Monday, April 27, 2009

MPOW #14 - Be the Sun

"The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might.
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright.
This was odd because it was
The middle of the night."
- Lewis Carroll The Walrus and the Carpenter

Living in Seattle, it is possibly to go a whole month in the winter without seeing the sun peek through the clouds. Though, I know, when I pay it mind, that the sun is always still shining, whether cloudy or not, day or night. Even when I cannot see it, it still shines. In this mindfulness practice of the week, let us contemplate the sun and how we are like it.

There are a few traits that we can share with the sun:
1. The sun always shines, even if layers of clouds or a rotation of the planet hides this. As such, we always shine underneath, even when circumstances make it difficult for us to shine outwardly.

2. The sun does not boast of its shining. The sun is a massively powerful body, a giant ball of burning gas that sustains all of the life on Earth. Yet, this is what the sun is, and what it does. Likewise, we are what we are, and our abilities, though many and wisely born and often earned are what we are. We can take our cues from the sun and not boast of them either.

3. The sun makes no excuse for shining. The opposite of boasting, sometimes we are embarrassed by our abilities and seek to downplay them or cover them up. Just like the sun, these abilities make up who we are, and we can confidently put them to use for wise growth and kind, generous action.

4. The sun always generously shares its energy with others. It doesn't ask for anything in return, nor mind when it is taken for granted. It continues to nurture the whole planet.

5. The sun does not discriminate. It offers its energy for any and all.

There are many other traits of the sun that you may bring forth in your meditations.

Mindfulness Practice: Be the Sun
If the sun is shining directly, place yourself by basking in it. If it is not seen, recall the sun, know that it is there shining, and be in that knowledge of its shining. Begin in a basic meditation to clear your mind, calm your emotions, and relax your physical body. Form your arms into a curve, as if you are holding the sun within them. I recommend holding them aloft, but you can also rest them if you require.

Focus on the space between your arms and will you attention between them. In this attention, bring your intention to bring the sun in. As you focus your intention, allow this to be your manifestation. The sun will manifest in your arms. This may be frustrating or silly at first, but allow yourself to indulge in this notion. As you hold your arms, feel the warmth of the sun on them. You may need to shift their arc to accommodate the sun. Relax your belly, what the Chinese call the dantien, the Japanese the tanden, many call the second chakra--it has many other names in other languages. As it relaxes, you might feel that this is a battery storing the energy of the sun.

Notice the ways that you are like the sun. You may even become the sun or realize that you have been the sun all along. You may realize that like the sun, you are both part of the same universe. You may instead or additionally notice other things. For instance, you might saturate with optimism, or recognize the properties that you and the sun share in common.

My wish for you is that the sun inspires you to be more like it.

This post is dedicated to Grandmaster Chen Xiao Wang, who once wordlessly taught me how to embrace the universe in a single moment.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Interview with Kim Ivy on Tai Chi and the Recession

At the beginning of 2009, shortly after the economy was widely recognized as recession, there was a lot of consternation, though some people, myself included, looked for the positive side of the recession. I wrote Silver Lining on the Dark Cloud of the Recession and Optimism in the Great Disruption to address this. Much of this, though, was after I interviewed my Taijiquan and Qigong teacher Kim Ivy from Embrace the Moon. Kim is a hugely positive force for internal and external change, a community builder, and an exuberant and welcoming teacher.

Here are the results of that interview in her words (if you can forgive this blogger taking some minor presence in flawed note-taking and minor editing):

How is Embrace the Moon doing in this recession?

I heard Ross Reynolds make the statement "If you see a business doing well, I want to hear about it." Sitting at the dojo, I said to myself "I'll be darned, I see no decrease, in fact, I see an increase." Indeed I had been thinking that when people lose disposable income, Tai Chi & Qigong would be among the first of things to go but that has not been the case

Why do you think you are seeing an increase?

I feel there is a very pragmatic and palpable shift in people's intention for themselves during this recession period. Sure there's a lot of fear, yet the people I see are not investing in fear but recognizing that there is a different choice. The choice to go inward is a choice to take back personal power, it is a conscious intention to get off the roller coaster and to experience a better way to live, a more positive life affirming way. And there is the very important aspect of connecting not with their own self but also with a community of people also focusing on positive and life-affirming practices. It is a tremendous source of power.

I think people used to feel Tai Chi and Qigong were out of reach for them somehow. Perhaps they were culturally odd, they were too esoteric, pretty but unapproachable – or sort of like the whipped cream on the mocha. But now, I definitely see that people feel that these are deeply practical approaches to not only integrating the body with the mind but also the body the mind with mindful living. These are tools for slowing down, taking a moment, not getting so wrapped up in the tornados and hurricanes of our culture. These are tools for health, happiness and they are not only approachable but essential. At this point in our cultural evolution we all recognize that a meditative mindful approach is really a way through, a way through the chaos.

What I feel I'm really seeing is a large shift of consciousness. The idea of a paradigm shift has been floating around, but now I see it manifesting in people's beings. It shows in their practices of looking at life not just through the lens of achievement. They are looking at life as a path of insight. This is the larger perspective that is emerging. People have run into the end game of a path of achievement. We're seeing, on a larger social perspective, a recession, a suffering. But on an internal level we are turning our attention more intentionally: looking for insight, looking for pathways, practices, communities, that embody that essence.

When people come in to class, sometimes they are stressed or worried but when they leave they are happy. For me, it's really incredible to be a part of that transformation. Somebody last night who came in, he was very serious, "I came in depressed, and I changed, I'm not leaving that way." To change like this over the course of one hour is really powerful. When we focus on the world and our place in it in a negative way, we're really opening up a drain that's inside of us. Energy, life force, motivation, hope, they all just drain out of us. But when we embody ourselves and feel our own potential we close the drain and fill ourselves up with possibility..

Taijiquan and Qigong practice is not bout learning a form, per se. For me what I see is through them we experience tools, environments, and community that give us access into our own insight. When we have access into our own insight, we naturally get out of ourselves, connect to an experience of giving to joy. I feel there is a relationship to doing practices where we can feel embodied. It is a gift and gives us to joy. So, this path of insight is really the path of joy. To tap into that changes everything

What we're seeing right now I feel is the death of an old way, and right next that we're also seeing the rise of new possibilities. It's the Chinese way: Danger/Opportunity

So, you think that this change was inevitable?

I think it, and this is just my own personal viewpoint, was bound to happen. What's happening in the world right now is the natural flow of things. The yin and yang, the current flow of the world was bound to happen. . The world has been yang. The change to the yin was inevitable. Kind of like putting the breaks on in the car, you can slam the breaks on or push them down slowly depending on how fast you have been going and what the circumstances demand of you. It’s a bit of a feeling like the breaks are slamming but perhaps this slow down has been going on for quite some time. We are just feeling it now

A Chinese saying tells us: "Never forget the thousand year view." The yin was bound to happen. The tremendous forceful way, in nature, that is not sustainable.

Even though the current situation it is a natural response to how we have been going, there is still an ideology of fear going on right now. However, f we look at it as a natural balance to how things have been, we can change our perspective; we can say "how do we blend into that?" and bring ourselves into natural alignment with that.

Coming over here today, I was thinking that when we do our practices, Tai Chi, Qigong--is what I'm familiar with--there's a certain alchemy that over time aligns the practitioner with Nature. When we align with nature, we not only begin to understand the process and the flow of nature, but of ourselves. When we do this, we are calmer with the flow of nature. We understand growth, recession, change. Everything changes.

When I look at the business per se of a Tai Chi school, I ask why is this increasing right now? Yes, sure, this is Seattle, a relatively affluent area. Though, how people choose to spend their money and time is telling. They feel that this is more valuable to them to participate in life, and with their friends, than to spend it on a new shirt or something like that. I think that this is truly a change in the consciousness, the awareness; and the seeds were planted a long time ago.

It is very hopeful for me to see that. It is humbling for me to think that we are actually alive right now to see that happen.

On a larger perspective I feel we are seeing a shift in consciousness away from force & aggression. On one hand we see what's happening with war, on the other hand we see these more fluid types of choices people are making. When you see a business rise or fall, it is indicative of the choices that people are making. In this society, we can do whatever we want. So when I see that people are making conscious choices to be involved with activities like Tai Chi & Qigong and what they can give us, it's thrilling to me actually.

Some people turn to religion or spirituality as a crutch...

I wish Tai Chi was a crutch; it would be easier to market! [:)] However, the path is more challenging then that. Tai Chi and Qigong are personal development processes. These are not concretized things that you can hold onto. They are practices and insights. Yet, people are up to the challenge right now.

One thing about places of religion, spirituality, and practice that I think is very important, is that they're places of community. When people are unsure, places of community are a tremendous salve to isolation and fear. The value of community can't be underestimated.

Why are people here instead of using their time to diversify income streams or find a new job?

What I see is that people are making a choice to integrate. They're still out there looking for jobs and so on. These are practices of balance. Looking for a job is a very active, yang, kind of approach. You cannot do that 24 hours a day. The human organism needs sleep, rest, balance. We need exercise, for example to just balance being a human mammal.

These are practices that give people a sense of center. This might be a cliché, but there's a sense of grounding that helps us as we go out into the world. Making certain choices to bring into our lives a more complete sense of who we are. . Also, when we practice something that is self-affirming, we put ourselves into a flow state. We have to actively engage in the flow process. When we're happier, things arise more easily. We're comfortable navigating things that arise with more difficulty.

When we look at the nervous system, there's the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. We're really using the left side of the brain when we worry and look for jobs and are concerned about our survival. We are trying to figure it all out. This is a more yang way to live. This is not wrong. There's nothing wrong with being goal-oriented. This dojo (school) came because I had a goal to make a dojo.

However, we also need rest, play, positive connections. We have to regenerate. So when you're out there looking for a job, using your energy, you can then also do things like Tai Chi that refill your energy.

The world is in debt, it's a very apt metaphor for what we're done to ourselves. We have to build back our body/mind bank account too.

Tai Chi and Qigong along with religious and spiritual practices help. These are ways of putting more energy in the bank. I think that people more intuitively recognize that, too.

Is there anything else that has really been striking you?

Yes, there is a very big shift in demographic. When I began teaching, it was to primarily women, women in their 60s. The reason for taking classes really had quite a bit to do with better physical balance or to address some pain. Tai Chi and Qigong were seen as complementary methods of health for middle-to-upper aged women.

About 5 years ago, a huge shift happened. More men came, more young people. You’re [editor: that's me, Ed] a very good example of how the demographic is shifting. To me, it was very dramatic of how it happened. On the intake form, people fill out "What are you trying to get from the classes?" The answers now are: relaxation, balance, relief from stress, calming down. I never hear anybody say, "my knee hurts, and I think that this will help me." I'm also getting lots of referrals from doctors, acupuncturists, and heart specialists. "Something active with the spleen", "I had a heart attack". The real conventional Western world is beginning to see that these are complementary methods, making the connections that life is holistic.

That to me is also one of the more compelling indicators of this larger "shift of consciousness"--"shift of awareness." People are adapting more of a long view. We're a very young country and have come some way and have a longer way to go I don't see a schism between the election of Obama and the increase of people starting these practices. We're starting to recognize the long view. Eventually we have to come to the long view if we're going to survive. Survival is in our nature. We have to survive. We're seeing that survival means more than just the next “what am I going to buy?” question. Survival means reviving our depleted nervous system.

The words written by Lao-tsu and other yogis that were written 2000 years ago could have been written an hour ago. You think these are thousands of years old; but here we are, studying the same thing right now. Consciousness keeps downloading; it just takes a long time to figure it all out. Or I might say to feel it all out. The path of insight is not limited to this shape here (points to the shape of her body).

So, is this shift toward more balance or to a yin way?

The insight of the Taoist Masters is simple. “Natural is the First Principle.” Lao-tsu, Cheng-tsu, my teachers, they all advocate the middle way.

What would the yin way be?

(Deep sigh to demonstrate) ... I guess the way I look at it... it's a very interesting question... let's go back to the breath. The yang aspect of the breath is the inhalation; the yin aspect of the breath is the exhalation. We only define yin because it's in relation to yang. The yin way and the yang way can only be defined in relationship to its opposite. The yin-yang concept is only meant to be a springboard back to the wuji, (makes a circle with her arms) within the inhales and exhales, very long no breath--not holding the breath as a way of holding the breath--but enjoying the place where there's no distinction. Finding the place.

I think about pearl divers, I'd love to talk to someone who can hold the breath for 15 minutes. I don't know specifically, the yin way would be the nightfall, the resting period. We've been focusing too much on the yang, not developing the yin. These practices, the Taoist practices, encourage us to focus more of our time on the restoration practices so that we can balance the output before too long. If we did too much of that, we'd also be off balance. The metaphor is that we have 2 people on a teeter-totter. Within each yang, there's a yin. As you expand, another part of your body has to recede to accommodate.

Perfect examples of a yin life occur in winter - bears hibernating, French peasant farmers also did this. Look at native cultures, when you look at native cultures, you see that the native people go inside. More sleeping, less activity, more restorative, you look at animals: that's the same thing. When it comes to spring time, they're feeling very frisky... Taoist practices are done in accordance with the seasons. We impact qi gong practices in the winter, very intentionally. Yin life, yin way, would definitely be the path of rest, restoration, nurturing. They totally were at harmony with their life; they really know.

Do you think the timing of the recession happening in the winter is meaningful?

I don't know. Though, if I had to make a guess, I'd say that the foot has actually been on the brake pedal for a long time, not just a jarring stop. Compare this to the dot com burst, that was a jarring stop. I think the main thing is to not analyze too much or stay myopic in our view, but to look at the big picture, look at the large cycles. In Tai Chi and Qigong, the external movements represent what is happening on the inside of us. So what is happening on the outside of our society and our world represents an inner process. What is happening is so profound it likely spans many seasons over many years.

Perhaps we are learning that in our life, like in our practices, sustainability is a process that is cultivated over time. Over time and experience we understand more and more, and we make choices that align us comfortably and sustain us over time. We are young, but we are learning.

Kim, Thank you for the insights. There are some true gems in here. -Ed

Monday, April 20, 2009

MPOW #13 - Hitting the Beat

One of my favorite hobbies is dancing, and I love to really put a little mindfulness in different aspects of my hobbies. Lately, I've been trying to pay more attention to patterns of music, and especially the percussion in salsa music. I'm working up to being able to play that for myself - it's very complicated!

My latest practice has two aspects and several parts to each, training my ear to listen to a beat, and training my hands to tap to a beat. I will start with a basic tapping exercise this week. Learning to move hands and feet independently can be difficult if we don't have practice, so the concentration required to do this often shuts worries and other thoughts out of our minds. Only the room for the pattern can fit in.

If you are already a musician, the exercise today will be quite basic for you, so see if you can really get something deeper out of going to a basic. There's a note at the bottom especially for people who find this easy.

The mindfulness practice of the week: independent tapping

Sit comfortably where you can move your hands and your feet. If you have a metronome or a click track, use that to help you keep your timing. I talked a bit about this in last week's MPOW #12: Metronome Breathing. If you don't have a metronome, here's a site with mp3 files.
Part 1: 4/4 timing basics
Count 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, ... Using your dominant hand, tap on every beat. In rock, this is typically hitting the hi hat.
Count: 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4

Part 2: Add in the kick drum
Using your foot, hit on the 1, 3, 1, 3, .... See if you can do this at the same time as your dominant hand hitting the 1, 2, 3, 4, ....
Count:  1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
F: X X X X

Part 3: Add in the snare
The snare hits on the 2 and the 4. See if you can do this with your non-dominant hand. At first, you may want to leave the foot out.

Count:  1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
ndH: X X X X

Then, when you are comfortable, add the kick drum back in:

Count:  1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
F: X X X X
ndH: X X X X

You are now moving 3 parts of your body independently at the same time. This might require quite a bit of concentration. My hands tend to get rattled in the transition, but then they get the hang of it.

Part 4: 3 beats for every 2.
Here it becomes a little trickier since they're moving in different timing. See if you can figure this one out on your own. With you right hand tap every 2 beats. With your left hand, tap every 3 beats. Leave me a note if you want a tip. I just figured this one out for myself with the help of a friend.

For existing musicians and drummers and others who find this really easy
There are likely 2 ways you can get something out of this:
1. Learn to be comfortable doing something so easy. If you find it boring and tedious, explore that to see what you learn.
2. Push yourself in a new challenge. Likely you already find a state of flow whenever you work on a new rhythm or melody. Find something that's a bit beyond your skill right now or something that engages your entire mind and practice with that.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

30 Before 30

A friend of mine introduced me to the idea of doing 30 news things in the thirtieth year of life.

Here's what it is not.

This is not defining life through what I do. The point of this is not to collect a list of skills, achievements, and adventures in order to feel good about myself. This is not about giving me an excuse to list it up like crazy.

Here's what it is.

Instead, this is pushing myself to grow, experience new things, keep things changing in order to live in and understand the moment. It has given me a chance to get closer to people as I do this. I believe that it is important to live in the discomfort zone in order to learn who I really am, to push the boundaries of my self-definition. This is also about adding new wholesome and exciting activities to enrich my life and help me connect more with the world.

One of the definitions of aging is that you're only old when you stop doing new things. Maybe that's one of the roots of this 30 before 30 ritual. Keeping the 30ieth year fresh and vibrant.

I started making the list and realized that it was hard for a few reasons:
1. I do a lot already. I usually act pretty immediately on the things that I want to do. I don't want to add things that I've already done.
2. The things that I want to do and have not already done usually require a substantial amount of money, planning, or time. For example - a trip to South America would require a lot of all three.

As I found these difficulties, I realized that I already had established some mental boundaries about who I am. I needed to open my mind and my heart as part of the brainstorming. There are a few categories of things that I can do with the given time constraints and resources:
1. Things that I don't really want to do or that I'm scared of doing. I learn a lot by doing these things.
2. Things that usually require opportunity - with just a little pro-action I can make them happen. And it gives me a chance to seek how buddies who know how to do them.

Here's the list, including where I am so far. I am intentionally not filling it in completely at this point in order to learn more about myself and leave room to be flexible as the year continues.
# Done
Item to Do
Drink real absinthe Acquired - Thanks, Paul!
Ride a tandem bike Need partner, need to find a bike
3 X
Study with a grand master 5-day workshop with Taijiquan grandmaster Chen Xiao Wang
Surf Abby will teach me - thanks, Abby!
Make Waldorf salad ice cream Got the ice cream maker - need to do it
6 X
Become proficient in salsa I was invited to Century Ballroom's salsa level 4.
Sell a piece of art that I've made myself
Get involved in my community
This one is pretty vague, and I need to define it more crisply.
Throw a making art party
10 X
Write 30 blog posts during this year

Do something everyday for 100 days Almost there, I'm on day 90 of writing.
12 X
Volunteer in the election I canvassed for Obama/Gregoire.
13 X
Visit an eastern Washington wine region
Went to Yakima Valley
14 X
Receive a psychic reading
Tarot from Raven, and then again from Vinny.
15 X
Give a psychic reading
Thanks for teaching me, Vinny.
Climb outdoors on real rock
17 X
Visit Chichen Itza
Magnificent! One of the new 7 world wonders. Visited it with Josh.
18 X
There are some things that need to be kept private...
19 X
20 X
Buy something in an auction
1 week vacation on Whidbey Island - bought at NWIRP auction
21 X
Develop a regular yoga practice

22 X
Learn to drive stick
Earned my wings on the Yucatan peninsula driving through jungle and busy little towns. Thanks to Dad and Josh for the help.
23 X
Take an art class and learn to draw with new media
I took a finding flow in art class from William and I have been working with new media - sharpies on graph paper, charcoals, and chalk pastels.
24 X
Reiki III attunement

Ride in a hot air balloon

26 X
Take private dance lessons
Both tango and salsa
27 X
Another private one.
28 X
Rolfing Basic 10 Series

Wildcard #1

Wildcard #2

30, Here I Come.
I am pretty excited about turning 30 this year and I really look forward to what I will learn about myself from this adventure. Expect a future blog post on my learnings.

Comments Requested
Please let me know if you have any such practices yourself. Please share any ideas of things that you think for me to do. Do you believe in a particular book that every person must read? I'd like to include one of those. If you know me and can help with any of these or would like to share in these, please let me know that, too.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Not Obstacles, That's the Path

"We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us." - Rainer Maria Rilke

As we move through life, attempting to move in peace, planned precision, or along whatever pleasant, care-free path, we often encounter things which disrupt our flow. I cannot think of an unbroken month in my life when some incident has not occurred: my car being broken into, my work load doubled, my computer crashed, my thumb sliced open, my trip canceled, etc. How frustrating this can be. We've all been there, which is why we connect so well with Robert Burn's apology To a Mouse for destroying its nest while ploughing:
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promised joy.
You probably recognize the oft quoted "best laid schemes o' mice an' men" part. The conclusion drawn here is that try as we might, there's no way to prepare with "foresight" for a complete path of "promised joy." There's always a potential accident or obstacle around the corner. Though, the "grief an' pain" is just the story that we tell ourselves, and Stories Define Reality. Rather than allow ourselves to rely on a happiness defined only be the path that we had planned, we can learn to walk that path that is presented to us.

Learning to be mindful and avoid obstacles is a wise and worthy pursuit. However, it is likely impossible to prepare enough to avoid every obstacle. Even in a secure garage, someone can still break into your car if you have one, and sometimes having one is the best option. "Being able to remain centered and awake even when we feel uncomfortable is much more impressive than doing so in an environment where everything is to our liking. No matter how good we are at controlling our circumstances, there will always be factors and people that we cannot control." (Daily Om's The Upside of Irritation) Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche believes that "We might even begin to welcome obstacles as an opportunity to engage in virtuous activity: patience, generosity, discipline, meditation, exertion, and their binding factor, prajna—wisdom rooted in seeing things as they are. With practice and a change in attitude, whatever comes our way—good or bad—has less power to obstruct our journey." (The Path Through Obstacles in Shambhala Sun)

In Growing Together, Thich Nhat Hahn shares a beautiful metaphor for dealing with suffering from obstacles: "You can use the goodness in yourself to transform your suffering and the tendency to be angry, cruel, and afraid. But you don’t want to throw your suffering away because you can use it. Your suffering is compost that gives you the understanding to nourish your happiness and the happiness of your loved one."

This is not only an Eastern concept, it is a central precept of the Greek Stoics. Here's an excerpt from Stoicism 101: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs by Ryan Holiday c/o Tim Ferriss:

The Stoics had an exercise called Turning the Obstacle Upside Down. What they meant to do was make it impossible to not practice the art of philosophy. Because if you can properly turn a problem upside down, every “bad” becomes a new source of good.

Suppose for a second that you are trying to help someone and they respond by being surly or unwilling to cooperate. Instead of making your life more difficult, the exercise says, they’re actually directing you towards new virtues; for example, patience or understanding. Or, the death of someone close to you; a chance to show fortitude. Marcus Aurelius described it like this: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”


Stoicism, as Marcus reminds himself, is not some grand Instructor but a balm, a soothing ointment to an injury wherever we might have one. Epictetus was right when he said that “life is hard, brutal, punishing, narrow, and confining, a deadly business.

We should take whatever help we can get, and it just happens that that help can come from ourselves.

When you see the obstacles in this light, you can realize that it is not a path cluttered with obstacles. The path and the obstacles are not separate, they are the path, the whole path. "Like cars in amusement parks, our direction is often determined through collisions." (Yahia Lababidi) As children, many of us enjoyed running obstacle courses, jumping hurdles, running through tires, crawling under ropes, walking across balance beams. This was not tedious to us, it was a fun part that we chose. Let's learn from our own childhoods and find the joy of running the obstacle course. It can be so much more fun and satisfying than walking the easy route alongside the course. Relish in the whole path. In this way, we can learn to be Comfortable with What Is .

Comments, Please - Please share your thoughts. What are your experiences in recognizing life's obstacles as life's path?

Monday, April 13, 2009

MPOW #12 - Metronome Breathing

Stop. Take a deep breath. Count to 10.

This is common advice for us to control our anger. It is very well known that breathing can control how we feel and our state of mind. When our busy lives heat up, remembering to breath deeply can be the exact right defusing technique that we need to regain our cool. In this mindfulness practice of the week (MPOW) we take a break from mantras, and switch to a recent favorite of mine: metronome breathing.
Breathing is one of the most profound and direct ways we have of changing or tuning our chemical and biological state to affect our neurology. Within breath is contained life-force (energy, ki. chi, prana, etc.). The assimilation and direction of life-force can be further increased through awareness. (Breathing)
Along with being a simple technique to relax, practice mindfulness, and control our minds, this is also a chance to improve the physical health of the body through greater oxygenation. And if you're a swimmer or diver, this can help strengthen and expand your lungs to stay under water longer. Let's get started.

What you need

Locate a metronome, a ticking clock, or something else that makes a regular, countable noise, not too fast, not too slow. I even found a nifty site with metronome mp3 files for use with an mp3 player--and you can even do this during your commute.

The Mindfulness Practice of the Week: Metronome Breathing

Choose a comfortable place to meditate, start the metronome, then get in a meditative position. Begin by breathing normally, then eventually let your breath align to the steady clicks of the metronome. Once you are there and relaxing, supported by in the unwavering beats, it is time to move on to the breathing practice.

On a click, start a long, slow, deep inhalation, counting the clicks of the metronome as you inhale. How many did you get? Note that number, and on the exhalation, see how many clicks long you can breath out. Many people find that they can usually exhale for a little longer than their inhalation. For instance, if you can inhale for 6 clicks, maybe you can exhale for 8 clicks.

Get into a regular pattern of what works for you, maybe that's 6 in, 8 out, 6 in, 8 out, .... After a while, you may notice that you find this pretty easy, increase the count, perhaps by 2. 8 in, 10 out, 8 in, 10 out. Gradually expand to a level that you can sustain without laboring.

... please try this meditation for yourself before reading about my experience.

At first, I have a hard time aligning to the metronome and timing to the clicks, I overcome frustration by patiently acclimatizing to the clicking. As I do the breathing, I find that it's actually a little easier for me to inhale. My yoga, taiji, qi gong, and swimming practices have really helped me to control my breathing. With this, and my current metronome setting, I can usually inhale for 30 clicks, though controlling the exhale to 30 clicks can be challenging. I often separate difficult breaths with 1 in, 1 out breaths before returning to 30 in, 30 out patterns.

Sometimes I feel panic as my lungs are emptying and no fresh air is coming in. During the inhale, it is often so smooth and easy that I find myself switching to a slight exhale through my partly opened mouth--that's not the exercise, so I correct it--that stirs me into being more mindful.

It takes a while for me to learn to smoothly manage the exhalation to be nice and even throughout. I can do 30 if I pace myself and really squeeze. Sometimes I need to constrict the back of my throat, producing an audible hum or rasp. This helps to slow it down, and also prepares my for a common yogic breathing technique. Eventually, both inhalation and exhalations can be smoothed and balanced, and I find deep relaxation, only to then notice that my mind is wandering, and it is time to again challenge my breathing or focus on my breathing to get back to the blissful state of meditation.

On the whole, though, this tends to really transport me to serenity. It leaves be relaxed and recharged.

This is dedicated to my friend Keri, who took me to a yoga class where they taught different breathing techniques centered around a metronome. I have plenty more in store for later MPOWs.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

25 Things About Me

There's a viral fad going around Facebook asking people to post 25 things about themselves, then invite 25 more people to do the same. There are several different versions of it, some inject the word "random" or "silly". My list is clearly not random; I doubt anyone's is. Though there may be ways to do something partially random, I structured mine instead. [Ok this fad has died off by now, but I wrote this article back then without posting.]

Seeking balance and organization, I broke it down into 5 buckets.
1-5 The Odd or Sensational
6-10 The Basics
11-15 The Personality
16-20 The Stories
21-25 The Activities

This has been a fun exercise. I learn a lot about my ego, by comparing my list to the typical formula.

1-5 The Odd or Sensational
Here's the part where I show how cool and unique I am, then introduce a minor flaw in a clever way.

1. I have touched my own skull. Following a high school weight lifting accident resulting from a plate sliding off the bar while close-grip curling then cracking me between the eyes. My sister rushed to the rescue with a frozen chimichanga. I had a gash large enough that the plastic surgeon allowed me to touch my own skull before sewing me up with 2 tiers of stitches.

2. I love the smell of burnt plexiglass - sweet and smoky.

3. I once bowled 6 perfect rolls in a row. The rest of the game was crap. Count how many gutters (8)! <link to image, see the top row>

4. I once completely wiped out my opponent in Go. link to image On a whole, though, I am extremely novice.

5. My superpower is profuse sweating. I still have not learned to harness this for the good of humanity. But I have harnessed it for the good of my own detoxification in Bikram yoga.

6-10 The Basic
This is the part where I talk about my loved ones and some other interesting traits in order to come off as endearing.

6. I have a slight allergy to coconut. I still eat Thai curries, but prefer them when the ratio of chili to coconut is something like 3:1. Yum.

7. I live with a classy cat. He always wears his tuxedo and lounges around cooler-than-thou on the furniture.

8. I was born on July 20, The Day of Ups and Downs.

9. Family - I was going to call this section "The Mundane" instead of The Basic, until I realized that writing about my family fits into this one, and there's nothing mundane about my family. They are spectacularly interesting people, each of them. I love my parents and younger sister Laura. We are a very close bunch.

10. I am carnivicarious. (blog post) Most of my childhood, I grew up as a meatatarian, a total carnivore. I ate pretty much only meat and bread, and I was completely opposed to vegetables. On May 1, 2008, I stopped eating meat after being inspired at a dinner party. My brain still wants meat sometimes, so I’ve coined the term “carnivicarious” to cover that. It’s the pleasure that I get through someone else’s enjoyment of meat. But the joy that I get from not eating meat is really wonderful.

11-15 The Personality
This section describes how uniquely skilled and special I am. (just like everyone else)

11. ENTJ-->ENFP - On the Myers-Briggs test, I max out Extroversion, always have. And definitely score higher on Intuiting than Sensing. Most of my life I have been ENTJ, but over the past couple years I have transitioned to ENFP.

12. Strengths - Input, Ideation, Woo, Maximizer, Strategic - according to Strengths Finder.

13. Groundhog Day is my favorite movie (blog post) . The movie is an analogy of a path to awakening, where Phil goes through many possible attempts at happiness before he finally gets it. 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.

14. My serenity
Lies in snow, cherry blossoms,
Birdsong, and haiku.

15. "I know a fine fellow named Ed,
Who lived his life trapped in his head,
Until he awoke,
Turned his ego to smoke,
And learned he has nothing to dread." - a friend left this in a comment on my blog

16-20 The Stories

16. I got thrown to the floor (twice) in a demonstration by Chen Taijiquan Grandmaster Chen Xiao Wang. I asked for it.

17. The first party that I ever DJ'ed was the day that I learned. The DJ bailed at the last minute, so I downloaded some software, and DJ'ed off of my laptop and extensive collection of MP3s. The party kicked ass! I blew out the pre-amp, when a "fan" broke into the booth and cranked the volume all the way up.

18. I went to a Japanese pop concert. My friend and I were the only foreigners there in Saitama, outside Tokyo in Sept 2008. We saw one of my favorite artists, Amuro Namie, singer of "Can You Celebrate " and many, many other hits. The crowd was feverish. I've never seen just am intense encore chant: "Na-Mi-E! Woooooooo! Na-Mi-E! Woooooooo!" This is an enormous change after the affected apathy of Seattle music crowds.

19. producers ...
I saw The Producers on Broadway for Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick's last show. It was an amazing show just on their talents and the energy alone, but something made it very special. During the courtroom scene, an accidental fart sound effect was played, and the cast couldn't hold it together, though they tried nobly. Finally, Nathan Lane broke character to collect himself. He even cracked a Martha Stewart joke, being that it was the day after her conviction.

20. Sixth grade. Peed myself. Won state math contest. Weird combination of pride and embarrassment.

21-25 The Activities
I live getting into all kinds of things, here are the 5 that sprung to mind soonest.

21. I am on day 13 (Feb. 3) of a new practice: 100 days of writing (blog post). "I bring to my practice not just repeating something over and over but the act of self-reflection: I practice and I observe. I practice again. I tweak and adjust and tear apart and build up again. I create an opportunity to know myself better. Gradually this habit seeps into the rest of my activities. The result of Practice is that over time, I have a more engaged relationship with my whole life." - Kim Ivy

22. Artist - My favorite media are black sharpies on graph paper. I create a lot of mandalas.

23. I love to dance. Swing, argentine tango, merengue, salsa. If you throw on some deep house or breakbeats, you will see another side.

24. I jam with my friend Nick. We call ourselves the Cat's Cradle Robbers.

25. I love food: eating it, cooking it, and photographing it. (only some of them are linked here)

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Comfortable with What Is

A streak of blissful days and nights was interrupted a couple days ago when I didn't Start Whole. I practically kicked a couple friends out of my house to go visit someone. I was expecting something. I wasn't quite sure what that was; I'm still not; I didn't define it ahead of time. Whatever it was, it didn't happen. I want to say that I learned a lesson instead, but that's just tying it up in a neat little bow to make it feel safely understood (as I discuss in Lean Into Discomfort). Since our Stories Define Reality, we could focus on the dark cloud or the silver lining, though lately I have been seeing that both sides add interpretations that don't necessarily exist. Authoring our own silver lining into the story is a slight aggression against what already is.

I did learn a few things, though, but that's not the outcome of the experience or the purpose of it. I see that, now. It's just separate. I let something out of me. At the time, I thought that I had needed to for a while, that letting that out was the purpose. Then I thought about some recent waves of nausea that I've been feeling (during my reiki III attunement, during rolfing, and the morning after that same rolfing treatment). I thought about a writing from Susan Shumsky of the 13 different inbound and outbound activities of the body and how we're supposed to honor them, let them happen. I had a feeling that this was a purpose for the nausea... Right there, I caught myself. I was trying to find a reason for it. Then I realized that there doesn't need to be a purpose, and realizing this was a moment of turiya and a feeling like I just left the greatest spa trip.

There's this need in me--likely it is true of human nature--to search for explanations for things. I'm often not comfortable until I can explain it. For instance, when I feel something, I may make up a reason like I'm supposed to puke to feel better or that I need to let out those tears, that I've been holding onto them and really there's a purpose to them. What I realized: there is no grand purpose. It is always possible to tell ourselves a story based on things in the past and make sense of them in the present. In the end, though, we don't know a fraction of the details of everything going on, and we certainly are not armed with the information to figure out our realities. Instead, we learn what we learn, we know what we know, we think what we think, just as we go. Things just happen. Our minds confabulate the reasons or want to draw a conclusion to things to make it tidy (at least mine does). But that's the exact trap. It's the desire to control things through understanding them. The real power comes from being comfortable with things exactly as they are, without ascribing meaning to them. That's slightly different than being comfortable with uncertainty. It is just being comfortable with what is. Yes, that is uncertain. What is is uncertain. We can never know ahead of time what is. It just is. There's nothing to fight or to control. There's nothing to understand or derive meaning from. We only react, or not. And what is keeps on being what it is, without regard for us.

In parting, I will leave you with this lovely poem by an anonymous (to me) Native American, from my yin yoga teacher, Saiko:
The river flows,

the grass grows, and

the wind blows....

This post is dedicated to Nick Dallett, good friend, former colleague, and musical co-conspirator (together we are the Cat's Cradle Robbers). He thinks--among many other things--that complex pleasures are underrated. Nick has a gift for rolling with things as they are, though he'd tell you that he has worked really hard at it.

Monday, April 06, 2009

MPOW #11 - 108 Mantra Recitations

So many people told me that they enjoyed last week's introduction to mantras, so for this Mindfulness Practice of the Week (MPOW), we will focus on another aspect on mantras. Maintaining the count. In traditional Buddhist and Hindu practices, a mala or garland of prayer beads is often used to help keep count. This week I encourage you to practice without the aid of a Mala. This allows you to combine the useful mindfulness practice of counting with that of reciting mantras.

The magic number for the recitation is 108. Why 108 you ask? (Yes, everyone asks.) Destination Om has an excellent post on many answers to Why 108? from many different traditions. Among the reasons:
Swami Muktananda explains it perfectly, clearly and precise when describing the heart as the source of the infinite and our connection with the divine and God. From the heart there are 108 MAIN nadis (veins) that go from the heart to all the [extremities] and after reciting a mantra 108 times you have purified your body. In this way a meditator can see the importance in reciting mantra.
Another interesting one: "8 extra beads: In doing a practice of counting the number of repetitions of the mala, 100 are counted as completed. The remaining are said to cover errors or omissions. The 8 are also said to be an offering to God and Guru."

One interpretation that I really like is described in the Wikipedia article on Buddhist Prayer Beads. For this one, each recitation is for a particular purpose. You may choose to dedicate a mantra recitation to each of the 108 permutations in turn.

In traditional Buddhist thought, people are said to have 108 afflictions or klesas. There are six senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and consciousness) multiplied by three reactions (positive, negative, or indifference) making 18 "feelings." Each of these feelings can be either "attached to pleasure or detached from pleasure" making 36 "passions", each of which may be manifested in the past, present, or future. All the combinations of all these things makes a total of 108....

The Mindfulness Practice of the Week

Enter your meditative position, and as you relax, allow your breath to come to a natural pace, where you're not intentionally elongating it nor tightening it. Allow it to free itself of any stresses or obligations. Choose your mantra--if you're new to mantras, I encourage you to read last week's introduction to mantras. Begin reciting, maintaining a count in your head (without help of beads or another counting system). You may practice whether it makes sense for you to count before, during, or after the mantra.

Continue the count until 108. At this point, you may choose to stop meditating, continue in a different meditation, or continue for another 108, for an indefinite period of time, or whatever works for you. I tend to find that after 108 practices of the mantra, that I am very relaxed and have managed to shut off my brain. I then just enjoy that state of meditation (or samadhi) for a while, until I naturally decide to exit. Though I know, continuing to 108 is not always easy, but don't worry about that.

You may lose count several times. It is very natural to do so. If you're feeling very dedicated, when you catch yourself losing count, start over. It is also fine to choose to continue where you think that you left off. An important part of the mindfulness practice is to contemplate why you lost track and how you decided to course correct. What does it say about where you are right now? Starting over might mean that you are very dedicated, or a purist, or a perfectionist, or a masochist, or any number of other things. Not starting over might mean that you are very practical, or on a time crunch, or lazy, or just going through the motions. Debating these things in your mind might be an imbalance of the intellect or ego trying to run the show. I have seen all of these things and more within myself.

This post is dedicated to the folks at Samadhi Yoga studio in Seattle's Capital Hill. This studio focuses on all aspects of yoga, balancing, physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual practices. This studio is where I learn new mantras, including this counting practice today.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

When the Going Gets Awkward

When we're new to a path, we often find it pretty difficult to relate with family, friends, colleagues, and strangers. This is certainly true when we embark on a spiritual path.

Fortunately, we also form strong bonds of friendships as we meet people along our paths. Erica Knight has been an important friend for me discussing mindfulness, happiness, and how to have a meaningful life. These conversations often illuminate me because she challenges everything on her path, which is similar to mine, yet still uniquely hers. This constantly pushes me to rethink and re-contemplate. Much of the content on this blog comes from my discussions with Erica.

We both experiment with the mindfulness practices espoused in Buddhism, in Taoism, by Tolle, etc. and report back on how they work for us. We both comment about the awkwardness of the path, especially when they contradict societal maxims. Having lived in this society, attachment, judgment, desire, and suffering-in-the-face-of-hardship seem to be so naturally human. On the other hand, spirituality teaches us to favor non-attachment, non-judgment, renunciation, and avoidance of suffering. Is this dehumanizing or transcendent? Pondering this is a valuable mindfulness practice, especially as practicing the spiritual teachings puts us at odds with others.

Goodness knows I have gone through some pretty embarrassing moments when I first began living by new ideals, and still sometimes now and again. I have come to interpret these times as challenges to grow my practice stronger through perseverance and contemplation. I have to learn how to fit new realizations with my nature, rather than just adopt them from a book or example. There are a few lessons learned along the way that make it easier.

First of all, it helps to have a definition of spirituality -- or whatever word you choose -- that fits your style, something that you can say comfortably. I define spirituality as "meaningful living," and I view it as orthogonal to religiosity. It is connecting at a deep level with my own spirit or soul or Being or me-ness or I am; this transfers to connecting with the spirits of others. When you communicate about it, you will be more comfortable with the words that fit you, though I encourage you not to place too much into the words themselves. It is sort of like clothing. If you're from Texas you may be comfortable in a cowboy hat and boots, if you're from Luzon you may be comfortable in a barong, and if you're from Oahu you may be comfortable in a grass skirt. Try wearing these things out of your element, and you will both feel and look funny to others. Spirituality is the same way. So you see, the clothing is a metaphor, and actually the choice of words is an even subtler metaphor. It's not the choice of words, it is the comfort with them.

Another important thing to note is that spiritual or mindful living (whatever you want to call it) is a skill just like any other. When you're first starting out, you don't really know how to incorporate it into your life yet. You copy from books or other examples and it seems unnatural to others because it is unnatural to you. It is like learning to play the piano; nobody wants to hear your playing at first (except for your teachers, maybe) because you're still on the very basics, you still make mistakes, and you have not developed your own style, yet. Can you really expect that your Chopsticks-level spiritual practice is going to be super-inspiring? Bear with it until you know how to live this way. Its actually quite rewarding to work through this phase.

There are a number of other issues that you might bump up against. Here are a few of the common ones.
  1. People you have known for a while may feel your change as a form of judgment. Even though you may have honestly made a complete change to non-judgment (hard, hard, hard), a spiritual practice often comes across as self-righteous and obnoxious. By changing your view of the world and refusing to interact in the same way as previously, this can be upsetting to people we love who see our changes as challenging their ways of life. This concept is explored in the New York Times opinion piece Being and Mindfulness.
  2. If you're like many people, you may often err on the side of proselytizing. After learning something new and very useful, it is natural to want to share this with friends, family, and others who might think that you sound like an obnoxious lecturer. The lessons of Consoling Wisely need to be taken into account here, especially: "When you communicate your views, do so casually and in a nondogmatic manner. Allow the people you speak with to ask questions. Offer only as much information as they are ready to hear." From the Daily Om's Expanding Their Vision.
  3. You may find difficulty relating to people with whom you previously spent a lot of time ranting and complaining. When you engage in the practices of positivity and non-judgment, complaint-based relationships are no longer as interesting to you. So it seems that you would no longer be able to relate to these friends. But perhaps, this is a challenge to learn to be compassionate along with them, acknowledge their suffering, and connect with them based on who they are rather than an mutual grudges. This is much easier said than done, I know. I often catch myself in the complaining side of things and can commiserate with others.

All in all, where it may feel that spiritual practices are isolating and solitary, even dehumanizing, they are really the contrary. By following a practice of compassion and loving-kindness, you begin to notice the interconnectedness of everything, even the amount of people that it takes to bring A Pistachio to your table. Matthieu Ricard addresses this eloquently in Happiness:
But how, you might ask, can I avoid being shattered when my child is sick and I know he's going to die? How can I not be torn up at the sight of thousands of civilian war victims being deported or mutilated? Am I supposed to stop feeling? What could ever make me accept something like that? Who wouldn't be affected by it, including the most serene of wise men? The difference between the sage and the ordinary person is that the former can feel unconditional love for those who suffer and do everything in his power to attenuate their pain without allowing his lucid vision of existence to be shaken. The essential thing is to be available to others without giving in to despair when the natural episodes of life and death follow their course.
This post is dedicated to my close friend and mindfulness companion Erica Knight. A lot of the concepts in this blog come from realizations made during conversations with her where she challanges my practices, holding me accountable to live the most meaningful life that I can live. She helps maintain humanity and grounding into spiritual practices, keeping me away from purely intellectual and theoretical understandings.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Stories Define Reality

"Never let the truth ruin a good story." - Mark Twain

Storytelling is one of our most deep set traditions for entertainment and information sharing. We are told that the best storytellers in villages are the most revered. They are respected for their experience and wisdom. Our brains are wired to consume information through stories. As Daniel Pink points out in A Whole New Mind, "Stories are easier to remember [than isolated factoids]--because in many ways, stories are how we remember. 'Narrative imagining--story--is the fundamental instrument of thought,' writes cognitive scientist mark Turner in his book The Literary Mind. 'Rational capacities depend on it. it is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining... Most of our experience, our knowledge and our thinking is organized as stories."

Be careful with your stories, because just as Words are Powerful, they are especially so when shaped in stories. Philosophers and psychologists have long held that our realities are created internally in our minds. This also shows up a lot in popular arts, such as the wonderful movie Big Fish. The Matrix (movie) delves a lot into how the mind can be fed stories to shape our realities. Since reality is all about the stories that we tell ourselves, the stories that we tell ourselves become our truth.

Stories are shaping
We often tell ourselves stories and metaphors that shape how we behave. Did we tell the story that we were wronged? If so, we act wronged, we act like a victim, we think of the other person as cruel or evil. On the other hand, if we tell a story to ourselves casting the other person as confused and upset, as trapped, we can instead have sympathy for the person. In the movie Slumdog Millionaire, the main characters, as brothers, lose their parents as children and grow up in the slums, being beaten and tormented regularly. They survice by clawing and scratching their way to a meager existence, until they learn to steal for their bread. Once you know this back story, it is much easier to have compassion for them than if you simply saw they stealing your shoes.

Stories are limiting

When we wrap a story around something, it tricks us into believing that we understand what is going on. We give one or a few reasons to the back-story, whereas ultimately the situation is unknowable in its entirety. It is infinitely broad and deep, and only a part of it can be played out. I see this a lot like asking a "Do you want to do X?" question and looking for a yes-or-no response. Ultimately we have to make the yes or no choice, but the people witnessing the decision may think it means something very cut and dry, when there are actually a lot of factors at play -- see the Mind as a Committee metaphor.

Untelling our stories
Recently, I discussed the nature of stories with my close friend and fraternity brother Josiah Seale. He brought up the idea of "untelling our stories". Wow, what a powerful notion. One of the ways that we do this is by learning enough or understanding enough to replace the old stories with new stories. In counseling terms, this is the important step of resolving the past in the present. This is possible to do whether the parties of the stories are still alive and available or if they are not. It is also possible to just let the stories resolve and to not take them personally (one of the Four Agreements of don Miguel Ruiz). At the end of the day, what happened, happened. This sometimes makes us uncomfortable, which is a wonderful challenge for us as warriors of loving-kindness, learning how to Lean Into Discomfort.

This post is dedicated to my close college friend, Josiah Seale, who inspires in how he lives his life. He lives his unique life first, while at the same time having compassion for others.