Mindfulness Matters


It’s Stress Reduction Sunday. Read my weekly post in the Connecticut Watchdog. Here is my CT Watchdog posts from last week:

Diligent Joy: Cultivating the Present Moment

In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about “diligent joy,” suggesting that joy is an active process and not just something that happens to us. This is consistent with the message of positive psychology — feeling good arises from practicing a set of skills devoted to how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. Gilbert defines diligent joy as, “This is what I’d like to hold on to. Please help me to memorize this feeling of contentment and to always support it.”

Read more …

Tenthousandjoys.jpgIf you are one of the 29 million people in the United States touched by Alzheimer’s you will want to read this book, Ten Thousand Joys & Ten Thousand Sorrows: A Couple’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s by Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle. It is a beautifully written memoir with practical guidance for family members and friends of those afflicted with this condition.

“Hob” was 72 when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a relatively young age. A dear friend of mine was diagnosed at 60, a devastatingly young age. I’m reminded of what Bette Davis said, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” 
This disease, perhaps like no other, makes it clear that aging is inevitable and that our sense of control over things has been a comforting illusion, perhaps even delusion. It reminds us as Hoblitzelle says that, “We all live on the edge of the unknown. Maybe even on the edge of an abyss.”
Olivia and Hob were married for 33 years when the diagnosis arrived. Perhaps we all fear losing our minds in this way, and reading about this couple’s journey can give us tools and confidence to navigate that journey should it become necessary in our lives. And much inspiration and practical guidance at the end of each chapter if you are going through the journey now. 
They committed themselves to making the journey a spiritual one. Both had a longstanding relationship with Buddhist practice. “Determined to live the experience consciously and lovingly, we regarded this–the final challenge of our relationship–as an opportunity for opening to the unknown, for learning, and, above all, for deepening in love.”
This is a tale of courage, grace, and humanity — at its most essential. It’s a deeply personal account of the range of emotions that arose in this process from the initial shock, “I felt like an animal wounded by an invisible arrow, but I couldn’t find the place where it had hit,” to loss, “grief wrapped me in a finely woven cocoon to protect me from the enormity of loss.”
This is also a good introduction or deepening of familiarity with the teachings of the Buddha — the dharma — that has nothing but relevance for these circumstances. It’s a call to mindfulness, a gentle vigilance that helps her to cope with grace. 
Never knowing what would confront her in the early days of Hob’s illness, Olivia would invoke mindfulness before entering the home:
I shifted into mindfulness practice: Walking and breathing mindfully, aware of each step, each breath. Just before the door, I repeated a simple metta, or loving-kindess prayer. That was how I steadied myself in preparation for the inevitable–the latest crisis waiting for me on the other side of the door. 

There are many lessons available here. Cultivating the six perfections (patience, generosity, discipline, diligence, contemplation, and wisdom), being wholehearted in everything you do, using hardships as the means for spiritual growth and equanimity.

This book is a powerful reminder on how to transform adversity into blessing. Hob’s attitude is a testament to human adaptability and I’ll leave you with his words:
If you want to be entertained by your own downfall, better to do it knowingly than get all choked up the inevitable. I can feel the slipping; it’s like having quicksand under me. Sometimes if I don’t say something right away, it’s like a wild bird. it’s gone. it’s delicate, this business of memory and words. 

This blog entry is dedicated to my friend Ed as he moves along on his journey with Alzheimer’s. 


buddha_snow.jpgThank you to everyone who reads Mindfulness Matters and thinks deeply about the issues and participates in the commentary and discussion. I truly appreciate that.

The Noble Eight-Fold Path is integral to the Buddha’s teachings and I’ll present a series of eight, no surprise here, entries talking about each of these in practical terms.
I was talking about “effort” this morning and that inspired the idea to write about these. A little context first. The Eight-fold path fulfills the fourth of the Four Noble Truths. From my chapter in The Everything Buddhism Book, I list them as follows (the order on this list may be different from other lists you have seen or will see):
        1. Right Speech
        2. Right Action
        3. Right Livelihood
        4. Right Effort
        5. Right Mindfulness
        6. Right Concentration
        7. Right View
        8. Right Resolve

“Right” could be substituted by “skillful” or “wise” and these terms carries less judgment. It’s not right in the sense of right or wrong, but right in the sense of what works. 

Let’s talk about effort today. While meditating effort has a different connotation than effort during, let’s say, vigorous exercise. It takes effort to meditate. We need to plan our day and get our butt on the cushion and keep it there. That’s effort. 
The crucial effort is returning our attention from fantasy to reality. Each time the mind moves into anticipation of the future, remembrance of the past, or commentary upon the present we are using our imagination. Mindfulness is the effort of returning our attention to what is happening now — the sensory-perceptual experience of now. It’s a tiny little effort — that shift in attention — yet crucial.
The effort of mindfulness is NOT to keep attention from moving away in the first place. The effort is not suppression of thoughts. I can’t emphasize this enough. Our job is to return not to stay put. The implication here is that there is no wrong way to do the practice as long as you are making this “right effort.”
The distinction is subtle and it creates freedom to practice, relieving the pressure that agendas, expectations, and rules impose on meditation. Just come back, over and over again. That’s Wise Effort.


From 25-27 February 2011, I will be giving a weekend workshop at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. I am honored to be among the teaching faculty of this august and important organization, dedicated to making the dharma available. In their own words:

The Barre Center for Buddhist Studies is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to exploring Buddhist thought and practice as a living tradition, faithful to its origins, yet adaptable to the current world. The center provides a bridge between study and practice, between scholarly understanding and meditative insight. It encourages engagement with the tradition in a spirit of genuine inquiry. Located on 90 acres of wooded land in rural, central Massachusetts, just a half mile from the Insight Meditation Society, BCBS provides a peaceful and contemplative setting for the study and investigation of the Buddha’s teachings. The secluded campus consists of a 240 year-old farmhouse, a dharma hall, and three cottages which taken together provide space for a 5,000 volume library, classroom, meditation hall, student housing, dining, and offices. The study center offers a variety of courses, workshops, retreats, and self-study programs to further research, study, and practice. Our programming is rooted in the classical Buddhist tradition of the earliest teachings and practices, but calls for dialogue with other schools of Buddhism and with other academic fields. All courses support both silent meditation practice and conscious investigation of the teachings. Contact Information: 149 Lockwood Road · Barre, Massachusetts 01005 • ?(978) 355-2347 office • (978) 355-2798 fax

The Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor noted that “the Buddha had a great sensitivity to the power of metaphor.” In my workshop, I will follow in the footsteps of the Buddha himself by teaching mindfulness through metaphors. My workshop is entitled: Metaphors, Meaning, and Change: Finding Our Way to Mindfulness.

Metaphors are often thought of as colorful augmenting features of language. However, a large body of scholarship shows that ordinary “literal” language is infused with metaphors. It is impossible to think, feel, or act without the use of metaphors. In fact, the evolution of the human mind may have depended on the use of metaphors. The words we use are not “dead” and the concepts they point to can contribute to stress, mental suffering, psychopathology, and unhappiness. To be aware of the metaphors we use and develop the skill to generate new metaphors can be part of our creativity and growth. This workshop integrates the use of metaphors with mindfulness practice and Dharma understanding to create a new model for mental health, transcending suffering, and the change process. 

The fee for this workshop, including meals and accommodations is set at a reasonable $198 and carries 12 CE credits for some mental health professionals. You may register here.

I invite you to come to this special place, a place that feels like my spiritual home, to spend a weekend contemplating and practicing the dharma through metaphors for mindfulness. I’ll be drawing on the wisdom in my book, Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness and the more recent, The Everything Buddhism Book

With blessings and gratitude,