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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Change your mind, change the world

The first time I learned lovingkindness meditation, or metta, I was at a weekend retreat a couple of hours away from my house. As I drove home, I sent the standard wishes to the other drivers -- May you be safe, may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you live with ease -- indiscriminately, whether they sped by me or poked along so that I had to pass them, whether they sat in a lane or cut in and out of traffic.

It was a new experience and a delightful revelation, certainly a change from my usual litany of salty epithets.

The thing is, none of those other drivers had any idea what was in my head. It didn't change their experience, since I was never inclined to act out my feelings about other drivers. But it changed my experience.

That's what I forget about metta -- it's not about making the other person feel good; it's about opening up my heart. When I make the wish that another person, loved or unloved, be happy, without putting boundaries around what might make them happy, I'm creating space around my perception of that person. Do I think that person is a miserable so-and-so? May they find ease.

And when there's space, there's room for movement, there's the possibility that things will change. When I'm locked into a particular world view, that can't happen. Then, I stay in my box, you stay in yours, and we build walls. We get tense and tight and lonely.

Researchers at Google did a study about what makes an effective team. They found that the secret ingredient is  a sense of psychological safety, a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’In other words, people felt they could share (ideas, experience, personal details) without being judged or criticized. And that atmosphere comes from the wish that others will do well, not the view that others' success is a threat to our well-being.

And that's what comes from metta practice. You stop being suspicious of other people and hope that they will be happy, be safe, find ease. You stop throwing up barriers to their happiness because their happiness doesn't threaten yours -- it increases it.

In that way metta changes the world. When you are happy that others are happy, there are infinite reasons to feel happy. When you are open to letting people show up as they are rather than locking them in boxes, they show up, like the cats in Neko Atsume. Maybe they bring you gifts.

It's the same old world, but you're seeing it differently, which is how it changes.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Staying in bed meditation

I am lying in bed, and I want to stay there. It's warm. I'm comfortable. I feel the weight of the comforter, the cat pressed against my leg. And yet I'm not happy. I think about people who greet the day with smiles. I am not one of them. I think about what I have to do today -- nothing much. And I remember this blog post.

I recall a line from one of Sharon Salzberg's meditations that's stuck with me this week as the 28-Day Meditation Challenge focused on thoughts:

Picture your thoughts like boats on a river.

And I think OK. I bring to mind Sharon's friendly voice telling me to find a comfortable position (got that) and settle into awareness. Then to see thoughts as they arise and to let them pass, like boats on a river. To observe them, not to be them.

I don't want to get up. That's a thought, just a thought. So are the ones that follow: I'm a lazy person for lolling in bed, even though I'm awake. I'm a bad person for not having a full schedule of events planned that propel me out of bed. Those are just the garbage scows of thoughts, threatening to taint the river -- and the day -- with their trash talk.

But they are just thoughts.

And in realizing that, my experience changes. Instead of feeling like a heavy lump of last night's mashed potatoes that has to scraped forcibly out of the bed, I feel lighter. I could get out of bed. Or I could stay here a while longer -- and enjoy it instead of castigating myself for being here. It's a choice.

That's the magic of meditation. When you see that you are not the thoughts, not the anger or smugness or loneliness or the joy and the giggly bliss,  you can enjoy the experience of being aware of them, enjoy the space where you are as it is, and choose what to do next without being forced into it.

I got up.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Doing anything with the mind of meditation

Maybe you've seen some of the dozens of stories about coloring as the new meditation. People who know I meditate send them to me and ask what I think  -- which is that coloring is not actually meditation, but it can be done meditatively.

That's true for lots of activities that people tell you are their form of meditation -- running, knitting, yoga, music. None of them are meditation, but all of them -- and pretty much anything else -- can be done meditatively. I'm reminded of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche's book "Running with Mind of Meditation." I haven't read it -- I maybe could run across the street to save my life but that's about it -- but I so appreciate the title. It's not "Running as Meditation" but "Running with the Mind of Meditation."

What is the mind of meditation? The mind that knows where it's attention is, what's in the field of attention, what the context is. The mind that can choose where to focus attention and hold it there without being carried off into reveries or commentary or plans. The mind that can rest and be at ease with the content that arises rather than being churned up or defeated by it.

We practice that in sitting meditation. But the real benefit is being able to bring that into our lives. Practicing it in physical activities can help us do that.

In the second week of Sharon Salzberg's Real Happiness 28-day meditation challenge, she introduces several activities that can be done with the mind of meditation: Walking, eating, doing dishes.

Talking about washing dishes, she says: It tends to be an activity we do several times a day, one that we usually do while thinking through something rather than paying full attention. And it is rarely an activity we enjoy much, but might in fact find more nuanced and interesting as we pay attention.

There are lots of things we do on automatic pilot -- Thich Nhat Hanh talks about using brushing your teeth as an opportunity for meditation -- that could be used as opportunities to improve our focus, to be present with sensations, to appreciate our bodies and our circumstances. Instead of grumbling about the endless pile of dishes, we can appreciate the warmth of the water, the wonder of indoor plumbing, all of the people over time and space whose efforts brought us the food that made the dishes dirty and created the dishes themselves. Instead of feeling put upon, we can feel connected.

Sharon describes this larger focus as mindfulness, "a relational quality that frees our attention from the grip of old habits."

By being in the moment, with our hands in the hot water or holding a crayon and filling in the spaces between the lines, we see more clearly the thought filters we put over experiences: I hate housework, I'm no good at coloring, I can't knit. And once we see those, we can choose to look through them, as is our habit, or let them go and stay with things as they are.

Sunday, February 7, 2016


The word for today is balance.

In my mind, I'm picturing a surfer -- actually a surfer's feet on the board, a surfer's body, swaying, adjusting to find that balance to stay on the board, to ride the wave. The surfer does that by feel, not consciously thinking, now I have to move my weight to my left foot to counterbalance the rising water on that side, and by practice. By the time that thought could arise and the body could respond, the balance would be gone and the surfer would be a swimmer. But practice -- failing to do it and falling in, over-compensating and falling the other way -- it becomes instinctive.

In meditation, we practice finding that mental balance. We find the focus -- the breath -- and rest attention there. But sometimes we grab onto it and tighten around it, squeezing it and creating tension. Sometimes we're too relaxed and lose track of the breath, wandering off into thoughts about other things or just spacing out.

We practice finding the balance with the breath. But we bring our balance into the world.

To me, tightening my attention on the breath, grasping onto it, is the same feeling I get when I grab onto an idea of how the world should be. I can't see other options, I can't wait for this thing to arrive, I don't understand why everyone doesn't agree with me. It's a small, closed space of shallow, tight breaths.

When I loosen up, I see there's more space. My chest expands, my belly relaxes. There is air, there is room, there is no need to look ahead to the next breath -- just this one is enough. Just this one is wonderful. But staying with this one breath is important.

Sharon Salzberg writes:
When your attention is diffuse, it’s like a broad, weak beam of light that doesn’t reveal much. Concentration brings the weak beam down to a single, sharply focused, supremely bright, exponentially more illuminating point.
How can the breath be illuminating? It's just the breath; it happens whether we think about it or not. If it's not a problem, why should we notice it?

I recently heard Kate Bornstein talk about gender and aging and her Zen practice, which is to contemplate the koan, The way you do one thing is the way you do everything.

Maybe the way we approach the breath is the way we approach everything: Grasping or ignoring, chasing or controlling it, critiquing it and our powers of observing it. Maybe if we can find ease and balance with the breath, we can find that with other things in our lives. If we can stay with one breath, we can stay with one thought or one conversation instead of anticipating the next one. We can greet its arising, appreciate its fullness, and release it without regret.

It's just breath. And it's everything.