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Archive for November, 2012

The holidays are a very stressful time for most people.  Holidays are also times when those who suffer from depression, suffer even more acutely.  Patterns of the past brought into the present often harm us more than they help us.  The ideas below are not meant to replace your prescription medication or advice from your doctor– they are simply to be in addition to them.

Williams, Teasdale, Segal, and Kabat-Zinn wrote these wonderful words in their book The Mindful Way through Depression (2007). “What if, like virtually everybody else who suffers repeatedly from depression, you have become a victim of your own very sensible, even heroic, efforts to free yourself—like someone pulled even deeper into quicksand by the struggling intended to get you out?”

This may seem like a very disheartening idea, and you are right—it is.  But there is a way out if you will only take the time to look at this very difficult life’s situation through new eyes, with new thoughts, with new information, and with new light.  You all have heard this funny yet ironic definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different end result.  Today is the day to begin anew, to begin doing something differently and watching and waiting for a fantastic, positive, new end result: peace, prosperity, and happiness!

The authors share with us these two very important ideas:

  • At the very earliest stages in which mood starts to spiral downward, it is not the mood that does the damage, but how we react to it.
  • Our habitual efforts to extricate ourselves, far from freeing us, actually keep us locked in the pain we’re trying to escape (page 2).

They also caution us as well when they write: “Exactly how you will experience the profoundly healthy shift in your relationship to negative moods and what will unfold for you in its aftermath are difficult to predict because they are different for everyone.  The only way anyone can really know what benefits such an approach offers is to suspend judgment temporarily and engage in the process wholeheartedly over an extended period of time—in this case for eight weeks—to see what happens (page 3).”

You may be saying, “Eight weeks! Yikes I can’t do anything for eight weeks are they crazy?”  Maybe, but how about trying it out by starting with one day, and if you feel even one tiny bit better, do it for another day, and if that day goes just a little better why not try it for a third day?  Make no plans or promises longer than 24 hours.  No one wants to get depressed about setting a goal and then not achieving it that’s for sure!  So let’s not set ourselves up for failure once again.

So let’s begin with one simple mindfulness exercise that we can do beginning today.  The authors go on to write, “Mindfulness is not paying more attention but paying attention differently and more wisely—with the whole mind and heart, using the full resources of the body and its senses (page 55).”  So there are several different exercises that you can do to practice mindfulness even when you feel sad or depressed.  You can focus on your breathing, eating, or singing for a start.

One of the ways I get my mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, out of one of her loops is to do what we call “pattern interruption.”  I ask her to sing one of the songs I know she can sing or to recite one of the poems that she has written and memorized.  Within a few short minutes she is able to go onto something different and her breathing slows down, her mind is less confused, and she can think more clearly.

The authors also share some important information with us when they write, “The difficulty occurs when we confuse the thoughts about things with the things themselves.  Thoughts involve interpretations and judgments, which are not in themselves facts; they are merely more thoughts (page 59).”

As a teacher many times my students have shared with me the fears and thoughts that they have about taking tests, writing papers, or giving presentations in class.  For them the thoughts about those things are making them more difficult than they should be, especially if they have prepared well for them beforehand.

For these students I have them use the “Three Breaths Exercise” from Jan Chozen Bays wonderful book How to Train a Wild Elephant & Other Adventures in Mindfulness (2011).  Dr. Bays says, “As many times a day as you are able, give the mind a short rest.  For the duration of three breaths ask the inner voices to be silent.  It’s like turning off the inner radio or TV for a few minutes.  Then open all your senses and just be aware—of color, sound, touch, and smell (page 76).”   Begin by closing your eyes, and counting one on the in breath, and two on the out breath, just for three full breaths.  Once you have done that observe how your mind and body feel.  If three breaths don’t work, take four, or five.  Then observe how your mind and body feels.

Do this as many times a day as you feel the need to.  When you get stressed, the mind starts to get into that “monkey talk” or “fear talk” or “anger talk.”  This is a perfect time to stop and take the three breaths.  You can even do them right in the middle of a meeting with your eyes open, or you can take a break and go back to your office or desk or to the bathroom and do it—then  observe the results.

For me I find that after only three breaths my blood pressure calms down, my mind calms down, and I feel significantly better than I did before the three breaths.  I am now able to go back to what I was doing with calmness and peacefulness.

If I am eating I take the time to eat mindfully, focusing on each mouthful, the taste, smell, texture, and feel of the food.  Doing this helps me focus on the food instead of my thoughts, and helps me quiet my body, mind, and spirit.  Try it.  I think you’ll like it.

Anyone of these things can help you in a small way during this holiday season to return your focus to the good, the wonderful, and the new opportunities that lie just ahead. Being mindful about simple things can help you be mindful about complex things when they enter your life.  Stop the struggling—start the mindfulness—and watch that depression melt away slowly like caramel in your mouth—with sweetness and light.

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Shunryu Suzuki in his famous book wrote, “Every existence in nature, every existence in the human world, every cultural work that we create, is something which was given, or is being given to us, relatively speaking.  But as everything is originally one, we are, in actuality giving out everything.  Moment after moment we are creating something, and this is the joy of our life (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, 1970, page 65).  At Thanksgiving time we are especially busy giving and creating things from a sumptuous dinner for family and friends, to decorations for the table, to food for the local food bank for the Thanksgiving Dinner baskets for the needy, and this year to the victims of the Super Storm Sandy.  We are creating and giving from the material to the ephemeral in our prayers and well-wishes for all those on planet earth, planet earth herself, and beyond.

How do we do this?  Suzuki goes on to say, “But this “I” which is creating and always giving out something is not the “small i”; it is the “big I.”  Even though you do not realize the oneness of this “big I” with everything when you give something you feel good, because at that time you feel at one with what you are giving.  This why it feels better to give than to take. (page 65)”  This month in church we have been collecting money to purchase enough celery for 250 families that are receiving Thanksgiving Baskets from the food bank.  We do this every year!  We give the celery.  Sounds silly maybe but what would Thanksgiving be without celery in your stuffing, or on the table filled with something like cream cheese or peanut butter, and what would the leftover turkey salad be without the celery.

Those in need of food baskets often do not get fresh vegetables and fresh food because the food pantry cannot take perishables.  So even a bunch of celery can be an exciting thing for children to experience and green is good for everyone.  In fact, many children in urban areas today do not even know where the food comes from.  When a classroom of children were taken to the grocery store one day and the teacher asked them where the meat came from in the packages they could not tell her that it was from a cow or a pig.  They could only identify that the chicken was at one time a living bird.

Suzuki goes on to say “Actually, to create with the “big I” is to give; we cannot create and own what we create for ourselves since everything was created by God.  This point should not be forgotten. But because we do forget who is doing the creating and the reason for the creation, we become attached to the material or exchange value.  Everything you do should be based on such an awareness, and not on material or self-centered ideas of value. Then whatever you do is true giving, is dana prajna paramita. (pages 66-67)”

This is why we enjoy this time of year so much because it gives us that opportunity to have a reason to give whether it is gifts for our family and friends, time at the food bank or soup kitchen, help to provide food for the turkey baskets for families in need, or just to give a smile to the clerk in the store.  Rich or not so rich—we can give with abandonment.  And most of the giving can be free of any monetary value, so how about giving some of your time and yourself this year along with your cash.  When we do this type of giving from the “big I” Suzuki believes “we will not be attached to it, and we will not create problems for ourselves or for others.”

Today is the perfect day to view each thing that you give as coming from the “big I” and seeing yourself as the conduit of the teachings of the great masters of the world from Jesus to the Buddha to Mohammad, to Krishna, and many more whose names I have not mentioned, down to you.  Selfless giving is selfless living at its best.

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How can we as active members of families of Truth practice the Buddha’s vow and begin to “help all beings to suffer less?  How can we as active Christians practice Jesus’ commandment to “love they neighbor as thyself?”  First, we must begin by creating a culture of peace within ourselves and then move to our families.  Once we have conquered these two great places where anger and violence can reside daily, then we will have the power and the knowledge to move our beliefs and our actions into the larger community in which we work, play, and live.

Master Thich Nhat Hanh recommends that we begin by making a personal peace treaty with ourselves.  He encourages us to do this particular act to make a “concrete commitment to transform our lives (Creating True Peace, 2003).”  His personal peace treaty is simple and can be memorized easily.  You can carry it in your wallet or purse and share it with your friends.  It goes like this: “Dear Self, I promise to practice and live my daily life in a way that will not touch or water the seed of violence within me (page 7).” How often have we “touched the seed of violence within” ourselves today, or this week, or this month?   Have we lost our temper this morning with family members because they did not get ready for school quickly enough, or with drivers on the road because they did not drive the way we wished they had driven, or gotten angry at co-workers for not doing what you thought they should have done in your time frame?  Or how about getting angry at ourselves for not being the person that we had hoped we would be by this time in our lives?

I have felt that rage and anger build in me in a relationship when I had a fight with my significant other about some of the most inane things imaginable, like the inability to put dirty dishes in the dishwasher before going to bed, or not picking up dirty clothes from the floor, or spending money on things that seemed to me to be a waste and not needed or not in our budget.

Because we have so much family violence today, it is important that we as  teachers, ministers, Truth students, and Zen practitioners share with our friends and families techniques that will help them get through their times of crisis without anger and/or violence.  Remember, violence does not have to be physical—it can be mental and emotional as well.

You might want to check out Master Hanh’s peace treaty in his book.  It is a wonderful process to use when working with an individual to create a peaceful and loving relationship.  He believes, “The war stops and starts with you and with me.  Every morning when you open your eyes, the potential for violence and war begins.  So every morning, when you open your eyes, please water the seeds of compassion and nonviolence.  Let peace begin with you (page 56).”

If you are reading this post you probably believe in these things as well so let us begin to practice our beliefs today and continue each and every day and soon we will find that peace we have been looking for right within ourselves. Sign that peace treaty today!

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