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.
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?
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.
I’ve been asking myself some important questions lately and wondering how others would answer them. For example:
What matters most to you?
And how do you connect with it?
What consistently matters most to me is: Presence, Connection, Compassion, and Gratitude.
I connect with these qualities on a daily basis by doing walking meditation in the labyrinth, which is my sanctuary. It’s the only reason why I leave the house and has become my favorite daily ritual. It’s a meditation practice from which insights arise, and it’s really supporting me during this time of staying home during the pandemic.
After more than a month of staying home, I’ve made a series of five “labyrinth time” videos, complete with lots of uplifting birdsong. Is it a meditation? Meditation instruction? A poem? All of the above? I don’t know what to call it. All I know is that it’s real and tender and honest. (So much so that sometimes I feel shy about sharing.) These are videos for quiet moments.
Here’s what’s going on: As I walk the labyrinth, I stop periodically to dictate insights into a Google doc on my phone. Then I put my phone back in my pocket, return to presence, and start walking again. At the end of my walking meditation, before leaving the labyrinth, I record myself reading the insights and reflections out loud, accompanied by all the natural sounds. I also take pictures either before or after walking the labyrinth. This video series is my own personal chronicle of where I draw strength from during this time of deep uncertainty.
What you’re hearing is an unfiltered narration of what arises in my mind when I’m immersed in moving meditation in nature and feeling present and connected. The themes center around being intimate with what is and shifting out of expectation, desire, and thought patterns and back into presence. Repeatedly. With compassion.
And you can see the changes the natural world goes through as the weeks pass. Even as our normal routines remain collectively altered, nature keeps doing what it always does at this time of year: renewing, growing, blooming. The natural world is a steadfast background and an anchor of presence we can return to again and again.
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.