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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Skeptics and Deniers

While reading a recent article on denialism, I was reminded of two quotes by the writer Anaïs Nin. The first, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” clarifies for me the reference point for those who are skeptics or deniers regarding climate change and the causal aspects of human contribution. For them the determining factors are personal, not a lack of facts and figures. It’s not the science that’s the problem; it’s the idea that humanity could actually be responsible for what’s happening to the planet.  While we secretly want to be that powerful, when faced with the consequences of using that kind of power, we have difficulty believing we have made bad decisions. The industrial revolution and the burning of fossil fuels was all part of our progress forward, wasn’t it? How difficult it can then be to accept that perhaps it’s time to change course. So, it may seem that the actual determinants for skepticism or denial are grounded in the path leading to and then holding on IMG_1179to such a position.

Ultimately the drive to maintain the status quo, absent being in the maelstrom of an event undeniably tied to climate change, makes it easier to buy into the skeptic/denier mindset. Taking action in response to climate change means changing current business practices and lifestyles.  More than switching to LED lightbulbs or composting veggies, however, the actions required to respond to global warming are complex and have greater consequences.

This brings me to the second Anaïs Nin quote, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” When faced with such an overwhelming issue as climate change, staying in the “bud” may often seem the better, safer option.  Ultimately, however, the “risk” to remain will pose larger and more difficult problems that we may not have the ability to solve. There is a point, often identified as a “tipping” point, when this risk of holding on to the skeptic/denier posture becomes too painful.  Actually, I wonder if “tipping” isn’t too delicate a concept – this point may be more akin to the realization that locking the door of your house to prevent a tornado from ripping it off its foundation really isn’t the best response.
Hopefully, the skeptics and deniers will come to realize this before the tornado hits.

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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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Between the Words and Me

IMG_0402I just read the New York Times review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, “Between the World and Me” and am struck by the response. The words in the review seem to be formed at some distance from the work itself.  I’m surprised because this isn’t the kind of book that requires you to step back so you can see more critically.  It’s a work that demands you step in close so you can see, as Naomi Shihab Nye has pointed out, the “words under the words.”  This would help in keeping one from writing about confusion in Coates’ use of the term “American Dream” or his “hazardous tendency to generalize” or describe his tone as “Manichaean.”  However, I can imagine the anxiety of facing the authenticity of Coates’ experience and feeling the need to turn to some old ways of responding.

I wonder what it would be like to take in Coates’ words in a different way.  Suppose as a first step, you could simply witness what is being said, without bringing in assumptions and judgments.  I suspect you might say, “How can a reviewer review if without judgment?”  Our minds are judging almost every moment of every day – the point is to be aware of the causes and conditions that allow them to arise.  So, set them aside and see the words; create space for listening with your whole body to the full experience before you.  Being open and accepting of what is presented in front of you leads past the line of defense that might arise.  Openness allows the value of the other’s words to land in you so that you can appreciate the other and tolerate a connection that may have a raw aliveness to it.

We who are not black, who didn’t grow up with that history rooted in our being, have never simply been able to witness the experience of those who have.  There is always the temptation to distance oneself, to shut down, to defend against, to smile like it’s really okay now or to attempt to identify with the person in front of you.  I suggest that none of these reactions are going to move us forward to a more just place.

What’s needed is to begin with offering yourself as an open and accepting witness.  Really listening to the person who has the courage and strength to speak or write his own truth opens the door to see that your own truth is reflected in the words under the words.  Appreciate that once spoken or written, listened to or read, these are the words that can carry all of us forward to the more just and equitable world that is possible.

Thank you Ta-Nehisi Coates for your strong and beautiful voice!

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Independence Day

 

 

Here we are today, celebrating our becoming Independent,

A country standing on its own two feet.

Not being ruled by another or told what to do, able to sort it out for ourselves.

Great! Wonderful!

Are we ready now to move on beyond adolescence to adulthood?

Or are we still so taken with this newfound freedom

(How old are we really?)

that we cannot recognize/appreciate the strength of connection?

We are a country made up of differences

Or so we think.

It’s the sameness actually

And our ability to see that in each other

That makes us truly independent!

 

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Power and Vulnerability

My interest is in IMG_0192power and vulnerability as it applies to creating a sustainable environment.  We all have hopes or assumptions that we will continue living the good life here on earth in much the same as way we have been or better.  The bad news is that how we are currently living is not sustainable – not for those of us who benefit daily from technological advances or for those who fight daily to meet the need for food, water and safety. We are living a lie.

It is, however, a lie with comfort.  Ok, maybe not quite a lie, but an illusion.  We believe that we can power through a solution to every problem, that we have that power through science and technology and can overcome any roadblock to our continuing to thrive.  But it takes the will to survive, not simply the latest tools.  It takes collective will – an active, not passive, energy.  So, we don’t succeed by assuming someone else will work it out – not science and technology, not government, not private enterprise, not God.  It’s up to us.

For all of us to come together, there needs must be a galvanizing force.  I believe that acknowledging our collective vulnerability in the face of events like extreme weather occurrences, mass migrations from beleaguered countries, big money pressure to exploit the environment, and becoming aware of the injustice you’ve done to your neighbor can be what pulls us together.  The curious thing about “collective vulnerability” is that there is power in the sharing of it.  And being vulnerable does not mean without hope.  It’s more like acknowledging that I can’t do it alone and, looking around, realizing that we are all in it together.  Commitment comes easier if you are in it with someone else.

So, from the backseat of the car, my question to you is, “Are we there yet?”

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Changing Our Story

IMG_0349We all have personal stories that we hold close, because in some way we feel they function as the storehouse of who we really are.  These stories are our history, some from long ago and others perhaps from as recent as yesterday.  While they do influence how we see ourselves, we tend to give them a solid and immutable status in our lives. I believe there is some comfort in that.

There is also pain. Some of these stories are not the ones we would have chosen had we been able to select those that match the idea of who we want to be.  But we carry them with us all the same.  Somewhere in our collective upbringing, we learned that because we can’t change history, we cannot change our stories. This isn’t necessarily true.  It may not be easy but exists as a possibility for even those of us with the biggest, darkest stories.

Sometimes the story that appears most solid is not so much a personal one but how we live our day to day lives, how we make decisions about what’s good and bad, right and wrong.  Consider the following two examples: The earth exists primarily as a resource for us to use. New and improved technological/economic development allows us to use and dispose of objects so that we can continue to demand more, newer, better products.  These are just two of the shared collective stories that support both our social and economic structures.  They and others have become part of our everyday reality.

I believe we can change these stories if we discover that they no longer serve us.  But beyond recognizing a need to change, there must also be the sense that we do really have a choice.  Otherwise the prospect of letting go a familiar way of being can be terrifying.  This applies to personal and collective stories alike.  And if one has the experience of letting go a personal story, realizing that it may not reflect the whole of who you are or is based on a wound that no longer has to define you, then it may be easier to accept that a collective story may also be exchanged for a different one.

What is needed for these larger societal stories is a tipping point, where the number of people who understand that change is possible come together. They don’t need to all come with the same idea of what is needed.  Better if there are diverse thoughts about which way to go, better if there is dialogue, questioning and open listening. Better if what they share is a commitment to each other in moving forward, not remaining in the status quo.  These are the same qualities needed for oneself in taking on a different personal story but broader and more inclusive.  Above all, in both cases, it really is a matter of choice.

 

 

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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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Reality and Relativity

You don’t have to be Einstein to understand how the concept of relativity works us in our day to day lives.  For several years I worked in Vermont during the month of January.  Often during those periods the temperature in the early morning hovered around -12 degrees Farenheit.  Even the yoga mat in the trunk of the car was frozen!  And more than once, I would get stuck attempting to drive the winding mountain road and need to have the car towed out of a snowbank.  My point about this is that when I then returned to New York City, most everyone I encountered was complaining about the unbearable cold weather when the temperature was in the mid-twenties.  I didn’t feel cold at all; as a matter of fact I think I took some pleasure in saying that I thought it was balmy!

Consider how our experience as well as our body-mind perceptions of our circumstances contributes to this issue of relativity.  If I hadn’t spent time in Vermont, I would certainly have been one among many complaining about how cold it was.

I realize that this seems relatively simplistic – I imagine you’re thinking of course that makes sense.  But suppose you apply this concept to other aspects of how we order or relate to situations, ideas and relationships.  For instance, the where and how you grew up, the place where you lived and the people with whom you shared your early years,  are the basis for comparison later on.  Again, of course. Well it might have been that you grew up in a remote part of the rainforest in Ecuador where your day to day life is dependent on the natural environment around you.  Then you meet people who regard this environment of yours as a resource to be used but with an agenda that, relative to your way of being, is abusive and disrespectful.  At the least, it would make appreciating their point of view very difficult.  And, considering that the story they have lived by is focused on furthering technological development and doing whatever they can to support that way of life, it would be difficult for them to appreciate your perspective on the environment.  Each of you looks at the situation from a relative position.  There is a different reality for each of you.

Consider another story where you grow up in a poor urban environment with a family constellation that shifted many times during your early years.  Perhaps there were often struggles for food, shelter and education.  From this perspective, those that had a stable family and enough money to serve their needs might seem privileged in a way beyond your own options.  They might not have much awareness of the circumstances in which you are living just as you may have a sense about how they live based on assumptions about how different they seem.   Again each of you has a different reality relative to your circumstances and experience.

What I wonder is how the sense of “differentness” might be set aside to see/understand the other more clearly.   Somewhere along the way, during the development of our species, we decided that our experience is THE ONLY REALITY or THE RIGHT REALITY.  What we need to appreciate is that there are multiple realities and they are all relative to who is in it and who is outside. Perhaps the solution resides in each taking his/her own sense of reality a little more lightly so we can be more open to the reality next door.  Relatively speaking, that is.

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