Orienting to stillness, orienting to motion

I started this blog to document meditating every day in 2010. My blog posts got kind of boring and I ended up broadening the topic, but before the year ended, I had made some big decisions, changing my approaches to work and home that resulted in living a more authentic, self-realizing life.

Selling my house and quitting my job with no clear path ahead were not changes I would have undertaken had not my meditation practice compelled me to make them for my own well-being and trust that the Universe and my own capabilities would come through. There was uncertainty along the way, and luck, but I figured I could always rent a room and do temp jobs to support myself, and that gave me courage. (I rented a room and did a few temp jobs on my path!)

However, I really wanted more than that for myself: I wanted to own an affordable, paid-for home in Austin, Texas, and I wanted to do work that I really loved. And I got those things.  Meditation helped me understand that not living authentically was no longer possible for me, and I’m happy with those decisions.

Since then I’ve divorced my meditation practice from any religion. I’ve occasionally slacked off for weeks at a time, and I’ve meditated irregularly and half-heartedly. I have not worked with another teacher.

Instead, I have groped my untutored way around stillness and silence, acutely aware of my vata monkey-mind, wondering if I have a touch of ADHD (other family members do), and occasionally stumbling upon states of pervasive bliss, being literally held by a higher power, being breathed, feeling currents moving in and through me, and experiencing brief moments of exquisite clarity. All with no idea how to return to any of those states. The birds ate my bread crumbs!

In August 2016, I discovered the Insight Timer app (iOS) for recording my meditation practice sessions, and my desire to meditate every day grew. As of today, I’ve meditated 188 consecutive days since September 26. You gotta love an app that gives you a gold star for meditating 10 days in a row.

In January, I had a breakthrough in a body/energy work practice, Biodynamics, that I’ve been studying for four years now that is mostly perception, and this also renewed my commitment to meditation, especially for doing longer sits of an hour when my schedule allows.

Feeling more committed, I signed up for a 10-day vipassana retreat in August, which is a good month to be away from work in an air-conditioned room, meditating my ass off with a bunch of Hindus and some other English-speaking people. Vipassana has been on my bucket list for years, and it’s finally going to happen.

So my love for meditation has been rekindled. Most mornings I wake up and can’t wait to meditate.

Out of this scenario, I feel like I have some things to say that might be helpful to new meditators and stalled meditators and meditators looking for inspiration. Because meditation is such a nonverbal realm, I’d like to make an attempt to put some words to it and make some suggestions that you can take or leave as you please.

We can’t notice everything at the same time. (Or at least not until/unless we are way advanced, as far as I know now.) This bird calling draws our attention, there’s the hum of the refrigerator, the faint smell of honeysuckle, the sensations of my feet being hot, the impulse to take my shoes and socks off. Pause. A chakra opens, a stuck place in my body makes itself known, oh should I have said that?, I can taste the cheese I ate earlier, that was a really satisfying breath, what’s for dinner?

We filter information about our experience in bits, and at the beginning of a session, it often changes quickly, like a slideshow on fast-forward. It would be overwhelming to experience all that simultaneously, not to mention hard to appreciate.

We can use our natural filtering capability to develop skills in orienting, which means setting a direction for what you intend to notice. It helps slow the monkey-mind slideshow down considerably.

Two ways of orienting that you may come to value are orienting toward stillness and orienting toward motion.

In orienting to stillness, notice the pauses between your inhalations and exhalations, and between your exhalations and inhalations. Notice the gaps between your thoughts. Notice your mind at rest. Nothing happening, nothing to see here, just…emptiness.

Ironically, in stillness, you may notice all kinds of subtler experiences, such as energy dancing across your face or even the beginning of a thought.

The other polarity is orienting to motion, such as your breath, which you’ve tuned into many times. Notice more about it. What moves in your body when you inhale and when you exhale? Do you feel a sense of with your inhalations? Do your exhalations help you y? Put your experiences into your own words if you can.

What about your heart, beating in your chest? Can you feel it pumping away, keeping you alive? You have pulses located all over your body. Can you sense them?

There’s a more subtle, slower rhythm, the rhythm of cerebrospinal fluid expanding your cranial bones ever so slightly and then receding, which you might even feel all the way down your spine. And there are even more subtle rhythms that are perceptible.

Stillness and motion are not opposites. There’s a bit of stillness in motion, and a bit of motion in stillness. Developing your perceptions of motion augments your perceptions of stillness, and vice versa.

Notice what you notice each time you meditate, and know that your next session will offer you new gifts of perception. Play with it!

I hope these suggestions inspire you to experience more deeply the human being that you are. May you have breakthroughs!

A tale of recovery: my path from traumatized to healer

I had lunch a few weeks ago with John, someone I’ve known for about 12 years but haven’t seen much in recent years. He commented that I am a very different person now from when he met me, and that would not be apparent to people who hadn’t known me that long.

When we met in 2004 (I think), I seemed troubled to him, and I was. John said that now, I appear to be happy and “like a fountain” (which I love), and he was curious about that.

Other people have said I’ve changed more than anyone they know. Well, that’s probably because I was starting from a more troubled place than most.

So I’m reviewing my path in search of insights to share. This is for you, John, and I know that some of you are interested in recovery from trauma, and some of you are interested in personal growth, so this is for you too. Continue reading

My 2016 Tarot reading

2016 Celtic CrossMy Celtic Cross spread for 2016, done on January 1, 2016, using the Osho Zen Tarot deck.

The issue is Silence, crossed by Existence. Continue reading

What If?

What if our religion was each other?
If our practice was our life?
If prayer was our words?
What if the Temple was the Earth?
If forests were our church?
If holy water – the rivers, lakes and ocean?
What if meditation was our relationships?
If the Teacher was Life?
If wisdom was self-knowledge?
If love was the center of our being?
~ Ganga White

New addition to my Favorite Quotes page.

Thanks to David Baker for sharing on Facebook. Yes. These are the questions to be asked.

Note to self: remember this next time I get sick of myself

There’s nothing like it.

My mind can be going 1,000 miles per hour, worrying life like a dog worries a bone, oh so busy “figuring things out.” Making Plans A and B, sometimes C and D. Analyzing. Focusing on what is wrong: I should be making more money, should spend more time Continue reading

Leaning into 2013: how to make meditation a near-daily pleasure.

I’ve been thinking a lot this December about what changes I’d like to make in 2013.

In the past, I usually didn’t think much about it at all, and when I did, my thoughts on the matter all took place in the last week of the year, after Christmas.

Unfortunately, my New Year resolutions were usually short-lived.

I’d like to change that. I’d like to become more disciplined, and I’d like to be realistic about what that means so I can actually make lasting changes in my life.

The problem is, I like to rebel against “the rules”, so when I set up strict rules for myself, I am setting myself up to break them. It’s counterproductive.

I spent a year meditating for 30 minutes nearly every day, and when that year was up, I rebelled and didn’t meditate every day any more. My sitting practice became sporadic.

I’d like to figure out a way to make meditation a pleasure.

One possibility: Instead of creating a rule to meditate for 30 minutes every day, I can meditate for at least 15 minutes 5 out of 7 days.

I like that flexibility. However, it still sounds like a chore. Why am I making meditation such a joyless task to be done somewhat regularly and checked off a list?

Looking at what keeps me from meditating: I often allow myself to get sucked into reading email and checking Facebook, my online massage booking site, Twitter, Tumblr, blog stats, and so on in the morning, and before I know it, it’s time to get ready for work, and I haven’t meditated.

And…if I don’t meditate in the morning, it usually doesn’t happen.

I don’t know why this is, except perhaps that it takes more effort to do nothing than you’d think, to tear myself away from my laptop and sit myself down on the cushion.

Once I start sitting, I actually love meditation. I love getting really present with myself, breathing, hearing, seeing (if my eyes are open), feeling my body, witnessing my thoughts, noticing my chakras open, experiencing the silent stillness that contains everything, even just feeling the little aches, pains, and tensions as I sit.

To experience this is a joy that keeps on giving throughout the day, somehow connecting me with resources that help me meet life with more equanimity and love, including self-love, than I could otherwise summon.

How can I make this a pleasure? It’s so much more rewarding than being online in terms of enhancing my well-being and the quality of my life, relationships, activities, decisions!

What if…I stay offline until I’ve meditated, and I make it my goal to meditate no longer than an hour, except when I really want to (and have time) to go longer? I can set the timer for an hour, end it then or when it seems complete, and be happy about it all.

Now we’re cooking!

Intuition, microexpressions, hypervigilance, and trauma

When Intuition Is A Curse.

When people come into my office and tell me, very early in a conversation, that they are ‘intuitive’ and ‘can see into people’ I often wonder if they have had trauma. The longer I do this for a living the more I realize that some of us developed our insights into humanity as a protection mechanism. It makes sense. People who have experienced trauma tend to be more intuitive. We’ve experienced hypervigilance where we are constantly scanning our environments for signs of danger.

Have you experienced trauma, and are you intuitive, psychic, an empath, and/or clairvoyant? I’m curious.

This article reminded me that early this year, I witnessed some microexpressions, when emotions that someone is trying to suppress appear briefly on their face. Paul Ekman has done a lot of research into them. The TV show Lie To Me is based on his work. Reading them may have a lot to do with intuition.

I noticed hatred and contempt appear fleetingly behind a mask of apparent calm and reason on the face of a man I had dated for a couple of months as he spoke to me. He was unaware of them or that I could read them.

It was disturbing. I could not think of anything I had done to merit those emotions, and I felt hurt and puzzled. From that and other puzzling oddities, I suspected he’d been emotionally abused. He hadn’t mentioned it to me, but his behavior had been strange at times. A mutual friend confirmed years of past abuse. Apparently I had unknowingly done something that triggered his memories of being abused.

After learning of the history of abuse, I felt compassion for him. I also realized I didn’t want to be alone with him in private again.

Later he got his wires crossed again, in public, right in front of me. Curious (because he still hadn’t told me anything about the abuse), I then had a clairvoyant experience in which I “saw” that he’d been the subject of horrific psychotic rage repeatedly for years.

I had a major fight-or-flight reaction.

I rode it out with mindfulness as much as I could. Once the biochemical cascade was underway, there was not much to do but wait for it to fully subside and do what I could to recover my equilibrium. It took a few months for that to happen. I watched my fearful, self-protective mind at work, influenced by deep stress. It wasn’t pretty, and I’m glad it’s over. Although unpleasant and difficult, being able to witness my own experience was useful.

I learned a lot from this. A main take-away is that if I am relating to someone who’s been traumatized, I want them to be up-front about it pretty quickly, if they have any awareness of it at all. It leaks out anyway if they try to hide it, and they come across as untrustworthy.

Over 60 percent of Americans experience trauma at least once in their lives. It’s not that uncommon.

I gained compassion for my past traumatized self, before I had done any healing work. I didn’t know myself well enough to understand how much trauma had shaped me.

During that time of riding out the biochemical cascade, I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue. I am grateful for the healers who helped me recover, including the healer inside me.

I felt compassion for him. He was admittedly clueless, dissociated, and good at compartmentalizing. In my opinion, he seriously needed professional help.

I grokked his disappointment at leaving an abuser with hopes for a better future, waiting six months after divorcing and taking a course on building new relationships before dating, only to discover that the abuse had made him both easily disturbed by those with positive intentions and disturbing to them.

It was sobering to refer someone I dated to therapy. In hindsight, I think I showed him how a fairly healthy person responds when they are dating or befriending someone who shows signs and symptoms of mental illness, who is either hiding it, discounting its seriousness, or so injured he doesn’t even know he has a mental illness.

I let him know that I knew, told him that I would not have dated him had I known, and I ended our relationship until such time as he has recovered, urging him to get professional help to that end.

It seems probable that he needed to know how someone would do this. But damn, that was really freaky.

May his cluelessness become curiosity.

May his compartmentalization become wholeness and expansion.

May his fears become worthy of reconditioning.

May his dissociation occur only when useful, and may he learn to live in partnership with his body.

May his awareness include an appreciation of the gifts of the unconscious mind and a more conscious partnership with it.

May his contempt, hatred, terror, shame, and secrecy be transformed and his burden be lessened.

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” ~ Joseph Campbell

And after I think of him and send energetic blessings his way, I dissolve all thoughts and images of him and bring my attention back to my own body and experience peace and gratitude.

But was my intuition working because I’ve experienced trauma myself and learned to be observant? I don’t know. Here’s a possibility: Apparently some long-time meditators are also adept at reading microexpressions.

From studies with thousands of people, Ekman knew that people who do better at recognizing these subtle emotions are more open to new experience, more interested and more curious about things in general. They are also conscientious — reliable and efficient. “So I had expected that many years of meditative experience” — which requires both openness and conscientiousness — “might make them do better on this ability,” Ekman explains. Thus he had wondered if Öser might be better able to identify these ultra-fast emotions than other people are.

Then Ekman announced his results: both Öser and another advanced Western meditator Ekman had been able to test were two standard deviations above the norm in recognizing these super-quick facial signals of emotion, albeit the two subjects differed in the emotions they were best at perceiving. They both scored far higher than any of the five thousand other people tested. “They do better than policemen, lawyers, psychiatrists, customs officials, judges — even Secret Service agents,” the group that had previously distinguished itself as most accurate.

“It appears that one benefit of some part of the life paths these two have followed is becoming more aware of these subtle signs of how other people feel,” Ekman notes. Öser had super-acuity for the fleeting signs of fear, contempt and anger. The other meditator — a Westerner who, like Öser, had done a total of two to three years in solitary retreats in the Tibetan tradition — was similarly outstanding, though on a different range of emotions: happiness, sadness, disgust and, like Öser, anger.

I’m not nearly as experienced at meditation as these men, but even at my level, meditation can slow the experience of time down until there is only the present moment, which becomes vast, and awareness simply expands.

If you can experience time like that, microexpressions would be much more apparent.

That’s one explanation. Or maybe I’ve just been around the block a few times. Or maybe these long-time meditators had also trauma in their histories. The article didn’t say.

I do know that for years, I’ve been interested in people-reading, and I imagine at some point early on, there was a connection in discerning whether they were safe to be around. But once you realize someone is not out to murder you, there’s still a lot to learn. We humans are pretty fascinating and diverse.

If you want to learn more about reading microexpressions, Paul Ekman (link above) has a newsletter and online training.

Meet the Tibetan monk whose brain was studied by scientists

You’ve probably heard that there are some Tibetan monks who have been studied by scientists, who have learned which brain centers are activated during meditation. Well, here’s an article that goes into depth about the types of meditation studied .

It tells the story of one monk (western-born, with 30 years of experience as a Tibetan Buddhist monk) who was studied by scientists extensively using fMRI and EEG and testing his ability to read fleeting facial emotions and to stifle his own startle reflex.

Read the whole article (by Daniel Goleman!) for a fascinating story.

I liked that the article described the types of meditation that were studied. It made me want to be more specific in my own meditation. I usually practice what’s called “the open state”.

Tibetan Buddhism may well offer the widest menu of meditation methods of any contemplative tradition, and it was from this rich offering that the team in Madison began to choose what to study. The initial suggestions from the research team were for three meditative states: a visualization, one-pointed concentration and generating compassion. The three methods involved distinct enough mental strategies that the team was fairly sure they would reveal different underlying configurations of brain activity. Indeed, Öser was able to give precise descriptions of each.

One of the methods chosen, one-pointedness—a fully focused concentration on a single object of attention—may be the most basic and universal of all practices, found in one form or another in every spiritual tradition that employs meditation. Focusing on one point requires letting go of the ten thousand other thoughts and desires that flit through the mind as distractions; as the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard put it, “Purity of heart is to want one thing only.”

In the Tibetan system (as in many others) cultivating concentration is a beginner’s method, a prerequisite for moving on to more intricate approaches. In a sense, concentration is the most generic form of mind training, with many non-spiritual applications as well. Indeed, for this test, Öser simply picked a spot (a small bolt above him on the MRI, it turned out) to focus his gaze on, and held it there, bringing his focus back whenever his mind wandered off.

Öser proposed three more approaches that he thought would usefully expand the data yield: meditations on devotion and on fearlessness, and what he called the “open state.” The last refers to a thought-free wakefulness where the mind, as Öser described it, “is open, vast and aware, with no intentional mental activity. The mind is not focused on anything, yet totally present—not in a focused way, just very open and undistracted. Thoughts may start to arise weakly, but they don’t chain into longer thoughts—they just fade away.”

Perhaps as intriguing was Öser’s explanation of the meditation on fearlessness, which involves “bringing to mind a fearless certainty, a deep confidence that nothing can unsettle—decisive and firm, without hesitating, where you’re not averse to anything. You enter into a state where you feel, no matter what happens, ‘I have nothing to gain, nothing to lose.’”

Focusing on his teachers plays a key role in the meditation on devotion, he said, in which he holds in mind a deep appreciation of and gratitude toward his teachers and, most especially, the spiritual qualities they embody. That strategy also operates in the meditation on compassion, with his teachers’ kindness offering a model.

The final meditation technique, visualization, entailed constructing in the mind’s eye an image of the elaborately intricate details of a Tibetan Buddhist deity. As Öser described the process, “You start with the details and build the whole picture from top to bottom. Ideally, you should be able to keep in mind a clear and complete picture.” As those familiar with Tibetan thangkas (the wall hangings that depict such deities) will know, such images are highly complex patterns.

Öser confidently assumed that each of these six meditation practices should show distinct brain configurations. The scientists have seen clear distinctions in cognitive activity between, say, visualization and one-pointedness. But the meditations on compassion, devotion and fearlessness have not seemed that different in the mental processes involved, though they differ clearly in content. From a scientific point of view, if Öser could demonstrate sharp, consistent brain signatures for any of these meditative states, it would be a first.

Click the link above to find out what the scientists learned from this monk’s brain.

Massage: Paying someone to meditate you?

Maybe that’s what massage is to a lot of people, those who don’t have chronic pain or migraines — it’s enforced meditation for those of us too distracted to meditate. You’re paying someone to meditate you. It’s not anything they’re doing, necessarily. It’s that they open a little window. They give you an excuse to lie there in silence and pay a deeper attention to the fact that you exist. The true value of shamanism may be a concealed one, that it holds us in place and says this.

via My Multiday Massage-a-Thon – NYTimes.com.

I admit it. I give massage, and I love helping people move into a state of deep, quiet relaxation. It affects me. Even though I’m being active, I participate.

Massage is something I’m doing (working your circulatory and lymphatic systems, shifting your nervous system from sympathetic to parasympathetic, calming your brain waves, working knots out of your muscles, loosening you out of your ordinary tension and patterns, touching your flesh with care), and you’re doing. Your part of the experience is you deciding to take time out of your busy life to be present and receive nurturing.

Here’s my experience: I meditate, and I receive massage. When I meditate, I relax my body, breath, and mind, but on my own, I cannot relax as deeply as I can with massage. At least so far I have not been able to do that. I can’t say it’s impossible.

Meditation is a different experience, one I think of as “presence practice”. Relaxation helps but is not an end in itself (usually, unless I’ve been especially agitated). There’s a discipline to meditation: witnessing the mind, inquiring into the nature of reality and identity. I’ve also experienced joy and bliss.

Massage jumpstarts physical and mental relaxation. There’s something about the touch of nurturing hands and surrendering to another person. In my massage training, I learned that there are specific places on the body that when massaged, activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the non-“fight-or-flight” nervous system, the one for rest and relaxation. I use that knowledge in massage to help people get out of their heads and into their wholeness more quickly.

The deepest prolonged relaxation states I have experienced so far were through bodywork. I experienced being relaxed so deeply that I skimmed just this side of being asleep for half an hour or more.

One was during a cranio-sacral therapy session that involved the locus ceruleus, a blue spot in the back of the brain.

The other was receiving esoteric acupuncture. Afterwards, I was told that if I had not already been a meditator, I would not have experienced such a deep state.

Both experiences, receiving massage and meditating, have to do with surrender and relaxation and presence. As I understand it, each creates neural pathways that make it easier.

Doing both likely hastens and deepens well-being. `

Renewing my sitting practice, massage self care, oil pulling, and a 21-day challenge: Byron Katie’s The Work

I got away from my meditation practice. For many months.

It always seemed like a good idea when I thought about it, and I still didn’t actually do it more than occasionally. Committing to 20-30 minutes of doing nothing — well, it seemed like I didn’t have time. I had other things to do.

This is after years of meditating and a full year of daily sitting.

Hmmm. The mind plays tricks, takes itself way too seriously, makes excuses, avoids.

I missed it, and when a friend told me she gets out of bed and sits first thing every day, it inspired me to start again.

I was also inspired by the film The Dhamma Brothers, about a program in an Alabama prison where inmates did vipassana meditation, 10 days of silent sitting. It was profound to see peace on the faces of men who had committed terrible crimes.

One inmate said:

I thought my biggest fear was growing old and dying in prison. In truth, my biggest fear was growing old and not knowing myself.

Meditation has always been about facing my self, from the day I started, so tentatively, having realized that nothing else I had tried was taking my suffering away, so I might at least fully face it.

It didn’t take it away, but I quickly understood that my experience was larger than my suffering.

Aren’t we all in prisons of some kind? Fears, mindless behaviors, disconnections, denial, insane beliefs…

I want to know myself. And that in itself is such a koan, I felt inspired to sit with it.

Getting on the computer first thing in the morning is my worst distraction. I seem to have developed an affinity for my laptop, for Facebook, email, checking my blog stats, reading what interests me. Time can get away from me. It’s like an addiction.

So I realized that I need to sit first thing. Actually, I do a couple of sun salutations first. Otherwise, more of my attention goes to my aches and pains when I sit.

Yoga frees my mind to pay more attention to noticing my thoughts and sensing the subtle energies.

Today I experienced this:

Indeed, the ineffability of the air seems akin to the ineffability of awareness itself, and we should not be surprised that many indigenous peoples construe awareness, or ‘mind,’ not as a power that resides inside their heads, but rather as a quality that they themselves are inside of, along with the other animals and the plants, the mountains and the clouds. ~ David Abram

Tom Best would love that quote. Living inside of awareness. Sweet. I miss him.

~~~

I’ve been giving 15-20 massages a week, and my body is feeling it. I like the honesty of physical work, and I’m learning about remedies like rosemary oil for achy thumbs, trigger points on the forearm, wrist stretches.

Immersing myself in the cold waters of Barton Springs and snorkeling a lap is very, very good for aches and pains. I sleep well.

I’ve also changed up my mouth care routine. I’m brushing with turmeric (if you try it, be careful because it stains towels and possibly porcelain, but it whitens teeth and reduces inflammation in gum pockets), tongue scraping, flossing, oil pulling with organic coconut oil (sometimes adding a drop of peppermint or clove oil).

I do the oil pulling for 20 minutes most days.

So far, my teeth are whiter, my mouth feels cleaner, and my breath smells good throughout the day.

I’ve done this about a week now. I want to do it for a couple of months and see if it makes a big difference. Some folks claim that oil pulling has huge unexpected health benefits; some say that’s because it reduces inflammation in the mouth and body.

I’ll let you know.

~~~

Finally, I am planning to start a new 21-day challenge on Sept. 1, ending on the fall equinox. I will be doing The Work of Byron Katie, starting with her Judge Your Neighbor worksheet.

I will do at least one worksheet online so people can see how The Work actually works.

I’m also re-reading her book, Loving What Is (which she autographed for me last time I saw her!), and will add insights from that and the workshops I’ve attended.

If you’d like to do it along with me, here’s a link to the worksheet online.