It's easy to only want to practice mindfulness when the mind is calm and clear. Waiting for the best conditions to sit can actually hinder some of the greatest benefits mindfulness has to offer. When we begin our practice, we set a schedule--which part of the day and for how long--ahead of time. Then, we commit to it and barring an emergency, we stick to that commitment. It's easy to come up with many excuses to not sit--busy mind, not enough time, too noisy, can't sit still--but giving in to those excuses prolongs experiencing the peace and calm that wait for us on the other side of our practice.
My recent dance with sugar is getting painful. It leads to separation from the divine and reminds me of my dance with alcohol when I used to drink. It's painful because I can see the dance unfolding, and even though I'm trying to make deals with it, I know, inevitably, that it will win. It's the dance of addiction.
This morning, though, a remembrance sunk in when I went outside under the Three Sisters and sunk my bare feet into the wet, cold duff of pine needles and cones. It's the core of my addiction--a disconnection from the divine. Or a perception of disconnection, as we can't be separated from that which we are.
As I brought my prayerful hands to my heart and the energy quickly warmed up and tingled, I easily remembered how wonderful conscious divine connection feels. Far better than any drug--even sugar and chocolate--could feel.
Somewhat lost on what to do next, I found my way back to the Lord's Prayer, which I've only recently become reacquainted with.
I was raised on the Lord's Prayer, but abandoned it at a young age, when I abandoned my religion of origin, Catholicism. After this abandonment, the search for the truth brought me to virtually all religions and science, and in doing so, I've come to see the common thread of truth in them all.
One Saturday, while attending a healing ceremony with the John of God healing group that comes through Unity in Lower Lake, we sat for multiple hours reciting the Lord's Prayer as participants took their turns to meet with the healers and receive the prayers.
Since it had been so many years since hearing this and so many years of exposure to other spiritual and religious traditions, I found it interesting to see how my mind was able to interpret the prayer with this deeper and broader spectrum of knowledge. It became clearer to me what the truth was about the prayer and subsequently, it has now gained incredible power for me.
As a result of the day at Unity, the prayer has been reworked over and over in my mind to better reflect my understanding of its intention. I'm sharing it with you now, but want you to know that it is intended with the deepest reverence for all faiths (science included) and traditions:
This popped into my mind the other day as I was working with a client--a highly accomplished client whose heart is as big as the sky and who is passionate about many pressing issues we face. He is committed to making a positive difference in many areas, but he is beginning to notice an overwhelm to his day, coupled with a lack of joy, spontaneity and energy.
This is not an uncommon issue these days, particularly with highly capable people. There is so much to be done! And so much that can be done. And when you're highly capable and want to serve, burnout can be an ongoing concern.
Some of us work until it hurts. So, do we work until we burn out--until we are lifeless and need help ourselves--or do we set a pace that nourishes us and what overflows is what we can contribute to the world?
Looking to nature, it is true that heroic efforts are needed on occasion, but, if a natural system is in constant need of heroic efforts, then it is not sustainable--much less does it flourish and thrive. And, it will most likely die. But, if we look at the principle that life flourishes when conditions are right, then we can focus on creating the conditions themselves that will bring life to vibrant strength.
I'm reminded of the difference between eating a breakfast full of sugar or caffeine--sure I'll get a good boost of energy, temporarily, but most likely, I'll crash soon after and be even more tired than before. And I could continue to boost my energy with these temporary fixes, needing more and more to get the energy boost, but eventually I will crash in utter exhaustion.
On the other hand, a truly nutritious and steady diet of lentils, rice and a seasonal vegetable for breakfast creates a dependable and unshakable energy that enriches me until lunch time. Particularly if I don't over eat, which taxes the body more than necessary.
I'm also reminded of the 70% principle in Qi Gong--basically to do the posture at 70% of my capacity, with the understanding that striving for 100% creates tension and stress in the body. This is longevity built right in, just like the nourishing breakfast.
If we'd rather be flourishing instead of hurting, the invitation is to cultivate the conditions that help us thrive. For me, it is when I'm well rested, well exercised, at ease in my mind, not rushed, and doing something I truly love. I particularly thrive when I get regular periods of connection with nature, which is why, weather permitting, I do my QiGong practice nestled under the tall conifers in my backyard.
When are you at your best? What makes you thrive? If you don't know, or are at the stage of exhaustion, try rest first. Extended rest, if possible, to give the nervous and other body systems time to reset to a state of balance and health. From there, begin an adventure of exploration both inward and outward to see what conditions are necessary for your blossoming.
You can listen to a version of this talk HERE.
I am always humbled and excited when I get the opportunity to speak at an event such as this, particularly when the event is coupled with the Hands Around the Lake and in solidarity with the People's Climate March happening in Manhattan right now. Thank you for inviting me to participate, as I feel very passionately about all these issues.
I think we pretty much all know that we can't have world peace until we have individual peace; that we are all part of the equation. When making this assumption, we usually talk a lot about the importance of social, environmental and economic justice, but today I want to really dive into inner peace and what it takes. And I've got some really good news!
or did my circumstances change because I'm happier?
This inquiry arose this morning while sinking my feet into the moist duff at the base of the tall pines in my back yard. The Sisters--two pines, one Douglas Fir and one cedar--create the sacred space where I do morning Qi Gong and meditation, weather permitting. This morning, because of the recent rain, the moisture softened the normally crackly dry forest floor of needles, branches and cones. My feet could snuggle in and the dampness also increased the pleasing aroma from the pine forest. To me, it's reminiscent of camping.
I've been enjoying researching mindfulness and particularly neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the phenomena where the mind can actually change the physiology of the brain--mental training and/or experience has the power to change the physical structure and functioning of the brain.
What does this have to do with happiness? Well, if we can use our minds to actually change the brain, we can self-direct our thoughts to create more of a sense of happiness--more contentment. Less discontentment. And this is all without having to change our external circumstances. We would become less dependent on others for our happiness, so relationships could take on a new purpose and we would be less dependent on our external world, so our consumption patterns could change.
The implications of this are far reaching, really, particularly at a time when it is estimated that 50% of the creatures on the planet will be extinct in 85 years in part due to our over consumption patterns.
This understanding--that we can affect the literal part of our brain that generates a sense of well being and happiness--not only points to the reality that happiness truly lies within us, but more importantly, that we do co-create our own reality. On an even grander scale, this is conscious evolution--self-direction to our next level of being. And, as so many have been intimating for so long, we are the ones we've been waiting for.
We have what neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison calls a "happiness set point," according to a 2007 article in Time Magazine. To keep this simple, the set point is the relative level of activity that a person returns to in the left and right prefrontal cortex area of the brain after experience (positive or negative). This baseline is different for everyone, but Davidson noticed some interesting things when doing research with Buddhist monks.
The novice practitioners in the experiment did experience some immediate benefit--the area of the brain that distinguishes between self and other is quieted during compassion-based exercises, which can be "as if the subjects...opened their mind and hearts to others." according to author Sharon Begley.
Most intriguing, though, was that the long term meditators had markedly more activity in the left prefrontal cortex--where happiness is marked in the brain, which correlates with a higher baseline level of contentedness. This was not evident in the novice practitioners, which indicates that an increased positive state of being can be trained over time. He also noticed in the long term practitioners a greater activation in the network associated with empathy and maternal love.
What does this suggest for our future when we can generate our own states of contentment, empathy, maternal love and happiness? Personally, if our experience of happiness is truly in our own hands, we might want to get started with ways that can generate these states of being (mindfulness and compassion-generating exercises) and see for ourselves what happens.
Also, we can explore what happens as a result of a happier state of being. What have you noticed when you are in a happy state? Does life flow easier? Do your external circumstances and people's response to you change as a result? Am I happier because my circumstances changed, or did my circumstances change because I'm happier?
What about collectively? Could this be the missing link to our survival as a species? Could experiencing more personal happiness arrest our fear-driven insatiable appetite for more consumption that has us, and many other creatures, on the brink of extinction?
It never fails: If I start my day without time for wakeful attention devoted to mind and body, I'm more likely to live that day anxiously scattered and full of self-judgement and insecurity about my doings. Creating a bubble of quiet time spent in gentle movement and mindfulness meditation before engaging in any external activity affords me a groundedness and clarity that then accompanies me throughout the day. Usually, my intentions for the day are set during this silent time.
Particularly if an activity involves any technology-related mechanism, if I engage prior to my morning routine, I'm less likely to stay focused on the important things in my life and get sidetracked. There are many valuable and sometimes urgent things vying for my attention and even though I used to think I could attend to it all, honestly, I can't. Not if I want to make headway on projects and tasks that I'm working on.
After my sacred morning time, the first work of the day is on projects that usually entail writing. I attend to these without interruption, which means I turn off my phone and message alerts, don't check email, and by all means, don't check my Facebook accounts!)
I recently read this on the Mindfulness Living Program website...
No one really knows what will come up for them on retreat, but we can be guaranteed that we will get much opportunity to "look at our stuff." My latest retreat at Spirit Rock afforded me the opportunity to deeply reconnect with my body, experience some seemingly bottomless grieving, catch up on much needed rest and connect with other mindfulness teachers that are bringing this powerful practice into the world.
It is well over a year and a half since Shyla died, but if I reflect, I've had very little time to go deep with my grief until now. I recently sold our kayak, which brought a new wave of feelings of loss. I was surprised to see how much emotional grieving was still buried inside. For whatever reasons, mourning the loss of my life and spiritual companion was one of the major themes of the retreat. Here's an excerpt from my journal of a profound realization I experienced...
JoAnn Saccato, MA is an author, mindfulness teacher, educator, and consultant in Northern California. She helps her clients and community discover many ways to create the conditions and apply simple tools to companion themselves on a sacred journey, bringing more groundedness, acceptance, clarity, joy, authenticity and values-based responses to life.