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...
Just hours after an immensely moving talk and inspiring workshop at Unity at the Lake in South Lake Tahoe, I was rear-ended by a young uninsured motorist while slowing down for a cat crossing the road just feet from my destination. Fortunately, I was extremely grounded and fully present in my body when the large SUV plunged into my vehicle. I was so present that as I assessed my body for damage, I talked the young man into a relaxed presence as he pleadingly apologized for his lack of attention and intention to make it right.
I'll share a few important take aways I've learned from this whole incident, but there's a little more to the story:
Fast forward a couple weeks and what I thought was going to be just a few sessions of acupuncture treatments for trauma and chiropractic adjustments has left me with an advanced level of emotional overwhelm. That and the building stress continue to leave me functioning at far less than half of my normal capacity. Writing on the book has gone to the wayside and coupled with the launch of my first in-person course a few days after my return, and I'm finding myself challenged on many different levels.
What's interesting is the thinking patterns that are arising. It's easy to be mindful and kind when things are going our way--setting intention and being present for ourselves and others--but what happens when we are under stress for long periods of time?
In the third semester for my Masters at SSU, we had a 10-unit course on the environment. Simultaneously, I was serving on the GE Committee in Lake County and undertaking the launch of what is now Lake Co-op. The layout of the class was such that the first 2/3rds of it was all the bad news about the environmental destruction, climate disruption and overpopulation issues we faced. It was intense and most of us in the cohort were finding ourselves deeply depressed--it was a heavy dose of reality check!
At the time, my annual silent meditation retreat took place over Thanksgiving break, but I still had assignments that were due upon return. It is recommended to not read or write during retreat, but to instead focus on becoming more fully present in the body, with the moment by moment direct experience. I usually sleep a lot the first couple days in retreat, but my stress levels had gotten so high that I was completely exhausted--yet, I thought I could mindfully read for my assignments.
Not a good idea--I not only couldn't relax, but the content that I was reading was so disturbing that I began experiencing heart palpitations, extreme exhaustion, fatigue and overwhelm. I thought I could just experience and observe the palpitations in the body, but when I spoke with one of my teachers, she invited me to put down the books and give my over-taxed nervous system a break. She pointed out that once we've reached the level of exhaustion and overwhelm, it takes very little to push us over the edge--again and again. My nervous system needed to reset itself and could only do so with lots of rest and kindness. The Acupuncturist I'm seeing for the accident concurs.
I don't seem to have the capacity for multi-tasking and planning right now. Which means I'm getting even further behind. Coupled with the extra travel and treatments, I'm panicking about how little I'm able to do.
When I thought I was getting better--the back and neck felt better, I was regaining energy and no longer frightened and on hyper-alert while driving--an attempt to get my exercise routine of golfing once a week (It's 1.5 - 2 hours of walking!) back in place turned me around quickly. I was exhausted in about an hour and had to retreat shaken and disturbed with foggy thinking, wobbly legs and an inability to do much of anything for the next 8+ hours.
Driving again became overwhelming and scary, just like after the accident, and I couldn't think through any decisions past the immediate moment. I was pushed over the edge again. My momentum has experienced another hiccup and I'm flooded with thoughts spiraling toward the negative--old thinking patterns. My typing is full of errors (more than normal!) and I'm seeing vignettes of distant memories of being ill in childhood. The depression I experienced when Shyla first passed is returning and I'm challenged to get the bare minimum needed for the commitments I have in front of me, much less planning for speaking engagements and courses and writing on the next book.
I'm seeing again a time when I should not push through the exhaustion and overwhelm. The good news is that my annual silent retreat is scheduled in just a few weeks. This time, I will honor my body and the retreat instructions and take a much needed rest for healing and to reset the nervous system. As well, to tune into that deeper still voice--that divine whisper--that can't seem to get through the layers of trauma right now to guide my next steps.
Here's a few of the take aways that may be helpful if you experience a traumatic situation:
I had an insight dream the other night that vividly showed me the evolution of who I've become since a small child. The fascinating thing about the realizations that arose is that who I've become started as a chain reaction to the fear I experienced growing up as the youngest in a sometimes explosive and chaotic alcoholic family system.
After being invited by Patty Lanier and Lisa Kaplan to lead a meditation for the local One Billion Rising awareness event in Middletown on February 14, 2014 , I did some personal reflection on my history with domestic violence. I wanted to bring my story to the group in a way that could maybe be helpful to others who have experienced violence--sexual or non-sexual. What arose surprised me because I hadn't really reflected on it since my days co-chairing the Domestic Violence Prevention Council in Lake County in 2005.
What I appreciated learning during that tenure as co-chair was that there was absolutely nothing that I can do to elicit an acceptable violent reaction--ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Regardless of how I dress, what words I use, who I choose to see, where I choose to live--none of these choices absolves the perpetrator of violence against me. Period.
I didn't understand this growing up. I was taught that I could dress in a way that would elicit acceptable force against me. Or, I could say something that would justify a smack across the face or a belt to my bottom. What this taught me was how to hold the victim of violence responsible for the violence, when, in fact, it was the perpetrator of the violence that was responsible.
In my family of origin this meant that I held my mom responsible for my dad's abuse of her and us kids. What did she do and why didn't she stop doing it so my dad would stop hurting her? Why didn't she rescue us kids permanently from my dad's drunken outrages? (She ran away--sometimes with us kids--more times than I can count!)
My mom is long gone now. She died way before I became enlightened about the truth of alcoholism in the family and domestic violence. (They don't necessarily go hand-in-hand, by the way.) And so for all her living days, I held an opinion and perspective of holding her responsible for the violent horror that was my childhood. I never got the chance to apologize to her for my misunderstanding--granted our culture itself supports and perpetuates these erroneous beliefs about domestic violence, and I think we all grew up believing these, but I now know better. Can we be held responsible for beliefs we undertake from within the culture? As my friend and colleague Hileri Shand used to say, "When we know better, we have to do better."
In twelve-step recovery circles they talk about making amends for those things you did wrong. Ideally the intention would be to make the amends directly to the person you harmed. But, in those cases where you can't make direct amends, either because they are no longer around, or you may harm them or someone else by doing so (think affairs, etc.), they invite you to make a "living amends." A living amends can take many different forms, but one is to do something in the area of your error that helps others that may have received the same harm by someone else.
As I pulled my thoughts together for the meditation, I empowered them with the intention for it to be a living amends to my mother. To apologize for all those mis-held beliefs about her role as a victim of domestic violence. When I shared this story at the event and then led the group through the loving kindness meditation that included a portion on forgiveness, I realized the significance of this small act in my own healing journey with my mother and my past as tears welled up.
One other thing became clearly renewed in my thinking as well--silence perpetuates the violence. One of the powerful things I learned when working with Adult Children of Alcoholic issues was how the silence helped keep the dysfunction intact. We filed it under "don't air your dirty laundry," but it was so much deeper than that--and it really supported the perpetuation!
Since becoming a public figure, I constantly weigh the impact of my sharing the truth of our family history on the remaining members of my family. While I only have siblings and one aunt left, their experiences in the family may have been quite different than mine. At the same time, there are indisputable facts about events that occurred--the scars that are left, or not, are what remain for opinions, I guess.
I was uplifted to hear a report today on NPR about a new approach in schools called 'restorative justice.' The idea is that rather than have a 'no tolerance' rule on violence, where the students are suspended and the event is never addressed, they now have talking circles with the students involved and the parents of those students--instead of suspensions. The intent is to be open and honest about the incident immediately and restore communication and healing effectively.
This sounds like a great leap forward in our awareness of how to resolve conflicts without violence. As the facilitator of the program said, though, coming from a culture that embraces violent solutions, rather than peace and harmony, it's a difficult task to tow. The good news is that the process is shifting. People are talking, and, as the One Billion Rising campaign insists--no more silence around the violence!
A question arose recently in the Introductory Course about the challenge of finding the best time to practice--especially when one's schedule is not consistent. In other words, how do we create consistency in the midst of inconsistency?
That's part of the "compassionate container." Consistency and boundaries around my time that build in healthy self-care are a kind way to treat myself in life. They create the opportunity for my authentic nature to arise, which is a more joyful nature.
Discovering when the best time to make some sacred time for ourselves is a journey in itself. Some of us find that we are more available in the mornings, before the daily activities pull us into active minds and bodies. Others find that it is more convenient and we are more available in the evenings after the busyness of the day. Finding this time is part of the exploration of discovering who we are--our preferences, our best times, our body's needs. A really important inquiry!
The following questions may help you discover this time:
For those of us with flexible schedules or schedules that are always changing, I've found that "backcasting" works the best. I allow myself 3 hours for my morning routine and travel time. So, if my first appointment is at 9:00am, I backcast from there and awake at 6:00am to begin my day. My routine includes a period of physical movement (yoga, qi gong, etc.) and sitting meditation, plus the usual cleansing, eating, dressing and preparing for the day. (I try to follow an Ayurvedic routine to keep my Vata dosha balanced.) So, regardless of what time I have to be somewhere, I allow myself this 3-hour window to touch in with the sacred.
Three hours?! Yes! My experience has shown that taking this time in the morning at an unhurried pace grounds me and sets the tone and my intention for the rest of my day. If I miss this period in the morning, I'm spending a lot of the day in a harried and scattered way. Not worth it!
The biggest challenge comes when I'm traveling and it isn't feasible for this routine to work. I can maybe go a few days out of routine before the effects are really disturbing and when they are, I find the time as soon as possible in my travel day to rest, pray and meditate--re-grounding when I'm flighty--sometimes literally.
I've also found that taking breaks midday, while challenging to remember and do, help settle and restore my clarity and intention. Sometimes it's a matter of taking 5 deep breaths, or stepping outside and resting in nature for a few moments.
The consistency in my practice does become more challenging the more varied my schedule is, but it is such an important part of my day--of my life--that I prioritize it and build it into my schedule. That is because it feels so good when doing it and it makes the rest of my day go so much better.
How about you? When is the best time in your day for your spiritual practice? How long does your practice take? What does it consist of?
I'm getting ready for the Introductory Course and the Mini Courses at Harbin in a few days. I'm always curious how to present mindfulness meditation in a way that conceptualizes it well for the beginner, so they understand the difference between accepting what arises in the mind and trying to quiet the mind, which translates in life as the difference of allowing life to happen rather than forcing it.
I was contemplating this this morning in meditation and shortly thereafter, my neighbor, Glinda, shared this poem that recently surfaced for her:
(c) Glinda Addington
Time is standing still this Winter
No weather to speak of
Things are floating up
From the bottom of the pond
I resist the urge to submerge them
Drop rocks on them
Put them back down
They surface and float
I can't help but look again
This so embodies the intention of the practice I write about in Companioning the Sacred Journey: A Guide to Creating a Compassionate Container for Your Spiritual Practice. Compassionate mindfulness is about showing up for it all--letting the swirling motion of the unfolding to dance into and out of our awareness--so that we are not driven by it. There is a freedom that comes with not needing to change anything. A freedom that allows for more choice on the cushion and in our lives.
The book is about creating a compassionate space where it can all arise and pass away of its own accord, and choice is present. Doing anything different creates much difficulty and delusion--or suffering, as it is called in the Buddhist tradition.
Controlling or forcing outcomes is not to be mistaken with cultivating spacious and gracious energy like the energy arts such as Reiki, Tai Chi, and Xi Gong accomplish. Cultivating is different and it is sometimes hard to distinguish the subtleties between the two. But, cultivating is focused on the present moment and process and there is no attachment to the outcome, whereas controlling is mainly focused on the outcome and there is attachment, desire and a goal. A quiet mind. Peace. A pain-free body.
It's like the conceptual difference between range and form in Yoga that I learned about this morning while searching for asanas that would help me touch my toes. This striving to reach a particular goal is considered to be of the ego--I'm focused on the outcome, wanting to control my body to reach a particular configuration. Whereas, if I am centered in the soul, then my focus is on the moment and the ease and union of spirit, mind and body. I fully inhale and exhale and am at peace with the process and the form my individual body takes in the flow of each moment. How close I get to my toes is irrelevant.
Most of my yoga life, I've easily been able to center in the ego--focusing on the range--because of my size, flexibility and strength. This likens to my life in general, as I reflect, as I've been graced with many fine talents and attributes. But, as my body and mind age, I can no longer afford this focus without harmful consequences. Nor do I want or need to, as wisdom now shows me--as more magic happens when I'm soul-based in my decisions and movements, both on the mat and off.
I just finished perusing the Face Book page of my colleague, Artie Egendorf, PhD, who shares his way to increase the energy flow and offers 3 free videos on his website. Combining compassionate mindfulness and energy cultivation exercises is a profoundly transformational path and is featured in my book, the Introductory Course and the Mini Courses.
These three random events were presented this morning when I was concerned and asked the Universe for help on how to introduce my students to the concept of mindfulness meditation. Surrendering this morning led me to people and interconnected ideas that now forward my process for presenting more sacredly aligned teachings in my work. If I focus on the outcome, it will most likely not live up to my expectations, but if I focus on staying aligned with the energies of this moment, ask for help when I need it, and surrender to what unfolds, it will most likely be perfect for all those that attend.
Thank you, Universe, for these blessings and reminders!
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.