Thursday, January 29, 2009

Understanding "The Way"

The Tao Te Ching is really one of my favorite poem/books to read. The words strip any kind of tension from me and make life plain and simple. Oh how I love plain and simple!

I've wanted to take each section and post my thoughts or observations from it for a long time, but I always felt that my knowledge would stand out like a leafless tree in midsummer.

And all of a sudden my left brain kicked in with: "Bonehead! [Seriously, does it always have to call me that?] That's exactly why you should do it! People will be able to post their own thoughts and experiences to fill out the bare branches! Quit pretending to meditate and get it done."

So we start today! Or, I start on the branches and hopefully you'll fill in the leaves?

(By the way, I ignored my left brain and finished my meditation - even though it threw a little hissy fit for a couple of minutes.)

Verse 1
The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

Th unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

When my kids were little, the first thing I did was to teach them the names of everything.

I wish I hadn't.

When you give something a name it becomes an object, separate from you. It is a much different feeling when you walk down a path with no labels or names of the things around you. Eckart Tolle suggested to walk in nature without labeling or naming objects (Sorry if you aren't a Tolle fan! Get out of your judgmental left brain and just hear me out). The experience is much different. You feel connected to the beauty around you - not separate from it. This unnamable is the eternally real. Naming separates us into particular things.

When I experience nature or the people around me for who and what they are - not Jesse the gay man, Helen the woman with the anger issues, bagger lady at the grocery store who hates fruit - when we take all of the judgment and evaluations away...ahhh...we connect on a much deeper, more compassionate, more loving place. We are free of desire (i.e. expectations). We know the mystery!

When we don't, we live with our manifestations: judgment, racism, homophobia, hate, fear...which lead to everything from hateful feelings, fights, inner disharmony on a small scale to poverty, war, ethnic cleansing on a large scale.

So how can the Tao Te Ching also say that our manifestations and our mystery be rooted from the same source? Cause lemme tell ya, it sure feels different!

Well, I believe we can choose to cultivate compassion and love, but we can also choose to cultivate hate and fear. It's all there in the darkness. Just a matter of which you choose to develop.

And where you wish your understanding to be rooted.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Yin and Yang: Triumph and Humiliation

I had to go grocery shopping today.

Don't know if you know this about me, but I hate shopping. Grocery shopping is the worst, but one must do it, because one must eat.

I hate the lights, the music, the crowd, the unending choices. But most of all the uncaring bagger person who always bruises my fruit and mooshes my bread. I walk out of there feeling like every cell in my body is vibrating in hypersensitivity. I just wanna get in, run through, and get the heck out.

But today would be different! I would stay present. Not be affected by the bazillion ridiculous choices we have of everything. I wouldn't become frustrated with those around me. I would not become angry with the bagger lady. I would try.

And today, I noticed something as I wound my way around, trying not to forget toilet paper and trash stickers (another post all together).

There is weird balance of flow and stagnation between people in a grocery store.

Like water in a creek.

Some people are like big rocks, completely unaware that they have positioned themselves to take up most of the aisle, slowing the flow. Sometimes they just position the cart so that it takes up the shelving area you want to get to. Like a couple of branches at the side of the creek that have caught leaves in their twining arms. You can eventually get what you want, but it takes some time.

There are others who whip through the aisles, either forcing you to the side like whitewater or allowing you to catch the wave they produced by riding right behind them and moving with their flow.

Flow and tranquility. Movement and stillness. Yin and yang.

I wasn't grocery shopping anymore! I was watching flow, part of flow. It was tai chi!

I waited in line. The aisles next to me flowed. Mine was stagnant.

Flow! Stagnation! More complementary opposites! Yin and yang. I was in my element!

I watched...waited. Gently began to place items on the conveyor belt. Feeling each item carefully, not breaking the flow of this experience.

With each item I lovingly placed on the item, with each scanner beep I heard as my carefully chosen item rolled down the conveyor belt there was a slight tightening of my existence. What's this? The flow became constricted. The coherence was disrupted. I looked up.

Into the eyes of my nemesis.

The bagger lady.

She was trained to place yin and yang in each and every bag. A can of tomato sauce on bread. Delicately ripened bananas wedged under a box of crackers and cereal. All the while staring right into a shopper's eyes. Almost in challenge.

There are times when you can't watch flow. Times when you can't just move with flow. You have to create it. You have to be the rudder in the stream. You have to guide yourself, move yourself in this water.

I grabbed the pears from her blunt-knuckled hands and gently placed them with the apples. I took out the soup can and put it in with the box of cereal.

"Yin and yang may not be in each bag," I told her gently, not realizing I had embodied the accent of Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine. "Yin bag, yang bag: all go in same cart." I said, softly. "Balance." I nodded to the bags and then gently bowed to her. "Have good day."

I walked slowly behind my grocery cart feeling at peace. I made it through. Not only was I not stressed out, but this time my fruit and bread were saved. I was triumphant.

Until I realized I had forgotten trash stickers and had to get back in line.

"Just trash stickers," I said quietly to the cashier. I glanced down at the bagger lady. She held my glance, then rolled her eyes and moved to the fruit and cans of the next line.

Balance, I thought. I was triumphant. I am now humiliated.

"Have good day," I said quietly to myself as I walked out.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Holding your pee

Life in the left brain is like living with a constantly full bladder. You are always preoccupied.

You can function. You can pay bills, work with a client, send out emails, drive, feed the cat, design a web page, make coffee - many times doing these things at the same time. But even while multitasking, there's always that underlying noise, nagging you that there's more to do.

And then there's the ridiculous dancing from one foot to the other.

Allowing the right brain (peaceful observer) equal time really gets rid of the noise, the nagging, the preoccupation. The urine of life.

And the only way I know to reach the right brain through the noise of the left is meditation.

It quiets the left brain and introduces the peace of the right. So that when you are working with a are working with a client. When you're feeding the cat, you're feeding the cat. When you are responding to an email. You got it. You're responding to an email. That's it. You are fully there to listen, feed, respond. You are clear.

When you are clear in your mind, you have the structure of the linear left mind that keeps you on track and the open awareness and acceptance of the all observer right brain, amazing things can take place in the body.

For me, the first shift came from breathing into the belly. One of the first times I tried to meditate, my respiratory system was blown away. I was breathing in and out. And I did it more than once. Over and over for eternally long two minutes.

I didn't hold my breath on the inhale. I didn't take a big breath in and sigh it out. I just let the air come in evenly and release evenly. My lungs freaked.

"What the heck is this?! Air in? Air out? What? Balloon-lung look not in anymore?"

My lungs can be pretty sarcastic.

The breathwork in meditation is so nice and even that the respiratory system responds. Lungs not only were stronger in case studies, but lung capacity grew, and meditators were able to hold their breath for much longer periods of time. They also found that the even breathing of meditation increases the blood oxygen and allows it to adhere to blood more evenly.

And there are oodles of case studies (here's an interesting one) that go over the connection between meditation and cardiovascular health. In a healthy human if your breathing becomes nice and even, your heart rate is going to respond, raising your heart rate variability (HVR measures autonomic influences on the cardiovascular system. The autonomic system supplies, involuntarily, impulses to the smooth muscle tissues, glands and the muscles of the heart. It also controls the circulation of blood, body temperature, respiration rate and many other functions like salivation, urination, and digestive systems.

So when you're breathing evenly, the blood begins to flow evenly, oxygen is getting around and healing...lo and behold, the digestive systems begins to assimilate food better. Woo-hoo! No more fears about bending over in class anymore!

Because all systems: endocrine, nervous, cardio, digestive, respiratory, are connected, they are also all affected when you create a space for the right brain.

The hard thing is to make time to actually follow through with meditation. In the beginning just be good to yourself and don't give up. It takes practice just like anything else. You'll watch the clock. You'll hear noises and want to know what they are. You'll fall asleep. Your left brain will nag, nag, nag until you give up. Don't.

Add it into your day slowly:

Before you get out of your car. Pause. Breathe.
Before you set the toothbrush to your teeth. Pause. Breathe.
Before you pick up the phone. Pause. Breathe.
Before you get out of bed. Pause. Breathe.

These are mini-meditations that will help you ease into longer periods of time. And you can add an exercise on to the breathing: pause, breathe, feel your hands. Just feel them. Don't judge. Don't evaluate. Just see if you can feel the blood pulsing through them. Can you feel any sensations? Just feel, be aware. Let your right brain have a voice. It's pretty quiet, but it's powerful.

Now quit dancing and go pee.


Good books on the brain:
My Stroke of Insight
Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Left, Right, Center

Be still as a mountain,
move like a great river.
-Wu Yu-hsiang

If you're just starting out with meditation, staying present - or just practicing focusing on one thought - it can be difficult. What can end up happening is that a little "To Do" list will pop into your head, making sure to challenge your quiet moment.

"What am I doing?? I have to reply to that email from my boss! I can't forget to do that! Oh, Lord, if I don't do it now, I'll probably forget! I've been forgetting everything. Uhhhggg, I just remembered when I forgot my mother's birthday last year. That was fun. I felt sick. I had to pay $40 extra dollars to FedEx it there quickly to save face. Boy did she harass me for that. Speaking of payments, when did I last pay bills...I haven't paid bills this month! I can't be late for that too! Extra fees will kill me! I've got to look into that. And look at me! I'm just sitting here! Doing nothing!"

So, staying in your comfort zone, you jump up and head for the computer to pay online bills, return emails, and write a loving letter to your mother.

What is going on here? What is this voice that spits out so much worrisome information while we are trying to slow down and be still?

Inside of our lovely skull, cupped in it's strength, is our brain. A necessary organ that is still largely curious to researchers. It is divided into two hemispheres: left and right. The left is very analytical, allows us to critique, judge, analyze. The right behaves as a complete observer, not caring whether something is good or bad, right or wrong, it just observes and lets things unfold with curiosity and wonder. See the balance there? Both are necessary. You want to be able to judge a situation as safe or dangerous, using the left brain. You want to observe, and not judge, the smirk your mother makes when she opens your $20 gift in the $40 FedEx packaging, using the right brain. (Why, you ask? Because getting caught up in the emotion of your mother judging your gift, and the expense of how it got there, is a huge waste of your time. Get right-brained whenever you find yourself in this kind of situation. Step away from the drama!)

The left hemisphere is the one we Westerners are still having one remarkable love affair with. (Sorry about the hanging preposition - my detailed oriented, perfectionist left-brain won't let me move on without pointing that out.) The left brain is highly analytical, allowing us to problem solve, create sentence after sentence to communicate coherent paragraphs, to analyze, criticize, judge, make predictions, create and follow schedules. It is deeply needed in our Western environment.

When one overuses the left hemisphere is when the trouble starts. The left hemisphere - just as it did in our example above - takes any quiet moment and makes them loud in our heads. It guides us to think about and remember things that have happened in the past and propels us into the future to worry and fret over things that have yet to come. And the saddest thing about this is what we miss: the precious moment occurring right now.

And it's the right brain that allows us to be present. Present is all it knows. Right now, this moment.

But it takes practice.

The beginnings of meditation are difficult. The left brain acts like a spoiled brat. It has received constant attention from you for years and years, and now you want to focus your beam of light to the right hemisphere? Not without a fight. Those messages you get when you try to maintain quiet are the left hemisphere having a little hissy fit. It's fighting for your attention. The right brain, in it's laid back, non-judgmental never vies for your attention.

"Ah, well, it is what it is," the right hemisphere says as you jump up from a lotus position, or drop your arms from Standing Post, and give in to the 'to-do' list that the left hemisphere provided. The left hemisphere is happy because it has you back, the right hemisphere is happy, because it doesn't judge, and you are back in your comfort zone and feeling fine...

Except for the occasional acid reflux. Oh, and the fluctuating blood pressure. Well, then, there's the lower back pain. Okay, and to be honest, the daily anger, bad moods, feelings of depression, impatience with close friends and family, and the constant criticism of others when really all you want is peace.

And you realize, clearly, that practicing being in the right brain might just be a good thing.

Next post: Entering into the right brain, watching body functions shift in 'observer' mode.