Haiku #2, “Worry”

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Worry, worry, friend.

You’re at my doorstep again.

Come in, rest a while.

Coming Undone

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There is a line in the Tao te Ching that goes something like, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.” In order to grasp this seeming contradiction, it is helpful to know that the Tao te Ching espouses the virtues of humility and the seeming paradox that in emptiness there is infinite possibility (e.g., the empty space inside a pitcher is what holds liquid and makes the pitcher useful). This quote could also refer to our human ability to evaluate. Oftentimes, we evaluate ourselves by how many items we have checked off a to-do list; or, we compare ourselves to others and judge ourselves as lacking. The intention is to motivate ourselves, but the result can be a nagging, restless sense of incompleteness or inferiority. That self-imposed pressure can prevent us from seeing that everything, including us, is perfect as it is.

I often think of that quote from the Tao te Ching. This is because I often get caught up in the illusion that I need to do more and be more, and that I need to have a perpetual list of tasks and increasingly ambitious goals. I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with goals, tasks, and taking action. I am suggesting that there is a profound difference between doing something in order to contribute to the world and doing something in order to prop up my ego and feel secure.

There is another line in the Tao te Ching, “When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad.” The world of humans is increasingly populated with alluring and amazing technologies to help us plan, organize, record, share, and compare our lives. In large part, their appeal seems to lie in the psychological comfort we take from the idea that we can achieve happiness through accomplishments, and that the worth of our accomplishments comes from the recognition of others. This might explain the impulse I feel to post, tweet, pin, gram, and tumble every move I make. It might also explain the belief I hold that doing is better than being.

The problem is that doing is never done. The more I do, the more there is left to do. Because the feeling of security is fleeting, I must create more accomplishments to achieve in order to keep the security going. The focus is on the result. In being, there is nothing to do and nothing left undone. There is only vast emptiness–not bleak, sterile emptiness, but emptiness that contains the possibility of everything–a generative, creative ground from which all phenomena can spring. In emptiness, there is perfection. In letting go of doing, I free myself to do what matters. In just being, I embrace perfection, including my own.

I invite you to come undone, even for just a moment. I wish for you that you can have an experience of the perfection of not doing, and the joy of simply being. I will leave you with one last quote from the Tao te Ching, “When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everyone will respect you.”

In peace–Darren

Image taken from http://taotechingdaily.com/

My Mind is Like My Dogs and Me

Skillful Action

A client asked me how to resolve the seeming contradiction between acceptance and taking action. This is a common misconception about mindfulness, that it is a state of blissful inaction wherein the practitioner stops thinking. I suppose this idea could be a by-product of the concept of heaven, the reward for being good. Mindfulness, though, is a very different state.

Instead of stopping thinking, one becomes fully aware of thinking. After all, the average brain generates something like 60,000 thoughts a day. It seems unlikely that such a thought-generator could be made to stop. The process of meditation is simple, set an intention to focus on an object (such as the breath), notice when the mind has wandered off the intention (usually to thoughts about the past or the future), and gently direct it back to the intention. Over, and over, and over…

Mindfulness is about full engagement with present-moment experience while directing the mind away from the tendency to get caught up in thinking about the experience. Due to our reliance on thinking, direct contact with experience is something we rarely have. When was the last time you paid attention without judgment to the full set of sensations in your body while feeling anger or sadness? Or noticed your opinions about a topic that evokes your passion without believing that your opinions were absolutely true and right?

Full engagement includes taking action in your life, far from sitting passively and blissed out. The Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism instructs how to free oneself from suffering by acting skillfully. Rather than cool detachment, mindfulness engages one with being fully present and involved. The focus is on the skillful use of thoughts, words, actions, and vocation to contribute to peace and the liberation of all beings from suffering (attachment to impermanent existence).

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy has a similar goal, to help the client step out of thinking about action and step into full, committed action. The compass point that shows the course of action is one’s values, the personal qualities and ongoing states of action that engage one in life in a meaningful, vital, and empowered way. For example, if I want to have better communication with my partner, I could notice the thoughts and feelings I have when we argue, step out of attachment to being right, and step into the values of cooperation and acting lovingly. I would still have the feelings of anger, resentment, etc., and the thought “I’m right and he needs to see that he’s wrong,” and from the place of values I would choose to speak kindly while working through the argument. I would show up completely, without the protection of my thoughts. Bold action, indeed.

Haiku #1

Happy Birthday to Me!

Today is my birthday. Forty-eight years ago, I entered the world, joined in the human race. I’m having a great life, for which I am grateful. Further, I am grateful that I feel grateful. Being aware that this life is a precious opportunity helps me tremendously to keep things in perspective. Gratitude connects me to the long history of every ancestor who lived, struggled, and suffered so that I am here now, enjoying this life. When I consider all of the factors that must have happened to result in my being here, I feel overwhelmed by the swell of emotion.

Opportunity and gratitude are the potential and the engine. I turn the key and ignite the engine by making choices that support my highest good and affirm my belief in the abundant nature of reality. Mindfulness is the fuel. Every time I come fully to the present moment and accept it all without judgment, I keep gratitude going. Gratitude, in turn, activates the flow of abundance. While I’m focusing on gratitude, I have to mention that I also attribute abundance to optimism, kindness, cooperation, respectfulness, and attentive observation.

I suppose I’m feeling reflective today. Birthdays can bring up the association of self-reflection. Thinking about who I want to be in the world. Noting all the ways my actions line up with who I want to be. Noting where I can improve. Noticing that I’m noticing all of this, and happy for this self-awareness. Back to gratitude. Like meditation. Back to the intention, again and again. Returning to home. For this birthday, I give a gift to me and to you, dear reader. Gratitude. Connectedness. Life.

Leap Year

Leap at the chance. By leaps and bounds. A leap in the dark. Leap to conclusions. Leap from one thing to the next. Leap of faith. The number of idioms in English referring to the action of springing through the air from one point to another suggests the concept holds importance. Indeed, leaping is important to me these days, for this is my leap year. This is the year I take the leap into full-time private practice. Leaping with me are my thoughts and feelings about this change. Some of them are in favor of action, and some of them are warning me not to do it. I am tempted to buy into the thoughts and feelings, even though I know they are ill-equipped for this situation. There is a crowd of them, all clamoring for attention, all proclaiming to know the Truth. Fortunately, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy offers an alternative approach.

In order to leap, one has to be willing to leave the ground entirely. Leaping is exhilarating. The feeling of being aloft is what flying might be like. Leaping is also scary. The ground might not be there when you descend. At the least, you know you will land somewhere else than where you started, on new territory as it were. Exhilaration and fear, though, are equally unreliable measures of the worth of leaping. Each is in service of its agenda. If I choose exhilaration, then any experience that is not exhilarating has to be rejected. The same for fear–any message that does not support fear must be ignored. I might turn to the myriad thoughts my mind generates about leaping. Thinking about leaping, though, will only lead to my mind following its nature and making leaping into a problem to solve. My mind will start comparing, contrasting, judging, and so on. That will not lead to action either. The alternative, then, is acceptance–not giving in to the struggle, rather opening up to exhilaration, fear, thoughts, and all the rest of the glorious mess that is being human. Having the experience without getting stuck in the thoughts and feelings about the experience.

According to one of my favorite Buddhist authors, Pema Chodron:

It’s not impermanence per se, or even knowing we’re going to die, that is the cause of our suffering, the Buddha taught. Rather, it’s our resistance to the fundamental uncertainty of our situation. Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for that is freedom—freedom from struggling against the fundamental ambiguity of being human.  
From Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, pages 6-7.

 This description sums up the Acceptance part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. There is freedom in leaving the ground, i.e., going into private practice full-time. The mind, its job being to protect and plan for problems, rails against leaping. “A regular paycheck is secure.” “You won’t be able to manage all the complexities of running your own business.” “This will be a lot of pressure and very stressful.” “What if you fail?” “What if you succeed and you have to keep up with it?” When I can accept that this is my mind doing what it is supposed to do, I free myself to choose to place my attention elsewhere, namely on taking action while having uncertainty.

In order to engage meaningful action, I use my values–the personal qualities that align with how I want to be in the world. For me, the primary value that guides my choices around career is creating genuinely. Work for me is an expression of who I am through what I do. When I sit with a client, pay attention to just that other person, show up without judgment and with an open heart, and honor the relationship by offering my presence, we create together. The therapeutic alliance between each client and me creates ground where the client can land safely. This reassurance frees the client to leap into uncertainty, to get unstuck. By leaving the ground, we discover how capable we are. By welcoming all of our thoughts and feelings about leaving the ground, we touch our own generosity. When we stop struggling to hold onto “good” thoughts and feelings and reject “bad” ones, and instead act based on the person we want to be, then we plug into our creativity. We know we have leapt when we are getting into our lives in ways that make us feel active and vital. By helping clients, I tap into the very stuff that I need to live my life fully, and therefore show up in an active and vital way for my clients. I have a self-charging battery. It does not need an external power source to keep me going. Material success, then, is a by-product, not the purpose. Living my life in ways that line up with how I want to matter in the world is the purpose.

Thoughts and feelings are correct–leaping is not worth the insecurity it produces. I thank my thoughts and feelings for doing their job, protecting me. I then turn my attention to the value of creating genuinely and act accordingly. Both can be true. The creative mind can accept this seeming contradiction of “no” and “yes” simultaneously. Willingness to have both frees up new options. I would ask you to wish me luck, but luck is not what I need. When success is defined as taking valued action, then all those other measures–money, status, possessions–become consequences of valued action instead of the goals. Luck is no longer part of the equation. I ask you instead to find out where in your life you need to leap. Find someone to be there with you–a therapist, the spiritual guide of your choice, a trusted friend or relative, a support group, etc.–and spring. Fly a little.

In peace–Darren

Restless Mind

There is a restlessness in me. It varies from a low-grade nagging sense that I need to do something, to a full-on agitation that feels like something is wrong. At times, restlessness prompts action. For instance, restlessness has been the impetus for accomplishing goals. Twenty-two years ago, restlessness told me I was ready to leave Houston and experience new cities. Sixteen years ago, restlessness signaled that it was time to change careers, which resulted in my going to graduate school, starting on the path to be a counselor. Restlessness can keep me striving, motivated, optimistic about enacting new possibilities in my life.

There are times, too, when restlessness inhibits action. This morning, for instance, I was restless. The intensity was moderate. Restlessness felt like a jumble of nervous energy that whirled and throbbed. It captivated my mind’s attention. When I considered meditating, I felt daunted. Restlessness was an obstacle to sitting and paying attention to breathing. This can be a common barrier to meditation. Many have reported physical and mental restlessness as a reason for avoiding their practice.

Instead of meditating, I am writing this blog post. Restlessness felt like too much to have, too intense, too difficult to put aside. I ask myself, then, “what is really happening here?”

There is the event: I am choosing between meditating and not meditating. There is my thinking about the event. “I feel wound up.” “My mind is too busy.” “It will be too hard to sit with this.” “I am breaking my promise to myself to meditate every day.” “If I do not meditate today, then I risk abandoning the practice altogether.” “Why can I not just suck it up and get over myself?” And down I go into the vortex of thinking.

There is the language I use. “I am restless.” Is this true? Am I really the state of restlessness, or are my mind and body having restless thoughts and restless sensations? “There is a restlessness in me.” While this is an intriguing metaphor–that restlessness is a discrete entity that resides somewhere in me–it results in my identifying with the thoughts and physical sensations. Again, I have become restlessness. How can restlessness sit still and just be? Just breathe?

There are the physical sensations. My head feels tight. My heart races a little. Indecision about meditating breeds frustration and discouragement, which feel simultaneously active and sedentary, making more confusion.

I find in this moment that I desire to introduce solutions, to offer readers hope for working with restlessness. This is what I would do in session with a client. We would explore the client’s relationship with restlessness, in the same way I have described my own process here. We would identify a valued direction that the client would like to take instead. We would set an appropriate goal, or I would introduce a metaphor to illustrate how buying into restlessness is unhelpful.

I also desire to keep moving, to react to restlessness by looking at my To-Do list and tackling tasks. This agitation is compelling. I admit I am struggling with it, and right now I feel like it is winning. Restless mind. Restless body. Where do I go from here? I pose this question to you, my readers: What do you do when restlessness shows up?

I Seriously Doubt It

Doubt is a common barrier to regular meditation practice. It’s right up there with finding time for practice, sleepiness while meditating, and restlessness of mind or body while meditating. There is even instruction in Buddhism for overcoming these barriers. Doubt makes appearances in my meditation practice. Rather than struggle with doubt by denying its presence or exaggerating its significance, I strive to follow the process of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Have doubt–take a friendly or neutral attitude toward it–notice the thoughts my mind thinks about doubt–pay attention to how these thoughts influence my emotions and other sensations in my body–decide how doubt could be used in service of the valued direction for my life–and set goals accordingly.

Have doubt. That’s easier said than done. My mind wants to read doubt as a signal of a problem. When I meditate and doubt shows up, I have noticed I follow my problem-solving mind out of the present moment and  into the hunt for the remedy to doubt. The thoughts sound something like, “This isn’t working” or “I’m not doing it right.” The path then is a mission to discover how to make the practice better or make me better by finding the “cause” (i.e. who or what is to blame) of doubt. I have an agenda. Until I satisfy the agenda, I have to keep struggling with doubt. Finding the cause of a problem in the external world is a useful strategy. For the internal world, where thoughts and feelings appear and dissolve spontaneously, seeking to eradicate doubt is ineffective.

It’s like I’m working a control box with two dials on it, “Discomfort” and “Willingness.” I’m trying to turn down that Discomfort dial. Doubt feels heavy. I feel disheartened. The thoughts turn into, “Here I go again, giving up something that is good for me because it got difficult,” or “When will I finally get it together?” In trying to dial down my discomfort, I’ve turned myself into a problem. Now I’m using blame, attempting to motivate me to correct my behavior. The trouble is, blame feels bad, too. This is usually the point that every other possible activity suddenly seems  more interesting than meditating. In trying to free myself from doubt, I’ve increased the struggle with it. I’ve turned doubt and me  into bad guys. Now I have even more problems to solve, and down the rabbit hole I go.

Luckily, I have another option. Dialing up willingness means that I choose to experience doubt exactly as it is. I notice the process of doubt–thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, memories, urges to act–and I observe instead of engaging in tug-of-war. I accept that doubt is a normal part of any endeavor. This does not mean I give in to doubt. It means I drop the rope and leave a game I cannot win. It means I give myself a break for being a normal human. It frees me to discover what useful information doubt might have, such as telling me that a meditation practice is important to me. If it wasn’t important to me, I probably wouldn’t care enough to doubt whether I’m doing it right.

Connecting with the value I place on doubt while calming myself through mindful attention, I can see other possibilities besides trying to throw doubt out of the party. It can stay and mingle with the other guests. I can listen to what it has to say and judge for myself which parts of the message take me in a valued direction. I can thank my mind for doing its job, taking care of me, while training it to focus on the present moment and not get carried away by its own story about doubt.

Having doubt. Easier said than done, and worth the effort.

 

The Introvert Speaks

Writing a blog would seem to be a simple matter. It’s just putting down experiences, thoughts, opinions, reflections, etc. For the introverted brain, though, the process can be surprisingly challenging. By our nature, we introverts generally find the spotlight unrewarding. The act of writing a blog, then, can be likened to standing in the middle of a crowded room and declaring loudly, “Pay attention to me.”

How, then, does an introvert write a blog? The prospect can be uncomfortable, to say the least. Fortunately, I have two factors on my side: introversion and extroversion can be situational, and mindfulness helps me to accept any discomfort, identify personally meaningful reasons for writing a blog, and then act.

According to Todd B. Kashdan, author of “Are You Really an Introvert or Extrovert?” (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/curious/201407/are-you-really-introvert-or-extrovert), there are “situationally bound extroverts.” I believe I fall into this category, meaning there are some contexts in which I am comfortable being in the spotlight. There are elements inherent to this kind of spotlight that facilitate the process for me.

Writing a blog is like having a one-on-one conversation and it occurs in an environment where I can control the rules. The discomfort arises from the knowledge that I will publish the blog, and I feel apprehensive about putting myself out there. This is where mindfulness comes in to play. In order to have the discomfort of apprehension, I need to step back from my experience and observe it rather than get lost in it. From the perspective of the observer, I can watch the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that I collectively call “apprehension.” Observing the process with gentle curiosity, I allow it to happen. When I allow the process, I am freed from struggling with it. Not struggling frees that energy so I can focus it on taking meaningful action.

Writing a blog is meaningful to me because I love wholeheartedly the work I do and I share generously the knowledge and skills I am continuously acquiring. Connecting with these values while observing and welcoming all of my experience around the act of writing and publishing a blog post results in action. This is the essence of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, how I work with clients, and how I work with me.

So, I welcome apprehension. It’s here to tell me that this action is important to me; otherwise, I wouldn’t care. What might you accept today?

Best–Darren