Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mindfulness-Based Physical Therapy, A Better Way to Wellness?

Thanks to pain in my left shoulder, I have had the good fortune to experience semiweekly physical therapy sessions. Another opportunity to observe the mind's natural tendency to turn away from unpleasantness. Doing the arm band exercises, there is only so much 'I' can take before fleeing into thoughts about anything but the present moment. Of course, such mindlessness results in the obvious outcome of a mediocre workout, and subpar results for distressed shoulder. More subtle, is the sadness of yet another stretch of time not fully lived. Time, obliterated, wished away, and with it a disconnection from myself. 

We are wired to resist unpleasantness, both the physical and mental kinds. And yet, life is but one string of unsatisfactory moments, some worse than others. Whether suffering from transient nature of good moment, or from just plain bad moment, the truth is, life sucks. And yet, we want to feel good, we would do anything to not feel pain, and to have pleasure instead. I am not even sure what's stronger, the avoidance of pain, or the pursuit of pleasure? Right there, in a nutshell, lies the human predicament. 

Back to physical therapy . . . I have been practicing bringing mindful attention to my exercise routine. Making room for feeling all the body sensations, slowing down enough to give the muscles and tendons exactly what they need, and using that daily chunk of time to practice concentration. Doing 3 sets of 30 for each of the 7 prescribed exercises is a perfect opportunity to steady the mind. I also find physical pain to be such a great teacher, showing me the ways of my mind, and also inviting other possibilities, not inviting reactivity, practicing equanimity. 

Mindfulness-based physical therapy, another venue to be explored for those in the field of physical therapy?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Recognizing and Overcoming the Challenges of Mindfulness Practice

Every day, I have been reading a few pages of  The Wings of Awakening, Thanissaro Bikkhu's compiling and commentary of the Buddha's most important teachings, as declared by the Buddha himself. And I am struck by the clarity of the instructions at our disposal. From there to the question, how come not more practice from more people, only one small step that I would like to cross here. 

We know what to do. We know the reward. So, what's the problem?

Starting with myself, I need to reflect on all the moments when I am not mindful, all the missed opportunities to steady the mind and gain more wisdom, all the small forks in the road when I choose the mindless route. Why spend time surfing the Internet, when I could be practicing? Why get impatient while waiting for something, somewhere, when I could use the time as a mindful pause? Why go shopping for more clothes that I don't really need, when I could choose to sit instead and learn from the underline anxiety? Why all those moments, spent acting against my own self-interest?

I sat down this morning and reflected on all the reasons why I have not been more mindful, and why potentially others are not either. And came down with this list:

Let me start first by blaming the environment :). Silicon Valley, out of all places is not exactly conducive to the practice of mindfulness. In the world of Facebook and Google, it is easy to loose sight of the real thing. 

Second is laziness. It takes great mental energy to stay mindful. This is why right effort is part of the teachings. To not give into the temptation to escape a difficult moment, whether because of physical or mental pain, requires willpower. 

Third is the compulsion of mindless computing. The web has brought me so many wonderful gifts, including ready access to the teachings and to many Dharma friends. It has also hooked my mind into unhealthy habits that are hard to give up. 

Fourth is delusion, or the mind's tendency to fool itself into thinking erroneous thoughts. Leading me to drown into hindrances, for a bit too long before I can see them for what they really are. 

This is why I need the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha to keep me on task, 24/7. The Buddha, whose gentle wisdom welcomes me each time I open my computer:

The Dharma, to be found at Access to Insight, the awesome repository of teachings, accessible through just one click. The Sangha in its many forms: online here and also on Twitter and Facebook, but more importantly, in the flesh at Insight Meditation Center, my local center. Making the time each week to reconnect, and remember to practice as I join my friends there for a sitting, followed by a talk from our teacher, Gil Fronsdal.

Which are your greatest challenges to mindfulness practice? 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Making Friends With the Hindrances

They pop up in my mind, just like that. Flashes of clarity in the midst of unpleasantness. Words of wisdom that spell it like it is: 'greed', 'restless', 'fear', 'anger', 'depressed', 'envy', 'self-pity', 'craving', 'aversion', 'lust', 'wanting', 'anxiety', 'dullness', 'doubt', 'addicted' . . . Labels with the power to free the mind from its own trappings. 

Earlier, I saw the arising of envious thoughts. 'Envy', this is 'envy', I told myself, a bad weed to be eradicated at once. Being mindful, I could actually see the effect of 'envy' right now, right there, in the form of mental and physical unease. I could also remember all the other times before when I had felt 'envy', and the waste of happiness that had ensued. That was enough to drop the troubling thoughts. 

All day long, watching the arising of hindrances in the mind, and this process of mind disentangling itself.  And each time, reaping the joy. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

One Easy Stress Reduction Practice

Stress is not difficult to figure out. Right there in this body, is the indicator.

I have now taken up the practice of stopping often throughout the day, and ask this simple question: is there tightness in the body? If the answer is yes, as it most often is, then I know. My body is stressed, and so is the mind. 

Getting in touch with the exact place where it feels tight, I tell myself 'clinging', 'clinging at work'. Sometimes thoughts are present that clarify the source of the clinging, either wanting something I cannot have, or not wanting something I do have. Sometimes there are no conscious thoughts. Regardless, I know what to do. 

To observe the tightness/clinging, and the unpleasantness of it. Not getting lost in its object. No, rather feeling the whole pain, and giving the tight spot a chance to relax a bit with each breath, assuming the body is willing. And trusting that the noticing in and of itself is already a big step towards de-stressing the body, de-stressing the mind.

And of course, there is the added long-term benefit, of growing tired of the pain from all this repeated clinging . . . opening the door to disenchantment, renunciation, and freedom.

I just wonder. Is there anybody else that does that practice as well?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Letting It Do Its Thing

Very much enjoyed spending the evening last night with Ayya Anandabodhi, at IMC. 

As usual, the nun had much wisdom to share. I especially resonated with this:

The body and karma have their own pace, that cannot always keep up with the mind. We need to just be with what is and give it time to do its thing. This (pointing to body) right there as it is, is our opportunity [to enter the path of awakening]. 

As much as I understand about clinging, how ludicrous the whole habit is, I am not completely in control of what the mind, and the heart, and the body do. Walking earlier, here it was, the anger, the tightness, the pain from clinging to what cannot be had. Walking, I meditated on Ayya Anandabodhi's words, and I held the hotness with much love, and patience. Giving it some space, and the time it needs. 

I also remembered this quote from Ram Dass: "If you think you're enlightened, go spend a week with your family." Being grateful for the crucible of family life to keep me honest with where I really am . . . 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Owning the Clinging, Finding Inner Freedom

There has been a big (good) change in my practice lately. Away from feeling at the mercy of the pain from clinging, to owning my part in the process. This is akin to a tectonic shift in self-awareness, a new way of seeing, and feeling that opens the way to true inner freedom.

Before, paired with the suffering, was much powerlessness, and resentment almost for being stuck with such unpleasantness. I realize lots of that had to to with some misinformed thinking. Maybe if I could unlock the cause of the clinging? It felt so old . . . Surely, something in my past needed to be dealt with. How much longer would I have to sit and feel the pain?

Now, I have stepped away from being a victim of the clinging, to fully owning my role. Realizing that clinging is an action that I can control. The letting go may be slower than I would like, but nevertheless, 'I' am the one doing the clinging, right now, in the present moment. The cause of clinging is almost irrelevant, although it does help to see one's rough spots.

Now, there is something I can do. Sitting is indeed a very active process. One of seeing, and taking necessary corrective action. Sitting, I notice tension, tightening in the throat, in the stomach, in the mind. And I use acquired wisdom to decide on what to do with the closing in. Sitting, I know to relax each tension point, using the breath as anchor, over and over again.

And I remember, the whole idea is of putting aside greed and distress with reference to the worldPutting aside, letting go, relaxing . . . all active words. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Motherhood, Love, and Mindfulness

Mother's Day . . . has arrived, and with it the usual onslaught of happy stories glorifying mothers everywhere. 

Mother's Day . . . for me is a day to reflect on Ayya Khema's commentary on  the Buddha's fourth remembrance:
"Everything that is mine and is dear to me must change" relates particularly aptly to our relationship with our children and our partners. Children begin changing from the day they are born. But they disappear or they can disappear [. . .]
None of us really believe that our children or partner belong to us. Nevertheless we feel that way about them and want to hold on to them. The various relationship problems in families arise out of this. 
[. . .] We think we have to determine the way our children develop. We think we can decide what they should and should not do. We not only want to keep our children and partners for ourselves, but we think they should live in accordance with our wishes and our conception of them. And none of this is true. 
We have to let go if we want to live and love in freedom. Not even one's own body is "mine", the Buddha said, so how can another person be "mine"? Everyone creates his or her own karma. 
[. . .] Pure love is love that has not wish to hold and to keep but is simply given freely. 
~ Ayya Khema, I Give You My Life
Mother's day . . . is a time to thank both of my daughters for helping me awaken to the nature of true motherly love, as so beautifully expressed by Ayya Khema. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

3 Tiny Habits to Enhance My Mindfulness Practice, Two Months Later . . .

Back in March, in the Huffington Post, I reported on 3 tiny habits I had successfully taken on to enhance my mindfulness practice. The post, inspired by an experiment from BJ Fogg's at Stanford University, got some attention. The 3 tiny habits were:
  1. Right after I open my eyes, and before getting out of bed in the morning, I state my intention to be mindful for the day. I appreciate my intention.
  2. Right after I finish getting dressed in the morning, I sit on my meditation chair, and I practice mindfulness for a few seconds. I appreciate myself for making it to the chair.
  3. Right after I turn off the light at night, I do 30 seconds of loving kindness practice, wishing myself and other beings well. I appreciate myself for remembering to practice.
That was five days worth of tiny habits, then. 

Well, I am happy to report that two months later, my 3 tiny habits of mindfulness are going strong. Every morning, as I awake, the word 'mindful' pops up in my mind, automatically just like that. From there, attention goes straight to the breath, taking its rightful place away from 'being lost in thoughts' to 'dwelling in awareness'. Same thing with sitting first thing in the morning. Finishing getting dressed, body knows where to go next, without any need for the mind to make any effort to remember. A new imprint has been created, in the brain. Last, turning off the light at the end of the day, it is time for 'kindness', a smile in the darkness that seals the day with sweetness and makes it easy to drop into sleeping.

Tiny habits, powerful changes in daily mindfulness practice.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Ways to Concentration in Meditation

Gil's talk last night was the second one in a series of three on concentration. Amongst many other things, Gil talked about counting breaths as a way to develop single pointed concentration, counting until ten, one number for each breath, and then starting over. If the mind gets lost on the way, simply start over from one. I have tried this method and found that it does not work so well for me. I become too preoccupied with keeping track of the number, and gather some unwanted tension in the process. No, better for me instead is one of these two methods:

First is not counting, but instead focusing on the rising and falling of the abdomen, sometimes saying silently and softly to myself 'rising', 'falling', 'rising', 'falling', etc . . . This, I got from U Pandita. When the pause is long between the out and in breaths, I may even insert a 'pausing' in there. This way, the mind's got no opportunity to branch out and fabricate.

The other way is simply to say one on the in breath and two on the out breath, with each breath. 

How about you? What do you do to still the mind?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Undoing the Clinging Habit, One Breath at a Time

Meditating this morning, I sat with the intention of:
Remaining focused on the body in and of itself - ardent, alert, and mindful - putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world.
Remaining focused on the feelings in and of themselves - ardent, alert, and mindful - putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world.
Remaining focused on the mind in and of itself - ardent, alert, and mindful - putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world.
Remaining focused on mental qualities in and of themselves - ardent, alert, and mindful - putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world.
~ from The Four Frames of Reference in The Seven Sets, in A Table of the Wings of Awakenings, in Thanissaro Bhikkhu's The Wings to Awakening ~
and noticed once more, the mind's difficulties in putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world.

Mind kept on disrupting the calm flow of breath with its fabrications. 

First in the craving family: 'I really want to go to Target and check out the new Webster collection.' 'I want to finish up writing the grant.' 'It would be nice to have some cereals right now. Oh! how much I love the taste of dried cherries!' 

Then some random thoughts about people who have done me wrong some while ago. Why think of them now? Go figure . . . The aversion habit needed a fix.

Awareness catching up and noticing the physical and mental stress from such hunger pains, about not wanting the present moment or some representations of the past. Tightness in the stomach and in the jaws, tension in the mind . . . could only be eased a bit. Years of clinging habit could not be undone that quickly. Warm determination was in order, with the going back to the breath, over and over again, each time giving the mind a chance to put aside its usual preoccupations.

And oh! so close, the possibility of freedom, only one breath away. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Memory and Mindfulness

Lately, I have become acutely aware of the power of memory to inform the practice of mindfulness.

Sitting, there is the experience of the present moment, for sure. And also embedded in this moment, lies the memory of all the other times before when the same kind of thought, the same kind of feeling, the same kind of bodily sensation came and got noticed, and the connection was made between certain conditions and the arising of suffering. After enough of these repetitions, the mind becomes more clever at recognizing those antecedents to suffering, and not indulging them. It feels as if there needs to be enough of those earlier impressions in order for the mind to finally get it, and be swift in its response.

Mindfulness is not just attention to the present moment, but also remembrance of prior moments, with the two colliding with acquired wisdom to produce insight, disenchantment, and dispassion. Letting go of suffering becomes then a natural consequence. 

Getting in touch with the root meaning of 'mindfulness': 

"And what is the faculty of sati (mindfulness)? There is the case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering and able to call to mind even things that were done and  said long ago" - SN 48.10