Posted on Leave a comment

Simple (not easy) Practice: Looking at Pain

Today’s Simple (not easy) Practice is about pain.

“The most hopeful result of analysis finds the patient suffering more of his pain than he was able to manage before. More of his pain is held in conscious awareness instead of being discharged into behavior that jumbles up his life, injuring his relationships or his work. A successful therapeutic venture leaves the patient’s outer life improved, perhaps dramatically. Ideally, the patient will find more satisfaction and pleasure than before. But instead of being tormented by meaningless pain, he will suffer pain constructively. Pain is always part of life, and the wounds that have molded the person into exactly this or that shape will continue to channel his responses to pain in his unique ways.”
— Barbara Sullivan

Look at your pain and try to be curious about it. You don’t have to DO anything about the pain. The practice is merely to look carefully and for some time. Perhaps you look at your pain at short bits of time, some number of times, throughout the day. Maybe you can only manage a few seconds; maybe longer. It doesn’t matter because you are building distress tolerance no matter where you start. Just try.

Your pain could be something as simple as a nagging bruise on your shin from banging into a chair in your room; it could be a difficult diagnosis you just received; it could be an unsolved puzzle that’s causing you stress; it could be your annoying sister who bitches and whines to you incessantly about her weight problem but you’ve got your own; it could be the bitterly cold or excessively hot (rainy, snowy whatever you don’t want nor like) weather; it could be the tweak to your lower back from your workout yesterday. Whatever causes you some sort of distress qualifies as pain. You pick. It really doesn’t matter what you choose because all you need to do once you choose is the following:

  1. Describe how this pain makes you feel.
  2. Reflect on how you define and describe this “pain” to yourself. Why and how does it qualify as “pain?” (nobody else’s opinion of what qualifies as pain matters, only your own)
  3. Notice your relationship to this “pain.” How do you relate to this particular pain? Notice, do you want to push it away? Do you resent having this pain in your life? Does it cause anxiety? Does it make you happy? Do you find it useful or necessary? Are you excessively or obsessively thinking about it or hyper-focused on it throughout the day? (Be honest and don’t judge your behavior negatively, as this exercise is only to gather information to learn)
  4. List ways this pain can possibly benefit you.  List as many possibilities as you are able (honestly).
  5. After you complete the above, notice, has your attention to pain changed the way you see your pain and how you feel about it?

Pain is powerful and it can easily be a drama we get swept away with or something we react to mindlessly and habitually, but in this practice, you have looked at your pain, paying more careful attention to it, and perhaps learned a bit more about it.

You have been with your pain more consciously and intentionally than usual, perhaps now also seeing it more objectively while “at a distance” from it. (Visualize holding up a glass of water to the light, seeing it swirl and settle.)

Perhaps you see that you have feelings and thoughts about your pain, and those thoughts and feelings make the pain more or less painful or more or less persistent?

Try to repeat this practice whenever you get a chance (God knows there will always be pain to work with in life!), continually observing yourself and the ways you interact with and relate to the pain that happens in your life (whether it comes from your inner landscape or from the world outside you).

Hold your pain up to the light for observation!

Practicing this often will help you become more and more familiar with pain, and over time, perhaps you will begin to see pain as your greatest teacher, as something to be welcomed rather than pushed away, something to be with as a part of you rather than something to reject, run from, or resist.

You might like the following story about how pain can be a gift and a great teacher: https://tinybuddha.com/blog/my-pain-was-a-gift-and-a-catalyst-for-growth/

*Quote excerpted from Bakis, M. (2019). Classic Wisdom for the Modern Human: A Self Study Guide for Wellness. Amazon (paperback and Kindle)

Posted on Leave a comment

Same Song, Slightly Different Lyrics

I loved this conversation between Rich Roll and Dr. Jud Brewer on the Rich Roll Podcast. My book, Classic Wisdom for the Modern Human: A Self-Study Guide for Wellness (2019, Amazon) overlaps with so many of the concepts and ideas Dr. Brewer talks about. I feel like my own life experience (especially in practicing mindfulness intrinsic to Bikram Yoga) is evidence for what Dr. Jud has been studying for a very long time. We are singing the same song with slightly different lyrics!

 

Posted on Leave a comment

Podcast: The Value of Silent Meditation with Allen Gaskell

ITunes Podcast: 006: The Value of Silent Meditation with Allen Gaskell

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”

— Blaise Pascal

One of my goals with the Landscapes for Learning project is to draw more attention to the need for an explicitly taught wisdom curriculum for high schoolers as a counter balance to all the demands of the external landscape put upon kids today.

To become wise is to know oneself– one’s essential or fundamental self which is always in a state of becoming and might be creatively developed throughout life. This essential self is foundational to the more social self—roles we play in the practical world, the expectations of others we try to meet. If we can help kids live from the inside out early on in their young lives, they may just be able to stay true to themselves– to their authentic selves so that they always have shelter, a home, to which they can return when life on the external landscapes get challenging.

One way to travel one’s inner landscape is through meditation. Meditation and mindfulness practice has become trendy recently, and it is useful as a relaxation tool, but it’s also an avenue to something deeper– to enter into the world of the essential self.

Allen Gaskell has been practicing meditation regularly for many decades, as well as practicing yoga, forest-bathing (which he didn’t know had that name until recently!), white-water rafting, and other outdoor immersion activities. He is a former Mental Health Counselor who worked in prisons, within the court system, and created a counseling center at Salem State University. He also worked for many years with Veterans with PTSD. A Vietnam Veteran (3 Tours of duty in reconnaissance and wounded in action), Allen enthusiastically enlisted in the military after high school in N.Y. and later attended college to study comparative religion at the University of Vermont. Shortly after, he stumbled across a book about Vipassana and the rest is meditation and mindfulness history.

He recently completed a 90-day silent retreat this past fall, so I was curious about what that experience was like and thought others might be interested as well. He talks with me about the value of meditation in his life, especially today in a very noisy and busy external landscape.

We talk about the workings of our minds when we observe it through meditation or yoga practice, thoughts about why, how, and who ought to be teaching about the inner landscapes, how to “sell” suffering to others or invite them into self-reflection and self-awareness, and how to learn more about our own humanity to recover it from a life in a technological-consumerist culture.

I loved our almost entirely unedited two-hour conversation! Enjoy.

Click Here for ITunes Podcast: 006: The Value of Silent Meditation with Allen Gaskell

Posted on Leave a comment

Teaching & Learning About the Places That Scare You

The following quotes are taken from The Places That Scare Us by Pema Chodron where she describes the exploration of the inner landscape that I believe is sorely needed as part of kids’ education more than ever before:

“We’re encouraged to meditate every day, even for a short time, in order to cultivate this steadfastness with ourselves… As we continue to sit we see that meditation isn’t about getting it right or attaining some ideal state. It’s about being able to stay present with ourselves. It becomes increasingly clear that we won’t be free of self-destructive patterns unless we develop a compassionate understanding of what they are.”

How can young people learn to nurture and guide their own lives, to take responsibility and learn to be honest, if they don’t spend any of their time or attention getting to know who they are—or to their interior world, which includes both their bodies and their minds and the union between the two? Are they too over-scheduled? Are they too distracted with social everything– media, their friends, socializing, bullying, copying, and comparing– to travel their inner landscape?

“One aspect of steadfastness is simply being in your body. Because meditation emphasizes working with your mind, it’s easy to forget that you even have a body. When you sit down it’s important to relax into your body and to get in touch with what is going on. Starting with the top of your head, you can spend a few minutes bringing awareness to every part of your body. When you come to places that are hurting or tense you can breathe in and out three or four times, keeping your awareness on that area. When you get to the soles of your feet you can stop, or if you feel like it, you can repeat this body sweep by going from bottom to top. Then at any time during your meditation period, you can quickly tune back in to the overall sense of being in your body. For a moment you can bring your awareness directly back to being right here. You are sitting. There are sounds, smells, sights, aches; you are breathing in and out. You can reconnect with your body like this when it occurs to you—maybe once or twice during a sitting session. Then return to the technique.”

Kids who sit in hard chairs all day get bored, restless, and fat and inflexible. Very little attention is paid to their bodies, as schooling is about the development of thinking and acquiring information; it’s a busy day of processing data and internalizing it long enough to show that you “know” it on some sort of assessment. The body merely carries you around from class to class.

“In meditation we discover our inherent restlessness. Sometimes we get up and leave. Sometimes we sit there but our bodies wiggle and squirm and our minds go far away. This can be so uncomfortable that we feel it’s impossible to stay. Yet this feeling can teach us not just about ourselves but also about what it is to be human. All of us derive security and comfort from the imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. It goes against the grain to stay present. These are the times when only gentleness and a sense of humor can give us the strength to settle down.”

The mindfulness movement and meditation being incorporated into schools is great– I hope it helps; I bet it already has; however, when meditating becomes another activity in service of schooling, that is– achievement, performance, and grading then it’s inauthentic and counter-productive. I hope schools don’t co-opt a very helpful opportunity for kids to explore the inner landscape in order to get them to settle down, behave, and perform as a high achiever — to meet the expectations set for them by some well-meaning or some ignorant adults.

It’s important that adults not steal such uncomfortable experiences away from kids as they grow and mature into adulthood, but instead introduce and mentor them with this more interior form of education. We could educate teens about the important life-long processes of cultivating a steadfastness with oneself, understanding our self-destructive patterns (thought-patterns, emotional body responses and reactions to stress etc), developing compassionate understanding of oneself, learning about oneself in order to understand what it means to be human and therefore be better and more equipped and insightful about other people.

Rather than controlling the external environment to prevent trial and error learning, rather than relying on safe spaces where scared victims remain for protection and see the world through fearful eyes, students need to practice facing inward- toward themselves and all of their catastrophe– as a more authentic curriculum, as a more authentic and foundational learning experience for life not merely for succeeding at school.

 

Posted on Leave a comment

Dear Efficient Utilitarian Student,

Dear Efficient Utilitarian Student,

It’s not your fault that you were raised with the great American values of utility and efficiency. These values are enacted and followed by virtually everyone around you– your parents, your school, your government; they’ve been enacted throughout most of American history, especially in the Industrial Revolution, in the world of corporations, and throughout most of modern and contemporary society. And, the invention of the internet along with new information technologies has exponentially accelerated and reinforced these values (and created so much distraction that you have no ability to sit quietly long enough to reflect honestly about values).

It’s not your fault that you have been influenced by these external forces. You never really had a choice. These values, on the surface, are fairly important, but, unfortunately, when these two values become an approach to learning, their effect is devastating. If utility and efficiency are intrinsic to how and why you learn, there’s probably not a whole lot of room for mindfulness or appreciation.

If your goals are expediency and efficiency when it comes to learning something new, whether a concept or a skill, you’ll miss the pleasure of authentic learning, the appreciation of the subtleties of that concept, idea, or skill. If it’s all a hurried process of finding what you can use, you may miss developing an appreciation for language, numbers, angles, the concept of infinity, the way your body works, or F.Scott Fitzgerald’s writing style. Again, not your fault, as we “educators” have invested in this thing called “time on learning.”

What about slowing down to savor all of your learning experiences, even the painful and boring, for no other reason than to remain open to learning itself and to learn for the sake of learning? What about lingering over a piece of art, wrestling with a difficult mathematical concept or skill? You don’t have to “do” anything with these learning experiences except experience them, and they will benefit you regardless of your desire to utilize them in your own pre-planned way. Please, slow down, and just enjoy learning, without expected payback or any added value beyond mere appreciation and present moment awareness. This approach may affect you in unanticipated and sometimes unwanted ways, but it will lead to the best sort of growth.

growth

Think about meeting a new student in your school, a stranger. If that person doesn’t fulfill a social or other goal for you, will you tend to, because of efficiency and utility, ignore that person? If you do actually meet this person and efficiency and utility are at the forefront of your mindset, are you narrowly fixed on only the aspects of this person that will potentially benefit you? Are you contemplating how this person can potentially help you in achieving your individual goals?

Can you consider the possibility of slowly and mindfully taking in everything about this person, thinking about him as a fellow human being who suffers and loves and hopes and wonders and experiences loss and smiles and cries and puts on his socks and shoes everyday, just like you? Can you take the time to focus— to appreciate the details of her face, her eyes and the contours of her cheeks and jaw line? Are you interested in this person as a person, or are you only focused on how useful she may be to you; what he may be utilized for? And, are you dismissing this person too quickly  (using stereotypes) because you can’t waste your time getting to know them beyond a surface introduction? Or are you deeply engaged and intrigued as if your were looking at exquisite art?

student-thinking

Are you, Efficient Utilitarian Student, while in your classes, thinking to yourself:

“Hurry up and get to the point.”

“How can I use this information, this experience, concept, idea, skill to get an A ?”

“Is this going to be on the test?”

“I wish the teacher would just hurry up and tell us what we need to know for the test and forget all the other extra or irrelevant stuff.”

“I hate working in groups with other people because it negatively affects my grade.”

Efficient Utilitarian Student, you are missing so much beauty and joy in your life! You are missing out on how deliciously long a moment can feel and the way life can unfold before you within each and every one of these precious moments! And for this, I apologize. We have steered you wrong for too long. But, it’s not too late!

mountain-flowers2

Now that you are more aware, you might try to approach your learning the way you might walk along the beach and enjoy a sunset, or the way you might climb a mountain and survey those tiny flowers that make you question how they could stay alive so far up amongst nothing but rock, or how you might fish on an enormous lake where the water looks like glass and everything around you is still and quiet.  Live out that sense of wonder, curiosity, openness to experience, where likely the last thing you are focused on is expediency or how any of these experiences, these moments, may be utilized.

If you took the time to read this letter, I hope you found something useful in it.

Sincerely & Apologetically,

Your Teacher