Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Lifetime of Temporary Relief

Late one night a bunch of years ago, I was up watching television when I saw an advertisement for the Craftmatic Adjustable Bed. This modern marvel of sleep technology resembles the kind of bed you find in hospital rooms. It allows you to adjust the angle of the feet, legs, and head so you can sit up in bed and read or watch television, or elevate the knees to ease the lumbar spine. "All with the push of a button!" according to the voice-over announcer.

At the end of the commercial came the slogan: "The Craftmatic Adjustable Bed. For a lifetime of temporary relief from low back pain." Now obviously the legal department over at Craftmatic must have gotten hold of the script and insisted on this wording, but the absurdity of it still makes me chuckle.

In a way, though, this silly slogan sums up the experience of vipassana meditation. The back pain is equal to the suffering we cause ourselves from getting into the uncomfortable positions of clinging and aversion. These postures gives rise to a sense of self ("I want this/I don't want that") which can cause us discomfort. The "temporary relief" is the practice we learn through vipassana of being able to release the tight fist of clinging, or to abandon the aversion, and return to the present-moment reality. 

Because the mind is tenacious, however, the thoughts that give rise to clinging and aversion will probably come back sooner or later, and we have to repeat the process all over again. And again. And again...

When you find yourself suffering because of ruminative, repetitive thoughts that are useless and upsetting, first begin by asking yourself, "Is this thing that I'm thinking of happening now?" Perhaps these thoughts come to you at night when you are lying in bed (whether Craftmatic or ordinary, it doesn't matter). This is a time when we are particularly vulnerable to negative thoughts and ideas. Obviously, the thing you are fearing in the future can't be happening in this moment, so you turn your attention toward a present-moment event, such as the feeling of the body breathing, or the feeling of your head lying on the pillow.

The mind has a built-in bias toward the present-moment experience, and will always favor the present-moment experience over a thought about an imagined future event. You can test this by trying to conjure up the taste of pickles while you're mindfully eating chocolate ice cream. The mind cannot hold these two things at one time, so it makes a choice to pay attention to the event that is actually taking place in this moment. (This would be a desirable trait in terms of human evolution. For instance, the intense concentration required for hunting would not have been possible if the mind had no mechanism to filter thoughts from present-moment reality.)

I really like these bits of empirical evidence that prove how mindfulness can actually work. It gives me a lot of confidence in my practice, and provides a real solid framework from which to teach these techniques to students and patients.

Remember, however, that the relief from the troubling thought will only be temporary. It will probably come back again, sooner or later. Therefore, do not expect miracles. These ruminative thought habits have been with you for a long time, so they are not likely to go away completely in one try. Nor are they ever likely to stay away once and for all. However, if you become diligent with this kind of practice of returning to the present-moment reality, and apply it throughout your day, it will become the new habit of mind, and your temporary relief will be guaranteed.

Or your money back.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Time Changes

The time change from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time took place this morning. I always welcome this one because it seems to give me an extra hour in the day in which to be productive. For one day, at least, I have enough time to do everything that I want or need to do on a Sunday. I can cafe sit with Kathy. There can be a leisurely walk with Sam the dog all the way to the park where we chase squirrels, run with other dogs, and watch the Tai Chi practitioners. The New York Times Sunday Edition can be savored, not just scanned. I can write a blog, cook dinner, then watch a movie with the everyone. 

Time changes also bring home to me the fact that hours, minutes, days, and years are artificial concepts developed to help us to understand change. 

When we meditate, however, we enter into the present moment where there is no time. Instead, it is always "now." Therefore, it appears that we exist in at least two realms: the world of time, and the world of no time. This may explain why a forty-five minute meditation can seem like only a few minutes, or like an eternity. When we are immersed in a timeless place, we don't have the movement of a clock or sun with which to judge the passing of the minutes.

The same experience happens when we are deeply absorbed in a task or project. Paying attention in the present moment in this way seems to hold a key to the timeless, the birthless, and the deathless. 

So enjoy your time, as we begin the final descent into the darkness of the winter season. Connect with time through connection with nature, and connect with the timeless through your meditation practice.

Here is a poem by Mary Oliver, one of six pieces that appeared in today's New York Times to mark the end of Daylight Savings Time:

Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness
Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends

into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing, as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims to have for the world
be true?
So let us go on

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.



Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Making Conscious Choices

I just got back from voting. It always makes me feel good in a mushy, patriotic-y sort of way. I was in the first wave of eighteen year-olds to be given the privilege of voting in 1972, and I'm still proud to say I voted for George McGovern. Which may explain the strong streak of cynicism that gets mixed in with my nice mushy feeling. I heard Lily Tomlin say that she was concerned about her own cynical nature: "I worry that not matter how cynical I get, it's never enough to keep up."

As I left the South Pasadena Library wearing my "I Voted" sticker proudly on my chest, I thought about the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan, and how they have to dip their finger in purple ink to show they have cast their ballot. Except, unlike the situation in those places, I am fairly confident that nobody in South Pas is going to kill me for voting.

We often take a long time of reflection and contemplation before making our choice at the polls. We carefully study the ballot propositions and the candidate's positions. Then we make sure that we punch the correct hole next to the correct number, making sure we leave no chad hanging after the debacle of 2000 (there's that cynicism again).

We tend not to bring this same level of care and attention into the choices we make in daily life, however. Most of the time, the "choice" is simply to go with the auto-reflex reaction of the mind. As Deepak Chopra wrote, "Like it or not, we are all infinite choice makers." At any point we can put everything on PAUSE and take a reflective moment before making our choice. All it takes is a momentary awareness of the situation, and then feeling a breath or two coming and going. This pause can create a bit of space between the situation and the response toward that situation. Responding mindfully, rather than reacting automatically, can make the difference between an effective choice of action, and a disaster.

Too bad we don't get little stickers every time we make skillful choices that say "I Took A Reflective Pause."