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.

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. 

Teaching Nothing

A couple of months ago, I met a man who runs an executive recruitment agency and on the side  occasionally teaches meditation. Since I've recently considered teaching people how to meditate, he was delighted to give me a few pointers which I promptly disregarded.

First of all, you must write yourself a script. If you're going to lead people through a guided meditation, it's very important you know exactly what you're going to say, that you never stumble over a word, that you don't forget to tell them something important.

Nah, that won't work for me.

He looked horrified. 

In order to transport people to another level of consciousness, your delivery must be flawless.

Another level of consciousness? Tall order, buddy. (If there's such a thing as a good pun, this was it.)

After all, he explained, I've found enlightenment three times.  

Whoa. Who'd want that brand of pain? I'm being flip, but if you don't think enlightenment comes with a big price tag, you're being naive. I did not say this out loud. I may not be enlightened, but I am polite.

What makes you think you can teach people to meditate?

 I teach an essay writing class and my students seem to enjoy it. And I've taught  meditation to a few people here and there. They've been pleased, even surprised.

What exactly do you do? 

I explain diaphragmatic breathing. We take some deep breaths, then sit in a comfortable position, backs supported. I ask them to relax all parts of their body-- eyes, ears, mouth, head, neck, belly, arms, legs and then to imagine an empty colorless spaceless space in their chest and draw their thoughts to that void as if there were a magnet. Use a mantra to help the thoughts float away. Most important, I encourage  them to treat themselves as they would a small child. Say: it's okay. You can do it. Try again. 

And here's my idea. I could do a meditation workshop where the participants keep a journal to record their challenges and accomplishments. They'll share with each other. Learning to meditate is simple, but it's important to have support to keep at it.

So.... what types of meditation have you studied? 

None, although I have been meditating for three years and it has profoundly changed my life.

 What do you think qualifies you to teach?

I paused, but not for long.

Meditation is not about competition or achievement. When I meditate, I can get my mind to go blank for a second or two. Then I sit in stillness for a moment with nothing. 

I have never attained a state of enlightenment.  Nothing qualifies me. In fact, I am as anxious and stressed out and nervous as anyone. But I have an ability to remain nonreactive when it counts and I think I may someday find a way to accept the chaos around me in a constructive way. This is optimistic and optimism is something that does not come to me naturally.

So, what qualifies me to teach? Nothing. Exactly nothing.


A Perfect Practice

Roxanne says: Perfection is the enemy of progress. She's a doc and so she tells her patients this in order to encourage them. She says if you can exercise for ten a minutes a day, do that. 


The message is the same in the practice of meditation. There is no goal here, no right way to do it, no prizes, no winner. Sit in stillness as best you can and possibilities appear. What is possible is far from perfect and what is perfect is far from possible. 

Me Me Me

It rains for me. IMG_1773I love a bleak muted sky and the way dead leaves cling to patient trees. I love that some raindrops slant sharp and some fall soft. I love when the weather matches my mood. The birds concur. For all these long winter months, there have been no bird sounds other than the caw of a crow. But today, finally, there are trills and warbles, chirps and cheeps. The birds call to each other and they call to me.

Meditation may encourage empathy and strike up an awareness for others but mostly it creates a cascade of connections that ultimately connect me to everything around me. So, when it rains, it rains for me.

I Support Nothing

There are people who meditate and there are people who are impressed with people who meditate. If you fall into the second category, take a breath. It's simple to switch categories. Meditation is an easily learned skill. I could teach you to do it in five minutes. Slow breaths, relax, coax your thoughts from your head to your heart. Repeat. The difficulty is not in pUnknown-1erforming the task; the difficulty is incorporating the practice into your daily routine.

Take a solitary activity that will not earn you any fame or fortune and figure out how to get yourself to do it. It's not guaranteed to result in weight loss or financial success. It's not about improving your romantic relationship or your confidence, or selling more crap to more people, or winning friends and influencing people. In fact, meditation is not about any goal at all. That's right. As they say, if you have a goal, you're not meditating. So, no wonder there's no incentive to sit yourself down and not do anything. You could do it, but why should you?

The real key to learning to meditate is not about the learning, it's about finding the support to keep sitting still and doing nothing.

Sweet Dreams (are Made of this)

UnknownYes, Annie Lennox. Everybody is looking for something. When I'm searching for answers, I often ask my questions before I meditate. I  ask: how do I find focus in chaos? Or-- how do I let something go? It's a kind of show-me-the -way question. I ask gently, or at least as patiently and gently as I can. Generally, my questions are for guidance. How do I focus on this and not that? How do I get that toxic thought to stop nagging me? The questions are soft, not probing. I'm not always that deep. I've asked: how can I lose weight? I went for several months with eating dinner just every other night. It didn't work. Oh well. I don't demand or expect an answer, but nevertheless the answer often arrives. This doesn't happen like   a bolt of lightning. I'll  notice months after I've begun asking the question, hey- I've somehow completed a draft of my novel despite the disruptions and chaos in my life. I have accomplished something significant. Or the thought that has been circling around in my head for so many months in a row has been absent for a long time.

Hold your head up, movin' on




so simple, a child could do it

Last night, I sat on Donald and Maleia's porch and sipped wine. Maleia  mentioned she had read my blog and was surprised to learn I meditated. Years ago, she cautiously admitted, she had studied Transcendental Meditation. I think she worried I would think it hokey. I did not and besides, I had just managed to extricate myself from a conversation about high speed internet and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk about something I was passionate about.images Maleia and Donald met each other in a leadership class  that used meditation. She remembered something else. "When I was in the first grade, I taught myself to meditate. I hated being in that classroom and I didn't want to be there. So I repeated a word over and over until I brought myself to another place. I repeated the word until it lost its meaning."

I was drinking wine, so perhaps this story has veered slightly  over into fiction, but Maleia hadn't thought about that time in her life for a long time. She had never really thought about it that way before and only as we sat on her porch and drank wine and talked did she realize she had taught herself to meditate.

Over the years, the practice has slipped away from her and she doesn't meditate anymore.  I thought she seemed regretful. "You might do it again. It's always there for you. My friend's son, Billy, says that meditation is like finding a room in your house that you never knew existed."

"But that's my recurring dream," said Maleia. "Over and over, I find a room I never knew was there."

I just love when that happens.