Look around you for a moment. What do you see?Continue Reading
Look around you for a moment. What do you see?Continue Reading
There has been lots of press in the last week about the recent experiment conducted on Facebook in which 700,000 people, unbeknownst to them, were assigned to groups in which they received either negative or positive posts in their newsfeed. The purpose of the experiment was to see what effect that would have on the things they themselves shared in their Facebook updates.
Not surprisingly, the study found that people who were exposed to negative news were more likely to share negative news, and those who were exposed to positive stories shared more upbeat postings.
People have understandably been outraged that the subjects for the study weren’t notified ahead of time, nor obviously had anyone given their consent. It seems it isn’t so much that we mind being guinea pigs; it’s that we mind not being asked if we’d mind being guinea pigs.
There are a few helpful lessons to be learned in all of this, although I don’t think one of them is that we are affected by the emotional content we’re subjected to. If you’ve ever been in the company of someone who chronically focuses on the negative (and who among us hasn’t), you know how difficult it is not to be affected.
I’m also not sure it serves us to come away from this incident with the simplistic lesson that Facebook is a corporate villain not to be trusted. The truth is we are being emotionally manipulated all the time, though not usually in such a scientific way. Many, if not most, media outlets, as well as many corporations and politicians engage in this behavior on a regular basis.
For me the important lessons have to do with our responsibility for what we do with our own minds.Continue Reading
Oliver has a unique gift of opening herself to Reality—the Reality so many of us spend our days asleep to—and of finding words to convey it such that its radiance can pierce our own minds.
It got me thinking about how the poet’s foremost job is to be awake to life, to notice things that most of us don’t. Only by being awake does the poet have anything to say. Only after her raw encounter with Reality does she turn her attention to the difficult work of finding the words to describe what she has witnessed, words that have the power to stir her readers into our own wakefulness.
All of this made me think of Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard, who for over 35 years has been researching the effects of mindfulness on health and happiness.
Langer takes a different approach to mindfulness than most of us are accustomed to. For her, mindfulness doesn’t require a rigorous practice of meditation or yoga. And in her opinion admonitions such as “Be present” are useless, because when we aren’t present, we aren’t present to know we aren’t present.
For Langer mindfulness is quite simple. It’s simply noticing, setting the intention to go about our day noticing things we’ve never noticed before. This practice pulls us out of the sleepwalker’s life in which our body is on automatic pilot while our mind wanders through the maze of its own fictions.
Later on yesterday I was walking home, following Langer’s advice to notice things. As I walked by a flowerbed near our house I noticed the shadow that the cap stone cast on the stuccoed wall. Its dance of light and shadow looked like an inverted mountain range.
I had walked by that flowerbed countless times. But this time, having set my intention to notice, I saw something beautiful I’d never seen before.
Langer is right. Noticing is a path to mindfulness, one that doesn’t demand we squeeze yet one more thing into our crowded schedule. After all, it takes just as long to walk home mindlessly as it does mindfully.
This simple practice can help us live more like poets—awake to the radiant Reality that is always present when we let ourselves see.
Recently I’ve started taking pottery classes, something I did about 12 years ago and loved. For the first few months I focused on hand building, but this summer I’ve been throwing pots on the wheel.
For most people, especially beginners, the most challenging thing about working on the wheel is centering the clay. You start with a lump of clay which you’ve wedged, kneading it thoroughly to get all the air bubbles out, then you throw the lump down onto the center of the wheel and start the wheel spinning fast.
But the problem is when you throw the clay onto the wheel it’s never completely in the middle of the wheel, nor is it a perfectly shaped mound, both of which are essential or you’ll end up with a lopsided mess. So before you start to shape it into anything, a bowl, a mug, a jar, you must first wet the spinning clay and press against it with the palms of your hands to center it.Continue Reading
My spouse, Kip, and I have a plot in a community garden. A few weeks ago one of our fellow gardeners asked me how we manage to keep the weeds under control. When I told Kip, his quick response was, “We weed!”
Easier said than done. Early this spring we had to dig up dozens of strawberry plants we’d planted last year, because over the winter, weeds had encroached into the patch. That’s actually putting it mildly. The weeds had invaded—and they had conquered.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to grow strawberries, but they’re a monster to weed, and I understand now why some ingenious and probably frustrated person came up with the idea of a strawberry jar. The plants propagate by sending out dozens of little runners that make using a hoe between them impossible.
After struggling to clear out the weeds by hand and getting nowhere, I realized it would be easier to dig up the whole strawberry patch, extricate the weeds, and transplant the strawberries all over again.
The experience of weeding our garden got me thinking. Which most everything does. Which brings me to my point.
My mind is a lot like a garden plot. Thoughts of all varieties can grow there, some of them fruitful and nourishing and some of them thorny and nettlesome. My job is to pay attention to what’s growing there and decide which sorts of thoughts are going to stay.
You’ve probably known people who, despite tremendous hardships in life, grow into their old age full of gratitude and generosity. You can usually tell them by the wrinkles around their eyes—they’ve made such a habit of smiling. You’ve probably also known people who have grown bitter over the years and whose chronic scowl has become etched in flesh.
Neither of those outcomes happen by accident. Sure, we’re probably genetically predisposed one way or the other, but blaming it all on genes I think is a cop out. I believe our disposition is due, to a large degree, on whether we have been good gardeners of our mind.
When it really comes down to it, I think tending the mind—choosing what sorts of thoughts we are going to allow to grow there—is the most important responsibility any of us have. The thoughts you cultivate will express themselves in every action you take. Our thoughts, quite literally, determine the shape of the world.
Sometimes people see see themselves as victims of their thoughts, and there may be instances—such as in cases of trauma or biochemical imbalances in the brain—where that’s the case. But for most of us, when our minds are overgrown with all manner of nastiness it’s just because we’ve been lazy. With attention, dedication, and practice, most any of us can cultivate the sort of mind we want to live in. After all, you’re the gardener. You have the power.
But how do we manage the mind? How do we keep the weeds from taking over? Well, that’s where spiritual practices like meditation come in. Meditation cultivates in us the ability to notice thoughts as they appear—like seeds floating by on the breeze—and then let them drift on by rather than landing in the fertile soil of our imagination.
But here’s the tricky thing. We’re all living in a community garden, so to speak. Unless you’re a hermit up on a mountainside (and if you’re reading this, you’re not) you are constantly exposed to what’s growing inside other people’s minds. Just like the solid mass of dandelions that were flourishing in the garden plot next to ours a couple years back, the unhelpful thoughts that have established themselves in someone else’s mind will launch their irksome seeds into the air and some of them are going to land in you. You may as well get used to it.
But here’s another thing. When that happens, you still get to make a choice. You can either resent them (the thoughts, the person) in which case you’re letting those seeds sprout and root inside you, or you can patiently, deliberately, and compassionately go to the garden shed, get the hoe, and start reclaiming the only mental territory you’re responsible for: your own.
I say patiently, deliberately, and compassionately because compassion really is the key. We need to be compassionate with ourselves, because we’re never going to do this perfectly—and that’s okay. And we need to be compassionate with one another because, as I try to remind myself, when someone is launching the seeds of anger, hostility, and judgmentalism it’s because that’s the plot they live in, the plot they themselves have to endure. What could be more unpleasant than that?
Just like weeding our garden, this mind-weeding work is never done. But look at it this way: life’s simple frustrations are simply giving us the chance to practice.
Here’s a case in point. I had just finished my final edits to this post and was just about to click the “Publish” button when WordPress wigged out on me. It lost the final draft. I was very unhappy. And then I got it.
It was just one more chance to practice, and in this case my hoe consisted of facing the facts of the situation and not trying to fight what was. Once I did that, I could return to my task with focus, patience, and serenity.
By the way, just this week I harvested the first of our strawberries. They’re red and juicy and sweet—and they’ve convinced me that all that weeding a few months ago was worth it.
Several summers ago, when Kip and I had just gotten home from vacation, I went into our second floor office that evening, flipped on the overhead light and startled something that fluttered outside our window. I went over to look and there, lying on the window ledge, was a bird’s nest with two small eggs.
I didn’t know what kind of birds they might be, since the adult that had been sitting on the nest had been startled away when I turned on the light, so the next morning I tiptoed into the room to find out who was roosting there. I was amazed to see a mourning dove sitting on the nest, peering in the window.Continue Reading
I find one of the great things about To Do lists is being able to check things off when they’re finished. It gives me such a sense of satisfaction to know that I’ve actually accomplished something. My To Do list, with all of its checked off items, is proof of my productivity.
But lately I’ve become aware of something: To Do lists have a shadow side. They encourage me to get things done rather than actually do them. Let me explain.
When I’m doing something just to get it done, I’m not really doing it. I’m not stepping into the moment and relating to whatever I’m doing as I’m doing it. I am not in an I-Thou relationship with the people I’m with, or the objects I’m touching.
When I’m focused on checking things off my To Do list, I’m not living my day. I’m just getting it done.
I’ve noticed something else: when I’m trying to get something done, I start feeling agitated, irritated, bored. These feelings are signals for me to wake up, bring myself back to the moment, and actually do what I am doing.
Here’s an example.
Kip and I garden, and August is a month that demands a lot when you grow your own food. It’s the time of year when you’ve got pounds and pounds of potatoes, pounds and pounds of tomatoes, pounds and pounds of carrots, and you’ve got to do something with all that abundance. You’ve got to cook it, can it, freeze it, use it, or you’ll lose it.
So one day not too long ago I pulled out the heavy bag of carrots I’d harvested, and I started to make a big pot of spiced carrot soup. I figured we’d eat some of it right away, and the rest I’d freeze for one of those winter days when I don’t want to cook.
So I began chopping and sauteing onions, peeling and chopping carrots, tossing all of it and the spices into a big pot, along with some stock, and I let it simmer for a while. When it was ready, I pulled out my hand blender and started pureeing.
And that’s when I noticed it. I wasn’t enjoying making the soup. I was just getting it done—and feeling irritated that I had to do it.
That was my wake-up call. I started doing what I was doing. I let myself drop into the timelessness of the moment, and I beheld the most amazing thing.
The blender, its blades whirring just beneath the surface, was creating a vortex of the most astounding patterns. The chunks of carrots and onion got smaller and smaller, until they had combined into a velvety, gurgling current swirling gracefully within the shiny stainless steel pot.
It was magical. I was filled with wonder at such physical marvels and overcome with gratitude for Earth’s plenty.
Can you believe I almost missed it?
I know this: when I actually do what I’m doing, when I sink into the pure experience of it, when I let myself truly relate to the moment at hand, I come alive.
I’m no longer an automaton going about her daily tasks. My “tasks” become spiritual portals—blessed opportunities to delight in life’s simple mysteries.
I enter what Buddhists call beginner’s mind, that state of awareness and engagement that is filled with the wonder of experiencing life anew in each moment.
What I’d like to do is let my To Do list become an aid, rather than a hindrance, to my spiritual practice. I’d like to use it as a tool to help me stay awake to my life by posing the question, whenever I check something off the list, did I actually do this thing? Or did I settle for just getting it done?
It might be one of the most important questions any of us can ask, because there’s a huge difference between the two. It’s the difference between missing our experiences or living them. Just between you and me, I’d rather not get to the end of my days and have the painful realization that I didn’t actually live my life. I just got it done.
“Listen to the animals and they will teach you
the birds of the air and they will tell you…”
— from The Book of Job
At five o’clock in the morning, the Robins sit on the peak of the neighbor’s house facing the east, singing their morning song. Sometimes each house has a Robin heralding the dawn. Sometimes it is only one bird for the whole cul-de-sac. At times the House Finches take the place of, or join the Robins. For the past three decades I have been out running or walking early in the morning, often before the sun rises. I had never noticed the consistency of the placement of birds on the peaks of rooftops of houses until recently. It seems that their singing facing the direction of East is particular to the spring and early summer months.Continue Reading