Happiness: What it is and How to Find It

happinessI came across this still proverbial Tibetan saying in my pre-meditation reading the other day that I wanted to share with you:

“Seeking happiness outside is like waiting for sunshine in a cave facing north.” In short, our happiness must be found within ourselves and not in events, goods, or even among those we love, for life often doesn’t reciprocate what we want, love, or even deserve.

Happiness can’t be imposed from the outside, since it derives from making peace within ourselves, free from the demons of self-doubt, jealousy, and anger and a critical spirit that can spill over into our daily lives, eroding relationships.

But if happiness is an inner thing, how do we go about having it? The Buddha tells us that our suffering, or unhappiness, derives from our craving. Modern psychologists like Freud and Skinner appear to confirm this, finding that we are creatures of Ego, perpetually seeking gratification.

We find happiness specifically in recognizing the temporality of everything, both of ourselves and of the world to which we belong. When we find it, we no longer react to life’s volatility of event and circumstance.

Accepting change and ourselves as a part of it, we are anchored even in duress.  What happens is that our egos dissolve when we discover the ability to let go through focusing on what really matters in a cosmos of entropy.

Such contentment derives from living mindfully in the moment, celebrating the treasure of being alive, or as Hellen Keller expressed it so wonderfully:

Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind. Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object you want to touch as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again.

We develop this capacity through practice, or meditation, being kind, not judgmental, about ourselves when our minds wander, as they always do.

Mindfulness meditation, which we can apply to every sphere of experience, disciplines us ultimately into intimate awareness and, with it, a rippling comprehension of not only ourselves, but of others in a wider empathy.

Mindful people find peace not only within themselves, but its enhancement in the outer world through service to others, which psychologists increasingly tell us yields that kind of gratification money, position and power cannot equal.


Postscript: A book I highly recommend as an amplification of my post is David Michie’s Buddhism for Busy People. I promise that you’ll find it difficult to put down. (While I’m not a Buddhist, I’ve found Buddhism, more a way of life than a religion, offers a redolent wisdom that modern psychotherapy has found worthy of implementation on a universal scale, and validated through empirical research.)

Leap Frogging

frogsI continue to read Shinzen Young (The Science of Enlightenment), and always with the thrill of discovery. No one, and I mean no one, has opened up the insides of mindfulness meditation more for me.

You know you’re keeping good company with a book you can’t stop scribbling in with notes and highlighting. Later, I become this grasshopper–or better–a frog leaping pages, landing on passages, sometimes amphibiously diving beneath, feeding on nuances that the residual of absence makes clearer and often multiplies.

My guru tells me that any experience, even if painful, yields relief when I pin it with concentration rather than avoidance as many of us do.

Doing so, we make a breakthrough, at long last, mining insight into our Self, that vein of subterranean opaqueness affecting so much of our surface life. The frog thing again.

If mindfulness begins with concentration, it succeeds with clarification, simply because it detaches us from the Self or Ego within us, affording us that rare objectivity.

A still further dividend is that our own wrestlings dissolve in a humility energizing our capacity to love each other more fully.

We measure mindfulness’ success in the amelioration it brings to our daily lives in the acceptance of the finiteness within ourselves and others, creatures never standing still, but always becoming.

While mindfulness can lead us to moments of ecstatic release from the shoulder heavy burdens of anxiety, worry, and resentment–even physical pain– it’s not really about that. Physical suffering, for example, may linger, but it no longer pervades.

Successfully done, mindfulness helps us live happier lives. independent of life’s circumstances with their undulations of good and bad:

Ordinary experience, when greeted with concentration, clarity, and equanimity catalyzes a process of insight and purification which culminates in the ability to have complete experiences whenever you want. This theory is quite elegant. It has all the marks of good science….It well deserves the name, “science of enlightenment.”

There’s so much more I !d like to say, but it’s early morning as I lie in bed, prepping for a new day with its granary for both promise and regret; but as Frost insists, “I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.”

Live Longer Now

Bodybuilder Ernestine Shepard, 78
Bodybuilder Ernestine Shepard, 78

It’s funny how your mind takes vast jumps, transcending time and space, hurling you into the past or thrusting you into the future. It’s happening to me now.

I remember sitting in my sixth grade class in Florida, fascinated with my teacher’s story of Ponce de Leon’s search for the fountain of youth, motivating him to travel to a new place, which he called Florida.

I think we’re all Ponce de Leons in quest of perpetual youth. We fear ending, the withering of our youth with its exuberance and beauty; the diminishing of resolve motivated by idealism, born of innocence; the advent of entropy and the descent into morbidities presaging that eternal sleep.

We evade our mortality in many guises, obsessing about film icons who seem to have the best of good looks and agelessness.

Advertisers grow rich, pedaling snake oils to mummify us from time’s erosion.

Religion offers consolation; materialism, avoidance; power, the illusion of mastery.

Mortality is the underlying cadence of the arts, arresting time’s flow in capturing the moment’s essence. Think Keats’ Endymion: “A Thing of beauty is a joy forever/Its loveliness increases;/it will never pass into nothingness….”

Medical science isn’t any less pervaded by its own Ponce de Leon quests into unlocking the mysteries of aging, harnessing our genetic codes, refining the regimens of diet and exercise.

A good number of scientists are busy at work, confident that they’ll ultimately win the day. There is Silicon Valley’s California life Company (Calico) for example, determined and well-funded, zealously hiring the foremost scientists on what it deems a moral mission to vastly beat back aging and pre-empt physical demise.

And there are other start-ups, too, like Venter with its ambitious plan to augment Calico’s efforts by creating a gargantuan database of one million human genomes by 2020.

Unfortunately, the landscape of new technologies is littered with bad case scenarios of Frankenstein prototypes unleashing their new horrors on humanity.

I’ve been reading this wonderful book, The Science of Enlightenment by Shinzen Young, an immensely learned Buddhist monk who has made it his mission to reconcile the best of Asian mindfulness practice with contemporary neuroscience.

I happened to come across this passage that set this present blog in motion on how we needn’t concern ourselves with whether science succeeds in its endeavors of extending longevity. We can have it now:

Now imagine that you will live just a normal number of years, but that your experience of each moment will be twice as full as it currently is; that is, the scale at which you live each moment will be doubled. If you only lived each moment twice as fully as the ordinary person lives it, that would be the equivalent of one hundred twenty years of richesse. Not a bad deal.

Hey, I’ll buy into that. I’m 76 and well aware of the math underpinning insurance actuaries. I’m lucky to have gotten this far, and with reasonable health, but it wouldn’t have mattered to me overly if my demise had been at 60.

I’ve lived my life up to the brim with world travel, including third world countries, conversing and making friends; gone from a Philly street urchin, raised by an alcoholic father,  to a professor of English, privileged to share the beauty and wisdom of literature with several thousand students who’ve enriched my life and, I trust, theirs.

I’ve filled my life with passions that have anchored my happiness–a love for reading, nature, languages and writing.

I wake each day, plotting new ventures. As the remarkable Hellen Keller wonderfully put it, “Life is either a great adventure or nothing.”

Not least, there’s been Karen, who entered my life some twenty-five years ago, balancing my introversion with her openness and steady optimism, igniting new vistas with her refusal to foreclose on possibility and stunning ability to rebound from life’s vicissitudes.

Hopefully, the best part of all of this transcends Self in its yield of an encompassing empathy that’s taught me how connected we are to each other and the absolute that we love one another.

For Shinzen Young, longevity is best measured experientially, not chronologically, when we live mindfully in the present. “Meditation is the key to this kind of non-mythical life extension,” he writes. “By developing an extraordinary degree of focus and presence, it allows you to live your life two or three hundred percent ‘bigger.'”

I couldn’t agree more.

My first attempts at meditation

Recently I completed a 28-day online course in Zen meditation from a Buddhist source, not that I’m thinking of becoming a Buddhist, but because I’m drawn to its spirituality, virtually absent in current secular approaches such as the wildly popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBDT) approaches.

I think meditation doesn’t have to be a long, drawn out affair to reap its many benefits. After all, everyday people have been doing it in varied formats across a myriad of traditions and cultures for some 2500 years.

I’m not saying it’s easy. Like playing a musical instrument or learning a new language, you can get to the rudiments fairly quickly, but doing well at it takes practice.

I struggle with my rebellious mind, as we all do with meditation, and its serpentine twists that take me anywhere and everywhere,

It helps, however, that Zen teaches me to be self-forgiving. It’s not really a matter of emptying my mind, but more of allowing it to have its say without imposing judgment or indulging it, conjuring up regrets about the past or anxieties about the future.

When I do this, meditation liberates me from the burden of my attempts to impose control. I see more objectively and don’t personalize disappointment or hurt. I know that my thoughts aren’t really me and that like the clouds, they come and go. I won’t let them chart my course.

When I meditate, I don’t sit cross-legged on a floor or on a bench, The edge of my bed does just fine in the early morning darkness, my back and neck straight, leaning slightly forward.

If my mind wanders, as it always does, I simply return to my breathing, sometimes counting my breaths.

I’m far from being where I want to be, but it’s become easier than when I began, and feeling more relaxed, I’m more eager to continue.

It’s been five weeks now and I’ve not missed a day, though for even better results, I need to do it twice daily for at least 20-minutes a session.

I like it that I can take mindfulness with me throughout my day, practicing awareness in my eating, or sensing my body rhythms; observing the details that compose those I encounter and listening to them acutely; and best of all, in a cosmos often replete with suffering, gaining an empathy for others–not just for humanity–but for the whole sentient world.

Zen informs me of the interconnectedness of all things in a temporal context; consequently, the imperative of my seizing the moment and extracting its goodness. It cautions me about the unhappiness that comes from my cravings.

Meditation has become a game-changer for me; and if it can work for me, bent over with worry in a world I can’t control, then just maybe it will work for you.



Cultivating Stillness

photo_20I am full of early morning,
tucked beneath my comforter,
stretching my legs,
my brain filling its daily bucket of anxieties
sufficient for another day’s wrestlings.

These several days I’ve laid siege to my citadel of habit,
rising in winter’s early morning coldness
to meditate in dark stillness.
It’s not easy.

Plagued by inertia,
I prefer my cocoon to elbowing out of bed
and sitting cross-legged,
back held straight,
shoulders pushed back.

Engulfed by morning’s opaqueness,
my wayward mind wanders aimlessly
and I am lost in a dark wood.

But it suffices,
for Zen absolves human frailty.
Mind needn’t be emptied,
and it’s mindfulness I lack:

To know the moment
and seize the solace of the Now.
To listen, but not engage.

I trace the pulse of limb and muscle.
I tune in to muffled beating of day’s snare drum
amid gathering pink of celestial fingers.
I count my breaths.

Cultivating stillness,
I discover calm,
and listening,
I grow wise.





Poetry is Truth in Sunday Clothes

quietnessWe live busy lives and often it seems difficult to take time out, catch our breath, and maybe just reassess whether what we’re chasing is worth our time and worry.

In a frenetic world, we probably all have a favorite way of finding sanctuary–perhaps taking time off, or traveling to some idyllic spot, or just off to a meal out or a movie with sweetheart or family, or maybe indulging in a hobby or interest. Me, I like gardening.

I know one thing–we all need time-out, moments when we can drench ourselves in silence and apartness, returning renewed and, just maybe, wiser–the gift of self-reflection when we glimpse where we’ve been, and are, and where we need to go.

Cultivating quietness long term means we have to work at it, just like other good things in life. They say practice makes perfect. I don’t know about that, but I do know it makes things better.

Some find meditation important in gaining equilibrium, and I can endorse that, particularly the Zen kind with its focus on mindfulness that affords me access into myself without my need to control.

Lately, I’ve added poetry to ways I can augment my need to exit life’s speedway. I bathe in its wisdom, marvel at its concision, the depths of psyche it plums, its mellifluous stream of words, the cornucopia of  tumbling imagery that makes me see again things I’ve missed or erringly tossed or lost in my life’s journey.

We busy ourselves in a world often filled with self-centeredness and aggressiveness that, if we’re not careful, can dull our humanity and turn our hearts to stone. Poetry helps us keep the wolves at bay–the world’s and our own–and with our best self, love and hope again.

Poetry does it all so well.

As poet Joseph Roux marvelously puts it, “Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes.”

I like that, and I think you will, too.





Medicine discovers meditation

stressFunny how the poets I read and taught in college have a way of popping up in my mind, even though I’ve been away from that scene for seven years now.  Take, for instance, the English poet Wordsworth.  He’s famous for his nature poetry and talks about “wise passivity,” by which he meant suspending the thinking part and simply letting the senses imbibe the stillness we often find in nature and arriving at the things that really matter. I’d say he was right on the mark, especially with our modern way of living crowding our space to be ourselves, muffling the intuitive stream that fosters coherence and confers tranquility.

A few days ago I was rummaging through the Tao Te Ching, which I like to do every now and then, since it’s densely packed with wise counsel, and came upon this passage that got me started on this present blog entry:

Act by not acting,
Accomplish by not straining
Understand by not knowing. (63)

 Simple but profound, such counsel promotes understanding and, with it, healing.  We need to teach ourselves to be still that we may intuit the essentials and practice mindfulness, something the East with its contemplative traditions discovered several millennia ago, anticipating poets like Wordsworth and, now, contemporary medicine.  The ancients were right all along about meditation as essential to our best selves.  In a time of ever increasing stress, we need its solace more than ever.  Consider this sober warning in the Harvard Newsletter (March 2011):

Over the years, researchers have . . . gained insight into the long-term effects stress has on physical and psychological health. Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. Research suggests that prolonged stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction. More preliminary research suggests that chronic stress may also contribute to obesity, both through direct mechanisms (causing people to eat more) or indirectly (decreasing sleep and exercise).

With available electroencephalogram testing of alpha brain waves along with pulse rate monitoring and even MRI brain scans focusing on “gray matter” in the brain areas responsible for memory, self-awareness and empathy, we now have empirical data gathered by professionals that can be replicated.  In sum, we know meditation works, which means that it can assuage pain and prevent or heal some of our entrenched ills, whether physical or psychological. The paradigm of medical reliance on medication, surgery, diet and exercise is expanding.  In short, a quiet revolution is underway as medicine discovers the ancient axiom that mind and body are one.

Perhaps its seed was planted most notably in the fascination the Beatles showed for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of  Transcendental Meditation.  Luminaries such as film director David Lynch; TV notables, Ellen Degeneres and Oprah swear by it.  Hey, George Stephanopoulos is into it too.  TM prides itself on research findings, at this juncture, some 700 plus, allegedly confirming its effectiveness in reducing stress, depression, high blood pressure and cardiac risk.

BensonMedicine started to look seriously at a supplementary role for meditation with Harvard’s Herbert Benson putting it to the test via the rigors of refined imaging, using TM volunteers.  As he put it, “Three decades ago it was considered scientific heresy for a Harvard physician and researcher to hypothesize that stress contributed to health problems and to publish studies showing that mental focusing were good for the body.”  Benson opened up medicine to meditation’s possible inclusion with his best selling (four million copies) The Relaxation Response in 1975.  “With meditation alone, the T.M. practitioners brought about striking physiologic change.”

Benson subsequently converted TM into a simple two step approach:  repeat a word or phrase of your own choosing and disregard distracting, every day thoughts by returning to your word or phrase.

Benson’s work was soon popularized in the public world through Norman Cousins, physician Dean Ornish, and a Barbara Walter’s ABC interview.  Still, the medical community for nearly 15 years dismissed Benson’s findings as largely a placebo effect.  That changed as other universities took up their own research, supporting Benson.  Today, Harvard has launched an endowed professorship dedicated to continuing research and treats thousands of clients seeking relief from stress with the Benson method.  Relaxation Response therapy is, in fact, incorporated into specialized programs at Boston’s Harvard linked Beth Israel and Massachusetts General hospitals, with fourteen affiliates nationally.

Today the meditation mainstream seems to be shifting to what’s called “mindfulness meditation,” an adaptation of the Zen approach to medication pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts to treat patients with debilitating diseases and chronic pain.  Like relaxation response meditation, mind-based stress reduction, or MBSR, is science centered, except it differs in how it approaches meditation.  Instead of a word, or mantra, and returning to it when your thoughts wander, you allow your thoughts, noting them, though not analyzing them, returning to focus on your breathing.  The idea is to objectify rather than personalize your thoughts, enabling you to better deal with them.  It’s been shown to activate the gray matter in those areas of the brain responsible for memory, a sense of self and empathy.  It inculcates self acceptance and helps us see that memory belongs to the past and isn’t real.

As such, it works well as a backdrop to the now widespread cognitive approach in counselingYou can actually practicemindfulness” anywhere, or while walking, listening to music, taking in conversation.  Allegedly, it can, with time, help  you become more empathetic through your heightened awareness of your own responses and thus a more diligent listener in social contexts

Whether you use a mantra or mindfulness approach doesn’t really matter since both result in a relaxation effect, though in my very limited experience I find the mantra version easier than mindfulness, which by its very nature can sometimes be distressing.  But there are many kinds of meditation formats, so you may want to search for what makes you most comfortable.  What’s worked especially well for me is known as Restorative Yoga, a derivative of Hatha yoga combining breathing, imaging, muscle relaxation and mild body postures.  I was introduced to it through Nurrie and Rick Stearn’s helpful book, Yoga for Anxiety:  Meditations and Practices for Calming Mind and Body.  Yoga might just be the most integrative of all approaches, administrating to both body and spirit.

I have to be candid: meditation does have its skeptics, some of them arguing that the alleged empirical effects can be attributed to advocate or placebo causes.  Personally, I’ve always found the latter untenable, since if it promotes healing, then the placebo response actually validates the psychosomatic power of the mind, which is ultimately what meditation is all about.

Others argue that random controlled trials (RCT), the gold standard, are lacking, and I’ve found this to have validity; for example, if you turn to the highly regarded Cochrane database, combing scores of medical journals, only one study turns up and it’s equivocal, recommending more randomized testing.

For all the claims that meditation can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, the American Heart Association has reserved judgment.  While its definitive report, published in April of this year, does indicate that TM can reduce blood pressure, it urges more research and assigns a lower rating to alternative meditation therapies.  I don’t see a problem here.  Meditation shouldn’t occur in isolation, but in concert with medication when needed, surgery when required, healthier food choices, and regular exercise as constants.

Meditation enthusiasts will rave about its benefits, how it’s made them calmer, more relaxed, better able to deal with both themselves and others, etc., but this is the stuff of anecdote, not science,  Just how do you quantify happiness?  And yet if we see behavioral change such as freedom from drugs; a happier disposition; a gentler, more loving person, we may not be able to measure it, but we know something is going on.

Frankly, I’m impressed with what doctors like Benson and Kabat-Zinn have uncovered.  To be sure, it’s a new science with bumps that need smoothing out, but its future lies in its promise and the empirical base on which it rests.

It seems The American Psychological Association APA) is on board, giving a resounding endorsement to MBSR.  (See Davis and Hayes.  “What are the benefits of mindfulness?” Monitor on Psychology.  July/August2012.  Vol. 43, No. 7.)

Of course, you can resort to SSRIs like Effexor, Zoloft and Lexapro, or quick fixes through benzies like Xanax or Valium, but they come with baggage, or side effects, sometimes worse than any proffered cure.  By the way, research has demonstrated that MBSR is at least half as effective in treating stress as SSRIs.  It’ so effective that the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has listed MBSR among primary therapies for depression.

As a final caveat, do you remember James Randi, skeptic extraordinaire, debunker of the paranormal?  Though he dismisses TM for its lavish claims that include levitation and psychic prowess to influence social behavior, he nonetheless can accept a relaxation response as ameliorating physical and psychological health, whether through meditation or some other means like music or just plain rest.

That makes sense to me.  After all, isn’t this what meditation comes down to–indulgence in time out?  We all need that.

Teach us to be still.






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Meditation Goes Mainstream: Western Medicine says Yes


It’s just me in the sunroom before breakfast, sprawled out on my yoga mat, doing meditation for 15 or 20 minutes.  A series of deep breaths and letting my limbs go slack, a visualizing of a good moment.  The hard part is getting the habit, but having a time and place helps a lot..

The best motivator, however, is how relaxed it makes me feel, and coming from, me, I don’t say that lightly.  As a child raised in an alcohol ravaged home, security wasn’t a given and each day meant finding my place under the sun.  I used to think I was simply a chronic worrier and worried even about that.  Children of alcoholics often try to control their environment to maintain stability.  They find it difficult to tolerate loss or uncertainty.  They like their parameters tightly drawn.

You can take benzies like Valium or Xanax for anxiety and while they’ll work in the short run, they treat symptoms only and, worse, are often addictive.  As for anti-depressants, they may work for some, but then how intact do they leave the user?  I prefer taking a different route, sovereign over my psyche rather than pharmaceutically lobotomized.  I suspect they’re overly prescribed anyway.  And then there are the side-effects that sometimes make matters worse.

Anxiety is triggered by our perceiving danger.  This needn’t be limited to a threat to our safety, but losing our financial way through job loss, investments turned bad, the sudden onset of illness.  Sometimes it’s the loss of a friend or loved one that pulls the trigger.  The common denominator, no matter the source, rests within the mind, or the way we think about things.  Nothing can threaten us unless we give it permission.  We are what we think about.  Anxiety is future saturated, or our thinking fearfully about what may happen to us; depression is present tense.  We think the worst has already happened.

Meditation quiets our panic, producing a mindfulness that can sort out, clarify and more cogently respond to what troubles us.  When we’re stressed fear takes ascendancy, preempting alternative, positive ways of responding to crisis.

Meditation has now increasingly become a part of the medicinal arsenal that had traditionally been limited to pharmaceuticals and surgery in Western medicine.  We know that meditation has restorative benefits for the body when we incorporate the mind into our notion of the corporeal.   In fact, we can measure its physiological results in lowered metabolism, heart and breathing rates and replicate those results.  For a fascinating exploration and summary of the empirical data, pick-up The Relaxation Response by renowned Harvard cardiologist, Herbert Benson.

I happen to be a subscriber to Mind, Mood & Memory, a newsletter put out by one of the world’s internationally acclaimed medical facilities, Massachusetts General Hospital.  In its most recent issue (September 2013), Ann Webster, PhD., Director of MGH’s Program for Successful Aging at Benson-Henry Institute, informs us that “among these strategies for successful aging, perhaps the most effective is engaging in practices such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing, or repetitive prayer that help elicit the relaxation response.  Regular experience of the RR helps counteract stress and other factors linked with higher risk for illness and aging, and causes enormously positive physical, emotional, and cognitive changes.”

This doesn’t mean a trained counselor becomes superfluous.  A good psychologist can target needs and offer ameliorative insights to enhance reduction of stress and promote physical and mental health.  The best medicine is always integrative.

And what do I feel like when I open my eyes and put my mat away?  Hard to put into words, but something similar to the snowflake calm that descends when I play Enya and  find my bullying ghosts have fled..


Mindfulness and the recovery of compassion, empathy and joy

Nearly always I come upon new reads, not through lists but, unexpectedly, in the marketplace of life.  I like it this way–the surprise of it, the joy of discovery, the smack of fate rather than coincidence, like the chance finding of a new friend or bumping into wise counsel, unanticipated, in a corner; its aftermath of empowering, the mystery and the beauty of it.

It happened for me this way yesterday when I came upon Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s Mindfulness:  An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World.  Intuiting a must read, I immediately downloaded the kindle version, which also features several sound tracks for the exercises.

I’ve been suffering lately from a good deal of anxiety, largely because of health issues.  I’m not used to things being this way and my need to control makes matters worse.  The trick in life is learning how to cope with issues you can’t always resolve.  While I know the script in my head, it’s quite another thing to carry out.

I like this new way of finding yourself and the freedom it brings, not in resolving, but in coping.  Mindfulness actually isn’t new, but a bedrock of Buddhism.  What changes the scorecard for me, however, is the empirical yield of sophisticated brain-scanning methodologies affirming its effectiveness.  What’s more, it can alter brain patterns long term for the better.  Studies show it substantially reduces depression and its frequent return,  improves blood pressure, lessens chronic pain, and boosts the immune system.  In daily life, it promotes empathy, compassion and joy.

I’ve always had great respect for the potential of meditation to promote both physical and emotional wellness.  My mind, however, works like a metropolitan airport, the runways always full.  Mindfulness meditation may thus work better for me, as instead of eliminating your thoughts, you passively observe them in conjunction with focusing on breathing.  You learn that you are not your thoughts and that thoughts can come and go like black clouds in the sky.  This gives you power to catch wrong thinking or patterns before they impact, and it lends space to help you heal.

Mindfulness is all about bringing us to our senses, and by this, I mean the sensory repertoire of touch, taste, sight, smell and sound.  We take ourselves too seriously and in doing so lose direct contact with the cornucopia of life’s potential blessedness all around us when we subjugate the sensory to the taunt reins of the cerebral.

As Williams and Penman point out, we spend our lives “on automatic pilot,” creatures of habit, oblivious to the priorities that really matter.  Mindfulness takes us out of ourselves, giving us power to discern and thus choose.

I began the eight week course yesterday with the “raisin” exercise, a simple endeavor lasting several minutes that helps rekindle the sensory, noting things like weight, texture, taste, smell and tongue movement.  Once again, I rediscovered Flaubert’s maxim that  “anything looked at long enough becomes interesting.”

I hope this exercise is a harbinger of future benefits as it delivered me from my self-concern, channeling my focus on the here and now.  I thought of other raisins to be savored:  a hooting owl in dawn’s pink-fingered rays, a mountain brook bubbling its way, a child’s innocent giggle, the sweet smell of morning cinnamon toast, the spring rose’s first blush.

I thought of Helen Keller’s eloquent wisdom:

“I who am blind can give one hint to those who see: Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind.  Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again. make the most of every sense.”

Selah!  I am at peace.


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