The Mindful Middle

In a recent episode of  Meet the Press the panel was discussing a change of leadership in the Democratic party and the possibility of Tim Ryan replacing Nancy Pelosi. Mr. Ryan is the congressman from Youngstown, Ohio and has written a book titled Mindful Nation. Panelist Kathleen Parker remarked: Well, one quick note on Tim Ryan, I think his gifts might be better used right now if he could just teach all of us how to meditate. 

Laughter ensues.

Underlying Ms. Parker’s droll throw-away line was a dull recognition of perhaps the only thing both the left and the right can agree upon: the American people are a jingle jangle bundle of nerves. We are an anxious nation. 

I dream of a country where we would all take Kathleen Parker’s silly suggestion seriously. What if we all learned to meditate? All of us, including those who govern and those who are governed.

Especially  those who govern. 

Imagine a Congress composed of non-reactive legislators who could maintain focus and composure. Imagine a compassionate Senate. Imagine a president who was an attentive and focused listener. A hostile person can provoke a crowd; a self-possessed non-reactive person can steady them. A calm attitude, like a hostile one, can be contagious. If our leaders could become a bit more mindful, calmness, compassion and empathy might just trickle-down.

I dream about this as I stand out here on the front lines teaching people to practice meditation. I dream of it especially when I'm facing a room full of skeptics who think of mindfulness meditation as a silly past time, something that should be relegated to the venue of a swami or some other patchouli-scented situation where they would never be caught dead. I ignore their  resistance. I ignore their resistance because I’m stubborn which you may not think jives with someone who teaches mindfulness meditation. But you’d be wrong. There’s nothing more enlightened or less anxious about me than there is about you. But I stubbornly believe if I can get someone to try this out despite themselves, they may come to understand how consistently sitting in stillness and not accomplishing a single thing accomplishes quite a bit.

My least resistant students are those whom we politely refer to as seniors. This is probably because there is so little that surprises them. I don’t know the average age in the independent living community where I teach, but my parents ages 90 and 94 live there and they are not the oldest. This group of meditators are struggling to find a way to accept a challenging state of physical affairs. When they enter the room, it takes a while for them to traverse around the plastic chairs with their walkers. Hearing aides are more common than not. I tell them that having a mindful meditation practice helps you to be non-reactive. It helps you to respond more reasonably to aggravating situations. There’s a kind of pause that you can own when you’ve learned to sit in stillness and observe your own thoughts.

A while ago, one of the ladies came in and said to me: You know that thing you told us about being non-reactive. Well, last week someone asked me to do something and I said, I’ll get back to you.  

I love that. 

On the other end of the spectrum are the little kids. I tell them I’m going to teach them to do something they’ve known how to do since the moment they were born. Even babies can do it. We’re going to learn to breathe. They think that’s hilarious. So do I. But even the kids catch on pretty fast. They take a few deep breaths. We do something called square breathing. Tracing a square in the air with our fingers. Taking an in-breath for the top of the square, an out-breath for the side. Another in-breath for the bottom and another exhale for the other side. And after a few squares, they tell me they feel calmer.

The lawyers are my most difficult students They don’t catch on as quickly as the kids and they like to cross-examine me. They just don’t want to believe something so simple could help them be less anxious. Even less do they want to believe it can help them be more composed and focused. But I give them the scientific evidence and I tell them about neuroplasticity and Sara Lazar and her fMRI studies at Harvard. How the brains of people who have a mindfulness meditation practice are different than those who don’t. The gray matter of the brain improves its texture. It’s just like exercise, I tell them. When you exercise, your muscles become stronger and you increase your endurance. I think that makes sense to them, but I’m never sure. Not even at the seminar I taught last week when there were a room full of them, all with their eyes closed and their mouthes closed, and all except for two of them doing exactly as I instructed them.

The two in the corner of the room held fast to their mobile devices and tapped away with gusto. I accept meditation is not for everyone. Tiny screens have a powerful draw. Still, I plan to stay stubborn and to bring mindfulness into as many people's lives as I can until the words of Kathleen Parker are no longer a throw-away comment and the idea of taking a few intentional breaths and sitting in stillness is no more crazy than the idea of going to the gym.

It's not fair to leave it all up to Tim Ryan. It's important and possible for mindfulness to trickle down from the three branches of our government and also possible for it to drift up from the populace. Then perhaps we might all meet in the mindful middle.

It's a Matter of Practice

For the past five years, I've sat down just about every day to practice meditation and only recently have I realized exactly what it is I am practicing. 

The revelation came a few months ago when I was about to undergo some outpatient surgery. Deep in the vast cavernous space of the surgery prep area, a nurse with a well-practiced monotone directed me to remove all my clothes, place them in the plastic bag and change into the hospital gown, opening in the back. There was a clue that I was in the subordinate position. Still I followed her orders, hopped up on the gurney, pulled the thin sheet over me and waited to see what the next person would do to me. The next person was a nurse anesthetist with a cool surfer dude personality and even though he put me at ease a little bit, it was really starting to sink in that someone would be cutting something off of me soon. By the time the anesthesiologist came around to approve the silly sauce about to be injected into my veins, I was at full tilt worry and anxiety. She introduced herself and then remarked to me how unusually calm I appeared. What was my secret, she wanted to know. 

That’s when I realized something about my meditation practice. I do sit down daily to practice something, but calling it meditation makes it seem a little loftier than it actually is. Most of the real estate in my brain has been staked out by anxiety and fear, grief and despair, doubt and uncertainty and misgivings. It's not that I'm calm while I'm sitting in stillness, I'm just practicing remaining calm as my emotions toss me around.

So when the nurse pulled the curtain shut behind her and separated us into the very clear categories of patient and healthcare professionals, I felt my anxiety level shoot up and I observed my thoughts race to terrifying conclusions. This was stress and this was appropriate for anyone about to have surgery. I was not feeling calm. In fact, I was extremely anxious. But there was something different about me than the other people hooked up to IVs in the pre-op center whom this doctor was about to anesthetize. I was comfortable with my anxiety. I was comfortable with my anxiety because for the past five years I have practiced remaining calm as emotions roil through my body.

Substitute in any anxiety-producing situation of your own for my stint in the land of outpatient surgery. It might be a client asking you the one question you dread; it might be your co-worker throwing you under the bus. Lots to choose from here. Being on intimate terms with your own anxiety might just shift the way you handle stressful situations.

You can say I meditate, but I say I observe the anxiety while I cultivate the calm. This takes a lot of practice.

Learn One, Do One, Teach One

Last week, I attended a meditation class at MNDFLmeditation in the East Village in NYC. As it turns out, coastal cities have drop-in meditation studios and they are lovely. MNDFL is a graceful little studio-- a bright clear space with white-washed brick walls, comfy furnishings in soothing shades of gray and shiny wood floors.

 

The class I took was for beginners-- a heart-based meditation. I attend meditation classes for a couple of reasons. So I can learn and so I can steal ideas to bring to my students. There were about twenty of us arranged around the  studio room with a variety of props. The props were similar to what you might find in a yoga studio: woven Mexican blankets, cushions, blocks and also a meditation chair which is a cushion with a back rest attached. I like to have back support and was almost peer pressured into not grabbing one, but at the last minute I did and I did not regret it. 

The teacher, Marcela Clavijo, talked to us for a while and encouraged self-acceptance and other useful concepts before having us settle in for the guided meditation. During the guided meditation portion, Marcella suggested going back and forth between two emotional goal posts. She told us to think about a situation where we might feel ashamed or guilty. She suggested trying something fairly superficial like that time you forgot to send a thank you note and you're still dwelling on it. From there we were to pivot to a time when we felt proud or accomplished like the time when someone tells you one of your blog posts really resonates for them. Then we practiced flashing back and forth between the two posts. 

Marcela cautioned us not to go too deep too quickly. Staying superficial at the beginning is important and I can see why. Just remembering a couple of trivial situations (one that triggered shame and one that triggered  pride) stirred up an onslaught of emotions. 

This was a very different experience for me. I am used to looking for the stillness when I meditate. This meditation agitated me. It made me uncomfortable. I say this not as a criticism, but as an objective observation. I'll try this again sometime on my own, but I will be cautious. It's a really powerful meditative venture and one that demands the respect of the practitioner.

If you get a chance to stop by MNDFL, I highly recommend it. Can't wait until I can go back! 

Mediocre Meditator

I am proud of being able to sit and meditate every day for twenty minutes. 

It may be the biggest accomplishment of my life and people admire me for it.

People say: I can’t do it. 

People also say: I meditate when I go for a run. It’s the same thing.

It’s not. 

I like to go for runs. I like to do yoga. I find both activities useful on both physical and mental levels. But neither activity or anything else is a substitute for sitting in stillness. 

I tell them these things and the reply is usually the same. 

I've tried. I can't stop my thoughts.

I fall asleep.

It's not for me. 

Fair enough. Here's what I think these people are really saying: I've tried to meditate, but I'm not much good at it. I prefer to do things I can do well.

Myself, I’m a mediocre meditator. If meditation were an Olympic event, I would not be invited to participate. No one would ever pick me to be on their meditation team. 

At home, I sit in a chair when I meditate. When I go to a group meditation and sit on a cushion with my back unsupported, mostly what I try not to think about is how uncomfortable I am sitting on a cushion with my back unsupported. 

I try to convince myself to sign up for a meditation retreat. How disagreeable to sit in silence for hours or even days. To take a break from all my creature comforts and submit to discomfort, boredom, probably hunger sounds so unpleasant. It’s not like they’re offering a chocolate milkshake with their inner peace. 

The idea of going someplace where where the participants are trying to deepen their understanding of self and increase their well-being terrifies me. It all sounds so serious and a little depressing. I suppose my resistance stems from a fear of the uncomfortable and the unknown. If I knew I could survive or even enjoy a meditation retreat, it’s possible I might sign up for one. 

People might say: Stay tuned.

Position Yourself for Success

Karen asks: I’m a larger person. Do you have suggestions for meditating in positions other than on a comfy chair?

Yes. Of course. Lying down, legs crossed in double lotus position on a cushion, one leg bent with ankle pressed against thigh and other leg stretched long either with back supported by a wall or unsupported, feet flat on the ground and butt on a hard chair. Whatever position works for you is the perfect position in which to practice meditation. That is strictly my opinion and not the opinion of many a practitioner. 

After I'd been meditating for a few months, I attended a class in the Brahmrishi Yoga tradition in meditation and philosophy taught by a well regarded teacher. He'd studied in India with an even more regarded teacher, a swami who had reached enlightenment, something it seemed everyone in this class was very much interested in achieving.

Meditation was an enigma and as far as I could tell, our teacher was not interested in making it any less mysterious. The other students were a mix between meditators who had already studied with this teacher and those who were just beginning to try to crack the meditation code. There was a lot of discussion about how difficult it was to stop the distracting and continuous parade of thoughts in our heads and some advice as to how the repetition of a mantra word could be used to tidy up the mind clutter. This teacher's path to meditation required a strict adherence to difficult tasks that might eventually, if practiced enough, lead to Nirvana.

The first thing we were instructed to do as we began to meditate was to sit cross-legged on cushions, our backs unsupported. If your nose started to itch, you were not to scratch. As thoughts formulated in your mind, you were to repeat the phrase sohum (pronounced so-hung), a Sanskrit word loaded up with mystical properties. 

Of course, my nose itched as soon as I closed my eyes and within two or three minutes, my back started to throb. I repeated the mantra over and over and tried to avoid concentrating on not scratching my nose or rearranging my legs to better support my back. The Sanskrit mantra did not allow me to transcend my discomfort. When the twenty minutes of meditation had finally passed, I opened my eyes wondering if the other students would admit they had been as uncomfortable as I had been.

Some did, although they assigned more blame to themselves than I thought necessary. Sitting in an uncomfortable position is painful and although perhaps one day we may find ourselves in a position where we can meditate without regard to the physical sensations in our bodies, it may not be productive to start out that way. 

I sense Karen might think the comfy chair method of meditation is not quite a respectable way to meditate. That somehow to meditate authentically requires a specific posture andmindset few of us are capable of achieving. I can't say whether sitting uncomfortably increases the quality of your meditation. I don't do it so I don't know. The first couple years of my practice I sat on a couch with a pillow under my feet to bring the floor closer. I'm not large, but I'm short. The pillow helped. Now I usually sit in a cross-legged position on my bed, my back resting against the head board. 

Occasionally I meditate in the overstuffed arm chair I inherited from my grandfather. It is an important piece of furniture (ball in claw wooden arms and legs) and the place he would go when he wanted to relax. I can picture him perched in his chair, smoking a cigarette, jet white hair swept straight back and looking at me as I entered the room as if I were amiracle. I find security in Grandpa's chair and I fit quite nicely with my legs crossed, but my legs are short and this works for me. For now. 

I am far from the poster girl for meditation. The image of the blissed out chick in yoga pants, sitting straight and unsupported on a cushion --that's not me. If that position works for you, I'm impressed. But if you're starting a meditation practice to impress me, you can do the comfy chair method and I'll still admire you. 

Truthfully, I'm kind of a sloppy meditator and casual about my practice except for one thing: I sit in stillness for twenty minutes just about every day. 

Whatever you can do, Karen, to make this a less awkward and more accessible practice is excellent. What I do, I do not consider difficult. I believe in sitting (or lying if that works for you) in any position that makes it easy to sit in stillness. 

Make it less awkward, make it less stressful, meditate comfortably, but meditate. 

Might I Suggest?

As a lawyer, I’m trained to give advice only when I’m being paid for it. Lawyers are counselors. We dispense advice based on facts and on law. Clients are free to follow or not follow the advice they receive. On the other hand, I've always been fascinated with advice columns— Dear Sugar (Cheryl Strayd’s fabulous online column at The Rumpus), Carolyn Hax (Washington Post), Lena Dunham (Ask Lena on You Tube). Check them out if you're not familiar. It's the compassion which most impresses me. These women take life questions from others and apply their experiences to guide the advice seekers in a thoughtful and provident way. I don't think I could ever do what these counselors do, although it fascinates me.

But I do have a passion to help others develop a meditation practice and I have opinions, strong opinions, about how accessible meditation is and how it's possible for anyone to do. And I know there are people searching  for a way to develop a practice and are looking for advice on how to do that. Still I get a little queasy about giving advice. Suggestions are more to my liking. Suggestions are softer than advice. So, in my hope to make meditation a little less intimidating, I invite your questions and I'll do my best to make thoughtful suggestions. 

When it comes to teaching meditation, the answers to my students’ questions come from my own experiences. What works for me may or may not work for you, but if you’re interested in hearing about what works for someone with a cluttered and chaotic mind just like yours, I invite you to ask me your questions.

This question was recently posited by Karen who is trying to cultivate a meditation practice.

So often when I sit, I get very distracted by worries, and I can’t just acknowledge them and watch them waft away. The worries are about important things. Do you have any advice for calming down, for a beginner?

There are two parts to Karen's question. The first is that she is immediately distracted by worries. The second is that these are not just any worries. These are important worries. 

In my experience, as soon as I sit down to find stillness, the first thoughts to alight in my brain are pesky, negative, critical thoughts. Sort of a worry/criticism combo. Here’s a typical thought to pop up when I first sit down: “You idiot. You forgot to go to the bank. AGAIN.” Have I ever approached the stillness and immediately found a moment of peace, of greatness, of joy? No, I don’t think so. I often hear the loopy tape of conversations that never have and never will occur. When he said that if I would have said this, then he would have said that, and then I would totally have had the opportunity to say this thing I will never have the opportunity to say. Or will I? Can I manipulate the next conversation to provide me the opportunity to say this most brilliant and poignant comment that will finally and totally explain to him why he is so wrong? Of course not.

Karen, your worries are distracting and will always be distracting. The issue is how to accept the distraction without judgment. Observe the worry thoughts. See what emotional response you feel in your body. Do you feel a tightness in your heart? A buzz in your head? Breathe. Repeat whatever phrase you've chosen as a mantra to coax the thought away. The worry may subside for a moment. Be proud of this tiny bit of success.

This is my suggestion based upon my personal experience. Pesky critical thoughts are familiar to me. I know these thoughts better than any other kind of response in my head or my body. The voice that chastises me is the most familiar voice in my head. I know this inner critic isn’t going anywhere, but if I concentrate on my breath and my mantra, I can often get it to take a little break knowing that it has permission to come back later. It’s like your crazy Uncle Harry. He often gets drunk, he frequently says the wrong thing, but he’s still invited to Thanksgiving dinner. I observe the criticisms and the worries and I TRY not to become involved with them. This experience of observing thoughts as opposed to thinking thoughts is a radical thing to do and is very powerful.

The other part of the question is that these worries are about important things. Important things deserve important time. Sometimes before I meditate I’ll ask for an answer to an important question. This doesn’t mean I concentrate on the question or try to think about the answer. I simply ask the question and observe whether or not an answer materializes. Sometimes I think of something brilliant while I’m meditating. Something very important and a perfect little ball of words or a precise way to phrase something. I’ll think of it a couple of times. I make a promise to myself to come back this thought later and I keep my promise. This is a bit of a trick and it’s important to find a way to trust yourself to come back to these important thoughts or worries. Trust takes time to develop.

The power of meditation is that it gives you a short break from the worries that plague you. It’s a reboot. Just like with anything electronic, the easiest way to fix a problem is to simply turn off the machine and then turn it back on. Power it down, then restart. It’s simple and you don’t need to be an expert to do it. 

    

Hope

In yesterday's meditation session, something remarkable happened for me. I felt a flash of hope. Just like that.

It's been a long year of drama and trauma. My heart was battered, then shattered and the pile of fragments scattered.

For the past month, the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is to think of three things for which I am grateful. Number one is always coffee. Number two is usually appreciation for a first world utility service (running water, heat, cable). Number three is gratitude for the support of friends and family and the unexpected kindnesses that have come my way. After I acknowledge why I am grateful, I begin to meditate.

Meditation is a time when all the emotions that are held in check for most of the day become untethered. While meditation is a peaceful time, it’s also a time when I realize I carry shards of grief, fear, and anger. 

But yesterday, I felt hope, Light delicate hope. I have it with me still and this is a lovely way to go into the new year. I wish the same for you.

You're Out of Order

I decided to become a lawyer when my high school guidance counselor told me I could not.

Mrs. Stevens offered up three alternative career paths for me: nurse, teacher, or secretary. I looked her steadily in the eye and told her I thought I’d like to become a lawyer. “That is not possible for you,” she told me. She thought by telling me something was impossible, it thus made it so.

Mrs. Stevens was trying to cling to the world as she understood it. She was trying to stop the world from changing. 

I went to law school not only because I enjoyed a contrary personality, but because I had a desire to be an agent of change. That happened to be true for most of the people I met in law school. When my guidance counselor limited me in her limited way, I busted out. A paltry act of teenage defiance perhaps, but I desired to change the world for every high school girl everywhere.

And as much as I loved the idea of bringing about cataclysmic changes in the world when I started law school, some decades later I have come to have a much more negative relationship with change as I am battered around by the world. The good news is that I have lived a good long time now. The bad news is that along with the privileges and miracles, I have experienced catastrophes. If you’re privileged enough to be alive, you have likely to have muddled your way through brushes with disease, death, and the IRS, you too have some different views on the prospect of a changing world than you once had as a youth. 

The simple act of sitting in stillness allows me to embrace all those things I have not anticipated. It wears down my resistance to the new and unexpected. It helps me find a way to accept and adapt to change. What may have seemed hopeless and absurd is now something I might consider. I allow myself to pursue possibilities in the face of almost certain failure. 

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