Mindfulness and Healing

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When we cut ourselves deeply, we cover the wound with a bandage to protect it and let it heal. It can be painful for quite a while. Eventually, we need to uncover the wound and expose it to the air in order for it to heal fully. We might develop some scar tissue, which serves to remind us of the injury and its cause. We might hate our scars, and try to cover them up. We might feel quite neutral towards them. We might even wear them as a badge of honor.

The psychic healing process has some parallels, but is generally a little more complex. Depending on the severity of our wounds and the environment we’re in, we may choose — often unconsciously — not to expose them at all, but instead to cover them up in a variety of ways. Like scar tissue, a whole new identity might grow over them. We might even forget who we were and what we felt like before we were wounded. How we relate to our wounds becomes the basis of our life experience.

As the child of a trauma survivor, my journey has had a particular complexity. In our house, the trauma was never discussed. It wasn’t even known to me consciously until right after my mother’s death, when, while taking a long walk outside during the shiva week, my father revealed it to my brother and me abruptly, suddenly, like the gasp of air that comes when you’ve been underwater too long and finally break the surface.

My mother never dealt with her trauma; instead, she left a legacy of mental and emotional knots for me to inherit and unravel. This long and winding road has shaped me, informing my choices and governing my growth. It’s had everything to do with why I learned from an early age to hide and compartmentalize the different aspects of my life, so much so that it took years to fully realize the extent to which I did this and the impact that it had, and even more years to pull the pieces back together.

More than anything else, the practices of Yoga, meditation and mindfulness have been the most profound for me in penetrating the layers of identity and exposing these psychic wounds. In mindfulness we say that the important thing is not whether or not we experience difficult emotions, but rather how we relate to them. In my case, there’s been a lot of stop and go. Fully experiencing the pain was, many times, too threatening, and I’d back away from the edge. At the same time, tasting the freedom that lay just beyond was enticing, but evoked an equal threat. It’s been a frustrating and often paralyzing dynamic.

While we may like the idea of healing, it’s important to understand that it is a painful process. However if we turn away from it, our patterns simply repeat themselves.
I’ve watched myself, time and time again, sabotage opportunities, ruin relationships and thwart my own success. Many times I punished myself for this, which was like kicking my own legs out from under me just when I was trying to stand back up. I’ve harbored shame, guilt, and a haunting sense of unworthiness. It’s taken a good deal of self-compassion to face this fully, accept myself and truly let go of the past.

Listening to the pain takes patience, and learning to respect how much we can tolerate at any given time. As we do in our practice, we need to keep returning our attention to the present and relate to our energy in a new way. By letting the waves of anger, sadness, regret and loss move up and out of us, we make more space for calmness and joy. Experiencing that fully serves to build our faith; with more faith, we develop the strength to keep going. It makes me think of what happens in weight training — as the stress makes the muscles develop microscopic tears, it is scar tissue that heals them and rebuilds them even stronger than before. Instead of choosing to hide in shame, all of us who are healing would do well to think of ourselves as weight lifters, Olympic-style, going for the gold.

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Pulling Up The Roots

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Recently, I hurt someone I love and care about deeply. It wasn’t intentional, but it was the kind of hurt that ruins relationships and makes you wonder if you actually know yourself at all. In strictest terms, mindfulness didn’t initially seem to be a whole lot of help, as I was quite present with the awful pain of the situation but also riddled with self-judgment and self-hatred at having caused it. It didn’t seem as if a sitting meditation practice was even an option, as I couldn’t imagine focusing on anything other than the pain.

An interesting thing quickly happened once I got on the cushion, though. The initial onslaught of thoughts consisted mostly of replaying the scenario over and over again, evoking a familiar litany of reactions. I wondered how I could ever forgive myself, especially if my friend did not forgive me. I thought I did not deserve happiness, I would end up alone forever, miserable, etc., etc. I breathed, and for just a second here and there, put some space between me and my thoughts. Miraculously, it was enough to give rise to some new thoughts — like the realization that if I solidified those judgments I would create that reality for myself (karma), and I didn’t want to do that. Since I was sitting, I kept practicing letting all the thoughts go and returning to the breath. Not easy, but every once in a while the space would open just a little. New awarenesses arose and later on, I could return to them. But for the time being, it was about letting go, over and over again.

When the practice was over, I was able to see my behavior with a new clarity, recognizing that it was rooted in deeply held patterns that had held me hostage for years. Coming face to face with these roots, I could see that while my behavior toward my friend was hurtful, it had caused far greater hurt to someone else who was important — to me. In order to forgive myself for hurting someone else, I had to first forgive myself for hurting me. I looked squarely at everything I sacrificed over the years in service of this pattern, an outdated code of conduct and sense of identity: a relationship, a family, financial success, so many things I really wanted but told myself I didn’t, or couldn’t. Why did I persist in telling myself these things? Whose interests did I think I was serving? Family? The past? News flash, folks: the past is over. I couldn’t change it then, and I sure couldn’t change it now, so WHY was I still trying? It felt like the time I did an Outward Bound course. During the last activity, the zip cord line, I became paralyzed with fear, unable to jump. I must’ve stayed on the platform for at least 20 minutes — at first everyone was cheering and encouraging me. Eventually, they all just moved on and went to lunch. I knew could stop there but I also knew I’d hate myself if I did. After begging, pleading and bargaining with myself, a switch eventually seemed to flip in my brain. I finally loosened my grip and slipped off the platform. I shrieked, zipped across the wire, and landed, at long last, on my feet, safely. I felt freed in that moment in a way I never had, and I realized that holding myself back was one of the biggest obstacles I had developed to my own happiness.

A visceral, experiential learning moment like that is exhilarating and expansive, and my initial reaction to what I can only call the uprooting of the neurosis felt that same way. Since then, it’s been a little less straightforward. There are aftershocks in this process, and visits from familiar fears and doubts who still like hanging around. Most notably, there is intense grief, as this is a loss tantamount to any you might experience.

I don’t know if my friend has forgiven me, or ever will. I hope so, because the burden of unforgiveness is a heavy one to carry. But I know that having forgiven myself, the freedom of new possibilities is in front of me. And if the pattern knocks on my door again, as it may well do, I hope to finally recognize it as the unwelcome visitor it is, and, even if I indulge it briefly, send it packing before it’s had the chance to get too settled.

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Got Till It’s Gone

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Sometimes a popular song offers more than just a catchy tune — it can also hold a nugget of wisdom that has universal appeal. When Joni Mitchell sang, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone,” she hit on something that mindfulness practice uncovers.

Recently I lost my voice to laryngitis after a longer-than-usual cold that threw me for a loop. After two weeks of intense symptoms I finally resolved to call the doctor. However after waking from a night of particularly intense hacking, I found I was unable to speak. This had never happened before and my initial reaction was intense fear. When I realized I wouldn’t be able to make myself heard or understood on the phone, the edges of panic moved closer. Since I live alone, the feeling was magnified. I quickly got to work texting and emailing friends and neighbors, creating a support network that helped me cope. One friend called the doctor for me; another called my client and explained to her that I’d have to cancel. I used texting throughout the day to stay in touch with people, and thankfully I have enough supportive people in my life that I didn’t feel completely alone.

So what does this have to do with mindfulness practice? Mindfulness is being aware (and non-judgmental) of what is happening in the present and facing it fully. It also creates some space around our habitual patterns so that we don’t necessarily get trapped by our automatic reactions. As soon as that happens, it begins to get interesting. When we‘re able to face things fully, we find we have choices.

The objective reality of having laryngitis was that I couldn’t speak — or rather, couldn’t speak above a garbled whisper. The choices then became myriad. There was fear, but how should I deal with it? Freeze? Or find those alternative means of communication and support? I could opt to become depressed over this sudden limitation (I couldn’t work for a while, which meant I would lose income, which bummed me out), or I could accept a situation I just couldn’t control. I could worry about how long this was going to last (and a little online research showed that it might last as long as a week), or I could think about things I could do that didn’t rely on speaking. Social events were out of the picture — even dinner with a friend (who didn’t worry about my possible contagion) wouldn’t work. But I could read, I could write, I could watch t.v. (okay, it doesn’t take a case of laryngitis to make me do that). I could also choose to pay attention to what it was like to not speak (even to myself, which I’ll admit I do frequently), and realize how lucky I am that normally, I can order my sandwich directly at the deli and not have to pass it to the counterman on a slip of paper. In other words, I could appreciate what I’d had now that it was gone.

At a talk I attended recently, the wonderful Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh said that we don’t appreciate how good our head usually feels until we have a headache. Once the headache is gone, we are suddenly refreshed by the absence of the pain. We could argue that it’s human nature to take so much of our lives for granted, but meditation practice reminds us that we can also choose to cultivate awareness and gratitude for things, and for people. How often do we hear of people losing loved ones without ever having told them how they truly felt, or resolving longstanding issues between them? Ironically, I had chosen this particular week not to speak to my boyfriend over a communication mishap (we have a lot of those). It also commemorated 25 years since my mother passed away — and trust me, there was a world of unspokenness between us.

It isn’t always easy to look at ourselves and see clearly what we’re doing and not doing. The great power of mindfulness is in the choices that awareness brings us. We can choose to recognize and appreciate the good, even miraculous elements that are present in every day, as well as fully experience our pains and sorrows. After all, one of life’s fundamental truths is that everything is impermanent, so we can be sure that no matter what we’ve got, one day it’s going to be gone.

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Mindfulness and the Mouse

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I saw a mouse in my apartment last night. And I reacted.

Screaming? Check. Frantic pacing around the house repeating “What am I gonna do?” Check. Calls to my neighbors, the security desk, the maintenance department, even standing on a chair? Check, check, check and check.

Following through with my impulse to gather all my things and go stay overnight with friends in the city and, essentially, checkmate?

Hold up…


As I eventually moved through my highly charged, reactive state, I realized that packing up and heading into the city at 11:00 at night would not only be incredibly inconvenient, but also probably serve to strengthen and solidify the fear (which, everyone assured me, was much less than that of the poor little mouse. “He’s much more terrified of you than you are of him.” Yeah, right.). My fear was real, but the scenarios I created as a result of (maybe even in service of) these fears were not. It helped that the friends I called were sympathetic but not panicky, and did not support these fantasies.

As I calmed down, I was able to relax a little and decide to go to sleep and hope for the best. Yes, I left all the lights in the rest of the house on, and yes, my dreams were filled with images of — well, you know. But the fact that I was able to sleep there at all was something of a miracle to me, and I’m going to give credit to mindfulness, since it helped me cut through my raging fears and fantasies of what was likely to happen if I stayed. And this morning when I saw him run out and go back to where he came from, my scream was a lot quieter, and I was even able to stay seated on the couch.

If he shows up sitting across from me while I’m having dinner, though, all bets are off.

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Spiritual Imperialism

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I was at a meditation training last weekend working on the foundations of mindfulness practice. On Saturday, we spent the whole morning practicing relaxing into our breath and allowing ourselves to be exactly who we are.

After lunch, I said hello to the man on the cushion next to me.

“What did you have for lunch?” he asked me.
“ChiPOTLE?!” His face twisted in a grimace.
I laughed. “I can see by your face how you feel about that!” I said. “I like Chipotle.”
“You know they’re owned by McDonald’s,” he said. I nodded. “That doesn’t bother you?”
I paused. “Nope!”

I laughed to myself after that. His judgment was palpable and oh, so ironic. Yes, we must allow ourselves to be exactly who we are.

Unless, of course, who we are is spiritually offensive.

I don’t know if the irony was lost on him or not as I chose not to respond further, but it did get me to thinking. I can certainly understand his feelings about McDonald’s and the opinion that as a corporation they should not be supported in any way. (In fact, when I told this story to a friend they told me Chipotle was being investigated by the federal government for legal violations in hiring practices, and that gave me pause.) Several years ago I chose not to eat Balance nutrition bars any longer when I realized their parent company was Phillip Morris. To me, cigarettes are more egregious than McDonald’s and I made that choice. I believe in voting with your dollars, and I believe that we ought to make ethical choices about the companies and products we choose to use and support. I think investing in “green” and sustainable ventures is a good thing, and that social responsibility is important. And energy efficiency. And vegetarianism, much of the time. And loving thy neighbor as thyself. And…well, here’s the thing:

I’m not perfect. None of us is. So when I hear people saying the world would be a better place if only more people practiced Yoga and meditation, what I think they’re often saying is, the world would be a better place if everyone just thought like ME.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying that all beliefs are equal, that I don’t value some and criticize others, and that I don’t believe ideas and beliefs are to be debated, challenged torn down or defended. What I am saying is that the arena of spiritual practice and inquiry isn’t the place to do that. Instead, it’s the place to explore letting go of all those psychological constructs in order to possibly experience something deeper: the fundamental energy that we all have in common, from the best to the worst of us. The life force. That thing which, when you are living, keeps you breathing, talking, walking, thinking…and which somehow leaves your physical form when you die. It may sound mystical, but really, I think this is where it’s at.

My understanding of spiritual practice is that at the deepest level, we’re seeking a direct experience of ourselves as that energy (the word that best describes it for me). If we found it, how would that influence our perceptions and judgments, both of others and of ourselves? The Shambhala tradition, in which I’m currently studying, asks us to posit that all of us are, at our core, fundamentally good. When I’ve heard this idea presented in public forums, it’s usually generated conflict over how it could be true of the people who reflect to us the worst — murderers, psychopaths, deviants (Osama Bin Laden was a recent example). When you look at it through the morally dichotomous good/bad lens, it is a tough argument to reconcile. However, in this context, “good” means that it’s a pretty amazing, incredible, essentially good thing that we’re even alive on this planet at all. The more we can realize this goodness through inner-directed practice, the more we can bring it to the outer world, feeling better about ourselves and about others, even those folks we find most challenging, or with whom we fundamentally disagree.

Believe me, I’m not there yet. I do my best, but there are times when I’d rather give in and wallow in the familiar muddy waters of judgment, clinging to my ideas, prejudices and even my sense of separateness. I don’t stay there too long, though. Instead, I get back on the path of possibility, not only because it feels too important not to, but because I really don’t have a choice. It’s like when I get up in the morning and I’m not fully awake — although the comfortable bed keeps calling me, I just can’t go back to sleep.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go get some lunch.

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On Obsession

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I’ve been thinking lately about obsession.

Reflecting on a bad breakup (are there any good breakups?) where the stream of thoughts went something like this: How could he just end it like that? How could he say all those things and still act like that? It doesn’t make sense. I can’t believe it. But I have to believe it. Still, it makes no sense. You know what, I don’t want to think about this anymore, it’s just making me unhappy. I’m not going to think about it. I think I’ll do some practice instead — let me get my mat out. Yes, that’s better. I’m glad I’m not thinking about it anymore. It just hurts to think about it. I still can’t believe it though. I just think it could have gone so differently. It doesn’t make any sense. If only he would have — no, I said I’m not thinking about it anymore. It’s over, it’s done. I’m moving on. Yes. There’s a training I want to go to, let me register for that. That will be productive. Yes, focus on something productive, something positive. That will feel much better. It’s already much better. Still…I just don’t see how he could do that. It makes no sense. Why did it have to happen like that? I don’t deserve this. If only he would have…if only I could have…if only…if only…if only…” And so on.

A situation like this is an enormous opportunity to explore the concept of suffering, which, in Buddhist terms, is defined as maintaining our attachment to things that are destined to change. And since everything is fundamentally impermanent, that means everything! For me, it was a process of being able to look rationally at the situation, see what was good, what was bad, acknowledge that many (most) relationships don’t work out the way you hope they will, feel the disappointment, the hurt, the anger and the grief. All good, right? At the same time, however, it was a process of repeating entire streams of thought, fantasies and story lines over and over, which only reinforced the pain. Meditation practice was an invaluable help, with its training in shifting our attention away from our thoughts and feelings, bringing it back to the neutrality of the breath, and noticing how this affects our experience. It showed me how I can be emotionally devastated one minute, but then, when caught up in another activity — like teaching a class or researching something on the Internet — feel completely fine. Truly illustrative of how our thoughts can create our experiences, and an indicator of the empowerment potential in understanding how our minds work and creating change.

What I find most interesting, though, is why we obsess in the first place. We know we can’t change the past. Do we really want to experience more pain? The best answer I have at this point reminds of me of an old song by Carly Simon: “Suffering was the only thing made me feel I was alive…” Obsessive thinking keeps the pain fresh, giving us a feeling of aliveness. And even if something or someone is not physically present in our lives, obsessing about them can give us the illusion that they are, maintaining our feeling of connection — but our connection is actually to the suffering! The attachment can be so important that while we may take temporary pain relievers of every type — pills, alcohol, food, sex, shopping, you name it — or find new relationships that repeat the same old patterns, we never really go in for the root.

If you think about a painful situation you’ve experienced where you too kept replaying those tapes in your mind and making yourself miserable, can you identify with that process making you feel alive in some way? Or making you feel like you could hold onto something? Is it possible to realize that fundamental impermanence and let the waves of our pain, our grief, even our joy and love come and go like the tides? If we can understand this, together, then maybe we can learn to live our way into the other part of the song: “Now I haven’t got time for the pain, I haven’t got room for the pain, I haven’t the need for the pain.” Amen.

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