Finding Comfort Within: Flying Like A Bird or Setting Like the Sun

What brings you comfort?

 

It’s a wonderful sunny day. Despite the cold temperature, I open a bedroom window and take a breath. The air feels remarkable, clean and tasty. It’s been weeks since we’ve had a day like this.

 

Close your eyes partly or fully, or as much as you feel comfortable doing, take a nice breath in, and out, and taste the air. Just enjoy being nowhere but here for a moment. Then let come to mind a time you felt a deep sense of comfort. What was the situation? Where were you? Were you by yourself or with others? What were you doing? Notice what comfort means to you.

 

When I think about this question, I realize the answer has changed throughout my life. As a child, I remember walking my dog in the wooded area in our neighborhood. Sometimes, we’d take off on a run and all else would be forgotten. All that existed was us, running, together.

 

When I returned home during my college years, to visit my parents in New York City, I remember late nights, after everyone else was asleep and the city had quieted, my mother and I would sit and talk, openly, like at no other time.

 

When I first moved to Ithaca, my future wife and I lived with a group of people near a gorge and waterfall. When I’d go out and stare into that waterfall, I’d see first the flow of water. Then my perspective would shift to focus on one drop, one amongst the multitude, racing down, crashing, disappearing into the current of the creek. Any tension I had previously felt, any thoughts, would be washed away. I’d be left emotionally calm and mentally clear.

 

Now, after getting up and doing basic exercises and stretching, I love to sit with a book that inspires or challenges me. It is a grave mistake to think of reading as an automatic or passive activity that involves simply repeating in your mind someone else’s words. When you give reading your full attention you get to see the world with someone else’s eyes. And this new perspective illuminates depths missed in yourself.  Without a quality reading, the quality of the writing is never perceived. This is why holding a book can feel like holding a mystery or a treasure chest. Reading online or with a kindle doesn’t do that for me no matter the content. In fact, it turns me off.

 

Or writing⎼ I love to write stories, blogs, poems, etc. in the morning, when my mind is fresh. The words enable me to transform into other people, or to fly like a bird, to rain and snow and set like the sun or cuddle with a cat. Creativity can be so satisfying….

 

*To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.

“Read the Eternities:” Who Knew There Was Such Meaning in the Flight of a Bird?

It’s morning. The sun is hazy. So many Blue jays, Mourning Doves, Woodpeckers, Cardinals, Chickadees and a few Evening Grosbeaks feed at the bird feeder outside the window or on the seeds scattered on the ground. Their movements are first individual, one move here, another there. Then all at once, like a wave, they all take off. They’re here, then gone.

 

I find it tremendously soothing to put my attention on the birds, plants, and sunlight. The view feels sacred to me. Calmly focusing on it helps me gain some clarity in troubling times and to find something beyond the obvious in what I see. It helps me to find answers to the questions, fears, and confusions that powerfully arise or that I barely know are there. It reveals the moment has depths not to be missed.

 

We can let our eyes rest on the whole scene and then our body⎼ shoulders and belly especially⎼ relax; our hands at ease on our lap. Take a few slow, deep breaths. And then we watch individual movements, distinguish which birds like the feeder, which the ground. Who is aggressive and who can share a meal? Or we can listen to the calls of the different birds, hear one, then another, or listen to them all, together, like a concert. Standing by the window, we can feel the warmth of the sun shining on our face.

 

James Shaheen, in a Letter from the Editor of Tricycle Magazine, The Buddhist Review (Winter, 2020) titled “A Time for Eternities,” speaks to this point. He writes about Thoreau saying, “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.” Not to totally withdraw from what is happening around us, no matter how challenging or frightening⎼ the often-disturbing news headlines, for example. When times are chaotic and frightening, it is helpful to stay attuned to what endures, “to the knowledge that illuminates the deepest matters of human meaning.” He is referring not only to Buddhist teachings, but the wisdom, “through which consciousness is deepened,” the caring for others in our best traditions.

 

This wisdom is what reveals the truths in what surrounds us. In a synchronous fashion, I by “chance” read or listened to two other authors and teachers who gave similar messages, or maybe I just saw a similarity in what they said. Heaven is not divorced from the earth; enlightenment is not separate from ordinary mind. The birds and I are not as separate as we might think….

 

**To read the whole piece, please click on this link to The Good Men Project.

 

A Traumatized Nation

Even before COVID-19, even before DT, a great number of us were carrying the pain of a trauma. But since the onset of this pandemic in February and March, the pain and suffering has become ubiquitous. Sure, many of us can be relatively safe in our homes, quite content and even happy, and we need such a refuge. But what does it do to us when we can’t stand to hear the news? Or fear leaving our homes? We often think of trauma in terms of individuals. But a whole nation can be traumatized, as we have been at different times in our history, including 9/11 and, for multiple reasons, now.

 

I’m reading a book that has been extremely helpful for me, called Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing by David A. Treleaven. The book has expanded my understanding of my own practice of mindfulness, how to help others, as well as how to better understand this time we are all experiencing.

 

A trauma is an incapacitating form of stress. Stress by itself can be helpful or harmful. But when it is deep and we can’t integrate or face it, it can become traumatic. The DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines a traumatic event as exposure to “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.”

 

Treleaven makes clear that this exposure can come in many ways, from directly experiencing or witnessing a trauma or from learning about what happened to a relative, loved one or close friend. Children are especially vulnerable. One in four children in the U. S. have experienced physical abuse, one in five sexual. Then you add war and oppression, whether it be sexism or violence directed at one’s gender identity, race or religion, etc. and you have a huge number of people who have suffered from trauma.

 

There is a spectrum of trauma, of course, a difference in intensity and symptoms. We can feel stressed out or suffer from PTSD. Symptoms can vary from repeating thoughts and memories, to images flooding consciousness, to being cut off or alienated from our own feelings. We can have trouble sleeping or feel our own bodies are booby-trapped.

 

And what happens when we come to fear a person’s maskless face or touching a surface in a public place? Or we don’t know how we can feed our family or if we will be thrown out of our homes? What happens when our social-economic-political worlds are being destroyed, our rights ripped away, and people who look like us are killed by police without being held accountable? All while the water we drink and the air we breathe is poisoned?

 

Mindfulness Practice:

 

One way to begin is with mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is both a present centered awareness of whatever is going on with us as well as a practice that develops self-regulation. Traditional mindfulness and meditation is based on a deep understanding of the causes of, and ways to relieve, human suffering. It teaches us how to study our conditioned responses to stimuli as well as our own sensations, thoughts and feelings so we can interrupt ones that lead to suffering.

 

Mindfulness usually helps me with any problem I face, even when I am ill or frightened. In fact, for the first few years after I learned how to meditate, I would only do it when I had a headache or felt sick or stressed. I had headaches frequently. Then I realized if I did it every day, maybe the headaches would stop. And they did….

 

**To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.

The Walk That Reveals Dragons: Walking So Our Capacity for Compassion Is Strengthened Along with Our Legs

Walking has taken on new significance and importance today, due to the coronavirus. Gyms are closed, so the outdoors have become a gym we all share. Or we have always shared this gym, but maybe we now do it more deliberately. Almost everyone I know says they take walks. Where we each go⎼ that is not so shared. Some have the privilege of deep forests, beaches, or river sides, others city streets, parks, or parking lots.

 

I took a walk a few days ago that could have gone on forever. Our home is in a rural area, on a steep hill, and I only stopped when my legs tired. I was also experimenting with how to walk as more a meditation⎼ how to lose myself for at least a few moments. And how, when my mind wandered, to kindly return attention to the basics⎼ breathing, looking, listening, and feeling.

 

When I first started my corona-walks, I distracted myself from each step so the weight of steps wouldn’t drag me down. The walk up our hill is challenging. I would set a goal to exercise for maybe 30 minutes or an hour. But if I began each walk thinking about how many minutes I had left to finish, each step would become a burden. So I either counted steps or thought about interesting ideas or people or projects I could take on. Or I played this game with myself. I pretended I would only walk to the big house up the road. And when I arrived there, I’d tell myself to walk just a bit more, to the maple tree where I saw the turkeys last week. And when I reached the maple tree I’d continue to the next memory or turkey siting.

 

But not this time.

 

In an online birding class I took recently, the teachers spoke about how we honor the birds we live with by knowing their names and their songs. This was a new and beautiful idea for me. But as I walked, I just wanted to listen. To name the birds would be another distraction from the song itself. It would mean me, here, and it, there. But to stop walking and just listen, the sound grew closer and clearer. And when the song ended, the trees and insects and stones and cars on the road were waiting for me even more distinctly.

 

In the past, I often thought about what it meant to feel at home someplace. This is the answer. That the gullies, streams, and trees, the wind, heat, and the house I owned would live inside me, not just me inside it. That I’d be open to all of it. That it would be a place to love and think.

 

There are so many ways to think. We can think rationally and critically, use words, concepts, examine theories, research and organize facts. Or we can let our minds wander through imaginative realms, memories of the past or ideas of the future⎼ through our pictures of ourselves or how others picture us. Or we quiet the mind, by focusing on a singular chosen point of focus⎼ the breath, sensations, the maple tree, and especially feeling⎼ or awareness of whatever arises in the immediate moment, including awareness itself….

 

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

 

*For information on walking safely when you might meet up with other people, in this time of the coronavirus, please refer to this NPR program, Masks and the Outdoor Exerciser.

Lucid Dreaming and Breathing, to Reduce Pain and Clear the Mind

Last night around 3 am, I woke up due to pain in my upper chest. The pain was a weight pressing down on me. I didn’t know what was causing it, so there was also a little panic. I was sweating and my heart started beating faster. I thought about trying to just go back to sleep but realized the pain was too strong and my worry too present. I got out of bed, put on warmer clothing, grabbed a book, and went downstairs to sit in the recliner in the living room.

 

But I didn’t feel like turning on the light. I was too tired. So I just focused on breathing into my chest. I felt my body expand as I inhaled, and relax, settle down, as I exhaled. I focused on the sensations and let go of the thoughts.

 

And when I breathed in, the expansion of the chest decreased the pain. The pain was no longer one solid block. And I noticed it was not as continuous as I first thought it was; there were gaps. Sometimes, my hand would hurt instead. Or I could feel my back pressing comfortably against the chair, or my stomach expand and contract. My breathing got slower and calmer.

 

I went deeper into the pain and remembered similar ones from the past. I realized I could feel a restriction in my esophagus. It was not a heart attack causing the pain but probably acid reflux.

 

And then I fell asleep. But the sleep was unusual, and in spurts. I would wake up mentally, check in on myself, while my body was largely frozen and asleep. I couldn’t move my arms or legs. At first, I felt very vulnerable and scared, but then realized this inability to move was normal. Normal sleep is called paradoxical because you are unable to move your larger muscles, yet your mind, especially while dreaming, can be very active.

 

What was not normal was that I was mentally awake while being asleep. I could see one of our cats sleeping under the nightlight in front of me. Another one jumped off the couch and went to eat from his bowl. I could hear him but couldn’t move my head to see him. This state is called lucid dreaming. In some cultures and traditions, it is taught as part of meditation or healing. I entered this state rarely⎼ usually to change or escape from a dream I didn’t like. I decided I could wake up if I needed to do so.

 

And then I relaxed and fell asleep again, only to awaken a little later. And then I fell asleep for about three hours.

 

It might seem counter-intuitive to mentally go toward a pain instead of trying to immediately cut off all feeling. Certainly, pain can set the mind to screaming, so this is sometimes impossible to do. But to actually go toward the pain can signal to yourself you can relax, you can face the situation, and this can often decrease it and stop the mind from imagining threats that aren’t there.

 

Calming your mind can also allow you to feel and think clearly enough to gather the information the pain is sending you. You can then close your eyes and imagine taking a certain medication and discern if the feel of that pill would be helpful, or if drinking a certain tea or walking around or eating would increase or decrease it. Or whether you should call an ambulance or ask your partner or roommate to wake up and drive you to the emergency room. You could feel out different courses of action with more clarity.

 

However, the time to practice how to be calm in emergencies is now, when you are not experiencing one. Practicing closing your eyes partly or fully and taking 3 slower, deeper breaths when you notice you are angry or feel threatened is a good way to start. Or practicing mindfulness each day.

 

Of course, sometimes you immediately need that pill or ambulance. But how you respond to pain can either increase or decrease it. Simply allowing yourself to be aware and to be calm can not only reduce the pain, but clear the mind so you know better how to act.

 

This blog post was syndicated by the Good Men Project.

The Dynamic Relationship of Joy and Fear

It can be so difficult these days to think about joy. Joy is such a short and simple word, yet it means something both basic and profound. It can be of such benefit yet many of us create obstacles to it in our lives or have had obstacles created for us. What is joy? What happens inside us when we’re joyful? How does joy affect our outlook and ability to think and act?

 

Sometimes joy can be like discovering a secret that you can’t wait to share. Sometimes your hands want to rise up, your body wants to dance, your face to smile, as if you were embracing the world, and yourself.

 

I remember such moments. I remember receiving an email from my agent that my book was going to be published. I could barely believe it. Excitement and ordinariness both arose in me. Here was an email—I had received thousands of emails over the years, but none like this one. It was as if I had been hoping for this moment for my entire life. As if all prior emails had this one buried within them as a possibility. Likewise, when good friends came to visit, I felt joy. Or when I was a student, on snow days, or at least when I first heard the announcement of a snow day. Or when a burden was lifted. Or something feared was ended.

 

Joy can be what pushes back against fear; fear can dissolve joy. All emotion has this dynamic quality to it. No emotion is just one emotion. When one emotion surfaces, others arise on the periphery. For example, love can carry fear as well as joy. Why is there fear with love? Maybe because love is allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Part of the ecstasy of love is the affirmation and sense of strength that comes from believing in yourself enough to know you can be vulnerable, you can feel this, even though pain might result from it.

 

Meditation on Joy

 

One way to understand joy and feel it more often and more powerfully is provided by meditation or simply letting yourself remember a moment of joy and what it felt like. Meditation can assist mental clarity and the letting go of internal impediments.

 

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

How Wide Can We Open the Door to the Mystery of Ourselves?

The More Troubling the Social-Political Environment, the More Important It Is to Understand Ourselves (and Get a Good Sleep).

 

Last night, I woke up in the middle of a dream. And almost immediately, the world of conscious reality reappeared with only a hint of the dream remaining. Only a hint that I had dreamed at all and that there were worlds aside from this conscious one. This fascinates me.

 

When I was teaching secondary school, discussing dreams, as well as learning more about their own psychology, fascinated most students. They wanted to understand from where or why these crazy images or stories showed up in their lives. Many people, as they age, lose this drive for self-understanding or it is socialized out of them.

 

But regarding sleep ⎼ teens get too little of it and tend to push the limits or even rebel against it. Each night we go to sleep ⎼ or should go to sleep. This is the rhythm of life. We sleep and wake. We forget our dreams in the daytime and lose or reshape the daytime world in our dreams. We might have no awareness that we dream at all or resist the very idea. Yet, we do dream. It is a necessity. Exactly what dreams do is not known. But when we don’t dream or don’t get enough sleep, we pay an enormous price.

 

Scientists say when we dream, we show rapid eye movements (REM) under our closed eyelids, as if we were watching a scene played out before us. But the rest of our body remains mostly immobile. Our brains are active; the large muscles of our bodies inactive (REM atonia). This is called paradoxical sleep.

 

According to Mathew Walker, in his book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Dreams and Sleep, during dream sleep our brain is free from noradrenaline, which produces anxiety. At the same time, emotional and memory-related areas of the brain are activated. This means that, in dreams other than nightmares, we can experience emotional content without all the stress. We can process emotional experiences more openly and heal.

 

Walker discusses the negative health consequences of the consistent loss of even one or two hours of sleep including accelerated heart rate and blood pressure, an overstimulation of the threat response system, weight gain, and an increased risk of dementia…

 

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

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.

The Path to Meaning Runs Through Silence and Sincerity: The Quiet That Runs Deeper Than Any Story

I was getting ready for bed last night and suddenly the whole world became quiet. It was like someone suddenly turned off all the noise. I could still hear, but whatever I heard only reinforced the quiet inside me. I felt there was nothing else I had to do, no place other than here I had to be. This was it.

 

The quiet was so deep, whatever I looked at was endowed with tremendous meaning and feeling. Looking at Milo, the cat sleeping on the bed, and I noticed an inexplicable sense in myself of both vulnerability and joy.

 

We might read myths of beings with supernatural powers or places of archetypal beauty. We might read literature to learn how others live and to feel what life has to give us. But right here and now was a clear lesson for me in what life has to give.

 

Sometimes, I feel a barrier has been placed over my mind or body, like a glove. Or I try to speak to someone or read a book and the words I speak or read echo in my mind. Another me seems to be doing the hearing and I hear only second hand.

 

But other times, there is no barrier. The Buddha, in the Bahiya Sutta, spoke about mindfulness as being: “In the seen there is only the seen, in the heard, there is only the heard…” This is it, I think. What is heard is not separate from the hearer. Only afterwards do words come to mind, words to describe it all, about beauty, pain, joy or sincerity. Words can hint at or point the way, but the truth is the experience, not the words.

 

In college, I took a wonderful class taught by a philosopher named Frithjof Bergmann. He was German and, at one point in his life, an actor, and he often made his lectures dramatic events. One day he asked us what makes life meaningful. For the philosopher Nietzsche, he said, life gains meaning by giving it necessity, achievement or a personal goal. When the events of one’s life are organized like a work of art, to serve a purpose, life feels meaningful….

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

How Can We Determine What to do with Our Lives?

We just don’t know. We live surrounded by so many unknowns that if we think about it, we might never do anything. When we’re in high school or college, for example, we might not know what we’ll do after we graduate, or if we’ll get a good job. We might not even know what we want to happen. But in reality, that is the lesson. We don’t know. Yet we have to act nevertheless.

 

Some deal with this by selecting a theory, belief or desire for what will happen and treat it as a fact. We tell ourselves and anyone who will listen how we will do on the next exam or who will win the next election or baseball game. Facing something or someone you know is usually easier to do than facing the unknown, (think about driving your car in some place you don’t know without GPS or google maps) especially if the known is shaped in our favor. Thinking positively is helpful. It makes us feel stronger. If we are taking a test or going on a job interview, we are more likely to succeed if we feel we can succeed.

 

Some of us perpetually do the reverse. We fear failure so much we don’t even try to succeed. Or we try to win by labeling ourselves as losers before anyone else can do so.

 

But if we delude ourselves into thinking we know what we don’t, we close our mind. This might serve as a temporary comfort or rest from something that frightens or stresses us, which can be helpful. But if we pretend we are finished learning when we’re just beginning, then we stop learning.

 

After I graduated from college, I went into the Peace Corps. When I returned, I was a bit lost. I tried traveling, writing, acting, psychology, teaching and decided to get a MAT in teaching English. After graduate school and a few years in education, I got lost once again, and tried out a few more areas of interest, like the martial arts and meditation.

 

At that time in my life, it was difficult to separate fantasy and desire from legitimate paths to a career. It was difficult to face a fear of failure and fully commit to any possible job. For example, I made a far-out proposal to a university that they introduce a new class in their education program.  The class would teach theatre improvisation techniques to teachers, both to improve their skills and to use with students to teach course material. However, I never expected a reply to my proposal. But I got one. A Professor wrote to me. There was no job opening at the moment, but he would like to talk with me about my idea. Because he said there was no job opening, I never went to speak with him. Later, I realized that was a legitimate opportunity lost.

 

But emerging from each moment of being lost was a clarity about one thing: I wanted to do something meaningful, steady, and creative….

 

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