I’m taking a few moments to reach out from my working home retreat (a.k.a. sheltering in place) to write about a topic that has been at the forefront of my mind since all this went down:
At the beginning of the month, I stepped into a new role I’d been preparing for, for quite some time: teaching a mindfulness meditation course. The first class session took place in-person and was attended by 17 women. By the second class – a week later – things had begun to change rapidly, and we weren’t able to meet face-to-face. Already familiar with Zoom video conferencing, I moved the course to that platform without missing a beat, and it’s how we conducted our three remaining class sessions. This week, I began teaching a second mindfulness course. And now a third is in the works!
Needless to say, I’ve been busy…because it’s a really good time to begin/return to/deepen a meditation practice!
As the participants in my courses report, mindfulness meditation provides real, practical benefits for navigating our lives as we adjust to new, constantly changing information and circumstances. It’s gratifying to be able to offer skills that help people to be more resilient and emotionally healthy during these challenging times when we’re experiencing so much anxiety, grief, and other strong emotions.
In today’s class, we discussed ways in which we can integrate mindfulness practice into daily life. Not just formal meditation “on the cushion” but ways we can pause for presence throughout the day. The possibilities are endless.
For example, any moments of waiting are invitations to mindfulness:
waiting in traffic/at red lights/in line (if you still go out)
waiting for websites to load
waiting for food to heat up
waiting on hold to talk to someone
waiting for your gas tank to fill
waiting for a video conference to begin.
Virtually any activity can be an opportunity to take a mindful pause and awaken a more spacious quality of presence. My new favorite is:
Hand-Washing to Awaken Awareness
In the 20 or so seconds you spend washing your hands, you can shift out of your head and whatever story is going on inside it and into presence. You can become aware of what is happening here and now: the sensation of soap lathering, the stream of warm water on your skin, the fragrance of the soap. It’s actually quite a lovely experience when you direct your attention to it.
At times, I’ve noticed myself feeling impatient and wanting the 20 seconds to be over so I can get on with what’s next. This was especially true on days when my workload was heavier. Over the course of the past couple weeks, I’ve trained myself to allow hand-washing to cue presence. As a result, hand-washing breaks have become much more pleasant. They bring me back to what is actually happening in the moment. It might be the sensations described above, the movements of the breath, or simply being aware of the energy in the feet or body as a whole while standing at the sink.
Hand-washing can ground you in the moment and in your body. And what’s wonderful about that is: It gets you out of your head and whatever trance you were in. It liberates you from the prison and tunnel-vision of thought. It’s like waking up from a dream.
Hand-Washing to Awaken the Heart
In my classes, I teach about the two wings of mindfulness that work together like the two wings of a bird: awareness and compassion. Awareness is a clear seeing of what is present here and now. Feeling the sensations of the soap and water and the energy/aliveness in your body (feet, hands, etc.) are examples of awareness. The other wing, compassion, is bringing a loving care to the moment.
Hand-washing also can be a cue for practicing lovingkindness, and here’s how: As you wash your hands, you can be aware of the greater intention behind hand-washing. By this, I mean something beyond any sense of fear that might be present. Caring for your own well-being and the well-being of others. You might send yourself caring wishes by thinking silently (or even singing out loud) phrases such as:
May I be well and healthy. May I be safe and protected. May I be peaceful and at ease.
You can bring to mind someone you care about and send them well wishes, too (which is sometimes easier than sending them to yourself):
May you be well and healthy. May you be safe and protected. May you be peaceful and at ease.
You could even expand your lovingkindness to the whole planet:
May all beings be well and healthy. May all beings be safe and protected. May all beings be peaceful and at ease.
So as you wash your hands, you remember your wish for yourself and others to be well. This awakens the heart and generates a sense of connection, even when we can’t be with those we care about. Many people have been expressing grief over not being able to hug their parents or children, and this practice offers a different, more spacious kind of hug. You can imagine your dear one’s face smiling as you send them well-wishes while washing your hands.
Mindful Moments Matter
A new study by researchers from Yale, Columbia, and Dartmouth shows that short moments of mindfulness can have profound effects on regulating emotional intensity. In other words, practicing mindfulness throughout the day counts. It’s not just about taking time out of your day to practice formal, seated meditation for months on end (though I highly recommend it if you can do it, as it deepens your practice). You can reap benefits of mindfulness practice much sooner than that, in the moment, when you switch to that channel.
Each time you wash your hands, you can consider whether an awareness or compassion practice feels most right at the moment. It gives more meaning to this activity we do so many times a day. It also liberates you from your active mind that’s so often either focused on the past (regret, grief, etc.) or the future (worry, fear, etc.) and so rarely inhabits the present moment – which is the only moment we ever have and where all our power resides.
Returning to the present moment several times a day is an empowering practice that adds up through the course of a day, a week, a month, a year. Each time you bring yourself back from the trance of thought is like doing one rep that strengthens the muscles of awareness or compassion and deepens those neural pathways back “home”. It allows you to wake up from the dream and rest in a quality of consciousness that can hold everything that arises, like the ocean holds all the waves.
I only take in current events in small sips. It’s all my sensitivities can handle. Touching in briefly a few times a week is plenty for me. I don’t watch the news at home, but when I go to the gym, headlines flash on multiple television screens, from different sources. But it’s pretty much the same: angry-looking heads and talking heads talking about why everyone’s so angry, sandwiched between commercials designed to make you feel not-good-enough without whatever product or service they’re selling.
From where I stand, it looks like a lot of unmet needs creating lots of fear and suffering. We are the walking wounded, walking around wounding, whether we realize and intend it or not. We’ve all been hurt in some way and often don’t even know how we are wounded and what deeper longing lies beneath the veneer of our various cravings, addictions, and aversions.
My mother was an appearance-conscious stewardess during the golden age of flying, and I experienced a wound in childhood that set me up for a life of self-consciousness and suffering. She couldn’t possibly have foreseen how deeply her words – intended for my benefit – would hurt me. She, too, had been wounded, in a different way, and I have tremendous compassion for her. The person who wounded her did so out of their own woundedness. And so it goes. It’s the human condition, what we’re given to work with and evolve from.
How would our view of others and our interactions with them – the quality of our hearts – change if we could see people as walking wounds crying out: Love me! Assure me that I’m good and worthy! Even the ones who seem so full of themselves.
How would our relationship with our self change if we could see our own wounds as being rooted in innocence? And if we could see the wounds we’ve inflicted on others as being rooted in ignorance rather than inherent badness?
Have you ever held a baby in your arms and soaked up their radiant innocence?
Have you ever been held in the arms of someone who sees that in you and loves you unconditionally – perhaps a grandparent? If this person were around, what would they say to you now? What do you most need to hear? What would set your heart free?
If Love could speak, what would s/he say to you? And what difference would hearing it make in your life/heart/mind/relationships?
Well, I did a little exercise (inspired by author Elizabeth Gilbert) that you can do, too. I reached out to Love and then wrote down what Love said to me. It went something like this:
I’m right here, sweetheart. I will be here for you No matter what you look like Or how much you weigh. You don’t have to try to be More special, successful, Popular, or prosperous. There’s nothing you need To be or do To be worthy and beautiful And forgiven for everything You’ve not forgiven yourself for.
I will never abandon you. There’s nothing I need from you, And there’s nothing you could do To lose me. I’m with you When you get stuck In the painful trap Of conditioning and fear And fall short of who You want to be And find it so hard To accept yourself.
When you lose sight Of who you really are, I remember and hold up a mirror So you can catch a glimpse Of yourself as I see you And love yourself enough To draw healthy boundaries And shine. But I also hold you dearly When you feel too tired to shine. I’m here when you stand tall And when you fall.
When you are in need, Call upon me and hear The words I whisper constantly Into your heart: You are not alone. I see you, and you matter. You don’t have to prove your worth; You already are enough. I am always here. You can draw strength From me.
I’ve reread these words several times since channeling them and realized two things. First, what I’ve tried to do and be for others (the mirror) is exactly what I most needed, myself. Second, this is exactly how I feel about my four-year-old granddaughter and what I’d want to say to her every day for the rest of her life – though the third and fourth lines would be different and address her own inevitable wounds.
I’d be willing to bet that these are the words my own grandmothers would say to me if they could. And that makes the words very real. Not just some wish-fulfilling fantasy but a message that grandmothers and others who are capable of loving in the purest, most unconditional sense would want to imprint on dented hearts.
The good news is that we can fill ourselves up from within so we don’t walk around so needy. So we can love ourselves and others better. It’s a form of activism that feels important to me.
How would the world and each person in it be different if we reached out to Love every day and heard what we most needed to hear before even leaving the house or interacting with anyone else?
What would Love say to you?
P.S. – The night after doing this exercise, my mother came to me in a dream for the first time in quite a while. In the dream, we hugged for a good, long time. I felt her love and warmth, and surely she felt mine. It was the first time I’ve experienced a dream-hug with my mother (who passed away nearly six years ago). And it was wonderful. Totally filled me up. I went through the day shining brightly and radiating love.
We can do this.
And if you’d like to hear the words Love spoke to me, then listen here. I recorded this for you.