Unsettled and Restless

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meditation candleI am unsettled and restless these days.

Maybe with the current state of the world it’s easy to understand why, but somehow this uneasiness seems more personal.

I’m caught in the tangle of planning for the future or in looking over my shoulder to resolve old business. I’m “doing” all the right things—eating complex carbs, fruits, and vegetables. I exercise regularly—a combination of aerobic and strength training. I stay in touch with friends near and far, read good books, limit exposure to distressing news while staying informed and involved. I have a family I love, a dog, work that is meaningful. I know how to have fun. I meditate regularly. And yet I am unsettled and restless.

This morning at 5:00 after the fourth day of waking early, it occurred to me what I might be missing. I remembered the deep and abiding feeling of a weeklong silent retreat four months ago.

So rather than stay in bed and stew about my inability to sleep and my growing concern about what the pattern of early morning awakening might mean about my psyche, I quietly got out of bed and went downstairs to meditate. It was still dark and the house was completely quiet. Even the dog was asleep.

I set the timer for an extended period and listened deeply to the sound of the bell on my phone. I set my intention to find refuge, to remember the experience I had during the weeklong retreat. I didn’t simply put in my time until the sound of the three bells forty-five minutes later. I was wholeheartedly present with myself, asking nothing of myself other than my presence.

I had become so entangled in the workings of my mind that I had lost touch with the present and myself. It was a gift I had forgotten. Like finding a precious jewel tucked away in the back of a drawer—only so much better.

Claire Weiner, LMSW, RYT
September 6, 2017

Meditation at Ten Thousand Feet

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plane in peaceful skyI’m on my way to what I hope is a new habit, a good habit. I typically meditate first thing in the morning. After trial and error, I’ve found that the likelihood of getting myself on the cushion decreases with every passing hour.

However on days that I travel, my first-thing-in-the-morning-meditation is often not possible. I’m often engaged in last minute packing or making other arrangements. My entire family lives out of state, so I fly frequently, as often as every six weeks. Even if my flight leaves late in the day, the prospect of flying somehow interrupts my schedule.

So the last several times I’ve flown, I’ve begun meditating shortly after boarding the plane. I wait until the passengers in my row are seated, set my phone in “airplane mode”, set my timer, close my eyes and find my breath.

As usual there is a lot to notice – the captain’s reminder of our destination, an announcement to fasten seat belts, the sound of the plane taxiing on a runway, a child kicking the seat, a baby crying, cool air blowing overhead. It is a rich sensory experience along with my mental reactions to it all.

Somehow when I hear the timer ring twenty-five minutes later, we are in the air and I am not irritated, impatient or bored.

It’s a given that air travel is stressful. As I write this blog, I am on my way from Michigan to New Mexico by way of Atlanta, which of course makes no sense. I am skeptical that my flight will arrive on time with my luggage, not to mention a quiet but certain anxiety about safety.

But my practice has shifted my relationship with flying; beginning with boarding the plane, as I begin to look forward to the opportunity to find my breath, and simply notice.

 

~Claire Weiner
July 14, 2017
On route to New Mexico

 

Walking Nowhere But Home:

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On Retreat with Rebecca Bradshaw and the Good People of the Yellow Springs Dharma Centerhiker's legs - on retreat at the yellow springs dharma center.

It was the first morning of a seven-day retreat. I arrived the evening before with two friends after driving four hours in steady rain. The day before my departure, I backed my car into a neighbor’s mailbox and destroyed the rear windshield. I was glad to be here.

When Rebecca gave the instructions for walking meditation, I was only half listening;  I’ve practiced walking meditation for years. But then I heard her say, “ “When you walk, there is nowhere to go but home”. I was struck by the simplicity and the power of her message and I began to understand and appreciate walking meditation in an entirely new way.

In the past, when practicing walking meditation, I slowed down, paid attention to the sensations of movement beginning in my hips, progressing down my legs through my knees, my ankles and finally the placement of my foot. And I repeated this series over and over. And whenever I noticed my attention wandering away from the experience of walking, whether to the scenery or sounds or thoughts, I did my best to return to the sensations of walking.

But today was different because I returned home, and home was solid and comforting.

The walking meditation felt less like an exercise in mindfulness and more like a practice in self -compassion, kindness and forgiveness. And isn’t that the true meaning of mindfulness?

 

~Claire Weiner
May 6, 2017
On retreat


Underwater Meditation

The occasion to escape the Michigan winter is an opportunity for which I am truly grateful and I have the good fortune of being in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Today is the fifth day of a week long vacation and I had been meditating in spite of the disruption in my daily routine. Mid afternoon today, I realized I had not meditated this morning. I realized this lapse in routine while listening to the steady rhythm of my breath amplified under water. At that moment I decided to turn my snorkeling adventure into a meditation.

Amazing how a submerged mind is similar to dry one.

I began to notice my emotional reactions to the underwater world. When a colorful parrot fish or two swam past, I wanted an entire school. When I found myself in an area devoid of coral, with only sand or sea grass, I was disappointed. But as I became more aware of the steadiness of my breath and the roller coaster of attachment and aversion, I also became delighted with the pure white sand on the bottom of the cove. Instead of being bored with the absence of coral, turtles, and fish, I began to notice the infinite textures of the dance of light and shadow on sand. I returned to the intensified echoed sound of my breath repeatedly, as I floated face down along the surface peering through my snorkel mask.

I look forward to the remaining opportunities to practice underwater meditation before returning to Michigan. It’s absolutely true that mind does what the mind does, whether on land or at sea.

~Claire Weiner
Coral Bay, St. John USVI

A Simple Resolution?

I found myself in the grocery store on the afternoon of New Years Eve restocking the pantry after being out of town for a week. In the produce section, I reached for one of the tempting mixes of designer greens including radicchio, baby kale, spinach and arugula. But before I placed the lettuces in my cart, I paused, because of the plastic container holding the organic greens. In the space of the pause, I became aware of all sorts of thoughts and emotions about the seemingly mundane task of acquiring lettuce. Does my purchase of organic produce in a plastic container contribute to the pollution of the planet? Is my need for this particular tasty mixture so great that I need to add to the communal waste? After a moment of self- reflection, I made a different choice, placing two different types of organic lettuce, red leaf and romaine, both sitting free and uncontained in the produce section, into my cart. I noticed that I felt less conflicted. A few hours later, while washing the lettuce and making salad, I told my husband about my experience and voiced my 2017 Resolution “To Avoid Produce in Plastic Containers”. A simple enough resolution or so I thought.

But then my resolution seemed to get more complicated.

I would no longer just be able to grab the nearest container of produce. I would need to think about my place on the planet and the impact of my choices. I would need to continue to pause and hopefully make skillful choices about my purchases throughout the year in the produce section and elsewhere.

The ability to pause is one of the immeasurable gifts of a regular practice- the ability to pause and reset. The miracle of even a moment can allow for different choices, less reactivity, more compassionate choices.

May 2017 be a year of peace, happiness, good health and mindful pauses.

~Claire Weiner

A Different Kind of Breath

I have been brought to my knees by a combination of virus, bacteria, ‘twitchy lungs’ and an aging immune system. I am humbled. I am also grateful.

In the past week I have personally spoken and texted with my primary care physician several times, visited Urgent Care, received a stat chest x-ray, picked up prescriptions for antibiotics, inhalers, steroids and over-the counter-preparations. The total cost for all of these remedies at my local chain pharmacy was less than $50.00. I have yet to spend a penny out of my pocket for the Urgent Care or the doctor’s visit because my Medicare and Blue Cross have been billed.

So while I am temporarily miserable from my limiting, but time limited illness, I remain focused on what else is present – the advantage of excellent, available, affordable health care, the support of family and friends and my practice. The practice that continues to help me observe the breath, even a breath that is a bit twitchy and congested these days.

 

~Claire Weiner

Mindful Reflections on Unwanted Change

Ten days have passed since the 2016 election and I’ve watched my reactions change into responses. Like half the country I am terribly disappointed and deeply troubled by the result. But I have to remember that the other half of the country is relieved and heartened by the result. This continues to be the lesson for me – the lesson in creating enough space within myself to contain many complicated and often conflicting emotions. Like many of you, I’ve tried to be skillful about my exposure to the media, allowing myself small doses as tolerated.

I’ve surrounded myself with friends, but have tried to steer the conversation away from hand wringing discussions. My practice is more important now than ever before. Every time I make a commitment to pay attention to quietness of the breath, I have the opportunity for nonreactive stillness (Krista Tippet On Being –Interview with Steven Batchelor, January 14, 2016). In that same interview Steven Batchelor, Buddhist teacher and author, spoke of the need to create “the conditions whereby we can embark on a way of life that is not dictated by our instinctive reactivity, our habits, our fears… but stems from an inner openness, that is unconditioned by those forces, and that allows the freedom to think differently, to act differently, to respond more fully.”

The possibility to be less reactive, more open and to respond more skillfully exists each time we pause and pay attention, even if it is only for a few moments. It seems more important than ever before to be deliberate about cultivating these skills. You can begin right now by paying attention to the breath.

 

~Claire Weiner 

Grateful for Mindfulness

Yesterday was a long and busy day. I woke early, went to work in my psychotherapy practice where I met a new client, did my best to begin to get to know him and establish a therapeutic relationship and saw a few return appointments. I worked on last minute plans for a meeting of non-profit group that I am privileged to lead.

And then I answered a phone call telling me that a cousin, only two years older than I am, died last night. Her death although not unexpected, was sudden as she received a grim diagnosis just six weeks ago.

My attention turned to negotiating airline travel so my husband and I could attend the funeral.

I then rearranged my schedule, made plans for dog watching.

I spoke to my children. I spoke to a dear friend whose mother is undergoing a cancer work-up at our local hospital.

I made dinner for other friends with whom we are going to see a play. I insisted that cooking was therapeutic.

And I meditated. Finally I went to sleep.

Undoubtedly I am missing dozens of activities, decisions throughout the day. The above list… just the highlights.

And throughout the day, I was extremely grateful for my mindfulness practice. I was grateful for the spaciousness of the practice that affords me the opportunity to stop and notice my breath, even in the middle of an emotional storm, grateful for the awareness that cooking and eating in my own kitchen is comforting and reassuring, and grateful for the friends who said “Of course”.

And I was grateful for the colleague who called me first thing this morning to follow- up on a difficult conversation, remembering the importance of what we had discussed earlier in the week. Grateful too, for the meeting of the non-profit I attended where we sat in together for thirty minutes – a supported opportunity to return to quiet presence, where I became aware again and again of what is important and dear in my life. So as I get ready to board the plane in a few hours, to attend the funeral tomorrow for a cousin only two years older than I am, who was perfectly healthy two months ago and will be buried tomorrow, I am grateful for today. So very grateful.

~~~~~~~~~

Practice Possibility:

Breathe in deeply and notice the sensation. And then simply let go of the breath and notice the sensation. Now if you’d like, repeat.

See if you can notice the spaciousness of each breath.

This spaciousness is a gift available as long as we are alive enough to notice the sensations of our breath.

~Claire Weiner

Listening for the Quiet

When was the last time you stopped and listened for the quiet? I mean, really listened.

Last night I attended an outstanding concert. Glen Hansard, the Irish singer, guitarist and songwriter performed with his band for nearly three hours. The energy was high and the crowd was engaged, loud and active. And then suddenly in the last half hour of the show, Hansard unplugged himself, walked away from the microphone to the front of the stage, played his guitar and sang. The boisterous crowd hushed. And then Hansard did it again a few songs later, as if daring the audience to really pay attention to the quiet.

We live in a noisy world. The environmental

noise of traffic, cell phones, televisions, computers, can make it difficult for us to listen to the quiet. We get used to noise, a lot of noise, and then we rely on earplugs, expensive noise canceling earphones or white noise machines to block out the noise. But those strategies don’t really give us access to the quiet.

This morning, following the concert, as I prepared to take my dog for a walk, I put my cell phone in my pocket. I reached for my earphones to listen to the next installment of a favorite podcast.

But then I remembered the quiet from the concert last night and shifted my intention.

I put the earphones down and walked out the door with just my dog.

It was stunningly quiet this morning.

 

~Claire Weiner 

The Hard Work of Mindfulness

As I sat watching the Dallas Police Memorial Service on my computer this afternoon, I, like many, felt very sad as the people of the city of Dallas, the state of Texas, President Obama and others gathered together in an attempt to lead our country through our collective suffering. The loved ones of those killed by a sniper attack at the peaceful protest last week will have the lifelong painful work of personal grief -of asking why, how and now what.

For the rest of us, we need to do the hard work and have the difficult conversations about racism. We need to move our country and our communities closer to the ideal of this country. As the president said today “ We know that bias remains…. if we’re honest, we’ve heard prejudice in our own heads.”

As a non-profit organization, the mission of the Ann Arbor Center for Mindfulness is to cultivate and support the understanding of mindfulness, to promote health and well-being. The practice of mindfulness is not about feeling good, it is about being aware of whatever is present in our own hearts and minds, even if what we are aware of is prejudice. The practice of mindfulness allows for greater generosity, patience and compassion with the self, and also with and for others.

It is my hope that in the coming year Ann Arbor Center for Mindfulness can be involved in programming to the community related to race and awareness in a way that can open our hearts and our minds, so that we can all move closer to the ideal in our community.

 

~Claire Weiner

Finding Compassion

Watching and listening to the news these days can be disheartening to say the least. The world is jarred again by a terrorist attack in Brussels, only eight months after the attack in Paris. And four months ago, in the United States we were reminded of our vulnerability in the unlikely small city of San Bernadino, California.

Then there is climate change, the Flint water crisis, racial profiling, gun violence and the unsavory nature of political debate. This morning I read about the new law in North Carolina that bars transgender individuals from using bathrooms and locker rooms that do not match the gender on their birth certificate. With all the chaos and upheaval in the world, it is this bill, passed readily by North Carolina legislature and signed into law by the North Carolina governor that caught my attention today. The world seems to be such a difficult place these days, why go to such lengths to make it even more difficult for people? The North Carolina law seems so intentionally unkind.

I sat down to meditate in quite a state of despair after reading this news.

Maybe I shouldn’t read the newspaper until after I meditate, but mindfulness is not about escaping from what is present. In fact, the practice of mindfulness is just the opposite. Mindfulness and the practice of moment-to-moment awareness place us smack dab in the middle of whatever is happening at the present moment.

So whether the present moment is horror, sadness, frustration or anger because of the day’s news, then that’s where we are for now.

And that’s what we need to continue to notice without judgment.

So this morning when my phone chime rang to start my meditation, I noticed my disbelief with the North Carolina legislature and by the end of my meditation, my mental state was different. I was still bothered by the North Carolina law, but the outrage had dissipated, making room for compassion for those suffering from this law. Meditation made space for compassion that had not been present at the start.

I believe if we continue to notice even the most difficultmental states, without judging, then the outcome will eventually be compassion.

If with practice we intentionally place our attention with the difficulty, then we will be less reactive and more skillful. We will find the compassion that is at the heart of us all.

 

~Claire Weiner

Paying Attention to the Groundhog

Another Groundhog Day has come and gone, and once again we’ve been briefly entertained by the behavior of a large rodent. Surely, the rational mind knows that the groundhog doesn’t determine the change of seasons, and a quick glance at groundhogs’ performances over the decades demonstrate little prognostic relationship with the end of winter or the start of spring.

So why pay attention to the groundhog? A longing for spring is the obvious reason, certainly for those of us who live in the northern hemisphere. By February 2nd , depending on the temperature of the previous months, we might be desperate enough to depend on a groundhog for better outcomes.

However, by paying attention to the groundhog perhaps we are not paying attention to February 2nd itself. For isn’t Groundhog Day another form, albeit a harmless one, of desire, of a wish for life to be different than it is. Is hoping for no shadow a form of aversion? Can we be content with what is already present? How often do we find ourselves thinking about the next day or the next week rather than the present day, even when the weather is beautiful? Dr. Ronald Siegel, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School offers a wonderful example of this sort of mindlessness in everyday life. He describes the common situation of being at a delicious dinner with friends at a nice restaurant. The friends are enjoying the dinner, quality of the food, the skill of the chef, each others company. Before long the conversation wanders to comparisons of meals at other restaurants, meals cooked by the previous chef or concern that the new restaurant stay in business. The friends begin to pay attention to the past or the future without conscious awareness. They stop paying attention to the delicious dinner in front of them as they became attached to their desire for more.

~~~

And so maybe there is something to be learned from the groundhog after all. The groundhog spends the summer and fall eating, the winter hibernating, and the spring emerging from hibernation. I’m fairly certain the groundhog accomplishes all of the above without regret for the past or worry about the future. The groundhog lives in the present, if we would just leave him or her alone.

 

~Claire Weiner

New Years Intentions

Out with the old, in with the new. 2016 is upon us and so is the annual buzz about resolutions for the New Year. Resolutions about losing weight, exercising more, drinking less, spending time with friends. Sound familiar?

New Year’s resolutions are really New Year’s goals, arrived at as a result of taking stock of one’s life at the end one year, and before the beginning of the next. At the end of 2016, the buzz will be about setting goals for 2017. Goals are about the future and goal setting can be an effective way of accomplishing tasks and projects, finishing work and being competent in the world. We need to set goals, whether short term or long term.

Yet we also need to set intentions. Intentions, unlike goals, are not about getting somewhere or doing something. Intentions are about noticing and allowing, a gentle leaning towards. Intention setting allows the goals to be wise and connected to the true self. Perhaps setting an intention to be non-judgmental of others will allow for spending more time with friends. Or, an intention to be grateful for your body, however imperfect, can allow for healthier eating.

Intentions might result in foundations for goals, but maybe not. Goal setting may result in list making and a sense of accomplishment. Not a bad result. Intention setting, however, can result in greater self-awareness and peace.

 

~Claire Weiner

A Missed Opportunity

hand outstretchedIt’s an all too frequent sight. A man or woman standing at the end of the highway exit ramp, holding a sign “Need money for food”, “Will work” or “Please help my family”. Exposed to the elements, looking haunted, he or she stands, hoping that a decelerating driver will reach out the window with an offering.

And so I found myself on a sunny, cold March day, at the top of a ramp not far from my house, an arms distance away from a disheveled weather-beaten man. The light had just turned red so the two of us were together for the duration. Unable to tolerate my discomfort with his distress, I looked away, and prayed for the light to change quickly.

When the red light changed to green, I was not relieved when I drove away. Instead I was filled with guilt, and ashamed at my lack of generosity. I decided to drive back to the highway ramp, but this time I would bring nonperishable groceries. I drove to the nearby grocery store and filled a bag with granola bars, nuts and juice boxes. After circling back, I finally exited at the top of the ramp, where a short time before I had refused to help. But the man was gone; I was left with the bag of nonperishable groceries and a bitter taste in my mouth about my own behavior.

What caused this hesitation in generosity and compassion? Why hadn’t I listened to my heart? Instead, I was caught up in judgment of a man whom I did not know and somehow decided that any amount of money I handed him through my car window would not be put to good use. And so I looked away and then I drove away. I missed an opportunity to be generous and compassionate that cold day in March, but I learned an important lesson.

It doesn’t matter that I am unable to solve the complex social problems that cause people to stand at the top of the ramp, begging for help. Neither does it matter that I am unable to track where my small amount of money goes, when I give it. The next time I find myself at the top of the highway ramp and someone is holding a sign “Need money for food”, I am going to pay attention to the woman or man who is suffering and my heart is going to help.

 

~Claire Weiner

Going with the Flow

I rediscovered the joy of swimming in the past year, and once, or twice a week, if the schedule works in my favor, I slipped into the warm waters of the health center near my home and began to swim back and forth across the length of the pool. I felt my aches and pains slowly dissolve as I repeated the coordinated movements of the front crawl-arms, head, breath, core and legs, kicking enough, but not too much. This rhythm of submerged whole body coordination was a pleasant meditative practice, and I grew to anticipate the opportunity with great attachment. I found myself imagining my body flowing through the warm water, freed from the disappointments of the day or the bitterness of winter. But then to my great disappointment, my pleasure became tinged by unpleasant feelings as I began to notice frustration, impatience, and judgment accompanying me on my swim. At times, when my stroke was labored, I became self critical, udging my imperfect skill. When other swimmers in the pool took up tok up space or swam too slow or too fast for my liking, I became impatient. And when I occasionally needed to give myself a “pep talk” to get to the pool, the frustration at the need to motivate myself stayed with me as I swam. I continued to struggle with this disappointment, longing for the easy flow, striving for the perfect swim each time I entered the pool.

One day a few weeks ago, during another imperfect swim, when the pool was crowded, and my shoulder ached in spite of the warm water and the long slow strokes, it dawned on me: “ I can simply go with the flow”.

Swimming isn’t a metaphor for anything. It is a consummate example of simple awareness, noticing- pleasant and unpleasant- not reacting- finding the imperfect beauty in each moment whether I’m underwater or not.

 

~Claire Weiner

Word with Friends

WORDS WITH FRIENDS is a popular smart phone app that allows a virtual connection between friends, or strangers, while playing a Scrabble-like word game.

It’s fun, let’s hope it’s good for the brain, and it’s free.

But what about real words with friends or stangers? The kind of words that make a difference in the world. The words that can lift someone up or cut someone down. How can a mindfulness practice help with real words?

The practice of mindfulness allows for awareness without judgment or criticism. When we pay attention to the “internal tape” that runs simultaneous to conversations with others, we can notice ways in which we are not truly listening. We can notice ways in which we are formulating responses that interfere with empathic and compassionate interactions to others. We can notice a tendency to react, rather than waiting to respond. It is often this unnoticed “internal tape” that leads to harmful speech. When we don’t pause, even for a moment, we are unfortunately capable of mindless speech.

The cultivation of mindfulness, apart from its Buddhist origins, still demands a sense of ethics or sila as it referred to in Buddhism. It is the opportunity to live in the world as a wholesome person, one who performs good deeds in this world.

 

May Thich Nhat Hanh’s words help us use our words with friends
and strangers to make the world a better place:

 

“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.

 

Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy and hope.

 

I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticise or condemn things of which I am not sure.

 

I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break.

 

I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.”

 

~Claire Weiner

Panic on the Cushion

Several years ago, at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, I attended a five-day Advanced Training in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for Depression. MBCT is an evidence- based intervention designed to prevent recurrence in people who suffer from recurrent depression. The setting was serene, central Massachusetts in late summer. The grounds were lush and alive with the natural sounds of summer; yet it was so very quiet. I could feel my breath slow each time I entered the meditation hall. The two teachers were skillful and ten other students were a congenial.

The training was a combination of mindfulness practice, instruction, and role-playing.

I felt I was in the right place.

On the second day, in the middle of the afternoon, the sun was streaming through the windows of the meditation hall, reflecting off the wood floor, the room was warm as I sat on my zafu, legs crossed in front of me. Breathe in, breathe out. Only this time instead of my breath slowing, my breath quickened. Breathe in, breathe out. Still quickening…heart pounding…sweat beading on my face.

I must be sick. I’ve got to get out of here.

And then it dawned on me.

I’m not sick. This is panic. For some reason I was having a panic attack in this beautiful, calm, serene space.

While I’m not prone to panic attacks, I certainly was able to recognize what this was.

And so I chose to stay and sit through it. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.

I found my breath again and again and the panic passed. I have no idea how much time elapsed, but there I was breathing normally, my heart was no longer pounding and the sweat was gone.

The intense difficulty of the panic had moved past…like the clouds in the sky or the sticks in the river. The impermanence of panic. It was a powerful and good lesson.

 

~Claire Weiner

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