Category Archives: Relationships

Mindfulness: Reflections on an Emerging Practice

Mindfulness

Mindfulness has emerged over the past couple of years as a major buzzword in both mental health and spirituality. Various forms of meditation have existed for centuries as a vital element in just about every form of spiritual and religious life across all cultures. Jon Kabat-Zinn was probably the first westerner to introduce us to the physical and mental health benefits of attuning our attention to the present moment, without judgment. In his words:

 Mindfulness is never about doing something perfectly, because it is not about doing or accomplishing at all. It is about allowing things to be as they are, resting in awareness, and then, taking appropriate action when called for. Silence, deep listening, and non-doing are often very appropriate responses in particularly trying moments — not a turning away at all, but an opening toward things with clarity and good will, even toward ourselves. Out of that awareness, trustworthy skillful responses and actions can arise naturally, and surprise us with their creativity and clarity.  (From this website: https://www.mindfulnesscds.com/pages/faq)

Meditation and mindfulness have taken a greater and greater place in my life as I have matured. I first encountered meditation in my studies of world religions in university in the 80’s. I embraced it at the time as a way to reduce some of the stress of my perfectionism. It didn’t hurt that many of the guided meditations I participated in were also meant to evoke pleasant visions and experiences of spiritual connectedness.

My mindfulness practice began with curiosity.

Through the years I continued to explore. I have practiced the body-centered mindfulness of yoga, the centering prayer of the ancient Christian tradition, and attempted to empty my mind according to some branches of Buddhism. I was searching for a way to feel whole, free, and deeply connected.

As a young counsellor, I found myself teaching my clients meditation as a way to lessen their anxiety or stress. When I became a parent, mindfulness showed up in my preparations for childbirth and guided meditation became a part of bedtime rituals for my young children when they had a hard time falling asleep. I wasn’t disciplined in a daily way, but it was always there in the background.

 And then, somewhere along the way, my eclectic practice dried up completely. I can’t place exactly when it happened. I just find, looking back over the tapestry of my history, that there is a hole in the weave, a place where the mindfulness thread broke.

Suffering brought mindfulness back to me.

For a number of years my family went through a period of deep disconnection – from our own selves and from each other. Our marriage broke down. We, and our children, suffered the confusion, despair, and anxiety that such a rupture can create. In our individual and family healing work, each of their stories is their own. The story that is mine to tell is that my healing came largely from observing my son as he took on a dedicated practice of compassionate mindfulness.

 I sometimes say mindfulness saved his life.

While that over-simplifies the story, on a feeling-level, for me, it is absolutely true. I watched him gradually transform from someone I no longer recognized to a more peaceful, loving, and happy person as he went from learning the basics to studying the deeper philosophy of Zen Buddhism. That process reawakened my own desire to engage in the practice again, and in the process, brought me back to my life too.

 My longing for a deeper wholeness and connection to the true Self that lies behind and beyond my habits of personality has returned more strongly than ever. I am assured that this is an entirely “age-appropriate” development! In our second half of life we look beyond the concerns that preoccupied us during our 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. Meaning eclipses success in our hierarchy of needs. And where else can we find meaning, joy, life, and connection other than in the present moment? Our past is gone and unchangeable. The future is not yet, and is far, far less controllable than we thought when we were younger.

 While I’ll probably never give up my eclectic tendency to explore the many avenues and traditions of mindfulness, I have seen first-hand how powerful a regular practice is, and this knowledge supports me in setting down roots in a morning routine of sitting meditation. Not to mention, it gives me lots to talk about with my kids!

 This winter I invite you to join me in an exploration of several mindfulness paths that intersect with the world of art. You never know, one of them might just fit you perfectly! On Saturday February 3rd I am offering Slow Threads, a workshop on meditative stitching. And on Monday, February 26th there will be an evening workshop on making and using prayer beads from several traditions: To Hold A Prayer In My Hand. See the Workshops page for information on all Open Hearth Studio group offerings. I hope also to have an online Basics of Mindfulness course up and running by the fall!

‘Tis the Season for…..Holiday Stress?

It happens every year: the decorations go up, and so does the holiday stress.

Even if the decorations aren’t in your house, even if you don’t celebrate a particular holiday, it can happen. Lots of lists show up at this time of year, suggesting ways to handle the holiday stress. And I don’t disagree with most of them; it’s just that they rely on a “do’s and don’ts” formula, with a disclaimer to “do what feels right to you.” A big problem is that, for many folks, figuring out “what feels right” is hardest during times of stress and competing demands.

 Knowing our values is one thing that can help. We generally feel happiest and most fulfilled when we are acting in line with what is most important to us.

But sometimes our own values can be in competition with one another.

As an example, I value love, kindness, beauty, and self-care, among other things. They are important to me, and I get satisfaction from making them part of my life. Some holiday options that relate to these values are getting together with people I love, doing nice things for others, having pretty lights and a decorated tree, and spending a whole lot of time in my pajamas, asleep or reading on a couch (or, to be honest, sleeping on a couch with an unread book on my face.)

 Obviously it’s going to be hard to do all these things all at the same time. It won’t be safe for me to climb a tree and put up lights in my pajamas! And lying on the couch won’t be as fulfilling an experience without the glow of a decorated tree, or without the company of my family.

 In an ordinary year, I usually find a way to fit most of these things into my life so that there is a balance. (I admit it, the balance leans more towards pajamas and couch time. I’m ok with it.)

But some years it’s been nearly impossible.

When I’ve been out of my mind with worry about a family member’s health, suddenly my patience – with other people’s needs, or with other people’s opinions about how to put up the tree – has gone way down.

 If you’re in the middle of a time of stress that comes from more than the season itself, like dealing with a death, financial worries, or a big change, I’m sure you will have noticed similar changes. The hard part is that usually our values themselves don’t change. We still want to be kind, generous, comfortable, and surrounded by beauty. We still want to make choices that reflect our value for homemade instead of bought, our care for the environment or our commitment to social justice. And we still want our holiday preparations or activities to reflect those values.

And that’s where the holiday stress multiplies, and guilt has a chance to creep in.

So what’s possible in that kind of situation? I think a bottom-line, first principle to follow is the same rule the flight attendants quote before the airplane takes off: “Put on your own oxygen mask first, before helping the person next to you.” It’s important to remember that you cannot accomplish anything for someone else if you’re exhausted. If authenticity or honesty is important to you, being clear with others about how you’re really doing will be an action in line with your values.

Here’s where “just do what feels right” isn’t as helpful as it sounds.

Because it might not feel right to look after yourself. You’ll probably feel wrong about neglecting what you see as your duties. You’ll feel bad or sad about missing out on some of what you usually really enjoy. This sounds like bad news right? Like a no-win situation. But I truly don’t see it that way. Sometimes knowing what’s right (what’s in line with our deeper values) can give us the strength and grace to tolerate the harder feelings.

If we can bring the value of compassion to this question, then I think the whole picture changes.

Softening our hearts toward ourselves, leaning into what hurts about where we’re at, softens our hearts all around. We gain perspective and grow compassion for other people’s suffering too.

If I can accept that I’m exhausted, grieving, sick, or stressed, and that I’m going to feel short-changed and sad about letting go of some of the more stressful holiday preparations in order to take care of myself, then I’m at a lower risk of throwing a tantrum while trying to make things perfect for the kids.

 If I can see, accept, and take care of my own stress, sadness, and anxiety, I can help the kids to accept theirs. We can learn together how to soothe what hurts. And it’s not just kids – the same thing goes for partners, aging parents, and anyone else we share our lives with.

 Beginning the honest conversation about what’s really going on for us can be the most valuable holiday gift of all.

 I’d love to hear what values guide you in your holiday decisions. Do you struggle with some of them conflicting with each other when you’re feeling low or under stress? You can comment below, or on my Facebook page, or drop me a line! And of course, if you need some help clarifying what’s most important to you, or managing the realities of bereavement, caregiving, or major life transitions, I’m here to help. You can contact me HERE.