Preface: This has been the most challenging blog post I have written in a while. I am sharing some things about my past that I have not shared with many people. I am not sharing these things as catharsis. It is more out of a hope that anyone who can relate to my experiences will be helped by my story.
I remember, as a child, hearing about meditation and being very curious about altering my state of consciousness. I sat alone in my room staring at a wall for a few minutes hoping something mystical would happen. I soon got bored and went back to playing Atari....probably Pitfall or Adventure.
I quickly dismissed meditation as something along the lines of magic crystals or tarot cards. It didn't seem worth the time. That view persisted for many, many years. Meditation simply had no appeal for me. Why would I want to sit and do nothing when there was so much to do?
The birth of my first child generated a love beyond my ability to comprehend. That profound experience opened my mind back up to many possibilities. It also, paradoxically, created a great amount of stress because I began taking a deep look within myself trying to figure out who I was and what I believed in. I felt like I needed to know these things if I was going to be worthy of the role of father. My life was no longer my own. I had to ensure that I was going to be the kind of father this wonderful being deserved.
Along with the stress of being a teacher and a new father, I was going through this existential crisis. What did I believe in? What was my purpose? What values was I going to pass along to my child? I could no longer turn away from these questions to play video games. They had to be explored because the answers were going to impact the being I loved most in this world.
I won't go into my personal spiritual journey, but I admit that it is hard to separate my spiritual journey from the psychological journey I began at that time. That psychological journey was incredibly difficult. I experienced periods of great anxiety that led to periods of depression. I experienced valleys of overwhelming fear and uncertainty as I tried to find a footing or place to anchor myself. That journey included a lot of reading and listening. I devoured books and podcasts on philosophy, religion, self-improvement, etc. I was searching for solutions....solutions that would satisfy my sense of reason while also providing me comfort from my fears....fear of death, fear of not knowing, etc. Many times the solutions that made me feel at ease conflicted with my sense of reason. Likewise, the concepts that seemed most reasonable often made me more anxious.
This exploration led me to meditation time and time again, and as the scientific community began affirming the MANY benefits of the practice, I began dabbling.
I recall one of my first attempts to meditate. It was during a time of great stress. I found that being alone with my stressful thoughts, with nothing to distract me, would magnify these thoughts and generate negative emotions. Despite that, I decided to press on. I thought about the times when I would restart a workout routine and how PAINFUL the first few weeks were as my muscles, heart and lungs became reacquainted with regular exercise. I didn't feel like it would be fair to evaluate meditation as a tool to manage stress unless I committed to practicing consistently over a long period of time.
As I practiced, I slowly began to understand how my mind worked. My mind would generate negative thoughts. I would typically critique myself about something that happened in the past or worry about something happening in the future. I would follow this thought, ruminate, and create my own stress. This would set off physiological responses that would leave me frazzled and wiped out. For the first time, I could see the stress-generating system from beginning to end. With this new vision, I learned strategies to short-circuit the system. The first of these strategies was to stop trying to suppress thought. This was counter-intuitive because I thought if I could just stop the thought, I could stop the stress, but I realized that the mind is AWESOME....I MEAN REALLY GOOD at GENERATING THOUGHTS, and the more creative one is the more terrifying these thoughts can be. Somehow, when I tried to suppress thoughts, my mind became even better at generating thoughts. So that was the first step. I had to stop trying to suppress thought. The next step was just as important as the first. I had to recognize thoughts as a thoughts and separate them from reality. I came to understand that while I could not suppress my thoughts, I could control my response to thoughts. I did not have to believe them. I had developed a habit of lending too much credibility to all of my thoughts and then following the thought down a rabbit hole into cyclical negativity, worry, and fear. I not only followed the thought, but I built upon it. I constructed scary, painful realities out of these thoughts until my mind accepted them as reality. My mind would then set off the alarm system and over time, multiple alarms left me exhausted, sad, and focused on the negative.
Try to remember a time when you were a child and you convinced yourself that there was a monster under your bed or a boogeyman in your closet. Your mind generated this fantasy, and if you believed in it enough, you could scare the crap out of yourself. Then you would cry for your mom. The problem is that the lies we tell ourselves now are not so obviously fiction and screaming "MOM!" is less effective than it was when I was six. The lies we tell ourselves seem plausible. "I am not a good person." "I am going to mess this up." "People think I'm incompetent." "I will never achieve my goals." The mind generates the thought. You buy it. You perseverate on the thought, and it branches off into other recurrent negative themes or stories that you have been constructing about the subject. Sometimes these are stories you have told yourself since childhood.. The thought gains momentum and solidity like a snowball rolling down a hill. You react to it as though it is real and you find yourself anxious or depressed.
Meditation has helped me deconstruct this process, and that has helped me deconstruct my stress. I am not pretending to be a zen master. I am still learning a lot about my mind, and there are times when my new tools fail me, but at least I have some effective tools to use. Sometimes I don't recognize this system at work until it has reached the massive snowball stage, but MANY, MANY times I have been able to cut the process off at its beginning stages. As a result, many thoughts that would have previously entangled me in a web of negativity have been gently swept away, allowing me to maintain a sense of peace and joy.
I am very passionate about sharing meditation because I see so much stress in the world. I see teachers, students, administrators, parents and many others who are being crushed under the weight of their stress. I see shootings that seem to be occurring almost daily in schools, malls and theaters. I see a broken government filled with politicians unable to see past their party or ideological identities to move our country forward. I see religious, racial, and cultural intolerance. I see violence and hatred based upon fear and ignorance.
This is not a world worthy of my children or yours. They deserve better. They deserve a world that is consumed with compassion more than competition. They deserve schools that value their hearts over their data. They deserve adults who value peace and equanimity over money and power.
I know that meditation could help in all of these areas, and it could be implemented NOW because it is free and requires no talents or prerequisites. Its benefits are universal and neither require or restrict any set of religious beliefs. Exercise and proper nutrition are proven to make our bodies healthier. Meditation is proven to provide us with greater mental health. Why wouldn't we use it?
My three children provide constant motivation for this work, work that I recognize must start with myself. For me, meditation has gone beyond a simple tool to relieve stress. It is helping me develop compassion, peace and a deep sense of connection to others. For me, the dive inside myself has been the most important journey I've ever taken. This website, my presentations, and my efforts in this area are all designed to facilitate that journey for others. If we can all summon the courage, we will find that the treasures we have been seeking externally can all be found within us.
NOTE: It would mean a lot to me to hear your reactions to this piece. Please feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is a going to be a short piece. I wanted to take the time to recommend a very helpful new app called "Stop, Breathe & Think." The app, created by Tools for Peace, is user-friendly and is perfect for anyone interested in starting a meditation practice. You can learn more about it at http://stopbreathethink.org/ or directly download for your iPhone here and your iPad here.
Have you ever seen something posted on Facebook or Twitter and felt this strong urge to mount a vigorous response? I get that feeling a lot. When I scroll through my feeds I see an awful lot of stuff that sets off my, "Hey. That's not right" button. Whether it is a repost of information that is clearly urban myth or outright lies designed to misinform the public about a politician or issue, I often ask myself, "Can I let this go unchallenged?"
Social media has given everyone a platform. It has provided everyone a megaphone to communicate their opinions. For every decadent recipe for chocolate oreo balls that comes across my feed, there is a political or religious post that raises my blood pressure a few points.
I've been reflecting on this for a while, trying to figure out the most mindful approach to engaging in social media. Here are the questions I think about:
The struggle usually comes down to this. Do I avoid conflict and allow the person to have his/her opinion without my input or is there a responsibility on my part to fight for what I believe in?
I'm not sure what the right answer is. Perhaps it must be taken on a case by case basis. A list came across my feed today (see below), and I felt it was incredibly relevant to this discussion. It is a list that I will try to keep in mind when I am using social media.
I apologize if anyone is offended by the word "spiritual." I try hard to keep the tone of the blog as secular as possible, but these twelve symptoms were just too perfect for the topic of this post.
I paid particular attention to symptoms 8-10. I have found that when I am consistent with my mindfulness practice I have far less interest in conflict. The desire to show people I am right diminishes, and I am far more comfortable with opposing positions. The instinct to rebut others nearly vanishes. The way I approach conflict is lighter. I'm far more open to the idea that I may be the one that's wrong. It's as if my life's mantra becomes, "Let it be." I smile more and realize that everyone, including myself is evolving. That evolution may be slower than I'd like sometimes (particularly my own), but progress marches on. When I zoom out far enough, through mindfulness, I see that my judgment of others plays a huge part in thwarting my own progress and is often rooted in fear. I recognize that my ego is looking for ways to be separate and above others rather than tapping into my "spirit" which is seeks connection and peace.
I don't think that mindfulness means we have to avoid speaking out about the issues we feel are important. I think it just means that when we speak out we do so in a way that first seeks connectedness and avoids viewing others as our opponents or enemies. We do so in a way that demonstrates openness and equanimity. We do so in a way that avoids animosity and puts love first. We should seek first to understand and THEN to be understood. When we take a mindful approach, we recognize when ego/fear is inserting itself into the interaction and short-circuit it in an effort to avoid negative emotions within us and in others.
If you have not already done so, I hope you will connect with me on Facebook and/or Twitter. You can help keep me accountable for the words I have written here.
As we start a new year, many people will make a resolution to lose some weight. Being physically healthy is a fantastic goal for everyone, but I invite you to also lose another kind of weight in 2014.
Life can get chronically heavy. This weight is created by our inner thoughts about the external world. Many of us, including myself, have formed habits to think and respond negatively to our external conditions. This negative inner chatter produces negative emotions. When those emotions become chronic, they can generate anxiety, depression, and a host of physiological problems (headaches, insomnia, hypertension, etc). Left unchecked, we can also develop a miserable attitude.
So we busy ourselves with the quest to manipulate external conditions in an effort to short-circuit these negative thoughts and all of the terrible stuff that follows. This quest is never-ending. We find that once we have one external issue solved, another pops up. Our lives become a non-stop game of Whack-A-Mole. We heal a relationship and then another one begins to deteriorate. Just when we think we have external conditions settled, another stressful event rears its head. This quest often leaves us exhausted, cynical, and jaded. So we do our best to cope with this weight and simply try to hold on until our next break or vacation when we can temporarily step away from this maddening game.
As a teacher, I recall the combination of excitement and dread as I returned to work after a break. This mixture of optimism and pessimism, hope and fear, made transitioning back to work a challenge. I hoped there would be fewer moles and feared there would be more, but I knew the whacking of moles would really never stop. For me, the hardest transition of the year was returning to work after the holidays. After spending time surrounded by family and friends, celebrating and relaxing, it was hard to face down that long stretch between January and Spring Break. The days are still short. The weather is still cold. The holidays are done, and there is still a LONG way to go before summer. PLUS....college football is over. That alone is enough to make many of us pretty blue. This time of year can be very stressful and, at times, depressing for lots of us.
Well, this year I challenge you, her, that other guy and myself to completely change the way we view this time. Instead of simply coping with life, hanging on until Friday afternoon or Spring Break, let's reprogram ourselves to make the most of each moment we have.
To help us accomplish this, we can make a resolution to "lose some weight" through practicing mindfulness. Just like consistently eating well and exercising can help us lose physical weight, a consistent mindfulness practice can help us lose this mental/emotional weight. We will see that so much of this weight is placed upon us by ourselves. We will learn to control our negative inner dialogue and realize that the path to inner peace is found within us rather than outside us. We will learn to accept that while we don't have much control over our external conditions, we have the ONLY control over our inner conditions. As we lose this kind of weight, our daily lives will get lighter and lighter. We will still experience painful and stressful situations, but they won't seem as overwhelming. We will be better equipped to keep life in perspective resulting in much greater levels of peace, joy, equanimity and love. I hope YOU will join us this year, and I hope all of us will be much lighter headed into 2015.
If you are new to mindfulness practice, check out this this great illustrated guide to get you started.