December 13, 2013: December Lace

What a show,  those lacy treetops in December. Photo taken yesterday late afternoon by the Coralville Reservoir.

December 12: Everyday is Good

"The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it," wrote Thich Nhat Hanh in Peace in Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. He must have learned that from Zoey and Hazel. They know that everyday is good.

December 1, 2013: Putting Passions into Play

Thank you to guest illustrator Xine Kathryn

“Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life—think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success.”  --Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), an Indian Hindu monk who helped introduce yoga to the Western world

Over 100 years since Vivekananda’s words above, neuroscience research is telling us that, indeed, there’s something to be said for thinking, dreaming, and living our passions. Visualizing ourselves doing something well can lead to success. For example, golfers who visualize practicing improvements in their swing can actually improve their performance.

Janet Bray Attwood and Chris Attwood, in The Passion Test: The Effortless Path to Discovering Your Passions (Penguin Group, 2008), assert that living our passions entails setting intentions and giving our passions attention. However, there should also be no tension – no straining.  Creating intentions and putting your attention on them, they say, should be “simple, easy, effortless process” (p. 58).

For us neuroscience geeks, the book offers passages that delve into the science of why this approach of “intention,”  “attention,” and “no tension” works. Interestingly, it has to do with what Swami Vivekandna told us over a hundred years ago, before neuroscience research came into its own: “the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body.”

October 15, 2013: Back to the Basics

A death or sickness in the family, an unexpected hurdle in a work project, an unrealized dream with no clear path forward. These external stressors are part of living. Called by Buddhists the "first arrow," these sources of suffering are often beyond our control. But we can work to control the slinging of the "second arrow":  our own graspings, aversions, and delusions that so often follow those first arrows. If we're not careful, these second arrows can quickly fan the flames of suffering. But it is in us to be peaceful in all circumstances. Even if we're already wound up about it all, it's not too late to begin again. It starts with remembering to breathe. 

September 8, 2013: I love you, world.

For years, I've noticed one of my dearest friends straighten her posture occasionally when deep in conversation with a group. I thought it was just because she's a yoga practitioner with a particular awareness of her spinal alignment. But she told me recently that she does that to remind herself to keep her heart open to others. Here's a similar practice: when you find yourself taking someone for granted -- or your work or home or life -- say to yourself (or out loud if no one's listening): "I love you, C" or "I love you, work, " or "I love you, world." It too opens the heart.

August 26, 2013: Yellows everywhere

In the prairie strip nearby: yellows, yellows, cheerful, exhilarating yellows. Yellow cone flowers whose time to shine has actually passed but they keep hanging on; sunflowers and goldenrod in full and ample bloom in spite of the heat; goldfinches flying in for the bounty, yellow  on yellow. Free gifts everywhere we look.    

June 30, 2013 Be Content

"Be content with what you have. Rejoice in the way things are. When you realize nothing is lacking, the whole world belongs to you."          --Lao-Tzu

March 23, 2013: Eckhart Tolle, Part 2

Tolle continues in A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose (Penguin, 2005): "Giving yourself more time is precisely this: giving your 'self' more time. Time, that is to say, past and future, is what the false mind-made self, the ego, lives on, and time is in your mind. It isn't something that has an objective existence 'out there.' It is a mind-structure needed for sensory perception, indispensable for practical purposes, but the greatest hindrance to knowing yourself. Time is the horizontal dimension of life, the surface layer of reality. Then there is the vertical dimension of depth, accessible to you only through the portal of the present moment. 

"So instead of adding time to yourself, remove time. The elimination of time from your consciousness is the elimination of ego. It is the only true spiritual practice" (pp. 206-207). 

I guess if we are in doubt about eliminating time from our consciousness, all we need to do is ask a cat.


March 23, 2013: "Time is what the ego lives on."

Those bare trees, this spring that won't quite arrive...sometimes time seems to interfere with what we want. 

I found myself in that frame of mind this past week during a work trip. Fighting a bad cold, what I really wanted was time to stand still so I could take a couple of sick days. Instead, to fuel myself for two days full of meetings I needed to co-conduct, I pulled out my copy of Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose (Penguin, 2005).

Tolle's book propelled me about six years ago from reading about meditation to actually meditating. That's why I return to it from time to time -- there's just so much wisdom in it. 

Here's the passage that helped me make it through the meetings: "Time is what the ego lives on. The stronger the ego, the more time takes over your life....There are three ways in which the ego will treat the present moment: as a means to an end, as an obstacle, or as an enemy" (p. 202). 

The challenge, I recognized, was to be aware enough of time during the meetings to keep things moving, but not to treat each moment as a means to an end, an obstacle, or an enemy. I did my best to lift my resistance to the way I felt and to be as fully present as possible with the people attending each spite of my pounding head and dripping nose. As it turned out, those two days were infused with a surprisingly gentle grace.

This week, if you find yourself looking at time as a means to an end, an obstacle, or an enemy, try spending two minutes just focused on your breath, or on the beauty of the sky, or the feel of your cat's fur. Let go of that hostile relationship to time for just a bit and experience the renewal that the present moment offers...every single minute, if we let it.  

February 10: Letting Go of Grasping

Grandparenting from half a country away is a challenge. It's easy to fall into a grasping mindset, wanting to see them more regularly, wanting to be the next-door Nana they skip home to after school or the weekend Nana who keeps them overnight. Yet it's not always feasible to move there, perhaps because of work commitments, or caring for elderly parents, or because here is...home.

So what do we do with these grasping desires of ours that can sometimes gnaw away at us? 

Buddhist wisdom holds that grasping, aversion, and ignorance are our main causes of suffering. But of course it's human nature to experience each of these conditions, and sometimes all at once. We can learn to accept the feelings -- invite them in with compassion and non-judgment -- and then let them go, dropping the storyline we've been telling ourselves.

On the day I sketched one of our grandsons recently, I acknowledged my grasping ("I wish I could see them every week") and the bodily sensation that accompanied it (a sense of heaviness in the chest), and then I breathed deeply. As I began to draw, the grasping dissipated and the marveling settled in. And when I look at the drawing now that I'm home, that peaceful joy returns. 

February 5: Big Thinking for the Brain

Recently I spent a couple of days in San Francisco, where the architecture inspires me. While sketching the tip of the iconic Transamerica Pyramid, for which artistic license pressed me to use pink that day, I wondered about the source of inspiration for the design and what it must have taken to execute the initial idea. Creating a building like certainly that takes big thinking.

On the way home from the trip I was spurred into thinking about the architecture of the brain because of a new book I bought at the airport: The Emotional Life of Your Brain, by neuroscientist Richard Davidson along with writer Sharon Begley.

Davidson offers six dimensions of Emotional Style that have arisen from his and others’ studies of neural bases of emotion. They are:
·         Resilience style: how we recover from adversity
·         Outlook style: whether we tend toward optimism or pessimism
·         Social Intuition style: how we read people’s body language
·         Self-Awareness style: how aware we are of our own thoughts and feelings and body signals
·         Sensitivity to Context style: how we pick up on the conventional rules of social interaction
·         Attention Style: how we screen out emotional or other distractions
Not all people want or need to change their emotional styles, says Davidson, but when our styles cause us discomfort – or we notice that we’re causing discomfort for others – we can use our thoughts to create new structures in our brains.

The brain was once thought to be rather fixed in form and function by adulthood, except for being able to learn new facts and skills. However, it is now well-known that the brain is capable of neuroplasticity – the “the ability to change its structure and patterns of activity in significant ways…throughout life” (p. 160). Davidson asserts that “[C]hange can come about as a result of experiences we have as well as of purely internal mental activity – our thoughts” (p. 160). In other words, to a great extent, we can use our thoughts strategically to be co-architects of our own brains.

If we tend to have a negative outlook and want to be more positive, Davidson suggests that “well-being therapy” can strengthen areas of the brain and improve our outlook. Exercises he offers include regularly writing down positive characteristics of ourselves and others we interact with, expressing gratitude, and complimenting others regularly.

It turns out that a daily mindfulness meditation practice can be crucial to developing increased self-awareness – but also to turning down the volume of self-awareness for those who are too aware of internal sensations. Davidson also recommends mindfulness meditation for increased focus and attention and for greater resilience.

I’m not surprised that meditation is so often recommended by Davidson as a way to build stronger connections for emotional well-being. In my mindfulness workshops I frequently see improvement and relief in the faces and stories of participants even after just two or three weeks of a mindfulness meditation practice.

Davidson admits that our brain circuitry is laid down in our early years by the genes we’ve inherited and the early experiences we’ve had. But even in our adulthood, there is much we can do to increase our sense of internal well-being and our interpersonal effectiveness. We might not ever create iconic buildings like the Transamerica Pyramid, but with some big thinking of our own, we can be the architects of positive changes to the structures of our own brains.