Overcoming A Fear of Awareness

In these times, how much awareness can you allow yourself? Too much awareness can feel alarming.

 

Recently, a friend told me mindfulness does not work for him. He has asthma and the last thing he wants to do is focus on his breath. Asthma can be so frightening and painful. But focusing on the breath is only one possible point of focus for mindfulness practice. There is a whole universe to focus on.

 

You can focus on something that is easy or enjoyable for you to think about, like the feel of your hands resting in your lap, or your butt touching the chair as you sit in it, or your feet resting on the floor. Or noticing whatever sensation is arising in your body or thought in your mind.  You can focus on an image of your favorite tree or what it means to have a favorite or to be favored. You can focus on an image of a clear and open sky or what it feels like to have an open mind. You can focus on what arises in you when you think of a particular person, or what happens inside you when you are in love.

 

Instead of focusing on awareness of the breath, for example, you might examine your response to simply being aware in that particular moment. What is the quality of your awareness now? Is it jittery or calm, tired or deep? When you have painful memories, you not only fear the object remembered—you fear the feeling that accompanies the memory. You fear fear. Whatever it is that has caused pain in the past is not the primary cause of your suffering. The response to the memory is the primary cause. So make your response your focal point.

 

Fear is both an emotion that can save your life or turn you away from it. It can shake you, but a shaken being either opens its eyes wider or closes them, depending on how vigorous the vibration and how you interpret it.

 

When anything is too frightening or difficult to focus on, you can shift your focus to analyzing the components of the emotion. You then shift your mind from being fearful to being analytical. Notice where in your body you feel what you feel. Notice if any sensations or thoughts arise. Notice how the feelings come and go. Certain thoughts might increase the fear, while others, or the absence of thought, might quiet the fear.

 

When you think you can’t do something, and fear or self-doubt is doing the thinking instead of more rational appraisal, practice how to shift from “I can’t,” or “I am not open to this,” to being open. Bring up in your mind the sense of “I can,” and the sense of open observation. Ask yourself: Was there ever a time that I felt I could overcome any obstacle? Was there ever a time that I openly examined some object, person, or idea? What did it feel like to openly observe or think about something? Or: What does it mean, and what does it feel like, to be courageous and able to face whatever arises in your life?

 

Mindfulness means clear observation, or moment-by-moment awareness of whatever arises for you. It is about letting things be whatever they are so you can know whatever is there. It is to treat your own thoughts, perceptions and feelings as valuable sources of learning. Thus, to say mindfulness does not work for you is to say observation does not work for you, or knowing your own mind or world does not work for you.

 

A Mindfulness Practice:

 

Sit up in a chair in a comfortable and stable position, in a place that feels safe for you. Close your eyes now or in a minute or so, or let your eyes rest on the floor a few feet in front of you. Place your attention on your feet resting on the floor. Feel how heavy or light your feet feel, how hot or cold.  You might sense your feet gently expanding, and then contracting, pressing against your shoes or socks, then letting go, relaxing, just resting where they are.

 

And then let come to mind an image or memory of a courageous action, maybe one of your own, or one you witnessed or read about. What was the courageous act? Who did it? What made it courageous?

 

Think about what courage means to you. Does courage have to be dramatic, like in some movies? Or can it be something simple, like sticking up for someone, speaking out, or doing something you never did before?

 

What does it feel like to be courageous? Imagine feeling courageous. Imagine feeling that you could face whatever it is that arises in your life. Just sit for a moment with the feeling of courage.

 

You can practice this exercise on your own or with others. You can record yourself slowly reading the above as a script and then play it back for yourself. If you’re a teacher or a parent, after researching and practicing this and other mindfulness techniques on an ongoing basis, you can lead your students or children in the practice.

 

This exercise is a simple form of mindfulness combined with inquiry. It can help you be more aware of your thoughts and feelings, of how your mind works, and how to more deeply engage with and enjoy the world. I hope it works for you.

Breaking Free

I am pissed, along with, I hope, millions of others. Pissed and afraid of the policies and actions of Mr. T, his administration, and his Congressional followers who share his viewpoint or are afraid to oppose him.

 

One example of a policy that sows fear is this Senate (and House) tax bill. This bill is an outrage. If you don’t know much about it, not only was it rushed through without holding hearings or including Democrats in the design of the bill, but it is a direct assault on the lives of most of us. On the surface, it lowers taxes on many in the middle class. However, it eliminates deductions and credits (like for college education) important to the middle class. The CBO says it will lead to a large increase in the cost of medical insurance (it will cut the individual mandate portion of the ACA). It will increase the national debt (by over $1 trillion) due to large tax cuts to the rich and corporations, leading to across-the-board federal spending cuts, including cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Such cuts in Medicare coverage could lead to a loss of coverage for expensive treatments, like for cancer patients. Cuts in Medicaid will lead to cuts in care for children and the disabled, etc. The overall result will be an increase in the cost of living for most of us.

 

And consider that the debt might lead to an inability of the government to pay for infrastructure maintenance and improvement, or to adequately fund the agencies needed to prepare for and respond to the increasing destruction caused by extreme weather events triggered by Global Warming.

 

Bills like this sow fear. They sow a fear for our children. They sow a fear for our public education system, cutting sources of funding for public schools while providing publicly funded incentives to send children to private schools. They sow a fear that the remnants of justice left in the legal system will be eliminated if this administration continues as it has. They sow fear for our voting rights and the ability of common citizens to influence policies.

 

And imagine the implications of giving the wealthy, who already have too much money and power, even more money to spend on influencing elections. The wealth gap in the US has been growing for years, especially since Reagan. According to Wikipedia, the top 1% now own more income than the bottom 90%. This bill will further the inequity.

 

Few Americans agree with this bill, too many don’t know enough about it, yet Republicans continue to work it. Most have shown little care for the citizens they are sworn to serve, little care for anyone other than themselves and their wealthy donors.

 

A few nights ago, Lawrence O’Donnell interviewed a psychiatrist named Dr. Lance Dodes, who talked about the President probably being close to psychosis or mental illness, when he’s under stress. One (of many) piece(s) of evidence for this viewpoint was Mr. T’s recent claims that it wasn’t his voice that appeared in the Access Hollywood video, even though he, in the past, admitted saying what the video records him saying.

 

We are all being influenced by his behavior and state of mind. We see how easily he feels threatened or under attack. He acts like someone who tells himself we are in a state of “war of all against all,” where only the rich are valuable, and the rest are powerless pawns. I don’t know how to end the suffering of Mr. T, but I know that anyone who supports him is supporting his delusion. I know that political, social and personal action is needed to end the suffering he is imposing on the rest of us.

 

Fear, like all emotion, is constructed out of a story we tell ourselves, and the feelings and sensations we experience. To let go of fear, we have to learn from and then let go of the story and the way of thinking about reality that supports that fear. People who say “We have already lost our democracy” or “There is nothing we can do,” or “All politicians are equally bad” is to make Mr. T’s story our own. It is to give up and make ourselves powerless. As long as we can object, call politicians, give money to causes, take to the streets, and vote, we have at least some elements of a democracy. The more we act, the more we feel we can act.

 

We also have to allow ourselves to face uncomfortable emotions and sensations. If we turn away from feeling fear, we let it rule. Of course, there are times to step back from feelings. But usually, if we become aware of them, and we break emotions down to individual sensations, of a particular quality and in a particular location, and breathe into that area of the body, then the sensations we feel become merely sensations. A huge ball of emotion becomes something to study. Fear then changes to openness and our actions originate in our understanding, not our fear. Fear becomes a source of energy for learning more about a situation; we feel more powerful and are more powerful.

 

What is happening to our country is so unjust, so destructive, ignorant, and greedy, it is unbelievable. We have to call it what it is, face it and do what we can to change it, or we will end up supporting it.

 

This week, Congress will try to reconcile and vote on a final tax bill. The GOP will try, once again, to rush it through. Everyone, please do whatever you can. It was the energetic citizen response to the Senate Health Care bill that stopped it. Call Congresspeople, write, protest. Call repeatedly, to show them we are here, and we hear and understand what they are doing.

 

***

Suggestions to Call:

Congresspeople:

Charlie Dent

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Darrell Issa –Barbara Comstock-

Any of the New York, New Jersey, California representatives might oppose the tax plan (except for Reed (202) 225 3161 and Katko, I think)

Claudia Tenney-(NY) 202 225-3665

 

Senators:

Susan Collins – (202) 224-2523

John McCain – (202) 224-2235

Ron Johnson – (202) 224-5323

Shelley Moore Capito – (202) 224-6472
Jeff Flake – (202) 224-4521
Cory Gardner – (202) 224-5941
Rob Portman – (202) 224-3353

Bob Corker – (202) 224-3344

Lisa Murkowski – (202) 224-6665

My Roommate Was A Totem

We all have things we fear. For several people I know, spiders are high on their list. For me, it was only big, hairy ones. There is something so primal about them.

In 1969, I served in the Peace Corps in a small village in the jungle of Sierra Leone, which is on the equator in West Africa. My home was the guesthouse of the local paramount chief, one of the more powerful men in the country. It was a large cement block structure, one of the few in the village that wasn’t made of mud. He preferred the traditional mud hut to a cement building. And I grew to understand his reasoning. On the many days the temperature reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit or more, his mud home was much cooler than mine made of cement. And my roommate was a Mende spider.

To see the rest of the story, go to Open Thought Vortex Literary Magazine.

 

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.

Have You Noticed That You Are Getting Older?

If you look at your body and you’re over 70 or 60 or for some, 40 or earlier; all of us perceive aging differently and think of ourselves as “getting old” at a different age. And you see wrinkles and you feel aches and pains which before you never knew existed. And you wonder if you have some illness. You might have an illness. But the malady you’re experiencing, if you think of it that way, is aging. Is change. Is impermanence.

 

Aging is an illness only if you fear it. Only because you label or were taught to label wrinkles as something to fear, or pain or change as something to fear. But then, the fear is of fear itself. You fear your own sensations. You battle with your own body. And this can be awful. It makes any pain you experience feel worse.

 

You might have this idea of yourself. But the idea you like best is of a young woman or man. Our culture teaches that youth is beauty. So the aging self is seen as a younger self decaying, falling apart. So you never see your self as she or he is, now. You see only falling apart. And, truthfully, even that image that you had of yourself back when you felt young—that wasn’t very real, either. Do you think any image, any abstracted idea of a you, could encompass all that you are? You knew back then that your reality exceeded your idea of you, so even in your twenties or teens, you were nervous about your self and who she or he was. Even as a young person you suffered from thinking of change as something to be feared, and you labeled parts of your self beautiful or handsome and others as awful or not-to-be-perceived. You walked even then with a shadow.

 

So, what do you do? Understand this. Look back and perceive all the changes you have gone through and know that everything changes. If everything changes, even your fear and ideas can change. Notice what is deeper in you than your ideas. Your thoughts, that sensations of aging are symptoms of illness, are there primarily to reveal how you are thinking and how you are creating a sense of suffering. When you feel sensations of fear, when you start sweating and your stomach tenses and feels like the contents of a castanet played by some hyperactive child, these sensations are telling you about themselves, not you. They are saying: you are holding fear, but you are not fear. You can release it and put your attention elsewhere. Notice it. Greet what arises with as much openness as possible, then let it go. When you are open to whatever arises, this means you stop fighting your own life. You feel freer, more joyful. Is it easy to be open to change or to others? No. But noticing how this emotional process works is important.

 

And there is no way to age “correctly.” There is only doing it honestly, with kindness and the recognition that everyone—everyone, hopefully, goes through this. Look around you. We are all wrinkling.

 

When I was 66, after practicing Karate for 37 years or so, I felt that I was finally beginning to understand how to practice Kata—not that I could put this understanding into words very well. A Kata is a pre-arranged series of movements, each of which has meaning in terms of self-defense. Katas are at the heart of traditional martial arts practice, yet the part that I had the most difficulty doing well. Suddenly, there was good focus in my practice and a feeling of flow of movement. The judge who used to sit on my shoulder and make snide comments had, for the most part, disappeared. It was just the Kata. And I enjoyed doing it. There was pain, but it was just part of the practice. It is so wonderful to move in a way that accepts whatever shows up as just something new to perceive and greet. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, I love it.

 

And to do this in a class, with teenagers—to discuss aging, discuss how we look at our selves and our bodies—can be liberating. To discuss what we fear most means that even what we most fear can be faced directly. Now that is an education.

 

 

*Next week: Dreams and reunions.