This is the first blog of Mindfulness: Simple and Complex. The title comes from my belief that mindfulness (and life too) is both simple and complex. (I will write about systems in some later blogs because a basic understanding of systems is very helpful to many meditators.) One of my meditation teachers, at the end of a one-day retreat, laughed and said that the meditation instructions you get the first time you meditate (in this tradition)--cultivate the intention to bring a curious and non-judgmental awareness to what you are experiencing--is in many respects all you really need to know: the rest is just 'skillful means,' that is, using the strategies, practices, and ideas that you learn over the years. Part of what makes mindfulness complex is that we have over 200,000 miles of neurons in our brain and we almost can't avoid making things complex.
When I first retired, after meditating on the question of how I wanted to spend my retirement, I decided to practice non-doing the first year—resting and letting go of goals. In hindsight, it was quite revealing to observe the detox process in my body, my mind, and my heart. I might write about that in a future blog.
At the beginning of my second year of retirement, I began to hear voices clamoring for a plan: to do more. I chose to relate to these voices by welcoming them: I heard Rumi (“welcome and entertain them all”) and Thich Nhat Hanh (who encouraged greeting these, often familiar, voices by saying “welcome my old friend, come sit with me”).
- Some of these voices were goal- and achievement-oriented (“you need a plan” “there is so much suffering in the world—you need to do more service”),
- Some were judgmental (“you’re not doing enough” “you’re not good enough”),
- Some were anxious and wanted to know what I would do, and
- Some were moved by first granddaughter’s birth in June, 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 stronger, I chose to practice what one of my teachers had taught me some years ago: to rest in the not knowing. When the voices would feel strong, even overpowering during a meditation or during the day, 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. [This is a powerful practice which I will describe in more detail in a future blog.]
Meditation practice over many years (and a few times therapists on certain voices, for example, ‘you’re not good enough’) 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, one day 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.
I spent part of the past few months meditating and contemplating the blog: name, structure, content, etc., and I have decided to share a weekly blog every Monday.
Each week I will reflect on topics like:
- Significant life experiences and how mindfulness has helped me (prostate cancer, social anxiety)
- Practices I have found useful (practicing something for 21 days, yearly intentions, loving-kindness, etc)
- Perspectives gained from other places and paradigms (my time in the Peace Corps, Internal Family Systems, Tai Chi)
- New perspectives on old ideas (hope, expectations, intentions)
- Tools I have found helpful (metaphors, reframing)
- My take on classic Buddhist concepts (refuge, aversion, perception, ‘right’ speech, and
- More (“know when to hold em and when to fold em).
I have also placed a variety of resources and practices on the website which people new to meditation and those who are experienced in meditation might find useful.
I welcome comments and questions.