Practicing Mindfulness and Awareness, Kindness, and Letting Go

How do you start a class with mindfulness? Once you have all entered and greeted each other, tell your students:

 

Let’s begin a short mindfulness practice. Push away from your desk. Sit up straight but not rigid, near the front end of your seat, so you don’t get tempted to slump. Then turn your attention inwards. Exhale through your nose, and then notice how you inhale. You do it naturally, spontaneously, don’t you? Just notice the sensations of breathing.

 

When leading a practice of mindfulness use a calm tone of voice. An important element of mindfulness is moment to moment awareness. Speak clearly, while monitoring your own feelings and thoughts as they arise so you can be in tune with the students. When possible, give two or three choices. Some students are too nervous to close their eyes, so give them a few different ways to practice. Never force anything.

 

Close your eyes partly or fully. If you want to leave them open, pick a spot on the floor about three feet in front of you, and let your eyes rest on that spot. Notice what it feels like to take in a breath. You might notice your body expanding slightly with the breath. You don’t have to do anything except be aware of the sensations as you inhale. As you exhale, notice the sense of exhaling. Notice how your body lets go, settles down, relaxes a bit. It’s like a momentary holiday.

 

Never lead something that you haven’t practiced many times. Start with just this much, just two minutes.  You, and the students, will soon want more. Do the rest of this practice when you’re ready.

 

Once you become quiet, you might notice awareness of what is going on inside yourself on a new level. You become aware of awareness itself. You begin to hear thoughts and beliefs and feel sensations that were automatic before and almost unconscious. You might feel pressure to immediately react to these thoughts and feelings and to take them as important. Instead, let whatever arises be the object of awareness. Even the sensation of pressure. It is all there for your education.

 

Notice how long or short, deep or shallow your breaths are. (Pause.) Notice if any place in your body is tense. Go to that area with your awareness and just notice it. Notice how the area expands as you breathe in. Then relaxes, settles down as you breathe out. There is a natural rhythm here. Then go to another part of your body. Notice how you breathe in from that area. Notice your body expand with the inbreath; and let go as you breathe out.

 

When we feel certain sensations, like those that arise with fear or anxiety, we might immediately react with an impulse to run away from the feelings. Or if we feel pleasant sensations, we might feel an impulse to grasp onto them and not let go. We don’t want these unpleasant feelings, sensations and thoughts to be there; we don’t want the pleasant ones to end. Or sometimes we get confused and want to do nothing. Our awareness switches from the initial feeling to our response. The two are different. Our reaction of running away is a fear of fear, or a fear of anxiety. The grasping is resistance to pleasant feelings ending. We generally like liking. By grasping onto a feeling and resisting change, we turn something pleasant unpleasant.

 

If you find yourself drifting away, just notice it and gently return your awareness to the breath.

 

Another element of mindfulness is what we do when we realize we lost our focus. Maybe we spent a few breaths engaged in a memory or following the sound of someone laughing in the hall. We all lose focus at times. If at the moment of realization we get down on ourselves, we lose focus again. If we get angry at the people disturbing our practice with laughter, we lose focus. If we are kind, gentle, and committed to returning attention to awareness, we regain focus.

 

The initial sensations of emotion have a message for us. But we lose the message contained in the initial sensation when we switch attention from it to our emotional response. We take a small sensation, fill it up with thoughts, images, anticipations and make it something big. So return to the small sensations. When we lead the exercise in the classroom, we are helping students learn how to gently return to awareness of the individual sensations.

 

If any thoughts or images arise, just notice them with your inbreath, and then let go of them with the outbreath.

 

Part of why we react to sensations as we do is because of conditioning. We are not taught how to be so aware. We might be unsure of our ability to handle a situation. We might have beliefs or theories about reality that have not been carefully questioned. For example, if we feel a pain in our chest and imagine it is a heart attack, the level of pain goes up. If we realize it is acid reflux, our fear decreases considerably. Mindfulness is not psychological analysis. We are just breaking down automatic responses by becoming aware of the simplest elements of our experience. What is the feeling of our feet on the floor? Taking a breath? Keep it simple. Yet, nothing could be more profound.

 

Just sit for a minute with the calm and quiet of having nothing to do but breathe in and breathe out.

 

And once we develop the ability to just sit with whatever arises for us, we have patience with ourselves and with others. We allow ourselves to perceive and think more deeply. We persist in completing even what feels difficult. When we have a test, and we feel a tightness in the belly or a shaking in the knees, we just feel it. We feel the message that we need to wake up and concentrate. Then once the message is delivered, we let the sensation go.

Using Imagination and Mindfulness to Inquire into Big Questions

**This article was written and scheduled to be published by the Education that Inspires online magazine 6 – 8 weeks ago, before we knew the devastation the coronavirus could have on our world. The post now seems to me an artifact of a lost time. But one thing I hope we learn from the response to this pandemic is how important it is to constantly improve our critical thinking capacity and enhance it with emotional awareness and compassion. And our whole culture needs to put education, public education, in the prominent position it and our children deserve. Our public schools need to be set free from Betsy DeVos and those like her, set free from the 30+ years of corporate attacks on public education masquerading as “reform,” and allowed to teach critical thinking enhanced by imagination, social-emotional awareness and compassion. If we learn how to think more critically and compassionately, and we study our world and examine what our political representatives say, and do, more clearly, maybe there will be less of a chance anything like this situation will happen again. For now, maybe this post can inspire online educational discussions.**

 

Teenagers are natural philosophers, when the educational environment is open to them asking sincere questions. They are constantly asking themselves, their friends, and, hopefully, their teachers questions like: “Is love real? What does friendship mean? Who or what am I?” So, one of the first things to do is discover what questions the students have related to the course ⎼ or life⎼ and what questions they think must be answered to better understand the course material.

 

One of the big questions often raised, although sometimes students can’t verbalize it, is “Do we have free will or is that just a comforting illusion?” It is related to the question of “Who am I?” And: “How much freedom do I have to shape who I am and what I feel?” Such questions provide educators opportunities to develop their students’ critical and creative thinking and engage with the Philosophic Imagination.

 

I remember students gleefully proclaiming in a class discussion that we have no free will. I don’t know if they did this after studying in a science class how every event has a cause, and they were saying to me or to the rest of the class: “I know something you don’t.” Or if saying “there is no free will” was an assertion of it, like saying “I am not bound by old ways of thinking.” It didn’t matter that by saying there was no free will they were denying what their emotions were proclaiming. Or maybe they were just daring me to prove otherwise.

 

Once in a psychology class, we were discussing compassion and one student asked: “Are we really free to be kind when we want? Maybe some people are just born nice. With all that we learned in science about how chemical and electrical messages and genetics control us, how can we be free to decide anything?”

 

I asked: “What does it mean to be free? Does it mean we act without any reason or that there are no restraints on what we do? Or that every time we have a thought or desire, we act it out? Would we feel free then?”

 

“I would feel a slave if I had to express every thought I heard in my mind,” responded one student.

 

“But would I lose my spontaneity if I didn’t act on my thoughts?” asked a third student.

 

Then I asked: “Does what we know or believe influence how we act? If we learned about experiments that show people can learn to act with more kindness and compassion, would we be more kind? Or if we studied experimental evidence that mindfulness training strengthens the parts of the brain that prepare us to act to help others⎼ would knowing that change your mind, or not, about being free to be kind even if you weren’t born kind?”

 

How do you start the discussion? Decide on a question for imaginative mindful inquiry.

 

After students have settled down and we have greeted them, tell them the question for the day. “Our question for today is What does it mean to be free?” Ask them to raise their hands if the question has come up for them in discussions with friends or family.

 

In engaging in this discussion, we need to keep in mind religious beliefs about the question. We might also have to re-shape the questions we ask to meet the age and personal history of our students.

 

One way to start is with an exercise in imagination and mindful inquiry. This can not only introduce the question but develop the skill of self-awareness that is crucial in actually acting freely. And being able to imagine a situation, the implications of one’s words or the consequences of one’s actions, is central to critical thinking and making decisions….

 

To read the whole post, go to the EducationThatInspires magazine.

 

 

Kindness Allows Us to Breathe in Life More Deeply: A Meditation on Kindness

Imagine kindness spreading across a room, a stadium or a city. One person influencing those around him or her until everyone joins in.

 

So often in our lives, we are pressured to blindly follow what others do. I usually try to resist just going along with how others go along or being swept up by other people’s emotions or ideas. But I would gladly join a bandwagon of kindness. Kindness is actually a cure for blindness. It wakes us up, so we actually see who we’re standing with and what we’re doing. This is the essence of kindness.

 

Kindness is the brother of joy, the sister of compassion, the father of insight, and the mother of transformation.

 

Acting with kindness can be one of the simplest of things to do. It can be like breathing. We breathe every moment. In fact, breathing is one aspect of ourselves that we can never do without. But being aware of our breath can take practice.

 

Many of us don’t breathe fully and deeply. We don’t realize that when our breath is calm, it is a friend who teaches us to be open and friendly. Or when it gets too rapid, it can dim our vision so we see others as enemies.

 

Likewise, when we act without kindness, we pay an unbelievable price. Just take a moment to remember what it feels like when we act out of fear, anger, hate, or greed. Or what thoughts or images rage in our mind. Our breath becomes tense and rushed. We erect a wall around ourselves built out of suspicion and muscular tension…

 

To read the whole post, go to The Good Men Project.

Mindfulness Reveals Your Values and Improves Your Quality of Mind

The values you hold show up in the subtlest ways. Values can include the conscious principles or standards you hold as well as what you unconsciously hold dear and deem worthy of your attention and awareness. What is valuable to you is what activates your energy and attention. It motivates your goals, intentions and actions and is a basic part of how you feel each moment. If you feel off in some way, dissatisfied, in pain, studying what you value can be crucial in understanding how to not suffer and how to act effectively to end the dissatisfaction.

 

To understand what you value, it helps to be mindful not only of thoughts, but sensations and feelings. Notice not only what you like, dislike, or don’t care about, but what you approach or avoid. What do you open to, find difficult or confusing? Feelings give life to values.

 

Meditation is the science of studying mind and heart, thoughts and feelings. It develops not only depth of concentration and focus, but the ability to discern and examine both conscious and even some of what is usually unconscious components of experience. This ability can allow you to change your values and change your life.

 

But to do that, when you meditate, you need to value inner knowing, and value meditating itself, not what you might get from it. It might seem paradoxical, but if you meditate in order to reduce stress, what happens when you have a stressful thought or image? If you meditate in order to derive great insights, then as soon as you have an insight, you will want to stop and write it down. You will lose the meditation. Which do you want more—the written record of the insight or the mental state which produced it? Which is more important—telling others your deep realizations or living a depth of experience?

 

To meditate, you value whatever is there for you. You value presence. Otherwise, you are looking into an image, concept or abstraction, not what is actually there, now. You divide mind into a now and an idea of a then and lose the sense of present experience. Another definition for being distracted is thinking of another time or activity as more valuable than where you are, or what you’re doing, now.

 

The Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, said: “When you do something, if you fix your mind on the activity with some confidence, the quality of your state of mind is the activity itself. When you are concentrated on the quality of your being, you are prepared for the activity.” The quality of mind that you have determines the life you experience.

 

For example, if you teach and value the very act of teaching, teaching will be all you need in that moment. You will be committed to it. Whatever arises, whatever happens, you will greet as something to learn from and incorporate into the lesson, not as a distraction, not as something to repress or hate. If you’re a student and you value learning, you focus on developing an open, clear, discerning mind, and you will learn a great deal. You might learn even more, or maybe something different, than anyone expected. You will feel more spontaneous, free, and engaged.

 

If you feel an injustice has been committed, and you respond with empathy and energy to better understand the situation, you will think more clearly about the situation than if you take the situation as another burden, as something life shouldn’t ask of you.

 

To concentrate on the quality of your mind is to value your life in a very authentic manner. It means you value all who you meet or whatever you encounter. Other people are not on the other side of an unbreakable wall, but are essential to your being. You observe others more closely and deeply. You observe even the constantly shifting stories your unconscious creates to explain and integrate the various elements of your life, and you create a life that goes way beyond any story.

 

 

Especially nowadays, with this President, I think it is important for you to value your own experience for itself, value its depth, which is the same as valuing life. Valuing life not for any reason, not for what it can get you, but for itself.

 

 

In this country, everything is consumerised. People are too often valued in terms of what they can do for you, or how much they make, not for who they are. Education is monetized in terms of how much “value [is] added” to a student by a teacher. This leads to thinking of your own mind in “value added” terms, or what a thought or an emotion can get you. The problems with such a way of thinking have been discussed by many people, Buddha, Karl Marx, Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr.—just for a small sample. What is new in this time of history is that more people have access to more information on how a value system influences your life experience.

 

 

From one perspective, the election of this President has brought to the forefront the battle in our society about what it means to be a human being, or successful as a human being. Is success measured by how much money or power you accumulate? Or how you relate to others? Are you valuable because you are a living being? Or valuable only if you can earn more than others? Is power about controlling others and forcing them to agree with you? Or about controlling your own mind and behavior? Our nation in the past was too quick to monetize everything. This must be reconsidered if we are to continue as a democracy.

 

 

**If you’d like to do a short mindfulness meditation, here is one way to begin: Maybe set an alarm clock for two or five minutes. Set an intention that, until the alarm clocks rings, you will put your attention on the meditation. Sit up straight but not rigid, near the front end of your seat, so you don’t get tempted to slump. Close your eyes partly or fully. If you want to leave them open, pick a spot on the floor about three feet in front of you, and let your eyes rest on that spot. Then turn your attention inwards. Exhale through your nose, and then notice how you inhale. You do it naturally, spontaneously, don’t you? Just notice the sensations of breathing.

 

Notice what it feels like to take in a breath. Notice if you feel tense anywhere, heavy or light. You might notice your body expanding slightly with the breath. You don’t have to do anything except be aware of the sensations as you inhale. As you exhale, notice the sense of exhaling. Notice how your body lets go, settles down, relaxes a bit. It’s like a momentary holiday.

 

You might feel your attention drawn toward or away from an idea or memory. Just notice the response. If you find yourself drifting away, just notice that your attention drifted and has now returned. Gently focus your awareness on the breath.

 

If any thoughts or images arise, just notice them with your inbreath, and then let go of them with the outbreath. This is simply the natural flow of mind.

 

Sit for a moment with a sense of your mind being quiet, at ease with whatever arises.

 

With your mind quiet, you can ask yourself: What is it I most value? What is most important to me? And then notice the thoughts and the feelings that arise when you think of valuing what you do.

 

**The more I meditate, the more I recognize how often my thoughts go to others, the more I recognize how interdependent I am with others. So speaking out against the racism, anti-democratic speech and actions of this administration is one result of mindfulness⎼and one way to remember and honor the work of people like Martin Luther King Jr., who called for a “true revolution of values” in his speech “Beyond Vietnam–A time To Break Silence.”

Mindfulness and Pain

 

This Thursday, June 15th, I will have surgery on my right wrist, or actually three surgeries. I did not want to undergo anesthesia multiple times so I thought I’d do them all at once, and the surgeon agreed. The first two are relatively simple: carpal tunnel (medial nerve in hand) and cubital tunnel (ulnar nerve, at elbow and blade of hand). The third is more complicated and is called a proximal row carpectomy; the surgeon removes three of the eight bones in my wrist. The surgeon predicts it will take two-three months to heal. I will be in a cast for two weeks, and writing may be difficult for an indeterminate length of time.

 

So, I am taking a vacation. I feel better approaching surgery as a vacation then as a dreaded time of suffering. It’s important, in difficult times especially, to be nice to yourself. For the next few weeks or more, instead of feeling an obligation to publish each week, I will do it only when it feels right. I have a blog prepared for next week, but after that—who knows. I will most probably miss writing, miss you as an audience, so I don’t know how long my “vacation” will last.

 

The wrist has been hurting on and off for many years. Driving, writing, certainly carpentry or splitting wood, but even holding a book or sleeping, could be painful. Karate has become problematic. My handwriting was never beautiful, but years ago, before I retired from teaching, I had trouble giving written feedback on student papers due to the pain. Students often commented that my writing was illegible.

 

Yet, I became sort of used to the pain—sort of. In early March, I pointed out to my acupuncturist the swelling in my wrist and she recommended I see a doctor. That led to x-rays and a CT scan, then nerve conduction tests. After seeing what my wrist looked like and reading the radiologist report, of “severe” this and torn that, the pain actually got worse.

 

I found this interesting. When I thought of the pain in my wrist as simply an unpleasant sensation that couldn’t be treated, I accepted it and lived with it. But once it had a label and a doctor’s evaluation, once I had the clear image of bones rattling bones, it became more solid and took on a life of its own. The sensations I felt became an alien presence I wanted removed. I scheduled the surgery.

 

This led me to use mindfulness training to study in more detail how my mind influenced the pain. I began to think of pain as a blatant and confounding puzzle, as a chance to learn more about how my mind and body worked. When pain arose, I breathed it in—if I could. I noticed whatever was there for me—how the beliefs and expectations I held influenced the sensations I felt and the thoughts about the sensations. My response to the pain influenced how much I suffered from it. When I let go of the thoughts and images, and focused on the breathing, the pain sensations moved to the periphery of awareness, and lessened in strength. Without resistance, pain decreased. It became one sensation among others. My response went from flight-flight-freeze to something a bit more open, and more relaxed.

 

And, over the last few days, as the fact of surgery sank in and the big day approached, the incidents of high level pain decreased. I don’t know what was most responsible. Was it the natural therapies, pain pills, or increased mindfulness? Was the anxiety over surgery masking the physical sensation?

 

I still need the surgery. But I have a few strategies to help me face it, and my fears about it, with a little more confidence and less anxiety. I have realized how fear can be useful. It tells me to wake up. This is my life on the line. The kindness I give to others I can give myself. I have also accumulated a few good movies and books to enjoy. And I am forever grateful that I still have good health insurance. (Please tell Republicans in Congress that you oppose their undermining-health-care legislation.) On Thursday, please wish for me a good result, a healing. Thank you and may you be well.

 

*Many Buddhist teachers write about how to face pain, or face whatever. Pema ChodronShinzen Young, and Jon Kabat-Zinn are three authors whose wonderful books I can recommend.

 

**My friend Eileen Ain recommended Peggy Huddleston’s Relaxation/Healing CD.

 

***Photo by Kathy Morris.

Mindfulness, Visualization and Other Practices Which Appear in Compassionate Critical Thinking.

APPENDIX

Mindfulness, Visualization and Other Practices Which Appear in Compassionate Critical Thinking.

Practice, Page Number:
Listening to the Singing Bowl, 2-3
Settling Breath and Body, 6-7
Introductions to Different Types of Practice, 9-10
Settling Breath and Body, Mindfully Noticing the Quality of Breath, 10
Goal-Setting, 13
Inquiry Into the Depth of the Words You Speak, 14
The Openness of Inner Space, 16
Visualizing A Hero, 18
Visualizing A Flower, A Character In A Novel, 20-22
Openness Meditation, On The Sky, 26-28
Visualizing the Jewel of Indra, 30
Mindfulness of Thoughts and Inquiry Into the Brain, 31-32
Visualization to Anchor and Review Information on the Brain, 34
Developing Loving Attention: Perceiving A Stone, 36
Counting the Inhalation and Exhalation, Focusing Attention, 40
Visualization to Assist Memory, Review, and Integrate Material, 43-44
Counting the Exhalation, Focusing Attention, 48
Mindfulness of Sound and Silence, and Letting Go of Distractions, 51-52
Healing Meditation: Ball of Light, 56-57
Mindfulness of Sensations, Thoughts, and Inquiry Into Anger and Forgiveness, 59-60
Awareness of the Body Language of Others: Mirroring, 63
Inquiry Into Kindness, 64
NBC: Notice, Breathe, Consider, 66
Inquiry Into Joy, 68
Noticing Sensation, Inquiry Into Courage, 71
Inquiry Into Greed and Feeling Complete As You Are, 74
Developing Compassion by Visualizing a Person of Concern, 82
Compassion Meditation: Visualizing Others and You as Happy, Healthy, and at Peace, 83-84
Inquiry Into Loving-Caring, and Wishing Self and Others to Be Happy, Kind, and Loving, 88
Whole Body Awareness, 91
Focus On Air Passing Upper Lip, Inquiry Into Critical Thinking, 97
Labeling Thoughts, Noticing the Quiet Gap, 102
Practices to Intervene in Thoughts, 105
Proprioceptive Writing: Hearing Your Thoughts, 106-108
Testing Your Conclusions, 110

What Is Mindfulness?

Last week, my book agent sent me and I then posted on FB a video of an elementary school class using mindfulness practices. The comments following the video were mostly favorable and appreciative, but a few were not so favorable and exposed for me the way some people see and think about the practice. The video provides a great lesson on mindfulness, but I decided to add a few hopefully clarifying comments of my own on the subject.

 

Some people question the use of mindfulness in schools because they wonder if it is a religious practice. The word religion can stir people’s emotions, and prevent clear examination. People light candles in Christian churches, but not all lighting of candles is a Christian practice. Buddhists practice mindfulness, but so do yoga practitioners, Hindus, Taoists, even some people who are Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Atheists. Therefore, if you practice mindfulness, are you practicing religion? And, if so, which religion are you expressing?

 

Mindfulness is moment-by-moment, non-judgmental awareness of thoughts, feelings, sensations, whatever arises in your mind. It treats whatever comes up for you as something to learn from and then, in many practices, let go. It is both a quality of awareness as well as a practice. It has been called a scientific study of the mind. Is being aware a religious practice? Does that mean that every time I become aware of and open to my own thoughts, I am practicing a religion? I personally think the more aware humans become of what is going on in their minds, the more responsible they will be in their actions.

 

Then there is a question if mindfulness might be a form of indoctrination and students will lose the ability to think for themselves and more easily fall under the sway of authority figures. But how can you make a responsible choice and think for yourself if you don’t recognize what is influencing that choice? Mindfulness increases your ability to think clearly, to make independent, responsible decisions, because it increases your knowledge and awareness, moment-by-moment, of your thinking process. I wonder if the concern about indoctrination comes from noticing that the students in the video seem happier and more caring about the welfare of others then is true in many other classrooms. Is the implication that when students are happy and allowed to realize their own connection to others, it must be indoctrination? But when students are encouraged to compete or to think of themselves only in terms of being separate from others, then it is not indoctrination?

 

The last question I noticed has to do with how you treat thoughts.  Is mindfulness about suppressing thoughts or distancing yourself from them? Neither. It is about awareness. When you are aware of a thought or feeling, you are better able to let it go. Letting go is significantly different from suppressing or separating yourself from thoughts. In order to separate from something, you must keep it alive in order to distance from it. Who, then, is separating from what? Are you your thoughts? Or the emotions you feel? The sensations? All of these change; they pass, yet there is a sense that your awareness continues as long as you’re alive (and awake). If you are your thoughts or identified with your thoughts, then which thought would you be? Your thoughts can be entirely contradictory from moment to moment. Why not realize your awareness, or the power to think, to change, to empathize with is who you are?

 

What is dangerous is thinking that whatever thought shows itself in a moment is the truth and the only legitimate expression of who you are. You could then act righteously on one moment’s thought, and deny responsibility for the action with the next.

 

If acting kind and being aware or concerned about another’s welfare is religious, then all kind and caring people are religious, and I’d happily say mindfulness is a religious practice. Wouldn’t you? Or would you argue to eliminate kindness from schools because it is supposedly religious? What about caring?

Listen for the Earth Breathing: How About A Moment of Calm and Clarity?

In these times of great fear and anger over the inhumanity and chaos in our political system, we need to find some sort of calm and clarity inside ourselves or we’d want to turn away from the news or go nuts. If we don’t find some sort of clarity, how could we have any idea of what political or social actions to take? How could we help anyone else in need if we can’t help ourselves? So one thing I do is meditate, and treat myself and others as kindly as I can. If I can do nothing else, at least I can do that.

 

Close your eyes, take a comfortable breath, and simply listen. Many of us do this too infrequently. We don’t give ourselves a break to listen deeply to other people, to our own inner voice, or to the earth breathing. So give yourself a break. Give yourself this one moment. And listen for the earth breathing. Can you hear it?

 

Maybe it’s summer and a cool wind breathes in and out, cooling the day. Sometimes, it is a deep breath. Sometimes it’s very shallow. Sometimes, you can’t hear or feel it and you wonder if the earth is alive at all.

 

Then you hear bird calls, especially in the morning and at dusk. And bees and maybe other flying creatures…..

 

To read the whole piece, go to The Good Men Project.

Where Will Our Words Lead Us?

It is raining. It is raining on the foot of snow that fell last week. It has been raining, it seems, since the beginning of August and it is now almost December.

 

I can hear the rain striking the roof, the snow melting on the drainpipes, and the wind in the naked trees. A woodpecker pecks on the wood siding of our house, then stops to look in the bedroom window at one of our cats, Tara, who looks back at him, excited.

 

Chickadees, blue jays, cardinals, tufted titmice, nuthatches, downy and red bellied woodpeckers, and squirrels surround a bird feeder hung from an apple tree branch and the food spread below it on the ground. The branches of the tree are tipped with light. Dripping ice or rain acts almost as a prism, not to refract but concentrate the light.

 

Max, another of our cats, sleeps between Linda, my wife, and me. Linda is reading a novel. I am writing this.

 

At first, it was not just the sky that was gray. My mood, even the trees, looked gray. I could barely see the blue of the blue jay or the red of the cardinal. But the more I listened to the rain and the snowmelt, listened for the moment words began to form in my mind, it all changed. The sky lightened as I focused on the light on the tips of the apple tree branches.

 

And when I allowed myself to feel the fact that this person and this cat were here next to me, one reading by my side, one sleeping by my hip, my mood lightened. All sorts of words came to me, but none were as deep or eloquent as the reality itself, or the feelings.

 

Our words can be the way we speak a self into existence. They can split the world in two by separating in our thinking what we perceive from who is doing the perceiving. We then think what we perceive is “out there” distinct from us “in here.” We think the gray mood we feel is entirely caused by the gray sky. We mistake the world of our words for the world itself. And then we imagine we live in that world of words.

 

Or words can be signposts leading us back to the point before words were born, to where we tie feelings to thoughts, sensations to memories, and create emotions and understandings. It is where we shape how we perceive the world with what we have learned about it. It is also where we all, where every single being, meets all others more directly. It is where practices such as mindfulness or meditation can lead us, so we learn how to pay attention, each moment, to whatever arises.

 

Emotion is not just feeling. It begins with feeling but includes thoughts, sensations, and proposed actions. Just consider the thoughts that go through your mind when you’re jealous, or the sensations you experience when angry. One purpose of emotion is to tag the stimuli we sense with value so we know how to think and act.

 

Daniel Siegel, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, describes phases in the process of constructing emotion. The first phase is jolting our bodies to pay attention. Siegel calls this the “initial orienting response.” The second is “elaborative appraisal,” which includes using feelings to label stimuli as good or bad, dangerous or pleasing. We begin to construct meaning and then prepare for action. We feel good or threatened and then want to either approach or avoid someone or something. These first two phases can be unconscious. In the third phase our experience differentiates further into categorical emotions like sadness, happiness, and fear. And we have conscious responses.

 

Emotions thus integrate diverse realms of experience. They link physiological changes in our bodies, feelings and sensations, with words, with explanations of how things work, and with perceiving and communicating social signals. Without this orienting attention and assignment of value, we could not learn and we could not act. In other words, body, mind, and relationships arise together in an emotion.

 

In order to think clearly and act appropriately, we need to mindfully step back from any particular way of thinking about a situation or person. We need to reflect on how we are hearing words. Do we hear them as self-contained objects, whose meaning and very being is created entirely by the speaker? If we do this, the other can become a label, a threat distinct from us, and a not-me that we can have no empathy for or any relationship with. If we don’t hear what we say to ourselves, we miss a good part of any conversation.

 

Or when we hear the words of another person, do we hear them as arising from another thinking, feeling being not much different from us? Do we take time to pause and feel how his or her words radiate in our mind and heart? Do we respond not just to the meaning we think the other person intended but also to the whole situation—to our own humanity as well as theirs? Do we respond with care and awareness that what we say creates not only an identity for this other person but for our selves?

 

When we speak, we often think we are simply expressing what is in ourselves. We then don’t realize we can’t speak ourselves into existence without speaking an audience into existence. We speak to who we think the other person is, or who we would like them to be. So, before speaking or acting, it’s important to check how accurate or comprehensive our words are, and what they imply about ourselves, about whom we are with, and the nature of the world we live in.

 

And doing this can make all the difference. It can free us from a gray mood, allow us to realize the beauty in the rain, and really see who we are and who is sitting beside us.

 

This post was also syndicated by The Good Men Project

By Finding The Courage to Look At Yourself, You Discover the Courage to Defend the World

Right now, take a moment to simply breathe in, and then out.  Listen to your own body and what is happening inside by resting your awareness wherever it is called.  Maybe you’ll feel a bar of tension in your jaw or mouth or shoulders. Maybe you’ll feel an expansion in your belly as you breathe in, or a relaxation, letting go as you breathe out. Simply feel it.

 

If a thought or judgment arises, if you think, “I shouldn’t have thought that” or “why can’t I concentrate better,” just notice whatever occurs as you breathe in. And as you breathe out, return your attention to your awareness of feeling. Instead of letting your awareness be captured by self-judgments, simply observe, learn, and be kind to yourself. In this way, mind and body become one. You live in your own body and mind. Your sense of time slows to the pace of your attention.

 

The more you maintain focus on whatever arises, the more you feel a timeless awareness.

 

Slowing time is a beautiful remedy for stress and anxiety, and for the emotional harm this GOP administration is trying to impose on us all. Most, if not all of us, know what happens inside ourselves when we see his face or hear his voice—attacking Democrats as the enemy, attacking those seeking asylum at our borders as invaders or criminals, attacking reporters who question him as  “the enemy of the people,” attacking even his own cabinet.

 

When hate hits our bodies, we react. We tense. We don’t want to hear it—or most of us don’t.  How we respond depends a great deal on our past, on how we think about our own strength, or what theories or stories we tell ourselves about how the world works. These stories determine whether we respond by closing our ears, shield ourselves with hate, or whether we oppose it.

 

His attacks are meant to spread fear. We often think of fear as warning us to flee. But as we flee and hide, fear can increase. We stop acknowledging what we feel, stop being aware of what is happening inside. And thus we give him this power over us. We feel powerless. We allow him to turn off our interoception or inner knowing. This allows the inner tension to escalate.

 

Or we feel anger. But how do we direct and interpret that anger? Anger is an emotion of awakening. It awakens our sense of threat or danger and can prepare us to act. But if we don’t have clarity of mind and feeling to direct it, anger becomes self-destructive. We can feel angry that we’re angry. Or when we feel anger in response to fear, we treat it like a savior, a weapon of safety, and we can’t stop wielding it. We become our anger. We lose control. We lose ourselves.

 

When we look directly at our own anger, when we feel what it does inside us, we might notice the pain it causes. And behind that pain is an enormous realm, of caring about what happens to others, our world, and ourselves. When we perceive what is behind our anger, it yields to clarity. We focus on a larger reality.

 

We need to honor and respect our own inner world, feel what we feel and hear what we say. This way we let go of things more easily and live more fully. There is no inner warfare, no constant rumination, and no unnecessary conflict with others. We can think with every part of ourselves without fear and so we feel free to allow every part of others to be acknowledged.

 

Almost every act of this American political administration tries to teach the opposite. It tries to create in all of us a sense of inner chaos, disharmony, war, so we will war against whomever or wherever they direct us. They try to dehumanize us so we will do the same to others.

 

So by listening to and caring better for ourselves, we resist this administration. By honoring our humanity, we realize and cherish the humanity of others. We see ourselves with clarity and thus see the world with more clarity. Then we can act politically and socially with determination, kindness, and insight. Then we preserve our freedom.

 

When we have the courage to look directly at ourselves, we find the courage to act with clarity to defend our world.

 

 

Here is an exercise (based on a Buddhist compassion practice) to help you find both calm and understanding when you need it, or when the mindfulness practice above is not enough:

 

Close your eyes and take a calm and deep breath in, then a slow, long breath out. Simply sit, quietly. With your next breath, imagine feeling care, love, a parental sort of love, toward a young pet, or a young person. Just allow the image of a young animal or person to come to your mind, or the words care, love, child. Where in yourself do you feel this care or love? What does love feel like?

 

Then imagine a friend. Imagine this person, too, feels a similar feeling.

 

Then imagine someone you don’t know, someone you saw on the street, or in a store. Or imagine someone you disagree with. Imagine she or he feeling love, care, just like you do. They are different from you in so many ways, yet they, too, share this capacity with you. They, too, can love.

 

This is a simple thing. Yet it is so often lost. Sit for another moment, and find the feeling of love inside yourself. Find the recognition that those around you—no matter how different in some ways, they, too, want to find and feel this love. They share this with you.

 

*This post was syndicated by The Good Men Project.