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Mindfulness in 2018: A Reflection

My meditation stats were stunning in 2018, comparatively, that is. Here’s the snapshot: one hundred and seventy-one consecutive days on the cushion as compared to one hundred and twenty four days the previous year. That’s an improvement of almost an entire two month’s worth of meditation on a cushion. However, I must confess that my daily practice has severely fallen off since the day I reached the 171 day record, way back in June–for reasons I might be able to get into here. Welcome to my fourth annual year-end reflection, wherein I try publicly to figure some stuff out about the previous 12 months and set some new goals for the new year.

I’d like to say 2018 ended well, but truth be told, the end of the year finds me in the midst of several upsetting little quandaries. Let me list them.

  • My meditation practice has fallen off considerably.
  • My writing practice has fallen off considerably. I have not been writing nearly as regularly as I would like–and that’s a common writer complaint–we’re never as productive as we’d like to be. But sometimes it’s a real anxiety machine–not being able to give yourself a little slack, worrying that the last thing you finished might be the last good idea you will ever have. The stuff of nightmares. Similarly, the last time I wrote a song was a year ago. Also not good.
  • The current state of American politics infuriates and depresses me, literally.
  • I’ve got a cold, damn it, one that’s been tenaciously holding on for dear life for the better part of two weeks now. Merry Christmas to me.
  • Apparently, I have a torn meniscus.
  • Over the last couple of years, I’ve been struggling with what appears to be my first serious health challenge of my “middle” age: I have hypertension, high blood pressure. Most of the time I feel pretty great, but blood pressure issues are sneaky and scary, my numbers waffle wildly, sometimes venturing into some horrifying territory, and since a colleague of mine recently had a triple by-pass surgery after a heart attack, I have been of late filled with dread and trepidation about my imminent demise. Truly, I do not think my demise is imminent. I am prone to hyperbole on this first day of 2019. But, I’d be lying to you if I said that I wasn’t a little worried. So my doctor keeps prescribing increasing doses of a blood pressure med called Lisinopril. We haven’t arrived yet at a dosage that works for me, and he just prescribed the largest possible dose of this stuff. Okay. I am supposed to check back with him in a month. My condition may require a cocktail of pills. Yippee. Better than the alternative, I must admit.
  • I have felt over the last year somewhat disconnected from my family. My wife, son, and I seem to be ships passing. Very busy, all of us, doing our own thing.
  • Motivationally, regarding almost anything, I have felt rather sluggish of late. I have spent too much time over the last year when I could be reading, writing, making music, or exercising, falling into the internet rabbit hole, habitually checking the national bad news, reflexively perusing the social media, and drinking too much. I have concluded that I think I drink too much. I’m noticing my choice of words there. None of this seems very mindful.

And it all seems like bad news.

We make our own realities, the wise ones tell us. Our behaviors have consequences, and sometimes our realities are shaped by the way we choose to look at them. So perhaps it might be helpful to simply try on another lens, to look at the above “issues” in a more positive light, or to think about the positive things that moved through 2018 instead of just the shitty ones. Okay. Let us try this experiment, addressing a different perspective on the above yuck in the same order.

  • I think I am learning to let go of the idea that meditation is something that one must keep track of faithfully like an athlete keeps track of their accomplishments and stats. I have meditated and will continue to meditate when I feel like it, when I am able, when the spirit moves me, when my meditation group meets every other Sunday, even, perhaps, when I am driving (remembering, of course, to keep my eyes open). There are opportunities to meditate outside the confines of the cushion, and I don’t need my Insight Timer app to be with me on a walk, or in silent moments in the classroom, or when I’m cuddling with my dogs. Is it important that I even know how many consecutive days I’ve meditated? Or how many total hours? Probably not.
  • I have written less this year, yes, but I have come super close to finishing two manuscripts. I revised the novella I’ve been working on for several years now, and I have a book of poems essentially ready to go. And yes, I haven’t written a song in a year, but I played the drums more this year than I have in the previous eight combined. I have found myself a gig in an 80s cover band that has kept me very busy and refreshed my drum set chops in a big way–AND–I’ve made new friends in the process.
  • The infuriating state of affairs in American politics was seriously shaken up in the midterm elections, especially in the House of Representatives, where democrats now have the majority, and the make-up of these elected officials actually comes somewhat close to representing the people it serves by gender, ethnicity, faith, orientation. There is hope. We are self correcting. More of that, please.
  • The cold is on the mend.
  • I’ve been seeing a chiropractor for the knee, and she is kind and lovely and an appointment with her comes with an hour of massage therapy.
  • The blood pressure, after a hair-raisingly high rating Sunday night, seems to be coming down. What was it that Twain said so famously: reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated? I have only died a little bit–rather, I have reached a sobering conclusion that as I get older I cannot ignore my body and its inner workings. My blood is telling me something and I need to shut up and listen. I’m all ears.
  • The fact of the matter is that my wife René has been working very hard and very successfully at building her own business; she is doing, most importantly, what she WANTS to be doing–and she’s making a living. This requires from both of us a bit of negotiating–a difficult balancing act–but one that we have been for the most part successful at for 33 years. We are not deterred by these challenges and have begun to acknowledge to each other that certain aspects of our lives together may require some care in 2019. My son, on the other hand, is 13. That explains most of it right there. I’m coming to that sad state in the parenting life when we begin to realize that our babies no longer need us. I mean, they do, of course, but they are eking out their independences from us, no longer see us as the center of their universes, and consequentially, are often making us feel rather superfluous. I can make this a celebration of his growth rather than a personal loss. He is significantly less needy, that’s for sure. Bonus.
  • Last night, I had my first dry New Year’s Eve celebration in memory. No alcohol. I was in a venue to play music for the big celebration and I was surrounded by alcohol. Not a single drink did I take. I am now four days clean and sober. I say that only somewhat jokingly. It has been two years since I last went a significant stretch without alcohol. Last month, once, I think I may have gone 6 or 7 days, but seriously, my modus operandi has been to drink nearly every single day. I conjecture that if there is one thing that’s messing with my motivation to do the things I really want to do (write, read, make original music, be more connected to family, feel generally more energetic and alive in my work), it is likely alcohol. That, and the stupid internet. And maybe the combination of the two. I know, I feel it in my bones, that I read and write less because of the million and one distractions on the web. And I know, not in my bones but in my brain, that it is next to impossible to pick up a good book when I’m tipsy. But I can be tipsy and easily drop in and out of these tiny little reading experiences on the web, where it feels like I might be learning something, but in reality I am like a pebble skipping across the surface of the river only to land on the other side in the dead and dry sand. It’s just not nourishing and it’s not deep. There’s writing to be done, books to read, love to make, a retreat to plan, music to hear and play–all of these things need to come closer to the forefront of my life in 2019.

Well, that’s my reflection, my act of mindfulness about 2018. The second half up there seems to be serving as a very wordy and elaborate kind of New Year’s Resolution. I could probably narrow it down, tighten it up, create some pithy and memorable slogan, something suitable for faceplant or tweeter. Something like this:

2019: More life, more love, better health, more books, less booze.

I can live with that for now.

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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

resolve_quotes

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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On New Year’s Resolutions, Or, On Having Blogged A Bunch and the Dangers of Repeating Oneself

new-years-bucks-county

I began composing a blog entry this morning about New Year’s Resolutions.  The direction I was going felt compelling.  I was proud of the opening paragraph.  I was on to something and feeling clever and witty and all of that jazz. I was also feeling a bit of deja vu, like somehow, I remembered writing, if not these very words, about this very topic at least.  So I started doing some research in the archives of my own damn blogsite, and lo and behold, I found an entry called “Of Resolutions,” published exactly 365 days ago today, on December 30, 2012. It made me wonder how many times I have already done this.  In 131 blog entries, how many times have I said the same dumb thing over and over again in just slightly different ways?  Have I become a broken record?  Have I run out of ideas?  After a brief little panic, I come to the conclusion that no, that if in fact this has occurred throughout the annals of my blogging, it is no big deal, because I think it might be possible that some things are worth repeating.  It might also be possible that my memory is not as good as it once was–but I’m sticking to this first possibility.  Some ideas are worth repeating.  Many good ones are.  And sometimes it helps to repackage the same ideas in a new way, for fun, to keep them fresh, to try them out again in a different way.  Other times, perhaps the best option is just to repeat yourself verbatim.  I read that original post of a year ago and I did not find it lacking too terribly much.  So I choose now to repeat myself verbatim, because I can, because these ideas are worth repeating, and because of this recent mini-lecture I found on Upworthy.com by Dr. Mike Evans:

Recent Mini-Lecture I Found on Upworthy.com by Dr. Mike Evans

So, with that, here’s this, again. I’ve only changed a few words so that the thing can be about 2014 and not our current but waning year:

Of Resolutions

The only new year’s resolution I’ve ever made and then kept was the one I made two years ago to publish my novel Monster Talk in 2012. But I think I was cheating because the decision to do the thing was made before the close of 2011 by a couple of days–so the ball was in motion and there was very little I could do to stop it, even if I wanted to. I mean, I could have dropped the ball at any point in the process, but I didn’t, and there was lots of work to do around revision and editing and proofreading and arranging art that kept me busy all the way into spring of 2012.  That was an impressive resolution to make, though, the results of which were public and out there in the open for all to see, unlike most resolutions people make to drink less or eat less or lose weight or be nice–things that are very difficult for anyone other than the person making the resolution to see or keep track of.

So, 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 2014 (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’d be nice, though, wouldn’t it, if resolutions could be more transformational and radical.  If resolutions could really shake things up, present real significant challenges, create profound  and lasting changes.  I imagine that some people accomplish these things with their resolutions, but I bet it’s more likely that these people are transforming their lives or the lives of others through a daily process of working toward some goal, some dream or another–it’s a part of their daily living and their way of being in the world and likely has nothing to do with a promise they made on New Year’s Eve.  This is just leading me down a kind of sad path as I realize how little agency I sometimes feel to make radical changes in my life–whether it is about some significant change professionally, creatively, personally, in my relationship to people and things, in how my values reflect or don’t reflect the way I actually live or work.  It’s an interesting, profound, and difficult question–if there were no limitations on things you could decide to do or try in the new year, what would you do? What would you try? What’s holding you back?  Would it help to make a resolution?

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Of Resolutions

The only new year’s resolution I’ve ever made and then kept was the one I made last year to publish my novel Monster Talk in 2012. But I think I was cheating because the decision to do the thing was made before the close of 2011 by a couple of days–so the ball was in motion and there was very little I could do to stop it, even if I wanted to. I mean, I could have dropped the ball at any point in the process, but I didn’t, and there was lots of work to do around revision and editing and proofreading and arranging art that kept me busy all the way into spring of 2012.  That was an impressive resolution to make, though, the results of which were public and out there in the open for all to see, unlike most resolutions people make to drink less or eat less or lose weight or be nice–things that are very difficult for anyone other than the person making the resolution to see or keep track of.

So, 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’d be nice, though, wouldn’t it, if resolutions could be more transformational and radical.  If resolutions could really shake things up, present real significant challenges, create profound  and lasting changes.  I imagine that some people accomplish these things with their resolutions, but I bet it’s more likely that these people are transforming their lives or the lives of others through a daily process of working toward some goal, some dream or another–it’s a part of their daily living and their way of being in the world and likely has nothing to do with a promise they made on New Year’s Eve.  This is just leading me down a kind of sad path as I realize how little agency I sometimes feel to make radical changes in my life–whether it is about some significant change professionally, creatively, personally, in my relationship to people and things, in how my values reflect or don’t reflect the way I actually live or work.  It’s an interesting, profound, and difficult question–if there were no limitations on things you could decide to do or try in the new year, what would you do? What would you try? What’s holding you back?  Would it help to make a resolution?

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