Category Archives: Meditation

Meditation and Mirrors

IMG_0902Meditation is a door that is open to all of us. The way in doesn’t require a brilliant mind, a strong body, abundant income or a special talent.  It demands only that you show up, however you happen to be that day, at that moment when you begin to meditate.  As difficult as it may seem, there is really an incredible ease and simplicity to it.

Some aspect of the experience of meditating often reminds me of h0w it is to look in a mirror.  Think about your attitude when you step up to a mirror. What are you expecting to see? Do you focus in on one aspect of yourself or do you take in the whole person looking back at you? How many seconds before judgments or stories set in and take up space in your head? In what way does it seem that this image in the mirror is you? And is it the “real” you?

We might ask the same questions when we sit in meditation. We incline towards attaching judgments or stories to the experience of the self that is showing up on the cushion.  Who is it we expect to meet there? Do we limit what we allow in, accepting only certain aspects and not others?  Is there a sense of disconnect between the image and who we “see” inside? Are we looking for a constant core that shows us who we really are, finding instead that it shifts and changes?

I, myself, seem to be at an age where the image I see in the mirror is constantly changing and in the most unexpected (and, to be honest, often undesirable) ways.  How is this like meditation? You take up the cushion and expect to meet the same person you were yesterday or even years ago, believing that there is some consistent self inside. It’s rather amazing that we assume such solidity in this “self” but not so different from the sense we have that our bodies will continue to have our familiar form each time we look in the mirror.

One thing I have noticed is that the more dissonant the mirror image compared to my sense of actual physical appearance, the more consonant is the sense of self inside with the shifting present moment self that simply shows up when I meditate.  An interesting divergence I would say…

 

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Holding Space

This phrase, “holding space” is a relatively recent addition to the lexicon of those who speak about interactions and relationships between and among people.  None of us grew up with this phrase in our vocabulary.  I’m not sure what I would have imagined it to mean if I didn’t already know. As I consider it now, an image comes to mind of throwing oneself onto the empty space in front of the curb along a city street in a vain attempt to keep anyone else from parking there.  Perhaps this isn’t an accurate picture, but the whole body energy required is not so dissimilar.  It can take a great deal of focus and energy to “hold space.”

My intention here is to consider the meaning of the phrase and what it looks and feels like when you are “holding space” for a person or group of individuals and their experience.  Behind that initial intention is the wondering about how we learn to hold space since clearly it is a learned skill or action, and frankly, most of us haven’t got it.

So, to begin, it would seem that you must be present to the person or group.  Does that mean physically present? I know what it’s like to hold space for someone over the phone, so it would seem that physical presence is not exactly required.  I do believe that you must be connected in some way through the senses of seeing, hearing or touching.  Tasting and smelling might be available but certainly not required.  And thinking or mind activity as the sixth sense is another issue entirely – one I will touch on later.  The point is that being present to a person or group means that you are connected in some way.  This connection also has some focus to it; it isn’t a casual flyby.  It isn’t a person you pass on the street or someone sitting across from you on the train, although it is possible that some circumstance shifts the focus of your interaction or relationship with that person and you find yourself holding space for him/her.

Once you are present in this way, perhaps the next consideration would be the nature of the space being held.  The qualities of this space help determine the qualities that you, as the holder of that space, must bring to it.  First it must feel safe, both on a physical and emotional level.  Second, The space must allow for the person to be heard and/or seen without hindrance.  Third, the takeaway must be determined by the person, not the holder of space.  These are seemingly simple requirements, but how do you ensure that they remain alive in that space?

One of the most critical qualities of the person holding the space is being fully focused on what’s happening with the person or group before you. No thinking of what you need to do later or of some incident that occurred the day before.  Your thinking or mind activity must be calm and open to the present moment.  It means relinquishing judgments, reactions and interpretations of what is happening so that all of your energy is available for witnessing.  In effect, holding space means being the best kind of witness – open, accepting, able to meet what’s happening with loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.

If these seem familiar, they are known as the Brahma-Viharas in Buddhist practice.  One does not, however, have to be Buddhist to see that these might be beneficial to pursue.  These are not concepts to be understood but ways of being in this world.  How could they not serve us to be the best humans we could possibly be?  What I love about them is that they are not presented in terms of what NOT to do; they don’t have the sense of rules or laws.  They do not threaten or exhort. Instead they represent an inner grounded state of being from which speech and actions emanate.  They enable us to speak and act with the kind of intention that supports healthy and humane interactions.

I suspect by now you might find that exploring the phrase “holding space” has led us far afield. In response, I would invite you to imagine how your life might be different if you learned how to incorporate these practices into your relationships and interactions with others.  This is a path that can even help us accomplish a related and most difficult task – that of holding space for ourselves.  Allow yourself a moment to consider what that might look like…

 

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Reflections

Eric's ClownI’ve been wondering about how we mirror our inner environment, our thoughts, our relationships.  We often believe that our appearance is neutral in the sense that we can dress it up or down and make it reflect whatever mood we wish.  But it doesn’t necessarily work like that.

There is an energy within that isn’t so easily masked, that seeps through, no matter how thick the make up or how loud the laugh.  When we are all about adding to the external – even changing diets or spending hours at the gym – the inside makes itself known.  Perhaps we harbor some belief that by shifting the outer skin, that change will penetrate deep into our inner recesses and transform what lies there.

I’ve noticed during my travels on the New York City subway that no one smiles.  Sometimes kids or babies do, but adults, no.  Even abiding by the rules of subway etiquette, not making eye contact, one can see that the faces all seem to carry some degree of worry or tension.  I would even guess that most thoughts behind those expressions have to do with what lies ahead that day or what happened earlier.  You simply don’t see a look of contentment or satisfaction anywhere, let alone a hint of a smile.

I recall what riding the NYC subway was like in the late 60’s or early 70’s. You had to be alert to who was around you and what was happening as a way of protecting yourself and staying safe.  But there is much less crime now allowing for a more relaxed atmosphere.  And still no one smiles.

I’m not expecting wild grinning or raucous laughter, but what would it take to reflect more of an inner peace rather than tension or worry? I recently brought my metta (lovingkindness) practice into the NYC subway.  So now I sit (or stand) and wish for everyone in the subway car to be happy, to be healthy, to be free from harm and to live with ease.  I wish this over and over again while I ride the train. I realize that wishing doesn’t make it so, and the practice might seem simplistic, however, something interesting happened while I was practicing metta.

Here’s what I noticed:  I wasn’t making judgments about any of the people around me.  I wasn’t thinking about what I had to do the rest of the day. I wasn’t preoccupied with what had happened the day, week or month before. I wasn’t berating myself for not having done whatever I should have done or said.  I wasn’t thinking about how I looked or felt.  I was peaceful and the suggestion of a smile was spreading from the inside out.

I realized that all the while I had been wondering why no one was smiling, I wasn’t smiling either.

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Comfort Zone Talk

The Path Ahead

The Path Ahead

I’ve noticed a lot more talk recently about being in your “comfort zone” or stepping out of your “comfort zone.”  I have begun to wonder if there really is such a place.  The intention behind the phrase seems to be a place that is easy, comfortable and where you are not stressed more than you can handle (whatever that means).   A place where you have the skills to meet what is asked of you or perhaps nothing challenging is asked of you.  A place of familiarity that keeps you safe in some way. Having so many ways to describe it, I admit I do know what it feels like.

Which brings me to understand it more as a feeling part of myself.  It may also be a place of numbness, grief or fear.  “Comfort zone” has often more to do with the relationship with what lies at its borders.  It isn’t necessarily a happy or contented place.  It depends on what keeps you there.  There might be a longing to move beyond the edges of this place even while appreciating the sense of safety you experience there.

Could the more important question be, “How does your comfort zone serve you?”

Is it a place of retreat?  Or a launching pad – the secure ground that propels you forward into the unknown? Perhaps it’s both.  It’s important to have access to a part of ourselves that feels safe, but it doesn’t need to be a static place.  It can shift and move – it can be carried with us as we take the next steps we need to take.

I find that the more I move beyond the edge of what feels comfortable for me, the more I experience the edge of that zone extending to meet me where I am.  Like having clothing that moves with you rather than binds.  I believe that living at this edge is possible if one has a practice that supports you there.  It might be mindfulness meditation or whatever tools you have to help create moments of nonjudgmental awareness, compassion and equanimity.  That may seem a tall order but essentially, it’s not that much more than an open, expanded “you.”  This opening is what enables us to meet what lies ahead with the fullness of who we are, no holding back.  It’s the voice inside that says, “You can so do this!”

 

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Earth, Sky, Heart = Peace

Consider the quality of being present in your body right now.  What is the quality or character of that sensation?  Is it in fact a sensation – or something else?  Maybe you’re curled up in a chair, computer in your lap, maybe sitting on a train reading the screen on your cell phone, or sneaking a moment for yourself while at work – notice whatever posture you find your body in right now.  Take a moment, this moment, and focus your whole attention on what is happening in your body.  Don’t wait for the instructor in yoga class to coach you there or the teacher at the meditation center to offer guidance, you can take this trip yourself any time you want.

Sometime the simplest action can generate the deepest awareness.  It doesn’t always require special equipment and herculean effort.  You are, after all, in your body.   Should it be a big leap then to inhabit it fully, to be totally there?  If you are caught up in thoughts, don’t be thinking that you are in your mind and not in your body, because, as my former teacher used to say, “Your mind is part of your body, isn’t it?”  Perhaps you can be in your mind and body at the same time, fully present to both.

Usually the act of bringing focus to the body means noticing the purely physical sensations that are happening.  Pain, constriction, fatigue, hunger or sometimes what seems to be neutral or without clearly articulated qualities.  I often wonder that what draws our attention are the primarily negative or neutral characteristics, not the energized or “feeling good” ones.  Don’t these last speak loud enough to be heard?  What might be the quietest sense you can tune into?

Now make the shift to notice what kind of feeling state is inhabiting your body in this moment.  We don’t often acknowledge that feeling states are in our bodies, but they are also physical sensations and certainly manifest in the body.  We don’t simply walk around with concepts of anger, sadness or joy in our minds.  We experience them in a physical way.  The heart can seem to be the locus of feeling for us, but is it a source or a container for what’s circulating through our bodies?  Perhaps it simply feels like the center of who we are.

Imagine your heart is this center and holds you in the space between being grounded in the earth and reaching for the sky.  Stand with your feet hip distance apart, your spine long and arms stretched down, held away from your sides with palms facing forward.  Inhale and slowly bring your arms overhead so that your palms touch.  Exhale and bring your hands down to the level of your heart, palms still together.  Stay for a moment and receive another breath.  Then give your breath away and stretch your arms down and away from your sides again.  Breathe in and continue to bring them overhead so that palms touch each other.  Repeat this sequence a few times and see where your attention goes.  Does it seem that it fills your entire body?

Notice that with these movements you have created the peace sign with your body.  Rest in that awareness.

 

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My Body’s Changing so Who Am I?

Welcome change!  Where would I be without you?  Well, think about it – I wouldn’t be alive, that’s for sure.  Yet looking in the mirror, I find myself wondering who this is looking back at me.   There is some part of me that must have expected that I would continue to look the same.  It would be the familiar face of me, the one I’ve become used to over my adult life, always.   Interesting that now I think back to adolescence, which was certainly a time for changes in my body and appearance.  But not the same as now.  I believe the difference then was the sense of excitement that accompanied what was happening.  Even if I wasn’t pleased with a particular change, the overall sense of it was looking forward to what was to come.  There were plans and goals and new experiences to be met.  Changes then may not always have been greeted with open arms, but the energy in them was about moving forward.  Why is it that, in the later years of life, what lies ahead can often feel more like sliding down a slippery slope than rising to meet challenges?

There seems to be more attachment at this point to what was.  And perhaps years of perfecting the voice of judgment within.  This voice is the one that is not liking what’s happening, wanting the body to stay the same, considering desperate measures or placing blame for what’s changed.  All as if these shifts in one’s body could be avoided.  

Where are our role models for growing old, for aching joints and sagging skin?  Even if a role model exists for us it isn’t his/her body that is the focus of inspiration.  It is more likely what he or she is accomplishing in spite of the physical body.  Maybe the bigger question is how to show up fully human with all that’s shifting and changing and be ok with that.  We are a culture that relies on reflection – not the inward kind but the mirrored image of who we think we should be.  It’s generally a full screen representation of who we want to be or the image we desire to project to others that drives the ability to accept changes in our bodies.

So how do we turn the mirror back on itself?  Would it even work?  Imagine a world without mirrors – where the only option to “see” oneself is in someone else’s eyes.  We might then have to accept a new level of vulnerability – the reality of being seen by another.  Mask – less.  It may seem more difficult than what we do now, but somehow I think not.    This could be a practice that leads us to the wonder of feeling connected to other human beings in a way that doesn’t easily happen now.  It might help us realize that we are all the same, we all change and that change has the capacity to reveal to us who we truly are.  How bad can that be?

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Parts of Me

Everyday some part of me calls my attention and has the potential to carry me down some road away from my centered self.  I wouldn’t mind but for the fact that I feel better whole, not parceled out or divided up.  It seems that I can lean into the day with my head, my hands or perhaps with a body part that is sore or hurting.  At other times it can be the part of me that contains the story of feeling tired or overwhelmed or riding a wave of solid and secure.  There are definitely days where I am all about where I’m going or what I have to do next.  And, of course, there are other days where the weight of yesterday or even a lingering dream from the night before is what takes up space in the bigger part of me.

Rilke, in the Duino Elegies, writes that “We live our lives, for ever taking leave.”   He may have been talking about situations or places, but do we not take leave of ourselves many times in the course of our daily living?  It’s not simply that we are distracted; we are actually living outside of the corporeal self that supports us through this lifetime.  Our awareness is elsewhere often far from the here and now, with the sense of looking past or through this physical body.  Mostly we believe that this is how we are supposed to function.

How might is be to lean into the day from an anchored point – a breath and body awareness?  We are often reminded to go back to the breath and that can certainly serve as an anchor for awareness.  However, breath is in the body; the whole process of breathing occurs in the body.  It’s not something that happens outside of our physical selves but requires movement and involves the whole body.  While we may think of breathing as pertaining only to the pathway in and out with a brief pause in between, it is our entire embodied self that is being breathed.

A friend and colleague of mine has been known to suggest that students practice “receiving” a breath instead of “taking” one.  This is an offering that can change the posture of breathing so that it becomes more of a whole body experience.  In the moment of whole body breathing is an opportunity to pause and shift attention away from whatever part is dominating and drop into a more centered stance.  Even if the shift doesn’t last very long, the fact that you’ve experienced it can be enough to bring a different energy to that part of you demanding attention.  And, in this way, you have already taken another step in the direction of living your life from the point of wholeness.

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Unseen, then Seen

Walking on the beach, living near a major airport, there are often planes that appear in the sky out over the ocean on their landing approach.  What’s interesting about this occurrence is that, as one gazes at the place where they seem to be coming from, there is nothing to see.  Sometimes I find myself focused on the empty spot in anticipation of the emergence of a plane, certain that one will appear, yet wondering how it makes that shift from being “unseen” to “seen.”   It seems there might be a slit in the sky – an opening that I cannot see through which the plane emerges.  With awareness of that thought comes a smile – I am reminded once again of how our minds attempt to alter reality to suit what we think it should be.  I expect to be able to see it, so why can’t I?

This situation may seem obvious in the sense of simply not respecting or appreciating the limits of our senses, however, how many times is this exactly what we do?  How would it be to take a few steps back and look at the bigger picture here, acknowledging how easy it is to slide into the practice of making up a story when we can’t see clearly – bringing our own interpretation to what may seem to be happening (or not happening).  And often, even when we are aware that we are providing our own home screen entertainment,  some or all of that story becomes real for us.  All the more so if it’s a particularly good story!

So, why do we do this?  Why do we fill in the space?  What gets in the way of allowing an opening for the unseen to become seen?  Not such a simple answer –  is it impatience, perhaps, being uncomfortable or unaccepting of not knowing?  Maybe it’s a matter of the “shoulds” – feeling that we should already know.  Or is it simply a moment of groundlessness?  How might we see them more as “leap of faith” moments – certain that the knowing will unfold?

In the practice of meditation and mindfulness there are also many opportunities for filling in the blanks.  We practice or sit expecting (or hoping for) the insight  that will help us translate our experience into the bliss of enlightenment or at least move us further along in that direction.  Perhaps it’s during our yoga practice or while taking a walk, maybe even when we awaken in the middle of the night, that we long for an answer that eludes us.

So how does a new understanding come about?  How do we really move from the unseen to the seen with regard to even the most burning questions in our lives?  I wonder if it’s not much simpler than we might consider.  It begins with a pause – taking a moment to let go of the grasping towards what we want to know.  Then a shift to trust that the answer or insight will emerge – in other words, that it’s in there somewhere.  Then there’s the issue of readiness – being open to whatever the insight might be and a willingness to go with it.  This last is important, because often the insight might come but we find ourselves digging in our heels saying, “Oh no, this isn’t the answer I was hoping for.”  I suspect that may be the point where we need to go back to the beginning and pause again…

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Love is All There Is

It seems that none of us are born loving ourselves.  It even sounds odd to talk about an infant “loving” in our most familiar sense of the word.  What’s happening for him are sensations which might be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, what feels good or not, but hardly anything we would call love.  How does the feeling of loving oneself emerge or develop?

Suppose, just for a moment, that this is the purpose for each one of us in our lifetime, to come to feel unconditional love for ourselves.  How that happens can be a very convoluted route.  We first experience love in some way from people around us.  Mostly it would seem that what we learn is conditional – based on our behavior, how we look,  what we say or issues that have nothing even to do with us.   An infant growing up is left to interpret the signs, some of which may be subtle and some loud and obvious.  We don’t come knowing who we are, so we depend on these messages from those around us.  We internalize what is shown or said to us and, for the most part, come to believe this is who we are.

It’s true this may not be information that is new to you.  But, in the context of growing to love ourselves, how is it that we can come to learn that we are really okay and worthy of being accepted completely as we are?  Might it not be a matter of remembering a moment of wholeness – where there was no judgment, no sense of unsatisfactoriness.  All that is there is a fullness, an acceptance of however we are in that moment.  It’s a felt sensation that is independent of where we are, who we are with or what we are doing.  It’s simply a matter of being.

Mostly we consider that how we feel about ourselves depends on what’s happening, or what has happened or the possibility of what may happen.  All these considerations impinge on what we think of ourselves.  Interesting that so much effort can be spent on shoring up the bulwark around our own identity, trying to make it stronger or less impervious to outside influences.  It takes some remembering to get back to the whole and realize that nothing can touch or change the core of our being.  It’s not possible.

So, suppose you find a comfortable seat, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths in and out.  Now let yourself remember an earlier time when you experienced the sensation of loving and/or being loved.  See if you can set the story aside and focus on the feeling.  It needn’t be one of those BIG, LIFE CHANGING events; it might be a few moments when you felt ok inside, when there was the beginning of an inner smile happening for no particular reason.  After you’ve connected with that feeling, open your eyes and move to where you can see yourself in a mirror.  Look directly at the person there in front of you. Allow yourself to remember that inner smile and consider that, regardless of what may have happened since that earlier time, or what might happen in the future or even what thoughts and emotions are creeping in at this very moment, you are the same inside.  That inner smile, the feeling of loving yourself, is there, simply waiting to be remembered.

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Seeing in the Dark

What do you see when you close your eyes?  Or is the point not to see but to allow yourself to open up to other, perhaps less dominant, senses?  Consider the common situations in which you focus with eyes closed – when preparing for sleep, when desirous of intensifying a sensation being experienced, or perhaps to avoid imprinting an image that is disturbing or frightening.  Most examples probably fit into these categories, though there may be times when you close your eyes in order to embrace a moment of stillness and quiet.  These last are the moments that invite a closer look.

When you close eyes initially, there can be a sense of  noticing the quality of the darkness.  It can show up differently – sometimes close and heavy, at other times cool and spacious, and, of course, with a range of sensations in between.  Sometimes it seems as if the dark is right in front of your face, and, at other times, it can feel as though it envelops your entire body.  This is the period of settling in, and it carries you past the first few moments.  So, if your intention is for more than a 20 second break, what is it that happens next?

Ah…  This is the place that has the potential for the real beginning of a new and potentially life changing experience.   Suppose you are closing your eyes to begin  meditation or checking in with your inner self during your yoga practice or while being supported through a yoga therapy session.  In any of these scenarios, sliding into the darkness allows you to shift focus to what’s happening from the inside out.  It’s a different perspective.  It’s one that frees you in a way from the connection to the senses; it changes the perspective from which you are taking in the world around you.  That shift allows a mindful space to simply be with yourself.

There is something about being in the dark that provides a new, in the moment,  experience.  It’s different every time, and you can never be sure who or what you will encounter.  Of course, after a moment or two, your mind will jump in to fill what it perceives as a void.  Thoughts of future and past, judgments, expectations and concerns are just some of the characters that will take up space in the dark.  What might it look like to greet them, welcome them in, invite them to sit with you a while?  Consider it like “working the room” in a social setting where you acknowledge each guest, listen a bit and move on, never getting too involved with each individual but keeping close awareness of the bigger picture.   Perhaps not a comfortable analogy but a serviceable one.  The point is not to become too attached to any one thought or emotion but not to fight against them or try to shut them out as you move from one to the next.

How would it be to enter the dark with the kind of anticipation of seeing a great movie you’ve heard about – to bring that kind of energy in but without the sense of attachment to what the movie turns out to be?  Might that draw you to want to sit in meditation or close eyes during yoga practice or a yoga therapy session and see what happens?  Think of the richness that is you and all that is waiting to be discovered.  Most of all, allow yourself to entertain the possibility of getting to know the person you are from the inside out.

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