Throughout this process we will be studying our mind. We will see how it controls us and learn to what extent we have control over it. Being human, most of us have very active minds. Generally, we just accept this as normal and may not even realize that much of our stress and anxiety comes from our busy minds. Have you ever paid attention to what your mind actually contains? When we sit quietly alone with ourselves we can begin to hear what’s there inside us, and the point of doing this is to clear our minds of empty chatter and hear the deep, inner truth of ourselves. But before we explore that, let’s look at what a busy mind might contain and feel like.
A busy mind might contain thoughts of what you have to do later this afternoon, tomorrow, or next week. It might be thinking about yesterday’s meeting with the boss and trying to figure out what he’s thinking or what his next move will be. Maybe it dreams about last week’s date or next month’s vacation as you pretend to pay attention to what you’re doing at the moment. Thoughts of bills waiting to be paid sit in one corner of your brain, while thoughts of where you’ll be picking up the kids, how you’re going to afford your mother’s nursing home, and when your best friend will be out of the hospital invade the other corners. A busy mind can jump from one thought to the next, spanning years, without your even noticing the shift.
A busy mind can keep you awake at night with feelings, unresolved dilemmas, worries, hopes, and fears. A busy mind can so preoccupy you that accidents happen. It might cause such anxiety that your physical health becomes weakened. A busy mind can torment you to distraction and leave you feeling helpless, hopeless, and empty. A busy mind might all at once start telling you how to do things, what not to do, when to do it, whom to or not to do it with, how you should look, what you should think about this or that, what you could have said to avoid this morning’s argument, what to cook for dinner. Your busy mind might ask those tormenting who-what-when questions ad nauseam. What will happen at tomorrow’s job interview? Will I have enough money to pay the rent? When will I see him again? This goes on until you think you might explode from the sheer weight of words floating around in your head. There are enough voices to supply a choir and then some.
You might be asking yourself “What can I possibly gain from finding my true inner voice? I have enough voices in my head, I don’t need to find another one.” While reading this, put aside such questions. Let’s practice taking them (and all judgments and criticisms) as they arise and putting them aside. When such a question comes up, write it on a slip of paper and put it away. You may want to start an envelope or a box or drawer in which to collect these slips of paper. Believe it or not, by the time you finish this book, if you are diligent about taking the suggestions here, you will see that all your questions will either be answered or will have become irrelevant. So write them down and put them away for now.
When we get right down to it and actually notice the various components and voices that contribute to our busy mind, we realize that much of it is repetitive and mundane. Our minds usually are not cluttered with creative ideas that stem from our genius. Generally, our thoughts deal with the boring specifics of our day-to-day lives or with abstract philosophical questions that we’ll never resolve. Sometimes we compartmentalize the different parts of our busy mind to avoid too much conflict and competition among them. Yet, though we try our best, they often struggle to have their way, keeping us awake at night or interfering each time we are about to make a big decision. And these parts of our mind do not cancel each other out. They rarely agree, a situation that usually just leads us to more confusion. Rarely does such a busy mind live in harmony. It can often rule our lives without us even knowing it.
If none of this applies to you, that’s great, you’re a rare individual. But most of us have extremely active minds. Some of us have a high tolerance for the noise, while others let it get the best of us, adding to our stress and making us unable to focus and think clearly. We all differ in how we deal with our mind noise. And there’s no point in trying to figure out how someone else’s mind behaves. Trying to compare ourselves with others is a frustrating and fruitless mind game. So begin by becoming aware of and accepting your own unique and wonderful mind just as it is. Resist the impulse to compare.
If your mind is a busy one and you’d like to learn how to calm it down, you can take steps to do so. The first thing you can do is simply observe your mind as it works. Start paying closer attention. What are you thinking of right now? Jot it down. Keep it simple. Next? Where did it go from there? Jot that down. Imagine that you have volume and channel selector knobs in your brain. Place them wherever you’d like. Behind your eyes. In the back of your throat. At the crown of your head. Now close your eyes and breathe. As one thought pops up, notice it and play with your dials. Turn up the volume. Change the channel and go to another thought. Now turn it down. Notice that I didn’t suggest an on/off switch. That is because your mind is permanently on. But there are control switches you can learn how to use.
So accept our mind as it is, know that you are, right now, powerless over the noise, and trust that there is a solution, that serenity and a peaceful mind are possible.
This is a short story about books, a dream and a contest.
The other morning I was jolted awake at the end of a dream. I was walking into water about calf deep, a sea of some sort in front of me stretched out to the horizon. I was fully clothed and I think I had rubber boots on. But dreams being what they are I am probably making some of this up now for the sake of this story. What I remember clearly was the slow moving, hundred foot high (at least) wave in front of me that hovered above. It was in no rush to complete its journey and neither was I. Mostly what I remember was my awe at the beauty and power of it. I just stood there waiting for it to drop and then I woke up. I wasn’t afraid.
I’m sure a dream analyst would read a lot into this dream. For me it was about the daunting nature of life, the bigness and beauty and terror of it all. And it was about the calm waiting for us at the center if only we can stand or sit still long enough to welcome it.
Buddhism and sitting meditation practice not only saved my life but focused it. Each day it helps me to find my center no matter what the wave in front of me is carrying. My life now is dedicated to helping others find their calm in the midst of their particular chaos. I am a messenger: I coach, I teach, I write books, I do whatever I’m called to do to serve others.
I have had quite a journey in the world of books: first and foremost as a reader – I will probably die with a book in my hands – next as a bookseller, then as an author.
Quite a few years ago the wave in front of me was the ocean of fiction. It is what I mostly read and I had an itch to try my hand at writing some. I chose the mystery genre, thinking that would be the easiest way in. Ha! I also had a mission to not only entertain, but to open new worlds. And the world I wanted to open was the same one I wrote about in my non-fiction work – the power of meditation.
So I wrote about some evil monks and the inner recesses of a Zen Buddhist Monastery. The mainstream publishing world, which was in a major upheaval at the same time, was not interested. The editors who read my first manuscript held to the opinion that bad things don’t happen in spiritual communities among monks and Zen Buddhists. They weren’t willing to let go of the comforting, conditioned idea that places like monasteries were peaceful, idyllic settings.
I then stepped deeper into the waters of publishing, moved ever closer to that wave in front of me and became the publisher of two mysteries. That journey is another long story and all I will say now about that is this: there is another wave coming and though I’m not sure what it is yet, it does not include self-publishing. But, hey, you never know.
Now to the juicy part of this story and where you come in.
To bring attention to my Zen mystery series I am running a contest to win a Kindle Fire HDX.
I hope you participate and help me end this self-publishing phase with a huge bang. I think this will be the wave crashing down on me and these two books. And perhaps we’ll all swim together into bestsellerdom.
With the change in weather, the darkening days and the upcoming holidays, I’m feeling a little melancholy today. The words I chose to share this month resonate for me as I dwell in this mood, and I hope something here strikes you as well. Sending good wishes and healing thoughts to all my family, friends, neighbors and strangers, near and far, as we enter this season of thanksgiving and renewal.
“Fear is the mind’s reaction against the inherent generosity of the heart.” Ram Dass
“In difficult moments, if our mind is conditioned in the direction of someone in whom we have faith, then we have more energy to overcome life’s uncertainties.” Thich Nhat Hahn
“…there is a continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences, and into which our several minds plunge as into a mother sea or reservoir.” William James
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along. W.H. Auden
How many of us know how to really listen? Do we know how to listen to our own mind as it careens out of control and races off on some tangent or other, into the past or the future? Or to others—our coworkers, loved ones, or strangers—as they attempt to communicate something to us? To the everyday sights, sounds, and sensations that surround us? Even if we think of ourselves as good listeners, and are seen that way by others, it is wise to be open to the idea that there is always more to learn, that there are deeper levels of hearing we can access.
The practice of listening can be done anywhere at any time. Opportunities to hone your listening skills are presented to you throughout each day. All that is required is to still yourself and pay attention. Once you decide to really listen, bring your whole body into the activity, not just your ears and your brain. You do this naturally anyway, but I invite you to witness yourself doing it and then expand upon this power.
The very next time you hear a pleasant sound—a child’s laughter or a church bell—stop and pay attention; breathe it into you. Listen to it with your gut, your belly, even your toes. Do it right now as you read this. Listen to the room sounds in this way. Do the same thing with an unpleasant sound—police sirens or traffic noise. First, notice your reaction and resistance to it, your impulse to will it away, and how that affects your body. Then invite the sound in (what other choice do you have?) and notice the difference. Rather than let any sound, pleasant or unpleasant, become a distraction, allow it to be part of your environment, part of your personal space. Be with the sounds, move with them, and give up the battle to control them.
Here’s an exercise that can be practiced every time you exchange words with someone else.
First, as they speak to you, notice your reaction to their words. Are you thinking about how their message affects you, how to respond to them, or what they need from you? Do you find yourself interjecting comments or gestures to signal to them that you’re listening? How much of your listening is about you rather than about them?
Second, experiment with the notion that it’s okay for you to say nothing. Then just listen and curb your desire to jump in, to assert yourself. Wait until they’ve said all they want to say before you speak. If there’s silence, as they struggle to formulate an idea or reach for some word, let the silence be okay. Don’t rush to fill it. Practice being silent and just listening.
Engage a friend in this listening exercise: Take turns speaking and listening. Choose a topic to talk about—your boss, your partner, a recent experience, or a career ambition—and then spend five minutes listening, as your friend speaks, and five minutes speaking, as your friend listens. When you listen, just listen—in stillness and in silence. In no time, you will see that when you free yourself of the obligation to respond, not only do you become a better listener, but also your friend feels heard in a new and expansive way.
I made these muffins in August when freshly picked blueberries and farm fresh zucchinis were abundant. But they are just as good any time of the year using frozen organic blueberries and whatever green zucchini you can find.
They can be whipped up in 10-15 minutes and then baked for 20-25 minutes for a healthy treat in less than an hour. And freeze whatever you don’t eat of the first batch for a handy anytime snack.
I’ve always been drawn to the simplicity, elegance and beauty of Asian ink painting. There is a calmness and serenity that seems to radiate from the delicate nature of each work of art.
Earlier this year, with absolutely no training, and just for fun, I began to play with a brush and some sumi-e ink. I painted some ensos for my NYZCCC class as my final project and got the brush-painting bug. So when my friend Toinette Lippe – whose beautiful brush paintings I’ve long admired – offered a class at a convenient time for me, I jumped at the chance.
My meditation practice has taught me that, in the words of D.T. Suzuki: “Nothing can ever really be learned until it works through the nerves and muscles.” So I know it will take me years of practice to mature in this new endeavor. I look forward to the day when my body can paint a beautiful brush stroke.
At the recent day of mindfulness on September 28, I gave a dharma talk about opening our hearts to another, to ourselves, to love… and how terrifying that can be. I thought about it for days before. Then I spent Friday and Saturday preparing for the day, searching through notes, books, and my heart to put together some words that would inspire those who would be participating in the day. I also cooked, baked, cleaned, set up the zendo and did many other chores in preparation. By the end, it felt like I’d attended a full week of sesshin.
My cushion was ready for my dharma talk even if I wasn’t.
I knew that in order to give such a talk, my heart had to open to the group. I was scared. And up until the kinhin (walking meditation period) just before the scheduled talk, I thought about asking the group if they’d like to take a nature walk rather than sit and listen to my dharma talk. But I didn’t offer that. Because as unprepared as I felt and as terrified as I was to give this talk, I knew I had to do it. If I didn’t, I knew I would be terribly disappointed in myself. And that would have been worse than falling short in the eyes of the participants. Plus, I was curious about what I might say and learn from the experience.
And now, sharing this with the world, or with whomever chooses to click and listen, is another step in the direction of opening my heart. So, I offer you these words as prayer and hope that you discover something about your own heart as you listen.
This is where it all begins—and ends. The foundation of any quiet corner is breathing. If you breathe into your quiet corner and allow your breathing to direct you in your search, it will create space and quiet for your corner. As I concentrate on breathing slowly, my focus shifts and I welcome the ensuing calm as it enfolds and comforts me.
Most of us breathe very shallowly. We only breathe into our throats and don’t allow oxygen deep into our bodies. Take a moment. Become aware of how you’re breathing in this moment. Is your breathing deep and calm? Or is it shallow and hurried? The next time you feel stressed, panicked, or otherwise pressured, again notice your breathing patterns. Your breathing will be shallower than normal. Or you may discover that you are actually holding your breath, not breathing at all. This is a common response to stress. Think for a moment about what this might mean to your well-being.
As a simple exercise, take a breath through your nostrils and send this breath into your lower chest. Continue inhaling as you first fill up your lower chest, then your middle chest, and then your upper chest. Slowly release this breath—first the upper chest, then the middle chest, and then the lower chest. Do this three times as slowly as possible. In doing this, you will discover your first quiet corner.
If you take three deep breaths a few times during each day, especially at those critically stressful moments, you’ll be on your way to reducing stress and introducing some serenity into your life. It is truly simple and immediately rewarding.