Monthly Archives: December 2014

Mindfulness in 2015: A Silver Bullet Resolution

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For Christmas this year, we bought our nine year old son the latest kid’s  book from Thich Nhat Hanh, Is Nothing Something? Kids’ Questions and Zen Answers about Life, Death, Family, Friendship, and Everything in Between.  While the boy has expressed not even a little bit of interest in diving into The Biggest Questions answered by arguably the most important Buddhist on the planet, I have read it all the way through several times. It’s not my first experience with Thich Nhat Hanh, I have a healthy collection of his work, but it is my first Thich Nhat Hanh experience with children as a target audience, ironically, because it has engaged me significantly more than it has my son.

I woke up today at 4:00 in the morning and my new year’s resolution came to me, in part, I think, because of my interaction over the last few days with this particular book for children.  It struck me that, as I understand it, the Zen practice of Mindfulness is the silver bullet of resolutions because everything I would hope to accomplish this year in terms of productivity, health, sanity, relationships, improvement of any sort, could be accomplished through a more intentional, deliberate mindfulness practice.

I resolve in 2015 to be more mindful.

It is alarmingly straight forward and simple.  But I’d like to reflect here about a few key areas where I think mindfulness practice would impact my life–and what it might look like in actuality.

But first, from Thich Nhat Hanh, here is the answer to the central question, what is mindfulness:

Mindfulness is energy.  This energy helps us enjoy what is happening right now.  Mindful energy can bring us a lot of joy.  It helps us suffer less and learn from our suffering.  A good way to get some mindful energy is to close your eyes and breathe easily.  Just pay attention to your breath.  If you can enjoy your in-breath and out-breath, you are creating mindful energy.

This whole breathing advice sounds like what people do when they meditate, and clearly, mindfulness can be practiced through meditation–and I have for a long time been engaged in a tentative and awkward dance with meditation. Introduced to me for the first time perhaps fifteen years ago, I have often flirted with it, but never become a regular practitioner. I find this strange; it has for all of this time had an enormous appeal to me, in part, I think, because whenever I have had an experience of it, I have felt afterwards the incredible gift of it, almost a new man, rejuvenated, refreshed, calm. Perhaps, and stupidly (because my experience tells me something different), I and others resist meditation practice because it seems on the surface like a whole bunch of work.  Let’s hear from Thich Nhat Hanh one more time, in response to the question, what is meditation and why do people do it:

To meditate is to concentrate and look inward.  You can sit down to meditate but you can also meditate while walking to school, lying in the grass, or resting on your bed at night.  If you are quiet and enjoying your in-breath and out-breath, you’re practicing meditation.  If you know how to smile beautifully and without effort, then you know how to meditate. It’s not difficult.

If I ask you why you eat ice cream, you say, “Because I like it.” Meditation is the same.  I do it because I like it.  To meditate is to have fun.

I can think of not a single argument against this, against the various and absolutely easy way it is to find opportunities to meditate, or even against this bold and seemingly counter-intuitive comparison between meditating and eating ice cream. Okay, here’s a resolution revision:

I resolve in 2015 to be more mindful and to find opportunities daily for meditation practice.  And to conclude, I want to make a short list of areas in my life where mindfulness may become particularly handy.

To begin with, here on New Year’s Eve day, I hope to engage this evening in some mindful drinking.  Even though I made myself laugh out loud there a little bit, that’s not a joke.  I believe the central problem that myself and a billion others have with alcohol is that we do not imbibe mindfully.  What does mindful drinking look like? It means, perhaps, being more intentional and purposeful, more conscious about why we drink and about how much we drink.  My mindfulness drinking goal for the year would be to drink better booze and less of it. And never to find myself muddled to the extent that I cannot appreciate and be thankful for the art and craft of a fine brew, whatever that brew might be. I use the term brew loosely: Tonight, it’s brandy, by the way.

With more seriousness, mindfulness practice will help me with stress, professionally and personally.  This year at the school house has been more difficult than very many other years in memory, and the resident nine year old never ceases to come up with new ways to exasperate his parents at home. Mindful breathing will help me deal with the stress and the anger that often occurs when things are not going well in the classroom, or when my dear, beloved son’s behavior goes spiraling southward.

Finally, mindfulness practice will help me do less handwringing about the creative work I feel I should be doing, or the kind and volume of the reading and writing I want to get done, or the better human being I aspire to be, or the more effective super teacher I feel so much pressure to become, through a kind of acceptance and celebration of where I am and who I am in the moment, a concept called sankalpa introduced to me by fellow blogger Yoga Mom.  She writes:

in this relaxed state,
we listen,
and discover
our heartfelt desires
A sankalpa
proclaims this:
I am that 
which I am seeking.
I can relax
as I awaken
to my true nature.

Mindfulness practice and daily meditation might help us finally realize that whatever it is that we desire and hope for the new year, we are already there. Amen, sister. Or Namaste. Or Happy Mindful New Year to you and yours.

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I Resolve to Resolve for 2015

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To resolve or not to resolve: that is the question. In December of the year 2012, I made the following remarks in a blog entry entitled, “Of Resolutions.”  It was one of an entire series of entries all taking a cue in their titles from the French essayist Michel de Montaigne, who titled nearly all of his essays “Of” something or another.  At any rate, at the time, “of” or with resolutions, I was having a rough go:

I’m having some difficulty this year thinking of a suitable resolution. Maybe I will resolve this year to make no resolutions. Isn’t it true that people, on the whole, do things they really want to do, achieve the things they really want to achieve, and those things they don’t want to do or achieve, even if they’re really good for them, don’t get done–whether a resolution is made or not? Maybe deep down I don’t want to drink less, eat less, lose weight, or be nice. And most of the things I might resolve to do in 2013 (write more, finish the draft of the new novel, read more, record more, stress less, meditate)–these things just might happen anyway. But perhaps, even when a resolution is not kept, in part or in full, there is still some value in resolving to do something in the new year. Just saying the words–especially in earshot of someone who might notice or care–might be worth doing.

It turns out that this last thing is true, that there is indeed some value in making a resolution, especially for the New Year. I’m pretty sure I learned this from the following illustrated talk by Dr. Mike Evans. Check it out.  It’s worth it:

Steve Errey, a “confidence coach” writing for Lifehack.org, says, forget about it. He says that New Years resolutions fail for a few simple reasons. 1. They’re often about what you think you should be doing rather than about what you want to do.  And everybody knows doing what you think you should is no good while doing what you want is infinitely better. 2. Resolutions are like goals, and goals are dumb because they take you out of the present and make you feel guilty or ashamed; you need or want something that you don’t currently have and that inspires self loathing. 3. There’s no motivation or commitment toward achieving the goal. Most of the resolutions we make are meaningless to us and that’s why they fail.  And 4. New Years is just a bad time to make a resolution. Apparently, Errey thinks there are better times in the year to make resolutions. He concludes, thusly:

So forget about making New Years Resolutions. Living a full life isn’t about making some woolly, half-hearted decisions that don’t really mean anything. That’s not what truly confident people do.

Instead, make confident choices based on what really matters to you, and jump in with both feet.

This guy is a confidence coach. I don’t think I want this Errey fellow coaching my confidence. Even though it sounds like on the eve of 2013 I was saying essentially the same thing, that people end up achieving the things they really want to achieve because they, essentially, just “jump in with both feet.”  But I think I was wrong about that, and that he’s wrong about that; and he’s wrong, I guess, not because it’s bad advice, but because it’s unreasonable, unrealistic advice.  Sure, jump in with both feet.  Sure, make confident choices.  Sure. Sure. Sure. Easier said than done, pal, because people are afraid, they lack sufficient courage, and they have enjoyable bad habits that are difficult to break. I know there are things about which I am afraid, things I’d like to do for which I lack sufficient courage, and a whole slew of bad habits that I enjoy a great deal. It’s terribly difficult to overcome these obstacles, and a resolution, while not a silver bullet, might help out just a tad.

In the twilight hours of 2012, my thinking ran mostly along the same lines as this Steve Errey confidence coach guy, but I think at the dusk of 2014, I’m back to Dr. Mike Evans, who I think is a more effective confidence coach: choose small goals and small wins over big lofty ones; go for facilitation over sheer motivation; and practice self monitoring (reflectiveness) over self control. Be the plumber or the carpenter and come prepared with some tools. Set up some low hanging fruit each day. All right. I can get behind low hanging fruit. So this year, I conclude that I resolve to resolve. I will make a resolution about something. I will choose something important but attainable. I will create some system whereby I will facilitate improvement over time.  I will be reflective about my progress for good or ill rather than going for self control over my impulses or habits. I will hang some fruit. Low. And before New Years Eve, I will make public my resolution. Cheers, all. Hope you had a happy holiday and best wishes for an awesome New Year full of resolve.

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I’m Turning 50!

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Oh fuck. I’m turning 50. Beginning with the expletive that seems most fitting for the occasion, I begin this project of reflecting on just what this whole thing means to me, how it feels, how I’m coping, if I’m coping, what might be learned as I crest the top of the hill and begin to dance or skip or speed or skid or trip or tumble down the other side. And the whole purpose is to be conscious of these things. 50 is super-fast approaching. It’s almost exactly somewhat less than two days from the day I begin this writing. So let the consciousness begin, please, and in a hurry.

First, perhaps, a meditation on why it matters: what’s so special about 50? It can’t be all that different from the years immediately preceding or the ones after. It won’t, perhaps, feel any different than my current 49 year-old status or my future 52 year-old status. So who cares? Apparently, humans put a great deal of stock in even numbers, especially those that begin a new decade, you know, the usual suspects, 20, 30, 40, and then this mother. Why we do this, I’m not entirely certain. But each of these big numbers divisible by ten mark out, I suppose, at least psychologically speaking, a new beginning, a new era, a new opportunity, new expectations, and conversely, new fears, new kinds of dread, and lots of hand wringing and teeth gnashing. At 50, in particular, we can be pretty certain that we are more than half way through. Depending, of course, on some randomly wild concoction between pure dumb luck and taking good care, we have this new clarity, this new knowledge that our days are now officially numbered. Maybe that’s why 50, more so than any other significant birthdays before it, feels–weighty.

The good news is that I am not afraid of dying.  I mean, I’d rather not.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m in no hurry.  I’m just not afraid of it.  If there is fear, and I freely admit that, yes, indeed, there is plenty of fear, it’s not about the end but about the time spent between now and then.  Have I made sufficient good use of a life?  Have I accomplished the shit I set out to do? Why haven’t I written more? Why are there so many great books I’ve not read? Why haven’t I found success as a writer or a musician? Should I stop rocking out in the basement and making records? Why am I still growing my hair? Why haven’t I figured out yet how to be the educator I’d like to be? Why am I not the father I hoped I would be, or the husband? How can I possibly afford to retire in four years time? Why haven’t I been sufficiently naughty? Or sufficiently good? I guess, at 50, there emerges a persistent and nagging perception that I have fallen short of nearly all of my ideals.

Whoa.  That sounds terrible.  But wait, says my better devil, you’re only 50!  And look at you!  You’re still walking around completely upright, riding a bike, playing the drums, influencing young minds mostly for good, improving your craft as a teacher even at the cusp of being able to walk away, raising a strapping young lad, raking the leaves, making new friends, writing poems and blogging, thinking dirty thoughts. You don’t look a day over 40.  And there is much hope, says my better devil,  for the future, even though there is perhaps more behind than ahead. All those things you’re disappointed about not having done, once you retire you can just knock them all back one right after the other.

And then, finally, in this mostly one sided conversation with my better devil, I have to butt in.  Look here, I say.  I understand that it’s folly to imagine all of the things I’ll be able to do when some distant or not so distant moment arrives that supposedly frees up all of this time for reading, writing, being, relating, and thinking. Tomorrow I could get hit by a bus. Herein, perhaps, lies the greatest fear and the biggest challenge to all of us half centenarians. We can’t be waiting and longing for a retirement that may by some freak accident (or devious design) never occur. We can’t be pining for the future to give us more leisure time to do the things we want to do. We can’t be yearning for any time better than the moment we have right now.  The challenge is to have the commitment and the courage not to wait; the difficulty is in doing the best I can do right this minute, tomorrow maybe, and to release into the ether the self doubt and regret about falling short; the trick, as it has always been, but now ever more urgently, is to live the life I want as I am living it. And what Rilke has said and Thoreau has said and countless other sage voices from antiquity right up to yesterday have said about living in the present moment–it’s all true, right, and correct, easy to say, but really, super, extraordinarily difficult to do.  As I turn 50 this week and move, I hope, gracefully into this next stage of my life, I endeavor to do what Henry David Thoreau urged us to do some 160 years ago, to advance confidently in the direction of our dreams, to live the life we have imagined in each day–somehow–and thereby “meet with a success unexpected in common hours,” especially in those common hours when anxiety about becoming an old guy of 50 is most tenaciously tugging.

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