A teacher once said that the meditation instructions you get the first time you meditate are all you really need to know. This is the “simple” part: “to cultivate the intention to bring a curious and non-judgmental awareness to what you experience.” The rest is just 'skillful means,' that is, using the strategies, practices, and ideas that you learn over the years. That’s the “complex” part: we have over 200,000 miles of neuronal networks in our brain and we almost can't avoid making things complex.
I retired in June 2016, from 43 years of teaching, 34 at the college level. I chose to spend that first year simply resting, reading, and enjoying life. I loved it! But at the beginning of my second year, the inner voices started clamoring. “Do more!” they insisted. “Make a plan!”
I remembered Rumi’s advice from The Guest House: “Welcome and entertain them all!” Thich Nhat Hanh has spoken of this also: “Welcome my old friend, come sit with me.”
I chose to welcome these voice and listen to what they had to say.
Some were goal-oriented: “there is so much suffering in the world—you need to do more service”
Some were judgmental: “you’re not doing enough”
Some were anxious and wanted to know what I would do
Some were moved by my first grandchild's birth in June 2017 and imagining her asking me 13 years from now: “grandpa what did you do about the world’s problems?”
When I realized that the voices were becoming more insistent, I chose to practice what one of my teachers had taught me: to rest in the not knowing. When the voices felt strong, I would acknowledge them, sometimes stand back and just let them go on, focusing not on the content of what they were saying but on the sensations in my body from the anxiety and on the energy of those voices.
Meditation practice over many years (and a few times with therapists) had transformed these voices from an 800 pound gorilla beating me up to a 7 pound capuchin monkey chattering on my shoulder.
After about a month of being (mostly) patient, an amazing epiphany emerged: it really doesn’t matter what I do with the rest of my life; what matters most is how I am in the world, that is, cultivating kindness and compassion. In that moment, the anxious voices pretty much subsided.
That was two years ago. I am ready to share my “simple and complex” thoughts and experiences through this blog—Mindfulness: Simple and Complex.
A little about me and how I come to be where I am now. While I have been practicing meditation and mindfulness from a Buddhist perspective for almost 40 years, I have been a seeker all my life. I was raised Catholic by a mother who was drawn to the mystics. As an adult I also read the mystics, took long walks in nature, and had some profound experiences in the Catholic Church—retreats at monasteries and becoming a lay Eucharistic minister, giving communion at nursing homes. I spent most of my Saturdays for two years volunteering and studying at the Vedanta Society in Hollywood, California. I participated in the pujas and learned much about Hinduism. I have done sweat lodges and vision quests with the guidance of a friend who was trained by a Lakota elder. I have also participated in many Jewish ceremonies and some Sufi ceremonies as well as various other religious and spiritual experiences (like many my age, I paid $35 for my own mantra in Transcendental Meditation in 1967).
For those who are interested, you can find more about my experiences with spirituality, religion, and meditation and my experiences teaching mindfulness and meditation in the About section of my website. While I find Buddhism to be the path that suits me, my diverse experiences have given me a deep respect for the many ways that people find and follow their ‘path.’
The blog posts will focus on topics like:
What mindfulness is and isn’t: (the issue of distractions, getting hung up on doing it ‘right,’ patience, mindfulness as awareness of one’s internal weather, mindfulness as the pause between stimulus and response),
Try This: Practices I have found useful which I will frame so that readers might try them out themselves (practicing something like smiling or gratitude for 21 days, loving-kindness, RAIN, etc.)
Significant life experiences and how mindfulness has helped me (prostate cancer, social anxiety, resentment)
Perspectives gained from related fields and other places (my time in the Peace Corps, Internal Family Systems, Tai Chi, yoga)
Reframing of old ideas (hope, expectations, letting be and letting go)
Well-being (loving-kindness, compassion, forgiveness, resilience) and afflictive states (anxiety, fear, anger, pain)
Connectedness (topics, stories, and ideas from other fields focusing on the importance of connectedness)
I have also placed a variety of resources and practices on the website which people new to meditation as well as those who are experienced in meditation might find useful.
I welcome comments and questions.