Category Archives: Self Reflection

100 Consecutive Days of Meditation Practice; 31 Days Without Sugar, Dairy, Grains, Legumes, Alcohol, and Soy; It’s Spring!

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And no sugar that is not a natural byproduct of any of those items on the left.

Today my Insight Timer, an iphone app that keeps track of how many consecutive days and how many minutes and hours one spends in meditation practice, confirmed for me the 100th consecutive day of sitting for at least 10 minutes, every other Sunday as much as an hour, on a cushion. Today I have set two personal records. 100 days of mindfulness practice is the first. The second record is that I am on day 31 without alcohol, sugar, dairy products, grains, beans, and soy. I have successfully completed the Whole 30 project. So I thought I would check in today to do a little bit of reflection about the results, and about what I think this all means for me.

Result #1: I have lost weight. I’m not a big boy by any means, but things were protruding somewhat conspicuously in the middle. That protrusion has subsided somewhat and I think, depending on the accuracy of the scale or my memory, I’ve lost almost 10 pounds.

Result #2: I sleep better. I find myself going to sleep earlier and waking up earlier. I find myself dreaming more vividly. I have not heard in 30 days any complaints from my sleeping companion about snoring. There are times when I wake up in the middle of the night and have difficulty getting back to sleep, kept awake by what I have come to call “hamsters.” But this is an entirely different kind of problem from the fitful sleeping fueled by alcohol that might have been an almost weekly problem for me heretofore. And napping in the afternoon after work has all but disappeared–except on maybe one or two occasions during the month when I was suffering from a minor cold or recovering from a night with the hamsters.

Result #3: I have experienced a boost in energy. It seems I have more fuel and there’s a certainty that this new fuel reserve is a direct byproduct of the foodstuff I am consuming, and more importantly, the foodstuff I am NOT consuming. No sugar, breads, pastas, dairy, or alcohol (I see these intuitively as the main culprits) to put a drag on the day. And it’s spring. There’s that.

Result #4: Concerning alcohol, I know now that if I choose to, I can stop drinking. This was actually a question for me before this whole project got underway. I worried about it. And I meditated on it. And I am happy to report that I am not an alcoholic. As I look ahead, what I hope is that I have given myself permission and an opportunity to rethink my relationship with the stuff. I can’t see myself as a teetotaller, but I can see myself as a person who drinks less habitually and more mindfully, cautiously, moderately. That’s the kind of drinker I’d like to be. And it’s spring. There’s that.

Result #5: I have felt happy more often, sometimes unaccountably so. Maybe only once this entire month have I felt what one might call “blue.” I wept today over the end of Death of a Salesman, but that’s different. That’s an appropriate response to emotional stimuli, rather than a sense of gloom or boredom or discontentedness that would sometimes overwhelm me out of nowhere. So, there’s been less of that. And the happiness I’m describing is not some kind of feeling of fulfillment, ultimate satisfaction, a sense that I’ve arrived, but rather a kind of joyful bug, an invasion of mirth or wonder. Glee for no good reason. And it’s spring. There’s that.

Final Result: I believe somewhat without any evidence whatsoever that my meditation practice made it possible for me to successfully complete my Whole 30 project. I can’t demonstrate a causal relationship, but here are two activities occurring simultaneously in my life. Did the meditation practice influence the success of the Food Project or did the Food Project facilitate the successful conclusion of 100 days of meditation practice or do the two have nothing whatsoever to do with each other? Don’t spoil it for me. I think meditation helped. But perhaps, more so than what it is I was doing, it’s possible that ANY discipline religiously observed might pave the way for another discipline religiously observed. And I don’t mean religious religiously (but I suppose if I was a praying man and I was praying for 100 days straight I would be convinced that these prayers were answered), I mean religiously in the sense of its definition, three definitions down: scrupulously faithful; conscientious I could have been praying, sure, or exercising, or writing a poem, or maintaining a zen rock and sand garden, or drinking a magic potion; the devoted practice done repeatedly might just pave the way for other life goals or projects. You know what they say: success breeds success. So this is all I can claim: I think the meditation helped, primarily in the way that it disciplined me and perhaps made possible the discipline I would need for The Food Project, not to mention the other things I think meditation achieves for me: it centers, it mellows, it cools, it calms, it evens out, it stabilizes, it connects, it reflects, it resonates, it quiets. I have faith in the science that says it’s beneficial in part because I feel its benefits. And it’s spring. There’s that too, after all.

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Finding My Way Back to Courage

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At the turn of the new year in 2016, I resolved to live more mindfully, and in January I joined a local meditation group. A year and some months later, the group still meets every other week, is facilitated by a super competent, compassionate and knowledgeable guy who earns his living as a hypnotherapist. We spend an hour and a half together in silent meditation, in guided meditation, in other meditative exercises and activities, and in discussion over our experiences together.

I enjoy my time with this group very much and in a year’s span I’ve only missed a handful of our meetings. It has inspired me to keep up my own private and daily meditation practice, it has given me some tools for cooling the fires, for dealing constructively with the common stresses of work and family life, for living more reflectively, and subsequently, it has been a boon for that 2016 resolution to work on more mindful living, a resolution that has had more staying power than any I’ve ever set for myself.

I realize, though, that I had another motive for seeking out a meditation group, a sangha, if you will, to enhance and grow my own spiritual experience. I find myself hearkening back and trying to find a way to recreate or recapture a much earlier and more formative experience with mindfulness practice. The search began for me in 1999, the year I embarked on a long relationship and several extended experiences with a program called The Courage To Teach, an educational opportunity based on the work of writer, educator, and peace activist Parker Palmer.

I had read Parker Palmer’s book and had seen him speak once almost a year before, but The Courage To Teach program was news to me several months later, billed as a series of retreats over a two year period and designed as a course in “teacher renewal.” It appealed to me then, closing in on my first decade as a public high school English teacher, because I felt like I was already in dire need of renewal, that already early in my career I felt not a little bit in danger of burn-out. Renewal. There was something about that word. And there was something about another phrase associated with the program: “formation work.” Both resonated with me in a serious and palpable way. Yes, I knew I needed to renew my teacher self, and yes, there was also something inside, gestating, some kind of formation, a sense of  “becoming” something more–or rather, “becoming” into something already there, but dormant.

What followed for me was a two year series of eight Courage retreats, in the late 2000’s another round of four retreats over a single year, and between that first experience and the second, and between the second and this present moment, a smattering, maybe three or four more individual weekend retreats. I have told colleagues and friends of mine that this work, my initial introduction to it and my continual revisitation of it, has been the single most impactful, meaningful, influential, and enriching experience I have ever had, rivaled perhaps only by the heady years during my work toward an MFA in creative writing.

My Courage colleagues and I often joked about the difficulty of describing to someone “on the outside” exactly what it was one “did” at a Courage To Teach retreat. At the center, perhaps, was a fascinating and invigorating paradox, that we were together in community and simultaneously in solitude. Our facilitators gave us poems or short essays to read; they gave us prompts for writing, meditating, thinking, drawing, finger-painting; they asked us questions for conversations in small group or partnerships; they told us to go on walks outside; they gave us two hour breaks during which we were asked to be completely silent, and they brought us together on the eve of our last morning together for Circles of Trust: the Clearness Committee, the centerpiece of the two day retreat. I could go on about any of these listed activities, but to make things snappy I’ll just enlarge this paradox a bit by saying that the goal of all of this work was not academic conversation, was not classroom pedagogy, was not teacher strategies, but rather, in community to invite the individual soul and “inner teacher” of each member of the group. We didn’t discuss things, but we spoke into the circle and were heard. There was almost a religious principle that commentary on what someone else might share was verboten–alongside a serious commitment to confidentiality. The ethos of the work spiraled around a set of community expectations or “touchstones” that worked so powerfully over the proceedings, they are worth listing here. They are repeated and discussed at the beginning of every retreat and often referred to throughout the process. The touchstones ask you to:

  • Come with 100% of your self
  • Presume welcome and extend welcome
  • Believe that it is possible to leave more refreshed than when you arrived
  • Know that there is always invitation, never demand
  • Avoid fixing–no fixing
  • Practice openness and learn from others
  • Speak for your self; use “I” statements
  • Turn to inquiry when the going gets tough
  • Listen to the silence
  • Observe confidentiality

Another complete blog essay could be written about each of the preceding touchstones, but I’ll just say here that these particular norms had such a powerful and positive impact on the way these groups were together, that in as many experiences as I had with this process and with as many different groups of people, almost all of whom were essentially strangers to me, I never, not once, had a negative experience, not even a single moment when I felt anything other than completely safe and taken care of.

It was not, never was, a class or a workshop about “meditation,” per se, but everything about it was meditative, reflective, truth-seeking, and most importantly, respectful and inviting of silence. This is where I learned to meditate. So in the absence of around-the-calendar opportunities for Courage retreats, I joined a meditation group, hoping, perhaps, to be able to recreate or participate in something somewhat remotely like the retreat experience inspired by the work of Parker Palmer.

My experience in a meditation group over the last year and some months comes close. I’m not sure that’s correct. It does its job to create some similar conditions to those of a Courage retreat; also, it’s clearly beneficial on its own as simply another avenue into the neighborhood of raising consciousness, awareness, and equanimity. But I realize now, as I was looking to my meditation group as a  way to recapture the benefits of an earlier experience, that there might not exist an adequate substitute. There are elements to my Courage experiences that might possibly only emerge from a Courage experience. And this was a question often asked in the closing circle of a retreat: how do we sustain this work? How do we embody or continue these practices? How can this influence who I am in the world, with my family, with my students? Some religious people find this in their churches. Non-religious people like myself, who nevertheless hunger for spiritual growth experiences, find it in other places if they are lucky. For now, I’m in a meditation group. In April, I’ll write a poem every day. I’m rereading Palmer’s The Hidden Wholeness. I am thinking seriously about training to be a facilitator of this important, transformational work. Slowly but surely, I am finding my way back to courage.

http://www.couragerenewal.org/courage-to-teach/

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Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light

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Last year, I remember talking in my classroom about the terrible news, the deaths of two British cultural icons, both personal heroes of mine, David Bowie and Alan Rickman, both dead at 69. And from that discussion, this has remained in my memory: a student actually said these words to me, “So you’ve got about twenty more years to live, then.” Even though I probably should have been, I was not offended and I laughed the comment off, even sort of went along with the gag. Sure. That may be true. At 69, I too, might shuffle off this mortal coil–that is, if I get sick, or if I have some terrible accident. I don’t plan to do either of those things, but, as I understand it, these kinds of things aren’t really planned.  So, whether it’s likely or not that I’ll only live another 20 years or less, the deaths of David Bowie, and days later, Alan Rickman moved me to a surprising degree, and got me thinking, as I am still thinking, thinking seriously, about mortality and impermanence, about living a life, and about what might be learned about dying from the passing of these two giants.

My youth, as is true for most all of us, was punctuated by the deaths of celebrities. The ones I paid closest attention to were the deaths of musicians. Elvis. John Lennon. Bon Scott. These are the ones that come immediately to mind. And I know, that as a young person, these deaths shook me, saddened me, especially because all three of them were tragic, senseless, preventable. But I moved on, as young people do, and things would return pretty much back to normal for a long long time. The deaths of people I know, mostly family, mostly well into their 80’s when they died, stay with me in my vivid memories of them tied directly to experience. My father died at 83, 7 years ago now, after a year long recovery from a cardiac arrest, and while I mourned his death more deeply than any other, my memories of him are a constant presence for me. I feel him with me all the time, most powerfully, sometimes happily and sometimes not, in the ways that I realize I am so much like him, in the various and spooky ways I feel I AM him or have become him. With Bowie and Rickman I have no genetic connection, but insofar as their work has been with me off and on for 30 or 40 years, they too, feel like family; they too, feel like a part of my genetic make-up. As I am my Dad, I am also Bowie and Rickman.

In a way, especially for musicians and actors and writers, they remain very much alive: we have a tangible record of their artistic lives and we can revisit that record over and over again on our turntables, our televisions or computers, in our libraries, and in our memories.  My dad left no recordings. He left no writings, or at least I don’t think he did. He left me his wedding ring. He left me two brothers and a sister, he left me half of my own genetic self and 45 years of example through his parenting and husbanding. So while I can keep Bowie and Rickman spinning in the exterior world, my father must remain inside. But all of it will be with me so long as I can operate the audio-visual equipment in my house and the audio-visual equipment inside my head. I’m going to try my best to keep both in working condition past my own 69 years.

And finally, in our current state of affairs, culturally and politically in this United States of America in 2017, I feel more than ever a deep need to keep exposing myself to and attempting to create the ineffable, the deathless, the lasting, humanizing record in art of our existence. I feel now a kind of urgent need to listen to more music, make more music, write more poems and stories, to read more, and to live more deeply in the world. Bowie made music until the end. Rickman made films until the end. My friend Carlen Arnett kept contributing her art until the very end. I hope I can do as much in my own humble way. And so I begin with this little meditation that I have titled after this exquisite and famous poem by Dylan Thomas. I hope you enjoy both.

Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas1914 – 1953

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

 

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Mindfulness in 2016: A Reflection

Here’s the new year’s resolution I settled into last year:

I resolve in 2016 to be more mindful, to find opportunities daily for meditation practice, and to seek out a community, some companionship on the journey.

I wonder how I did. Let’s look, shall we? Two years ago I bought an application for my stupid smart phone called The Insight Timer. It’s a meditation bell app that also keeps track of your meditation statistics, your mindfulness “stats,” if you will. Hey, I took some screen shots. Look:

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Wow, that’s a big screen shot. What’s most useful about this lovely little graph (besides the notification that the phone is only 36% charged) is that it demonstrates quite nicely a gigantic mindfulness upswing over the last two years. 2016 simply dwarfs the previous two years in mindfulness. And, during the year, my best run was 87 days in a row of mindfulness meditation. 87 days in a row! It looks like, currently, I’ve done poorly, but that’s just because I took a break three days ago, and the counter starts fresh each time that happens. I don’t like it, but that’s the way it goes. Let’s look at another gigantic screen shot:

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Almost 59 hours of meditation in single year with an average meditation time of 16 minutes. You might be curious (or you might not be curious) about my longest session. 2 hours seems like a long time to sit with oneself, doesn’t it? Well, the answer to this question brings me to the second part of the resolution I made for 2016, and that was to seek out a community. Call it kismet or serendipity or synchronicity or whatever you like, almost immediately after writing that resolution a friend of mine, Scott Duvall, posted an invitation for like-minded individuals to start a group meditation practice. I have been doing this all year every other Sunday. I missed a few here and there, but typically, if I’m there, the group spends about an hour and a half to two hours together, not meditating the entire time, mind you, but several times over the duration of the session interspersed with some guided work and teaching from our ringleader Scott, all meditative. So there you have it. I have fulfilled my 2016 New Year’s resolution.

But I have not achieved total mindfulness; I do not yet feel enlightened. That wasn’t the resolution in the first place, but ultimately one has to ask oneself what it all means, what the effect has been, what has been the benefit of this focused attention on meditating 16 minutes almost every day over the course of a year. One thing I think we can safely say is that the phrase “mindfulness statistics” is a nonsensical oxymoron. I could have spent every single one of those 58 hours and 52 minutes thinking about sex, or thinking about things I want, or revisiting the past, or fantasizing about the future, or planning an evil plot to take over the world. To set your mind at ease, I was NOT thinking about all of those things, only some of them. It’s just really hard not to think of some of those things while I’m meditating. So let me just list, if I may, the benefits I believe I achieved through my dogged but imperfect efforts to make good on last year’s resolution, mainly, to develop a regular discipline of meditation practice:

  • Moving into my work as a high school English teacher, I have felt more relaxed through the course of each frenetic day.
  • I have come to really look forward to sitting on my cushion each morning; it is a comfortable, restful, peaceful oasis before all the noise of the day; it feels replenishing, nourishing.
  • I have learned, though, too, that the meditation cushion is not the only place to meditate.
  • I have been able to pay close attention to my mind, in essence, to know myself better.
  • I have become conscious of issues in my life and have been able to do some work around them–not to solve them, but to be more aware of them, to understand them, essentially to answer the question: what is the cause or causes of my suffering?
  • I have become, I think, more even-keeled in my response to difficulties in work and in relationship. I have not killed a single one of my high school freshmen.
  • I have been helped through the general grieving process of living through 2016 and have even discovered some strength and some hope to help me forward.
  • I have been reminded of the powerful paradox that good inner work requires both solitude and community.

There may be some things I’ve forgotten. For now, this covers it pretty well. These are the gifts of the work of the last year toward a mindful, meditation practice. I know that it’s been moving me slowly toward something greater, the specifics of which I do not yet understand and cannot visualize. So, it must be that my 2017 resolution is mostly a continuation of the one I wrote in 2016, because primarily, unlike most resolutions, it was successful, and, so they say, success breeds success. What I would ad, perhaps, is that with the continuation of this work, I might find more specific transformations are possible, personally, creatively, professionally, and politically. The inner transformation resonates outward and comes back again. It’s a feedback loop of meditative goodness, baby. So happy new year.

 

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#237: Off Air (a Haiku Followed by Two Lengthy Postscripts)

I will go one day
without Facebook, internet
news. See what happens.

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Postscript: I wrote this poem several days ago, thinking I would post it that evening and begin the next morning as a single day without Facebook and internet news. That did not happen. I’ve been sitting on this one and I find that especially worrisome. Can I do it? I am beginning to have doubts. I made up all kinds of explanations: it would be good, because it’s nice to see the holiday posts of my friends, to wait until after Christmas. Maybe it would be even better to wait until January the first, you know, as part of a New Year’s Resolution. And then the pull of the train wreck that is Trump’s transition into the presidency keeps tugging. I’m still grieving. I keep going back to the news with a delusional wish that today’s controversy will be the one that will finally bar him from becoming our new commander in chief. And if today is the day I abstain and this glorious news breaks into the webnets, I will have missed it. But the fact of the matter is that I’m a little bored with so much free time this holiday break, and the things I really should be doing, making music, reading and writing, are too hard, take too much energy and self-discipline. How crazy, sad, and scary is that? –not to have the gumption to do the things I really want to be doing? So, there are the bargains that I make with myself about the “best” time to begin, and then there’s the reality. Q: Why don’t you stop doing that thing you’d like to stop doing? A: Because I don’t want to. I’d like to but I don’t want to.

Postscript to the postscript: Just as I was reflecting on how difficult it is to stay away from social media, I took a break from the postscript above to check Facebook. Here I found almost immediately why I am grateful for social media and simultaneously why it’s crucial that I take a break from it. I learned that a writer friend of mine, Carlen Arnett, had suddenly passed. She lived clear across the country and if I was lucky I saw her once a year at the annual Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference. I saw her last two summers ago. It’s not that without Facebook I would not have learned of her passing, but the experience would have been different, less visceral, less visual, less social–our community of writer friends immediately began an outpouring of grief with pictures and poems and memories. So I am grateful to have learned of it here and to have witnessed with our mutual friends this immediate memorial for such a kind, loving, generous soul. And yes, I need a break from social media, if for no other reason right now, than to spend the next day without distraction to pay tribute to my dear friend, reflecting on the gift of knowing her, trying to be present and loving for my own family and friends–as she would have been, playing some music, reading something brilliant, trying to write something good. For Carlen.

Tomorrow will be a day without social media and internet news. It’s a tiny, baby step, only one day off the air. Somehow, though, I do not predict it will be easy. I may post a blog entry tomorrow with reports of my success (or failure).

 

 

 

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#236: Media Fast, Anyone?

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I cannot help it.
I can’t look away.
It’s a train wreck,
a complete cluster,
and every morning
begins with the same
question:

What’s the outrage of the day?

And now that I’m on
a holiday break I’ve got
something like free time
to keep checking in on
the downfall of my
civilization.

I think I need to stop.

While it might make me
more informed, this incessant
checking of the news, it does
nothing for my present
happiness. I remember a
time, about 16 years ago,
before Facebook was a thing,
when I took a break from watching
the news. I perused the paper
at work so as not to live
completely under a rock,
but I spared myself from
the pictures and the talking
heads and the bullshit
advertisements, and I think,
for awhile, it made me feel
better, smarter even, and
certainly, less anxious.

It might be possible to skip
the stuff that makes me anxious
and only do those social things
that are pleasurable or that
create connection with loved ones,
but even these things, as
necessary as they sometimes feel,
can drive me a little drunk
with dependence.

The power and the influence
of the internet has changed
everything. It’s a bombardment
of the senses and its making
me, I fear, senseless.

So I am entertaining the idea
of a fast with little confidence
that I will be successful at its
implementation. I am thinking.

I am thinking.

And with me, that’s how it always
begins: a desire or a thought,
some words spoken or written,
a visualization in repetition,
and then finally an effort
to make something happen.
What mysterious gifts might
take the place of the ubiquitous web?
How long could I stay away?
What will I miss?  And will it matter?

 

 

 

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