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The Path is the Goal: My Mindfulness Practice

Image result for redwood path free imagesResearchers from Harvard Medical School, UMass Medical School, and the Institute of Neuroimaging in Germany published a study in 2010 about mindfulness meditation—the practice we engage in daily here at Bay. Their findings were the following:

Mindfulness meditation has been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well-being that extend beyond the time the individual is formally meditating. Over the last three decades mindfulness meditation practices have been increasingly incorporated into psychotherapeutic programs to take advantage of these benefits. A large body of research has established the efficacy of these mindfulness-based interventions in reducing symptoms of a number of disorders, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and chronic pain, as well as improving well-being and quality of life. Mindfulness meditation involves the development of awareness of present-moment experience with a compassionate, nonjudgmental stance. It has been suggested that this process is associated with a perceptual shift, in which one's thoughts and feelings are recognized as events occurring in the broader field of awareness.

In the 1986 movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the title character Ferris Bueller shares his mantra of wisdom with the audience at various stages throughout the film: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

It took some time for me to get comfortable sharing with people that I had a mindfulness practice. Anyone who has known me during my time at Bay knows that mindfulness meditation was something I once scoffed at, used for thinking through my lessons for the day, or sometimes catching a few extra moments of lost sleep from the night before. But Bay is not the first place I was introduced to meditation or even the power of the human mind.

Guided Meditation in the Redwoods

When I was fourteen years old, I had my first experiences at a sleepaway camp. My parents were in the midst of a divorce, and summer camp was a place where I found my solace. I was in pain; I was sad; I was angry, and I found a home by escaping up to the Sonoma redwoods each summer. Every once in a while, we experienced what was known as “guided fantasy.” One of the counselors burned sage, and turned off the lights, and we lay on our backs with our eyes closed and imagined ourselves somewhere else. I always chose the redwood forest, because it was beautiful, smelled good, and was not my home. I would float on my little guided fantasy cloud to the soft earth of the redwoods and be at complete peace. When I woke from my guided fantasy, I was happy. Not changed, but happy to have a place to escape to in the recesses of my mind.

Communing with My Idea of God

Some years later I was in college and living in Israel. One of my roommates was a student at UC Santa Cruz, and as she was getting more deeply vested in the Jewish tradition, she introduced me to Jewish meditation—a deep, internal experience whose ultimate aim is to bring one closer to God. Through Jewish meditation, one learns how the mind is able to isolate out unwanted elements and focus instead on single objects—most notably, the letters of God’s name: a word that is unpronounceable, and only through meditation can one achieve an even more profound closeness with God. I practiced this kind of meditation on the letters of God’s name, and yes, I did find I was able to focus more intently, cut out other thoughts, and clear my mind to achieve an almost trancelike state of what some Jewish mystics refer to as a “return to Paradise.” The experience was astounding. It required much concentration and effort, and from it I learned that I can harness my mind to focus on a singular task; this skill later proved to be most effective when I was working on school work or some other job that requires sustained focus. In truth, though, I don’t feel any deeper relationship to God or any desire for that matter to participate in that kind of practice again.

Sports Visualization

Also when I was in college, I competed as a coxswain on our school’s rowing team, and one of the roles of the coxswain is to motivate her crew to pass other crews in order to win a regatta. Often times, athletes will discuss how they do “visualization” prior to their races in order to achieve the feelings and outcomes they want to have during competition. In rowing, we did this, too. We had a sports psychologist work with us in order to understand, once again, the power of the human mind, and how if we concentrated—if we could see and feel the experiences we desired—the outcomes would work in our favor. And, of course, they did. While we didn’t beat every crew who had more natural strength or natural ability, we did manage to go further and faster than we imagined we could. We learned how to turn up power and turn down pain through our own mind-based control panels. I loved it, and I often have used the techniques of visualizing before having difficult conversations, presenting to audiences, coping with physical pain, and myriad endeavors that require me to see my way to a desired end.

And yet...

In all of these kinds of meditative practices, the goal is clear: escape, concentration, desired outcomes. Each one is a means to an end.

And while all these tools are useful in different situations, all of them are temporary fixes for short-term issues: to avoid difficult situations, to get tasks done, to win.

So even though I knew how to control my mind in these more prescribed moments, what about when anger arises? What about I am in conflict with others or internally? What if I want something I can’t have and it causes me sadness or feelings of rejection? What if I get overwhelmed and feel stressed out?

The Dalai Lama refers to these states as “afflictive emotions”: anger, craving, delusion/denial. While these emotions are a natural part of the human condition, they can also engulf us—and often, they cause us more harm than good. And although I knew how to control my mind by focusing on achieving a desired state, I knew I needed a more consistent practice that focused on the process rather than the outcome.

Getting Grounded

My mindfulness path occurred by accident, actually. It began as I was taking a walk one day and discovered that when I focused on my feet as they stepped upon the ground, felt the heel-to-toe gesture from one foot to the next, I started to recognize the present moment more vividly. I had been taught for years by my school’s Buddhist chaplain to “be present,” and I knew what it meant in my head. But it wasn’t until I was out of my head and within my body that I recognized what being present was. There is the sustained concentration our minds allow us to have when we need to focus, but then there also is the wisdom already felt in our bodies that can give us more information than the thoughts alone.

Or better yet, the integration of the mind and the body—sensing and naming—can offer us wisdom that allows us to change for the better.

When I started “feeling my feet in my shoes” more—whether through taking a walk or as a way to cope with stress, I recognized how temporary everything is, from sensations to emotions to thoughts: One step of my foot…poof, gone; one thought…poof, gone; happiness…fleeting; sadness…dissipating; anger, weariness, joy, excitement…all of these emotions were more ephemeral than I imagined them, and the more I felt embodied and less attached to the permanence of anything—the more I watched what was happening without reacting—the less anything had control over my life.

The Path is the Goal

I kept up my sitting practice these past few years because I recognized I was beginning to change on a subtle and slow level, or as the medical researchers noted, I was experiencing a “perceptual shift” in which my “thoughts and feelings [were] recognized as events occurring in the broader field of awareness.” In other words, I increasingly saw myself as part of something bigger, and all my relationships—including the one to self—mattered more. Additionally, my emotions didn’t engulf me in ways they used to; I was a better listener for my friends; I was clearer in what I wanted and didn’t want in my life; I was less fearful of difficulty; I was less reactive and more responsive to what was happening to me and to others; I forgave myself and others more often. I was aware of how ordinary and imperfect and human I really am, and how through these qualities of ordinariness, imperfection, and humanity, we can understand one another better.

I still practice my walking meditation (sometimes a running meditation), and I sit in stillness for 10 minutes almost every day. During those moments there is no escaping what happens for me, no narrowness of focus (except to breathe), no desired goal. The path itself (just sitting for 10 minutes, walking a city block and feeling my feet), staying present to right now, noticing the rise and fall of an emotion, is the goal. And all I do is notice what is happening, feel it in my body, name it, and let it go. It is the easiest and hardest thing I have ever done.

I also have learned, both from my mindfulness teachers and from my own path, that one cannot be forced into a mindfulness practice—she has to want to do it. I present my story today not as one that incites you to do anything except listen and know that as I chose to be more mindful and present in my daily life, the more I find my experience is in line with what the researchers in Massachusetts and Germany—and Ferris Bueller—have concluded: the more I am aware of what is happening in the present, stopping more to take a look around, the more I am able to cope with the vicissitudes of life—in all its ugliness and beauty—and ensure I am not missing a single moment of it.



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