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I'm a notoriously fast eater. One reason is, I'm generally not much of a conversationalist, so I don't spend a lot of time chatting during mealtime. But here's the other reason, and this may sound familiar to you, either because you do it, or you recognize it on other people:
During one bite, I'm usually busy preparing the next bite. So it goes like this. I scoop up a mouthful, shove it on in there, and then while I'm chewing that mouthful, my fork is busy piling up the next mouthful, my eyes and tastebuds eagerly looking forward to it. And then once that one gets lifted to my mouth, the fork and the eyes and the salivary glands get busy again working on the next one. It can go that way for the entire meal. I want the next bite so much, but then once I've got it, I immediately ignore it and start focusing on the next one. Each bite ends up acting primarily as an impediment, and obstacle to overcome to get to the next one. And then at the end, voila, I've eaten the whole meal, and haven't really been present for any of it. I look down at the empty plate and think, "What the hell happened?" I don't remember enjoying any of it, because when I had a chance to enjoy it, to focus on the bite in my mouth and really taste it, in the present moment, with all of my attention, I was instead off in the future. 15 seconds into the future, granted, but still in the future, unable to enjoy the bounty of experience available to me in the moment.
Does this sound familiar?
It happens a lot. And not only during eating. We can, if we're not careful, be caught lingering on the proverbial "next bite" during any activity we engage in. Mindfulness teachers have a term for this, called "leaning". You're not really here, because you're leaning into the next moment, rushing through whatever you're doing right now, in order to get to the next thing.
Not insignificantly, I notice this a lot while I'm walking, and during walking, the leaning manifests itself physically as well as mentally. My whole body involuntarily tilts ahead, like the Tower of Pisa, propelling my body forward, to get wherever I'm going. If there's anything to enjoy about the walking process, it's lost on me, because my mind is firmly ensconced in the future, in my destination, and everything leading up to it is just a hassle, a chore, valueless in itself except as a necessity to reach the goal.
And of course, once the destination is reached, I can start leaning again to the next thing. Rush to the next bite, rush to the next bite. Get this over with, to get to that. Once that is this, get this over with to get to the next that. You can spend your whole day this way. You can spend your whole life this way.
Does this sound familiar?
We're X, we were at A, we want to get to B.
There are hundreds of books about thousands of techniques for using mindfulness to reach the endless freedom and joy in the present moment. Sitting meditations, walking meditations, tricks, tips, techniques, all of it. All very useful, but if you want to get to the bare essence of all of them, it is simply the practice of taking our minds off of the concepts of A and B, of where we were, and where we're trying to get, and simply attending to where we are, and what we are doing, right now, right here. Because there's always a new destination hiding in wait behind the old one, and if you wait to get to the end before you stop and experience life, you'll miss it entirely, because you never, ever get there. There is no there, there is only here. There is no then, there is only now. Forever.
You know what this "leaning" feels like. It is most prominent when we're doing chores which we don't want to be doing, that are keeping us from the fun thing which we'll get to do afterwards. Think of washing the dishes after dinner before sitting down to read or watch a movie. You wish you didn't have to, you don't want to be doing it, you think it has nothing inherently of value to offer you, so you rush through it. You lean. If this example doesn't ring familiar, think of an example from your own life. Walking from your car to your office is a perfect example. Or, as I've already discussed, commuting.
Whenever you feel it, that's a marvelous signal to practice taking yourself out of the hamster wheel, out of the hypnotic pull of leaning toward the next thing, and plant yourself firmly in the present, and start living your life fully, right now, right here.
One set of commands, offered to myself time and time again, have proven to be the most effective set of instructions to help me do this, anytime I notice I'm leaning, notice I'm somewhere else. I'd like to offer them to you here, in the event that these instructions also help you learn to taste the boundless joy and freedom to be found right here, right now. It goes like this:
Slow down, smile, do what you're doing.
Anytime I'm lost in the future, anytime I'm rushing through something to get to the next thing, I offer these three suggestions to myself, as soon as I realize what's going on. Slow down, smile, do what you're doing. I'll briefly expand on each of them:
Slow down: This can be a quite literal slowing down of whatever activity you're involved in, but also includes realizing that you're leaning, and pulling yourself back up straight. In my walking example above, it's as literal as much as figurative, as I stop pushing forward with long, ambitious strides, slow my gait, stand up straight, and start taking slower, gentler steps. But it can be tailored to whatever activity you're involved with. Washing dishes, you slow your movements in the sink. Brushing your teeth, you make your strokes more deliberate. Eating, drop your fork, and chew in measured bites. Whatever it is you're rushing through, slow it down.
Smile: I'm not talking about a goofy, wide-eyed, toothy grin here. I know it sounds a little too cutesy, but smiling does have a calming, soothing effect on your mind. Just a soft little half-smile will do. Even a "smile intention", a "mental smile" will do. The purpose is to come back to the present moment and greet it kindly, like an old friend who you realize you were distanced from, but are happy to see again. Even if it sounds dumb, I implore you not to knock it until you've tried it.
Do what you're doing: You've slowed down, you've greeted the present moment with a smile. Now, get back to what you were doing, but let that be your main focus. If you are walking, have your attention fully on your walking. If you're doing dishes, pay close attention to all of the sensations involved with the process. If you're sitting quietly, experience the sitting quietly as fully as you can. This one can be restated quite simply as: "One thing at a time". Don't do this to get to that. Just do this. That will come along in time, at which time you will do that. But for now, just do this, without rushing, without leaning, without being pulled along by the destination. Freed from the imprisonment of your concepts of A and B, you come to realize the many pleasures and joys of doing whatever it is you're doing right now, which were there the whole time, but hidden from view. This is the essence of the practice.
This is the practice.
Slow down, smile, and do what you're doing.
I've done a good job lately with two things. The first thing is healing myself and pushing ever forward on the path of peace, contentment, and happiness. The second thing is confusing myself.
All of these words, those that I've written, those that I've read (and I've read a lot lately), and the droves more which I bandy about in my mind all day long trying to figure out the un-figure-out-able, perfect the imperfectable, all of these words have just confused the living hell out of me. Not to mention the ones I'm writing right here. And here.
I realized this today when I was hit by a torrent of craving, one which I've tried to stave off time and time again, but which continues to provide one of my greatest challenges. As with all of these challenges, my very first instinct when they arise is now to say thank you to the challenge, because only through coming face to face with these challenges can we find our way through them.
But, then what? I've read about and contemplated and written about so many techniques, so many precepts and suggestions and guided meditations and pathways and methods that I found myself paralyzed, completely awash in self-doubt, second-guessing, and confusion. They all sound very good (and are very good, and are all extremely helpful for various reasons) and make a lot of sense when you're sitting by the pool. But no plan survives first contact with the enemy. There I was. Torn up and twisted, this waterfall of well-meaning words cascading through my mind, so unrelenting that I nearly drowned.
The realization naturally followed that I think we need a reliable starting point. One single direction to take with us, an emergency first-aid kit as we go into the world, subject ourselves to it, are subjected to it. Something which we can say, whatever it is that's happening, start here.
So here it is. Start here:
I'm fond of saying "happiness, now or never". Happiness can never happen in the future, only right now. You can wait around for external circumstances to become just right for momentarily causing your conditioned responses to generate some happiness, or you can pick up the syringe and inject it directly into the moment yourself, whenever, or whatever it is. Happiness, now or never. And the first and best way to enter that path is kindness. Towards yourself, and toward every experience in your field of awareness.
The craving arises. The pain arrives. The old well-known adversary of your choice pops back to taunt you again. Just throw out as much kindness and compassion as you can muster towards yourself. You did not choose to feel this pain, but it's there, and you are as deserving of compassion as anyone else. Kindness for your pain, too. Watch the craving, the need, watch it course through your body. Shower those feelings with kindness too. This pain is your pain is the world's pain. What you're feeling is felt by millions of others. Throw more and more kindness at them too, as they are part of you, their pain is part of you. Nothing is separate in this world, and it all needs the warmth of as much kindness as you can pump out.
"But what if I give in to it?" Don't care. Kindness.
Start there. And then stay there. The actions you take afterward are unimportant, as long as they are bathed in the light of a constant stream of loving-kindness which you are pumping out with as much might as you can muster.
This is the work of cultivating a positive, healing, calm state of mind. We spend so much time on diet plans and gyms to strengthen our bodies, we've almost completely ignored our mind. Without cultivation, it is far too easy for it to be conditioned into negative routines. A "groove" is formed in the mind, like a stream cutting a path down a mountainside. Negative reactions, negative outlooks create more of the same.
By turning to kindness over and over as problems arise, and even as problems pass, by letting our next step be another first step taken in kindness and peace, the grooves can be realigned, the conditioned patterns changed, the wounds healed.
This is the work that must be done first, right now. Do not worry about the outcome; it cannot be predicted, and is of no importance to us. It will take care of itself, if we can make this moment a moment of kindness for ourselves and everything else that exists.
The beauty of it is that it pays off immediately. Once you taste the joy of filling the moment in such a way, you'll be far more inclined to do it again. And again and again.
The grooves are already changing.
Introduction to Mindfulness Practice
I was asked by a friend to provide him with an introduction to mindfulness practice. I post it here now, in case anyone else is, or becomes, curious about it. I call it, "Wake Up! Time To Live!"
No Pain, No Gain
When faced with suffering, you've got two choices. You can run from it, or lean into it. If you run from it, you will experience temporary relief from it. The problem is always, it comes back. If you are still struggling with suffering, you know this. You've escaped from it time and time again, for a minute, for a half hour, for a day, for a year, and then boom, there it is again. Whoops.
Leaning into it, on the other hand, allows you to know it intimately, to face it fully, to live with it without resistance, to strip it of its power, and ultimately to be free of it. Every spiritual teacher or behavioral psychologist worth his Mrs. Dash knows this, and you know it too.
Fine. But, not so easy, huh? How can you learn to sit quietly with these terrifying feelings without pushing them away, with total acceptance?
Takes practice. That's one thing. But here's something which occurred to me earlier today, as I sat on the zafu and contemplated the growing, nagging numbness in my feet, and the rising tension as the spectre of my morning commute (you remember that one) began to knock on the door of my awareness:
Consider what would happen if I jammed you in the arm with a needle. Without knowing who you are, I can guess that your reaction would most likely be one of, what... irritation? Anger? You'd be torn between tending to the throbbing pain in your arm, and looking for some large blunt object with which to strike me. That's just my guess, of course. But I can pretty confidently assert that you wouldn't be too happy about it. To put it more concisely, you would suffer for it.
Consider now what would happen if you had come down with a horribly debilitating, chronic disease, and a doctor explained that in his syringe, he held the magic cure which would relieve you of your pain and send you on your way happily, and then he jabbed you with it. Again, without knowing your exact reaction, may I be so bold as to suggest you would have a smile on your face, wincing perhaps as the needle went in, but holding it against the backdrop of the knowledge that it was the best thing for you, and that this little annoyance would be well worth the much greater, lasting relief you would experience as a result. Why, that little pain would be your best friend, and you'd welcome it as such! There would be no suffering involved!
By considering our unpleasant circumstances in such a manner, they become much easier to face. The trick, then, is convincing ourselves that facing these pains rather than pushing them away really is the best thing for us. If you're lucky enough to find someone who can persuasively enough convince you of its truth to start you down the path, that's good as gold. Either way, a little faith is required at the beginning. However, the truth of it, once revealed, will be plainly evident from that point forward. No faith required at all. C'est vrai.
Held in this light, problems cease to be problems. In fact, they become the solution.
Here are some notes I wrote this morning. I strongly encourage you not to believe any of this:
"Thank you for everything. I have no complaints whatsoever."
The essence of radical acceptance, of pure compassion for self, others, the Earth, the universe, this and every moment, is to offer the above response to everything existing in the present moment (and thus, everything existing ever.)
The first (and probably second, and likely hundredth) time you say that, it may feel like a lie, a desperate denial of reality. "Of course I have complaints! This sucks, that blows, I want what I don't have, and have what I don't want. That's reality. Thanking and being alright with all that? Lazy at best, and dangerously neglectful at worst."
I hear ya.
But... wait a minute. Why do we accept the resisting, complaining mind as the "accurate" one, and dismiss the accepting, willing mind as the delusion? It's easy to see there is no definite "badness" or "goodness" to things until a thinking mind gets involved. Before I started hating broccoli and you started loving broccoli, broccoli wasn't a locus for judgement. Broccoli was just broccoli. So it is with this moment sitting before us right here. It's just right here, always, neither good nor bad until we come up and name it so. Or rather, until our thinking minds name it.
Thus, we reject the accepting mind as the delusion since we are so quick to buy into our thinking mind's judgement of the situation. "Obviously I can't accept it, because I know it's bad!" What an indispensible, yet endlessly flawed tool that pesky mind is, eh?
Once wholly dis-identified from our judging mind, even for a moment (and these moments can be terribly few and far between, and just as hard to come by), it is immediately evident that the resisting, complaining mind is the delusion, as is the clinging, craving mind (call this the "grasping" mind, the flipside to resisting). The only mind seeing the truth, then, is the one that sees things exactly as they are, and accepts them not out of duress, resignation, or desperation, but because there is simply nothing else to do. There is no longer room for judgement, resisting, or complaining in a mind, wiped clear of delusion, that sees unequivocally that this is this, and holds it all with a gentle, compassionate touch. And with the resisting goes the suffering. In its place, peace, joy, freedom.
You can't talk or think yourself into this, though. It has to be experienced first. Want to try to get a taste? You taste it only by experiencing it, right now. Try a little experiment. For the next minute, or the next five minutes, or the next day, or the next ten years, or for the rest of your life, try meeting every sensation, every feeling, every thought, every emotion, every judgement and pain and pleasure and worry and frustration and elation and ecstasy and fear and moment of doubt with this:
"Thank you for everything. I have absolutely no complaints whatsoever."
Don't expect it to do any good. Just see what happens.
And don't worry, you can always start complaining again whenever you want.
Email To A Perfect Gentleman
A friend of mine who has been experiencing significant emotional difficulty for the past several years wrote a broadcast email to many of his friends and family, announcing that he is planning to join an e-dating site to try to find a new relationship, to get himself back on track, but he didn't know what to write about himself. So he asked us all to help him write his own description, to tell him how we all saw him, so he could write the profile, get a new chick, and, in my view, start again the same cycle which led him to this place in the first place. I could not in good conscience help him toward the goal he'd stated. So I tried to help him toward a different one. This may seem arrogant and disrespectful ("Just answer his question, dummy"), but oh, how I wish someone would have written me this email back when I needed it.
Name changed to protect the guilty.
Alright, ready? Like most excellent advice, this is not what you really want to hear, and is not really answering the questions you've asked. Just listen anyway.
Where I sit now, 525 Broadway, Santa Monica, is both less than 5 miles, and an entire universe away from where I was sitting four years ago. Many events have occurred between then and now, and countless people have contributed untold wisdom, support, and just being there to help me traverse this distance. However, there is also a fairly extensive trail of media involved here, as most of the work I've done has been by and with books (and in one instance, a movie). Therefore I thought it would be fun and not a little self-indulgent to recount the lineage of media involved here. By doing this, I hope to both give proper thanks and credit to those authors and teachers involved, and to perhaps give readers in a similar state that I was in some sort of guide to how to start delving into the vast galaxy of material which is available, but often confusing and overwhelming.
Let's start at the beginning, shall we?
The Beginning: Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson
There is a scene in this movie, about 3/4 of the way through, where all of the characters sing, in unison, an Aimee Mann song, with the chorus, "It's not going to stop, 'til you wise up." This rang a tremendous chord with me, which echoed loud as the end credits rolled that first time, and louder still, every day since. It is, in so many ways, the key to anyone's decision to travel a new path, to believe in the possibility of change, of healing. It says, your struggles and travails and everything you've done to this point haven't done the trick. So maybe what is required is a new approach. And that's what it took. That's what it always takes. There are other aspects of the film which have, to similar effect and with similar import, informed my journey, but that simple lyric has been an eye-opener, in more ways than one. Besides, it's just the best damn movie of all time, which doesn't hurt.
The Plunge: Five Steps To Overcoming Fear And Self Doubt, Wyatt Webb
I can not in good conscious say that this is a good book. In fact, it's really very weak. Short, full of well-meaning but ultimately worthless "quick tips" for solving a problem far too pervasive and complex for such a light treatment, this is a book definitely worth saving your money on. However, it's significant in that it was the very first time I bought a book from the "Self-Help" section, marking an important moment, the moment when I said, maybe I can't do this all by myself. Maybe there is help out there. Maybe there are horizons to be widened. This was definitely not the book to answer those questions, but at least it got me asking.
The Spark: No Place To Hide: Facing Shame So We Can Find Self-Respect, Michael P. Nichols
This book was to provide me with the very first of the "I'll never forget where I was when I read it" moments. Specifically, when I read the first twenty pages. Specifically, I was on the can. What better place to find the door to a never-before-known world of growth and healing. I still remember the sharp wave of shock as the words swam past my eyes, and it was finally made clear to me that... maybe I'm not the only one with my problems, and even better, maybe they're not an intractible part of me. That maybe there was a way out. Finally, I could put a name to my problem, and stop merely equating the problem with myself. My problems and I stopped being one and the same. Everafter, there would be me, and my problems, separate and eminently separable.
The Awakening: Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, David D. Burns
The second, and most powerful of the "I'll never forget where..." moments, this time on an exercise bike. Whereas the previous book had shown me where the problem was, this book (painfully twee title and all) got to the important work of solving it. I had heard from many sources that I needed to look into cognitive therapy (CT), and this was the first major book aimed at the general public, to encourage and explain use of CT techniques for self-help and self healing. And boy, does it. I still maintain that half of my struggle was over after the first fifty pages of this book, and everything since then has been just taking care of the stragglers. This is the first time I came to the realization that our thoughts are not us, and occur continually and nonvolitionally, and more importantly, are wholly untrustworthy. The horrible things I had been telling myself for over 30 years, once brought to light, once shown to be the ridiculous fabrications and exaggerations they were, lost much of their power. Though I no longer practice many of the techniques described in this book, its truth, power, and value are never far from my thoughts. Untrustworthy though they may be.
The Evolution: Get Out Of Your Mind And Into Your Life: The New Acceptance And Commitment Therapy, Steven C. Hayes
After Feeling Good, I spent quite a while going through a whole slew of cognitive therapy books, geared toward layman and professional practitioner, fancying myself quite the amateur psychologist with all my study and practice. But I needed a break from all of that. The thing about self-help and psych books, though, is that if you're into it, it's quite an addiction. So there I found myself in the book store again, and saw this shiny new workbook, and read the back where it described itself as one of the "new breed" of cognitive therapies. I thought I'd give it a shot, see if it was interesting. It's not that easy a book to work through, as it's written in a kind of strange way which requires some suspension of disbelief and more than a little faith in the reader, all this talk about "willingness", and passing mentions of "meditation" and some vague mystical-sounding concept called "mindfulness"... I'm more of a nuts and bolts kinda guy, so this was all very off-putting. But there was that one exercise...
The Transformation: Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With The Heart Of A Buddha, Tara Brach
Fascinated by the new approach suggested by Acceptance & Committment Therapy, I searched in earnest for more information about it. I purchased whatever books were available, but these were all geared toward practitioners, were all very dense, and more opaquely written than even the hardest CT book I'd attempted. I was about to give up, when I remembered reading that some of these same techniques had their basis in Buddhism. Now I had led a life carrying the very highest of disdain and disgust for anything even remotely associated with religion. So how surprising was it for me to find myself, god help me, browing the religion section of the bookstore for self-help books. This one jumped out at me just because it had the word "acceptance" in the title, and no gobbledygook about "sutras" and "prayer" or any of that. Just give me the information, Janet. Wonder of wonders, this book was exactly what I'd hoped. Its mentions of Buddha and Buddhism were relatively rare, and were recounted generally without religious overtones, just an occasional story or metaphor to convey one of the concepts, concepts not far afield from those delineated in the ACT book.
The Now: Coming To Our Senses: Healing Ourselves And The World Through Mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn
I am not actually done with this book, as it's approximately seventeen thousand pages long. However, I can say this about it: Once you have touched the profound joy and freedom available through the practice of mindfulness, and want to read a beautiful book covering more aspects of it than probably any other out there, written by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a wonderful writer, teacher, and mindfulness trainer, this is it. Something of a Complete Guide to Mindfulness, a poetic reference guide, it's not too far-fetched to dub this one the Mindfulness Bible. Each of its eight sections could have been a book in its own right, but lucky you (or rather, lucky me), it's all here in one convenient little package. As benevolent dictator, I would demand that all people read this book and try out the plentiful wisdom held within. Alas, I have not yet reached that status, so all I can do it recommend it with as much passion as I can muster.
Alright, so that brings us up to date, and brings me to where I am, a place I'm still amazed every morning that I was able to reach, and a place which holds the promise of endless adventure, possibility, and wonder. That place, of course, we call... now.
(Many other books have inspired me along the way, so here are some special mentions, so they don't get forgotten...)
Listening To Prozac, Peter Kramer
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There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.