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Archive for August, 2012

“How can one whose attention is fixed on his loss and misfortune ever be comforted, especially if he keeps visualizing it, brooding over it, his eyes heavy with sorrow, talking to his loss as if they were two persons staring into each other’s faces (p. 47)? (Blakney, Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation)

 These are important words for all of us today.  There are so many challenges in or lives from illness, to job loss, to personal debt, home foreclosures, death of a family member or friend, and the list could go on and on.  Sometimes it seems that it is impossible to have the strength and fortitude to get out of bed, to look another day in the face, and to move forward.  But if we don’t–what is the alternative?

In mindfulness training, Unity, and Zen Buddhism we are encouraged to put no more attention on the good than the bad.  Sounds crazy doesn’t it! Well hear me out for a minute…As a retired Unity minister I spent hundreds of hours teaching and speaking about the power of “mind action.”  What you hold in mind manifests after its kind.  Some people call it the law of psychological reciprocity or in the vernacular “what goes around comes around.”  Where you focus your energy there you go.  So when I am sitting in meditation if my mind wanders to a negative thing going on in my life, that’s okay and if my mind wanders to a positive thing going on in my life that’s okay too.  What we don’t do is hold on to it, ruminate over it, or focus our attention on it.

So what do we do?  We just say “Isn’t that nice, or interesting, or informative” and then we go back to simply counting our breath, one on the in breath and two on the out breath.  This allows the brain to focus on something else, something insignificant, something simple that we can actually do without “thinking.”  The mind is a wonderful thing and it only knows what we tell it!  So what are you telling your mind.  Where are you focusing your attention?

When I was a kid playing outside and I heard the sound of the ice cream truck coming down the street I would squeal with joy and run into the house to ask my mother if we could buy ice cream.  Sometimes I got a no and sometimes I got a resounding yes. As my sister and I ran to the truck with our money in hand I could visualize in my mind that delicious Fudgesicle. I could see the deepness of the brown color. I could taste its sweet cold chocolate on my tongue. I could feel the chill as it moved down my throat into my stomach! Wow what a thrill.

Once I got it I rushed to eat it so it would not melt in the hot summer sun before I could consume it all.  And then as quickly as I got it–it was gone! The thrill was over and only the memory lingered until the day when I would hear that sound again of the ice cream truck.  How quickly the mind can turn from joy to sorrow on the simple melting or consumption of a Fudgesicle. Good Humor is not just ice cream…its a memory, an emotion, and a way to a life of joy. Yum, Yum.

I want to make it clear here that I am not talking to the person who has been diagnosed with clinical depression and needs it to be taken care of by a medical doctor and/or psychiatrist with medication and therapy.  For you there is a need to take the prescribed medications along with your daily use of meditation and mindfulness techniques and training.

But for the rest of us, including me, it is a time to acknowledge the bad and the sad and then move forward toward the good and the joy.  It is a time to create a plan each and every day to discover the good in things–even when they appear to be bad.  There is not a single person that I know of that has not told a story about his or her life where something “bad” happened and that it ultimately turned out much better than they ever could have imagined.  The loss of a job gave them another opportunity to go back to school, or get a better job, or move cross-country where they found a friend or partner the person would have otherwise not met.

So let’s take the opportunity today to realize that life is more than a Good Humor Fudgesicle and its temporary joy, but it is a balance of dealing with peace and love both the good and the bad, the happy and the sad with patience and persistence. So let’s get going…and don’t forget to bring along that Fudgesicle!

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“Proper effort is not the effort to make something particular happen.  It is the effort to be aware and awake in each moment, the effort to overcome laziness and defilement, the effort to make each activity of our day meditation (page 51).” What a great quote from A Still Forest Pool, The Insight Meditation of Achaan Chah complied by Jack Kornfield and Paul Breiter.  What a way to live our lives! What kind of life are we practicing?

Can you imagine what our lives would be like for ourselves, our family members, and our friends and students if we lived a life where we were awake and aware in every moment.  We would not miss the pain in a student’s eyes as they struggled during a quiz or test, or as they walked in to class disheveled and listless because they were up all night working at a minimum wage job so they could afford to go to school.

I had a student some time back who was abandoned by her mother, and then by her aunt, and eventually ended up living on the street with her name on a waiting list for the homeless shelter for teens.  I did not know this until she came up to me after class and apologized for her homework not being turned in on time.  It was only then that she shared her tragic story.  It was only then that I “awoke” to her pain. I looked past her and through her each day as she came to class, ingrained in my own needs, challenges, and preparations for the “course content.”

But the amazing thing was that she still was coming to school (effort), trying to get money for the bus to get there (more effort) and for some food to eat (no laziness).  She had shelter and safety during the day on campus and she had access to the computers to do her homework.  But what happened to her at night (defilement)?  What does this say about the adults in her life who lived in a world of darkness and ignorance instead of living a life of being awake and aware to the needs of someone else beyond themselves.

If we lived awake and aware we would not ignore the pain in the body and the face of a clerk in a store as they endured the rage of a customer. I encountered a situation just like this recently.  During this 10 minute encounter, to help her keep her “cool,” I smiled and winked at her. Doing this let her know that I saw what wonderful customer service she was giving this angry person.  Finally, the woman left the store with her merchandize in hand grumbling to her husband who looked totally embarrassed and perplexed.

I spent the rest of my time at the checkout laughing and joking with the clerk cheering her up and letting her know how well she had just done her job. She smiled and laughed back at me grateful that her next customer had been a happy rather than grouchy one!

As you can see I am still learning and growing and working on living a life of practice–being awake and alert each moment to the pain and suffering of those around me. But as both the Buddha and Jesus said, “there will always be suffering in the world.”

My question is what am I doing about it right now, right here, today when I encounter you…causing you suffering and pain or giving you joy and peace? Let me know–won’t you…

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Vera John-Steiner, Presidential Professor of Psycholinguists and Director of the Santa Fe Graduate Center at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque wrote in her book Notebooks of the Mind Explorations of thinking, “It is most likely that highly curious, intense, and independent children elicit an involvement, an interested response from those around them. The encouragement that they receive from caring adults is in turn an important part of the development of their sense of self, for an inner belief in one’s self is a necessary strength in the pursuit of a creative life (page 199).”

Each of us is creative in some way.  Regardless of how you feel about your “creativity” you are creative!  I am very creative in the kitchen.  I am a great cook and everyone seems to enjoy immensely the dishes I make whether they are  appetizers, a main course, or a dessert.  I can’t tell you how many times I have pulled something out of the oven and exclaimed, “Wow, that is picture perfect it looks like it could be on the cover of Good Housekeeping Magazine!”  However, do not ask me to paint a picture, mold something out of clay, or play a musical instrument because the results would be disastrous.  I tried that one time in college and what I thought was a beautiful elephant made out of clay when he saw it my husband responded with, “Honey, that’s a great looking cow you’ve made there!”  I know he thought he was just trying to please me and make me happy, but boy was I depressed! “A cow,” I said, “that’s not a cow–it’s an elephant!”

As educators, bosses, parents, friends, and family members it is our job to help find and foster the creativity in everyone we know.  Why?  Because when people do creative things it boosts their level of self-esteem, it increases the synapses in their brains, it brings them joy, peace, and a feeling of accomplishment.  Even if the elephant looks like a cow!  It makes them happy.

Artfulness and creativity are in each of us we just need to look around us, look within us, and allow ourselves to be free of self-doubt and self-criticism. Beauty is within us to express for our own pleasure and for the pleasure of others.  Whether it is a short story you create, or a poem, or a song, whether you can eat, ride, hear, or see your creation it is part of you to share with the world.  The Wright Brothers saw the beauty of the flight of the birds and took flight themselves creating the first airplane in America. They were happy!

Making people happy was one of my dear departed father’s jobs on this planet. Not only was he an award winning portrait photographer in New Jersey, but he was a man with a mission: to make people happy.   No matter where he went he felt it was his job to make a joke, send a smile, pinch the cheek of a baby, or compliment you on your dress or new suit.  His only reward was the smile on your face, the glint in your eye, or the chuckle in your voice.  That was his paycheck and he collected on it each and every day. He made people happy….you can too.

Share your artfulness and creativity wherever and whenever you can.  And who cares if the elephant looks like a cow! Not me!

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“Techniques that cultivate mindfulness are simple, but the persistent application is challenging.” Congressman Tom Ryan wrote this in his important book A Mindful Nation.  Life is filled with challenges every day from simple things like getting the kids up and ready for school, or dealing with a difficult job, or taking care of an elderly parent.  But without these challenges we would probably not grow in compassion, love, creativity, problem solving, or fortitude.   

I know in my life each challenge has made me a stronger more resilient person, someone who has the tenacity to take on any challenge that comes along.  After the death of my fiance during the Viet Nam war I was able to stand up to power anywhere anyplace.  When my marriage ended I was able to pick up the pieces and move on with a very successful career and life.  When my father died I took over the care of my aging mother with Alzheimer’s and I am able to do that with love and compassion even at the most trying times.

This combined with my time spent meditating and sitting at the South Florida Zen Center has given me the tools to live a mindful life–seeing the big things in the small and the small things in the big.  It has brought peace in mind, body, and spirit and helped me stay healthy and happy.

Teaching my students to be mindful in class is a challenge as well.  Their minds wander at least as often as the TV goes from a commercial to the show and back and forth and back and forth. Even though it can be challenging I still  share mindfulness techniques with my students.  Over the years it has enabled them to see their inner strength, find peace in their lives, and compassion for others.  It has helped them be mindful when taking a test, or writing a paper, or studying for an exam. It has given them a clear mind when they needed it the most. 

Simply being persistent in using the techniques of mindfulness and meditation can be challenging.  Days can go by when I forget to sit or I forget to focus on one thing at a time mindfully.  I may find myself eating mindlessly and after I’ve finished the meal I have no idea what I ate or what it even tasted like.  I could not recall the color, smell, or texture of the food.  If I do this too long I gain weight and I end up with mindlessness attached to my hips and thighs from the food that I could not even remember eating!

But have no fear, mindfulness is simple so long as we persist!  Good luck in that!

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“The importance of motion in the conceptualizations of physicists was described by Einstein in his so-called thought experiment, in which he imagines himself riding through space, astride a light wave, and looking behind him at the next wave.  In this way he constructed a visual-kinesthetic image of some principles of relativity.  Einstein liked to re-experience space the way children do, and from such a vantage point, examine physical phenomena by being, as he wrote, “sympathetically in touch with experience. (Notebooks of the Mind Explorations of Thinking,Vera John-Steiner, pg. 16)

For my educator friends Einstein’s experience illustrates a great way to help us understand how our visual and kinesthetic students function, think , and learn.  For the visual and kinesthetic learners we need to allow them to have these important types of experiences in our classes.  Through these experiences we may help foster the next Albert Einstein.

What a pleasure it would be to watch our students grow and blossom  through mindfulness exercises designed with their learning styles in mind. Another person that John-Steiner interviewed was unable to play sports due to an illness and so he had to listen to the games on the radio or watch them on TV.  As he thought about these youthful experiences he told her  “he was forced to play games vicariously, conscious of the various ways the athletes used their bodies.”  So regardless of whether we have the space, time, or right location to take our students physically through the experience we can help them imagine the physicality of the experience in their minds.

There is a simple Feldenkrais exercise that I use in my classes to demonstrate the power of the mind and its connection to the body. You may want to try it.  Have the students all stand up, lift their arms straight out to shoulder height, once they have done that have them drop their left arm to their side.  Next, have them turn their torso as far to the right as they can until they can see the wall or space behind them and point at a spot.  Once they have set the spot have them drop the arm, face forward, and just “imagine” themselves twisting and choosing a spot behind them.  Have them do this imaginary movement in their mind’s eye at least 10-12 times.  Finally, have them do it one last time for real.  Most of the students will see that the spot on the wall they had originally chosen has moved significantly and they could twist so much farther than before.  Wow!  They are amazed at the power of the mind over the body.

This gives you a great opportunity for a lively discussion on how that relationship affects–positively or negatively– their mental and physical states of mind.  What are they thinking about their achievements in a sport, art, music, dance,  or marshal arts?   Obesity is a huge problem in American, have they convinced themselves that they can’t walk, jog, swim, roller blade, or exercise?

How about being like Einstein and use these techniques to be a better mathematician, scientist, physicists, or botanist!  The skies the limit when you put your visual and kinesthetic energy into using this mindfulness technique and allow yourself to ride through space with Einstein.  Oh, the places you can go!

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Michael Gazzaniga in his book Human, The Science Behind What Makes us Unique, wrote “. . .art can put a smile on your face.The benefits to the individual and society from positive affect alone suggest that the world is a happier place if it is beautiful.” 

What is your plan today to create beauty in your world.  You may not be an artist, photographer, sculptor, or composer, but beauty is at your fingertips.  There is beauty in words, so make your words supportive, creative, and affirming today and beautifully express them in intonation, emotion, and with love.  There is beauty in facial expressions as they show compassion, love, or forgiveness. You can create beauty through your smile, a twinkle in your eye, and your warm and affirming tone of voice.  Try not to limit your definition of beauty and your ability to demonstrate, create, or envision it.

Find beauty in your immediate environment.  Look for the weeds growing up through the cracks in the sidewalk, the road, or your driveway.  Their strength is amazing, their shades of green parallel even the worlds most beautiful gardens, some even produce beautiful flowers in yellow, white, and gold. Who was it that gave them a bad name anyway?  I think it was my mother as she made us go around the yard and dig up all the dandelions every summer!  Thanks mom!

My 91-year-old mother and I always look for the beauty in the clouds, or the color of the car next to us at the traffic light, or the sound of the train on the tracks as it goes clackity clack past us as we drive around town in my brilliant metallic lime-green Ford Fiesta running errands or as we’re on our way to church each Sunday.   We try to notice the butterfly in the garden, the rainbow in the sky, the laughter of the children, or the beauty of the people around us. There is beauty and art everywhere if you just look!

Be mindful! Open your eyes, ears, and nose to the beauty and artfulness everywhere today and watch how it lightens your mood, brings you peace, joy, and happiness!  Enjoy this new adventure today and let me know what happens!

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Give your students, yourself, your co-workers, your staff a little time each day to spend in the quiet, meditating, contemplating, praying, or whatever name you would like to give it and dramatic results will appear.

It is imperative that you allow yourself time to just sit—to simply sit and allow your thoughts and pictures and emotions to jell into something or into nothing—to free your mind from words and thinking and imagining.  Like a cotton ball and nail polish remover–one moment the color is there–the next moment it is gone.   What a relief, a blank slate to polish or not to polish, to write or create or not, to think or not to think.  What a relief to feel something or to feel nothing.  Simply being mindful of the moment passing in time with no rules or regrets:  Simply quiet—simply is–simply being.

Creativity will abound!  Why not give it a try for a week and see what happens?  Let me know!

More ideas at www.UnlockTheDoorToLearning.org

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