Building community in a changing world

June 10, 2021

Breathe Like Scuba

Artie Wu of Preside Meditation has a great set of audio files that comprise his “Calm Study.” It includes a number of practical tips. One of my favorite is about “breathing like scuba.” Artie notes that we think of scuba diving as a relaxing activity because we’re typically looking at scenery that feels other-worldly when doing so. It’s also relaxing because of the breathing pattern that you use as a way to conserve the oxygen in your tank.

You’re taught to conserve air by breathing in a long, slow and gentle pattern. If you breathe quick & shallow, you’ll consume your tank faster. It’s a safety thing. Breathing long, slow and gentle calms your nervous system. It can change your mindset quickly. It’s like giving your mind a massage. As Artie notes, another way to think of breathing is that it’s the only voluntary and automatic physical activity that we engage in. If we don’t think about it, your breathing is automatic as your subconscious mind keeps you alive. But you can control your breath if you want – you can consciously speed it up or slow it down. You can voluntarily manipulate it.

Breathing is the only bodily activity that’s like your monkey mind. Your monkey mind will carry on and chatter away if you don’t pay attention to it. But if you focus, you can control that monkey and shut it down. This is where meditation comes in – to help you focus on the monkey.

So focusing on your breathing pattern can have a dual benefit. First you can calm down in the moment when you slow your breathing pattern down. But if you practice changing that pattern, you can gradually change your relationship to your monkey mind. I’ll be blogging more about “monkey mind,” but the jist is that a term to describe the stories that you tell yourself many times a day.

Like with nearly everything, the trick is to remember to practice. Artie notes you don’t need to try to practice all the time. Just practice on a regular basis. Artie uses the analogy of little children, you want to give them a little bit of guidance & structure – but you don’t want to be so strict that they don’t find out things for themselves or don’t have fun in their life. I set up a timer to remind myself to breathe gently four times per day. The beauty is that I can practice anytime – even at work or a party – because people won’t notice. I feel like I’m a rebel doing this, breaking all the social mores…

June 2, 2021

Who Are You Anyway?

At the 26:24 mark of this podcast about handling fear & anxiety, Jonathan Foust reminds us how the Buddha said “your house is on fire” – which means that your body is subject to change. There is impermanence. It’s the remembering of what is true, that all things change.

At the 30:15 mark, Jonathan notes that we all have this baked-in thirst for four things:

1. For pleasure
2. For being successful
3. For praise
4. For fame

And the corollary to that we have a fear of pain, of loss, of blame and of shame. These inevitably are tied to our core sense of anxiety and dissatisfaction in our lives. The good news is that it raises the question of “who are you in the absence of desire? In the absence of pushing away or aversion?”

May 20, 2021

Meditation Isn’t a Miracle Cure (But It Does Help)

I’m in agreement with much of what is said in this LinkedIn post by Mark McCartney entitled “Ignore much of how meditation is sold.” Here’s an excerpt:

Companies exaggerate its instant positive effects and many meditators do likewise. They have spent their lives being good students in school, good employees at work and can’t help themselves in trying to be “good” meditators – competing with each other and regurgitating experiences that they’ve read about as their own.

None of which is my business, each to their own. The problem I have is that in both the exaggeration of it effect and in the exaggeration of the depth and serenity of someone’s practice, it leads people that are new at meditation to feel like they are doing it wrong. They end up thinking they are bad meditators and ultimately quit before they’ve really started.

But I would say the biggest thing that confuses newbies is that they sit and wait for their mind to be quieted immediately. That’s not going to happen. Those stories will still come. You might meditate for 50 years, 100 years, and those stories are still going to float into your mind. That’s just part of being human. Meditation won’t turn those off. It won’t turn you into a robot.

Unfortunately, many beginners expect this sudden transformation – perhaps because we live in a society where the answer to most things is “there’s a pill for that.” What meditation does allow you to do is to learn to recognize the stories for what they are – they’re just stories. And once you get the hang of that recognition, you can start to change the storyline, change the arc of your character – and sometimes even find that complete silence while meditating. Now that’s a result I can live with!

May 12, 2021

Starting Again in Your Life

As someone who tries to consistently approach each day with “Beginner’s Mind” – not easy to do with all those stories we tell ourselves – I found this dharma talk from Jonathan Foust to be one that I treasure. It has particular appeal to me because I left a job that I was closely identified with about 15 months ago and that was a real challenge. It sometimes still is.

Over the past few years, Jonathan has shared the advice to “not chase shiny objects” when you’re making a big change like the one I did. And as he notes, that can be a real challenge. Particularly for me because I like to dive deep into whatever project, whatever cause, I decide to pursue. So it’s difficult to pause and let the moment pass without jumping in with two feet.

At the 31:52 mark, Jonathan makes these points about starting again:

1. Recognizing that it’s about what’s happening, but also about how you’re relating to what’s happening. What is your perception?

2. Understanding the reality of what are the challenges that you face right now. In the short term, what support do you need to move forward?

3. Learning what’s important to you. What are your values? What is calling you? What has heart to it?

4. How do you move forward? What are the next steps? Your priorities? What allies would be useful? Do you need training or coaching? How will you feel at the end? Creating the habits to help you fill your cup.

May 4, 2021

Put Down What You Are Carrying

If you know me, you know that I am “driven.” I’m driven in my professional pursuits, in my very active lifestyle. I’m often up before 5 am and I’m off. But yet, I like to think that I am fairly laid back. Perhaps I’m fooling myself.

But I do remember a time when I wasn’t driven. That I truly led a life of “haven’t thought about tomorrow.” In high school, my chum Perry – God rest your soul, brother – and I would drive around with a quarter gallon of gas in the tank, wondering when we would run dry. (Yes, it would run dry.) It’s idiotic, I know. But there was a thrill to it and I wouldn’t dare do something like that now. Anyway, it reminded me of this song by Trevor Hall (with Brett Dennen pitching in)…

April 27, 2021

Languishing? The Challenge to Stop Being a Hermit

Like many of us, I’m struggling with the re-entry into society. Although I wouldn’t classify myself as an introvert, I have anti-human tendencies like most. And now that I’m among the lucky who are vaccinated, I’m pushing myself to get back out there. It’s not easy.

This NY Times article entitled “Feeling Blah During the Pandemic? It’s Called Languishing …” touches upon this phenomenon. Here’s an excerpt:

Psychologists find that one of the best strategies for managing emotions is to name them. Last spring, during the acute anguish of the pandemic, the most viral post in the history of Harvard Business Review was an article describing our collective discomfort as grief. Along with the loss of loved ones, we were mourning the loss of normalcy. “Grief.” It gave us a familiar vocabulary to understand what had felt like an unfamiliar experience. Although we hadn’t faced a pandemic before, most of us had faced loss. It helped us crystallize lessons from our own past resilience — and gain confidence in our ability to face present adversity.

We still have a lot to learn about what causes languishing and how to cure it, but naming it might be a first step. It could help to defog our vision, giving us a clearer window into what had been a blurry experience. It could remind us that we aren’t alone: languishing is common and shared.

And it could give us a socially acceptable response to “How are you?”

Instead of saying “Great!” or “Fine,” imagine if we answered, “Honestly, I’m languishing.” It would be a refreshing foil for toxic positivity — that quintessentially American pressure to be upbeat at all times.

This excerpt offers some help:

So what can we do about it? A concept called “flow” may be an antidote to languishing. Flow is that elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond, where your sense of time, place and self melts away. During the early days of the pandemic, the best predictor of well-being wasn’t optimism or mindfulness — it was flow. People who became more immersed in their projects managed to avoid languishing and maintained their prepandemic happiness.

An early-morning word game catapults me into flow. A late-night Netflix binge sometimes does the trick too — it transports you into a story where you feel attached to the characters and concerned for their welfare.

While finding new challenges, enjoyable experiences and meaningful work are all possible remedies to languishing, it’s hard to find flow when you can’t focus. This was a problem long before the pandemic, when people were habitually checking email 74 times a day and switching tasks every 10 minutes. In the past year, many of us also have been struggling with interruptions from kids around the house, colleagues around the world, and bosses around the clock. Meh.

Also see this NY Times piece entitled “How to Feel Better,” suggesting using cooking as a way to get into some flow…

April 22, 2021

Be Aware of Your Growth During the Pandemic

So let me start by being embarrassed. I pulled these pearls of wisdom from a Jonathan Foust dharma talk a while ago – but I forgot which one! Anyway, Jonathan talked about the notion of post-traumatic growth. To find the resiliency inside and resist the urge to get over your pandemic trauma without taking in the lessons learned. Don’t just simply move on. Be that trapeze artist and sit with the trauma. Give yourself permission to grieve. Let it get big. Really big.

This is an analog of the idea that it isn’t wise to suppress anger, that’s what makes people sick. Emotions are energy waves. So take this experience – which likely is not a “happy place” – and allow it to be transformative. That is if you’re tired of own story. Use this as an opportunity to break the habit of being yourself.

So following up on this blog, here are five lessons I’ve learned from the pandemic that I am striving to keep in my life:

1. Walking the neighborhood – I’ve always walked the neighborhood since we have a dog. But during the pandemic, I really walked the neighborhood. I now appreciate the beauty of waving to strangers much more. Of just being outside.

2. Being with like-minded people – Lucky for me, I was in a “Year of Living Mindfully” program when the pandemic started. We moved our meetings online like everyone else, and that community became that much more important to me as a lifeline to sanity.

3. Enjoy the quiet moments with myself – Meditation makes you more aware.

4. The joys of pickleball – I resisted for a spell, but I’ve come to enjoy the competition that was so much a part of my life for decades. My hoops friends made the move outside and learned a new game.

5. My loving wife, boys, dog and family – My relationship with my wife only grew stronger during the pandemic. We didn’t miss a beat and I try to be aware of how special that is. Our boys were in far-flung places but the family stayed very connected. My side of the family conducted weekly Zoom calls for the year. And Willa, our dog, became a big part of the lessons learned. She didn’t know anything about the pandemic – I think – and watching her have that mindset was very informative…

April 15, 2021

Throwing Yourself Into the Scary

The pandemic definitely is forcing many of us to take a hard look at our lives. It’s hard not to be depressed, particularly as climate change, racial injustice, the possibility of an endless pandemic are all too real.

I recently read something where the author urged us to make at least one hard decision in our life. I’m spacing where I read it – but it made an impact. Of course, many of us make hard decisions all the time – we’re often forced to do so. But this particular notion was about taking a big risk to try to better align your life with where you perhaps once saw it. That kind of thing.

An obvious change of that nature is quitting a job you don’t like anymore. Or maybe you never did. This article about quitting discusses that. Changing a relationship. Having a child. Getting a pet. Jumping out of a plane. The list is endless. It will be interesting to see how many people decide to make big life changes – if they haven’t already – once they’re vaccinated.

For me, I left a comfortable job to go seek my fortune in “Just Saying Yes” right before the pandemic hit. So I never got to say “yes” too often – but I did realize that I’m the type of person that needs to be working. In addition to launching a free instructional video site for those in my field a few months ago, I just took a job with a law firm ranked among the “100 Best Places to Work” – the law firm ranked highest on that list (there are four firms listed, believe it or not) to do something experimental and innovative.

So I’m really leaning into my passion – being among like-minded people, striving to build community and educate in a way that is truly genuine. I am a lucky man…

April 6, 2021

Grasping for Straws with Astrology

I’m a wee bit superstitious, unconsciously relying on “signs” when I feel challenged to rely on my own intellect. I guess looking for a sign is some form of intuition. Anyway, I almost never look at my horoscope – but yesterday I decided to take a peek and it fit the bill:

With the Moon in Aquarius, you are relying on strange coincidences, surprises and synchronicities that are all around you, and feel like you must protect yourself from issues that aren’t rewarding enough. This is a good moment to decipher the stars or numerous events that took place in your life, so you can collect information and get deeper understanding for your own situation.

Don’t waste energy on superficial contacts and small talk. Things that are difficult for you don’t have to be overcome and you can simply commit to those that make you calm.

Of course, I’m well aware of confirmation bias and that we imprint our own motivations – consciously or subconsciously – into most of what we do. But I’ll take what I can get…

March 24, 2021

An Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

Last week, I blogged about a recent dharma talk from Jonathan Foust about managing your energy wisely. At the 43:36 mark, Jonathan delivers one of lessons that I just love – “an autobiography in 5 short chapters” – here’s a summary:

1. I walk down the street and I fall into a deep hole in the sidewalk.
2. I walk down the same street, I pretend I don’t see the deep hole and I fall in again.
3. I walk down the same street, I see the deep hole, I still fall in. It’s a habit.
4. I walk down the same street, there is a deep hole and I walk around it.
5. I walk down another street.