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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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.”
“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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What’s Your Spiritual Mood?

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I used to think that when you were in a spiritual — or rather, Spiritual — state of mind, there’d be a certain mood present: peaceful, transcendent, joyous. Or maybe having religious overtones, somber and reverential. I imagined Spirituality as the good or higher aspect of ourselves that overcomes our human weaknesses and failings. Emotional entanglements, negativity, uncertainty and doubt were relegated to the flawed, human domain. When you were in touch with your Spirituality, through practices like Yoga, meditation, generosity and kindness, even eating right — those “negative” states would magically fade away, leaving nothing but the proverbial lightness and love in their wake.

You see where this is going, right?

Right. Throughout plenty of those practices, I felt good — I felt like I was on target, getting it “right.” But no matter how much Yoga I did, or praying, chanting, meditation and all the rest, those emotional entanglements kept coming. I kept feeling anger, uncertainty, judgment, doubt. When that happened, I felt I wasn’t practicing well enough, or simply enough at all — I was getting it “wrong.” I felt like two sides of a coin, and both sides couldn’t be visible at the same time.

That’s a pretty big burden to place on spirituality, and on a human being in general. Fortunately, through mindfulness meditation practice, I eventually learned something — spirituality is actually like a lens through which we examine our lives in their entirety, with nothing exempt. It’s a point of view that says it’s not what we experience that is problematic, but the way we relate to it that might be. Nothing is magically transformed by affixing the “Spiritual” label to it. We can opt to cultivate certain qualities but we have to first really understand and accept the truth of our own experience.

What a relief! Not only can we can actually be human, with all our victories and failures, joys and sorrows, shadows and light, but there’s actually no other way to be. The trick is seeing it for what it is, and moving through. A “bad day” becomes just a bad day, not some kind of damnable moral failure. And such feelings as anger, fear, sorrow, confusion and doubt become aspects to be welcomed and known like the familiar visitors they are. Knowing that makes me go a little easier on myself and move through the shifts just a little more gracefully.

The following poem is one of my favorites, and I think it speaks to this idea with great beauty and grace. I find it ever more inspiring as time goes by, and I hope you find something in it for yourself as well.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house. 
Every morning a new arrival. 

A joy, a depression, a meanness, 
some momentary awareness comes 
as an unexpected visitor. 

Welcome and entertain them all! 
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, 
who violently sweep your house 
empty of its furniture, 
still, treat each guest honorably. 
He may be clearing you out 
for some new delight. 

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, 
meet them at the door laughing, 
and invite them in. 

Be grateful for whoever comes, 
because each has been sent 
as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi, 13th c. Sufi mystic poet

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