Quest for Equanimity

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Photo by Kevin Bluer

Equanimity is a state of calm and composure – a balance of the mind, even under stress. It is something that arises naturally from a dedicated mindfulness practice. Cultivating equanimity allows us to respond in a clear-minded and open-eyed fashion, rather than reacting blindly out of emotion or on impulse.

When sorrows fall upon the wise, their minds should be serene and undisturbed – Shantideva

I was interested in mindfulness and spirituality for many years before I began a personal practice. I attended my friends’ various religious events and ceremonies, studied theology in college, and participated in an interdisciplinary group in grad school that included psychologists, clergy and physicians in training.  But, the real credit goes to my psychology clients for inspiring me to meaningful action. I was curious about some things I was observing in people, including myself, but especially among those who were extremely outwardly focused and seemed to be lacking a sense of meaning. These folks suffered from:

  • a chronic state of dissatisfaction or pessimism
  • a tendency to be swept along by emotions

We all seemed to be grasping for and clinging to those highs that occur when things appear to be going our way and withdrawing from or fighting against undesirable circumstances. In addition, there are some undeniably painful things that occur in life that are unavoidable and outside of our control.

The Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) concepts and techniques I learned in my psychology training were a very helpful foundation and a logical place to start, but there was a point at which something more was needed.  In some circumstances, it seemed that the CBT strategies became just another form of grasping, clinging and pushing away. Or they became another source of shame and self-blame. I began to suspect that a more mindful, accepting and compassionate approach to life may provide the antidote to much of the suffering people experience.

My first trip abroad really opened my eyes to some things that had been missing in my own life. I realized how much more I needed to allow myself to be in the moment. I also discovered how much better I felt when I spent more time attending to my inner experiences, connecting with my body, and seeing things with a beginner’s mind. Having a job that required me, like many Americans, to sit in a chair in an office for much of the day, day after day, focusing on the external, was having an effect on my well-being. I didn’t really understand this until I had an opportunity to step away from it.

Thus began my quest for greater equanimity. I felt strongly that cultivating balance in my own mind would reduce this nagging sense of dissatisfaction. But, what was most motivating was they ways in which I imagined my efforts might benefit my family and friends, my clients, and maybe even ripple out into the world.

What I am learning along the way is that equanimity develops over a considerable span of time, with intention and dedication. It doesn’t come packaged in an 8-week mindfulness course, a 30-day yoga challenge, or even an intensive teacher training. It emerges incrementally in its own time and can’t be manufactured. I am also learning that it must start from within. As S. N. Goenka said, “If there is no peace in the minds of individuals, how can there be peace in the world? Make peace in your own mind first.”

After all that I’ve received (thanks from the bottom of my heart to my family, friends, teachers, colleagues and clients) and everything I’ve experienced so far, things still take me by surprise and get under my skin. But, I think those that know me would agree that I am subtly changed for the better. The fruits far exceed the seeds that are planted – manyfold – and I am honored to share what I am learning with others. May others find peace and wellbeing along this fruitful path.

May every living being,
Our minds as one and radiant with light,
Share the fruits of peace,
With hearts of goodness, luminous and bright.
If people hear and see,
How hands and hearts can find in giving, unity,
May their minds awake,
To Great Compassion, wisdom and to joy.
May kindness find reward,
May all who sorrow leave their grief and pain;
May this boundless light,
Break the darkness of their endless night.
Because our hearts are one
This world of pain turns into Paradise
May all become compassionate and wise.

-Traditional Dedication of Merit
Translated from the Chinese by Rev. Heng Sure and Bhikshu Heng Lyu

Believing in Monsters

freestocks-org-425059Do you believe in monsters? Evil, otherworldly creatures have haunted our dreams as far back as we can document history. Monsters are the embodiment of our deepest fears. Most of us did our best to avoid the bogeyman or its cousins at some point during our childhood. Interestingly, many of us never really grow out of this belief. In the unexamined mind, our monsters evolve, but they never go away.

As we get older, monsters take the form of people – other human beings who have harmed or threatened us or our loved ones in some way, infamous figures from history who caused atrocities against humanity, or imagined brutes lurking behind bushes or hiding in our homes. Labeling them as monsters feels safer. Its simpler and it feels righteous. We see them as something “other” than us – something less than human. In this way they become anomalies. We imagine that if we can only rid ourselves of them somehow, we will be safe. We imagine that we can never be like them.

As a psychologist, I get to know people labeled as monsters as well as the people who are haunted by them. I have never yet met a person who was completely evil or good. I have never met someone who was something other than human. Of course, I haven’t met everyone, so I am keeping an open mind.

In some ways, life would be easier if there were monsters. We could just find a way to litmus test everyone, identify the monsters, and eradicate them in a simple solution that would eliminate the world’s problems and we could feel a sense of righteous about it. We wouldn’t need to examine and address the numerous and complicated causes and conditions over time that lead to hurtful behavior. We wouldn’t need to face the capacity for monstrosity in ourselves and the ways in which we knowingly or unwittingly contribute to the social structures that create fertile ground for monsters. Come to think of it, I believe this solution has already been tried many times over by those we call monsters.

If you really want to kill off your monsters, cultivate a dedicated mindfulness practice. Your parents probably always told you that monsters don’t exist, but its only when you dared to enter the closet or crawl under the bed that you truly understood they weren’t there (at least for that moment). Practicing mindfulness is like peeling back the covers, opening the closet doors one by one, and shining a light under all the beds until there is nowhere else for monsters to hide and all that remains is your own clear reflection looking back at you.

Who turns this into that? Sound into noise?
Aroma into odor? Taste into pleasure or disgust?
Who turns yes into no? Grace into unkindness?
Who turns the present into the past? Who turns the now into the not-now?
As-it-is into as-it-should-be?
Silence into boredom? Stillness into restlessness?
The ordinary into the menial?
Who turns pain into suffering? Change into loss?
Grief into woe? Woe into the story of your life?
Who turns stuff into sentiment? Desire into craving?
Acceptance into aversion?
Peace into war? Us into them?
Who turns life into labor? Time into toil?
Enough into not-enough?
Who turns why into why not?
Who turns delusion into enlightenment?
Who thinks? Who feels? Who senses?
Who turns?
All practice is the practice of making a turn in a different
Direction.

Karen Maezen Miller, Who Turns?

Joy to the World

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Photo by Artem Beliaikin

The word joy was always a bit foreign to me. My family and friends just didn’t use this word in conversation growing up. We talked about feeling happy, but nobody said, “I’m so filled with joy right now,” or anything like that.

When I was young, the only time the word joy came up is when we were singing Christmas carols. So, joy brought with it images of little children standing wide-eyed around a Christmas tree surrounded by shiny gifts. Then there was the Three Dog Night song, which conjured up images of hippies and chemically induced bliss. Later there was the Ren & Stimpy song “Happy Happy Joy Joy” which was nothing but crazed, ridiculous silliness. These associations all made joy seem pretty unreal, like a trend, or a commodity, or even a mild form of insanity.

I suspect joy is a much more common word among religious households. Its interesting that when you search for it online, lots of Christian blogs pop up and there is quite a bit of variation in the definitions. Some say it is happiness and some say happiness is another thing altogether. There are associated words like jubilation, exultation, rejoice, and rapture, which are most commonly seen in Catholic hymnals or heard in gospel music. There is the word triumph, which seems like something one might feel after winning a competition. And finally there are synonyms reflecting extreme states like exhilaration, glee, elation, euphoria, bliss, and ecstasy, which tend to be both fleeting and reactionary, attached to some sort of personal storyline or interpretation of events.

I’ve noticed that nowadays, people really seem to relish the word joy. It is associated with pleasure and so, of course, we want more of it in our lives – we strive after it. This is part of why it sometimes feels difficult to trust it. Seeking after joy becomes just another part of the cycle of grasping and clinging that ultimately leads to dissatisfaction, when we’re not mindful.

Learning about appreciative joy was really helpful in coming to see joy as something both beneficial and trustworthy and not just a word that rhymes with toy. Appreciative joy is rejoicing in someone else’s wellbeing. Thinking of it in this way, I can truly sense into it. Yes, I have experienced this feeling many times and it is truly blissful. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether I am witnessing the good fortune of a beloved person or a total stranger in a YouTube video – the internal experience of appreciative joy is powerful and visceral. I now tend to think of joy as a feeling of delight, awe or wonder.

Sunrises and sunsets have also helped me understand joy. Because I accept that what is unfolding before me is a series of ever changing moments of beauty coming from something outside of me, I am able to appreciate each moment without ego, attachment or craving. How wonderful that there is an uncomplicated moment of ecstasy available to us in each and every rising and setting of the sun! The practice of mindfulness opens us to these experiences through greater presence and awareness. Over time, we find ourselves noticing and appreciating more and more, the opportunities for joy hiding in plain sight all around us.

The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it. ― Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

Practice Reflections: Three Years of Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga

LondonCottageGardenPracticeThis month marks the culmination of three years of daily Mysore style ashtanga yoga practice. It has become a bit of a ritual for me to reflect each year on the fruits of this healing practice for which I am eternally grateful. After all, most ashtangis do tend to like ritual and routine, and I am no exception. I also reflected on year one and year two and have found it a useful exercise – I hope others find these reflections useful as well.

My ashtanga yoga practice has really been the gateway for my mindfulness practice. Learning to move mindfully opened the door to my sitting meditation practice. This rigorous practice helped tame my restlessness, gave me an accessible way to cultivate single pointed concentration, and opened my body for more comfortable sitting. It has also helped me have a much friendlier relationship with my body, learning to appreciate its capabilities and embrace its limitations and imperfections.

I get a little choked up when I think about the impact of this practice on my life – especially when I think of the teachers who show up every day, holding space for us all. They observe us muddling through the same struggles, week after week, month after month. My learning tends to be slow, incremental, millimeter by millimeter, barely perceptible to the human eye. I know my teachers must harbor some ambitions for us students and they want to see us all grow and succeed, yet they show such patience and restraint in accompanying us on this journey that often moves at a snail’s pace.

Speaking of a snail’s pace, my yoga journey has felt a bit like sculpting granite with a spoon, or as one of my teachers would say, “like wiring a bonsai tree”. I am working with the experience of dread around urdva dhanurasana (wheel pose), which continues to elude me. I do my best to make this posture five times most every day and yet can only now pretty reliably imitate a coffee table. Yet, I trust in the practice and believe that all is coming if I am not greedy or impatient. Another teacher once told me that an open armpit-chest region indicates an open heart, so I also remind myself to practice compassion and lovingkindness in mediation and daily life. Its not only the body that blocks access to certain postures – the mind also holds the keys.

Last year I began to dabble in intermediate series and now I realize each time my body was telling me, “You are not ready”. As soon as I worked up to 3-4 days per week alternating with primary series, I would inevitably suffer some sort of minor injury. I believe this was my sign. Govinda Kai taught an ashtanga yoga workshop in April and his words gave me permission to let go, telling us our bodies will inform us when it is time and this is different for everyone. David Williams during his workshop this October, reminded us that a sustainable practice is an enjoyable one and that hurting yourself more won’t heal you. So, I am now back to focusing exclusively on the primary series. I figure there are endless possibilities for refining this practice.

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A highlight this year was practicing with Astanga Yoga London. I am so grateful to have the privilege to travel abroad and experience different teachers and cultures. AYL is a sweet little shala tucked away among the ethnic eateries and wellness centers of Drummond Street. If you blink, you might miss it. Students practice in queue, packing the tiny studio with mats fitted jigsaw puzzle style. There are 2-3 teachers assisting Mysore style classes all day long. Other than this, they offer only 1 led primary series practice per month, which I was fortunate to experience. Despite the fact that there are no introductory or basics classes, the practitioners are quite skilled, reinforcing the idea that if you practice the intended way, “all is coming”.

At AYL, I was stopped at bhujapidasana and decided  to honor that until I can reasonably execute it. Before this I always did the entire primary series. This has freed up some energy and time to refine this posture, start to execute the slightly scary setubandhasana,  and of course to continue to work on the ever-elusive urdvha danurasana. Surprisingly, this has not hurt the postures I pass over, which I get to try out once per week in led primary series. They continue to deepen and improve despite the fact that I am not doing them daily.

Another highlight of the year was attending the Trini Foundation’s Ashtanga and Addiction Forum at Ashtanga Yoga Columbus learning how to offer Ashtanga yoga as a tool to help people achieve long-term sobriety. You can read about forum director Taylor Hunt’s incredible journey in his book, A Way From Darkness. I am interested in finding a way to be a part of the solution, helping to share my love of the practice and my new learning with those who are suffering.

My trips to other shalas made me so very grateful for the spacious, clean and flexible studio in which I am fortunate to practice every day. My home studio, Maya Yoga, is large and bright with lots of windows, room to sweep my arms out wide, roll backwards into chakrasana, and find a wall for practicing handstands. Students can show up at different times and don’t have to wait in queue. We have the luxury of time to practice pranayama or to meditate after savasana. There is a spacious women’s restroom with two stalls and room to change clothes. I can always find somewhere to park my car. This is not so in some of the other shalas I’ve visited. How easily we take for granted our privileges.

If the fates allow, I hope to be practicing ashtanga yoga for many years to come. For me, my movement practice has been essential to cultivating my mindfulness practice and this particular style of yoga has been the right fit. Next year promises new adventures, including an ashtanga yoga retreat in Thailand with Kathleen Kastner and Wade Mortensen and a workshop with Kino MacGregor. Barring any unforeseen obstacles, I am looking forward to sharing my reflections on year four with you all!

Tracy Ochester, PsyD, RYT is a psychologist, Certified Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Teacher, and registered yoga teacher who occasionally teaches ashtanga yoga classes in the Kansas City community. Please visit the events calendar and services page to learn about upcoming offerings.

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Heeding Your Inner Guide

Sunset over the lake in the villageWe all have an internal guidance system that helps us navigate our lives. It directs our senses, mobilizes our energies, and drives our responses. We may “hear” this inner voice and act on it, but most of us are not truly “listening” to it. To heed the inner guide means to really take notice and pay attention.

Our inner guidance system is made up of thoughts, emotions, body sensations, urges to action or impulses, and perhaps even more importantly for some, a sort of “felt sense” that transcends everything else. When we live on automatic pilot, we tend to react as though the inner guidance system is us rather than seeing it as a navigation aid. We understand that Siri, or a Garmin, or Google Maps, are not foolproof guidance systems – we don’t just follow them blindly. We see the directions as helpful suggestions, also using our senses to get from one place to another. So too, should we view our inner guidance system

An unexamined mind often possesses an unbalanced navigation system. One faculty takes dominance over the others. What’s in the driver’s seat for you? Are emotions calling the shots and if so, which emotions are most dominant? Are you being guided by fear, anger, or shame or are you operating from a space of love, compassion, or courage? How does this impact your reactions?

Maybe thoughts and beliefs are in charge. What are the qualities of these thoughts? Are they primarily made up of expectations, premature judgments, or assumptions, or are they balanced by objective observations of your experience? Are you witnessing thoughts and emotions objectively as they arise, or are you usually caught up in them as if you were an actor in a movie called My Life?

Do you know what’s happening in your body? The body has a wisdom of its own which can subtly (and not so subtly) influence our thoughts and emotions. Frank Ostaseski said in a Dharma talk that he only realized the chest pains he was having before his heart attack needed to be checked out medically when he noticed himself becoming inexplicably irritated by his lovely co-teacher, Ram Dass. Are you adept at noticing body sensations as they arise, or do they unconsciously color your beliefs and actions?

A dedicated mindfulness practice helps us become more attuned to these internal experiences. Through practice, we become more familiar with our patterns and habits. We take time to get quiet and really listen so that inner knowing has a chance to bubble into conscious awareness. This allows us make space for balanced consideration before making decisions and taking action. When we heed the inner guide, it is more likely that our actions will be in line with our highest values, benefitting ourselves and others around us.

You are your master. Only you have the master keys to open the inner locks.
― Amit Ray, Meditation: Insights and Inspirations

Correlates of Happiness

alex-martinez-62348Thankfully psychology has begun to take an interest in the factors underlying mental health and happiness rather than focusing only on psychopathology and mental suffering. A lot of great research has emerged from this interest and we know more than ever about the correlates of well-being.

You might not be surprised to learn that, like most things, happiness is complicated. Its a subjective emotion involving sensations like pleasure and satisfaction, contentment, serenity, comfort, meaningfulness, optimism and hope. So, there are a number of ingredients involved in the recipe for happiness.

We know that basic needs like food, water, shelter and safety must be met, first and foremost. Without this, people have very little hope for sustainable happiness because survival becomes the overwhelming focus. We also know that beyond a certain point, money does not significantly contribute to happiness. Instead, relationships (love and affiliation), gratitude, altruism and kindness, forgiveness, optimism, esteem, a sense of meaning, and opportunities for self-actualization are all highly correlated with well-being.

Just as there is a process involved in producing the necessary ingredients to create a satisfying dish, the correlates of happiness must be intentionally planted and cultivated. There are no quick fixes and we should be suspicious when we think we’ve found one.

National Geographic recently published an article on The World’s Happiest Places based on the World Happiness Report. The Report identifies several common factors that account for three quarters of human happiness: strong economics, healthy life span, good social relationships, generosity, trust and freedom. These countries takes steps to provide basic needs and mitigate some of most common human stressors such as poverty, sickness, and social conflict.

They cite several countries in which happiness was rated highest in the world. The US isn’t one of them – the World Happiness Report cites declining social support and increased corruption as factors for the plummeting experience of wellbeing in the US since 2007. The world’s happiest countries have mechanisms in place that support the common factors of happiness, while the US increasingly focuses on the almighty dollar in the hands of a few and at the expense of the many.

Denmark offers subsidized education and healthcare and provides a robust financial safety net. Interestingly, it has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world. Costa Rica has an environment that can’t support huge industrial farms so it has remained a country of small property owners, resulting in less power inequity than in some other countries. Education, clean water, social security and health care are all priorities there. Singapore embraces traditional Asian values of harmony respect and hard work. The government ensures that everyone who works earns a good wage, lives in quality housing, and receives necessary health care. The accomplishments require enlightened leaders who play the long game rather than seeking instant gratification.

We will all be better off if more of us are happy. You’ve heard the saying, “Hurting people hurt people.” This means that we cannot be content with our own happiness alone. We can see this playing out right in front of our eyes in the US as we stray further and further away from what the research has shown. The good news is that many of the correlates of happiness involve relating with and caring for others, so if we are following the proper recipe, the fruits of our personal pursuit for well-being ripple out beyond us. Starting from within in this way, we become natural benefactors.

Happiness radiates like the fragrance from a flower and draws all good things towards you. – Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

 

Ashtanga Yoga in Recovery

prasarita padottanasana aI recently attended the Ashtanga and Addiction Forum through the Trini Foundation, a training program for yoga teachers who would like to help people who suffer from drug and/or alcohol addiction use ashtanga yoga as a tool for sustained recovery. The Trini Foundation was created by Taylor Hunt, who credits ashtanga yoga with saving his life. His foundation is endorsed by Sharath Jois who is the current head of the Shri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India.

Ashtanga yoga is a system that has been passed down for many generations, designed for healing and self-realization. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Ashtanga and Addiction Forum was a continued discussion we had about why this particular style of yoga, especially Mysore style practice, might be so useful for folks in recovery. There is research underway, but we don’t currently have strong scientific evidence to support these observations. In his book, A Way From Darkness, Hunt outlines some of the reasons the method resonated with him. I will also add here some of my own thoughts, as a psychologist and a yoga practitioner, on why this system may be a powerful ally in sustaining sobriety.

Ashtanga Yoga is Healing

The primary series of ashtanga yoga is called Yoga Chikitsa, yoga for health or yoga therapy. Along the difficult road to recovery, the abused and neglected body and mind require healing. Yoga reconnects us with our embodied selves, which is useful because the body is often the harbinger that signals trouble ahead. Neglected muscles are re-awakened and stiff joints are brought to a therapeutic edge. The foggy mind is sharpened via single pointed concentration developed through the tristhana – a coordination of breath, postures, and gaze. A sort of “internal cleansing” begins to occur and we see how we treat ourselves has a direct correlation to our experience in the practice. We discover a compelling reason to treat ourselves better, changing our diets, sleeping habits and schedules to improve our experience on the mat. The deep shame and self-loathing that often come along with addiction may be replaced by newfound self-care, self-compassion, and self-respect.

Ashtanga Yoga is Challenging

This healing system demands much of its practitioners physically, cognitively and emotionally. Memorizing the sequence and maintaining the tristhana require sustained focus and concentration. The cardiovascular system is taxed through deep breathing coordinated with flowing movements called vinyasas. Strength, balance and flexibility build through continued practice. The practitioner “earns” postures as they are mastered and this tends to be both motivating and intriguing. As abilities increase, hope is cultivated. Practitioners develop greater independence and take personal responsibility for their personal practice. We become curious about our capabilities. A sense of excitement about the possibilities encourages us to adopt a beginner’s mind, allowing us to loosen the grip of ego and open to present moment experience. We find ourselves continually surprised and delighted by what we are capable of.

Ashtanga Yoga is Spiritual

Because it has remained relatively close to its lineage, ashtanga yoga continues to be a largely spiritual practice. Spirituality involves an openness to the immaterial – that which is immeasurable. When we are willing to consider that there may be something greater than ourselves, something we cannot detect with our senses, we don’t have to take things so personally and we are better able to tolerate ambiguity.

Spirituality also also involves a recognition of the fundamental interconnection of all things. When see ourselves as interconnected, we recognize both our smallness and our vastness – we see that we are not in control and yet we are responsible to do the best we can. We discover that our own wellbeing is inextricably bound to that of others and our environment. To mistreat ourselves is to mistreat others – to destroy our environment is to destroy ourselves – and vice versa.

These spiritual understandings begin to free us from some of our self-imposed suffering. We come to understand that everything is part of a greater whole; therefore, everything is workable. We don’t need to fight so much, run away or hide from our difficulties. We don’t need to keep acquiring more and more material things, chase after intensifying pleasures, or strive for external validation to find happiness. We begin to realize we are enough and we are not alone.

In ashtanga yoga, the only variable is you.” – Taylor Hunt

Ashtanga yoga consists of set series of increasingly difficult postures and transitions choreographed to a specific rhythm. A clear pathway is laid out for us from which we need not vary. Because the series is the same each time we come to the mat, the only variable in the practice is ourselves. For this reason, the practice acts as a mirror, bringing us face to face with our afflictive emotions. The mat becomes a laboratory in which we can experiment, gaining wisdom, objectivity and clarity about ourselves, our habits and patterns. We learn to face difficulty with more patience and less reactivity. We become more attuned, which allows space for wise consideration. Over time we develop new ways of responding and relating that are healthier, kinder, and more balanced. The effects of these changes ripple out beyond us benefiting everyone we touch, creating a self-reinforcing, life affirming cycle.

Yoga is not meant to take the place of a comprehensive addiction treatment program for recovery, but it may be a helpful adjunct. I look forward to the day when there is a bibliography of peer reviewed research to support these observations about the effectiveness of ashtanga yoga as a tool for sustaining recovery. In the meantime, I am eager to be a part of the solution. If you’d like to join in this effort, please contact the Trini Foundation for opportunities near you.

References:

Jarry, J. L., Chang, F.M. & La Civita, L. (2017). Ashtanga Yoga for Psychological Well-being: Initial Effectiveness Study. Mindfulness 1-11.

Kissen M, Kissen-Kohn DA. (2009). Reducing addictions via the self-soothing effects of yoga. Bull Menninger Clinic; 73:34–43.

Maehle, G. (2006). Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy. Doubleview, Western Australia: Kaivalya Publications.

Miele, L. (1994). Astanga Yoga: Including the Benefits of Yoga Chikitsa; I & II Series. Rome, Italy: Lino Miele.

Scott, J. (2000). Ashtanga Yoga: The Definitive Step-By-Step Guide to Dynamic Yoga. Stroud: Gaia Books.

Swenson, D. (1999). Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual. Austin, Texas: Ashtanga Yoga Productions.

Cultivating a Sustainable Mindfulness Practice

2015-09-23 14.01.27I teach a number of 8 -week courses in mindfulness and this is a helpful way to provide some structure, motivation and accountability within which a fledgling practice might take flight. New practitioners often feel grateful for and full of wonder at what they discover – even if its just a few precious moments of peace each day, the benefits of which ripple out into their daily lives. At the end of these courses, participants invariably express some fear they will be unable to sustain their newfound practice. Here are some of the tips I give them to help them ensure their practice will continue on long after the course ends.

Make it Meaningful
I remember Jon Kabat-Zinn saying in one of his interviews or writings that he would no more skip his daily practice than he would skip brushing his teeth. Why do most of us brush our teeth every day without any goading or prompting? Because the rewards, though not always immediate or visible, are quite profound to us. We would like to keep our teeth functional and pain free as long as possible – life with healthy teeth seems immeasurably easier and preferable to the alternative. The intention behind brushing is to be able to enjoy our teeth for years to come. What are your intentions behind your personal practice?

Most of us who have stumbled across mindfulness have done so because we have come up against a pervasive sense dissatisfaction or distress that seems to permeate worldly existence – either through witnessing the suffering of others or through experiencing our own struggles. It is helpful to remember why we started our practice in the first place and how it impacts our wellbeing as well as our relationship to the external world. The benefits might not always be immediately visible, but they are profound. Coming back to our intentions for practice again and again can help keep us motivated.

Make it Routine
When we approach something haphazardly or rely on our overtaxed memory for reminders, things often go by the wayside. We say we’ll do it later, but something more pressing inevitably sidetracks us – later never comes. However, there are some things we never seem to forget or pass up. These are the necessary and not optional things that are a reliable part of our daily routine. Try tethering your practice to one of these things that are almost guaranteed to happen every day. Some examples might include waking up in the morning, taking your lunch break at work, or your starting your bedtime routine. This keeps practice top of mind and less likely to be overlooked.

Make it Enjoyable
Think of all the things you’ve committed to at some point because you think you should, but you don’t really enjoy. How many gym memberships have you purchased and let languish? Is there a piano, guitar or some other instrument gathering dust in a corner? Maybe there is a juicer or dehydrator tucked away in a cupboard. Do you feel a sense of dread as you pull on your running shoes or tap your Headspace app? Many of us will sacrifice heroically for some short-term goal, only to burn out completely once we’ve met it (or not) and then return to baseline or sink even deeper…

Ashtanga yoga practitioner and teacher David Williams has sustained a daily practice since 1971. What he says about yoga is probably also true for meditation and other practices: “From over 40 years of observing thousands of people practicing Yoga, I realize that those who continue are the ones who are able to figure out how to make it enjoyable. They look forward to their daily practice and nothing can keep them from finding the time to do it. It becomes one of the most pleasant parts of their day. The others, consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously, quit practicing.” Making your practice enjoyable doesn’t mean it will feel absolutely awesome everyday, but in the bigger picture, it will help you anticipate it joyfully and earnestly protect the time you’ve carved out for it.

Make it Social
Surround yourself with others who make mindfulness a part of their daily lives. In this way, practice becomes the norm. Your friends make room for it in their lives and they honor the space you need for it in yours. It comes up in conversation and its something around which you can bond. Their mindful behavior inspires and influences you and vice versa. You will start to feel accountable to your mindful friends to keep up with your practice and to live a life that is congruent with common values. Practicing with a group of like-minded people from time to time can help you develop these types of relationships and feel more supported in your journey. You may even begin to look forward to the time you spend practicing together.

When practice is done for a long time, without a break, and with sincere devotion, then the practice becomes a firmly rooted, stable and solid foundation. – Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1:14

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More Misuses of Mindfulness

In my interactions with other practitioners and in the classes I teach, I occasionally come across someone who is rigidly attached to their particular form of practice. They become irritable or agitated when, for whatever reason, they encounter something new or are pressed to experiment.

To some extent I understand this feeling, because I am a person who thrives on routine and can become a bit scattered when navigating the unexpected or unfamiliar. Although I am pretty insistent on having some sort of practice each day, I am willing to experiment with the form practice takes when circumstances demand it.

I realize that its not the ashtanga yoga or the vipassana style meditation that brings lasting happiness – these are just vehicles – they are the finger pointing at the moon. I have come to understand that encountering the unexpected and feeling a bit off balance is just more fodder for practice. How can we truly know our minds – our habits and biases – if we rarely traverse outside the comfort zone?

When we lose our equanimity because we can’t have things the way we want them, it is much like an addict who doesn’t get their fix. Addicts are caught in the illusion that they need their drug of choice to feel OK. In the short-term, a fix seems to help. In the long-term, the fundamental problem is just accumulating under the proverbial rug its being swept under. What is needed is already inside of us, it isn’t injected into us by something from the outside.

Chogyam Trungpa coined the term “spiritual materialism”, which is the belief that certain temporary states of mind can end suffering. He wrote, “The Lord of Mind rules when we use spiritual and psychological disciplines as the means of maintaining our self-consciousness, of holding onto our sense of self. Drugs, yoga, prayer, meditation, trances, various psychotherapies – all can be used in this way… If we become successful at maintaining our self-consciousness through spiritual techniques, then genuine spiritual development is highly unlikely. Our mental habits become so strong as to be hard to penetrate.”

A common example of spiritual materialism is when we use meditation purely as a means of relaxation. The temporary relief feels good in the moment, but results in disillusionment when it fails or eventually ceases. Another example is when we use self-compassion practices as a way of avoiding difficulty rather than as a way of helping ourselves to face difficulty. We may feel soothed in the moment, but become ruffled anew when we inevitably revisit the experience. If we use practice exclusively to build ourselves up or make ourselves comfortable, this is a misuse because practice is meant to help us see things as they truly are, not as we wish them to be. A skillful practitioner experiments to find a balance between prudent self-care and letting go of defenses, so that we can open to what is, even when it is unwanted.

…In the garden of gentle sanity,
May you be bombarded by coconuts of wakefulness.
– Chogyam Trungpa, excerpted from Timely Rain

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From Illusion to Delusion

IMG_0666For most of us, day to day life, on some level, is like a mirage. We function on automatic pilot, doing without truly inhabiting our experience. We proceed as though the people and things we count on will last forever – as if we are sovereign and autonomous beings, completely independent of others and our environment. When these illusions are inevitably shattered, we feel cheated and dissatisfied. To be disillusioned means discouragement in the face of truth revealed. However, if we can learn to be open to what is here, seeing things more clearly, we make space for acceptance and wise responding.

Phenomena that trick our senses are called illusion. But, when we consistently fail to recognize  that our senses have been fooled and we carry on as if false perception is truth, this is called delusion. If we continue to hold fast to illusion even in the face of strong contrary evidence, this can lead to great suffering for ourselves and others. People who hold beliefs that marginalize, or otherwise harm other people do so, in part, because they have bought into an illusion and are living in delusion.

The Illusion of Permanence
Because of the way we experience time and our tendency to operate on automatic pilot, we forget or fail to recognize that all things are constantly changing. This is the illusion of permanence. When we take this to a level of insistence that certain things must remain the same, we live in delusion. Some examples of this are people who undergo extensive and disfiguring plastic surgery in an attempt to maintain youth, sacrifice quality of life to extend it, or commandeer enormous resources to keep an outdated technology or career path viable. Consider belief systems such as neo-luddism (opposing the advancement of technology), nationalism (maintaining cultural “purity” and opposing “outside” influence), and anti-globalism (resisting increasing global connectivity). These misperceptions cause us to expend vast amounts of energy at great cost to try to resist what is inevitable.

People with delusional beliefs often do not understand or accept the basic truth of impermanence – that absolutely everything changes in time. Belief systems that are built on the idea that things should stay a certain way forever – usually a way that is preferred by or seen as advantageous to the belief holder – create problems for believers and everyone else around them. When things inevitably change, the people who hold these beliefs tend to feel as though they are being mistreated, forgotten or ignored so they take aggressive action to stem a tide that cannot be stopped.

The Illusion of Independence
From the moment our senses begin taking in information about the world, we start building a concept of self, distinct from others. Many of us in this culture are taught that we should “pick ourselves up by our bootstraps” and take care of our own. Some feel we should resist globalization because what is good for the many will deprive the few. They think that taking care of ourselves is enough. Others feel humanity is made up of separate and distinct types, and some types are fundamentally better than or have greater worth than others. They discriminate against individuals and groups based on arbitrary differences. People with these beliefs don’t understand the truth of interdependence, that we are all connected and what happens to one affects us all on some level. This allows the cycle of suffering to continue unabated.

How can we be more mindful of illusion so we don’t get caught up in delusion? First we can open ourselves to the possibility that our senses are fallible and our perceptions may be colored by our conditioning. This will give us some space to step back and examine our beliefs, collect data more objectively, and suspend knee-jerk reactions for wiser responding. In this way we can take a step out of the cycle of suffering and contribute to a more peaceful world.

People are distracted by objects of desire,
and afterwards repent of the lust they’ve indulged,
because they have indulged with a phantom
and are left even farther from Reality than before.

Your desire for the illusory is a wing,
by means of which a seeker might ascend to Reality.
When you have indulged a lust, your wing drops off;
you become lame and that fantasy flees.

Preserve the wing and don’t indulge such lust,
so that the wing of desire may bear you to Paradise.
People fancy they are enjoying themselves,
but they are really tearing out their wings for the sake of an illusion.

– Rumi, Wings of Desire

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