I think Anne Frank said what is in my heart this week:
When I hit menopause, I lost my excellent ability to nap—gone, gone, gone. I’d lie there totally alert, practicing breathing and relaxing to no avail. Recently I’ve had the luxury of more down time. Those who know me will know my Inner Slug has been delighted—she’s discovered that I am sometimes able to sleep again when I nap, which has led to more napping, but a concomitant feeling of lethargy, drifting, and purposelessness.
Too alert, too relaxed—my napping behavior perfectly embodies two extremes the Buddha talked about 2600 years ago as hindrances to meditation (and, I would say, a balanced life).
When we are too alert, it’s like we have some feeling of danger, and we’re trying to pounce on every little thing that pulls our attention: an itch, a task, a worry. When we’re too relaxed, we’re prone to sloth and torpor.
Sometimes these states are so familiar that we don’t realize we are caught in them. Recently I told a friend I felt like I was treading water—fun to do for awhile, but not for long. Being able to verbalize it helped me get more active again and I do feel more alert. And, I intend to keep napping when appropriate!
At a meditation retreat years ago I mentioned to my teacher that I was taking a long walk every day. He didn’t see that as a distraction, but rather an opportunity to practice another form of meditation.
When practicing concentration meditation, we direct our mind towards a single chosen object, bringing it back again and again (with kindness) every time we realize it’s strayed away. Over time, the mind tends to settle down and is able to maintain this focus more easily. Familiar forms this practice takes include working with a rosary, repeated prayer or mantra, or staring at a candle or other object. My practice usually takes the breath as “home base.”
What my teacher suggested that day was to use four different objects to pay attention to, one at a time. They were:
moving through space
touching (or gravity)
With seeing, it is a soft-focussed awareness of what is seen, not a searching out each thing we see. With hearing it is similar, simply noticing sounds arriving at the ear. Moving through space is a full-body awareness, and touching can be any felt contact, though I tend to focus on the feeling of my feet with each step.
At no point are we to make judgments, tell stories, or otherwise get lost in content. When that inevitably happens, we gently bring our mind back to the object we strayed from. Since one of the ways my mind would generate thoughts is to think about when to shift, I find a landmark up ahead which will be the place where I change focus to the next object/process. When I get there and change, I look ahead for the next transition spot.
Sometimes one’s concentration can be so strong that they all merge, and one is present to all experience as it comes and goes. This can’t be forced, but is lovely to enjoy if it happens.
I’ve always wanted to be seen, yet also to be safe. I’d grown up with a father who frequently criticized me (and others too), especially making negative comments when I’d had a “failed” attempt to look nice (like a frizzy perm). I couldn’t look in a mirror without feeling shame, and I hated those group dressing rooms where you have to look in the mirror with other women around you. I was self conscious and tried to blend in when I spent time with new people until I felt comfortable being myself and visible.
I started wearing glasses in junior high; nothing looked good, just “no” or “maybe,” or “good enough.” It was a relief when my parents let me get contacts at fifteen, though I always had to have backup glasses. Sadly, I stopped being able to wear contacts about ten or fifteen years ago and so was back to wearing the “good enough” frames.
Then eight years ago I tried on the pair of round, brown frames you see in the photo, and got the first “yes!” that I can ever remember. It’s been fun to wear them, and I got tons of compliments. But like all things physical they began to fall apart and needed replacement. I delayed the process as long as I could, and finally took myself to Berkeley where I’d gotten the brown ones. Thank goodness for European glasses designers—I actually had several pairs that made it into the final running for the first time ever!
In the second photo you see my new glasses. Turns out the shape is really the best one for me, though these are significantly darker than the brown ones, To me, these scream “look at me!,” almost like a neon sign flashing, so I was nervous about wearing them.
And I’ve been cracking up all week. My adult self realizes I really don’t care if anyone likes them or not. I hope people do, as they are the ones who have to look at them, not me. My adolescent self is happy to have the pressure off. And my child self was delighted with the few people who noticed them and said “I like them!”
“Of course I am afraid. I have very good reason to be afraid. I am also angry. The murder was and still is despicable. But I will not let that get in the way of my life. The best way to fight these crimes is to stand up for ourselves, and that is what I intend to do. June is pride month, and the best way to show our pride is to unite against crimes against humanity such as these.”
The temptation to demonize others and to build walls when we feel or are threatened is not new to our times. But I think my friend would probably agree with Rumi, a Muslim poet born in Afghanistan eight centuries ago, who himself was a refugee, forced to flee the violent invasion of Genghis Khan:
Rumi wrote: “Why struggle to open a door between us when the whole wall is an illusion? Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” And I would add, “and join with others—to give and get encouragement and support—who are also doing this work.”
And then my friend ended his post with “Love is love.” I couldn’t have said it any better.
A few days ago I was sitting on my soft, camel-colored chair in my usual morning trance, drinking coffee and absorbed in reading or playing a game on the iPad. Suddenly I was fully present; it was like a light came on or a window opened and I could see clearly (now!). I was at ease, so it was a very pleasant feeling.
One of the fruits of practicing meditation and mindfulness (including a willingness to be open to mindfulness of the unpleasant) is that I’ve learned how to soak myself in a pleasant Moments of Mindfulness such as this one, noticing all my senses, including the quality of mind, soaking in the experience, until, like all things, it faded and passed away.
Each time we are able to be fully present to a positive or skillful experience, we deepen the neural networks that support this type of experience, making it more likely to happen again. And indeed, I’ve noticed that I’ve been a little more alert, a little more aware the last few mornings.
It was fun to come up with this acronym, seeing that each MOM is the parent to more such moments, and to find photos that illustrate what I’m writing about.
May you too give birth to many MOMs!
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I listened recently to a veteran describe how doing art helped her heal from decades of PTSD, after being raped and then discounted and humiliated while she was in the service. It brought to mind the wonderful community art projects we visited in Cuba.
Art, including music and dance, of course, is everywhere in Cuba. Paintings and sculptures can be seen in alleys, on the street, in restaurants and hotels, in people’s homes, in galleries, and in museums. The post-revolution section of the Museum of Art in Havana is one of the best collections I’ve ever seen.
Cubans seem to understand the place of art in society, not just for self expression, but also for community development and cohesion and celebration. I’m sure it’s used for healing as well. Certainly there is always a place for children to do art.
Here are a few photos from 2 community art projects we visited in Havana, including Hamel’s Alley, founded in 1990 by Salvador Gonzales Escalona, and El Tanque/Muraleando, which converted trashed-out neighborhood and abandoned water tank into a vibrant community center.
Recently, inspired by the meditation retreat she had just attended, our beloved yoga teacher Angela recited the Five Daily Recollections given to us by the Buddha in one of his sermons. There were two typical types of responses: “wow, that’s grim, depressing,” and “wow, I’d like a copy of those; they seem wise.”
Why do they elicit such strong and contradictory reactions? We are being asked to go against the stream of much of our unconscious daily life, where we act as if we can be in control of our bodies and health, other people, events, the future. It can be painful to truly acknowledge that all things are impermanent, including us, but when we do acknowledge the truth of how things are, it is actually quite liberating. The preciousness of this human life is seen deeply, and we also see that our actions do count.
Here are the Five Daily Recollections:
A woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth (nun or monk), should often reflect thus:
1. I am of the nature to grow old; I have not gone beyond aging.
2. I am of the nature to grow ill; I have not gone beyond sickness.
3. I am of the nature to die; I have not gone beyond death.
4. All that is mine, dear and delightful, shall vanish and be gone.
5. I am the owner of my karma (actions); I am born of my karma; I am supported by my karma. All that I do, skillful or unskillful, so shall I inherit.
Last week I tuned into Fresh Air on National Public Radio; Terry Gross is in her fourth decade interviewing people in this highly regarded show, and yet she was saying, “…if somebody gives me positive feedback, I feel like yeah, I’m really OK. Give me [negative] feedback, and I think, like, oh my God, I’m such a failure. I’m so horrible.”
She was finding herself blown around by one pair of what are called the four worldly winds, states of mind that can take us off balance if we believe our thoughts and identify with them. The pair she was reacting to is usually known as praise and blame.
One pair that I am particularly susceptible to is often translated as fame and ill-repute. But another translation that I found is closer to my experience of this pair—recognition and disregard. At some point in my childhood, I developed the coping strategy of being agreeable, following the rules, and generally keeping the peace to avoid criticism or conflict. But then I suffered because I felt unseen and like an outsider. So when I’m recognized or praised, I feel that glow that Terry was feeling; and when I’m not included I can (less and less, I’m happy to report) feel bad about myself.
The other two pairs are gain and loss, and pleasure and sorrow. When we get too attached to any of the positive experiences, we can get a bit full of ourselves, and then more easily knocked off balance by the negative. And vice versa, if we identify too much with the difficult states, it can be hard to let in the positive.
The advice the Buddha is reputed to have given: know that these worldly winds come and go and rest like a great tree in the midst of them all.
I walked past the nondescript storefront in my neighborhood for two months before I opened the door one Monday night and went in. I’d been to my first celebration of International Women’s Day and seen a demonstration of what the class I’d be attending would be about, knowing it would be scary and possibly life-changing. I walked in, and didn’t leave until six years later. I had found a home, a community, a way to look at myself, other women, and the world; this led directly to the career I would later pursue as a psychotherapist.
At the San Francisco Women’s Health Center, we taught self-health. We began with the introductory class on cervical self-exam, using plastic specula, flashlights and mirrors to see the most private parts of our bodies. We did this in groups to break down the isolation and self-criticism that plagued many of us. After each woman put in her speculum and looked at herself—a surprisingly thrilling experience—others looked too.
We taught class series which included breast self-exam, and we did bi-manual exams on each other to feel the uterus and ovaries. We talked about the social context of medical care, inspiring women to enter medical school at a time when it was mostly men; looked at the role of pharmaceutical companies before the term Big Pharma; and pressed for patients’ rights to information, support, and options. We had a menopause program at a time when talking about it was taboo, and had a program for pregnant women too.
Most of our work was volunteer. I learned bookkeeping, taught classes, wrote and produced pamphlets, spoke at medical conferences, and participated (silently for the first two years!) in our weekly meetings in which we collectively ran the center. I brought the excitement for personal growth to my new career as a therapist, and have used many of those skills in my private practice and in co-founding and helping organize Dharma Zephyr Insight Meditation Community.
PS As I was already mentally writing this post, I learned that this is National Women’s Health Week—so I’m happy to celebrate it by invoking this very moving and significant part of our history.