Remember to Breathe

Yesterday morning I was participating in the final Mass of the retreat I was a director for at the Jesuit Retreat House in OshKosh. Within an hour after that, I was outside of the house in which Elena lived at college this year packing the car with her belongings. (Considering how much she left in storage there for the summer, I was astounded at the number of boxes and bags we had to fit in the car.)  After an almost five hour drive, we were back in the Twin Cities where I spent several hours doing laundry, dealing with accumulated mail and running other errands as I get ready to leave again for another almost ten days.  This morning I packed and will soon head to the airport for a flight to New York for the opening of my cousin’s sculpture show, followed by a week of my own silent retreat at San Alphonso Retreat House on the New Jersey shore.

I’m exhausted all over again just reading what I’ve written!  It is easy to get overwhelmed when in the midst of crazy scheduling. (And, as though to underscore the scheduling frenzy, when Dave picks me up from the aiport a week from Saturday, we will head straight to the graduation party of the son of some friends.)

In times like this, I return to the beautiful breathing meditation suggested by Thich Nhat Hanh in Living Buddha, Living Christ. He suggests watching the breath come in and out, reciting with each breath these lines:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.

Sometimes I just need the reminder.  Breathe in…breathe out…smile…stay in the present moment.

I’m not taking my computer with me to New York.  My own silent retreat is the one time I ignore e-mails and other internet distractions.  So while I may post an occasional reflection here based on my retreat via my iPhone, you may not hear much from me until after my return on the 20th.  Please keep me in your prayers during the retreat.


What Do You Want to See?

In today’s Gospel reading from St. Luke, a blind man begs for Jesus to have pity on him. Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the man answers, “Lord, please let me see.”

As I sat with that prayer, “Lord, please let me see,” I heard/felt/sensed Jesus ask me, “What do you want to see?”

A two-fold answer sprang immediately to my mind. Lord, I want to see you in everything and everyone, was the first part of my response. Not just in the things in which it is easy to see God – a beautiful sunset, a beautiful mountain view – but in everything, including the places it is most difficult to recognize the presence of God. I prayed to see the presence of God in everything.

Lord, let me see the needs of others, was the second part of my prayer. Let me see their needs and see how I can help meet that need. Let me really see them.

Seeing both – seeing God in everything and seeing where others have needs I can meet – require mindfulness. Seeing requires that I take time to look. It requires that I am not so distracted by a million things on my mind and a laundry list of things to do that I can’t really see what it there. So I can pray to God to see, but I also have a hand in creating the conditions that allow me to do so.

Being Vigilant

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, contrasting the servants “whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival” with those did not make preparations for the masters arrival. “You also must be prepared,” Jesus tells his disciples, “for at an hour you do not expect the Son of Man will come.”

These words can be read in a number of different ways. We can read as saying “you don’t know when the end is coming,” end referring either to our own death or Jesus’ final coming. And it is certainly beneficial to live with an awareness that our end could come at any time. That is something we know intellectually, but we still live and behave as thought we had all the time in the world. (Think about how many times you think about next year’s vacation, or what you will do when you retire, etc. Always with the assumption that time will be there.) An awareness that our end could come at any time can be a powerful motivator.

But as I prayed with the passage this morning, I read it as also serving as a reminder that God can appear to us in any moment, in any situation.

God often appears to us in unexpected ways. But we can easily miss God’s presence if we are not open to it. It is very easy to box God in, having preconceived notions about how and where God will make God’s presence known.

Being aware of God where God is (already) present requires an openness. And we need to live each moment of our lives prepared for how God will break into our everyday.

When I Eat, I Eat

There is a famous Zen saying: “When I eat, I eat; when I sleep, I sleep.” Years of meditating, and I still need to be reminded occasionally of this need to be fully present in whatever it is I am doing.

It is easy for me to get into the habit of eating while I am doing something else. Unless I have plans to eat with someone, I bring my lunch to the law school and have a tendency to pull it out and munch on it as I continue to work on my computer. At home, except for dinner with Dave, I often eat while reading.

Yesterday, I made corn muffins on a whim. (I don’t tend to bake and my breakfast is most often fruit and yogurt.) I sat down with a muffin and my coffee, realized Dave took the newspaper with him and looked around the room. Noting that the dishwasher still need to be emptied, I took a bite of the muffin and started to get up to empty it. I didn’t think it linearly like this, but I was reacting to the thought, “Don’t want to just sit hear doing nothing; I can make this eating time more productive by getting something accomplished.”

Fortunately, as soon as the thought formed, I realized what I was doing and sat down. Just eat, I thought. And that is what I did. Sat and mindfully ate my corn muffin and drank my coffee, simply enjoying it and the moment.

When I eat, I eat.

We can get so used to multi-tasking, so used to feeling like we have to use every moment as productively as possible that it is easy to lose mindfulness. We need to be reminded: Whatever it is we are doing, be fully present in the act. Doing the thing we are doing (whatever it is) mindfully is enough.

Living in the Present Moment

My friend Gerry sent me the other day an excerpt from one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, Our Appointment With Life: The Buddha’s Teaching on Living in the Present. The statement of the Buddha’s teaching on living in the present moment is no less useful for Christians and other non-Buddhists as it is for Buddhists.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

Do not pursue the past.
Do not lose yourself in the future.
The past no longer is.
The future has not yet come.
Looking deeply at life as it is
in the very here and now,
the practitioner dwells
in stability and freedom

We must be diligent today.
To wait until tomorrow is too late,
Death comes unexpectedly.
How can we bargain with it?
The sage calls a person who knows
how to dwell in mindfulness night and day “one who knows the better way to live alone.”

Mindfulness is something we can all benefit from cultivating, and there are many practices for doing so (some of which I talk about in Growing in Love and Wisdom.)

Mindfulness and the Weather

One of the helpful insights from my periods of vipassana meditation practice is seeing more clearly the space between a state or condition and our reaction to that state or condition. When we are not mindful, we treat as almost a single moment both our reaction and that which prompted it, a mistake that increases our suffering

Yesterday was the first day of spring. You wouldn’t have been able to tell that from the weather in the Twin Cities; when I drove into the law school, the temperature was 5 degrees, with a forecast of a high of 20 for the day. Condition: a cold day in March.

The condition was what it was. Nothing anyone felt, thought or said was going to change the fact that it was cold in Minneapolis (and still today isn’t exactly what someone might term spring-like).

There are two possibile responses to the condition. Letting oneself get upset, annoyed, depressed, etc. (When I arrived at the law school yesterday, a quick Facebook check displayed a series of agonized comments from friends in the area: Things like “I am going to skin that lying groundhog alive! 5 degrees!?!???” or “6 in Edina this morning. What’s wrong with this picture?” I hear various versions of similar complaints from many people I saw that morning.) When that is the response, the condition itself seems worse, because now one has to face both the condition and the effect of the reaction.

The other possible response is simple awareness. I can let the day be cold without mentally engaging the condition in a way that disturbs my mind.

Being able to do that requires enough mindfulness to see the separate elements of our experiences. If we can see the separate points in the chain of an experience, we can see that we need not follow the chain. So, when I was sitting doing retreat during hot season in Thailand, where the air was thick and the sweat was rolling down my back, I had a choice. I could sit in misery, thinking/feeling, “Oh this heat is so awful. How can I possibly meditate when it is to uncomfortable…” Or I could simply be aware of heat, note the reaction it produces, and let it go, without getting involved in the reaction to it. Which approach I adopted had a tremendous effect on how I experience the heat. Likewise with the cold of “spring” in Minnesota.

I’m not saying I manage this all of the time. I’ve been heard to mutter a complaint now and then about the cold. But when I stay mindful, I can avoid the complaining mind, which dramatically reduces my suffering.

Humility and Mindfulness

I was looking for a link among my internet bookmarks and came across a blog I had once saved the link to but had not looked at in a while: Shirt of Flame. The post at the top was titled “The Litany of Humility.” The blog author, Heather King, shared how her life has ben transformed after “twenty-plus years of prayer, action, and inner work.” She writes

this is how my own world has transformed: I have a lot of opinions but I don’t ALWAYS have to air them. I’m still insanely triggered by petty slights, but I don’t ALWAYS have to let my hurt show. My likes often differ from yours, but I don’t ALWAYS have to point that out, thereby ruining or tainting your likes. I don’t ALWAYS have to be right, I don’t always have to have the last word, I don’t always need to over-apologize, over-thank, or over-explain. You can either find fault with every tiny thing–and trust me, I am a champion fault-finder, I am an expert fly-in-the-ointment seer–or you can say ‘God bless us all’ and move on.

I totally agree with King’s suggestion that behaving in this way requires humility,and she shares in the post a beautiful litany of humility that would be useful for all of us to pray each day.

But it also required mindfulness to refrain from airing opinions, letting the hurt show, pointing out the difference in likes and so on. This may be implicit in King’s description of her ability to do these thing as being a produce of her years of prayer and inner work, but it is worthwhile making the point explicitly.

Absent mindfulness, we rarely make a conscious choice to many of the behaviors she is now able to avoid. Absent mindfulness, we are habituated to air the opinions that pop into our mind, point out where we differ, feel we have to have the last word, etc. Humility is essential, but so is sufficient mindfulness that allows space between action and reaction, between stimulus and response.

Seeing People and Things As They Are

We use the term love in many different ways and have different definitions and understandings of what it means to love. I find a description of love given by Anthony de Mello to be one worth reflecting on.

In A Way to Love, de Mello writes that to love

means to see a person, a thing, a situation, as it really is and not as you imagine it to be, and to give it the response it deserves. You cannot love what you do not even see. … And what prevents you from seeing? Your concepts, your categories, your prejudices and projections, your needs and attachments, the labels you have drawn from your conditioning and from past experiences. Seeing is the most arduous thing that a human being can undertake. For it calls for a disciplined, alert mind, whereas most people would much rather lapse into mental laziness than take the trouble to see each person and thing anew in present-moment freshness.

Often what we say or think we love is our projection of someone or something, and not the person or the thing itself. But I think de Mello is right that, whatever else we can say about love, love is not possible unless we see clearly the object of our love, see the person thing as he/she/it really is.

And, as de Mello observes, seeing clearly takes effort and focus. It requires a mindfulness that allows us to be in the present moment when we encounter people and things.

Three Assumptions to Promote Trust

At the suggestion of my friend George, I am reading Chade-Meng Tan’ Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success.

Meng is an engineer who works at Google. Having become interested in what mindfulness can bring to a work situation, he developed a course at Google called Search Inside Yourself, a course designed to help people develop their emotional intelligence with the goal of becoming happier and more successful.

There are a number of things I might quibble with Meng over. But, for the most part, I think he does a wonderful job of both helping people understand why mindfulness meditation is useful and providing clear instructions for a number of meditation techniques. Although my own meditation has the aim of deepening my relationship with God and my ability to live a life of Christian discipleship, I have always said that everyone can benefit from mindfulness meditation, regardless of their religious affiliation or, indeed, whether they are religious at all.

One of the things I particularly like about Meng’s approach is that he combines formal meditation practices with suggestions for how one can engage in informal practices that utilize the insights from the formal practices in day to day situations (something I try to do in my own forthcoming meditation book).

One of Meng’s subjects that has to do with our ability to work with others is the importance of establishing trust. Absent trust, people feel the need to protect themselves from each other and are unwilling to have productive debates because of a fear of conflict.

Meng uses a simple approach to promote a greater sense of trust. He writes that when he chairs a meeting, he invites everyone to make three assumptions about everyone else in the room:

1. Assume that everyone in this room is here to serve the greater good, until proven otherwise.
2. Given the above assumption, we therefore assume that none of us has any hidden agenda, until proven otherwise.
3. Given the above assumption, we therefore assume that we are all reasonable even when we disagree, until proven otherwise.

The value of his suggestions in a work situation is self-evident. But it also seems clear to me that this advice has value and application outside of business meetings.

Just think about what our political and public discourse might look like if we all approached each other with these assumptions. Why not give it a try?

The Ego Also Rises

One of the wonderful by-products of extended periods of retreat is increased mindfulness. Almost a month after my annual 8-day silent retreat, I still experience the fruits of the extended period of meditation and prayer.

What that means, as a practical matter, is that I can see earlier than I might otherwise the ego arising to take over my reaction and response to situations.

This evening I was having a conversation with my husband about something that was causing great discord in me. I could see, as I was talking with him, how my reaction and response to the issue was shaped by the sense of my ego being bruised by the way someone was (indirectly) treating me.

I’m not going to say that I was sufficiently mindful to completely avoid being carried away by the emotion of the moment. But I could as I said earlier than I otherwise would have, see what was happening. Once I could see that, I could take a deep breath – OK a few deep breaths – and (admittedly with the help of my husband’s counsel) think about strategies that might alleviate the discord in an authentic way.

Things will arise that threaten our ego in various ways. The issue is how we will respond. And how we respond is very much affected by the level of mindfulness we bring to situations.

We all need to find ways to become more mindful, not just of what is going on around us, but by what is happening with us, moment by moment.