Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Quality of Awareness: Lovingkindness

Lovingkindness is an old-fashioned word. Love is an over-used word. What do they mean to you? Reading them just now, how do you experience them? What do you think about them? How does your emotional intelligence process them?

Somewhere in and between these two words--and related words like compassion, empathy, caring, kindness--we get the gist of a third quality of awareness.

It's so helpful to be able to tolerate whatever comes into our minds and our experience. And to see 'whatever comes' clearly, honestly, accurately and unadorned. But there's more.

As we weave this third thread, lovingkindness, into the fabric of Awareness, there's a wholeness in us--because we've discovered a whole-making process. No matter what we're experiencing, we're learning to welcome it, know it for what it is, and care about it.

Committing our 'selves' to tolerate and clearly see whatever comes our way can be a hard practice--literally: it can make us hard. Lovingkindness not only softens the experience, it softens 'us' and keeps us connected to life's deepest and sweetest spring. Nothing delights, refreshes, and heals us more than love.

I think the thing to recognize in the word lovingkindness is the way it suggests both a quality of feeling and action. Love can remain internal. Kindness takes action, embodiment.

A baby cries. You turn to her--you see what the matter is. Almost all of us know what this is like. Sometimes we change diapers on automatic pilot. Sometimes something a lot richer happens. Sometimes love wells up, we smile, we bring a joyful sense of caring into the process.

It's this very thing we try to cultivate in awareness practices. In awareness practice we commit to NOT defaulting to automatic pilot. We commit to not changing diapers by rote. We commit, as much as we can, to never picking up a baby without trying to open up to that spring of love which is always there under the surface of things.

Again, the instruction is simple. When we meditate we 'tolerate' whatever comes into our minds and do our best to see it clearly and honestly. And we try our best to hold the stuff we're 'tolerating' and 'seeing clearly' with genuine kindness.

It's not an easy practice, though it's a simple instruction. Doing it rewires us. As we continue to cultivate tolerance for and honesty about whatever we're experiencing, and then start bringing active kindness into the mix--life changes.

We practice this formally so that we can embody it naturally. We do it over and over and over, anchored to the breath as we meditate. And it gets to be a really good habit.

And then we're with somebody in ordinary life--somebody who's pushing our buttons--doing something hard to tolerate. Only now, it's not as hard as it used to be! Holy crap, we've gotten better at this tolerance thing!

And we're not having to dress up our friend's behavior. We don't need to sugar coat it. It is what it is. We've gotten better at seeing stuff clearly.

And then, O my God, instead of disdain or superiority (well, usually in along with some kind of negative stuff), we feel empathy. Our response, whatever it may be, is supported by tolerance, clarity, and kindness. And when human responses are nurtured and guided by tolerance, clear-seeing, and kindness, it's a game-changer.

As we weave these three strands into our meditation, our lives get more and more threaded with tolerance and discernment and love. This makes the practice of ordinary mindfulness kinda extraordinary.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Guest Post: My Guest House

By Jane Coburn

(My friend Jane has a fresh and wise perspective on mindfulness, mothering, and welcoming Life. I asked her if I could post this. She said, Yes--something she's been saying in many contexts lately!)

“This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival…be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond”

Reading The Guest House by Rumi for the hundredth time and it still gets me.  It still strikes me right in the face how this being human is so temporary - an honor and a blessing.  Thoughts and feelings visit briefly if we pay attention to them…real, honest attention to why they are here.  If not, they linger and fester.

Before I started meditating, I thought it would be impossible to stop thinking and just be still.  Like most Americans and every mother I know, I spent my life as a whirling dervish multitasking my way through the day.  If I was not actively doing something, I felt lazy, bored, or guilt ridden about what I SHOULD be doing.  If I did try to relax, my mind missed the memo and kept running.  I thought meditating meant you could not have a thought. If your mind was not completely clear then you were doing it wrong.  So, I didn’t try often and when I did try, I gave up quickly when thoughts arose as they always did.  It turned my attempts at meditation into failure giving my guest house yet another visit from guilt and frustration.

I watched or heard of others meditating and I was distrustful.  Meditation seemed silly or self righteous and I never truly believed these people weren’t faking it.  I began searching spiritually, as I suspect most mid-lifers do and I started reading about Buddhism and other Eastern spiritual practices.  Later I was overjoyed to find teachings about the Christian tradition of meditation, a much overlooked part of our history. These writings spoke to me and I realized that the thoughts that arise while trying to quiet my mind are simply thoughts.  I can see them, I can reflect on them or let them pass.  As Rumi said, I have begun to learn how to welcome them as guides.  When meditating, I feel safe to notice a thought and ask myself, “Why am I having this thought?  What does this say about me?”

In time, I have learned that meditation is not just something you do in quiet or on a mountain top.  My meditation practice is helping me pause at any given moment and welcome a feeling, experience it for a few moments, be truly honest with myself about what that feeling is saying about me and then with some deep breaths I can let it go.  A friend of mine told me he thought meditation was too passive and not helpful in dealing with his problems.  In my experience, meditation has been quite an active way to welcome my feelings and reactions to life, pause, be still and listen helping me to learn and adjust my emotions or behaviors based on what these guests teach me.

It is not easy to be honest with oneself.  Realizing that when I snapped at my child out of anger or frustration it was really about my own fears and feelings of inadequacy can be a  tough lesson to welcome. Those feelings or thoughts may return to my guest house in an hour, a day, or a week, but they are often quieter and have a shorter stay.  The more I pause and practice, the fewer and farther between the visits and my mind is opened up and empty, ready for more guests.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Quality of Awareness: Clarity

When I walked the dog early this morning, Venus and Jupiter were just above the eastern horizon--bright, clear, sparkling. Usually we have valley fog summer mornings, but the humidity is low today. It was also unusually cool, about 50 degrees. Something about 'clear and cool' that refreshes the soul.

If I was in charge of the weather, it would be clear and cool a lot more often.

Sogyal Rimpoche, the displaced and cultured Tibetan scholar and teacher who lives in France, the author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, says (like most Tibetan teachers) that it's very helpful when we meditate to keep 20% of our focus on the breath. It's very helpful--but, he says, it's not enough. He strongly advises that we keep 20% of our focus on the breath, 60% on the contents of consciousness--and the remaining 20% of our attention on doing it right!

Part of the human brain is dedicated to assimilating familiar daily mental activities into automatic processes so that the main part of our conscious minds can attend to hunting and gathering, looking for mates, passing on our DNA, protecting our clan, and other 'essential' mammalian stuff.

So even our regular attempts at being alert while meditating can be taken under the wing of our trying-to-be-helpful evolutionary brains. But...the thing about consciousness is you have to be conscious! Dulled focus doesn't lead to clarity. This makes Clearness another vital thread in the quality of mindful Awareness.

Unfortunately some of the words we use to highlight this particular quality of awareness can sound TOO effortful. If we say to ourselves "Stay vigilant!" most of us would shift into something too stressful to be helpful. Maybe "Keep alert," without an exclamation point is better. Yet the very word alert is a military word that comes from the Italian "All' erta" which was a military term: "To the watch tower!"

Nevertheless, without ALERTNESS, contemplative practice, while perhaps relaxing, will rarely be enlightening.

Like so many things outside the small self, the strand of clarity in meditation is a both/and thing--a restful vigilance, an un-pressured watchfulness. The origin of the word vigilance is the Latin 'vigilare,' which simply means 'keep awake.' That's a common and reasonably good way of saying what mindfulness is--to be awake.

When we do our formal practice, we can cultivate a habit of keeping awake, of bringing our wandering attention all' erta!--"To the watch tower!" As we do, we see stuff we'd never see otherwise. And seeing, we begin to understand. Understanding, we get a little wiser. Being wiser, we're in a better place to recognize what to keep in life and what to let go of, which 'stuff' is fruitful which 'stuff' is weedy.

As always, what we cultivate privately, interiorly, we also experience outwardly in community. We get better at being attentive to what others are saying, feeling, hoping and meaning. We also become more receptive to the grace and power of everything else--the practical, the spiritual, the natural.

At certain times in the year, every morning just after dawn geese fly over my house--some years 3 or 4 geese, other years as many as 12 or 15. The fly just to the east, coming from the same place in the sky where Venus and Jupiter were rising this morning. I assume these geese rest here in Jackson County for a couple of weeks on their way south in autumn and north in spring.

Both they and I are up about the same time. I'm usually studying or meditating when I hear them. And even if I'm doing 'formal' practice, the second their honking becomes clear, I jump up and run outside. Being 'formal' can go to hell--I'm not gonna miss the sacrament of pilgrim geese!

Every now and then I have a smaller but similar experience when bringing my attention back into formal practice. If I can continue bringing this same kind of joyful, receptive attention to my life, inside and out, I will see stuff, learn stuff, be fed and be blessed.

So--when you do your formal practice, do it right! Weave clearness into each breath cycle. Do it vigilantly--and gently. Strain to be watchful--in a completely laid back way. Grit your teeth--and chuckle. Jump up whenever attention is dull and bleary and feast your eyes on whatever is sweeping across your world.

Clarity is both a practice and an outcome of mindful work. When we focus more purposefully we see more clearly.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Quality of Awareness: Tolerance

Tolerance is not one of most people's favorite words. To tolerate something is to endure it--to sit through a boring performance--or hang in there through ten days of an antibiotic that wrecks your digestive system.

In awareness practice, however, tolerance is a beautiful thing. It's a growing ability to see, to recognize, to accept and to work with things as they are (in contrast to how we wish or perhaps fear they were). The more we cultivate and appreciate tolerance, the more the quality of our AWARENESS expands and deepens.

At some point, we begin to understand why Rumi, when he finds a 'pack of sorrows' on his porch, 'meets them at the door laughing!'

But first we have dues to pay, work to do, a soul to stretch.

If you're a beginning meditator--or someone who can't yet quite imagine EVER doing meditation--perhaps first you'll grapple with the antsy-ness of sitting still, of being bored. Or the disappointment of discovering how random and petty and unfamiliar human brains can be--especially our own!

If you're an intermediate meditator, you've surely already come to experience many things knocking at your door that have seemed intolerable. Some of those things you've tolerated, made room for, welcomed. Some of those things, well, maybe not yet.

Mary Oliver, in The Summer Day, writes:

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed...

We're not used to being 'idle' and being 'blessed.' We're so much more accustomed to being idle and being bored--or feeling guilty. And we're not inclined to tolerate boredom or guilt. 

Tolerance, in mindful practices, is the art of being idle and being blessed. Literally, we begin to cultivate this very thing, allowing the mind to idle, to be in neutral like a car's transmission, letting the world come to us--the world of thoughts, images, sensations and feelings.

In formal meditation, it's OUR thoughts and images and sensations and feelings. Out and about it's OTHER PEOPLE'S thoughts and feelings, words and actions, we learn to 'tolerate'--to receive neutrally, to welcome, even to bless. 

It's really helpful, right at the start, to realize that in cultivating tolerance we're engaged in re-wiring our brains, developing a fresh and marvelous new skill.

Sometimes tolerance will bloom into a mindset that just naturally meets a pack of sorrows at the door laughing. At some point the practice of mindful tolerance will feel like a stroll in a meadow, collapsing in the grass, noticing and savoring flowers and grasshoppers and spider webs.

Ah, the blessedness of 'idling' and being blessed.

At other times, in good faith we'll try to tolerate, make room for stuff that scares the hell out of us--or leads to painful sorrows or long-smoldering rage. Etcetera. Etcetera!

These times will feel nothing like a stroll in a meadow. How strange that TIOLERANCE, that heretofore drab word, would be one of the main portals to Life's Grand Adventure.

Slow down, friends. Be idle and be blessed. Welcome whatever comes.

And hold on!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Quality of Awareness

Seems to me these days there's nothing I want more than to be 'open' to Life. I want to love it, experience it as fully as possible, savor it, be blessed by it and add my blessing to it. It also seems that simple awareness is the key that opens 'me' to this 'thing' I want.

"Simple" should be set in quotes. "Simple" Awareness is woven of many threads. It's only simple as we become weavers.

Blaise Pascal, a wise soul and a great writer, supported himself by writing pamphlets--basically magazine or popular blog posts of his day. He once famously said to his publisher--"Sorry this one is so long...I didn't have time to make it short." Simplicity is a learned skill, and both learning it and practicing it takes time and intention.

Every time we purpose to be aware we see the many things that distract us. The many processes of our 'automatic brain' are a wonder of our evolutionary minds. They enable us to do a pretty good job of navigating life on automatic pilot. The only downside is that being on automatic pilot is the opposite of being CONSCIOUS.

Ah, but it's so natural to be on automatic pilot. It's effortless! Effortless, continual, familiar, habitual--and our brains come with all the wiring already in place to run automatically. But once we taste LIFE we begin to realize automatic life is not what we most deeply want. And what keeps us in the game of cultivating a life that opens to LIFE is Awareness.

So...wanna be deeply happy? Yes! says my soul, even as massive areas of my brain cry, Ow! This is hard--we're not wired to run this way!

And it's true. Awareness Practice rewires our brains. Slowly. And not all that effectively. Our 'Aware brains' will never run as effortlessly or as fast as our auto-brains.

And our auto-brains will never bring us to the peace, wisdom, and joy that Awareness will.'s worth cultivating awareness (slowly, patiently, relentlessly)--the rich and deep kind of awareness that opens us to LIFE. God willing, over the next week I hope to note some of the qualities of awareness, the threads we learn to weave together, so that AWARENESS becomes more natural, more effective, and just plain more fun in our everyday lives.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Batter My Heart

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt continues to confound and thrill me with his "Happiness Hypothesis." If you're somebody who wants to be happy--and wants to grow in depth and breadth, wholeness and wisdom,  The Happiness Hypothesis is a great read. He grounds his 'hypothesis' in both ancient wisdom and current research in social psychology.

Though he's not a 'God person' his findings are very consonant with major spiritual traditions--so much of what he values relates to how we can work with our small or false selves in order to live more fully in our Big or True Selves.

And like most spiritual traditions, his vision of the small (or evolutionary) self can be jarring.


"The consistent finding of psychological research is that we are fairly accurate in our perceptions of others. It's our self-perceptions that are distorted because we look at our selves in a rose-colored mirror.

We judge others by their behavior, but we think we have special information about ourselves--we know what we are "really like" inside, so we can easily find ways to explain away our selfish acts and cling to the illusion that we are better than others.

When comparing ourselves to others, the general process is this: Frame the question (unconsciously, automatically) so that the trait in question is related to a self-perceived strength. Once you find a piece of evidence, once you have a "make-sense" story, you are done. You can stop thinking and revel in your self-esteem. It's no wonder, then, that in a study of 1 million American high school students, 70 percent thought they were above average on leadership ability, but only 2 percent thought they were below average (94 percent of college professors think they do above average work!).

If the only effect of these rampant esteem-inflating biases was to make people feel good about themselves, they would not be a problem. In fact, evidence shows that people who hold pervasive positive illusions about themselves, their abilities, and their future prospects are mentally healthier, happier, and better liked than people who lack such illusions. But such biases can make people feel that they deserve more than they do, thereby setting the stage for endless disputes with other people who feel equally over-entitled.

It just seems plain as day, to the naive realist, that everyone is influenced by ideology and self-interest. Except for me. I see things as they are.

If I could nominate one candidate for "biggest obstacle to world peace and social harmony," it would be naive realism, because it is so easily ratcheted up from the individual to the group level: My group is right because we see things as they are. Those who disagree are obviously biased by their religion, their ideology, or their self-interest."


Seeing our small/false/habitual selves 'truly' hurts. It's...disappointing. Disorienting. 

It's also necessary if we want to be happy, whole, wise and kind.

After reading this bit of his book, I found myself thinking about John Donne's poem (which follows). Whenever I catch a glimpse these days of my 'self' as "biggest obstacle to world peace and social harmony" I often smile (right after I grimace) and open up and turn toward wholeness--and do my best to welcome with open arms the process, the work, the Spirit that makes Us Whole. 

Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to'another due,
Labor to'admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly'I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me,'untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you'enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me

Friday, June 15, 2012

Cat Karma

When my daughter Ruth said she wanted to move back home recently, she said she also wanted to bring her new dog and cat with her. I wasn't sure if I wanted either, so I told her I'd have to think about that. She's often not around (I often am) so if her little cat and pup moved in, I knew I'd be involved in their lives.

I thought about it a couple of weeks and then said yes. They're both cute and sweet and smart. Easy to love.

The cat, Ruth named her Bartholomew (even though it's a female), was an inside cat who spent much of her time sitting in the window looking (longing to be) outside. I convinced Ruth it was worth the risk to give her more freedom--even though we've lost cats to 'something' outside in the past.

Bartholomew 'embraced' her new freedom--exploring, hunting, lolling in the sun. Made friends with some of the other neighborhood cats. Even a feral cat--I often saw them sunning together in the front yard.

A couple of weeks ago Ruth told me she thought Bartholomew might be pregnant.

What?! She hasn't been spayed?!!!

I thought all cats were spayed these days. But it's obvious that Bartholomew is now great with child. And soon we'll, O joy, have a litter of kitties.

Lately I've been humming Jimmy Buffet's song, Wasting Away in Magaritaville. Particularly the part, "Some people say there's a woman to blame--but I know it's my own damn fault." My fault. My karma.

Kind of.

Most of us in the West have a pretty sketchy understanding of what karma is. We tend to think of it as destiny or as a kind of pre-ordained future. But karma is simply "We reap what we sow." And the plural way of saying it, like I just did, is important. WE reap what WE sow. Karma is a team sport.

Which is to say we're all connected. For the poor souls who died in the Twin Towers, personal karma had almost nothing to do with their deaths. Nothing was preordained for them. Bad things can happen to good people--and collective karma is big-picture reality.

Ruth's and my cat karma wasn't preordained either. We'll both be pretty much reaping what we both sowed. So there's no reason for me (after I cool off and hear what wisdom is saying) to blame Ruth for anything. I thought it over before I said yes--I missed something in my thinking--some particular something I'll never miss again!

Because karma is a team sport, none of us can control our future. Yet each of us can influence it. We can never guarantee our future. Yet we can always 'seed' better possibilities for a better future.

Every choice and action is a seed. Plant weeds, get weeds. Plant vegetables get vegetables--and weeds! (Karma is a team sport--people are always sowing weeds--us too).

But also, ALSO, Wisdom and spiritual formation are always coaxing us to plant more good seed and less bad. And reminding us how it works. Mindfulness helps us be aware of what we're planting RIGHT NOW. Which will significantly affect what we'll be reaping sooner or later. We can't control what others sow--yet we can influence, at least a little, what others sow. Kindness often begets kindness. Anger usually begets anger. Un-spayed female cats usually beget kittens.

A mature, realistic understanding of karma leads to a mature and realistic experience of life. We don't complain as much. We don't blame as much. We don't pout as much just because our 'now' is not what we expected. As we plant less complaining/pouting/blaming we reap more peace and more joy.

And almost certainly fewer unplanned kitties in the Hudson household next year.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Gratitude Therapy

A long time ago a mentor challenged me to learn one of life's sweetest and hardest ironies. He said, "Love's not a feeling, it's a commitment."

I took it to heart and have worked with that challenge two-thirds of my life. I've found it astoundingly trustworthy. I 'love' it when 'love' swells in me and seems to just overflow. But life is full of so many other moments when love is needed and I 'feel' no love at all.

The same is true for gratitude. It's wonderful when gratefulness wells up. But for most of us humans, those times are rather rare.

I'm so grateful that the Buddhists are teaching us Christians systematic ways to practice what we preach! They have 2500 years of learning how to make a habit of the qualities we value most.

Here's an example. It's from Jack Kornfield's The Wise Heart:

In Japan there is a form of Buddhist therapy called naikan that emphasizes gratitude as a way to heal depression, anxiety, and neurosis. In this approach we are asked to slowly and systematically review our whole life and offer gratitude for each thing that was given to us. A similar approach worked for a man named Bob, a practitioner who had been homeless for a year and was now living at a nearby mountain Zen center. Because of his memory of sleeping in the park, lying half awake every night in fear that someone would try to rob him or stab him, Bob was afraid to sleep. He had a history of family trauma: he had left his addicted father and stepmother for the streets at age fifteen and had used drugs himself. In his life he had been a carpenter and a mechanic.

When Bob went to the Buddhist center, he was trying to put his life together. The Zen teacher could feel his anxiety and mistrust. To help him soften this state, the teacher instructed him in a simple practice of gratitude. Bob began offering thanks for whatever food, clothing, and shelter he had for the moment, living, as they say in AA, one day at a time. He was taught to stop and surreptitiously bow in gratitude ten times a day, wherever he found himself. Bob took to bowing. He bowed to his kitchen mates and to their shared breakfast. He bowed to his morning depression and to his feelings of unworthiness. He bowed to the carpentry tools he used in the shop, to his anxiety, to the afternoon sun, and to the noisy tractor in the nearby field.

A second instruction was given to Bob as well: to look beyond his suffering. Bob slowly began to notice moments of well-being, surprising breaks in his inner struggles, small periods of blessing. He loved being in the temple garden. He walked among the live oaks and mulch piles by the garden path, framed by sturdy redwood posts and delicate fortget-me-nots and orange daisies. Bob described how his mind became quiet for the first time in years. The suffering he carried was still like a weight, but the vast silence was bigger. One day the temple bell rang for dinner and his heart was pierced. His pain and longing were swept over by a sublime wave of gratitude for just being alive. Bob was returning to life.


Love. Gratitude. Peace. Kindness. These 'things' are too precious to leave to the randomness of our feelings. Especially when it's possible to cultivate them.

Cultivation starts with trusting the possibility of cultivation. It continues through a commitment to practice doing it. Mercifully, the doing confirms the trust. It 'works.' Gratitude practice opens us up to many, many more experiences of being grateful.

Etcetera. Etcetera. ALLELUIA, Etcetera.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Breathing Partners

Thomas Aquinas, as sophisticated a theologian as ever lived, came to a point where he didn't so much want to describe or define God and God's ways as he wanted to experience them. At this point in his life he began to put his insights into haiku-like sayings.

Like this one (translated by Daniel Landinsky):

With every breath I extract God. 
And my eyes are a shop 
where I offer him to the world. 

For us God people, this clump of 19 words is perhaps as rich as it gets. If you're not a God person, it's probably worth your while to work with the inherent riches and wisdom here--and translate them into something that works for you.

I was hiking with a Qigong instructor a couple of months ago, and toward the end of the hike the group of us came to a gnarly old red spruce that had a special toughness and beauty about it. She asked if we'd like to do Tree Qigong. We were game--and she gathered us around this old evergreen and taught us very simple movements that respected the tree and literally 'moved' us to become open to its existence and energy (qi or chi translates as energy).

I hike on this trail a lot--have been admiring this old tree for about 40 years. I like having a more engaged way of 'saluting' it.

Her invitation for us to literally embody an openness to its energy got me thinking about photosynthesis--and got me curious enough to start refreshing my memory on how it works. As I Googled 'photosynthesis' a phrase I began to see was 'breathing partners.' Trees (and all green plants) are our 'breathing partners'--ours and all animals. We're not just poetically breathing partners with trees but literally, organically, evolutionarily breathing partners with trees.

With every breath we breathe in the oxygen trees 'breathe' out. With every breath trees breathe in the carbon dioxide we breathe out.

The tiniest sacks of our lungs, our alveoli, are 1/25000 of an inch thick. So thin that our CO2 and trees O2 can each pass through. And just thick enough to keep most other little bits of bacteria, etc., out. The heme in our hemoglobin is such a wise little mule, it knows how to carry O2 down and up and out to each of our cells, let go of it when it gets there, turn to 'embrace' the leftover CO2 in each of those cells, and then carry the CO2 back to our alveoli where it releases it into the biosphere--over and over and over again.

The smallest parts of a leaf's structure, the chloroplasts, perform their own little miracle--with help from the sun. Water (H20), drawn up from the ground into the tree, meets the CO2 taken in from 'us.' Exactly 6 molecules of H2O and 6 of CO2. Then photons from the sun (elementary particles that are little packets of energy that know how to 'interact at long distances!) energize the electrons of all the molecules, making them jump to the new orbits that transform them into new kinds of molecules--exactly 6 oxygen and 6 glucose molecules. The tree 'breathes out' oxygen for us and keeps the sugar for itself!

This is what it means to be breathing partners with trees.

Now when I pass this old spruce (or walk in any wooded place) I'm working to anchor what I've learned biologically so that I also can experience it contemplatively--let my mind and soul absorb what my lungs and blood have been absorbing all along.

We humans are quite literally breathing partners with trees--whether we choose to be conscious of it or not. My experience of life is that it just gets richer and richer when we become more conscious of life's endless ordinary mysteries and miracles.

With every breath trees give us energy for life (oxygen)--and we (and water) give trees the sugar of life (glucose). This little miracle comes with being alive. Aquinas's miracle comes with being even MORE ALIVE (Jesus called it being born again--or being born 'from above').

With every breath we have the potential to 'extract' God--and the ever-renewing potential to share God's Energy, Life's Sweetness, with the world.

We're not alone in this. We are partnered. We are forever receiving life in many ways--and passing it on in ways of our own.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Welcoming With Open Arms

A friend once told me, "You know, the phrase 'Pay attention' is true twice."

I asked him what he meant. He said, "Well, it's true first because paying attention is the only sure way to navigate life. And it's true again because attention is something that has to be paid. You know, it costs something."

Sounded wise to me. Still does.

Our 'presence' to Life starts with being aware, becoming more and more conscious of what's going on. That's not something that happens automatically for us. It takes some work--work we wouldn't do if we didn't value the joy and meaning attentive presence brings to life.

As we do begin to value it, we realize this very appreciation is the currency that 'pays' for it. Our sense of meaning and purpose is what supports the effort to be here now, savoring more and more whatever life brings our way.

Gerald May, in his book The Dark Night of the Soul (which is about Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross), offers broad and deep and wise views on what we're 'buying' with the attention we 'pay' in order to become aware.

He also gets at the richness of balance between effort and rest, work and grace. These next four paragraphs are his.

An often quoted phrase of John of the Cross is “Pure contemplation consists of receiving.” This indeed sounds very passive until one examines it more closely. The Spanish is “Contemplacion pura consiste en recibir.” The meaning of recibir, however, is not a completely passive receptivity, but rather a receiving as one might receive a guest into one’s house. It connotes a welcoming feeling, even a welcoming with open arms. How different the phrase would sound if it were translated “Pure contemplation consists of welcoming with open arms!”

John also speaks of beginning contemplative experience as characterized by “simple, loving awareness.” Again this can sound very passive. The Spanish here is “advertencia amorosa, simple.” The significant term is advertencia, for which “awareness” is a rather tepid translation. In modern Spanish usage, advertencia means “Attention!” in the sense of warning or alarm. John himself explains that advertencia is a very dynamic attentiveness. He likens it to the kind of attentiveness one gives to a dearly loved one or the vigilance of standing alert on a watchtower.

If we can refrain from clinging to the either/or dualism of “God and me,” we can begin to appreciate the more subtle nuances of John and Teresa of Avila’s use of “active” and ‘passive.”  In the more active dimensions of the spiritual life, we have the sense of undertaking practices or disciplines that depend upon our own intentionality and effort. We often also have a sense of success or failure.

As the dark night leads us into more contemplative territory, the feeling of autonomous effort gives way to a greater sense of acceptance, or willingness and welcoming. Goals disappear, to be replaced by simple prayers of desire, and success and failure finally lose their meaning entirely. The experience indeed feels more like “letting go and letting God,” but our own continuing yes remains active, a dynamic and necessary component of a mysterious relationship that surpasses all understanding.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Yes, But Is It True?

I was given a wonderful gift when I was twenty-five. My two best friends patiently, kindly, and firmly showed me what a pain in the butt I could be. It took about three hours.

The three of us were a musical trio. We spent a lot of time together writing, rehearsing, traveling, performing...and arguing. When you write and rehearse together, arguing (contending for what you think sounds best or works best) is inevitable and necessary--it's how you reach a synthesis of the best gifts each person has to offer.

But at that point in my life I wasn't arguing to in order to reach the best synthesis--I was arguing to win: stubbornly, aggressively, and endlessly.

Finally Bob and Brown got so frustrated that they did what amounted to an 'Intervention.' They decided to be just as stubborn as me--yet they also brought the kind of gentle patience and genuine affection that eventually enabled me to trust them enough to let down my defenses and open my heart.

Because I respected both of them a lot, once my mind and heart were open, it was easy to 'take to heart' what they were saying--that because of my relentless attachment to being right, we as a group weren't getting to discover (together) our best potential.

Those three hours with those two friends were a life-changer for me.

Jesus said, "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free." I learned two things that day--that the truth can be excruciatingly unwelcome and amazingly helpful at the same time.

Recent psychological research has shown that three things are often helpful for people struggling with 'Life': drugs, cognitive therapy, and meditation. We can try to the last two without a prescription--and they share a common denominator: that truth can set us free.

Where Freudian psychology works by re-telling family traumas over and over in order to better understand our stories, Cognitive therapy works by asking (over and over), "Are these stories true?" Recent research has shown that Freudian therapy doesn't work very well--and Cognitive therapy does.

Bob and Brown taught me the same basic principle at twenty-five. But I didn't know how to consistently work with it until I began to practice meditating. 

Investigating what's true and what's not is a major component of Mindfulness Meditation--watching and listening to what the steady stream of consciousness in each of us is saying, AND asking, discerning, "Is it true?"

When we reach even the most basic level of awareness practice, we begin to see (over and over and over) what our thoughts are endlessly whispering in our inner ears. And without anybody having to nail our butts to the wall we see (over and over and over) that much of what is being said simply IS NOT TRUE.

It's hard to let go of ideas, points of view, preferences, beliefs we accept as true. But it's not nearly as hard to let go of what we've seen for ourselves as false.

Truth sets us free, even when it's disagreeable.

Free is good.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Be Easy with Yourself

One of life's great ironies is that when we finally realize there are things about ourselves that need to change (and finally commit to making those changes) we discover that change is hard and often frustrating and discouraging. is what it is. And life's ironies can be met with a grimace...or a grin.

We come into the world with certain 'proclivities' anchored in our DNA You like that word, proclivity? It's a word worth learning to like. It comes from Latin roots meaning 'forward' and 'down hill.' To have a proclivity for something means that 'that something' is as easy as walking (or rolling) down hill.

A good few of the things we'd like to change about our selves make up many of our 'proclivities.' They are habits that are as easy to fall into as rolling down hill.

Here's a great 'proclivity' story:

"When is comes to explaining personality, it's always true that nature and nurture work together. But it's also true that nature plays a bigger role than most people realize. Consider the identical twin sisters Daphne and Barbara. Raised outside London, they both left school at the age of fourteen, went to work in local government, met their future husbands at the age of sixteen at local town hall dances, suffered miscarriages at the same time, and then each gave birth to two boys and a girl. They feared many of the same things (blood and heights) and exhibited unusual habits (each drank her coffee cold; each developed the habit of pushing up her nose with the palm of the hand, a gesture they both called "squidging"). None of this may surprise you until you learn that separate families had adopted Daphne and Barbara as infants; neither even knew of the other's existence until they were reunited at the age of forty. When they finally did meet, they were wearing almost identical clothing." (from The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt)

Daphne and Barbara give us a wonderful glimpse of what we humans are working with (and against) whenever we want to do better, to act differently, to embrace change.

I've posted before how my life changed when an older friend said to me at nineteen, "For somebody so perceptive, you sure can be shallow." Those words--coming from that particularly valued friend--were words that I took to heart. Something in me knew he was right and something in me wanted to change. It felt less like a choice and more like an inevitability. But it's never felt like 'rolling down hill.'

The tension between our commitment to change and the slow process of moral, character, and spiritual transformation is often experienced as frustration. Most of us seem to have a proclivity for impatience and frustration--and self-recrimination!

Smile. Chuckle. Laugh. It is what it is. We are what we are. And yet...there is grace and ability for change. And I'm convinced kindness to ourselves--lovingkindness--oils the mechanism of transformation like nothing else.

Change is slow. Change is even slower when we beat ourselves up about it.

Try this: the next time you get frustrated with the pace of your own transformation, push up on your nose with you palm. Then say to yourself, "Squidging!" Think of Daphne and Barbara. Call to mind the Power of Proclivity. And smile.

Then put your hand over your heart. Give yourself three stout, generous pats. And call to mind that you're engaged in life's most important transformation--learning what love is, how it works in you and how it works in the world.

Smile again--or laugh out loud--life is what it is--and yet you're working with it because you're committed to make it more of what it can be. And that's an amazing thing.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Secret of Wholeness

Being human is no easy thing. We sense, quite rightly, our capacity to grow, to 'do better,' to 'become more' than we are now. And yet...?

And yet...trying to become the 'more' that we sense is possible can be so very, very frustrating. I'm very grateful for wise spiritual traditions that help us navigate this 'becoming more.' And I'm so grateful for the modern wisdom of biology and psychology that are doing such a good job showing us more and more precisely why this 'becomig more' is so hard.

Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis does a great job with this. As I read and re-read it, I often find myself thinking (and smiling) 'No wonder it's so hard!' This comes as a deep-felt recognition--a happy one.

Earlier this morning I read this:

"Because we can see only one little corner of the mind's vast operation, we are surpised when urges, wishes, and temptations emerge, seemingly from nowhere. We make pronouncements, vows, and resolutions, and then are surprised by our own powerlessness to carry them out. We sometimes fall into the view that we are fighting with our unconcious, or id, or our animal self. But really we are the whole thing."

Haidt's entire book is about how the mind works--and how learning how our minds work--and how to work with our minds instead of against them--is the path to happiness.

Whatever wisdom I've learned over the years stands up, does a little a dance and sings out, "Amen," reading his, "We are the whole thing." Our happiness, our peace, our deepest and most sustaining joy come from knowing 'we are the whole thing' and learning how to hold this 'whole thing' wisely. (So far, as far as I can tell, science does a better job than religion at describing this 'whole thing;' and religion--especially in its more contemplative traditions--does a better job training us to work with and embody this wholeness.)

As I often say on this blog, to see how our own minds work we need to observe them. Awareness practices like meditation and contemplative prayer are rich and well-tested ways--the best ways humans have yet found--to discover for ourselves what our minds are up to.

The practice is both simple and challenging. 'All' we have to do is take time to be still and respectifully notice the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that our minds and bodies are 'having.' That's it.

It's like God asks us, "Wanna see something cool?" And we say, "Sure."

Of course, the cool thing God wants us to see doesn't seem all that cool at first. Our minds are a mess! Plus--our attention span is sooooo short.

But (and this is pretty cool) it doesn't take long for our capacity to attend gets stronger. And that's the first step--seeing more and more of the raw material we have to work with... beginning to see this mess more clearly!

One of the first smiles we find in the ancient, sacred process comes from this wonderful and surprising appreciation: "No wonder it's so hard!" The way our brains work is simply that--the way they work.

A little later we begin to get a little more comfortable with the mess and begin to accept it more and say, "So, this is what 'I' contain."

Over time we also become more and more certain of how futile it is to try to get rid of what we contain. How ironic it is to try to deny what we contain. How transforming it is to stop fighting with what we contain. How freeing it is to begin to accept and own it: Yes--We are the whole thing!"

We waste a lot of energy and perpetuate untold pain by arguing with, denying, repressing, and resisting our 'whole' nature. Our 'selves' will always be a mixed bag. Yet they don't have to be a mixed blessing!

"Welcome and entertain them all!" says Rumi.

"You have prepared a table for me in the presence of my enemies," the psalmist says appreciatively to God.

"We are the whole thing," says the psychologist.

Wholeness, says I, is not our better selves all dressed up for the family portrait--it's the whole mess, each scruffy member welcome at the table, listened to, valued, and fed.

Monday, June 4, 2012

15 Things to Give Up

Last week my friend Vic re-posted on FB a list of "15 things to give up." I think it's a great list--and was just about to re-post it 'as is' here when I realized I couldn't quite say grace over some of the explanations that follow the BOLD letters (the original post made it sound a little too easy--doesn't quite fit my own experience of the steady slog that lasting transformation seems to be!).

So...I've tweaked some of it. If you want to read the original, its here, on

Here is a list of 15 things which, if you give up on them, will make your life a lot easier and much, much happier. We hold on to so many things that cause us a great deal of pain, stress and suffering – and instead of letting them all go, instead of allowing ourselves to be happier and more stress free – we cling to them. Not anymore. Try giving up on things that no longer serve you, and embrace change. Ready? Here we go:

 There are so many of us who can’t stand the idea of being wrong – wanting to always be right – even at the risk of ending great relationships or causing a great deal of stress and pain, for us and for others. It’s just not worth it. Whenever you feel the ‘urgent’ need to jump into a fight over who is right and who is wrong, ask yourself this question: “Would I rather be right, or would I rather be kind?”Wayne Dyer. What difference will that make? Is your ego really that big?

Be willing to give up your need to always control everything that happens to you and around you – situations, events, people, etc. Whether they are loved ones, coworkers, or just strangers you meet on the street – just allow them to be. Allow everything and everyone to be just as they are. Do this also for yourself. It’s powerful medicine—both for us and our ‘others’.
“By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try. The world is beyond winning.” Lao Tzu

 Give up on your need to blame others for what you have or don’t have, for what you feel or don’t feel. Stop giving your powers away and start taking responsibility for your life.

 Oh my. How many people are hurting themselves because of their negative, polluted and repetitive self-defeating mindset? Don’t believe everything that your mind is telling you – especially if it’s negative and self-defeating. You are better than that.
“The mind is a superb instrument if used rightly. Used wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive.” Eckhart Tolle

about what you can or cannot do, about what is possible or impossible. We have more capacity to grow and change and be happy than we usually trust. Thinking outside the box often leads to significant discoveries outside the box.

 Give up your constant need to complain about those many, many, maaany things – people, situations, events that make you unhappy, sad and depressed. Nobody can make you unhappy, no situation can make you sad or miserable. It’s our response to others--‘endorsing’ the misery--that makes us suffer. It’s not the situation that triggers those feelings in you, but how you choose to look at it..

Give up your need to criticize things, events or people that are different than you. We are all different, yet we all are also so similar. We all want to be happy, we all want to love and be loved and we all want to be understood. We all want something, and something is wished by us all.

Stop trying so hard to be something that you’re not just to make others like you. It doesn’t work this way. The moment we stop trying so hard to be something that we’re not, the moment we take off our masks, the moment we accept and embrace the real ‘us’, we will find people who like us for who we are instead of who we have to remember and pretend to be.

Stasis is good. For living things to be in stasis, it means they’ve found the balance in taking in the new and sloughing off the old. To be unchanging is to be dead.

 Stop labeling those things, people or events that you don’t understand as being weird or different and try opening your mind, little by little. Minds only work when open. 

Stop reacting from fear. Instead, listen to what your thoughts and feelings may be advising you to run from and then consciously choose what’s appropriate.

Both in conversations with our ‘selves’ and with others. Instead of self-Justification, we practice honesty and self-Appreciation.

This doesn’t mean ignoring or forgetting our history—but choosing, wisely, how what we’ve learned in the past guides present choices.

Attachment is to not let go of certain feelings, thoughts, people, things, etc.—never mind if these things or good bad for us and those around us. A life of attachment means we're lugging around 4 suitcases full of our favorite 'blankies' (security blankets).

 “Wisdom calls aloud from the crossroads, the gates to the city, the marketplace.” At least that's the wisdom of Proverbs. Listen to the wisdom that rings truest for you, and move day by day to embody it, and then you’ll be fulfilling your own wise, healthy, and genuine expectations.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Letting Go of Thought (in order to Think)

When we meditate, we're consciously observing our thoughts--and letting them go--over and over and over with a touch (says Pema Chodron) "as light as a feather on a bubble." does 'awareness practice' work when we need to be thinking?

The following is a helpful snippet from Jack Kornfield's The Wise Heart.

The point of mindfulness is not to get rid of thought but to learn to see thought skillfully. We need to plan, think, organize, imagine, and create. Considered thoughts are a great gift. When we rest in the heart, then we can use thought wisely....

A professor of mathematics and topography who had come to meditation was worried because his work involved hours of thought. He asked how he could practice meditation while thinking through these complex math problems. Should he try to step back and always be deliberately aware of his thinking? This made him feel self-conscious. It was confusing.

I responded with a simple instruction: "First, check your motivation. Approach the math in a positive and creative way. Then, when thinking about math, just think about the math. If you get competitive and worry about publishing your solution before another colleague, that's not math. If you find yourself thinking about winning the Nobel Prize or the Field Medal, that's not math. Find a skillful motivation. Then do the math and enjoy the creativity of the mind."

The key to wise thought is to sense the energy state behind the thought. If we pay attention, we will notice that certain thoughts are produced by fear and the small sense of self. With them will be clinging, rigidity, unworthiness, defensiveness, aggression, or anxiety. We can sense their effect on the heart and the body. When we notice this suffering, we can relax, breathe, loosen the identification. With this awareness the mind will become more open and malleable.

...Now we can think, imagine, and plan, but from a state of ease and benevolence. It's that simple.