Tag Archives: mindfulness

Show up

I am not the first, nor will be the last, to write about the recent passing of Angeles Arrien. Angeles was an internationally renown and beloved teacher/ cultural anthropoAngeles Arrienlogist whose work has been a foundation of my own. She left us suddenly and unexpectedly on April 24th with her pearls of wisdom arising as answers as we each wrestle with her passing.

Angeles’ core philosophy included four life practices that are found throughout the world’s indigenous cultures, called The Four Fold Way. They are: 1) Show up, choose to be present 2)Pay attention to what has heart and meaning, 3)Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome and 4)Tell the truth without blame or judgment.
When tough times come, it is all too easy to want to run away. Grief physically hurts. It pulls stomachs into knots and bends us to its will as we weep with happy memories appearing unbidden, torturing us with the knowledge that they will never be again.  You think you are safe and then turn a corner or wake up from a dream and Mr. Grief belts you again. A week after Angeles’ passing, our beloved dog Kiki also left us very suddenly, so we had some pretty visceral grief practice these past two weeks.

Where to begin to create greater ease? I keep hearing, “Show up, choose to be present.”  Show up for the loss, for the pain, for the tears and the disappointment. Pay attention to the intensity of the grief and feel the jagged edges within when it feels impossible.  When I was researching Worst Enemy, Best Teacher  I was struck by how the world’s warriors traditions all include practice in enduring pain. They counsel fasting, sparring, and endurance activities that push the initiate to find strength through intense discomfort. When you land on the battlefield of loss, it all makes sense. Showing up is the only way to get through. The 12th century Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din Rumi, once prescribed that the cure for the pain is in the pain. 

Arrien also connected showing up to the cross-cultural archetype of the warrior through her research.   Running away, although it is alluring for a moment, creates a dragon that chases until we are willing like a knight of the Round Table, to turn around and confront. Whenever we are in a leadership role, it demands that we show up for the tough times. When profits disappear, projects are cancelled, or key employees are lost, the warrior work begins.

Also, when there is ease and comfort, we need to show up and pay attention to the gifts and strengths of those around us.  Show up and recognize the impermanence of it all and give thanks. It will be no surprise that Angeles was an expert in the practice of gratitude and wrote her final book, Living in Gratitude on this subject.

Angeles mentored a huge gaggle of us, and from them, I am also gathering jewels.  Cheryl Esposito, Leading Conversations, brought back the memory that when Angeles would be driving home a critical teaching and we would find ourselves much too serious, she would begin to say, “Kisses, kisses” and blow them out to the audience. Today, we are all blowing kisses right back.  Thank you Angeles.

Cues and clues

In February I spent a wonderful week in Istanbul, courtesy of the Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative. I attended a reunion with 120 bright, burgeoning student leaders from throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, 19 of whom had also spent 5 weeks with us at Montana State University the summer before.

Blue Mosque of IstanbulMy colleague Janelle and I traveled 20 some hours to the city center to begin our Turkey visit. Bleary but excited, we started in a tiny boutique hotel near the famous Blue Mosque so we could walk to it and some of the surrounding cultural wonders of the world. This also assured that we would hear a call to prayer five times a day as we visited the sites, including at sunrise. Listening to this Islamic ritual is a fun feature of old town Istanbul.

I was putting clothes away in the hotel room as I heard the “call” as the sun set. I learned that on a minaret 50 feet from my window there was a speaker that blasted the call loud, loud, loud and clear. Instead being filled with gratitude I was in Istanbul, I went to panic. You know when you are so exhausted that you’d consider giving a tooth to get some sleep? Well, all I could think of was, “This is going to happen again at 5:50 am and I still needed to eat dinner and I won’t go to bed until 9 or 10 and then I am going to get jarred awake at 5 and then I won’t go back to sleep and then I will spend my first full day crying and OMG that bed in my room looks so inviting”…and, and, and…you know the drill.

The view out the hotel window

The view out the hotel window

The sun rose the next morning with that dreaded call. I came to realize though that the chant actually ricochets around the city. Callers could be heard in the distance and our loudspeaker singing friend very periodically would then seem to reply. I did grab enough shut eye to survive and what started out as a source of anxiety, became a favorite component of my time in the city.

We get busy. We get distracted and miss important aspects of a problem or of our lives.  Cues are useful tools to help us be present and available as leaders, friends and family members. The calls to prayer are reminders to stop, pay attention and give thanks.

We can use all sorts of cues to remind us to show up in our own lives, and for those around us. A wise Buddhist friend has a chiming clock at home that no longer keeps time. Without warning, at 3:06 or 12:49 for example, it will mark time with one to twelve bongs. She loves this clock because it is her ingrained cue to stop whatever she is doing, breathe and assure that she is in the present moment. This once perplexing event has become a welcome practice when I visit.

When conflict strikes, I notice there are words or actions that cue me to recenter. Hearing “you are wrong,” after years of mediating calls me to breathe deeply and go into my conflict readiness stance. I have conditioned myself to ask, “Tell me more…” and I get very aware of my surroundings. The cue that there is conflict gets me very interested in looking for the clues for its source.

What cues can you use each day to bring you back to the present? Is it your watch beeping each hour? Or can you create a persistent cue, like another asking, “How are you?” to bring you back home?

The Opposite of Beauty is Indifference

As a continuing theme of this blog, I want to share the work of two artists who bring both beauty from and insight about our oceans’ treasures. Richard and Judy Lang have collected plastic debris since 1999 from 1000 yards of Kehoe Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore and create museum-worthy art.

In one year they easily gather 4000 pounds of plastic. Meanwhile, as Judith says, “We are not cleaning the beach, we are curating the beach,” as they select only plastic in the colors and shapes for which they are searching. What could be a depressing or overwhelming issue to face, the Langs appear to address it with interest and careful observation.  “The opposite of beauty is really not ugliness,” says Richard, “The opposite of beauty is indifference. We are trying not to be indifferent about this and about the world.”

Please enjoy another example of artists as leaders:

Practice makes perfect

What is most essential to Buddhism is based on clarifying the mind. If you want your mind to be clear, it is important to put opinions to rest. If opinions are not stopped, then wrong and right are confused; if the mind is not clear, reality and illusion are mixed up. – Hsueh-yen

“Pay attention.” “Be mindful.” “Stay present.” This is standard advice in ancient sacred texts and now in self-help literature. If it is so ubiquitous and so necessary, why is it also so darn hard to do? I want to stay in the moment, really I do, but off I go again.

To answer why I can’t behave, I like to first check latest brain research. As you have read in past posts, our natural brain reactions are what make it difficult to: be calm when another is yelling, listen when we are terrified or stick around when there is conflict. Our brains often take our best laid plans (stay calm, listen, stick around) and send them packing!

It also turns out that it is our brain’s natural story making propensity that keeps us from enjoying the moment. University of Toronto neuroscience researcher Norman Farb in 2007 mindfulness study described our default mental state, which he calls a “network,” as one that loves create narratives. In a Psychology Today article, author Doug Rock explains Farb’s definition as:

“This network is called default because it becomes active when not much else is happening, and you think about yourself. If you are sitting on the edge of a jetty in summer, a nice breeze blowing in your hair and a cold beer in your hand, instead of taking in the beautiful day you might find yourself thinking about what to cook for dinner tonight, and whether you will make a mess of the meal to the amusement of your partner. This is your default network in action. It’s the network involved in planning, daydreaming and ruminating… When you experience the world using this narrative network, you take in information from the outside world, process it through a filter of what everything means, and add your interpretations. Sitting on the dock with your narrative circuit active, a cool breeze isn’t a cool breeze, it’s a sign than summer will be over soon, which starts you thinking about where to go skiing, and whether your ski suit needs a dry clean.”

Sound familiar? That’s how my brain works. Wouldn’t be a problem, but I often feel like I miss my life when the narrative mind kicks in. Gorgeous sunset? Oh yeah, missed that because I was thinking about an upcoming presentation. A wry smile delivered by a friend? Shoot, didn’t fully appreciate that either…and the list continues. Life’s beauty passes me by while I am making “to do” lists.

In my last post, I wrote about when I go “mother bear” how it helps to notice what story I am telling myself. After posting, a friend poked me with the comment, “Do you really want to abandon the narrative?” “Abandon?” Well, he probably should have asked, “Could you really give up your stories?” I’ve got great story creation capability. Pick the circumstances and my mind runs worst-case scenarios, develops possible next steps and wonders what I should eat for lunch.

My Buddhist buddies recommend “practicing mindfulness” to quiet the mind. After the “lose the narrative” question and reading the above referenced article by Doug Rock this week, I decided to study on what is mindfulness and what “practicing it” means.

Mindfulness from a Buddhist perspective is basically the idea of paying attention to everything without making up a story. Instead of interpreting what you see, just notice what you can about the present moment. Notice — your breath, what our hands are doing, stomach is saying, your words and how we are feeling. We are also advised to track what thoughts are appearing and regard these as simply, “thinking.”

So, try to pay attention without creating any stories or interpretations for five minutes.

If you are anything like me, you’ll notice how it is ridiculously difficult! While sitting at a stoplight today I attempted a bold act of mindfulness. Looking down the road I noticed a set of thirty new recently installed streetlights. I started by saying, “Just noticing the new streetlights…” Instantly, my mind wanted to add that there were too many lights; how this would add to light pollution and how do they decide the spacing between each anyway? Amazing, given I was trying to be mindful! How knows where I’d have gone if I wasn’t attempting to stay present.

Practicing mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness

Yet, according to Dr. Farb’s study, we can practice becoming more present and that this practice pays off. Daily meditation practice allows us to engage an experiential focus and pay attention. In this mind state we drop the narrative and enjoy what is in front of us without filters. Sitting quietly, back straight and focusing on your breath, your entire job is to stay present. Since there are less stimuli than at the stoplight, you are more able to pull off the experiential focus. Noticing everything in the silence of meditating is like hitting against the backboard to get ready to eventually play a tennis match. Meditation allows us to notice, for how many breaths can we pay attention? With the baby steps of meditation, our brain becomes trained to more easily shift from narrative to experiential.

Nothing new here, but it helps to understand why it is a struggle to stay present and that practice can make perfect…sense.