Be My Mindful Valentine

Be My Mindful Valentine

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Love is like a friendship caught on fire. In the beginning a flame, very pretty, often hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. As love grows older, our hearts mature and our love becomes as coals, deep-burning and unquenchable.” – Bruce Lee

 

Valentine’s Day was invented for the greeting card and florist industries but it caught on because there are few things more worth celebrating than love. Valentine’s Day is usually considered a celebration of romantic love, but I prefer it to be a celebration of love in all of its magnificent manifestations. Mindfulness is an important part as there is nothing more beautiful than mindful love. It’s pure, non-judgmental, and non-contingent love. It’s a completely unfettered outpouring of the heart.

 

Mindful love is not necessarily expressed with romantic greeting cards, roses, and chocolates. There is nothing wrong with these concrete expressions of love except when they are used as a substitute for the real thing. Too often we go through the motions of buying symbols of love and believing that these are all we need to express our feelings. True expressions of love are not concrete and tangible. They are deep connections and feelings that flow direct from the source and, if the truth be known, are the source. Let this love flow first and if it leads to giving tangible symbols, wonderful. Let it flow in any and every way it wishes to express itself.

 

The great sage Thích Nhất Hạnh said that “When you love someone, the best thing you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there?” This sounds so simple, but it is not. What he means by “presence” is much more than being in physical proximity to another. It means to be really there for them, mindfully and totally, with the mind dedicated to them and not off thinking of something else. Rather the mind is totally focused and attentive to the other person. You are deeply listening to their words. You are deeply sensing their non-verbal messages. You are totally committed to them in the present moment. So, on Valentine’s Day offer the people you love your mindful presence. There is no greater way to express your love.

 

Mindful love is non-judgmental. It is accepting the other person for exactly who and what they are. It is appreciating their humanness with all its flaws, physical, psychological, and social. It is encouraging their aspirations and supporting them in their pursuit of them. It is filled with loving kindness and compassion. Thích Nhất Hạnh teaches “You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.” In other words, there’s no clinging or holding on. If there is, then the love is not mindful love, it is needy love.

 

Before mindful love can be given to others it must first be given to the self. Each of us has to truly love ourselves before we can freely and completely offer mindful love to another. For many westerners this can be a real challenge as many do not even like themselves. This is frequently due to westerners having unrealistic models, and beliefs and expectations about themselves. It is imperative to overcome this as this lack of self-love is the foundation of needy, demanding, self-centered love. Learn to fully accept your humanness and to understand that what you see as imperfections are nothing more than expressions of your humanity. Begin to accept that you are extraordinary, beautiful, capable, and special; a one of a kind, never to be seen again, exemplar of what it means to be a living, imperfect, human being. Recognize that you are worthy not only of your own love but the love of others. Realize that you are just as capable and competent and simultaneously just as inadequate and ineffectual as everyone else. Learn to love yourself and then you can truly love others.

 

It is nearly impossible to divorce romantic love from sexuality. From an evolutionary perspective the feelings between members of the opposite sex are driven by the needs to reproduce, making sexuality an integral part of romantic love. Unfortunately, many people separate love and sex, but this is often due to religious morality or societal dictates. There is no need to separate the two, in fact, they both are best when they work together. When mindful love is accompanied with mindful sex, each reinforces the other, producing an upward spiral of positive feelings. Recent research discovered that people are the most mindful at any time in their lives when they are engaged in sex. So, the phrase “mindful sex” may actually be redundant. But, when combined with mindful love, sexuality is a shared giving experience. Each partner is not simply engaged to satisfy their own needs, but to give, be present, and be sensitive to the other, to be non-judgmental and accepting of the other, to share one of life’s extraordinary experiences, and to truly come to understand why the word intercourse is used to label it. With mindfulness sex becomes an expression of deep and satisfying shared love.

 

Mindful love includes but expands far, far, beyond romantic love. When practiced it extends to everyone around the individual, including family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances, and even enemies. As you practice mindful love it will slowly begin to become evident that deep in the core of your being is nothing but love. The more aware you become of this the more that love gushes and envelops you and everyone around you. It even extends to all of existence. Unless you are exceptionally blessed it will take a while to get to this level. But, it doesn’t have to be sought as it is a natural outgrowth of the practice of mindful love.

 

The words, practice mindful love, are so easy to say. But, it is not easy. It’s very hard. It, like most things about mindfulness, is a practice. We work at it and try to get a little better all the time, but knowing that the ideal is not humanly possible. But the effort itself, is a true expression of mindful love. The practice of loving kindness meditation is a method that can help in the development of mindful love. But, if you work at it, invest in it, and patiently practice you will be deeply rewarded. The more you love, the more you love, the more you are loved, and the happier you become, not just superficial happiness, but the deep and abiding happiness of being a mindful valentine.

 

“We come to love not by finding a perfect person, but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly.” – Sam Keen

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

Happy New Year with Mindfulness

Happy New Year with Mindfulness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul.”  ~G.K. Chesterton

 

At the stroke of midnight on December 31st all over the world revelers ring in the new calendar year with a hearty celebration. It’s a celebration of a relatively arbitrary day that has been designated as the first day of a new calendar year. The celebration of the solstice, 10 days before, at least has astrological meaning as the shortest day of the year. But, January 1 has no such physical meaning. January 1 was designated as the start of the year by Julius Caesar in 45 BC. That date was chosen to honor the Roman God Janus, the god of beginnings, whose two faces allowed him to look back into the past and forward into the future. That symbolism has stuck as the new year’s celebration involves a reflection about the year past and hope for the year to come.

 

Don’t Look Back

 

To some extent this looking back into the past and forward into the future is the antithesis of mindfulness which emphasizes the present moment. Our recollection of the past is, in fact, an illusion. When we look at the past we view it with the distorted lens of memory and the delusions that we have about the self. The memories of what happened during the last year bare only a fleeting resemblance to what actually happened. Recollections tend to be dominated by hazy and distorted memories of emotionally charged events and neglects everyday times of calm and contentment. When we look back we primarily remember the highs and the lows and believe that if we could simply keep repeating the highs and eliminate the lows then we’d be truly happy. This is the trap sometimes known as the hedonic treadmill. We keep seeking the highs and are unhappy when we can’t reproduce them or if we are successful are unhappy to find that we can’t maintain them. Unfortunately, our New Year’s celebration and our resolutions reinforce and amplify these ideas propelling us to even greater unhappiness in the new year.

 

Our view of the past is additionally distorted by the beliefs that we have about ourselves. These self-concepts are mainly incorrect and terribly distorted. Western culture, by its adoration of extraordinary and unrealistic models of perfection, produces and reinforces rampant self-dislike. We can never really attain the societal norm of perfection and this makes us feel horribly deficient. As a result, most westerners don’t like what they are and want to be different. As a consequence, people look back on the events of the year and interpret them through the lens of self-dislike.

 

We remember primarily those events that conform to our beliefs about what we should be, but cannot achieve. This creates a vicious cycle where the low self-esteem and self-worth causes us to remember events that exemplify this self-concept, creating even greater self-dislike. Those rare events that reveal us to be adequate are quickly forgotten. The events of the past year, then, are perceived as evidence to support our harsh view of ourselves. Rather than accurately remembering what actually happened during the year, our recollections are dominated by this distorted reality. So, don’t look back at the past year, rather look carefully and mindfully at yourself. You need to develop self-acceptance, before you can ever hope to have an honest idea of what the past contained.

 

Don’t Look to the Future

 

These distortions also color our thoughts about the upcoming year. We resolve to change ourselves to better conform to our unrealistic beliefs about what we should be. The New year’s resolutions that are such a common part of our new year’s celebration are a direct outgrowth of our self-dislike. The problem with these new year’s resolutions is that they are a declaration that we’re not happy with ourselves or the way things are. We want to be different. That’s not bad unto itself. Striving to better oneself is a good thing. The problem is that what we desire for ourselves is usually totally unrealistic as it’s based on a distorted reality. But, we strongly believe that this is what we need to be happy. It’s all a delusion that’s doomed to failure. In fact, research has suggested that only 8% of these resolutions are ever achieved.

 

Better New Year’s Resolutions

 

We need to craft a new set of resolutions, based upon self-acceptance, and a realistic view about what needs to be and can be achieved. The resolutions should be to better see things, including ourselves as they really are. To look at the world and ourselves mindfully without judgment, just as we are. These are the kinds of resolutions that can really work towards, not making us happy, but letting us be happy in the coming year; to simply experience the happiness that has been within us all along.

 

There are some rules of thumb about these resolutions. Don’t be too grandiose. Don’t set goals of perfection. Small steps with a recognition that you won’t always be successful are recommended. Make a resolution to practice mindfulness. Pick a practice that you not only can do, but that you can comfortably sustain. The only one perfect right practice is the one that you’ll do and keep doing. It may be meditation, yoga, body scan, tai chi or qigong, contemplative prayer, or another of the many available practices or some combination of practices. The only thing that matters is that you’re drawn to it, comfortable doing it, and you’ll stick with it. Once you start, don’t try too hard. Remember the Buddha recommended the middle way, with right effort, not too much and not too little. Practice nonjudgmentally. Don’t judge whether you’re doing it right or wrong, whether the particular practice was good or bad, or whether you’re making progress or not. Just practice. Just relax and let the practice do you. You don’t need to do it.

 

Focus on Now

 

All of these various practices promote nonjudgmental attention to what is occurring in the present moment, the now. Slowly you come to realize that the now is the only time available where you can be satisfied and happy. The past are only nows that are gone and the future are only nows that have yet to happen. So, focus on the present moment. It’s where life happens. If you can learn to be happy right now, then you’ll be able to happy in the future when it becomes now. As you look calmly, nonjudgmentally, and deeply at what is happening right now you begin to see the beauty and wonder that is there all of the time. You just need to stop ruminating about the past and worrying about the future. Learn to enjoy the moment.

 

Focusing on the present moment the impermanence of all things becomes evident. In the present we can observe things rising up and then falling away. Change is constant. If things are bad at the moment, you can be sure that it’ll change. So, be patient. On the other hand, if things are good, know also that this will change too. Don’t try to hang onto what is present. Learn to enjoy the moment as it is. These observations reveal that every moment is new. It has never happened before and it will never happen again. Every moment is a new opportunity. Don’t worry about it passing. The next moment will again provide a new opportunity. Make the most of it. If you can learn to do this, you’ll enjoy life to its fullest, as the dynamically changing perpetual now.

 

Renewal

 

In the new year, we need to not think about a “happy new year.” Rather think about a “happy new day.” In fact, it’s best to think about each “happy new moment.” Focus on the present moment and wish yourself and everyone else a “happy new moment.” Every moment is a unique opportunity to experience life as it is, appreciate its wonder, and enjoy it while it’s here, in the present moment. Each moment is an opportunity for renewal. If we’re not happy in the moment, we can be in the next. We have a new opportunity every new moment. If we pay attention to them, we can use the opportunity to create happiness.

 

So, have a “happy new moment” with mindfulness.

 

“Empty your glass and feel your way through this New Year. If it feeds your soul, do it. If it makes you want to get out of bed in the morning with a smile, carry on. Be present and let your energy synchronise with the earth and give you the clarity to move forward and be comfortable and contented with who you are. Let your intuition guide you through a wonderful year and attract an abundance of positive opportunity.” – Alfred James

 

“Many of us are thinking about new year’s resolutions and taking stock at this time, but how many of those typical resolutions are just ‘self’ improvement projects (which means we’re trying to get more, be more or have more) rather than ways to actually embrace the life we already have right here and now?” – Mrs. Mindfulness

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts

Enhance Enjoyment of the Holidays with Mindfulness

Enhance Enjoyment of the Holidays with Mindfulness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Many Americans celebrate both Christmas and Xmas. Others celebrate one or the other. And some of us celebrate holidays that, although unconnected with the [winter] solstice, occur near it: Ramadan, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.” – John Silber:

 

The end of December marks transitions. It marks the new year, transition from 2017 to 2018. It’s also the time of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, transitioning from shortening days to lengthening days. Since the beginning of recorded history, the solstice has been a time of celebration and merriment. For most of that time it was an extremely popular pagan celebration. The Christians tried to suppress it, but were unsuccessful. So, instead they coopted it, turning it into a celebration of Jesus’ birth. There are no records of the actual date of Jesus’ birth, so any day could be chosen, and the time of the pagan solstice celebration was perfect. There are still many remnants of that pagan celebration carried into the Christmas celebration, including the tree, wreaths, mistletoe, holly, and even the name yule, the yule log, and the use of the word “jolly”.

 

Regardless of the purported reason, the end of December is a time of celebration. We now look on it as a time for giving, but the gifts are a relatively new addition that has been enthusiastically promoted by merchants. Should we be jaundiced about the celebration because of it’s confusing history, its crass commercialism, and varied religious meanings or should we participate with enthusiasm? Mindfulness tells us not to judge, just to experience what life has to offer in the moment. The holiday season has much to offer us. So, mindfulness would suggest that we don’t judge or criticize but engage mindfully in whatever way is appropriate for us.

 

Perhaps the greatest gift we can give to our family and friends at any time but especially during the holidays is our presence, not just our physical presence but our mindful attentive presence. We give to them when we deeply listen. So many conversations are superficial. So, engaging deeply with others is a special gift. It involves employing an underused skill of true listening with full attention to another, not listening on the surface while composing the next communication, but just listening with mindfulness. We in effect give to them our most precious gift, our fully engaged selves. We may be surprised by what we now hear that we may have been missing for years, and what reactions occur. Just know that you’re giving what most people need most, to feel listened to, respected, valued and cared about.

 

The holidays are a time to focus on children. Here, also, mindfulness can improve the experience. If we mindfully observe and truly listen, we can see that what children desire most is our attention and love. Presents of toys and gadgets are opened with enthusiasm and glee. But the joy is short-lived. As with most things the happiness produced is fleeting. But, if you engage with the child, playing and giving your full attention to him/her the happiness is much more enduring. Doing this mindfully, without expectations or judgment will bring a joy and happiness to you that will also be enduring. Don’t engage with the child for personal gain, but enjoy the gain when it happens.

 

The holidays are also a time of revelry, with abundant parties and celebrations at work, with friends, and with family. Once again, engaging mindfully can improve the experience and help prevent excess. Being mindful can help us keep alcohol intake under control. By being aware of our state in the present moment we are better able to know when we reached our limit and especially, to know when to refrain from driving. Mindful eating can also help us enjoy all of the wonderful foods presented during the holidays while being aware of our actual physical state. It can help us to eat slowly, savoring the exquisite flavors, without overindulging. Engage socially mindfully without judging and you’ll enjoy the interactions all the more.

 

Mindfulness can also help with holiday depression. Because of the high expectations of what the holidays should be like in contrast to the experienced reality, many people get depressed. It is the time of the highest suicide rates of the year. Mindfulness is known to combat depression in ourselves. But, for the holidays we could use our mindfulness skills, particularly listening, to help vulnerable people deal with the holidays. Our compassion and loving kindness can go a long way toward helping people overcome negative mood states. Just a genuine smile can sometimes be a great mood enhancer. Mindfully give of yourself, without expectation of getting anything back. You’ll be amazed at how much good it does for others and at the benefit you will receive.

 

Finally, the underlying theme of the holidays is transformation and renewal. Just as the slow decent into the short days of winter ends the slow ascent to the long days of summer begins. We can use this time to begin to transform and renew ourselves. New year’s resolutions are a common tradition in this regard but few are entered into with sufficient dedication and energy to actually carry them out. We should use this holiday season to reflect mindfully on our own lives, looking deeply at what will truly help us to thrive physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually in the coming year. Then set realistic goals and concrete plans to fulfill them. A good one that can help to lead us to a more fulfilling life is to simply make a commitment to be more mindful in the coming year. This should include a plan for engaging in regular practice and working to transfer mindfulness skills obtained outside of the practice. But, be realistic as to what can actually be accomplished and then set a firm concrete plan to achieve it.

 

So, enhance the enjoyment of the holidays with mindfulness.

 

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.” – Neil Gaiman

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

Have a Mindful Thanksgiving

Have a Mindful Thanksgiving

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

 “I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual.– Henry David Thoreau

 

“The greatest gift one can give is thanksgiving. In giving gifts, we give what we can spare, but in giving thanks we give ourselves.”
Br. David Steindl-Rast

 

Thanksgiving is a time for gratefulness. Most people, most of the time rue what they want and don’t have. So Thanksgiving is particularly important as a reminder of how lucky we are for all the blessings we have. It is a time to recognize that despite all our negative thoughts we have everything that we really need and probably much, much, more.

 

At this time of year the fall harvest is in and almost universally there is a celebration of the abundance provided. These crops will sustain us through the cold winter and till new crops can be planted, grow, mature, and are harvested. Hence, thanksgiving is very much a celebration of nature and all that it provides. In a modern world we lose track of all that is entailed in bringing us this food. When we are grateful for the food we need to recognize that we should be also be grateful for the seeds, the sun, the rain, the soil, the insects and birds that pollinate the crops, and even the worms and grubs that prepare the soil. Without any of these the food would not grow. In a sense, if we look carefully, we understand that our gratefulness is not just for the particular food item. It is in fact for the entire universe to which we and the food are intimately connected.

 

These interconnections extend into society and technology. The steel to build the plow, the engines that move the plow, the trains and trucks that transport the food, the farmers, drivers, and engineers, the fuel for the engine, the oil wells and refineries that produce the fuel, the engineers who designed and built the machinery and factories, the men and women who educated the scientists, engineers, and farmers. I’m sure by now that you’ve got the picture. A little reflection soon reveals the vast network of interconnections, even stretching back in time.

 

Thanksgiving is also a time to celebrate the people we are closest to, our friends and especially our family. They are our origin and our support through development. They are our connections to the past and future. They are the emotional fuel that sustains us. They give us hope and purpose. Yes, there is dysfunction. That goes with all forms of human interactions. But, should we lose any of them we will quickly realize how important they are to our flourishing and happiness.  Remember, that on the deathbed, one of the biggest regrets is not having spent more time with family and friends. Thanksgiving is a time to recognize these interconnections, to be grateful for these people and their importance to our existence.

 

Certainly one of the most taken for granted amazing blessings that we have is our own awareness. We’ve always been aware. We’ve never, not been aware. So, it is so easy for it to go unrecognized and unappreciated. But, reflect for a moment what a miracle it is. There is an essence to us that is forever present and unchanging. What we are aware of is constantly changing, but that which is aware is not. Without our awareness we are nothing but biological automatons, robots. With it we are suddenly human and spiritual. We would not be able to be grateful or enjoy Thanksgiving without it. So, do not forget on Thanksgiving to be grateful for this wonder that forms the essence of what we are.

 

There is a very subtle kind of gratefulness that we should also adopt. It’s what the great sage Thich Nhat Hahn calls our “non-toothache.” He points out that if we had a toothache we would be thinking how grateful we’d be if it ended. But once it does we take it for granted. We need to be thankful not only for what we have but also for many things that we don’t. The health of our bodies is taken for granted, but we should be intensely grateful for our non-disease. We may not be happy in our job, but if we didn’t have one we’d think how grateful we’d be to find one. We may be unhappy for the police officer who gave us a speeding ticket. But, we don’t recognize that our safety on the roads depends upon enforcement of the laws. We should be thankful for our non-accident. We are so fortunate in so many ways that we take for granted like our “non-toothache”. But, at Thanksgiving it is good to reflect upon all of these unnoticed blessings.

 

Finally, it is illuminating to reflect on whether you’re a source of thanksgiving for others. Specifically, what have you done that would make someone grateful to you. In other words, what have you given. This is important as it is not always what we have or what we get that’s important but what we share, what we do for others, and what we give. This is often the source of genuine happiness. The things that we have are never satisfying in a lasting way, but the things that we give forever bring joy. So, ask yourself on Thanksgiving, have you truly and sincerely given to others without expecting something in return?

 

It is very useful to reflect upon all of these things at Thanksgiving. The modern world, with its emphasis on self-sufficiency and individuality, produces feelings of independence and isolation. But these thanksgiving reflections soon reveal that this is an illusion. We are inextricably connected to the entire fabric of the universe, the tapestry of our physical, social, and spiritual existence. There is so much to be grateful for that upon reflection we can see that our sufferings are silly and small by comparison. We should revel in the vast interconnected blessings that make up everything about our world and ourselves. We should celebrate the miracle of life and our awareness of it.

 

So, eat, drink, and be merry on Thanksgiving, enjoy the wonderful celebration, but also invest a few moments in reflecting upon all that we have to be thankful for.

 

He who thanks but with the lips
Thanks but in part;
The full, the true Thanksgiving
Comes from the heart.

~J.A. Shedd

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

A Mindful Halloween and Day of the Dead

A Mindful Halloween and Day of the Dead

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

For death,
Now I know, is that first breath
Which our souls draw when we enter
Life, which is of all life center.

~Edwin Arnold

 

The beginning of the month of November is marked by a variety of celebrations throughout the world including the Day of the Dead and Halloween, the night before All Souls Day. Halloween was actually a pagan holiday called Samhain that was coopted by the Christians. But, they are all celebrations of those who have passed away, a celebration of our ancestors, a celebration of the dead. This might seem a bit macabre to be celebrating death. And, indeed, the macabre is an integral part of the celebration.

 

It does seem to be strange, however, that death is celebrated when it is in fact the second most frequent fear. So why do we celebrate? Perhaps Mark Twain put his finger on it “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. The celebration is not really about death. It’s actually a celebration of life. Death reminds us that our lives are limited. We celebrate to help us experience life while we still have it. As pointed out by Angelina JolieThere’s something about death that is comforting. The thought that you could die tomorrow frees you to appreciate your life now.

 

These ideas are well stated in the Zen Evening Gatha that is recited every evening in Buddhist monasteries.

Let me respectfully remind you,
life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken.
Awaken.  Take heed.
Do not squander your life.

 

Rather than not squandering our lives, many of us live in a state of unaware numbness, going through the motions of life, but not really living. Focusing on an anticipated happiness in the future or ruminating about past issues. We seem to not comprehend that the essence of life is the present moment. That is all life is, a long-lasting present moment. It is the only time that we can actually live. So, if we do not relish what is in the present moment, we might as well already be dead. This is where contemplative practice and mindfulness comes in. These practices help us to learn to live fully in the present, experiencing what life has to offer.

 

Somehow, in our everyday lives we see the present as unsatisfactory or boring. But, nothing could be further from the truth. If we truly do focus on the present we are often surprised by its richness. Even focusing on something simple like our breathing, really paying attention to it in all its exquisite detail, we can see that this simple experience is replete with beauty and nuance. We can feel the delicious sensations of our body in action. We can see how remarkable this simple process really is. We can see how essential it is to our very existence, yet we take it for granted. And that is only breathing. There is so much in the present moment that when we carefully look at it we’re amazed as to how we could ever have missed it. Life is a miracle. Life is special. Only by being mindful can we deeply immerse in the wonder of life.

 

Halloween and the Day of the Dead is also an opportunity to recognize our ancestors without whom we would not exist. It’s a time to view how interconnected we are to all of humanity. All one has to do is follow the family tree back a few generations to see how widespread our connections are throughout time, culture, religion, race, etc. If we go very far back, we can see that everyone is connected to everyone else somewhere in our ancestry. Also, by looking at our ancestors and understanding what they have contributed to our existence, we can see how important it is for us to commit to future generations to promote understanding, peace, and prosperity for the future.

 

But what about death itself, should we be as afraid of it as we are? It is helpful to remember that life is bounded by birth and death. Do we fear the state we were in prior to birth? In fact, many psychologists think of birth, the entry into life, as a traumatic event. It involves leaving a very peaceful state for the chaos of life, what William James called the “blooming, buzzing confusion”. So, maybe we should fear birth and not fear death which may simply return us to the peaceful prenatal state. Perhaps we should look forward to it.

 

The important thing and the message of Halloween and the Day of the Dead is to experience this precious time of life that we’ve been given. Indeed, many have suggested that the entire purpose of life is simply to experience it. So celebrate life and don’t worry about death. Enjoy Halloween and the Day of the Dead in the present moment. Stay in the present moment and be truly alive, celebrate every experience, and when death comes welcome it having experienced life to its fullest.

 

 “On no subject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than on death. Instead of the sympathy, the friendly union, of life and death so apparent in Nature, we are taught that death is an accident, a deplorable punishment for the oldest sin, the arch-enemy of life, etc…. But let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory for, for it never fights. All is divine harmony.” ~John Muir

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

Mindful Labor Day

Mindful Labor Day

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

 “Sometimes it’s important to work for that pot of gold.  But other times it’s essential to take time off and to make sure that your most important decision in the day simply consists of choosing which color to slide down on the rainbow.”  ~ Douglas Pagels

 

Labor Day is a National Holiday in the United States. It was designed to celebrate the accomplishments of the American worker, particularly organized labor. It is important to celebrate this holiday mindfully. Work is a major component of our lives, it dictates our income, contributes to our social lives, and for many people is an essential part of their self-concept and their self-worth. But rather than using the holiday to reflect on this important part of their lives, most people treat Labor Day mindlessly, as a time to vacation and party. Perhaps, though, it’s important to take at least a little time on this holiday to mindfully reflect on work.

 

To understand the importance of work we need only look at the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. Two of the eight components are Right Actions and Right Livelihood. But, Right Livelihood is itself an action and it would seem that Right Livelihood should be contained in Right Actions and not a separate component. But, the Buddha included Right Livelihood as a separate component to underscore its importance for spiritual development. It’s his way of emphasizing that what one does for a living is an extremely important action. The Buddha taught that it was essential for spiritual development to only engage in work that produces greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being, and relieves suffering in ourselves and others and avoid jobs that produce harm.

 

We should take a mindful look at our occupations on Labor Day and ask whether they promote greater happiness, wisdom, and well-being, and relieves suffering or produces harm. In some case, the fact that it is Right Livelihood is obvious as with professions such as physician, social worker, peace negotiator, relief worker, therapist, etc. On the other hand, professions such as drug dealer, arms merchant, professional criminal, etc. are clearly not. But for most occupations it is much more difficult to discern whether or not they constitute Right Livelihood. This is a point for deep, mindful, exploration for Labor Day.

 

Working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico produces a product, energy, that is needed for the well-being of virtually everyone. Without affordable energy, every aspect of the economy would collapse. So, working on the oil rig could be seen as promoting well-being and relieving suffering. On the other hand, there is potential for great environmental harm, including oil spills that directly pollute sensitive environments, or contributing to carbon dioxide emissions that can indirectly create great harm by contributing to global warming. So should someone on the eightfold path accept or reject a job working on an oil rig? The answer cannot be given by anyone other than the individual themselves. It is imperative that this be looked at deeply and objectively to determine for themselves if they are doing more harm than good. The primary spiritual impact of Right Livelihood is on the individual engaging in the occupation. So, the decision has to be theirs. That is not to say that experts or friends can’t or shouldn’t be consulted, but that ultimately the individual must decide for themselves and be willing to accept the potential consequences. Needless to say, this should be a focus for deep mindful reflection on Labor Day.

 

The labor movement itself has important consequences for ourselves and others and should also be explored mindfully on Labor Day. It grew out of great labor abuses that existed where unscrupulous employers took advantage of workers, demanding much and paying little. This is an example how great harm can be produced when the wealthy and powerful, as a result of greed, do not practice Right Livelihood. The Buddha taught that there was nothing wrong with being successful and accumulating wealth provided that this was done ethically and honestly, and it promoted the overall well-being of the community. But, for a time, this was not the case. This underscores how the notion of Right Livelihood doesn’t only apply to workers, but also to employers, financiers, Wall Street executives, politicians, etc.

 

The labor movement arose to counteract the rampant abuses of workers. By organizing the workers obtained strength in numbers. This allowed them to stand up to employers and demand better pay and working conditions. It truly exemplifies our interdependence. We are not alone, but rather, are intricately connected to everyone else. This is true for work in general. It is a productive point for mindful contemplation of how our work and in fact, our entire lives are connected to the work of others. If we’re a truck driver we’re totally dependent upon the people who make the trucks, produce the fuel, build the roads, insures, maintains, and repairs the vehicles, makes and enforces the laws governing the roadways, etc. But, we are also dependent upon the work or those who produce our food, make our clothes, build our houses, educate our children, defend and protect us, etc. Our work is interdependent with the work of everyone else. This is an important point for reflection on Labor Day.

 

I recently received an award for my work career. It was a wonderful boost for my ego and made me feel very good about myself. But, with a little mindful reflection, I realized that this was not my award solely. It could never have been achieved without the involvement of a vast array of people, colleagues, students, friends, family superiors, workers, direct reports, police, government, etc. and all of the people who they are dependent upon, and so forth. It couldn’t have been achieved without virtually everyone. It was really an award for a cooperative effort. This kind of thinking made me humble. It made me know that it was not about “I.” Rather, it’s about “we.” Mindful reflection about our work can help us to see the interconnectedness we have with every other living thing.

 

A major issue for Labor Day reflection is what happens in the course of our daily work. We can learn much about ourselves by mindfully examining what transpires at work. What happens can bring us great joy or great suffering, but most of the time, it just provides momentary satisfaction or dissatisfaction. It is the smaller moments that compose the majority of our work lives but they are crucial to our happiness or unhappiness at work. Applying mindfulness and reflection to how we react and our thoughts regarding the events at work, we can gain great insight into the workings of our minds and how they can produce unsatisfactoriness and unhappiness.

 

The fact that your boss failed to mention that your performance was very good that day may make you feel unappreciated at work. But, it is likely that your boss was preoccupied with her own problems. But, looking carefully at your thought process you can begin to see how your response was based on the needs of your own ego. Many people’s feelings of self-worth, or self-hatred for that matter, are built around their work. Not being recognized by a superior may threaten a fragile self-image and produce discomfort and resentment. Work is actually a wonderful opportunity to learn about yourself.

 

You may observe a coworker engaged in petty theft and not report it. Looking deeply at this event you may be able to see that you have a strong need to be liked and you feel that reporting the unethical behavior may cause others to dislike you or see you as a threat. In this case your need for social acceptance causes you to compromise your integrity. The fact that social approval was more important to you than ethics can be a revelation regarding your inner psychological landscape. Once again, work can teach you a lot.

 

There are actually many many events that happen at work every day, small and large, that reveal the workings of your mind and emotions. Applying mindfulness, noticing and being aware of your reactions and actions at work can change your ideas about yourself and change your actions at work and these can lead to greater understanding and acceptance. This, in turn, can lead to greater satisfaction and happiness. Mindfulness is a key. If you are not in the present moment, if you are not paying attention but rather reacting without thinking or noticing, if your mind is wandering and off task, then this splendid opportunity will be lost. So, vow to be mindful at work and become better and happier with the way you make your living.

 

So, on this Labor Day, vow to be mindful and take advantage of the opportunities provided at work to learn about yourself. Grow as a person and grow spiritually by making every work day a mindful work day.

 

“When people say, “This is the way to do it,” that’s not true. There are always many ways, and the way you choose should depend on the current context. You can’t solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. So when someone says, “Learn this so it’s second nature,” let a bell go off in your head, because that means mindlessness. The rules you were given were the rules that worked for the person who created them, and the more different you are from that person, the worse they’re going to work for you. When you’re mindful, rules, routines, and goals guide you; they don’t govern you.” – Ellen Langer

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

Mindful Independence Day

Mindful Independence Day

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“If today is a celebration of freedom, I think we as a nation, as a people, have squandered an opportunity. We have sought outer freedoms and ignored inner freedoms. We have pursued these freedoms with scandal, exploitation, and domination. Today, instead, I urge you to consider inner freedom.” – Arnie Kozak

 

Virtually every country in the world sets aside one day each year to celebrate its independence. In the U.S. that day is July 4th. On this day the country’s citizens celebrate their freedom and independence and the fight that achieved it. It’s a pleasant holiday filled with patriotism, flags, parades, picnics, and fireworks displays. Although the founding of the great American democracy is something to celebrate, a mindful look at it produces a recognition that there are significant limitations on independence and freedom. We are nowhere near as free and independent as we think we are.

 

Independence from what? It’s certainly not from the imposition of government on the individual. July 4th only celebrates the changeover from government by the British monarchy to government by a more local political system. It’s certainly not independence from the imposition of laws and restrictions on the individual’s freedom. Perhaps there was a change of a few laws and regulations, but actually only a small number. It’s certainly not even the production of self-determination. In fact, the U.S. democracy was crafted and established by a few elite individuals and not by each individual in the country. In addition, democracy is rule by the majority, with the will of a significant number of people ignored. What we appear to be celebrating is the replacement of one system of control with another, perhaps better, system of control, but nevertheless a system of control; hardly independence.

 

Mindful reflection quickly produces an understanding that we’re never really independent. It’s certainly not even complete independence from another country. To this day the U.S. and the U.K. are very much dependent upon one another for trade of goods, ideas, culture, and mutual security. They’re locked together by treaties, cultural similarities, and close economic ties. The current political system that we’re celebrating is itself a recognition of how dependent upon one another we are. The system functions to set down the rules by which our relationships with one another are conducted. It’s there to insure orderly cooperation supposedly for the benefit of all participants.

 

Mindful reflection reveals that we’re not only dependent upon each other but we’re also dependent upon our environment, animate and inanimate. We’re dependent upon the air we breathe that is in turn dependent upon all other living organisms. We’re dependent upon the water we drink that is in turn dependent on global weather systems and solar evaporative power. We’re dependent upon the food we drink that is in turn dependent upon air, water, soil, and sun, and the farmers who grow it. In fact, we are so dependent upon everything and everybody that it may be more appropriate to be celebrating Dependence Day.

 

Well maybe then on July 4th we’re celebrating freedom and liberty. But, is any individual truly free. As the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said “Man is born free: and everywhere else he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they.” Regardless of the political independence each individual’s behavior is highly regulated by law and regulation. Our freedoms are actually very limited. They are bounded not only by law but also the practicalities of earning a living, maintaining a residence, having a family, and limitations on resources. Our freedom is also highly constrained by the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. After all, we can’t fly, become taller, change our eye color, stay underwater for protracted periods, stay awake continuously, or withstand cold or heat outside of a fairly small range, and we’re not faster than a speeding bullet. How much freedom do we actually have in any particular day?

 

Independence Day, though, does celebrate acquiring many soft freedoms. The freedoms to think and express our opinions and ideas, to worship as we please, to vote for whoever we like, to associate with whomever we choose, to live wherever we like, etc. Although there are bounds to many of these freedoms by the requirements of public safety, economics, cultural norms, and the practicalities of existence, these are very important and significant freedoms. Perhaps that is what we’re really celebrating, these soft freedoms that were provided by our Constitution as a result of the War for Independence.

 

Regardless, Independence Day should be celebrated mindfully. It is often spent with family and friends and the pleasure of these interactions can be amplified by doing it mindfully; by being truly present for them and deeply listening to them rather than thinking about our next response. By being mindful we can see them with compassion and understanding. Being in, and focusing on, the present moment we can enjoy these interactions, we can enjoy the picnics and parades, we can enjoy the fireworks, rather than thinking about where we would rather be or where we’re going next. We can find happiness precisely where we are.

 

But are we truly free. A bit of mindful reflection reveals that we find existence very unsatisfactory. In fact, unsatisfactoriness is everywhere. We’re not satisfied with things as they are and want them to be different. We’re not satisfied with where we live and want to have a nicer home.  We’re not satisfied with our appearance and want to lose weight. We’re not satisfied with what people think of us and want to be universally liked. We’re not satisfied with how we’re treated by our spouses and want them to be more understanding. We’re not satisfied with our children and want them to be obedient, respectful, straight “A” students and star athletes. We’re not satisfied with our health and want to have fewer aches and pains. We’re not satisfied with our jobs and want to make more money, have more time off and be appreciated by our bosses and coworkers. Even on the very short-term, things are not satisfactory. We want the car ahead of us to be moving faster, we want time to pass quickly so that we can be done with work for the day, we want to stop ruminating about past indiscretions, we want to finish a meal quickly so we can get back to the TV, etc. In other words, we’re not free from our desires. In fact, we’re slaves to them. We’re not happy with the way things are. In fact, we seem to want everything to be different. So, we can’t be truly free as long as we’re slaves to our desires.

 

True freedom can only be produced when we are liberated from our incessant needs and wants. That is not to say that we shouldn’t have desires, but rather that we will not be controlled by them. True freedom comes from equanimity. It comes when we’re able to desire something, seek it out, but be OK whether we get it or not. It comes when we not only accept the way things are but enjoy each second for what it is, a precious moment in a limited lifetime. It comes when what other people do and say is seen as a reflection of them and not of us and comes when we look at them with compassion and understanding. In other words, we can want ourselves, things, people, and circumstances to be different but we accept them as they are and appreciate and enjoy life and each experience as a gift.

 

This sounds wonderful, but is it achievable? It sure doesn’t seem so as ourselves and the people we know haven’t achieved it. Is it possible to actually get to this state of complete freedom? It is, but it takes effort and discipline. There have been many instances throughout history and there are many exemplars present right now of people who have achieved complete equanimity. Jesus is a wonderful example. He worked hard and suffered to make his world a better place but in the end accepted what was. The Buddha, Christian mystics, Sufi masters, Zen masters, Gandhi, and a host of everyday people have all achieved true liberation. So, it is possible.

 

We do not, however, have to be aiming only at complete liberation. It is far better to work to simply improve on our current state and thereby become more and more liberated. We can do this by engaging in mindfulness practices such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, contemplative prayer, etc. we can learn to focus more and more on the present moment. We can learn to appreciate what is. We can learn to enjoy every moment. Just by improving a little we can become happier and happier, more accepting, and more liberated from our desires. We can achieve greater equanimity and with it greater freedom. But, we get there slowly and incrementally, building toward our complete liberation. Now wouldn’t that be a reason to celebrate Independence Day.

“Happy 4th of July.  Celebrate your freedom mindfully- express love and gratitude for all situations, people, places and things you encounter today. This practice of loving what is, is a mindful behavior. When we celebrate our freedom as a country, we bring love to the abundance we are free to encounter today. Take each situation you encounter as an opportunity to express your love, gratitude  – any kindness will do – that is freedom!” –  Regina Huelsenbeck

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

Mindful Memorial Day

Mindful Memorial Day

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“We who are left how shall we look again
Happily on the sun or feel the rain
Without remembering how they who went
Ungrudgingly and spent
Their lives for us loved, too, the sun and rain?

~Wilfred Wilson Gibson

 

Memorial Day is the unofficial start of the Summer holiday season. But, it’s primary purpose is to remember and honor those men and women who have died in wars. As such it’s a somber occasion and a reminder of the human cost of warfare. This is usually a day celebrating patriotism and the righteousness of the country’s cause. Some may think that I’m being a little discourteous to the honored dead. But, I believe that the greatest honor we can provide is to work tirelessly to insure that no one else has to die for their country in warfare.

 

Some wars are regrettably necessary. At times, pacifism and nonviolence just can’t work. It requires a minimally just society. For example, in 1938 Adolph Hitler advised the British government on how to protect their empire from the threat posed in India of Mahatma Gandhi: “kill Gandhi, if that isn’t enough then kill the other leaders too, if that isn’t enough then two hundred more activists, and so on until the Indian people will give up the hope of independence.” Fortunately, the British did not follow this advice and Gandhi’s nonviolence triumphed. But, if this had been Hitler’s empire, pacifism, no matter how well led or intentioned, would have failed miserably.

 

Even the Buddha who taught love, compassion, and nonviolence, also taught that we should defend ourselves. There are sects of Buddhist monks who practice martial arts and are celebrated for their skills. When under attack, we have a right and perhaps an obligation to stand up and resist violent assault. If non-violent means aren’t successful, then violence and aggression may be necessary. This is never a good thing, but at times necessary. There have been far too many wars, most unnecessary. We should honor the courage, valor, and commitment of those who died in war by doing our best to make sure that unnecessary wars are never fought again.

 

It is right that we honor those who died in warfare, not just soldiers, but also civilians and merchant marine who often perish in massive numbers. They too should be remembered. We should always remember that what we have and enjoy, including peace, was paid for dearly. But, we should honor all who perished. This doesn’t mean just those who belonged to our side. We should remember that the vast majority of combatants entered into battle with the finest of intentions, believing that their cause was right and just, and that they were fighting for their families and their countries. Regardless of whether they were misled by unscrupulous, evil, or incompetent leaders, they entered into battle honorably and deserve our respect.

 

It is sometimes difficult to see, but their sacrifices have paid off for the rest of us. Since World War II, European countries and similarly, the Asian countries of China, Korea, and Japan, who had been at virtually constant war among themselves for thousands of years, are now peaceful and there has not been an armed conflict between them in over 70 years. So, even with all of the conflict in the world, there is less warfare now than at any time in recorded history. We have the honored dead from the terrible conflict of World War II to thank for the peace and prosperity that has been enjoyed since. We don’t need this reason to honor them, but it is reassuring to know that their sacrifices were not in vain.

 

To prevent these horrors in the future and honor our dead by abolishing warfare completely, there are a number of strategies that may be helpful. We should view our past, present, and future enemies, as the great sage Thich Nhat Hahn did during the Vietnam War, as people whose lives, backgrounds, training, and beliefs put them into the roles they are playing. If we lived in their shoes, we would likely make the same choice they did. No matter how despicable we may think they are, or how horrible their deeds, we need to understand that what they experienced in life, led them there. If we truly place ourselves in the shoes of our enemy, do we honestly believe that we would make different decisions. The terrorist, so despised in the west, may have been brought up in poverty, with little education save for religious indoctrination, that taught him that his god demands that he kill the infidel and that he will be rewarded in the next life for doing so. If we were raised similarly, would we act differently. This kind of understanding can lead to actions that may help to prevent future violence. Seeing the enemy as intrinsically evil can only lead to more warfare. Seeing them as human beings whose situation dictated their behavior can lead to peace.

 

A key strategy for preventing future wars is forgiveness. Violence begets violence. Retribution demands that the people who killed your family members must themselves be killed. But, this is a never ending cycle as the families of those you killed now seek to kill you. The only way to break the cycle is forgiveness. This can be very difficult.  But it is the only way. Nelson Mandela, when he took over leadership of South Africa from those who oppressed and imprisoned him and his people for decades, didn’t enact retribution. Instead he launched a massive campaign of forgiveness and reconciliation. He understood that this was the only way to heal his country. He was amazingly successful and South Africa, although far from perfect, has become peaceful and prosperous working for the betterment of all of its citizens.

 

Most people look at creating peace and preventing war as a massively difficult task that is beyond their capabilities to resolve. As a result, they do nothing waiting for a Ghandi, Mandela, or King to lead them. But, this is a grave mistake. We can all honor our fallen by contributing to world peace. We can do this if we stop looking for grand solutions and instead, contribute in the ways that we can during every day of our lives. By leading peaceful, nonviolent lives we contribute. We create ripples on the pond of life spreading out to the far horizons. “If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh

 

Communications is a key to peace. By engaging in non-violent communications, what the Buddha calls “Right Speech,” we not only produce peace in ourselves but in the people we’re communicating with. Their peacefulness then affects others, who affect others, etc. interpersonal ripples of peace. We also become role models for our children who then become role models for their children, etc., producing intergenerational ripples of peace. If many of us practice non-violence the ripples will become build and sum into tidal waves of peace washing over the earth. “If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile and blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace.” ― Thich Nhat Hahn

 

Practicing mindfulness can similarly promote peace and create ripples. By being focused on the present moment non-judgmentally, we are fully present for those around us. This produces the deepest kinds of human communications based upon understanding and compassion. In human communications there is great power in non-judgmental listening. It has a tremendously calming effect on people, particularly when they are highly agitated. In a leadership position I once held, I would quite often have people come into my office and just rail on about the injustices they’ve experienced and the horrible people around them. I would just listen and occasionally acknowledge their emotions. At the end, they would almost inevitably thank me and tell me how much that helped. I had done nothing other than deeply listen and this by itself had dramatic effects. Over time, I could see how the ripples moved outward and affected the entire organization. Listening is a powerful tool of peace.

 

Another key method for promoting individual, societal, and planetal peace is practicing compassion. This is simply looking deeply at ourselves and others to understand their suffering. First we must have compassion for ourselves. Unless we do, we cannot have true compassion for others. We have to acknowledge that we are flawed human beings and not scold ourselves for it, but compassionately understand and forgive ourselves. We are essentially good. But, sometimes our background, indoctrination, humanness, and circumstances conspire to produce harmful acts. Rather than looking at the actions as good or bad, think of them as skillful or unskillful; bringing greater or less harmony and happiness. We need to understand this about ourselves, forgive ourselves with the intentions to do better, to be more skillful, and look upon ourselves with eyes of kindness and caring.

 

It is important to also recognize and congratulate ourselves for all of the good we do. Celebrate our goodness while having compassion for our faults. Once, we can do this. We can then move on to others. Being compassionate to our enemies involves looking deeply into their suffering, looking deeply into their background, indoctrination, humanness, and circumstances that conspire to produce harmful acts, and then being forgiving, kind, and caring about them. This is essential to healing wounds and developing world peace.

 

So, on this Memorial Day, let us resolve to honor the fallen for what they have done. But let us truly honor them by working to make their sacrifices not in vain, to do what we can to develop peacefulness in ourselves and others, and to let their deaths be the foundation not of more war but of lasting peace.

 

 “On Memorial Day, I don’t want to only remember the combatants. There were also those who came out of the trenches as writers and poets, who started preaching peace, men and women who have made this world a kinder place to live.” – Eric Burdon
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts

Be My Mindful Valentine

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Be My Mindful Valentine

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Love is like a friendship caught on fire. In the beginning a flame, very pretty, often hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. As love grows older, our hearts mature and our love becomes as coals, deep-burning and unquenchable.” – Bruce Lee

 

Valentine’s Day was invented for the greeting card and florist industries but it caught on because there are few things more worth celebrating than love. Valentine’s Day is usually considered a celebration of romantic love, but I prefer it to be a celebration of love in all of its magnificent manifestations. Mindfulness is an important part as there is nothing more beautiful than mindful love. It’s pure, non-judgmental, and non-contingent love. It’s a completely unfettered outpouring of the heart.

 

Mindful love is not necessarily expressed with romantic greeting cards, roses, and chocolates. There is nothing wrong with these concrete expressions of love except when they are used as a substitute for the real thing. Too often we go through the motions of buying symbols of love and believing that these are all we need to express our feelings. True expressions of love are not concrete and tangible. They are deep connections and feelings that flow direct from the source and, if the truth be known, are the source. Let this love flow first and if it leads to giving tangible symbols, wonderful. Let it flow in any and every way it wishes to express itself.

 

The great sage Thích Nhất Hạnh said that “When you love someone, the best thing you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there?” This sounds so simple, but it is not. What he means by “presence” is much more than being in physical proximity to another. It means to be really there for them, mindfully and totally, with the mind dedicated to them and not off thinking of something else. Rather the mind is totally focused and attentive to the other person. You are deeply listening to their words. You are deeply sensing their non-verbal messages. You are totally committed to them in the present moment. So, on Valentine’s Day offer the people you love your mindful presence. There is no greater way to express your love.

 

Mindful love is non-judgmental. It is accepting the other person for exactly who and what they are. It is appreciating their humanness with all its flaws, physical, psychological, and social. It is encouraging their aspirations and supporting them in their pursuit of them. It is filled with loving kindness and compassion. Thích Nhất Hạnh teaches “You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.” In other words, there’s no clinging or holding on. If there is, then the love is not mindful love, it is needy love.

 

Before mindful love can be given to others it must first be given to the self. Each of us has to truly love ourselves before we can freely and completely offer mindful love to another. For many westerners this can be a real challenge as many do not even like themselves. This is frequently due to westerners having unrealistic models, and beliefs and expectations about themselves. It is imperative to overcome this as this lack of self-love is the foundation of needy, demanding, self-centered love. Learn to fully accept your humanness and to understand that what you see as imperfections are nothing more than expressions of your humanity. Begin to accept that you are extraordinary, beautiful, capable, and special; a one of a kind, never to be seen again, exemplar of what it means to be a living, imperfect, human being. Recognize that you are worthy not only of your own love but the love of others. Realize that you are just as capable and competent and simultaneously just as inadequate and ineffectual as everyone else. Learn to love yourself and then you can truly love others.

 

It is nearly impossible to divorce romantic love from sexuality. From an evolutionary perspective the feelings between members of the opposite sex are driven by the needs to reproduce, making sexuality an integral part of romantic love. Unfortunately, many people separate love and sex, but this is often due to religious morality or societal dictates. There is no need to separate the two, in fact, they both are best when they work together. When mindful love is accompanied with mindful sex, each reinforces the other, producing an upward spiral of positive feelings. Recent research discovered that people are the most mindful at any time in their lives when they are engaged in sex. So, the phrase “mindful sex” may actually be redundant. But, when combined with mindful love, sexuality is a shared giving experience. Each partner is not simply engaged to satisfy their own needs, but to give, be present, and be sensitive to the other, to be non-judgmental and accepting of the other, to share one of life’s extraordinary experiences, and to truly come to understand why the word intercourse is used to label it. With mindfulness sex becomes an expression of deep and satisfying shared love.

 

Mindful love includes but expands far, far, beyond romantic love. When practiced it extends to everyone around the individual, including family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances, and even enemies. As you practice mindful love it will slowly begin to become evident that deep in the core of your being is nothing but love. The more aware you become of this the more that love gushes and envelops you and everyone around you. It even extends to all of existence. Unless you are exceptionally blessed it will take a while to get to this level. But, it doesn’t have to be sought as it is a natural outgrowth of the practice of mindful love.

 

The words, practice mindful love, are so easy to say. But, it is not easy. It’s very hard. It, like most things about mindfulness, is a practice. We work at it and try to get a little better all the time, but knowing that the ideal is not humanly possible. But the effort itself, is a true expression of mindful love. The practice of loving kindness meditation is a method that can help in the development of mindful love. But, if you work at it, invest in it, and patiently practice you will be deeply rewarded. The more you love, the more you love, the more you are loved, and the happier you become, not just superficial happiness, but the deep and abiding happiness of being a mindful valentine.

 

“We come to love not by finding a perfect person, but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly.” – Sam Keen

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Happy New Year with Mindfulness

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By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul.”  ~G.K. Chesterton

 

At the stroke of midnight on December 31st all over the world revelers ring in the new calendar year with a hearty celebration. It’s a celebration of a relatively arbitrary day that has been designated as the first day of a new calendar year. The celebration of the solstice, 10 days before, at least has astrological meaning as the shortest day of the year. But, January 1 has no such physical meaning. January 1 was designated as the start of the year by Julius Caesar in 45 BC. That date was chosen to honor the Roman God Janus, the god of beginnings, whose two faces allowed him to look back into the past and forward into the future. That symbolism has stuck as the new year’s celebration involves a reflection about the year past and hope for the year to come.

 

Don’t Look Back

 

To some extent this looking back into the past and forward into the future is the antithesis of mindfulness which emphasizes the present moment. Our recollection of the past is, in fact, an illusion. When we look at the past we view it with the distorted lens of memory and the delusions that we have about the self. The memories of what happened during the last year bare only a fleeting resemblance to what actually happened. Recollections tend to be dominated by hazy and distorted memories of emotionally charged events and neglects everyday times of calm and contentment. When we look back we primarily remember the highs and the lows and believe that if we could simply keep repeating the highs and eliminate the lows then we’d be truly happy. This is the trap sometimes known as the hedonic treadmill. We keep seeking the highs and are unhappy when we can’t reproduce them or if we are successful are unhappy to find that we can’t maintain them. Unfortunately, our New Year’s celebration and our resolutions reinforce and amplify these ideas propelling us to even greater unhappiness in the new year.

 

Our view of the past is additionally distorted by the beliefs that we have about ourselves. These self-concepts are mainly incorrect and terribly distorted. Western culture, by its adoration of extraordinary and unrealistic models of perfection, produces and reinforces rampant self-dislike. We can never really attain the societal norm of perfection and this makes us feel horribly deficient. As a result, most westerners don’t like what they are and want to be different. As a consequence, people look back on the events of the year and interpret them through the lens of self-dislike.

 

We remember primarily those events that conform to our beliefs about what we should be, but cannot achieve. This creates a vicious cycle where the low self-esteem and self-worth causes us to remember events that exemplify this self-concept, creating even greater self-dislike. Those rare events that reveal us to be adequate are quickly forgotten. The events of the past year, then, are perceived as evidence to support our harsh view of ourselves. Rather than accurately remembering what actually happened during the year, our recollections are dominated by this distorted reality. So, don’t look back at the past year, rather look carefully and mindfully at yourself. You need to develop self-acceptance, before you can ever hope to have an honest idea of what the past contained.

 

Don’t Look to the Future

 

These distortions also color our thoughts about the upcoming year. We resolve to change ourselves to better conform to our unrealistic beliefs about what we should be. The New year’s resolutions that are such a common part of our new year’s celebration are a direct outgrowth of our self-dislike. The problem with these new year’s resolutions is that they are a declaration that we’re not happy with ourselves or the way things are. We want to be different. That’s not bad unto itself. Striving to better oneself is a good thing. The problem is that what we desire for ourselves is usually totally unrealistic as it’s based on a distorted reality. But, we strongly believe that this is what we need to be happy. It’s all a delusion that’s doomed to failure. In fact, research has suggested that only 8% of these resolutions are ever achieved.

 

Better New Year’s Resolutions

 

We need to craft a new set of resolutions, based upon self-acceptance, and a realistic view about what needs to be and can be achieved. The resolutions should be to better see things, including ourselves as they really are. To look at the world and ourselves mindfully without judgment, just as we are. These are the kinds of resolutions that can really work towards, not making us happy, but letting us be happy in the coming year; to simply experience the happiness that has been within us all along.

 

There are some rules of thumb about these resolutions. Don’t be too grandiose. Don’t set goals of perfection. Small steps with a recognition that you won’t always be successful are recommended. Make a resolution to practice mindfulness. Pick a practice that you not only can do, but that you can comfortably sustain. The only one perfect right practice is the one that you’ll do and keep doing. It may be meditation, yoga, body scan, tai chi or qigong, contemplative prayer, or another of the many available practices or some combination of practices. The only thing that matters is that you’re drawn to it, comfortable doing it, and you’ll stick with it. Once you start, don’t try too hard. Remember the Buddha recommended the middle way, with right effort, not too much and not too little. Practice nonjudgmentally. Don’t judge whether you’re doing it right or wrong, whether the particular practice was good or bad, or whether you’re making progress or not. Just practice. Just relax and let the practice do you. You don’t need to do it.

 

Focus on Now

 

All of these various practices promote nonjudgmental attention to what is occurring in the present moment, the now. Slowly you come to realize that the now is the only time available where you can be satisfied and happy. The past are only nows that are gone and the future are only nows that have yet to happen. So, focus on the present moment. It’s where life happens. If you can learn to be happy right now, then you’ll be able to happy in the future when it becomes now. As you look calmly, nonjudgmentally, and deeply at what is happening right now you begin to see the beauty and wonder that is there all of the time. You just need to stop ruminating about the past and worrying about the future. Learn to enjoy the moment.

 

Focusing on the present moment the impermanence of all things becomes evident. In the present we can observe things rising up and then falling away. Change is constant. If things are bad at the moment, you can be sure that it’ll change. So, be patient. On the other hand, if things are good, know also that this will change too. Don’t try to hang onto what is present. Learn to enjoy the moment as it is. These observations reveal that every moment is new. It has never happened before and it will never happen again. Every moment is a new opportunity. Don’t worry about it passing. The next moment will again provide a new opportunity. Make the most of it. If you can learn to do this, you’ll enjoy life to its fullest, as the dynamically changing perpetual now.

 

Renewal

 

In the new year, we need to not think about a “happy new year.” Rather think about a “happy new day.” In fact, it’s best to think about each “happy new moment.” Focus on the present moment and wish yourself and everyone else a “happy new moment.” Every moment is a unique opportunity to experience life as it is, appreciate its wonder, and enjoy it while it’s here, in the present moment. Each moment is an opportunity for renewal. If we’re not happy in the moment, we can be in the next. We have a new opportunity every new moment. If we pay attention to them, we can use the opportunity to create happiness.

 

So, have a “happy new moment” with mindfulness.

 

“Empty your glass and feel your way through this New Year. If it feeds your soul, do it. If it makes you want to get out of bed in the morning with a smile, carry on. Be present and let your energy synchronise with the earth and give you the clarity to move forward and be comfortable and contented with who you are. Let your intuition guide you through a wonderful year and attract an abundance of positive opportunity.” – Alfred James

 

“Many of us are thinking about new year’s resolutions and taking stock at this time, but how many of those typical resolutions are just ‘self’ improvement projects (which means we’re trying to get more, be more or have more) rather than ways to actually embrace the life we already have right here and now?” – Mrs. Mindfulness

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

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