practice as real life

 

On the mat.

 

On the cushion.

 

In the kitchen.

 

In relationships.

 

Everything is a path.

 

These paths are an education in how to be:

 

  • responsive instead of being reactive
  • open to what’s really happening
  • less fearful of how things might turn out
  • less clingy to how you wish things were
  • more skillful in communicating
  • more compassionate to self and others

 

Diligence in one area impacts the others like ripples on a pond.   From downward dog to doing the dishes, each path is a route that can lead to deep awakening with awareness and intention.

 

 

.

withholding judgment revisited

Today I had an amazing opportunity to practice “withholding judgment”.  

 

In a small exam room, I was overseeing a group of students who, due to any number of physical or cognitive challenges, were being assessed in a smaller, quieter space away from the large auditorium of exam writers.

 

Some of the student behaviour I witnessed was completely expected and predictable for this demographic of students.  Forgetting pencils, rulers and calculators. Despite reminders, forgetting to turn off their phones, or not taking hats and jackets off. Forgetting that they were not to view their exam before formal instructions were given to do so.

 

All of these instances occurred even though this exam would have been their 10th or 11th exam written with precisely the same expectations and the same instructions given each and every single time.

 

When Judgment Comes

 

When one student began to spend a lot of time looking down at her hands in her lap, my mind jumped right to she’s “trying to get away with something” and I have an ethical obligation to stop her and then silently (or not so silently) judge her for her lack of a moral compass.

 

On the heels of an intense, two-day Threat & Risk Assessment Training Session, I learned more about the power of non-emotional, non-judgmental data collection so I put “withholding judgment” into practice in a concrete way that a detective might do.

 

But, also as a fan of the rule-of-thumb to “trust but verify”, I first asked the student to keep her hands and eyes on her desk and then, on a piece of paper in front me, I wrote down the following three words:

 

Curiosity
Context
Compassion

 

 

Curiosity

 

I watched, noticed and asked questions about each student in the room.

 

One student looked as white as a ghost and bleary-eyed. I wonder if he got any sleep at all last night?

 

Why, with so many questions to answer, is this other student writing on her shoe then looking blankly off into the distance for long periods of time?

How could this student come to an exam without a pencil, a ruler and without a calculator despite being instructed to arrive with those very items for two years in a row?

 

Context

 

A diagnosis is not prescriptive but can be helpful for educators to organize information about how a student learns and then implement appropriate support. And anxiety exacerbates symptoms.  Students with any challenges (learning, physical, behavioural or mental) will almost always see a rise in their symptoms when anxiety is added to the mix.  The behaviour of a student who is struggling with the learning expectations is, again, completely expected and predictable.

 

Compassion

 

With curiosity and context, compassion just naturally follows.
If a student’s list of strengths (academic or personal) is shorter that his or her list of lagging skills (academic or personal), then they will struggle. No question. And no surprise.

 

The student with a long list of lagging skills needs compassion, not discipline. They need understanding and side-by-side guidance, not condemnation.  Lagging skills is not a moral issues.  It’s a skills issues.

 

With these three simple steps in only a matter of minutes, I had travelled a long way down the road from seeing the students as “trying to get away with something” to students doing the best they have with the skills that they have already developed and despite the many that they have not yet developed.

 

Judgment was withheld for only a few short minutes while I collected data, most of which was already in the filing cabinets in my brain stored under the
heading of “You Know This Already!”.

 

The most significant difference I noticed was how the shift felt in my body.  I felt physically lighter.   Letting go of quick judgment and criticism, I felt an ease in my breathing and a release in overall tension.  I could let go of the moralizing and support their effort with more compassion.

 

One small step only, I know.  But this is how practice works.

 

I also know that the real challenge will be to translate this into my more intimate relationships because those people know where I’ve tied my goat.

 

But still, it is one small step in the direction of freedom from the tyranny of judgment.

 

And towards a practice of curiosity, context and compassion.

 

 

withholding judgment

This is, by far, the most challenging part of my practice, currently. And my life.  Since forever.

My reaction is often swift, heavy-handed and, in my own distorted mind, is completely justified because it is based solely on principle. The principle according to me.

 

 

My yoga/ meditation practice shines a glaring light on this ingrained, reactionary habit. When I sit, the judgments come. When I don’t sit, they also come. When I label my thoughts, the judgments come. When I watch my breath…well, you get it.

Then when I enter the world outside my practice space and interact with other humans, the judgments are there just as swiftly and cause discord and conflict in my relationships. And this is true whether or not the judgments are even spoken aloud. The mere thoughts of judgment can create waves of reaction that spread.

My ability to quickly evaluate people and situations is actually quite helpful in my work. Reading a student’s expressions or evaluating a possible motive for errant behaviour is beneficial to the method of problem-solving I choose to implement with a student.

But, as soon as I create a story based on a judgment, then comes my undeniable attachment to that story. And the defensiveness when the story is challenged.

I genuinely wish to nurture a non-judgmental mind because the majority of my moments and my relationships are NOT about solving problems. At all.  Nor are they about fixing what I see as the errant behaviour of others.

 

Oh to be soft and receptive enough to accept all beings I encounter with a touch of grace and humour.  To see their quirks and oddities with curiosity and compassion, not instant judgment.  To free myself from the tyranny of reaction.

 

Frustration, irritation and even some good old-fashioned anger are signs that I’m holding on to a story created by my judgement of how I think things are. This area needs sustained attention. Even if the judgment is based on principle. Even if I am right. Did I mention that I most often think I’m right?

I’m grateful for my practice.  It encourages me (with all my oddities) to pause, take a breath, withhold judgement and befriend myself as a work in progress again and again and again.  The “again and again and again” part IS the practice.

So today, I begin.  Again.  And again.

 

 

the matter of grey matter

The mighty mind.  The brilliant brain.  Where grey matter matters.

Many of us view our minds as the essence of who we truly are.  The ‘real’ us. Thereby relegating our bodies to the role of receptacles that house our ever-important thoughts, ideas, visions and brainwaves.

Our minds are the mighty monster machines that leap moments in a single bound; jumping from past to future faster than a speeding bullet.

But our bodies cannot be anywhere else but here. They can’t drift off on fantastical adventures. They are rooted here. They root us here. They are tailor-made for the present moment.

Think of a time when your mind was drifting off from what was in front of you to somewhere else. Then, all of a sudden, a physical discomfort, or tickle or itch brought you back to the moment where the discomfort, tickle or itch actually existed.  Brought you back to your body that was still right where your mind left it to wonder, desire, fret, consider or ruminate.

Trying to think of being in the present moment or attempting to will yourself to be present doesn’t work. Believe me, I’ve tried. The present moment is not in your mind.  Its waiting for you to be discovered in your body.

 

 

Sitting, breathing and settling your restless mind on the grounded-ness of your body is a start to discovering the present moment right there in your body, in your breath.

In this way, the body is like a magnet, pulling the present moment to you and gently inviting your mind to come in. To come in, settle in and rest.

Even right now, this very second, let your mind rest on the breath moving through your body, filling and emptying.

By noticing the breath moving in your body, the present moment is magnetically drawn to you. Your body, firmly rooted in the present, invites, this moment to stop by for a visit.

And the body continues to greet you each time your wandering mind recognizes the breath’s movement, stops to engage and watch then choosing to sit for a moment with it.

  

 

made you look

 

What do you see when you’re not looking?

I was recently driving by a large group of high-school students who were milling about and what cut through the uniformity of the bravado in baggy jeans was a young couple, in the midst of the crowd, motionlessly embracing each other.  There was absolutely nothing unique about them so why did they become the focal point?   It may be reasonable to assume that my attention might have also as easily rested on two people engaging in a fist-fight.  Or a solitary individual sitting alone just outside the hub of the group.  Something different.

 

But I still wondered why that particular snapshot of life grabbed my attention which led me to wonder what other things draw me in.

What grabs your attention in the sea of competing images?

Or what has the power to pull your attention from the backdrop of the ordinary?  A sudden noise, bright colour, shiny object, unexpected movement or something incongruous and obviously out-of-place?

And what is it that gets your adrenaline flowing and the nervous system ramped up to buzzing or even just something that tugs the emotions up closer to the surface?

Is it the unexpected eruption of raucous laughter?  Seeing a police car behind you even when you’re driving within the speed limit.  Or an accident on the side of the road.  Is it the unabashed display of emotion at an airport arrival gate?

If we know that these unique interruptions in the monotone daily pattern draws our attention, is there a chance that we use this same technique to get attention from others?

Do we proclaim loudly that we absolutely don’t want any attention but then still send up brightly-coloured smoke signals to be noticed?  Perhaps we stand out in the crowd with:

  •  the flash of over-achieving competence?    
  • the discordant noise of barely-adaptive dysfunction?

 

 

The bigger question is why do we want that attention?

To answer that question, we may need to sit with the following two questions:

 

Who makes you look?

What do you do to make others look?

 

 

the myth of living in the moment

There was time when I would easily fall into a stony-eyed stare around people who used the language of ‘living in the moment‘. Even as someone who had been meditating for many years, I would secretly rebel with thoughts like

“if you only knew what I was going through right now

or

if you could just spend one day at my job and with all my responsibilities, you would see that I don’t have time to live in the moment”.

Eventually, the chronic irritability, stress-aches, frequent illnesses and general dis-ease of my life led to me to question whether or not I was missing something.

Through continued meditation, yoga, the reading of wisdom literature from many traditions and conversations with others who were walking with the same questions and resistances, I found a place where I could consider releasing my cold, judgmental stare.  It was a micro-start.  A work in progress, to be sure.

The place I found was one where I realized that ‘living in the moment‘ does not mean bearing witness to every single moment as free of stress and discomfort. It does not mean a constant evaluation, categorizing, dissecting and cataloging of my moments to see how they could be made more livable, more acceptable and even easier to manage then share with others.

Attending to this moment means that I see it with soft eyes, not searchlight eyes. Receptive eyes to what is really in front of me and to sit with whatever response comes from it.

But living in each moment is not really reasonable. There are simply too many of them. They come too quickly and leap frog over each other as we tumble and stumble through our days. This reality calls for a bit of intention.  We can select a few moments each day when we choose to stop, sit, soften, notice and receive the moment just as it is.

Maybe the first moments of wakefulness in the morning. Or just before falling asleep. Or at a stop light. Or doing the dishes. Sitting quietly on a porch with a cup of coffee. Choosing to add some moments of meditation to your day.

This is as close to ‘living in the moment’ as I can get. Some moments. Some days. It is what it is.

 

attention

Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.  

(Albert Einstein)

As a teacher, I am well-acquainted with the terms of attention. I am first a magician who must mesmerize students with something that will keep their attention long enough to relay some information that is on my agenda. Then a salesperson who must demonstrate the value of acquiring attention as a beneficial life-long skill.  And finally an educator whose aim is to share a strong, passionate belief in the amazing power of attention.

But what can I say to students about the transformative power of attention in a world where they are constantly being called to attention and then shamed for not being able to pay attention long enough only to get an earful of seemingly useless information? To them, the word attention is loaded with expectation, compromise and perhaps even boredom.

 

The word “attend” means “to expect, wait for, pay attention,” and directly from Latin attendere “give heed to,” literally “to stretch toward”. 

 

With the intention of occasionally closing young mouths while not closing young minds, I begin each class with a few minutes of corporate silence as a way to ask my students, ‘in your actions and your words, to what are you attending? Stretching your mind toward? In this moment, what are you expecting?

The practice of intentional stillness and silence is a struggle for most of them but a welcome break for others.

 

After the silence, I ask:

  • Are you fixating on the details in the fabric? 
  • Measuring each moment with a hyper-vigilant awareness? 
  • Stretching your mind to some perceived perfect place? 
  • Or is your mind an aimless wanderer on a journey to nowhere? 
  • Or have you not even noticed where your attention has settled? 
  • Or quite possibly, are you not able to name the several dozen places your attention has quickly travelled before I have finished asking the question?

 

While there is no right answer to these questions, there is space for students to become of aware of their intuitive or learned style of attention.  And the impact of it.

With the intention of reducing the weightiness of paying attention, what about replacing the word ‘attention’ with observe? Or notice? And with learning to sit with experience with less scrutiny and more openness to what is?

Teachers and parents, can we take some of the weight off the word ‘attention’, add the invitation to observe and notice instead and see if it transforms the ability of our children to be present?  Let’s encourage them to genuinely and gently notice their world as opposed to mentally documenting it, passively disengaging or restless running from what is in front of them.  And more importantly, can we model that for them?

 

 

You can become blind by seeing each day as a similar one. Each day is a different one, each day brings a miracle of its own. It’s just a matter of paying attention to this miracle. (Paulo Coelho)

 

 

 

3 steps to pacify the panic

As a young student, I quite enjoyed going to school. Despite my social awkwardness (and maybe because of it), I was able to achieve relative academic success especially in tasks that allowed me to work alone. I had never considered myself slow to process information but I do recall that the subject where my comprehension was the lowest and slowest was the one that coincidentally caused the most personal panic. Math! Ugh!

Math seemed much more like a foreign language to me than French ever did and, for some reason, Math had the added element of time pressure.

 

Pen en papier / Pen and paper

I can still recall sitting round-shouldered over my math facts sheet and gripping my pencil too firmly with sweaty fingers while a humourless teacher/ drill sargeant strutted through the room with stopwatch and counting down the time remaining. I’d quite literally freeze. Letting my head fall on my desk, I’d be numb, barely breathing until the litany of stories about why I was stuck began. “I’m stupid”. “I can’t learn Math”. “He is a terrible teacher.” And the downward cycle of fear and failure was in full gear leading nowhere fast.

This past week, I wasn’t working on math but in the process of breaking old patterns, learning new skills and some self-imposed due dates and deadlines, I was suddenly back in 7th grade at my desk writing a Math test. I did not enjoy being thirteen years old the first time so was not about to re-live that age of adolescent angst as a, for the most part, high-functioning adult. But ever-so-subtly, the disquieting panic began building until it developed into the full-fledged discomfort of a houseguest that would not leave!

After a few days in a deep-freeze of panic, I decided to warm my icy nerves with three steps to begin the thawing process and move me from overwhelmed to okay. Perhaps these steps will help others who are prone to panic when their time seems to be running out.

1. Observe Your Body

Observing takes a commitment to being still. Even with deadlines looming and the expectations of others in the balance, noticing where the panic is settling in your body will not be clear in the midst of fussing and fidgeting. While indulging in activities intended to numb or distract, your awareness to your body’s sensations is in slumber-mode. Sit comfortably and do a slow, simple body-scan. Begin at the top of your head and move downwards. Where are you tight? Where is there discomfort? For me it’s a deep buzzing sensation in my solar plexus. It’s a constant heavy hum that makes taking a deep calming breath challenging.

2. Breathe To Your Capacity

This breathing exercise works best when you are lying on your back stretched out. If you feel that you don’t have time for this exercise, check to see how much time has become unproductive or lost to the frozen-feet syndrome. Once on your back, you may feel a temporary increase in heart rate or a feeling of being exposed. This is common. Breathe as naturally as possible to give your body, mind and breath a chance to settle.

      • Place your hands on your lower abdomen with middle fingers on either side of your navel. Breathing slowly and evenly through your nose, fill your belly with air, allowing your lower abdomen to rise and separate your middle fingers from each other. Exhale slowly and evenly through your nose, allowing your belly to collapse and your middle fingers to come back closer together. Do this for three full breaths. Return to natural breathing.

 

      • Next, place your hands at the base of your rib cage with the webbing between your thumb and first finger on your side body. Thumbs will point toward your back and fingers will be on the front of your abdomen. Using the same method of nose breathing, inhale slowly and evenly until your ribs expand sideways allowing your side body to rise into the webbing between your thumbs and first fingers. Do this three times deeply then return to natural breathing.

 

      • Third, place pads of your fingers directly below your collarbone and find the tender spots between your collarbone and uppermost part of your rib cage. Using the same method of breathing, inhale slowly and evenly to fill your abdomen all the way up to your finger tips. Work to see if you can cause your fingertips to rise slightly with your breath. Repeat three times deeply then return to a regular breathing pattern.

 

If you feel comfortable with this process, the next step would be to do draw the breath to all three places in one breath starting with the lower abdomen, to the side body, then to the upper chest. But even simply doing the first step of three deep breaths in each area brings me immediately to a state of calm. And being calm is necessary for the next step to pacifying the panic.

3.  Prove-Proof Your Space

I once read a book by Anne Lamott who was giving advice to writers whose tendency to self-edit resulted in low productivity. She suggested putting the “voices” that make up your inner critic in a mason jar and screwing the lid on tightly until the task at hand is completed. Choose any voice that is asking you to prove your worth to them. These voices may be clearly attached to a person, past or present, or may be a collective voice of all those who caused you to question your value. If it helps, keep an actual jar in front of you as a token of your determination to quiet the panic that comes from constantly trying to prove yourself.

This week, after I noticed the jackhammer hum in my solar plexus, the telltale sign for me that panic wants to keep me stuck, I did the three-part breathing exercise then I jarred the voice of my inner critic. Since then, the fuzzy-headed feeling has dissipated, the spiral of negative thinking has ceased and the frozen feet have thawed.  And for the moment, I am unstuck.

Meditation

This has become my standard practice and you may find that one or more of the steps works for you. Or maybe you have your own methods. Do tell!

How do you pacify your panic?

 

pattern interrupted

 

We each contain within us a multitude of patterns and unconscious reactions. They’re often thinly disguised in thoughts and phrases such as “I can’t help it, this is who I am”.  Or perhaps they come to light in a moment of “Why do I always do that?” or when we catch ourselves consistently and insistently complaining about a particularly annoying person or event.

But what if a pattern is no longer beneficial and even becomes a hindrance to our growth and prevents us living freely, then what?  What if a pattern is trapping us in our own Groundhog Day experience? Or if it becomes a pleasingly patterned yet hard-to-penetrate and limiting brick wall?

Patterns

The point is to interrupt the pattern. Whenever a pattern is interrupted, there is a moment of awareness (often accompanied by a moment of panic). That interruption gives you a moment to see or exercise another possibility.–Ken McLeod, Buddhist teacher and writer

Four Steps to Pattern Interruption

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with using these four steps in response to the regular fall-out of my own pattern of staying hyper-busy/ compulsively over-working.

1.  Notice
2.  Uncover
3.  Re-Write
4.  Repeat

Notice
This may be easier for some patterns than others.  For me, the “work” pattern has become clear to me by way of a frantic mind, an oft-weakened immune system and chronic irritation that results when I work to exhaustion.  According to Ken McLeod, interrupting the pattern requires pausing just before the pattern is repeated instead of staying in a trance.  This will be a challenge since my tendency to overwork sort of steamrolls right over pauses.  Meditation has definitely been helpful in disengaging the pause-crushing steamroller and creating more space for noticing.

Uncover
Using the 5 Why’s to uncover the underlying story that informs my pattern has been quite useful for me.  Sometimes I can even rationalize up until almost 10 why’s.

I can’t stop working right now, I’m too busy!
Why?

Because I have this job/ task that must/should be finished.
Why?

Because I’ve already started and it is easier to just push through and finish it before I take a break.
Why?

Because I’d feel better, once I was resting, to not have to see the unfinished task in front of me.  I’d be much more relaxed if it was just finished.
Why?

Because I’d feel guilty sitting down when there’s work still to be done.
Why?

Because I feel valuable when I am productive and get work finished. My value stems from how much I accomplish.

BINGO!

My hidden story is that I believe my value is based on how much I accomplish so my value, in my mind, goes up the harder I work. Clearly there’s a deeper back-story there but, in order to maintain focus, let’s just leave that for when there’s time for self-reflection later and now consider the next step.

Re-Write
The story of “work = value” is an interesting one but is far from liberating and not one that I want to have as a silent director of my actions and decisions. Time for a re-write of that old script.  New script says “Working or not, productive or not, I have value”.  


Repeat
To make even a dent in the ancient story I’ve held to as truth for so long, this new script will need to be be expressed verbally every day until it becomes the new pattern.  New decisions will be based on the freedom of choice, not within the confines of a claustrophobic story.

I’m famously stubborn so this process might take longer for me than it does you.  I already caught myself pushing stoically through to the end of writing this post without taking a break when my mind and body were asking for one.  And this is only one of my patterns!

One pattern, one step at time.