One of the best ways to focus in the open workspace is by listening to a well crafted Spotify playlist. I tend to binge on classical music, but recently I’ve moved to a modern version that offers the perfect combination of synthed-up, spa-inspired, electronic beats. This playlist will soundtrack your way through any Power Point presentation. It’s the only concentration playlist that you need. Happy listening!
This past weekend, I participated in a a meditation retreat as part of my teacher training program. The focus was on fearlessness and meeting the world with an open heart. There is a concept in Buddhism that is discussed often in books and lectures of “cocoon.” My understanding of this phrase, in this context, is that it is a shell we protect ourselves with that may not necessarily bring us joy, but is familiar and feels safe. As the weekend progressed through a series of several sitting and walking meditations, many of the students began to share their experience of cocoon and how it is holding them back.
I enjoyed hearing the teachings, but during the weekend didn’t feel a deep spark of connection to them the way others had. I figured that was where I was in my practice and vice versa and continued on with the experience. At the end of day two, I was quite exhausted. I had been meditating for about twelve hours and was ready to give my mind and body rest. When I finally got around to checking my phone, I saw a voicemail from my dad. I called him back to find out that my aunt’s illness had taken a turn for the worse and she was entering hospice care this week. If I wanted to see her, sooner was best.
I had spent two and a half days in retreat, learning about breaking free of our familiar habits and patterns. Yet, in that moment, my emotions flooded in. I was caught off-guard and met the moment with a rush of tears. I had prepared myself for this day, but had not expected it to come so soon. Anyone that knows me well, knows that I am a crier. That I feel deeply. Often these tears burst out not from weakness, but from frustration and strong emotion – my body’s natural reaction to samsara or the endless cycle of suffering.
I started chastising myself, thinking things such as, “you just completed a meditation retreat, have you learned nothing?,” “this cannot keep being your way of responding,” etc. I was fully there in my cocoon, but wanting to break out. Then I remembered a phrase from one of my teachers that, “the only way out is through.” That was all I needed to understand that what I was feeling was okay. That meditation and mindfulness are not about unfeeling, but rather, about staying grounded in the groundless.
The next day, I took the afternoon off to visit my aunt. Her condition was markedly worse and it was jarring to see her at first. My family had prepared me, telling me it was unlike anything I have seen before. That I should be ready. My biggest fear was bursting into tears in front of her and causing her more pain. I wanted to be the brave warrior or bodhisattva that I have been learning so much about from the teachings.
When I walked into the hospital room, I was prepared for the worst, but I channeled my practice — taking a deep breath, looking deeply at my aunt, then taking another deep breath, looking away for a moment to gather myself, and then I was able to be the bodhisattva, the person that could understand her suffering and that of the family and friends around her and meet it with an open heart. I looked back at her, smiled, and started catching-up the way I would do with her normally.
She is not able to talk anymore, but her mind is sharp and alert and through all of her pain, she was communicating with everyone through her hands, as well as her writing. As tired as she was, her deepest wish was to have the people that she loved around her. She kept remembering her friends and family and telling us to call so and so and tell them to come visit. Watching her, in such pain and suffering, yet being strong and present for us, I recognized the bodhisattva warrior in her, who felt our pain and suffering and met it with an open heart.
At this point, all we can do for her and for each other is be there and be present. If we can loosen the cocoon of our habitual responses, step aside from our natural way of dealing with stress and strong emotion, we are able to be present in the most meaningful of ways. Looking around that room, many were holding back tears, replacing them with big smiles and laughter. I saw how lucky we all are to be surrounded by bodhisattva warriors who understand that the only way out is through.
When most people think of meditation, they think of sitting still on a cushion and Zening out. Yet, there are several ways to meditate that build on the foundational breath meditation and can be incorporated thoughout the day to bring deeper mindfulness to your everyday life.
Breath Meditation (Shamatha) – This is the practice most people think of when they hear the word “meditation.” It starts with taking a good posture. If you are seated on a cushion, your sits bone should be firmly rooted and your knees should be below your hips with your legs crossed in front of you. If you are seated on a chair, you should take a tall posture with your seat rooted and your feet planted on the floor about hips width apart. Hands should rest comfortably on the thighs and your gaze should be four to six feet in front of you or closed, if you prefer. Spine should be long with the chin slightly tucked and the muscles in your body relaxed. Once you’ve done this, start to take the focus to the breath. Don’t try to control it, but really feel each inhale and exhale. When your mind wanders to a thought, taking you away from the breath (which it will do!) gently label it “noticing” or “thinking” and then allow yourself to come back to the feeling of the breath in your body. Continue like this for 10-15 minutes.
Walking Meditation – Walking meditation is one of my favorite ways to practice mindfulness. Most of us walk for some part of the day, so this is a great “on the go” mindfulness practice. The focus during walking meditation is on the feeling of your feet or shoes connecting with the earth. Pace is not too fast and not too slow. Your hands are gently cupped and your attention is on each connection you make with the earth as you alternate between left and right foot. If you get distracted, that’s okay. The idea is not to zone out from what is happening around you (that could be dangerous if you’re outside on the street). But allow yourself to notice what has distracted you and then go back to feeling your connection with the earth. How does this feel? Explore it.
Eating Meditation – This practice is one of the harder ones for me, but I love it because every meal, snack, and sip of tea or coffee is an opportunity to practice. The idea is to focus on the process of eating. Noticing the texture of the food, the smell, the colors. Is it hot? Is it cold? Where did your food come from? Eating meditation is a contemplative practice. It allows us to be aware of the interconnectedness of the world. For example, if you’re eating an egg, begin to consider all of the people that worked to bring that egg to your plate — the farmer who raised the chickens and harvested the eggs, the distributor that brought the eggs from the farm to a grocery store, the person that prepared the eggs so you can eat them (this may be you!), and so on. When you start to think about your food in this way, it becomes apparent how truly fortunate we are for all of the wonderful foods we have access to in convenient and easy ways. I like this practice because it promotes a feeling of gratitude for others, especially people we don’t necessarily know personally.
Loving Kindness Meditation (Metta) – This may be my favorite meditation. It’s a practice that starts with the self and then beams out to others across the board — from those we cherish to those we struggle with to those who are complete strangers. The idea is to think of the person you are sending this meditation to (e.g. yourself, your best friend, your frenemy) and genuinely send them positive energy though the mantra: May you be happy, may you be well, may you be safe, may you be peaceful and at ease. The words and phrases don’t have to be exactly this, but should carry the same positive attributes. This meditation cultivates compassion for ourselves and for others. Once you do it a few times, you will start to notice how it allows us to see others in a different light – especially, people with whom we struggle. It’s a positive and wonderful way to soften our rigidity and reconnect with basic goodness. I often practice loving kindness meditation when I am walking and passing random people on the street. Feel free to incorporate it into your day as works best for you.
This is one of my favorite times of the year. It’s March Madness, which means that 64 of the best college basketball teams are vying for the bragging rights of “National Champions.” The team I’m rooting for has had an amazing season and I’m hopeful it becomes THE season on April 2nd. As a fan, I have faithfully and eagerly shown my support by cheering them on at local bars, enthusiastically greeting every free throw and three-pointer with my friends. After a recent game, I found myself contemplating Why exactly do people love team sports? Why do I love team sports? My contemplation led me to the following insights:
They help us see basic goodness in others – At the core of sports fandom is the desire to connect with others. Rallying around team sports gives people an easy avenue for establishing a human connection. In Buddhism, human connection is an intrinsic part of life and the desire to feel and connect stems from our basic goodness.
They reinforce the power of teamwork – One of the things I love most about team sports is the strategy. I find it fascinating how players instinctively know where their teammate is going to be and follow that with amazing passing sequences. I grew up playing team sports and know the level of practice and trust that needs to be build to have those seemingly effortless moments on the court. You absolutely cannot win a game with showboaters. The power of teamwork is a key part of a winning strategy and it comes across strongly in these last rounds of play. Teamwork is a great example of the interconnectedness of our existence and how acknowledging that allows us to be truly present with ourselves and each other.
They inspire – If you’ve been watching this year’s tournament, you know that a Cinderella team rose up in the unlikeliest of places. Loyola Chicago made it’s first March Madness appearance since 1985 in this year’s tournament and has gone on to reach the Final Four (the last 4 out of 64 teams). Why does everyone love Loyola’s story? Why has their merchandise skyrocketed in sales? Because people want to believe in the good of this world. That if you work hard with an open heart, you will tune into the basic goodness of our world.
The subtleties of fandom were a fun and interesting contemplation. Paying attention to and acknowledging them have brought a deeper sense of mindfulness to how I engage with my fellow fans and my team’s competitors.
Cancer. It seems to be everywhere these days. Permeating our society until one day it’s someone you love that has it. Two years ago this became one of my aunts. Like others that I care about, I was hopeful that it would be quickly sent into remission with the right combination of surgery, chemo, and radiation. As a family that promotes thinking positively, we all treated it like a hurdle to cross before getting back to good. Yet, two months ago my aunt’s health began to rapidly decline. Her most recent round of radiation has taken a toll and every time we think she’s better the other shoe seems to drop.
Sharon Salzberg, a world famous mindfulness instructor, often says that human beings tend to hold on to what feels good and push away what doesn’t. When someone we love is suffering, we want to push it away and bring back the happier times. Where does that leave us?
What I’ve learned in these two years and through my mindfulness practice is that it leaves us exactly where it should — in the now. We can’t change the past — my aunt has cancer. We can’t predict the future. What we can do is be present for her and for each other now. We can acknowledge the suffering without being consumed by it. In so doing, we can create space for cultivating more love when we each need it most.
Visiting my aunt in the hospital today, this became clearer to me than ever. Her body was swollen and she was unable to talk, but her spirit was alive and well. She even suggested Facetiming my sister. We enjoyed joking around and sharing family stories.
The days are touch and go. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We continue to be hopeful. What keeps us going is staying in the moment, appreciating the time we have together, and sharing it to the fullest with the people we love.
About this time last year, I discovered what I consider to be one of Netflix’s most wonderful hidden gems, Love, starring Gillian Jacobs and Paul Rust. The show follows Jacobs as the lovable screw-up, Mickey Dobbs, a radio show producer struggling with adulting and sobriety; and Rust’s nerdy, but relatively stable, Gus Cruikshank, an aspiring writer paying his bills by tutoring tweens on the set of Wichita. These two delightful degenerates explore what it means to find love in a hopeless place as they smoke and drink their way through an unforgiving Los Angeles. They are joined by a solid cast of characters that supplement the main storyline with one liners that will leave you wanting more. Notable sideshows include Claudia O’Doherty as Mickey’s pushover roommate, Bertie Bauer, and Iris Apatow as the spoiled child star with a twinge of golden heart, Arya Hopkins. If you’re looking for a new binge-worthy show, look no further. Love spans three seasons, with the latest having launched March 9th. The only downside: it’s the final season. Too soon for a reboot?!
There has been a surge of interest in mindfulness lately. Yet many people who want to develop a practice feel overwhelmed and uncertain of how exactly to start. Mindfulness is a skill that is honed through meditation. Like any other skill it is best developed through consistent practice. Below are five tips to kickstart your zen.
- Consistency over length – Any meditation teacher you meet will tell you that the key to meditation practice is to be consistent. I recommend committing to sitting at least three times per week and building up to daily. Most people are surprised to hear that a mere 5-10 minutes practiced consistently can have lasting impact off the cushion. The good news is you don’t have to meditate for hours on end, but you do need to be consistent to start feeling the impact of your efforts.
- Create dedicated space – I find it helpful to use the same space in my home for my daily practice. For me this is a dedicated cushion that faces a window. Some people find decorating their space with candles, incense, or photos of people or things that inspire them to be helpful. You can sit on the floor with a meditation cushion or choose to sit on a chair or bench if more comfortable. Over time, having this space will help you form the habit of meditation.
- Remember, you can always begin again – Even now, but especially when I first started meditating, I would chastise myself if I missed a day or if I didn’t have time to sit for as long as I wanted or if I constantly found myself distracted from the breath. When this happens remember, “You can always begin again, it’s just one breath.” This is one of my favorite quotes from Sharon Salzberg, a world-renowned mindfulness teacher. Ever since I heard this quote, I repeat it to myself every time I sense the self-aggression creeping up. It keeps me focused on what matters and I hope it will help you too.
- Get a guide – Starting a practice can be intimidating. Guided meditations are a great set of training wheels to help you on your way. Do a quick Google search to find a meditation center in your area to attend a drop in Sangha, or community sitting. There are also a plethora of mindfulness apps available on iTunes. Two that I really love are iSleep Easy and Take a Break. Many people I know also find Headspace useful. Whatever your preference, whether live or digital, a guided meditation is a helpful way to focus and can jumpstart your confidence when it comes to practicing mindfulness.
- Recognize that mindfulness happens on and off the cushion – In NYC, a city of eight million people and likely the same number of off-putting noises and distractions, I often notice people plugged out wherever I turn. For me, I used to constantly listen to music on my headphones the minute I stepped outside for a walk or a subway ride. One of the biggest changes to my daily life since I began meditating is that I started taking my headphones off and eventually stopped wearing them altogether when walking / commuting. I noticed I was more engaged with my environment and actively seeking out the noises and curious people all around. Through meditation you will realize that every moment is an opportunity to be present and mindful.
As you go on your way, remember that mindfulness is a journey and meditation paves the way. When you first start, you may be asking yourself “Is this is it? Am I meditating?” When you find yourself asking these questions, keep focusing on the breath. Overtime, you won’t have to ask them anymore because the results of meditation will reveal themselves to you the more you engage your mind. Happy meditating!
I spent the past ten days traveling within Europe. I jam packed my itinerary so that I could fit in all the museums I wanted to see and also take a full day trip to the medieval city of Bruges, known for chocolate and lace. Aggressive planning aside, whenever I take a trip like this where I explore a new city, I find myself returning home with renewed energy for hobbies, life goals, and the present moment. This time around, I found myself pondering why exactly that is.
I live in New York City, a mecca of culture, art, music, and restaurants available all day, everyday. I regularly take advantage of these things, but on my most recent European adventure, I started asking myself – why when I am in a foreign country do I have joie de vivre to go to that one extra museum and see that one last exhibit? And why do I not extend that same energy to all that I do in my daily life?
The answer is simple. Because when I am on vacation I am fully aware of and engaged in the present moment. I know I only have a set number of days to experience all the great things about these cities. Sure, I could come back, but with a bucket list burgeoning with cities across the world, I always wonder, when exactly that will be. So I recognize that I have the time and the spirit now and I go for it.
On this past trip, I spent about four days in Amsterdam. The weather was frigid. Much colder than it normally is this time of year and winds gusting up to 40 mph. In New York when it’s that cold out, I take solace in the hygge-inducing warmth of my apartment with its comfortable sofa and binge-worthy Netflix. But in Amsterdam, I had an overflowing list of museums to see (including one with a Banksy exhibit), food to try (have you ever had a Dutch savory pancake? Delicious!), photographs to take (the frozen canals are an experience unto themselves), and of course things to buy (I was not going to let the trip pass without a visit to the artsy Nine Streets area).
I made it to every museum and art exhibit on my list (with a couple of extra to boot), had a relaxing massage, explored many of the main shopping districts, and sampled some of Amsterdam’s gastronomic hot spots. Every day I made it a point to prioritize sleep. I ensured I had time at the end of each day to unwind, watch a movie, and reflect on the day, making sure to get in at least eight hours of sleep. The next morning, I fueled the day with a solid breakfast and set out on my way. I turned off my cell phone and only used it for taking pictures and when I needed Google Maps! I fully engaged in every painting I saw, canal bridge I photographed, and meal I ate. I left Amsterdam a bit tired, but completely renewed from my experiences. I plan to extend my tourist mindset more regularly to my daily life. Approaching every day as an opportunity and not as an excuse to put off the things that excite and matter most to me.
There is a common misconception for those new to meditating that mindfulness can only be achieved by sitting on a cushion, closed-eyed, and focusing intently on the breath. If you read last week’s post, you have probably started to understand that the ability to bring mindfulness to what we do is cultivated on the cushion, but the opportunities to practice it and therefore fully engage with our world and our lives, are boundless. Travel is a good reminder of how we can disconnect from the noise of the world and reconnect with what truly moves us.
Oftentimes when we use words such as mindfulness and meditation, we tend to conjure the image of a stoic person with the sun gently warming their face as they sit on a cushion and channel the Buddha. In reality, everyday tasks and situations are an opportunity to practice mindfulness and discover within ourselves a true sense of peace by embracing the present moment. With that, I will share a story of my own experience of active mindfulness.
Stress tends to creeps up on you and then one day out of the blue you find yourself burning out. This happened to me for the first time several years ago. I was working in a job I loved, but that required me to make myself available at all hours, including during vacations and holidays. I felt the constant need to be checking and responding to work emails. Overtime, I found myself frequently anxious, fueled by the pursuit of perfectionism and the desire to please. I found it virtually impossible to disconnect, much less relax. Every scroll of my iPhone would send my muscles into spasm. I developed neck and shoulder pain for which I had to go to physical therapy. I began to feel the negative effects of my stress, but still didn’t quite know how to get myself back to a healthy state. I was working long hours and the first thing to go was my fitness routine.
Then serendipity stepped in. A friend of mine organized a ski weekend in Vermont. It would be four days away from the constant buzz of my inbox. I was in. I had skied only once before at the age of about five, so essentially it would all be new to me. I embraced this adventure. Setting out on the bunny slopes of Vermont, I found the speed exhilarating and quickly picked up the basics of meandering down the mountain with control. My more seasoned skier friends suggested we try out a green (for non skiers that is the beginner slope).
We queued up for the lift. I nervously asked several times about the run. My friends reassured me it would be like the bunny slope, just longer. When we arrived at the top of the mountain, there was a slight awkwardness as they realized they had brought me to the top of a blue (the medium difficulty slopes, which in Vermont are really the equivalent of black diamonds or the hard slopes in other parts of the world due to their icy conditions). I had two choices. I could have ski patrol ski me down the mountain or I could let my friends guide me and make a go at it. I chose the latter.
With the steady and patient guidance of my friends, I made it safely down (of course with several falls and popped skis along the way). I was a bit shaken when we reached the bottom, but equally proud of myself for facing my fears and completely embracing the challenge.
After lunch, when the broader group of us had gotten back together to share stories and refuel, we decided we would all do a post-meal run together down a green. I was still a bit jittery from my first run, but figured a green may be a walk in the park after tackling a blue. My initial caution turned to confidence as I easily made it down the first part of the slope. There were slick patches of ice throughout, but I embraced the speed and took in the mountainside and the fresh air, enjoying every minute of it.
At the bottom of the mountain, I felt a wonderful mix of accomplishment and relief. I had been open to a new sport, faced my fears related to it, and enjoyed every bit of the good type of adrenal flow it offered. I didn’t once check my email or think about work. I felt an amazing sense of relaxation even thoug my body was fatigued from the long day of squatting and maneuvering down the mountain.
When we got back to the cabin, I had time to reflect on the day. What struck me most about it was how much I had been able to focus on the task at hand – learning to ski, appreciating the beautiful sunny day, spending quality time with my friends, taking in the gorgeous surrounding views.
At the heart of it, I had found myself able to fully engage in something without the distraction of work. I had found the ability within myself to cultivate mindfulness. Though this trip took place over five years ago, I still to this day remember how the experience made me feel.
Fast forward to today and stress is once again causing that creeping anxiousness that I had all those years ago. Though I haven’t been skiing this season, I’ve used mindfulness as my channel for getting back in touch with myself. I have found that simple things that I tend to do mechanically and without much active thought, such as walking, can truly change my perspective if done with intention.
When I take the time to fully engage in noticing the birds chirping, children laughing, dogs playing, the sun shining or even the rain and wind on my face, I am engaging more actively in my life and simultaneously creating space and relief from the pressures of the busy world. There are no quick fixes involved, but rather incremental moments that get me closer to that wonderful space of equanimity.
In the past five years, meditation has become an important part of my life. My interest in meditation developed through my yoga practice. The last pose in yoga is shavasana, essentially a 5-10 minute meditative pose where you lie on your back with your arms and legs stretched out comfortably and shut your eyes. For a long time this pose was challenging. I always had an itch or a twitch and found it hard to keep still, much less center my thoughts. Over time, and through the guidance of my yoga teacher, I started draping a towel over my eyes, which helped me stop fidgeting. Slowly, I began to notice changes — I didn’t always have to act on my impulses to scratch or move. I began focusing on the breath, much like other yoga poses, and breathe through challenges to get to poise.
Browsing a Barnes & Noble in late fall 2013, I picked up a book by Lodro Rinzler, entitled, The Buddha Walks into a Bar: A Guide to Life for a New Generation. It was a modern-day secularized take on mindfulness and seemed to be a good entry point into meditation. Previously, my hesitation with further exploring meditation had been its rooting in religion and dharma. Through reading Lodro’s book, I started to view Buddhism more as a way of life and a practical set of teaches versus ritualized dogma.
From there, I began listening to regular meditation podcasts and reading books by zen masters such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron. I simultaneously started attending a weekly meditation class that followed my yoga class. After doing that for awhile, I decided to start a daily meditation practice — starting with just five minutes per day. I gradually built up to twenty minutes, but ultimately found my sweet spot at ten. I also began journaling my experience — thoughts that distracted me, how I felt, etc.
After immersing myself in meditation for close to five years, I have recently taken the step to apply and get accepted to a nine-month mindfulness teacher training program. Through this program I will have the opportunity to learn from some today’s foremost mindfulness teachers.
I have decided to chronicle my journey on Holiday for Hanging in a series entitled, Meditated. Each week I will post a new article on the topic of mindfulness. I hope you will find it helpful and inspiring and contribute to your own journey with self awareness and connecting more wholly with the world.