of love and gratitude. These moments of conscious reflection are like mini-calisthenics for the brain: every little one helps to make it stronger and more receptive. Slowly but surely my capacity for holding this mental space increases over time.

Although I still enjoy the idea of going on a ten-day silent meditation retreat, or finding a way to cultivate a solid daily practice, I also accept that this is where I am in my life at the moment. It is messy and unpredictable and I need to be flexible and adaptive in my approach. Mindfulness provides value in all of its many forms and holding on to a set idea of what it needs to look like, in order to be successful, is unhelpful. Providing myself with love and acceptance is part of my work, because without the ability to extend this to myself, I will not be able to offer it to others.

A Lotus Blooming

“If you feel lost, disappointed, hesitant, or weak, return to yourself, to who you are, here and now and when you get there, you will discover yourself, like a lotus flower in full bloom, even in a muddy pond, beautiful and strong.” ~ Masaru Emoto

This week, I have been paying attention to feelings of expansion and contraction. There are days where I feel open, joyful and a part of an energy greater than myself. I easily connect with other people and I make great progress with projects. I am creative and full of ideas. Everything feels streamlined and fluid. I experience ease and flow.

And then there are days where I feel small, vulnerable and afraid. I second guess every decision that I make. The world around feels large, frightening and menacing. I cannot see solutions. I am stuck in the mud and I cannot move forward.

There is little tangible difference between the two kinds of days in terms of form: I wake up; I go about my business; I return home; I sleep. The cycle of activity is essentially the same. It is the outside situation that changes and my perception along with it.

On the days where I feel expansive, things are going my way. There are little wins or moments to celebrate. I receive praise or acknowledgement. I am facing no obstacles. On the days where I feel contracted, I am reacting to a situation or a person that is unpleasant. There is an issue to be overcome. I am grappling with a challenge or inner battle. The common thread is that the outside factor controls the inside response.

Equanimity is defined as a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind. It refers to the power of observation and the ability to see without being caught by what you see. When well-developed, such power gives rise to a great sense of peace.

“If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will know complete peace and freedom. Your struggles with the world will have come to an end.” ~ Ajahn Chah

In Buddhism, equanimity is a protection from the “eight worldly winds”: praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute. Becoming attached to or excessively impacted by success, praise, fame or pleasure can cause suffering when life changes direction. 

There are seven qualities of mind that are recommended to help cultivate a sense of equanimity:

  1. Integrity: When you live and act with integrity, you feel confident about your actions and words, which results in the equanimity of blamelessness. 
  2. Faith: If you have confidence in your own abilities, then you are more likely to meet life’s challenges.
  3. A well-developed mind: Much as you can develop physical strength, balance, and stability of the body in a gym, so too can you develop strength, balance and stability of the mind. This is done through practices that cultivate calm, concentration and mindfulness, like meditation.
  4. A sense of well-being: It is easy to overlook the well-being that is easily available in daily life. Taking time to enjoy a cup of tea or time spent with your child can be a training in well-being.
  5. Wisdom: Wisdom is an important factor in learning to have an accepting awareness, to be present for whatever is happening without the mind or heart contracting or resisting. Honest awareness of what makes you imbalanced helps you to learn how to find balance.
  6. Insight: One of the primary insights is the nature of impermanence. In the deepest forms of this insight, it becomes apparent that things change quickly that you cannot hold onto anything: eventually the mind lets go of clinging. 
  7. Freedom: This comes as you begin to let go of reactive tendencies. 

There is power in knowing that I can break the cycle of expansion and contraction. I can live more intentionally and cultivate an inner peace and equanimity. The first step is to take on the role of observer in my daily life. What is triggering me and causing a reaction, both positive and negative? How can I start to sink beneath the waves, rather than riding on top of them? How can I locate my centre and stay grounded, despite what it taking place around me? These are some of the questions that I will be investigating in the weeks and months ahead.

Fear of the Unknown

Royal Self

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
go,
to let it go.

Mary Oliver – In Blackwater Woods

I am currently in the middle of another period of great personal upheaval in my life. Family members are aging and unwell; relationships and situations that once felt strong, solid and unshakable are shifting and moving. Life is looking me squarely in the eye and saying: “Nothing remains the same.”

My natural inclination is to resist change. My tendency is to choose the familiar over the unfamiliar. I like to create systems, map things out and control my environment through order. This false sense of security works for me until the ground shakes and throws me off balance: revealing that everything is fluid and ever shifting. I am slowly realizing that my resistance is at the core of my discomfort: making a very difficult situation even harder to navigate.

The human brain is not comfortable with the unknown. It likes to create stories and imagine what will happen next, rather than sit in the vast and open discomfort of unknowing. The stories we create do not protect us from what is to come; they only result in generating unnecessary worry and anxiety. 99.9% of the time, what we imagine will happen is not anything close to what ends up taking place.

Almost 2600 years ago, the Buddha uncovered the root of human suffering; and he outlined his discovery in the four noble truths. Here is a brief summary of them, as summarized from this article by Ronald Alexander, and his book Wise Mind, Open Mind:

1st Noble Truth: In life, there is suffering, because of the impermanent nature of things.

Humans have developed great capacity for denying a simple truth: nothing stays the same. Even if we do everything “right” and exercise every precaution, we will still face unexpected loss. It is important to learn to let go, and try to create space for what is actually unfolding, however uncomfortable.

2nd Noble Truth: Suffering is due to attachments and expectations, to grasping and clinging.

Clinging to the past, or avoiding the process of grief or acceptance, creates suffering. Grasping for a future set of circumstances identical to the past holds you back from discovering what better roads lie ahead, outside of your sight. The desire to backtrack or reconstruct will likely result in your walking around in circles, lost in the dark woods, instead of peering around corners to find new paths. When we can completely let go and stop struggling against the reality of the current moment, it allows us to embrace the groundlessness of our situation, and relax into its dynamic quality.

3rd Noble Truth: It is possible to end suffering by giving up attachments (clinging) and expectations (grasping).

There is no such thing as a permanent sense of happiness. We must broaden our definition of what we need in order to be happy; this includes letting go of habits of clinging and grasping to the past and expectations for the future, as well as the need to control external circumstances.

4th Noble Truth: The way to end suffering due to clinging and grasping is through balance and living in the present.

It is important to balance a thirst for something better with an acceptance of what is taking place, right here, right now. Balance allows you to live in the present moment and trust that your acceptance will clear the way of confusion and distractions: showing you how to move forward into happiness again. The paradox of change is until you can accept what is, you cannot move into what might be.

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There is much to be said about the power of gratitude. It helps to focus the mind on the tiny, beautiful things unfolding in front of you, rather than to allow it to jump into the unknown. Lately, when my thoughts start to rush ahead, I make a conscious effort to bring myself back to the present moment, and to really notice what is around me: the sound of birds calling outside of my window; the beauty of my sleeping child’s face; the enjoyment of walking my dog. I remind myself what I am grateful for in my life and what is working well. It does not take the fear away but it does help to anchor me in a groundless situation.

The one guarantee in this life is change. I cannot influence or control this reality; but I can determine my reaction to it. If I can begin to allow for the discomfort of not knowing what the future holds, it creates space for me to be present in the current moment. This opens up the possibility of discovering solutions and a path forward. Putting one foot in front of the other, I trust that this difficult period will eventually end, as everything eventually does; and I will emerge out the other side, back into the light.

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