Building community in a changing world

Monthly Archives: July 2020

July 30, 2020

Not Sleeping Well? Join the Club

I’ll spare you the details of my odd patterns of sleep over the past few months. I’ve learned to live with it. Giving myself some self-compassion. But this Dan Harris podcast with Dr. Donn Posner gave me pause. I don’t want to turn my odd sleep schedule into something more permanent – something with the term “disorder” attached to it.

Dr. Donn is well-spoken and it’s a fun podcast to listen to. Weird to say it was “fun” – but it kinda was. He offered a number of tips about how to deal with insomnia. Having a structure to your day obviously is important, paying attention to your circadian rhythm. Check it out!

July 28, 2020

The Mindfulness Role of “Voice”

Given that I’ve been blogging about voice assistants – including hearables & wearables – for some time over on, I would be remiss if I didn’t note the impact that voice has made in the mindfulness space. Here’s a collection of random thoughts:

– Mindfulness companies have made a big bet on voice, none bigger than Headspace (a meditation app with over 60 million users)
– There’s all sorts of free guided meditations available on Alexa and Google Assistant (this article talks about some of those)
– Personally, I like “Real Simple Relax” on Alexa for guided meditations.
– Don’t forget the role of wearables here. My good friend, Victor Dristas, notes that Apple Watch’s breathing app can provide reminders during the day to pause & breath intentionally.

It feels strange to talk about mindfulness in the same breathe as technology since our screens often are a barrier to being fully present – but technology can be used to our advantage for just about any purpose…

July 24, 2020

My First Week-Long Silent Meditation Retreat

I just realized that my blog about my first silent retreat was posted over on my other blog, since that happened just before this blog existed – so I’m copying it here since it’s a better fit: Just back from my first weeklong silent meditation retreat, something I’ve been heading towards after five years of engaging in a variety of mindfulness practices. It was good timing given I’m not working right now and had just spent two weeks at the beach in Florida. So I was sort of unplugged already.

The retreat was part of Jonathan Foust’s fabulous “Year of Living Mindfully” (you must check out Jonathan’s dharma talks available in podcast form). The retreat’s schedule was more structured than you might imagine. After the 5:30 am wakeup bell, we participated in ten different “sits” before we went to bed at 9:30 pm. Between the sits, we had ample time to mindfully walk or eat a meal. Being silent meant no reading or writing – and of course, no electronics – and we even had to avert the eyes of our fellow yogis as we moved about. We were focusing inwards.

Here’s a few items that might help give you the feel of the retreat – I went in fairly blind and had no idea this is how the experience would be:

1. Escape Fantasies – I understand how most would roll their eyes at the notion of a weeklong silent retreat. I was one of those for years. But it was a condition to being accepted to the “Year of Living Mindfully” program that I’m enrolled in. And I was totally game anyway because I’m in a state of ‘Just Say Yes’ to most things these days.

That doesn’t mean I wasn’t apprehensive. I felt scared the entire drive down. What if I had a transformative experience and wasn’t the same? How could I bear being silent? What excuse could I find to leave early? Little did I know that those escape fantasies would never really dissipate. In my mind, I was looking for ways to leave during most of the week.

2. Sleeping with Others in Silence – As almost always happens in life, the things you spend time worrying about never come to fruition. Going in, I was worried about the sleeping arrangements. One of my biggest challenges these days is sleeping soundly. I’m often up before 5 am. And can’t get back.

I arrived to find that I would be sleeping in close quarters with three other guys, with six more upstairs in two small bedrooms. But I slept like a baby. Never even knew the name of a few of my roommates. And of course, I didn’t speak to any of them. The house only had two bathrooms – but getting into a bathroom was never an issue. Once we were awake, we were rarely there and folks took showers throughout the day.

3. Feeling the Power of Nature – In silence, your senses are heightened. They’re magnified even more if you’re meditating much of the day. Really hearing the sounds of nature. The hum of a bee swarm. The calls from a flock of geese. The breeze rustling on your cheeks. The crunch of your feet on the path.

Ah, the sights. The bright stars hanging in the nighttime sky. The sun pouring in at the break of dawn. The small ripples of waves folding over in the river. And then there’s the bodily feeling of it all. The trees calling to you, feeling their vitality as they become one with you.

4. The First Sit of the Day – Each sit felt different than any other. We are in a constant state of change. And on this retreat, I was definitely unsure what each day would bring. You were intensely aware of that. But having said that, the first sit of the day always felt a little special. Your legs feeling fresh (I would often sit in lotus position – many sat in chairs). Feeling your present. A little excited about what that day might bring.

5. The “Unplugged” Maelstrom – The first few days of a retreat can be particularly challenging. Your mind – and body – becoming accustomed to being unplugged. Letting all that stimulation – all that stress – go. I experienced a loud hum by the afternoon of the second day, followed by a migraine, some paranoia, as my reality emerged. By the third day, that type of tumult had faded away.

6. The Pleasures of Mindful Eating – Our diet consisted of simple plant-based meals. Luckily, my diet going in was fairly healthy – so my body didn’t experience much of an adjustment on that front. The huge adjustment for me was the pace of eating.

We weren’t instructed to do so – but the group quickly fell lockstep into a habit of eating quite deliberately. Placing a small forkful of food in your mouth. Perhaps just a solitary bean. Setting the fork down to slowly chew. Taking a few long breaths before feeling the urge to do it again. Eating a salad could easily take over 20 minutes. Nowhere to be. Nothing to do. Just enjoy.

7. The Intensity of (Not) Eating Alone – I’d say the biggest surprise was the power of sitting with 60 people for a meal. All of us not looking at each other. Not talking. Each of us being so intentional in our actions. It would get emotional at times. It was wonderful.

8. Oh Yeah, The Silence – Noble silence. Another surprise was how easy it was not to talk. Not talking is much easier than giving up the cell phone. The newspaper. The TV. And we did talk some. We met in small groups with a teacher every other day to discuss our experiences so far. We chanted at the end of the last sit of the day. And we were offered the opportunity to ask questions after the nightly dharma talk.

9. The Sangha – A big part of the experience is that you’re not doing it alone. You’re part of a like-minded community, the sangha. So even though you’re not communicating, you really feel connected. More & more as the week progresses. Interconnected energy. I’m lucky because this group will see each other again since we’re all in the same year-long program – it will be interesting to finally meet the people that I silently observed for a week.

10. The Profound Shift Towards The Real You – I’m purposefully not writing too much about the details of my actual experience because each person will have their own. And if I attend another retreat, I’m sure it will be far different than what transpired this time.

I can tell you that after the narrator – the stories – in my head became fainter, I could more clearly see my reality. I felt lucid in a way that I don’t remember feeling before. I not only could access long-forgotten memories, I could access the feelings associated with them with a rich texture. Almost see the colors of them. The ‘feel’ of them.

It was a beautiful experience. A brutal experience. I cried more in a week than I have in decades. Given that this retreat’s type of meditation practice was body-focused (ie. vipassana), I was acutely aware of how my feelings would manifest themselves in my body. Facing my reality, I was able to uncover answers to questions that I didn’t realize that I should have been asking. More importantly, I became aware of a host of inquiries that I will be unpacking for the foreseeable future.

So to sum it up, I felt like I lived more in a week than I might in a year. I felt ‘woke.’ Which truly wasn’t easy. For me, things got harder as the week wore on. Not easier. But that was this particular retreat for me. It easily could be different next time. Knowing that you’re going to die, how do you want to live?

July 21, 2020

A Low-Budget Backscratcher

Here is a real practical one. I like being touched. Obviously, my back is the area that I can’t attend to myself. I need an aide. So one of my most cherished possessions is a wooden backscratcher, the kind that you can buy for a buck. Or buy a dozen for $10. I’ve tried more expensive models – but to me, they all feel the same.

I use it constantly. Gives so much joy. It sits next to my laptop on my desk. Enough said…

July 14, 2020

Finding Something in Nothing. Finding Nothing in Something.

When you’re attuned to the path of mindfulness, cues reminding you what’s it all about turn up in the most unlikely of places sometimes. This is the second time this month that a podcast hosted by Adam Ferrara – a comic – piqued my little mindfulness antenna. This interview is with Jay Mohr, the comic & actor turned “life coach.”

Jay has spent some time working on himself in the face of some serious issues – bi-polar disorder, alcoholism & more – and he shares some real gems. Right at the beginning, Jay muses how we spend so much time taking inventory of our finances, our career – but we ignore our own personal inventory. Are we walking around anxious all day? Angry? Why not fix that?

And then at the 26-minute mark, they engage in some great banter about comics having a compass that enables them to gauge the room. To find something in nothing – the brand of comedy that Jerry Seinfeld is famous for, but which most comics lean on to some degree. And then Jay does the Buddha thing and flips that over – finding nothing in something. Indeed.

Jay truly is a life coach. He gave out his email address during the podcast so that potential clients can reach him. Based on some of the stories he shared during the program, it sounds like he lost most of the money he earned in his glory days…

July 8, 2020

Can You Force Laughter?

I sure can use a laugh these days. I’ve always marveled at how actors had the ability to cry on cue. They imagine – or recall – something horrible in their life & draw upon that feeling to elicit the tears. “Memory-driven” tears. As noted in this “Backstage” article, drinking lots of water helps.

But what about laughter? Just thinking of something funny – or remembering a time that you laughed out loud – doesn’t seem enough to bring a guffaw to the surface. This article about actors laughing on cue bears this out. It’s hard to laugh in a way that seems spontaneous and sounds believable. It takes practice and you need to focus to produce the type of laugh that the circumstances dictate. Interesting stuff.

Anyway, what if I told you that you can summon a head-back, eyes-watering laugh for yourself? Wouldn’t that feel nice? I realized that I had this incredible ability during a yoga class when the teacher said midway through the session that we were about to do some ‘laughter yoga.” What? We were lying on our backs and we were simply instructed to laugh. I am pretty much game for most things, but I’ll admit I was dubious. The class of a dozen people started to laugh. At first, the laughs were forced and fairly weak. But within a few minutes, I was laying there, laughing my ass off. Genuine laughs. It felt so good.

As noted in this “Yoga Journal” article about laughter yoga, when you start laughing, your chemistry changes, your physiology changes and your chances to experience happiness are much greater. You can fake laughter and still have the health benefits – because the body doesn’t know the difference between real laughter and fake laughter. But know that often you start with fake laughter & it quickly turns into something real. Here’s an excerpt from the article with six types of laughter you can try:

Greeting laughter – Walk around to different people with palms pressed together at the upper chest in the Namaste greeting or shake hands and laugh, making sure to look into other people’s eyes.
Lion laughter – Thrust out the tongue, widen the eyes, and stretch the hands out like claws while laughing.
Humming laughter – Laugh with the mouth closed and hum.
Silent laughter – Open your mouth wide and laugh without making a sound. Look into other people’s eyes and make funny gestures.
Gradient laughter – Start by smiling and then slowly begin to laugh with a gentle chuckle. Increase the intensity of the laugh until you’ve achieved a hearty laugh. Then gradually bring the laugh down to a smile again.
Heart-to-heart laughter – Move close to a person and hold each other’s hands and laugh. If people feel comfortable, they can stroke or hug each other.

July 1, 2020

Smiling at Strangers

During this lockdown, I’ve been smiling at a lot of strangers on my long walks with our dog. I absolutely love it.

It reminds me of my annual February trips to Siesta Key in Florida, where walking on the flat compact white sand – voted the #1 beach in the continental US – is a pastime that many enjoy. It’s essentially a two-lane highway of walking along the water. Those of us from the North are so happy to be in a warm climate that we can’t help but smile at strangers.

This NPR piece about the ‘science of smiling’ debunks the theory that smiling provides a positive feedback loop of happiness. The ‘smiling theory’ maintains that when our smiling muscles contract, they fire a signal back to the brain, stimulating our reward system, and further increasing our level of happy hormones, or endorphins. So when our brain feels happy, we smile; when we smile, our brain feels happier.

But the NPR report states otherwise. Here’s an excerpt:

But researchers are now finding that this phenomenon may be more complicated than they once thought. A recent study that reviewed around 50 years of data, including the results of nearly 300 experiments testing the facial feedback theory, has found that if smiling boosts happiness, it’s only by a tiny bit.

After crunching all the numbers, the researchers say their results suggest that if 100 people smiled — all else equal among them — only about seven might expect to feel happier than if they hadn’t smiled.

My own personal feedback bears this out. Producing a forced smile doesn’t do much for me. At least not every time. But sometimes it does make a difference. And if I’m mindful – really paying attention – to whether a stranger returns a smile, I get a big boost out of that if they do. I guess it makes me feel like I’ve just made a difference in that person’s life – if even for a moment. Even though that stranger may have forced a smile that bore no fruit for them, the fact that it made me happy did indeed have an impact on someone. Me.

Interestingly, when the SEC moved its DC headquarters about fifteen years ago, someone decided to split up the Divisions physically with the notion that people from those different areas of concentration would start to mingle. The opposite happened. Because folks assumed anyone they were walking by in the halls were from another group, people stopped socializing altogether. Stopped saying hello. So that plan backfired and the SEC rejiggered the floor plan within six months to get like-minded people back together.