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In-Person Meditation at Reed (5/20/22 update)

(5/20/22 update from the organizer, Alan) The Covid situation, and what it means for the campus community and its guests, is continually evolving. I received an email today from the College’s COVID Risk Assessment Group announcing a new policy for mask wearing. It states, in part, …

Beginning Wednesday, June 1, the college will lift the face covering requirement for indoor locations on campus.

In line with current Oregon Health Authority guidance, masks are still required in all health care settings, including Reed’s Health and Counseling Center. In addition, any class, meeting, or event organizer may require masks for particular gatherings at their own discretion. The COVID Risk Assessment Group strongly encourages mask wearing while indoors in situations where physical distancing is not possible, and for all who feel more comfortable doing so in any situation.

– Reed Covid Risk Assessment Group, 5/20/2022

This is not a terribly surprising move. Warmer weather plus the completion of classes means there are fewer “users” of indoor air on the Reed campus. On the other hand, COVID cases in Multnomah County are expected to rise at least until June, and health authorities acknowledge that their case numbers are likely underestimates (maybe even gross underestimates), and County officials recently urged everyone to wear masks indoors when mixing with people outside their COVID “bubbles”.

Speaking as the organizer of our weekly meditation who lacks a crystal ball for what will be happening in June, I will say this: You must be masked for our remaining meetings in May and I would appreciate it if you were masked at our meetings in June, but I won’t require it. Instead, I will ask that anyone who shows up in June without a mask to make an extra effort at social distancing. Sit near an open window. Sit at least 10-12 feet away from others. I know that everyone carries a different “COVID calculator” in their heads, so if you have concerns about these changes, please contact me.

A few more end-of-May updates and reminders …

  • Silent meditation is planned for each Tuesday from May through August, at 12:10-12:40 pm. Some sessions will take place in Eliot 314 instead of the chapel, and some sessions may move to online-only or get cancelled (perhaps at the last moment!) if I am traveling. See Our Schedule for May-August meeting dates and rooms, and follow the link provided there to join our mailing list so that you can be kept abreast of last-minute changes.
  • I will continue to offer simultaneous in-person and online silent periods. More instructions can be found at Our Practice. All are welcome.
  • New participants… You don’t need to be “on time”. You don’t have to be an experienced “meditator”. Drop by the chapel (or the alternate room, or the zoom link) anytime between 12:10-12:40 pm. Whether you participate for 30, 10, or just 1 minute, it’s all good. All I ask is that you conduct yourself quietly and in a non-distracting manner. Your presence is a welcome reminder that we are all connected.

Covid info. As mentioned above, Reed College still requires that masks be worn inside all of its buildings through the end of May. Follow these links to learn more about covid infections and procedures at Reed College, in Multnomah county and statewide in Oregon.

Guided Forest Therapy Walk, May 9 !!

4/25 update – The 5/2 walk has been cancelled and rescheduled for 5/9. There are still spots open if you are interested.

I am passing along the following announcement from Reed College’s Wellness committee. This is the 2nd of 2 opportunities (the first walk was held on April 6). Please take advantage of this opportunity to get out in nature and put your mind at ease. The Reed campus is so much, much more than offices, classrooms, and parking lots. If you can’t make the walk for some reason, use the sidebar’s word cloud to find related posts. I particularly recommend posts tagged under nature, walking, sound, and solitude. I also encourage you to start your time in nature with a poem. One of my favorites: Worms by Carl Dennis.

A message from Erica Nukaya and the Wellness Committee to Reed College staff and faculty (sent 3/31):

The wellness committee is hosting two guided forest therapy walks and a plant swap. We hope you can join us!

Guided Forest Therapy Walks
Wednesday, April 6 and Monday, May 2
12:00 to 1:30 p.m.
Meet at Cerf amphitheater

Join us for a gentle, restorative walk in the Reed Canyon or nearby Reed grounds, depending on accessibility needs.

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A Quiet Place, An Open Place (reposted)

Back in the 1960′s, a Trappist monk named Thomas Merton wrote,

Douglas Steere remarks very perceptively that there is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by nonviolent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.

He went on,

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

from ‘Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander’ by Thomas Merton*

I have spent most of my 60+ years being ‘carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns.’ If the internet and email and work haven’t been enough, there has also been my natural desire to be valued by my peers and my unshakeable belief that my ‘value’ is rooted in my accomplishments, real and imagined.

Believing that, I get carried away.

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Mindfulness in the Classroom

In Spring 2019, just when COVID was getting serious, I received an article titled “Mindfulness in the Classroom” (Faculty Focus, 29 Apr 2019). It was written by biology professor, Erica Kosal, who had been teaching at North Carolina Wesleyan College, and together with 2 other colleagues, had been introducing short (5-7 minute) mindfulness practices into their classroom sessions.

This very charming article is a quick read that describes a few of the practices that Kosal employed, student reactions to them and how these changed over time, and how the faculty also felt transformed by this addition to their class. As Kosal explains,

At first, most students reported that they felt silly engaging in the activities and/or didn’t see how five minutes of meditative practices could really help. But over the next several weeks, they found themselves looking forward to the practices, welcoming the opportunity to clear their minds so they could in fact focus on biology. Some students even reported that they were using the practices on their own—for example, before starting homework or a study session. One student even reported he started doing a short mindful practice prior to soccer games and his teammates noticed an improvement in his performance.

Several things stand out here. First, the practices were diverse. The students didn’t necessarily sit silently, nor did they repeat a single practice over and over. Second, student (and faculty) appreciation for the short practices grew over time. In the beginning, the mindfulness practices may have seemed like unexpected (and perhaps wasteful?) uses of classroom time. I am certain that they didn’t fit with student expectations for what their time in a biology classroom would look like. Nevertheless, as Kosal reports, students “found themselves looking forward to the practices, welcoming the opportunity to clear their minds so they could in fact focus on biology.

Mindful teaching of this sort is something that every teacher might consider. There is no single recipe for what the best mindfulness practice might be for any given teacher on any given day, but once a practice has been selected, repetition will cultivate familiarity and acceptance, and likely make the practice more effective over time. Rather than being a sacrifice of precious class time, the practice becomes something that enhances the classroom experience by making everyone more present, open, and focused. And it may also pay off beyond the classroom.

The Anatomy of Peace

A “meditation” poem to share (and a big ‘thank you’ to meditation friends Bob P. and Virginia T. for sending it my way).

The poem is called The Anatomy of Peace and it was written by “Poet. Writer. Comic. Storyteller. Terrible Dancer”, John Roedel, who performs it right here.

If you’re thinking, “I’m not a poetry person” then this poem is perfect for you. It’s a first-person story about the author, who is caught in a longstanding and irreconcilable conflict. On one side is the author’s brain, always anxious about future disasters. On the other, the author’s sad heart, forever filled with regret. The author’s brain and heart “divorced a decade ago” and, for all practical purposes, refuse to deal with one another. The only path of comfort available to the miserable author is to avoid them both and hang out in the gut. Until one day … the gut makes a suggestion.

What makes this poem work is not just the all-too-familiar brain-heart conflict and the despair it generates, but the humor that percolates from top to bottom. The characters in this poem, an author, a brain, a heart, and so on, are just right for a funny cartoon, or maybe, an entire comic book. Humor is leavened by the author’s encounter with the deeply compassionate and wise gut. Don’t we all wish we had a friend like this? On first reading, the gut’s suggestion looks like an escape, a way out, but – spoiler alert – it is actually a way in.

Here is how the poem begins (you can find the entire poem online at youtube):

my brain and
heart divorced
a decade ago
over who was
to blame about
how big of a mess
I have become
eventually,
they couldn’t be
in the same room
with each other …

from The Anatomy of Peace by John Roedel

Breath & Your Body

There are many forms of meditation practice, each with its own appeal and promise. Here’s one that seems so simple on the face of it, and yet it has been the gateway to a deep understanding and ease for thousands and thousands of people over time. The instructions go like this:

Just breathe. Let your always busy mind open itself to whatever sensations, feelings, emotions, thoughts, are passing through. In other words, be aware. Continue breathing. Continue being aware. Repeat.

The simplicity of this breath+awareness practice is deceptive. Some will say, “this practice can’t be very deep if that is all there is to it.” Others, discovering the merry-go-round of sensations, feelings, etc., will try to latch on to one aspect or another. They will say to themselves, “I must only sense things, I must not think. Arrggh! I’m thinking! I’m a failure.” But there’s no need to stop thinking. And thinking is not failure. It’s just the thought-of-the-moment revealing itself.

Today I came across a short article by Jill Satterfield (Tricycle, 2011, Meditation in Motion: How to Be Present in Your Body). Satterfield describes this practice as “being present by being in our body, wherever it is and whatever it is doing. When we are exactly where our body is, we are in the present moment.” She goes on to say that this practice is available wherever we find ourselves, sitting at our computer, walking across the Quad, standing in line at Commons. As Satterfield puts it, “Our mind training doesn’t have to stop when we are not in a seated meditation posture, because most of the time we are in some sort of posture without actually naming it as such. … So how are we occupying the posture we are in? By simply locating our breath at any given moment.”

Locating our breath? It’s always in my nose, or my mouth and throat, or my chest, or all of the above, right? What is there to “locate”? Satterfield’s reply is to ask us to consider our “breath” as something that might happen anywhere in our body. She writes, “I like to think of breath and consciousness as travel partners. For instance, when we are asked to breathe into an area of the body, what are we actually doing? Certainly we aren’t literally breathing into our hands, for example, but we are beckoning our consciousness into our hands, or wherever we might choose to bring it. … What we notice when we metaphorically breathe into an area of our body is that we feel something. That something may be difficult to describe, as many esoteric things are, but it is an undeniable experience.”

So, to return to the meditation instructions at the top. Just breathe. Let your always busy mind open itself. Moment after moment, repeat. Should you find yourself fixating on a particular thing – an itch, a memory, a plan for later – realize that in that moment of noticing, you have changed what seemed like a fixation into an experience. Excellent. Continue breathing. Continue experiencing.

I wish you well.

PS Did you know that if you click on “breath” in the word cloud on the right side of this page, you can find several other posts and references on “breath”?

A.A. Milne on Mindfulness Meditation

A.A. Milne, the author who brought us Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, and Piglet, doesn’t immediately leap to mind as a commentator on mindfulness practice. My mother began introducing me to his stories before I was old enough to read, but I don’t recall her mentioning meditation even once.

Decades later, when I was all grown up and serious, I hunted down The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff (who I just learned is a Portlander – thank you, Wikipedia). I was looking for the Tao and thought I might find it by looking over Hoff’s shoulder, but, whatever I found there, it never occurred to me that Milne might have been a student of Asian spiritual practices.

Perhaps I was missing something? As Pooh says, “When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.” These days I often find myself reading familiar words in new ways.

So, in that spirit, I would like to share with you a short poem, “Halfway Down”, from Milne’s collection, When We Were Very Young. I had heard the poem dozens of times over the years, but last Tuesday I read it aloud to some friends and heard something new: a delightful story about a child who likes to stop “halfway down”, sit, and … dare I say it? … practice meditation. Enjoy!

Halfway down the stairs
Is a stair
Where I sit.
There isn’t any
Other stair
Quite like
It.
I’m not at the bottom,
I’m not at the top;
So this is the stair
Where
I always
Stop.

Halfway up the stairs
Isn’t up
And isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery,
It isn’t in the town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head:
“It isn’t really
Anywhere!
It’s somewhere else
Instead!”

Milne, A.A. from “When We Were Very Young”, E.P. Dutton, 1924

Just Listen

Listening meditation offers another way to be aware and to work with attention. Beyond finding a relatively quiet place to sit or walk, I have almost no control over the sounds that I hear. They arrive. Sometimes from the outside, a bird, a car on the street, a phone ringing. Sometimes from the inside, the whirrrrring in my ears that I might otherwise ignore, a rumble in my gut, or a crack in my joints.

When you listen to sound with awareness, you are just practicing being aware. There’s no need for anything extra. Limiting myself to awareness, along with attention drift, is the hardest part for me. A science podcast once informed me that the brain (mind) processes sounds much more rapidly than it does visual information. Sound is one of our most fundamental and efficient “alarm” systems for protecting ourselves. And once I direct my awareness to my sound environment, I often find myself naming, and sometimes, even looking around for the source of, the sounds that I hear.

There’s no need to do any of that in listening meditation. Just be aware. If you find yourself naming a sound, smiling at a bird’s song, or flinching at a text message alarm, give yourself a pass. Reacting is not what you intended, but it isn’t a mistake either. A silent “thank you” might be just the right soft, kind touch that will let you notice your reaction, which is part of living, and center yourself back in simple awareness.

Here’s a partial set of the instructions for listening meditation that long-time meditation teacher and author, Martine Bachelor offers in her Fall 2010 Tricycle magazine article, “Instructions for listening meditation”. I’ve included only the lines that emphasize awareness, but you can find the missing bits, the “…”, by going to the original article. And if you would like to read more of my posts relating to listening and sounds, click on “sound” in the tag cloud located in the right side bar.

Try to sit stable like a mountain and vast like the ocean.
Listen to the sounds as they occur … just listen with wide-open awareness.

Let the sounds come to you and touch your eardrums.
Go inside the sounds and notice their fluid nature.
If there are no sounds, listen, and rest in this moment of silence.

Just be aware of sounds as they arise and pass away. Open yourself to the music of the world in this moment, in this place.

See if you can learn to move freely between being in silence and with sounds.

– Martine Bachelor, “Instructions for Listening Meditation”, Tricycle, Fall 2010 (abridged)

Self-Care Starts with Self-Compassion

We hear a lot about “self-care” these days. We can see family and friends drift into pandemic-inspired patterns of behavior that make them unhealthy, unhappy. And they see us drifting in the same direction. When I was young, my mother used to repeat to me, “Money can’t buy you health, Alan. You have to take care of yourself.” And now everyone, from the top officials at the college all the way to chemistry students in zoom breakout rooms are talking about “self-care”.

My question here is, what drives us to think “self-care” is needed? Is it the pain in my wrist or neck or eyes from too many hours spent at the computer? (I was already suffering from these things before the pandemic). Or, could it be an emotional pain that I feel, but one that I cannot easily name or describe? Whatever the source of the problem, at a very simple level, “care” begins with noticing suffering and feeling compassion. We see the pain, whatever it’s nature, and this arouses a desire to act.

But if only it were that easy. We are much less likely to notice, admit, or name, the emotional side of our day-to-day experience. This is especially true when the emotions are “negative” feelings of loneliness, disappointment, sadness, anxiety, fear, arrogance, jealousy, or anger. I will quickly start to rub a sore wrist or neck. But am I equally willing to face my fear over what the future will bring, or my regret over some past failure?

Because we are more likely to notice negative feelings in others than in ourselves, a natural way to begin our inquiry is to ask, “How do I respond when I encounter these emotions in others? Do I pull away from them or do I approach them?” If the person who is experiencing trouble is someone that I feel close to, I’m more likely to stay by their side. I care for them. My compassion is naturally aroused. I tell them, “I’m here for you. Tell me about it.”

While there is a natural tendency to treat ourselves different, to reject/deny/avoid painful feelings, the example of how we treat our friends recommends another approach. My feelings are not a failing. They are a call to my best friend (myself) to feel compassion for me. In this case, self-compassion. Please, dear friend (that’s me), come closer to my suffering. Dear friend, I know you won’t try to judge me or fix me. I can count on you to stay by my side and join me in my inquiry, to let me know that I am being seen and heard. Let us share this awareness of each moment together, whether it is suffering, or just our breath, or the world around us. Whatever comes, please stay with me.

The Buddhist teacher and author, Bodhipaksa, writes about the importance of self-compassion and the process of self-inquiry in “Loving Pain”, Tricycle magazine, 5 March 2020. Here is very brief excerpt:

Something that can help us to practice acceptance of our pain is to recognize that our feelings are only ever pleasant or unpleasant, and never right or wrong. … Feelings are non-volitional and ethically neutral; they are not choices we make and so they don’t have any moral significance. … You need not be ashamed of any feeling you experience. You feel what you feel. Simply accepting this is in itself a profound act of self-compassion.

We may need to offer ourselves reassurance as we turn toward painful feelings. We can say things like, “It’s alright to feel pain. It’s OK to feel this. Let me feel this.” This encouragement helps us build up our confidence, and it also takes up some of the mental bandwidth that might otherwise be occupied by reactive thinking. Turning toward our pain gets easier with practice. Gradually, we become less afraid of our discomfort.

excerpted from “This Difficult Thing of Being Human: The Art of Self-Compassion” by Bodhipaksa, Parallax Press, 2019.

FYI, Bodhipaksa also has a wonderfully informative and detailed website, Wildmind. Check it out. And take good care of yourself. As my wise, dear mother once taught me, “Money can’t buy you health.” Make sure your labors are keeping you healthy.

March is Meditation Month (2021 version)

Tomorrow is March 1, the start of Tricycle magazine’s annual “March is Meditation Month” campaign. This year’s teacher is Guo Gu, a leading Chan Buddhist teacher and author. The focus of this year’s campaign, in addition to helping you start/strengthen/deepen your practice of meditation is “silent illumination”. (For a quick peek, check out One Minute Chan at Guo Gu’s webpage.)

For those who missed my posts on Meditation Month 2019, the last campaign that I had covered, the month is the time when Tricycle offers a load of free resources to participants. These include:

  • weekly guided meditation videos led by Guo Gu + 2 live Q&A calls with the teacher
  • plenty of free readings from the magazine to encourage you
  • and a two online groups you can connect to, one on Facebook, and another connected to a free meditation app, Insight Timer

If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “I’m too busy” and/or “It doesn’t work for me. I guess I can’t do it”, then this is where you will find a smiling nod of recognition, a gentle pat on the shoulder, and a helping hand, because … … … we have all been there. (And from time to time, I confess, the ‘no time, no success, not me’ mantra runs into my head and stands in front of me accusingly with its hands on its hips.)

We still can’t sit in the Chapel like we used to, but we can still sit. Have a good month. Let me know if I can help in some way. -Alan