Sometimes the value of a practice doesn’t become fully apparent until it slides, and you notice the difference it makes in your life. It becomes an invitation to return and recommit and should not be a reason to beat yourself up for letting it lapse. Just drop the story about it, and return to what’s important. No need to complicate things.
This inadvertently happened to me this week when my Mindfulness Bell app stopped working for some reason. This is a simple app that helps me to return to presence throughout the day. I configured it to sound a bell randomly once every hour between 8AM and 10PM. When the bell sounds, I stop what I’m doing and take three conscious breaths. Those breaths can be like a magical reset button. They awaken me from whatever trance I’m in and allow me to be more conscious of what I’m doing and to choose whether to keep doing it or switch gears.
It was a busy week, and after a couple days I noticed the bell hadn’t been sounding. Had I been away from my phone more than usual and therefore not heard it? Hmm…I don’t think so. (Most likely, since it’s an app that operates continuously in the background, my phone deactivated it after I didn’t engage with it for a certain amount of time.) But I was feeling less centered and more easily distracted. Those bells brought me back to presence 14 times a day and made a positive difference.
I actually took it as an opportunity to explore another app that has a mindfulness bell: the Plum Village app. Plum Village is the mindful community in France built by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. The app is a wonderful, free gift from the Plum Village community. There’s a lot more to it than the mindfulness bell, but the bell is what I was most interested in, to begin with.
This time, I configured it to sound every 20 minutes. That’s a lot of bells every day! But I’m loving it. I catch myself sooner when I start going off on tangents and down rabbit holes that ultimately are a waste of time, and simply bring my attention back to the present. Even just closing my eyes for the duration of these three, luxurious breaths helps when I’m spending a lot of time looking at screens. It pulls me out of that tunnel and brings me back to what feels more spacious and Real.
When you have a practice like that throughout the day, the bell (or whatever you use – perhaps red lights, phone notifications, etc.) can be an opportunity to take a few mindful breaths, return to a mantra, notice where there’s tension in your body and invite it to soften, or whatever is most important to you. It’s a cue to return to that. You might notice whether you’re thirsty and are in need of a drink of water. Or take a break to stand up and stretch.
Reconfiguring the mindfulness bell was an opportunity to revisit my intention. What did I want the bell to cue? So when the bell rings now, I:
BREATHE (in through the nose and out through the mouth, with long exhalations)
SMILE (softly with the eyes and mouth)
SOFTEN (just like floating: relaxing any tension in the body to be supported by the water).
The bell is like a friend who takes my hand and guides me back home. It’s a really beautiful practice that complements seated meditation practice.
Yesterday, my dear friend, Lisa, was on my mind a lot. Last year at this time, in a pre-Covid world, she came down with a nasty case of the flu. It attacked her heart and left her clinging to life by a thread. An old post from her husband came up on Facebook before I went to bed last night, and I realized it was exactly a year ago, to the day. Somehow I knew that without knowing it.
Because it was a Really Big Deal. It was the first major shock of 2020 to be absorbed, and it’s a story I’ve told numerous times when giving talks on mindfulness of emotions.
It was the first time something like this had happened to someone I knew. When I told the story to my co-workers, the reaction was the same: You hear of this happening, but never to someone you know…until now. It was a revelation: The flu really can be that bad. Perhaps reconsider skipping the annual flu shot.
Exactly a year ago, I went to bed crying and praying like I never had before. Lisa can’t leave us. She just can’t. I couldn’t imagine a world without her.
She’d been transferred from Saratoga Hospital to Albany Med, where my dad was transferred after his 2013 cardiac event. I knew she was in good hands there. But even Albany Med didn’t have the equipment to keep Lisa alive. She was transferred again, to Montefiore in New York City, and put on an ECMO circuit. I’d never heard of ECMO before.
It didn’t look good. The odds for survival were alarmingly low. It really looked like we were going to lose her, and this was devastating.
Lisa always has been one of the Helpers in this word. We went to high school together but weren’t friends back then. When my family and I moved back to Saratoga Springs when the kids were little, I attended a La Leche League meeting Lisa led, in hopes of connecting with a network of kindred spirits. Not only was Lisa a La Leche League leader, but she also established a food co-op for a small group of friends. We’d show up every month when the truck was expected to arrive at her house and process the order while our children played together. My daughter and Lisa’s oldest daughter were the same age. When they got to middle school – the first time they attended the same school – they became (and remain) best friends.
When the girls were in middle school, Lisa became the head of the PTA. Her home was the most welcoming place. We’d sit at the table and have tea, and I always left feeling so cared for, as if my heart had been filled up. And she would be the first one to drop off a homemade meal when you were going through a crisis, like when my mom was dying. Her caring and generosity meant so much to me. I thought of Lisa as a Leader and a Giver. Drawing people together and creating community were among her superpowers.
This is why I couldn’t imagine a world without her and prayed for her to pull through. Understandably, she had an enormous support network of friends and family, and a huge number of people were praying for her. And miraculously, she began to grow stronger and get better.
The surprising thing was that when she turned that corner, and the odds of her surviving began to improve, some uncomfortable feelings started coming up in me. Feelings that didn’t seem appropriate at all in the situation: envy and jealousy of the vast support network of friends and family who were pulling together for her. A Facebook group of more than 500 people was created to streamline communication, so her exhausted family wouldn’t have to reply to constant questions from all those who cared about her. Friends were driving to NYC to be there for her and her family.
A narrative began to play inside my head: This certainly wouldn’t be the case if something like that happened to me.
In my opinion, envy and jealousy are the most counterproductive, misguided emotions of all. How could my friend fighting for her life bring up such shameful feelings? What kind of person was I to feel anything other than immense gratitude and relief for the progress she was making?
There are two arrows of suffering talked about in meditation circles. The first arrow is the unpleasant feeling itself. But then there’s the second arrow, which is our reaction to it: feeling bad about having the feeling and making it wrong. Even making ourselves wrong or bad for having it. The second arrow can be sneaky and hurt even worse than the first one.
There is a Buddhist story of the demon god Mara, who did everything in his power to prevent the would-be Buddha from attaining enlightenment. Failing at that dark mission, Mara continued to show up when the Buddha was teaching, determined to lure him into some kind of egoic craving or delusion. Whenever the Buddha’s vigilant attendant noticed Mara lurking about, he’d let the Buddha know. Instead of ordering that Mara be taken away or hiding from him, the Buddha would address him directly: “I see you, Mara. Come, let’s have tea.” So they would sit down together for a chat.
When practicing mindfulness of emotions, first we acknowledge what is present. There is real power in that. Noticing it and calling it what it is helps us to not be so fully identified with it. It gives us some space to explore what’s going on below the surface instead of being hijacked by it.
When feelings like envy and jealousy arise, the first instinct might be to deny them or push them away: These feelings don’t belong in this situation! They are dishonorable! That’s the sound of the second arrow piercing.
Instead, we can experiment with acknowledging them and allowing them to exist: This, too, belongs. There are no inherently bad feelings, only unpleasant ones.
So I said, “I see you, Envy and Jealousy” and became curious. I sat down with them – invited them to tea, so to speak. I listened to what they had to say and realized it was useful and important. They highlighted the lack of community in my life.
I’m an introvert who enjoys spending quiet time alone. It’s how I recharge my batteries and create. I hadn’t realized how much community mattered to me, how much I craved it, given how comfortable I felt being alone. And when I understood that was what was really going on – that these uncomfortable feelings pointed toward a deeper need – it motivated me to take action to create more community in my life. If I had just pushed them away, I wouldn’t have done that because I wouldn’t have become aware of the longing in the first place.
That was a year ago. Since then, Lisa has made a full recovery and was able to share her husband’s Facebook post from a year ago. Her ordeal awakened me to both the power of prayer and my inner yearning for a deeper sense of community. Less than a month later, I began teaching my first practicum course for mindfulness meditation teacher certification at a local library. We had our initial meeting in-person, and a week later, all in-person programming was cancelled. So I moved it online and have been providing mindfulness meditation programs for multiple libraries ever since.
Several participants have been with me from the beginning, and it’s a privilege to witness the joys and struggles of their meditation practice. A sense of community has developed, and I am truly grateful for the presence of these sisters and brothers in my life. We’ve been breathing together through a great deal of turbulence since last spring. I’ve become involved with other community networks, as well, and it’s such a joy to feel connected to so many beautiful humans I didn’t know a year ago and to radiate mutual caring.
As if to underscore this, right on cue, in the process of writing this, I received an email from one of the women who attends my programs. In last night’s Zoom session, she was thrilled because she’d just scored a vaccine appointment for a family member. I mentioned my husband has been trying every day to get appointments for his parents, and it’s been incredibly stressful. So this morning, this dear soul reached out and offered to help and within minutes notified me that she’d made appointments for my in-laws, for tomorrow. She came through for us in a big way, and everyone is overjoyed and relieved!
Community is people who show up for one another, and this was a perfectly timed illustration of the presence of community that didn’t exist a year ago. It feels amazing to shine in community with others. And to think I didn’t even realize how much I yearned for it until Lisa’s health crisis awakened me…and I chose to lean in and listen to what the uncomfortable feelings had to say instead of shooing them away.
Isn’t it amazing how we plant seeds of transformation in one another without even realizing it – and what new possibilities unfold when we shower those seeds with presence?
I’m awake in bed feeling anxious. Only one day until the Inauguration. How will it turn out? What will happen in the meantime? What could go wrong? Who else will be pardoned before then?
This is too early to wake up for the day. I remember I have choices. Instead of letting worried thoughts carry me off into that dark and scary place I’ve been to before and depriving me of sleep, I can get off that bus. I can do something different. There are alternatives to getting stuck in a trance of fear or even fighting it. Fight, flight, and freeze are not the only options available.
Normally, I might do a yoga nidra meditation, which features a body scan and is virtually guaranteed to knock me out or get me into a state of relaxation from which sleep would follow soon after. I can’t count the number of nights yoga nidra has provided me with two or three more hours of sleep than I would have gotten without it. Instead of feeling sleep-deprived, I wake up feeling well-rested.
This morning, however, a different meditation comes to mind. Since I’m practicing trusting intuition and stepping out of the way to allow wisdom to flow, I go with it. This time, I’ll listen to my own recording of a Tara Brach-inspired RAIN meditation.
RAIN is an acronym that stands for: Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture. There are other variations from other teachers that use different key words. But RAIN really works for me, so RAIN it is.
Recognize and Allow are brief steps that bring you into connection and relationship with the emotional discomfort. You don’t push it away, deny it, or numb it. You greet and welcome it like a familiar friend – which begins to wake up the more evolved “tend and befriend” part of the brain.
Hello, Anxiety. You belong.
This is the invitation. Then on to Investigate, which is where the conversation begins.
Where are you, and what do you want me to know?
Explore the vulnerability. Really get to know it.
I find Anxiety in my heart and throat and rest one hand on each area. That kind of tender touch is like putting a warm blanket on the place that hurts. Tending to it as you would tend to a suffering child. It’s like swaddling a baby: a soothing, gentle pressure and caring presence. I’m already lying under my weighted blanket, which is soothing in itself, but this tender touch deepens the attention and provides gentle contact where it is most needed.
Often during the Investigate part of RAIN, after locating and tuning in to where the suffering is in my body, I’ll see an image in that area. If I stay with it, the image begins to change and shift into what I call an energy story that resolves in a healing image along with the realization that the physical energy imbalance in that part of my body has resolved, as well.
But this time, I connect with the vulnerability and ask Anxiety what it needs. It communicates a sense of people who are unwell, mean-spirited, untrustworthy, unhinged, and sinister being in control. I see flashes of situations that brought up similar feelings in the past. That kind of emotional energy is stored in the body – likely around an even earlier trauma, or core wound that I sense I’m getting closer to healing every time I do RAIN.
Understanding it a little better, I now call it Fear and realize it needs Love and a sense of safety. It wonders if this world is a safe place to be in (which feels very young). It needs to feel the presence of loving energy and to know that Love is stronger than the presence that seems so threatening in the dark hours of the night. That’s what the Nurture step is about, and this is my favorite part. It calls on imagination, and I love imagining. It’s a powerful tool.
I know exactly what to do. I call on my parents and grandparents, who also live inside me. There is a place in my heart area I know as Unconditional Love, and it’s like a crystal that’s similar to Aladdin’s lamp. Rub it, and they’ll all come out and surround me with their loving presence. There are other beings, too – beings of love, light, and wisdom.
When I call upon Unconditional Love, they all come forth. And then I allow myself to receive their loving energy and to listen to what they have to say. This time, I hear (and write down):
You were never alone or unsupported. Everything that was hard served a purpose. You are becoming so strong and can help others.
You have one another. Share your feelings, and dissolve the separation.
You are discovering your true power and untapped resources. All is well. Let them in. Share yourselves. You are surrounded by love.
There’s not enough togetherness in your life.
Remember how the sea held you. Take refuge in the sea.
Then these loving beings slip back into my heart, and I’m standing on my favorite beach where the land meets the vast ocean, feeling the cool, wet sand under my bare feet. I reach for my phone and turn on the sound of long, crashing ocean waves from the White Noise app.
The ocean is one of my greatest resources. It’s big enough to absorb any suffering I bring to it – and I’ve brought some mighty big suffering to it in the past. I can take everything that feels overwhelming, set it down, and let the ocean carry it away into the immensity that can hold and transform it all. And then I feel lighter, connected, supported. Not alone. Better able to focus on the here and now, without emotional baggage clouding my vision.
I really imagine being at the ocean, with all my senses. And then I wake up hours later to the sound of the waves, feeling rested, peaceful, and resourced. Ready to greet the day with my best, most present self.
Every time I do RAIN meditation, it’s different. Different images, different words, different ways of nurturing. Your experience will be different, too, calling upon your deepest wisdom and connecting with something greater than yourself. I find it to be a really beneficial meditation for these times we’re in.
But don’t just take my word for it. The value I attribute to RAIN is backed by science. As neuropsychologist and author of Neurodharma, Dr, Rick Hanson explains:
We need to deal with real dangers, but much of the time we overestimate threats and don’t feel as safe as we actually are. This makes us feel bad, and it wears down physical and mental health over time. Plus when we feel at all anxious, attention understandably skitters around, scanning the world, body, and mind for what might go wrong.
Helping yourself to feel reasonably safe calms the stress response system and helps you stay focused rather than looking about for a tiger that might pounce.
If more people got in touch with their vulnerability and true power through practices like RAIN, I imagine there would be less bad behavior, blame, addiction, susceptibility to manipulation, and violence in the world. I really do. It’s powerful medicine.
If you’d like to try it – either when you’re in the grip of unsettling emotion or after the fact – here is my version of RAIN:
I’m also trained to guide others through the RAIN process and to conduct 1:1 Meditation Out Loud sessions. Contact me if you’re interested in scheduling a remote session.
In these challenging and uncertain times, may we bring as much presence and compassion as we can to ourselves and the world around us and remember that we are not alone, even in the middle of the night or anytime during the course of the day when it might feel like it.
Today on this Winter Solstice + Grand Conjunction, I’ve spent the morning writing down some words that have been coming through. Grief had something to say to those who have lost loved ones this year. May these words of hope ease the darkness of this darkest day even just a little for those who are grieving.
For Those Who Are Grieving
Everyone who has ever loved you
And the myriad travelers ahead of you
On this well-trodden road of humanity
Ask you to please be patient with Grief
And to trust that, even when you feel it
Deep down in your bones and in every
Cell of your body, and it feels like it will
Annihilate you, Grief serves a noble purpose.
Your future self reaches out through time
To assure you that Grief allowed to ripen
Bears great fruit, and the journey that began
With feeling so torn apart and forsaken
Eventually offers the realization
That everyone who has ever loved you
And everyone you have loved and lost
Exists here inside the heart, in purest form,
Always present and accessible and part of
A greater presence of Unconditional Love
You can call upon at any time.
For you have not been abandoned,
As much as it feels like it now. In time,
The precious ones you have lost once again
Will be your greatest and closest allies.
Yes, Grief is exhausting work
But if you can be patient and allow it
To belong in the tapestry of your life, it will
Open the door to the transcendent dimension
Where you will receive its astonishing gifts
And learn to communicate in new ways.
May you in time marvel at how
This heartache that knocked you down
So forcefully and repeatedly
Like waves of the incoming tide
Has alchemized into a deeper
Connectedness beyond the physical
And the grand realization of your
Wholeness and enoughness, how it has
Revealed the radiant truth of your being
And grown your compassion.
When the days feel bleak and forlorn,
As if part of your heart has been amputated
You cling to the sound of their voice,
The details of their face – afraid of forgetting
What, rest assured, will not be forgotten.
In the darkest season of your grief
When it feels like all light has deserted
Your heart and couldn’t be further away,
May you find solace in what others
Have discovered up ahead in the distance:
What you are looking for outside of yourself
Is growing silently and miraculously within you.
May you continue on, putting
One foot in front of the other
And resting as you need to,
Showering yourself with the mercy
Your loved one wishes for you,
Until at last you arrive at the revelation
That your deepest, most painful loss
Has become your greatest awakening.
For in the end, we love and grieve
Only to discover: Love is who we are,
And separation is nothing but illusion.
Though this may feel so far
From truth and possibility now,
So very many who have traveled this road
And survived the journey, your future self,
And everyone who has ever loved you
Beg you to trust it is so.