This afternoon, I led a group of educators in mindfulness practice. Many were struggling with how to address the results of the election. Everyone, regardless of which candidate they supported, feels fear in this moment. Fear of the direction our country has been going or perhaps where it will go next. The reasons for our fear may differ but the emotion is the same. My sense is that the entire election process exposed the vulnerability that is part of our experience. We are dependent on people, institutions and our government. And it isn’t a one-way street, we are all interdependent. But these dependencies sometimes let us down. So, we are often faced with a choice to allow our vulnerability to be part of our experience, living the wholehearted life described by Brene Brown, or to shut down, withdraw, disconnect.
As I prepared for the group, I thought to myself, “I’m have no business pretending to know what I’m talking about with this” (see also I have no idea what I’m doing! An exploration of doubt and uncertainty). There isn’t much new in this post. In fact, most of it is taken from other great teachers. In times of stress, our biology tells us to fight or run away. But mindfulness offers us something different. Mindfulness offers two great questions: What is happening? and Can I be with this? These questions form the wings of the bird of awareness. One wing is that of wisdom; the other of compassion. These twin qualities balance each other, working in tandem. As Jack Kornfield writes, with mindfulness, “we are aware of the waves and rested seated in the midst of them.”
Please register today for Discovering the Voice of Your Heart: A Half-Day Meditation Retreat on Saturday, December 10 from 10:00 to 1:00 at the Tredyffrin Library. Enter the promo code “NEWS” for a $10 discount. The day will be accessible to everyone, regardless of experience. We will do several guided meditations and partner activities of 10 to 20 minutes along with leader talks and discussions.
In his book, Fear, Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, Thich Nhat Hanh writes of how one can use mindfulness practice to take the negative energy of our fear, anger or jealousy and care for it so it does not destroy us. I think it is helpful for these times as well and any challenge you may be facing.
Before you declare, “Thats easy for you to say, but the fate of the Republic is at stake”, know that Thich Nhat Hanh led a monastery and school in Vietnam in the early 1960s. The man saw the destruction of his school and the murder of many of his followers, monks and nuns. He was labelled both a communist and a capitalist by opposing sides and ultimately expelled from his own country. Thich Nhat Hanh has been honored as a great peacemaker, even being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr. If these practices worked for him, I trust they will offer something for us as well.
“When you look at a tree during a storm, you see that its branches and leaves are swaying back and forth violently in the strong wind. You have the impression that the tree will not be able to withstand the storm. You are like that when you’re gripped by a strong emotion. Like the tree, you feel vulnerable. You can break at any time. But if you direct your attention down to the trunk of the tree, you see things differently. You see that the tree is solid and deeply rooted in the ground. If you focus your attention on the trunk of the tree, you realize that because the tree is firmly rooted in the soil, it cannot be blown away.
Each of us, in a sitting or standing position, is like the tree. When the storm of your emotion is passing by, you should not stay in the thick of the storm, the level of the brain or chest. When you are overwhelmed by strong emotions. don’t stay there – it’s too dangerous. Bring your focus down to your navel – that is the trunk, the most solid part of yourself – and practice mindful breathing. Become aware of the rise and fall of your abdomen. Doing this in a stable position, such as the sitting position, you feel much better. Just breathe. Don’t think of anything. Breathe through the movement, the rise and fall, of your abdomen. Practice in this way for ten or fifteen minutes, and the strong emotions will pass through.”
One simple practice for meeting our experience comes from meditation teacher Frank Ostaseski by way of Joan Halifax. Ostaseski is a hospice care expert who founded the San Francisco Zen center and trains those who work with the dying. Frank shares the practice of “Strong Back, Soft Front”. To meet our experience, we need two things: a strong back to meet the challenge and difficulty in our lives and stay present through our experience. We also need a soft front, a gentle opening and compassion that balances the strength and wisdom of our strong back. You can find a short guided practice here which can also be downloaded via my podcast (with extensive borrowings from Ostaseski). You can also check out the original practice from Ostaseski at http://www.audiodharma.org/talks/audio_player/4055.html. You might also enjoy a wonderful talk by Jack Kornfield, Tending Yourself, Tending to the World.
As I left the meeting of educators, I saw a colleague approach a custodian who was pushing a garbage bin through a driving rainstorm. She approached him then reversed direction and walked him with her umbrella to the entrance of the building. I needed to see that.
Where there is kindness, there will be hope.
My friend Alisa writes today, “For most people, most days, what really impacts them is how they are treated by the people around them, not who is in Washington. And so it is up to them, day in and day out, to be decent and kind.” That is how I choose to proceed. And I will do it with a strong back and a soft front. I will make it through the storm.