Friday, February 27, 2009

Blog Improvements

I recently wrote about Why I Blog and have been working on how to achieve my goals. One of the great things about identifying goals is that it makes it so much easier to reach them when you know what they are. They provide a clear path of action. (A Focus Word covers some of this.) Goals catalyze results.

Some Recent Improvements
You may be happy with some of the recent improvements to the blog:
  1. Schnazzy new look and feel. I hope that you like the fresh, clean look and new organization.
    1. I tossed the pre-canned layout I was using, switched to something simpler, adjusted the colors, and added images to give it a fresher modern look.
    2. More functional sidebar - I added some additional content items to make it easier to find what you're looking for. All of these were based on requests. So please let me know if you'd like something new.
    3. New page icon - It is an enso. It is an expression of the moment. The end is the beginning is the end ...
  2. Subscribing is easier. New subscribe links for feed readers, and I added email subscriptions if you prefer that. I hope this helps.
  3. Prime content is highlighted. I added some reader favorites to give new readers something on the site, and I created a widget to show all of the MPOWs in one place. My guess in reader favorites has been from feedback that I've received so far. If you want to promote additional content, or recommend changes, please let me know.
  4. MPOWs all in one place. People seem to really like the new Mindfulness Practice of the Week service that I release every Monday. I've heard that people want to be able to refer back to them, so I created a widget to collect them on the sidebar.
  5. Star ratings. I added star ratings below posts. Now you can let me know what works and doesn't work without having to leave specific feedback. I am really keen on this. Please let me know which posts you like and which posts you do not like. Maybe I can even write a widget to show the top 5 on the side once enough feedback comes in.
  6. Improved content. I've heard that my posts are too long; they're practically essays. I'm trying to make a crisper point and respect your time. Sometimes I will want to treat some topics in greater depth, but for the most part I want to offer my posts in snack-size. Also, I'm adding images to most of the content to appeal to the visual nature of many readers. I'm focusing a lot on approachable, warm, emotive content vs. cold essays.
Looking for a New Name
Friends have pointed out that aphorism and egoism are pretty elitest words. I'm sorry. It is not my goal at all to discourage people from the site. I'm looking for a new name, a friendly, inviting, compassionate name. Something that is appealing and warm. Something that is easy to find and remember. I don't want it to come off as eliteist, nor dogmatic or authoritarian, nor woo-woo or frou-frou, nor flippant, nor overly precious. I'm trying to get it just right. I realize that a fully left-brained approach won't be satisfying, I want something that feels good. I realize that this site will never meet the needs of the whole world, but I want it to appeal to the type of people who already like the content here.

Along with the new name, I hope to find a domain to host this on, rather than a sub-domain of Blogspot. Please let me know if you have suggestions. My gratitude goes out to people who have already been helping and suggesting new names.

I Love Your Input
This blog is meant to be a helpful, sharing community, not my podium. Please let me know what I can do to make this more meaningful and useful for you. Your feedback and feedforward are critical to achieving that.

Please use the stars.
Please leave comments.
Please use my content in your sites, if you want to. (I appreciate back links and will reciprocate)
If you know how to reach me in person, please do that, too.

This post is dedicated to you, everyone who comes here to read and share.

Please leave your comments
  • What works?
  • What doesn't work?
  • Any other suggestions?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lean Into Discomfort

When things are tough for me, I sometimes turn to Pema Chodron's passage "No Escape" in the book Comfortable with Uncertainty:
The central question of a warrior's training is not how we avoid uncertainty and fear but how we relate to discomfort. How do we practice with difficulty, with our emotions, with the unpredictable encounter of an ordinary day? For those of us with a hunger to know the truth, painful emotions are like flags going up to say, "You're stuck!" We regard disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, jealousy, and fear as moments that show us where we're holding back, how we're shutting down. Such uncomfortable feelings are messages that tell us to perk up and lean into a situation when we'd rather cave in and back away.
When the flag goes up, we have an opportunity: we can stay with our painful emotion instead of spinning out. Staying is how we get the hang of gently catching ourselves when we're about to let resentment harden into blame, righteousness, or alienation. It's also how we keep from smoothing things over by talking ourselves into a feeling of relief or inspiration. This is easier said than done.
Ordinarily we are swept away by habitual momentum. We don't interrupt our patterns even slightly. With practice, however, we learn to stay with a broken heart, with a nameless fear, with the desire for revenge. Sticking with uncertainty is how we learn to relax in the midst of chaos, how we learn to be cool when the ground beneath us suddenly disappears. We can bring ourselves path to the spiritual path countless times every day simply by exercising our willingness to rest in the uncertainty of the present moment--over and over again.

That's pretty powerful for me. "Easier said than done" is right. Of course, I find the whole thing very hard, but this is the part that I often miss:
"It's also how we keep from smoothing things over by talking ourselves into a feeling of relief or inspiration."

I usually look for a way to smooth things over, to find the silver lining. I think what Pema is saying here is that we gloss things over when we look for the positive side of things in order to feel good. It's like bridging the wholeness of being in that moment with a tidy little moral-of-the-story: sealing up an infinite truth with a quaint, little bow - all glossy and pretty -- though it lacks in depth. Depth is where the real value is, so it's worthwhile to stay with our painful situations.

I dedicate this post to Joyce Smith. I hope that you have an incredibly happy birthday and a joyous year!

Please leave comments
  • Does this move you?
  • Do you disagree with this?
  • Anything else that you want to share?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why I Blog

What a great surprise yesterday, a mentor reads my blog (Hi, Jeff!) and in our morning meeting had an agenda for me based on my writings. The very insightful conversation helped me notice some blind spots and pay mind to some new questions.

To initiate, he asked me what my goals are for blogging. While I have always had some things in mind, and I wrote about these in initial posts, they shift over time. Here's what I have, now. I am pleased to see that they are more specific and actionable than originally conceived.

Blogging goals

  1. Build/find community - The primary motivator for the blog. I'm eager to connect with like-minded people who will share with me and challenge me. Humans are social creatures--not sometimes, not by accident--always.
  2. Give back to the world - I greedily consume information, always have. I soak it up like a sponge, then identify
    patterns, and maybe sometimes even create original ideas or find novel
    applications for existing concepts. Blogging is my gift back
    to the world. Though this may reek of arrogance, I have decided not to let that abort my intention.
  3. Share wisdom compassionately - On the chance that my wisdom will be of help to
    someone, I want to share it. One Bodhisattva vow includes not resting
    until all beings are free of suffering. I have not taken the vow, though aspire to. (I highly recommend reading Susan Piver's My Vows from Shambhala Sun, July 2008.)
  4. Help you know me - I write about who I am, as deeply and honestly as I can.
    Hopefully it leads to stronger relationships as you get to know the real me.
  5. Help me know me - Writing helps me learn about myself. I especially learn from what I'm afraid to write about.

Other reasons why I blog

  1. Overcoming the inner critic - There's a large part of me that finds
    many of these goals--such as that I have novel ideas--presumptuous, arrogant, and full of hubris. These are
    self-defeating thoughts that I strive to overcome.
  2. Developing fearlessness - Some of the stuff that I post publicly requires courage, because I know that my thoughts and feelings are not shared by everyone. It is often hard pubishing my heart and mind to be judged by people close to me, people with whom I work, and even future friends.
  3. Public can help me filter - By seeing which of my posts garner readership, and especially from comments, I learn which of my posts have appeal and which don't.
  4. Credibility - I love mentoring people and sharing my patterns that work with people. As I share my advice through writing, hopefully it becomes a pool of interesting material for mentees. And maybe enough useful material will attract mentees for whom it resonates.
  5. Platform for professional writing - I would love to publish professionally at some point - whether in magazines, blogs, etc. This is a way to build a portfolio. (Note to publishers - let me know if you're interested, please.)
  6. Hone my writing skills - The more I practice, the better I will become. See On Perfection and 100 Shiny Red Stars.
  7. Content repository - I have a lot of stuff that I think about and believe in. This is a chance for me to create a repository for all of them to refer back to.
  8. Have fun - I have a blast writing this, especially when others let me know what they think.

Egoistic reasons

Here are some of my ego's reasons. They're not very noble, but I find it important to recognize them.
  1. Affirmation - My ego loves to when people validate my ideas and repeat them.
  2. Attention - On the far off chance that this blog takes off like wild-fire and attracts lots of people, I welcome it.

In Conclusion
Blogging is very enjoyable and valuable for me. Just thinking about new post ideas gives me conversation topics to share with others around the table. I have also learned quite a bit about myself through. People I know have approached me to connect with me based on what I write; this is especially interesting with existing friends and colleagues. Since I do not always broach these topics in business or social situations, it is fun to learn which people think about the same things as me. It has truly been rewarding to connect with people I know in new and meaningful ways. My gratitude goes out to everyone who reads my blog and to everyone who connects with me a little bit more deeply thanks to reading it.

This post is dedicated to my mentor Jeff Braaten, who asked me the question and shares his wisdom.

I really want to hear from you!
  • Let me know if you're out there reading my blog.
  • Do you find it interesting? Tedious? Any other feedback.
  • How can I improve?
  • Any ideas on how I can meet my goals?

Monday, February 23, 2009

MPOW #5 - Your Mind Is An Open Book

In the TV series True Blood based on the Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris, the main character Sookie Stackhouse is a telepath with the ability to read people's minds. Throughout her day, and especially during her job as barmaid, the crass thoughts of people around her often intrude on her mind, causing her to be completely inundated with lewd thoughts and rude judgments.

There may be some truth to the idea of mind-broadcasting. Consensus reality holds that likely people cannot read minds, so this is mostly a mental exercise with mindful benefits. However, something to be aware of is that our subvocalized thoughts often become obvious intentions readble on our non-poker faces and in our mannerisms. Even the best poker players have unconscious tells.

I observe my mind and try to keep it serene, imagining that my mind is an open book to everyone around me is a handy device. Am I thinking things that I would not say aloud--things that are harmful for me to think? Buddhism's Noble Eightfold Path, introduced in the Pali Canon, is an octet of worthy qualities to develop. The third of these is Right Speech, which is to let only the moral, positive, and helpful pass your lips. The seventh noble quality is the more difficult to cultivate Right Mindfulness, which is about your inner speech, letting only the moral, positive, and helpful pass your mind. When you believe that your thoughts are an open scroll, it helps transfer the discipline in right speech to discipline in right mindfulness.

The Practice
For this week, imagine that others are listening to your thoughts. Pay attention to what others would hear if you were thinking aloud. Observe whether your thoughts serve you. If no one is around, see what your guides and guards observe. If they are pessimistic, see if you can steer them to optimistic. If they are judgmental, see if you can let go of judgment. If they are angry, sad, or fearful, see if you can introduce their antidotes into their place. This is how we cultivate "right thoughts" and think thoughts that serve us.

This post is dedicated to my lovely and talented sister Laura, who introduced me to True Blood. For most of my life, wondering how my reactions would reflect on Laura has been my moral compass. She always forgives me when I lose my way and helps me correct my course.

Request for Comments
  • Does this mindfulness practice work for you?
  • What have you learned from this?
  • Are there ways that you tweak this for even more improvement?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Our Guides and Guards

"... [W]e need to be willing to let our intuition guide us, and then be willing to follow that guidance directly and fearlessly" - Shakti Gawain

My friend Brittany Holmes has found hybrid vigor in mating the Mind as a Commitee metaphor and the Observer insight from spiritual traditions. She shares her guru mindchild with us: "I've been really trying to keep the idea in my head to live as if someone is always watching me throughout the day. ... I have ... 3 people I feel are watching. One is loving and accepting, one is holding me to high standards, and the other is encouraging [me] to do the right thing."

This harmonious trio really resonates on a few chords:
  1. Non-judgment - If you find yourself feeling guilty, let the loving persona observe you feeling guilty and sooth you with the reminder that guilt does not help.
  2. Motivation - When you find yourself being too lax, the watcher with high standards provides the impetus to act.
  3. Mindfulness - When you're thinking about what these entities might be observing, that's your Observer at work. That's you being mindful.
  4. Positivity - The separate roles she envisions are all quite uplifting. Having a part of yourself loving you no matter what is an amazing thing; being held to high standards also helps us to always strive to do our best; and the observer who encourages right actions is a terrific motivator for ethical living.
  5. Greater than the sum - Each of these watchers has something special to offer, and their powers combined augment and reinforce each other.
These benefits jumped out, announcing Brittany's notion as something to help me and others. As I've been reflecting on it, sharing it with friends, and reading about it, I've found that this concept shows up in many different religious, spiritual and cultural traditions around the world. In Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love, she relates many wonderful things taught her by a Balinese medicine man. "According to the Balinese, each of us at birth is joined by four invisible brothers who then protect us all our lives. They are always looking out for us, even in the womb. ... The spirits of the brothers remain with the child for life. Each represents a virtue that we need to be happy and safe: intelligence, friendship, strength, and poetry. Yes, poetry ." (from Blogalicious) Some Christians believe that we have guardian angels who love us dearly protecting us. Perhaps the guardian angels are past family members or maybe a true celestial being who has been assigned to be our guide. Shamanistic, some Eastern (such as reiki), some African, and some Native American traditions believe in spirit guides and animal spirit guides. For example, see the Korean changseung protector shown in the photo with this post that I shot in Seoul. The list goes on and on.

A pattern can be seen in all of the different cultural points that speak to psychological, supernatural, or unknown beings loving, guarding, and advising us. When I see an idea repeated so often, it really intrigues me. Either a) there's some truth to it or b) there's something about the human condition to make us want to believe that it's true. In many cases I think that both cups hold water.

Whether you believe in guardian angels, helpful ancestors, spirit guides, the Balinese 4 invisible brothers, imaginary friends, minor deities, or maybe a personified portion of your mind, it's all a helpful team of advisors. Even if there are no beings, just acting as if there are such beings as Brittany does helps hold you to your most authentic self. So, whether or not it exists, there's value in feeling or believing that it is true. In the Buddhist view, the observer is you. The loving, protecting helping, guiding true self is the real you, free of ego and delusion, free of fear, desire, and suffering, filled with wisdom, compassion, and lovingkindness. Manifest your protectors to keep the Imp of the Perverse at bay, to turn the Critic away at the door.

This post is dedicated to Brittany Holmes, my friend whose enthusiasm for living and learning is a constant inspiration.

Request for comments - Don't starve the post!
  • What observers do you have?
  • Do you find the observers stifling or helpful?
  • How to the observers help?
  • Do you know of traditions with other guides, advisors, etc?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Play Hard to Work Smart

"Ample evidence points to the enormous health and professional benefits of laughter, lightheartedness, games, and humor. There is a time to be serious, of course. But too much sobriety cn be bad for your career and worse for your general well-being. In the Conceptual Age, in work and in life, we all need to play." - Daniel Pink in A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future

The day is crazy. You barely got out of bed on time, ran to catch your bus, got caught in horrible traffic, got things off on the wrong foot with everyone you've seen this morning, you were tossing and turning all night about a crazy project, you feel so behind like everything's about to crash in on you. More and more work keeps piling up and you feel that if you were going to work 20 hours straight, you'd barely catch up. Been there? Even if these exact circumstances have not occurred, something similar probably has.
The remedy? Play.

That's right, have some fun. The answer is not to organize everything, hunker down and get through it. The answer is to play. Why do you think some companies have foosball tables , billiards tables, ping pong tables, video games, dart boards, and so on?

"The opposite of play isn't work. It's depression, To play is to act out and be willful, exultant and commited as if one is assured of one's prospects." -Brian Sutton-Smith, professor of education (emeritus), University of Pennsylvania

Benefits of Play
Play will do a few things for you:
  1. It will get the big picture part of your brain working. The big picture part of your brain will give you perspective, help you prioritize, and realize how to break your work down into bite-size chunks.
  2. Playing will relax you, and once the stress has melted away, your brain will be much more limber and agile, ready to approach the task at hand.
  3. Puzzling will stretch your problem solving muscles. This might help you bring your creative side to bear on the problems that you're facing.
  4. Playing with people at work is a great way to build community and get things flowing together.
  5. "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." - Albert Einstein
Of course the work will not take care of itself, but once you have yourself in a good place, get back to it and finish things up happily. You'll be glad for a little recharger, though avoid sloughing off your duties - Balance and Moderation.

Puzzle Games
Get the left and right sides of your brain working well together. If you're on the web, here are some awesome games to get your mind in gear.
  • Auditorium - - a beautiful game that combined problem solving with beautiful graphics and sound. This is a lot of fun.
  • Planarity - - One of my favorites from college. Simply untangle the graphs as fast as you can.
  • RoboZZle - - Made by a coworker of mine, you can solve puzzles created by others and create your own puzzles to share with the world. This is going to have a great community around it. It has very simply programming building blocks, and potential for so much.
  • Linerider - - You control a person on a little bike, navigating across line and curves on the screen, doing all kinds of crazy feats. Check out some of the recorded videos and try your best.
  • Yahoo Games - - Lots and lots of classic and new games. Many of them are good head-to-head games, involving a sense of community and a chance for a little friendly competition. Reacting to humans keeps you on your toes, often more so than the entire experience being with automatons.
  • NY Times Crosswords - - The classics!

Make Art - Get Creative
I like to keep crayons, paper, markers, and color pencils with me all the time to get into the artistic spirit. It's amazing how freeing a little artwork can be.
No matter what you choose to do, get that brain reinvigorated and you will both be more productive and enjoy your time at work more. Enjoy yourself!

This post is dedicated to Igor Ostrovsky , creator of RoboZZle, amazing coder, and good friend.

Request for Comments
  • Do you have any more games to share?
  • Do you have any stories about how a little play has helped you?
  • Any other benefits to play that I'm missing?

Monday, February 16, 2009

MPOW #4 - Showing Gratitude

For some reason last Monday I was having a bummer of a day. I did not feel like eating or going out. So I sat down to journal my thoughts and feelings. I quickly became bored with being bummed out, so I began listing things that I was grateful for. This was an incredibly therapeutic practice. Just a short list of items in, I got a surge of energy, happiness, and I was hungry. I went out for a terrific meal, met up with friends, and made a wonderful night of it. It is so simple and so powerful. Here in the US, we re-learn the joy of this every Thanksgiving, and it is wonderful to get into it. We do not need to wait for a holiday. Try this practice every day this week.

The Practice
Sit down with your favorite writing tools and begin writing what comes to mind, whatever your thoughts are feelings are. If you're using a computer, give yourself a rule - no backspace key (typos are ok). Do not edit what you write, just let whatever comes come. When you are ready for it, guide your writing to a practice of gratitude. Just begin enumerating a list of all the things that you are grateful for, whatever comes to you.

- I am grateful for <who> <why>.

Example list:
- I am grateful for Agent K whose playfulness reminds me to enjoy the simple things around us.
- I am grateful for Edison for inventing the lightbulbs that enable me to read and write when it is dark out.
- I am grateful for the manufacturers of the clothing that I'm wearing for keeping me warm.
- I am grateful for the restaurant who cooked my dinner tonight.

Do this for as many as you can focus on. You will probably get onto a roll. I recommend setting your minimum at 20.

Another approach is to choose one person or one thing and then write in depth about your gratitude for it.

Afterwards, record how you feel. Later, you can compare how you felt at the beginnning with how you felt at the end.

Dedication - This post is dedicated to the people who installed the street light outside my condo. Thank you for your hard work doing a job that needed to be done. Agent K is currently playing with his own shadow cast by the light, and it is adorable.

Request for Comments
  • What was your experience with this practice?
  • Do you find that this helps?
  • Do you have a different way of showing gratitude?
  • How does this change the way that you live?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Dedicate Your Practice

I'm on the yoga mat, contorting into the challenging pigeon pose (kapotasana) which really opens up the hips. This is a yin yoga class, so we will probably stay in this asana for around 7 minutes on this side, and my breathing is already ragged. I try to relax into the long, steady breath that I maintain throughout class, but the pain in my hip overwhelms me. Then Yogini Saiko Flack gently, soothingly reminds us to breath, suggesting that if we cannot breath for ourselves, to breath for the person next to us. The mind glimmer's through an instant over the impossibility and impracticality of this, before it heeds the advice. Somehow it suceeds, and I am able to dedicate my breath to the person on the mat next to me. My breathing evens out, and I relax, getting so much more out of posture. Maybe I was breathing for my neighbor, maybe my neighbor was breathing for me. Either way, it works.

I've wondered why this might be so, and had an insight just now while reading Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind while on the treadmill (yes, my tools enable me to read and write on the treadmill). Pink brought my attention to the dedication of the book and suggests that to give everything more meaning in life, to dedicate what you do to someone else. Rather than working for a simple self-centered goal (though this is of course possible to be meaningful also, and I may discuss in a future post), dedicating to someone else often provides more fulfillment.

Who do you dedicate to? Anyone! Dedicate to a family member or spouse, to a pet, to the really nice bus driver, to the angry driver who honked at you, to the Dinka of Sudan, to your third grade teacher.

What do you dedicate? Anything and everything! You can dedicate brushing your teeth, riding the bike, jogging, sleeping, sleeping in, eating, cooking, taiji, yoga, writing a blog post, cutting hair, reading Shakespeare, tying your shoes. This goes especially well with a 100 days of practice
commitment. During your practice, experiment with the power of dedication. Are you able to find the motivation to practice more readily? Does it increase the quality of your practice?

No matter what you are doing (or how bad you think you are at it), offer it in dedication. It does not matter if your performance is incredible or not. There's no reason to be hung up on that. Because you are doing this for someone else, you will perform better in order to make the dedication more meaningful to that person. Just doing something for and being motivated by a person are already two huge gifts.

So, why do we find more motivation when we dedicate to someone other than ourselves? In the December 2008 issue of Ode magazine, targeting the giving holidays, you can find the fresh article on giving and receiving: "Open Hands, Open Heart: The Art of Receiving" by Hilary Hart. Hart investigates why people find receiving so much more difficult than giving and explores how we can and why it's worth it to overcome this. At some point, we are taught by society that receiving is selfish. Tis better to give than to receive. We hear advice like this over and over again. Basically, we're not trained on how to receive. We often don't know how to accept a compliment, receive a gift with grace, or in many cases even do something for otherselves without feeling guilty. The article provides a great exploration on this and an approach to understand and overcome it--maybe a topic for a later discussion. For now, however, let's benefit from our training as gift-givers. Rather than taking action for ourselves, take action for others. Take action with intention for the greatest good, rather than to strengthen ourselves in some way. The true power of generosity, magnanimity, and growth flow from intention for the greatest good.

This post is dedicated to Saiko Flack, my yin yoga instructor with her loving, open heart. May your travels go well, Saiko! We await your safe return to teaching when you're ready.

Request for Comments
  • How does dedication help you in what you do?
  • If dedication is not working, please share.
  • What dedications have you made today?

Monday, February 09, 2009

MPOW #3 - Listening Meditation

Welcome back for the third Mindfulness Practice of the Week. One of my very favorite awakening practices is to simply sit and pay attention to sounds, to let everything quiet down and gently focus on what I hear. My mind can focus on the sounds in the building, outside of the building, the vibrations of my head, and the voice talking within my head. There is so much to listen to and just notice for what it is.

Note: I suspect that this works equally as well for the deaf or poor of hearing. Rather than focusing on sounds without, focus on vibration or sounds within. Please pardon my ignorance, because I am not certain if that is viable or not. If not, I apologize for my assumptions, and would appreciate being informed if it works or does not.

Scientists have a theory to support this. If you are really concentrating on your ears and sounds, listening behind, up and down, in front, all around, then the sequential processing part of your brain (L-directed thinking, L=left) needs to shut off (less activation) to allow the more creative, pattern matching side of your brain to just witness what is going on (R-directed thinking, R=right) and process the patterns. When you tap into the creative, pattern-matching side of your brain, you are able to be more present. Studies indicate that happiness/joy/flow/spirituality and right-hemisphere activity are correlated.

This is an amazing practice for dealing with noise pollution, such as on an airplane. Listen to the chorus of sounds around you. Celebrate in the music of the engine. You make notice the changes in pitch or how your breathing relates to it, perhaps harmoniously, perhaps not. You would be amazed at how serene you can become on a long flight once you allow your mind to calm down enough to enjoy this. (William Wittman shares his experience.)

Similar exercises work equally as well for buses, car rides (if you're not driving -- the obvious mindfulness practice is to pay attention to the road there), terminals, or waiting for a ride at a stop.

Inspirational Story

There's a zen buddhist story of a monk and his master walking through the woods on a long hike. They both stop to rest and enjoy the serenity of the forest.

The young monk beseeches, "Master, how do I enter zen?"

The master closes his eyes and travels to a deeply calm, connected place, in moments he opens his eyes and mouth to guide his disciple, "Do you hear the brook gurgling in the distance?"

His follower calms himself and enters his ears, studying the sounds of the forest. After some time, he does hear the brook and says so.

The master replies with a slight smile, "Enter zen through that."

This clicks for the young monk who immediately enters a state of tranquil understanding. Some time passes and the young monk asks the master, "What would you have said if I did not hear the water gurgling?"

"Then I would have said, 'Enter zen through that.'"

One Such Experience I Have Had

Once, while sitting in a house situated in a beautiful natural environment, I joined a close friend of mine in meditation.

I began with a focus on the sounds around me: the air running through the ventilation system, a
patrolling cat, the flutter and songs of birds. Eventually, the sounds inside of my head quiesced enough to stop drowning these out; I could hear more and more detail.

As these nuances emerged, the labels on them disappeared, it was the music of the systems, but without the recognition of what the systems were. In time, I migrated to hearing the sounds of vibration in my head. I paid attention to the tone and location of these sounds. I allowed my curious mind to question where they came from, what they meant. They may have been the beating of my heart, the sound of my calm breath, the blood pumping through my skull. Without labeling, I attended to each of these sounds in turn and together in symphony. I marveled at the ability to hear so much loudly and clearly within myself.

I vowed to return to this state often and share what I learned with others.

The Meditation: Listen

Sit in a comfortable meditative position of your choosing, but be certain that you are able to stay alert and not fall asleep in it. If you regularly fall asleep during meditation, you are training yourself to sleep, rather than to rise to a level of serene alertness above sleep.

In the meditative position, close your eyes or allow them to remain partially open and unfocused or softly focused. Shift your attention to the sounds that dominate your hearing. If you yourself labeling these sounds or determining their origins, recognize the label as a sounds within your head. Don't try to stop the labeling, just notice it as another sound, and bring your attention gently back to the sounds that you were hearing. Allow the sounds to take you on a journey wherever that may be. Your journey may be similar to the one I share above, or it may be completely different.

Comments Requested
Please share how your journey proceeds.
What have you learned about yourself? About this meditation?
Any other ideas or stories to share?

Monday, February 02, 2009

What Can We Learn From 6 More Weeks?

Phil Says "Six More Weeks of Winter!"

Phil's official forecast as read February 2nd, 2009 at sunrise at Gobbler's Knob:
Hear Ye Hear Ye
On Gobbler's Knob this glorious Groundhog Day, February 2nd, 2009
Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Prognosticator of all Prognosticators
Awoke to the call of President Bill Cooper
And greeted his handlers, Ben Hughes and John Griffiths
After casting a joyful eye towards thousands of his faithful followers,
Phil proclaimed that his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers were World Champions one more time
And a bright sky above me
Showed my shadow beside me.
So 6 more weeks of winter it will be.
I have loved this holiday for a long time.  It is so tounge-in-cheek, just good clean fun.  It has no religious significance nor real historical significance.  It does not celebrate the birthdate or deathdate of a heroine or hero.  What it does mark is the significance in man's struggle to be free of the oppressiveness of "a winter bleak and bereft of hope."  The groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, is said to predict whether winter will come to an end or continue for six more weeks.  What I love is that this day is a celebration whether winter ends early or late.

I especially love the movie Groundhog Day.  It's my favorite film.  SPOILER ALERT -- if you have not seen this movie, I am going to give a lot away.  Stop reading this; go out and rent it right now.  Come back when you're done.

The message of the movie connects very tightly with the notion awakening/enlightenment/salvation.  The main character, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is an arrogant Pittsburght weatherman cum p--ahem, urine--and vinegar curmudgeon.  To him, covering Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney is an awful assignment, well beneath his talents.  He spends the day in misery--the weather, the dinky bed and breakfast, it's lack of hot water, the town folks, the tradition = misery.   He enters the day in suffering and sinks further and further into suffering throughout the day.  And the plot basis is: he is inexplicably forced to live that day over and over and over again.

The movie is an analogy of a path to awakening, where Phil goes through many possible attempts at happiness before he finally gets it.  As Phil comes to terms with the situation, he begins exploring different ways to live this day.  One character advises him that it would be great because he could do whatever he wanted without any consequences.  Phil tries it, embarking on a series of rampant thrill rides, one of which gets him killed.  The alarm clock goes off, it's the same day.  He then spends many days committing suicide in various elaborate ways.  Still, every morning, he awakens to the very same day.  He's getting nowhen.

So, we then tries to fulfill himself in other ways.  He plots out how to steal a lot of money quickly in the morning, then spends every day living a life of luxury with fancy cars, weird outfits, and other ridiculous material excess.  He spends time engaging in raw pleasure, eating whatever he wants and engaging in sexual conquests.  Still, he remains unsatisfied.

He tried to explain his situation to people, and even when he manages to convince people of his condition, it still is not lasting.  He wakes up to the same alarm clock the very next day, his confidants oblivious to what he told them the day prior.  Ultimately, even his attempts to share his experiences with others dissatisfy.  He is still missing something crucial.

He spends many days trying--unsuccessfully to seduce his co-host Rita (Andie McDowell).  Each day using information that he learned from a previous day.  One date a wonderful moment occurs with then building a snowman in the park that is then interrupted by a playful snowball fight with some children, and it ends in a romantic moment.  On successive relives of the day, he keeps trying to repeat this, and it gets pretty awkward.  Phil (and we) learn that such charming, perfect moments cannot be forced or planned, that they just have to happen naturally.  Each day, he pushes things too far at the wrong time and gets slapped, ending in a montage of slaps at different times. 

These different ways of unsuccessful living continue throughout the days.  Eventually, he tends in a different direction.  He starts out taking piano lessons, and ice sculpting, and meeting all of the people in the town with genuine warmth.  He finds the dangers that happen in that day and saves people from a boy falling out of a tree to a man choking on a piece of steak.  He knows that he's just going to wake up tomorrow and need to save the same people again, but he does it anyway.  In time, his piano playing and other skills transfer over.  So does his compassion.  He day, he continues to grow and grow.  Eventually, he's at the point where through genuine kindness, motivation to grow, and social outgoingness, he's able to become the most popular and well-liked man in town in a single day.  He connects with people on a real human level and has spent much time growing.  He has learned how to make the worst day into the perfect day.  The calendar finally turns over to February 3rd when he has genuinely grown and connected with humanity and even had Rita pursuing him for the wonderful man that he is.

In many ways, this is what Buddhism tells us.  We will keep reincarnating and living our lives over and over again, failing to find the true purpose in many ways, until we find the true path to happiness and awakening.  Phil Connors was given a very tangible opportunity to do just that.

MPOW #2 - Connect With Your Body's Wisdom

"Body awareness not only anchors you in the present moment, it is a doorway out of the prison that is the ego. It also strengthens the immune system and the body's ability to heal itself." - Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

"You should know that your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit who is in you.” Corinthians 6:19-20

I hope that you enjoyed the foundational concentration meditation from MPOW #1. This week, I'm moving on to one of my favorite relaxation techniques--scanning the body to learn more about who you are. This one is ideal for first thing in the morning, last thing at night, when restless in bed, or instead of (or as a precursor to) a mid-day nap, because it is best performed lying flat on your back.

Our bodies are filled with so much wisdom. Being in touch with our bodies is a way to tap into that wisdom. My tai chi and qi gong instructors at Embrace the Moon often talk about the wisdom of the body. The hecticness of modern (yang) lifestyles has led to most of us being disconnected from our bodies. We try to push through illness, fight fatigue with stimulants like caffeine, and otherwise resist what our bodies are telling us. "Suppressing natural body urges cuts off the natural flow of prana [or qi or energy], which causes imbalance and disease" (Exploring Chakras by Susan G. Sumsky). Crying, vomiting, sleeping, panting after exertion are examples of these body urges; I bet that you can recall a whole bunch of times when you have repressed these urges. For at least this week, take the time to listen to your body and allow any of the urges to manifest. Meditating on the body can help us tap into this wisdom.

In The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain, John E. Sarno, M.D., tells us about how feelings in the body are often manifestations of tension from unresolved emotions--such as guilt, need, or rage--in the unconscious mind. "... the physical manifestation of tension is to deceive. Our brains have decided that feeling tense, which is the appropriate response to being tense, is too unpleasant to bear and is not as socially acceptable as having something "physically" wrong. And so the brain makes a few adjustments in circuitry and instead of looking and acting like a nervous wreck, presto--a bellyache or a backache." Taking the time to explore the parts of the body that are feeling issues may help you to identify the causes in your unconscious and solve your pain.


I have personally had some amazing experiences with the meditation that I mention here. It has helped me to relieve both physical and emotional pains. I have long had very tight calf muscles, causing me much pain and sleep difficulty. One afternoon, I spent time meditating on this pain and realized that I had been storing emotional resentment toward a past romantic partner of mine.

By spending time meditating on the pain in my legs, I was able to both forgive her (and myself) and release the muscles. Now I have become close to her as a friend, harbor less anger, and can easily relax my calves. Win, win, win.

Another anecdote is about a friend of mine. During regular yin yoga classes, we often hold hip stretches (such as pigeon pose) for 7 minutes (yeah, that's a long time... you need to transcend the pain to survive). In at least some circles, it is commonly thought that people hold lots of emotions as tension in their hips. It certainly seems like this is the case for my friend who often opens up into tears over repressed emotions after these long hip stretches. It may seem scary to dig into this, but it certainly helps to get this out in the open and deal with it head on.

Buddhists such as Pema Chodron advise us to "lean into the sharp spots" to bravely overcome our discomfort. This is the way of the warrior of the heart (the bodhisattva). It will not always be so profound, but it will often be relaxing. Let's get to it!

The Meditation: Body Scan

Lie flat on your back in a comfortable position (other comfortable positions such as seated are possible). When you are comfortable, begin by putting your attention at the top of your head. Imagine that your body is filling with light--a warm, loving, and beautiful light. Let the light slowly pouring in through the top of your head, filling you. As it comes through, pay close attention to the feelings in your head, then in your forehead, temples, eyes, ears, nose...

Whenever you find a feeling or a pain, linger there at that spot. Breath in and out of it. Explore
the feeling with your curious mind. Where did it come from? What does it feel like? What color is it? What does it sound like? Where will it go? What purpose does it serve? What is it looking for? Etc. Be curious about it, and see where it moves to or if it melts away.

When you are ready, move slowly down through your shoulders, arms, heart, chest, abdomen,
solar plexus, and on and on down to your feet. Take plenty of time with the entire scan. If you complete it while still enjoying your meditation, start again, this time seeing if you can be even more sensitive to the feelings in your body, going deeper and slower. If your muscles are tight, tell them that you love them, that you appreciate their hard work, and grant them permission to relax, to tell you everything that they have to offer.


There some several alternatives to play around with. See what works for you in which situation.

  • It doesn't have to be light that fills you. It can be water, or air, or a vacuum, or a scan line, or simply your intention.
  • Start at the feet, wait for each part of the body to feel heavy before sliding to the next part of the body.
  • Breath
    in and out slowly. Imagine a band of light scanning your body from
    head to toe with each inhale and toe to head with each exhale (or vice
    versa). See what you notice as your breath elongates, as your breath
    shortens. Try to time it so that the body scan aligns with the breath.
These are just a few of the many possible ways of understanding the body. As you develop your practice in bodily awareness, feel free to play with these alternatives and let me know what works and doesn't work for you.

Comments Requested - share with me and others!
If you're new to meditation, please let me know how it goes.
If you're experienced at meditation, what works and what doesn't work?
For everyone, please share your experiences with this meditation. If a group of people are doing it and sharing, that will help others ride the wave.