Mindfulness

No 11. Move Like Water

I have been a late bloomer in life in many ways; particularly in areas related to physical and emotional maturity. The day I started high school, I measured five feet tall (no inches) and weighed a startling 100 lbs. A freshman trapped in a fifth-grade body.

I could write a blog exclusively on the suffering I chose in early adulthood based on the story I created around this subject. One of the most troubling parts of that story was that I never believed I was capable of standing up for myself in high school, in a myriad of embarrassing situations. The result was a mountain of frustration and rage, stacked on top of an existing mass of standard-issue, teenage confusion. 

Solution: Learn to kick some ass. 

Income martial arts. Combine a God-given, world-class stubbornness, a double dose of late adolescent aggression, and hand-to-hand combat training. Thankfully, I never really liked being hit or hitting other people, but I was committed to becoming a force to be respected. I was going to become a man and learn to fight.

I studied two Korean disciplines, the stances, and forms of which suited my tall, lean body type. Tang Soo Do was for striking and Hapkido, for self-defense. In essence, Hapkido is a derivative of Aikido with low leg kicks, and the art of leveraging the momentum of an opponent’s energy against them. I studied for three years before I ran out of classes to take at Junior College. Underwater Basket Weaving sounded intriguing, but I knew deep down it was time to move on.

An interesting aspect of Hapkido, which loosely translates to “move like water”, was its opposite approach to what I was seeking. Softening was the last thing I imagined would devastate my aggressors. For the first time in my life, a healthy dose of eastern culture first taught me that conflict and physical altercation were to be avoided unless absolutely necessary and, that one way to navigate through a contentious or dangerous situation is to give into and accept what you are offered, even if it involves a punch or weapon with intent to hurt or kill you.

I guess the metaphor didn’t totally stick. For years, with some exceptions, I have been fighting, resisting, pushing back, pushing forward, responding to the world and acting from the fear of the small, frightened ego, instead of listening, feeling and being mindful of what the environment around me is offering.

The last three years have been full of examples of situations that could have been more fluid and involved far less suffering, had I been willing to soften instead of swimming against the tide. 

Lessons learned (hopefully not repeated): 

  • Instead of the futility of trying to change reality when my children are crying and expressing frustrated/painful emotion, welcome it, embrace them

  • When a relationship is not working or a disagreement arises, get ahead of it immediately, first seek to understand, take responsibility for your part, try to find common ground, and a win-win. If a resolution is not feasible, end the relationship or agree to disagree

  • If a business or strategy is not working, step back, consider all possibilities, even if you can’t imagine how they might work, pivot.

Of course, this is easy to say now. Hindsight is 20/20

There are times in life, particularly in entrepreneurship, that require fighting fire with fire and pure perseverance. In the moment, it is often challenging to distinguish when to pivot, and when to press onward. Most worthy endeavors and certainly creative projects that do not fit the status quo, almost always require climbing over significant hurdles. 

Here are some questions I now ask myself to help distinguish whether to push or “move like water”. 

  • Is this situation or relationship coming to me or, did I create it?

  • Is the situation working easily, is it flowing?

  • If not, is this common in this industry or type of relationship?

  • Am I centered in my meditation and spiritual practices?

  • Am I willing to and have I surrendered the outcome I have imagined?

  • What story am I telling myself about this situation or person?

  • What feedback is the world offering me at this moment?

  • What are the facts? What is the present reality?

Today I consciously choose my past and my present. I am creating possibility from the nothingness and emptiness that is before and beneath all the labels, expectations and shoulds my ego-mind confuses for “self”. I forgive myself and all those with whom I have held resentment. I am moving forward and doing my best to practice softening, listening, and surrendering to what comes. I remain a proponent of human potential and doing the best with the gifts and talents we have been given. I will keep opening my heart. I will continue to pursue challenging projects that exist at the intersection of sustainability and design. Perfection is a myth. Evolution and growth are only possible as a result of irritation and friction; thank you, thank you, thank you. 

I am grateful for the abundant blessings in my life and the learning that comes in so many unexpected forms. From the joy and reflection of being a father to the suffering of loss, it is a precious gift to experience life and connect to the love and creation inside of us.  

 

No 7. A Perfect Reflection

I have always wanted to be a father.  I am fortunate; my dad is a genuine, loving man, my mentor, my soccer coach, and biggest fan.  He has always been supportive and passed on many essential values:  honesty, integrity, charity, service to community, commitment to family, respect for others, humor; the list goes on.

Amidst all the excitement and joy of being a new father, I was shocked to realize the depth of self-awareness and the crystal clear reflection, mirrored by my twins.  Wow!  After fifteen years of deep, inward work, the dense mass and burning in my solo plexus was often charged as if I saw an ex-lover with a new beau.  Ouch! 

The first and most salient emotional response I experienced was when either (or both) of the twins would cry for longer than a couple of minutes.  After extensive writing and conversations with several conscious fathers, I realized that this anger was common.  In truth, I was experiencing fear that my own needs would go unmet.  My mind wanted to blame them when the projection of my own emotion was the cause, preventing an empathetic response. 

Additionally and contrary to the suggestions of some “professionals” (with which I vehemently disagree), I lay down with the twins every night until they fall asleep.  I found myself getting very upset during the squirmy, frustrating twenty minutes it took them to finally fall asleep.  I wanted so bad for them to instantly be quiet, close their eyes, and turn off their engines.  After dinner, bathing, drying, brushing teeth, several bouts of intense negotiation, and dressing two babies, I was exhausted.  I wanted to clean up the house and kitchen so I could relax or tackle a couple of critical work tasks, i.e., my selfish agenda. 

One of the most powerful practices I developed was meditating during this time, focusing on the feeling that was rising in my stomach, allowing and acknowledging the emotion, not the bullshit meaning my mind created to distract me from the discomfort.  After eight months of practice, the upsetting response dissipated.

We now enjoy some of the most intimate and sweet moments together during this time.  Fear has transcended into love and connection.   

Situations that incite the most poignant emotional responses:

-    Incessant crying and/or whining

-    When I have an agenda, need to get something done, and the twins demand my attention

-    The twenty minutes of squirming and delay tactics before bedtime

-    When I am agitated or experiencing F.E.A.R. (false events appearing real)

-    At night or in AM when I am tired (and fussy!)

Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly) I have come to realize I often act in similar ways.  After all, our kids are simply an expression of our own nervous systems and the physiological and emotional lineage of our ancestry.  It is humbling to imagine what they carry into the world and what a beautiful gift it is for them to teach us. 

To develop empathy and compassion during these frustrating situations, and to better understand myself, I have found the following questions to be helpful. 

 -   What situations incite the most frustration or irritation in me?

-    In what ways does this situation remind me of my behavior?

-    How would I want to be treated in this situation?

-    How can I guide and share my experience while allowing them the freedom to be themselves?

I still find myself fussy when I am tired and occasionally when the kids cry for long periods.  Writing and talking about my emotions has transformed my experience as a father.  Through consistent, personal reflection, I have been able to name my part, take responsibility for my reactions and develop a deep sense of empathy and compassion in situations that used to frustrate and overwhelm me.  I anticipate so much growth ahead, so many more layers to peel away as we pass through stages of maturity in ourselves. 

Before the twins were born, a spiritual teacher told me that they would be the perfect medicine.  I had no idea, the extent to which her prophecy would become true.  As is always the case in my limited experience, the best opportunities for personal and spiritual growth arrive when our emotions are aroused fully.  It is in this place that we are undoubtedly human, can witness our imperfect nature and grow toward God if we choose. 

My children are the most important reason for living today. They teach me how to love, unconditionally. They offer a perfect reflection to round off the edges of my character, like stones in a raging river. Being a father is not always pretty, but it is always love, and always about about self-acceptance. My children are my best teachers.

No 6. The Root of Happiness

Gratitude…... 

Gratitude gives us the power to reclaim our joy and puts everything into perspective, like looking at the stars in a dark sky.  It melts away want and self-centeredness and plants our feet firmly back on the ground. 

It's easy to remember on a beautiful, sunny day like today, as I write, sitting on the banks of Barton Creek.  The times I am most in need of this sacred practice are when I find myself, intolerant of others, afraid of a future (and unlikely) event, or lost in the past.  Gratitude brings us back to the holy now, this moment.  The moment that nourishes, engages all of our senses and, reminds us of oneness. Often, I need to be reminded.  When I'm struggling, when bombarded by negative, subconscious thoughts or when I've eaten poorly, the day (or two) before, and feeling depressed or unmotivated.  Establishing regular practices of gratitude keeps wind in our sails and allows us to tap into our most humble, authentic self. 

Practices for Gratitude:

-    Meditation and Prayer

-    Surrender – When stuck or overwhelmed, a simple acknowledgment that our control is limited and often an illusion.  We can instead, turn over the outcome to the God of our understanding. 

-    Gratitude List – at times I have done this daily, it is a powerful way to re-center

-    Be of service - a simple act of kindness

-    Embrace or engage with a child

-    Say thanks before every meal

Gratitude has the power to reset our priorities, allow healing tears, and deeply connect us to the state of joy, the root of happiness.  I feel a deep sense of gratitude for my life, this moment, the nature that surrounds me, my family, my beautiful, sweet twins, my health and the health of my family, my teachers (i.e. everyone I attract into my life), my self-awareness, my commitment to personal and spiritual development, my assets and all potential areas for growth. 

In the Lakota tradition, the word Aho implies agreement and is loosely translated, "Amen." The simple practice of gratitude offers so much.  Aho.

No 3. Meditation Changed my Life

After 15 years of serious commitment to personal and spiritual growth, I credit meditation as one of the single most transformative practices that changed my life.  Twelve years ago I was struggling with anxiety and panic disorder and following the advice of a doctor, elected to take prescription medication.  The doctor said I would likely never be able to manage life without drugs.  I got serious about meditation.  Twenty minutes a day and two years later, I stopped taking the meds and never looked back.  Fast forward to today, I maintain a daily practice and have rarely experienced similar symptoms.  What was at first a step to take responsibility for my mind and mental health has now become the source of infinite consciousness, awareness, and joy. 

Meditation has many well-documented benefits including increasing brain mass of the medial prefrontal cortex, which leads to higher concentration and attention.  Research also points to a reduction in the mass of the amygdala, part of our primal base brain responsible for fight or flight.  In essence, over time, our lower, primal stress responses are supplanted with more conscious ones, which originate from the higher functions of our brain.  In addition to stress reduction, meditation is used to treat a variety of conditions ranging from anxiety and depression, chronic pain, addiction, and tinnitus.  Some evidence suggests it can expedite recovery from cancer. 

People often tell me they want to begin meditating but don’t have the time or don’t know how to start.  View your practice as an investment, not a sacrifice.  Meditation slows down time and provides a baseline of calm and self-awareness that lasts throughout the day; the time you dedicate will pay dividends. 

Interestingly, I’ve consistently heard friends say they “aren’t good at it.”  The initial objective of meditation is not to remain in a constant state of attunement or bliss, but to train our minds by practicing returning to attunement once we realize our attachment to thought.  If we are distracted 100 times in a 10-minute meditation, that is 100 opportunities to practice returning to our center. 

There are many forms of meditation including, guided, silent and chanting.  All have many benefits although, for this post, I will concentrate on silent, mindful meditation, which includes forms such as Transcendental Meditation and Centering Prayer.  Guided meditation is an excellent way for a beginner to establish a practice, although a primary goal of meditation is to learn to let go and disengage with the mind and its incessant thoughts, which is difficult when focused on a speaking guide.  I have found the most simple form to share with beginners is Centering Prayer, which is identical to Transcendental Meditation, except it suggests a self-chosen word to return to attunement, versus a mantra provided by a guru. 

Simple Meditation Steps:

-    Sit in a comfortable position with a straight spine

-    Pick a word, two-syllables or less with a peaceful or loving meaning

-    Sit in silence with eyes closed, breath into your low belly, your attention focused between your eye-brows

-    Observe thoughts that arise, let them pass like a log floating down a river

-    When you realize you are attached to a thought, lovingly and calmly say (eventually think) the word and return to attunement

 

A few suggestions that may help your practice:

-    Move and stretch for a few minutes before you sit

-    Meditate in the AM so you may return to the peaceful state throughout the day

-    Consistency is key:  5-10 min/daily can be more rewarding than 20 min 2-3 times/week

-    If you miss a day or two, be gentle with yourself, simply recommit to your practice

-    20 min a day is recommended, a second 20 min sit can be transformative

One of the most helpful bits of advice I garnered from a meditation course taught by the late Father Thomas Keating was, “when you realize you are attached to a thought, speak the chosen word as if a feather were landing on a pillow”.  The practice of being gentle with ourselves is contrary to the response of frustration we may initially feel as we learn to accept that thoughts have limited meaning and are often based on fear, from deep in the subconscious mind.  Over time, attunement will shift from focus between eyebrows to a state of observing your thoughts and feeling connected to your whole being and nervous system, often without awareness of the body; this is the state of bliss and the beginning of a relationship with our self.  

Meditation is not a religion although I consider it a form of deep prayer.  At the very least if you are more emotionally balanced and in tune with yourself, you will be more peaceful in your relationships and community.  Regardless what your faith is, meditation puts us consistently in a state of communion with ourselves and to the part of us that recognizes our connection to the whole.  Rumi so eloquently said “Everything in the universe is inside you.  Ask all of yourself.”  

No 2. The World is my Mirror

Blessings come in many forms.  Some are obvious: new relationships, financial gains, a healthy newborn child, a moment of clarity in our personal or spiritual growth.  These are easy to accept.  In my experience, the most valuable blessings come by way of difficult challenges, temporary setbacks, friction in relationships and the awareness of my own impatient and fear-based reactions.

We attract what we are (or have been); with few exceptions. In the vast majority of cases where I have found myself upset, blaming and pointing the finger at others, I have played a part in creating and/or attracting the person or situation, directly or indirectly.  I find this especially true with my sweet twins, who are a perfect mirror of myself and my emotional state. It's not always easy to see and can be quite unsettling to admit, but I am constantly faced with situations that provide me with opportunities to deepen my self-awareness and grow, for which I am truly grateful. Sometimes our agitation is a result of a differing opinion but in my experience, the vast majority of cases are a pure reflection of self.

If we allow our reaction to steal our joy for the next hour or days, it's worth an honest look to identify the origin of those emotions. A deeper dive often reveals a degree of our own insecurity and fear.

It is so easy to focus attention on others when we are angry and afraid.  We all have an ego and for those of us committed to dissolving the false self, confronting is necessary along with acknowledgment and surrender.  The quicker I’m willing to get real and honest about my part, the more quickly I return to a state of peace.  

One of my teachers offered the following questions which I regularly ask myself when experiencing resentment, frustration, anger and other forms of fear.  

-    What is the cause?

-    What do I want?

-    How is my ego attempting to appear?

-    What am I afraid of?

-    What am I unwilling to admit?

-    Where am I at fault?  or  Where did I put myself in a position to be hurt? 

-    What can I do instead (of creating suffering)? 

Becoming genuinely honest with ourselves takes time.  It takes practice to peel enough of the ego away to see the depths of ourselves.  When we think we have it licked, situations arise that make apparent how cunning the ego can be and the layers yet removed before our authentic self reveals.  This process is frightening at first, like walking into the darkness with a flashlight.  The exploration of these questions is best practiced through writing and sharing them in communion with a companion who is both willing and capable of brutal honesty.  A good friend will often take our side in an effort not to hurt us.  We need the truth, not someone to co-sign our bullshit. 

The freedom we seek in these uncomfortable moments will only come from the clarity of our role in any given situation.  We are creating the world with every thought and action; we are responsible for the outcomes.  My children, my friends, my adversaries and all situations, especially those that incite agitation and discomfort, are my best teachers and often lead to blessings in many forms.   

Our egos have developed as our conscious minds have evolved.  They attempt to protect us or as I have found, distract us from acknowledging the depth of our emotions and knowing ourselves.  Rewards abound from breathing into discomfort and creating space to ask the difficult questions which lead to the peace and joy that we are.