Tag Archives: fear

Early March 2020 practice – Still early days

The news is filled with stories about The Virus. It is truly no laughing matter, and the most appropriate response will vary from one day to the next, and even from one person to the next (fyi – I’m a male over 60 and which places me in a higher risk group).

For now, however, the risk of infection for nearly all Oregonians is still estimated to be quite low. But now’s the time to prepare. Practice your hygiene. Wash your hands. Familiarize yourself with the experts’ recommendations and learn where to go for more information.

As it happens, the opportunity for close contact with anyone during our meditation period is extremely low. The Reed Chapel is extremely large and we are very few in number (space yourselves as you think best). Until the College tells me otherwise, we will continue to host our weekly meditation periods.

But why meditate at a time like this? Because maybe there is no better time than this. Meditation provides an opportunity to spot our knee-jerk reactions, whatever they might be, and see them for what they are. A habitual grasping after, or a turning away from, the things that we hope will keep life the way we want it.

So I encourage you to make some time to sit. Sit, notice, pause, and then see. Aha! That is what is going on! A thought. A mind bubble that might pop as fast as it forms. Once we see our knee-jerk reaction, we have already expanded our horizon, already loosened the hold (at least a little) of whatever had grabbed us. We can, if we choose to, anchor our awareness once again in whatever we had originally intended: the breath, a touch, the sound of the world, ….

This is something we must repeat over and over again. Recognizing habitual reactions before we get swept away by them is a practice, a cultivation. The act of recognition can make itself felt immediately, but that recognition and the freedom it provides, can vanish just as quickly with the next thought, the next jerk of the knee.

This season’s emergency is a virus. What emergency will the next season bring? We are always vulnerable to the emergency of the moment. (Notice that “emergency” contains the word “emerge”?) New things are always emerging to grab our attention. The importance of mindfulness practice never disappears. Nor does the beauty of those practice moments when we find ourselves sitting in peace, undisturbed, and realize that there is a choice in the paths our lives can take.

All thoughts are thoughts, but all thoughts are not equal.

Wishing all of you happiness and good health, and especially, peace. – Alan, 8 Mar 2020

Mindfulness in the Schoolyard

Life can be touch on kids, and kids can be tough on each other. A recent NPR Morning Edition story (20 Feb, 2020) brought this point home as it described how mindfulness practices are being used to help schoolchildren attending a high-needs elementary school in Nashville, TN. (Mindfulness Transforms Culture at High-Needs Elementary School)

The stage for the story is set when a 4th grader appears at the mindfulness room in the elementary school that has been set up by the school’s designated mindfulness teacher. The boy has come to the room because he is feeling worked up by a physical confrontation he had just had with another student who had bullied him in art class. Together, the student and the teacher go over the events. The teacher provides emotional support and assurance for the boy, and also leads him through some breathing exercises that loosen the “fight or flight” feelings that had gripped the boy. Ultimately, the boy is able return to class feeling calmer and with greater confidence in his personal safety.

Situations that generate some degree of “fight or flight” are not unique to elementary schools. “Stage fright” is not just a problem for those in the theater. Speaking out in conference, working with an unfamiliar apparatus in lab, knocking on a professor’s door to initiate a conversation, these are all known stressors for college students, and some type of mindfulness practice might be used to reduce these stresses.

Two other features of the NPR story also deserve mention. Mindfulness can be beneficial, but it shouldn’t be treated as a band-aid. When the sources of stress are systemic in nature – poverty, implicit bias, and so on – we should also be looking at how to change the system so that the sources of stress are reduced. In addition, mindfulness practice, like other healthy habits, needs to be normalized. It isn’t something that someone else does when they are struggling. It is something we, teachers as well as students, can all practice so that the tools are available to us whenever they are needed.

Pain Is The Teacher

Summer is when everything should go right with the world. I think I first developed this attitude the summer after my 2nd grade. It has stayed with me ever since. So this summer’s troubles — pains in my back and shoulder, the ache in my ankle, even the grievances in my heart — just seem very inappropriate for this time of year. But there they are and they require a response.

Ezra Bayda, author of Being Zen says, “on experiencing pain, we almost always immediately resist. On top of the physical discomfort we quickly add a layer of negative judgments: “Why is this happening to me?” “I can’t bear this,” and so on.” My knee-jerk, all-too-human response just doesn’t help.

Bayda then asks, “How do we live the practice life when we’re in pain? To apply such phrases as “Be one with the pain” or “There is no self” (and therefore no one to suffer) is neither comforting nor helpful. We must first understand that both our pain and our suffering are truly our path, our teacher. While this understanding doesn’t necessarily entail liking our pain or our suffering, it does liberate us from regarding them as enemies we have to conquer.

Bayda has more insights on this topic which you can find in “When It Happens to Us” (Tricycle, Winter 2002).

 

No Pain, No Gain

For the record, I haven’t found any form of meditation that espouses “No Pain, No Gain” as a tenet. Sitting still and silent may feel awkward. Sitting may even elicit some of the uncomfortable emotions and thoughts we commonly associate with pain, as in “I can’t take this anymore,” but the point of meditation is neither to produce pain, nor to use pain as a yardstick. On the other hand, pain is an unavoidable fact of life (I’m sure my birth caused my mother plenty of it), and aches and pains can serve a useful purpose (don’t put wait on that sprained ankle yet). So how should one relate to pain?

Long-time meditation teacher Ezra Bayda writes(“More than This Body,” Trike Daily, 26 July 2017)

Pain, by definition, kind of sucks. …

We usually try to simply get rid of it. Being cured of pain is the outcome our culture teaches us to expect — we carry a sense of entitlement that life should be free from pain. But one of the worst parts of the pain syndrome—whether the discomfort is short-term, as in meditation, or long-term, with chronic pain — is that our physical pain and our urge to nullify it feed off one another in a most unfortunate loop, and our life comes to revolve around our discomfort. …

It is essential to understand that both our pain and the suffering that arises from it are truly our path, our teacher, in that we can learn from them and experience our life more deeply as a result. …

When pain arises, instead of immediately thinking, “How can I get rid of this?” we can say “Hello” to it, and ask, “What can I learn from this?” It’s not always easy to do this, but when possible, it turns the whole experience upside down.”

Bayda’s article goes on with exploration of the different dimensions of pain, our responses to it, and a menu of tools for experiencing life-with-pain free of the mental hangups that normally present themselves.

The Energy of Emotions

The election polls closed less than 24 hours ago, and as elections often do, they unleashed a tsunami of emotions: fear, anger, vindication, triumph. I wish I could have escaped, but I was swept away just like everyone else. The current still feels pretty strong, but I’ve also done myself a favor by taking some time to sit still and ask myself, “what is all this really?”

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Facing Academic Fears

Students may believe that they have a personal monopoly when it comes to fear of academic failure, but there is plenty of fear to be found in almost any classroom. Not only is fear of failure widespread among students, it is also found in faculty.

A team of Norwegian researchers has just published an exploratory study that asks whether Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) can help students deal better with their fear of academic failure: Hjeltnes, A. et al., “Facing the fear of failure: An explorative qualitative study of client experiences in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program for university students with academic evaluation anxiety”, International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, DOI 10.3402/qhw.v10.27990.