Friday, January 22, 2010

The Basics III: The Breath and Beyond

Whenever we hear beginning meditation instructions, there is always this talk about following the breath. We place our awareness on the breath, the physical sensation in the belly or the nose, we observe it. We are asked to approach it with interest, curiosity, "What is this breath like?" Notice the beginning of the in-breath, the middle, the end, the space between the in and out-breath, the begin of the out-breath, the middle, the end, and start over. It goes like this, over and over. The mind wanders off, we bring it back, again and again.

So what is this about? Sometimes we ask our self, "What am I doing here? I'd rather be doing something fun. This is hard. This is boring. When do we get to the interesting part?" Sometimes people say, "Okay, I can watch my breath, what's next?" or, "When do we start doing real meditation?"

Sure, there are other instructions besides following the breath, but there really isn't anything more advanced, more profound than awareness of the breath. This is it. Because if we can really pay full and complete attention to the breath, without trying to change it, with a relaxed and open mind, without judgment or commentary, then this is really the practice. This is training the mind, developing the skills of mindfulness, kindness, attention. We train with the breath and other body sensations because it is easier than starting with, say, anger or chronic pain or anxiety. We need to develop our skills with the breath so we can apply them to every experience in our life.

Working with the breath, we learn how to meet every experience this same way, with openness, curiosity, kindness. We learn to touch everything in our life in a deep and immediate way. The breath is our home base, where we start and where we return when everything else is too hard, too crazy, too much. No matter where we are, what the situation is, the breath is here, now.

So, if we get bored and want something more interesting to happen, we notice that and return to the breath. If we notice the thought, "I can't do this," notice that and return to the breath. When other thoughts, stories, planning, memories, judgments pull us away, we notice them and return to the breath. Every return, if done gently, without judgment, is a mindful moment and strengthens the capacity to be more alive, aware, conscious in all situations. Welcome each return. Appreciate the freshness, the aliveness of each moment spent in awareness. Let the breath be, just as it is without trying to change it. Get to know it, really know it, without mental commentary. Relax into this moment, this breath with your whole being.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Holding On

Seven years since the chronic fatigue started, and I'm tired of being sick.

It's better than it used to be, but still, I'm tired of it. At least now I can hold a normal conversation almost all of the time and I can think clearly most of the time, but still, I'm tired of it. I still can't do the many of the things I love most, except on my best days, and I'm tired of it. A couple of years ago, it felt like I was headed towards feeling 'normal,' but then it got worse again - a lot worse. And I'm tired of it. I'm tired of not being the person my husband married. I'm tired of not being able to live the life I want. And maybe, just maybe, I'm getting to the place where I'm tired of being tired of it.

Now, my body really does feel tired, there's not much energy, and it aches. My brain still feels pretty foggy some of the time. These are observations, the way it is.

But let's look at the thought, "I'm tired of it." I've been saying that to myself on a regular basis for about a year and a half, since I got worse after feeling better. "I'm tired of it" says I am tired of feeling tired. It's a thought and a feeling about a situation, an evaluation about the way it is in my life. It's a thought I decided to buy into and to feel justified in holding onto. My bad. Because now, I don't just have this situation, this body that doesn't feel very good a lot of the time, but now I've multiplied the difficulty and the misery from it by many times. I've let myself become caught by that thought and I've bought into it as my reality. And the place where that thought is true is deep and dark, and just no fun at all. It's hell; self-created suffering at its finest. And now, I'm getting tired of that. My good.

Because the truth of the matter is that I don't have to be caught, I don't have to buy into it, and I don't have to have "I'm tired of it" as my reality. Oh, there will probably always be times when I have that thought, times when I sink back into that particular hell, for as long as this situation, this illness lasts. But it doesn't have to hold me, define me, perpetuate itself.

What I'm most embarrassed about here is that I've known this the whole time, for a year and a half. I've known that I am creating my own suffering and I've still kept at it. Now, that sounds really dumb, doesn't it? As human beings, we unconsciously experience this kind of thing all the time. One of the benefits of practicing mindfulness is that we start to see our habitual thoughts, reactions, feelings that create our own suffering, and that is a wonderful thing, because then that kind of suffering isn't inevitable anymore. If we are aware of it, we can choose to drop it and feel better, or to continue to hold onto it and keep feeling miserable. Now, it's a choice. Anybody can see it's a no-brainer.

Let's not forget that I've also been judging myself for being stuck - after all, I've been doing this mindfulness thing for a long time now, I should know better! Predictably, I have been somewhat less aware of this than the fact of being stuck. Also predictably, this magnifies the suffering and results in being even more stuck.

So why would I, why would anyone choose to hold onto a thought, feeling, or belief that they know is harmful? Since I'm a therapist, I can come up with all kinds of ideas about that related to psychology, childhood experience, etc. It happens all the time; how many times have I watched clients make this choice while I looked on, mystified and sad? Consciously choosing to hold onto something that causes us to suffer means that letting go of it would require giving up something more dear to us than feeling better: usually it's some part of our identity, some deeply held belief about who we are; something we are completely unaware of but cling to desperately.

Mindful practice gets us here, but fortunately, it is also the way through. If we keep at it, work to remain open, keep coming back, over and over, to what is present, this thought, this feeling, still stuck, over and over, then eventually it gets old, we get tired of holding on. Like an old record with a scratch that causes it to repeat the same segment of the same song over and over, we eventually get sick of it. And then we hit this point, the place where we just can't stand to hold onto it anymore, but we can't let go either. It's a tough place, and the fear comes up and confusion and lots of thoughts and feelings. It can be really uncomfortable. But it's a wonderful place too, because of the possibility in it. It's where we have to hold these two impossibilities at the same time, and the only way out of it involves taking a leap into the unknown.

So, this is where I am now. I recognize this process because I've been here before, many times, and seen many others here too. I'm practicing being aware of this, the sensations, feelings, thoughts, the process. Leaning into it, holding it all, with kindness, and now, without judgment. It's hard sometimes, really hard. I don't know what's next. I don't know how long I'll be in this place. I just don't know anything. But I'm here, and for just this moment, it's really okay.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


I really like the term "monkeymind," but I don't like the experience of it much.

We get the practice of mindfulness meditation from certain Buddhist traditions which originated in subtropical Asia. As anyone who has ever been to that part of the world knows, there are monkeys everywhere. Monkeys on the streets, in the trees, on the rooftops. They are often loud, mischievous, playful, obnoxious, and are in constant motion. Even when they sit still, their eyes are looking here, over there, up, down, always scanning. They can be aggressive at going after something that takes their fancy (keep a tight hold on your shopping bags), and high-tail it the moment there is a threat. So it makes perfect sense that meditators would apply the term 'monkeymind' to those same characteristics of the mind.

I've been sitting with monkeymind a lot lately. Thoughts that breed like rabbits, chasing mindful awareness off at every opportunity. Back to the breath, the anchor in the storm. And then off again, back again, off again. It goes like that. There's no experience of calm repose in this, no blissful sensation of unity or peace. Just one storm after another of thoughts and feelings about those thoughts.

It doesn't matter how long you've been meditating, whether you're a beginner or been doing it for a lifetime, there are going to be times like this. Right now for me, it has to do with spending more of my energy on external things, especially engagement with other people and this thing called social networking, which is new to me. I suspect menopause isn't helping, either. Whatever the reason, I sit on the cushion, and here is monkeymind.

I have to keep reminding myself that it is just the mind doing what it does. Monkeys do what monkeys do, and the mind does what it does. I keep remembering that the important thing is awareness. I am the one being aware of monkeymind. The time I spend meditating is the time I spend being aware of the storm of thoughts passing through my mind. Monkeymind feels uncomfortable for me, so I also practice compassion for myself, who is having this experience.

Many times, we get discouraged when we try to meditate and we experience monkeymind. We think we aren't doing it right, or that we just can't meditate. But all that is really happening is we are making up a story about what monkeymind means, making judgments about it and about ourselves. That's what the mind does too, so the practice is to be aware of that. That's why we are asked to keep returning our attention to the breath when we find the mind is off and running somewhere besides right here, right now. Coming back to the breath allows us the space to recognize that the mind was off doing its thing, to bring our awareness to whatever is happening. Bringing an attitude of acceptance, curiosity, and openness to our practice helps minimize judgments, but if we find ourselves making judgments, then we practice being aware of that.

Bringing awareness of whatever is happening, even if we don't like it much, bringing kindness to our awareness. This is it.