Befriending the Body

Lily wants to meditate. She’s pretty good at “downward dog.”

My body and I haven’t always gotten along. Eleven years ago I had surgery on my low back. The doc said I would be good as new in 6-8 weeks. It took a solid year, but I finally made a good recovery. Then, six years ago, I started having pain in my hands and arms. I went through a lot of specialists, ruling out everything from carpal tunnel to rheumatoid arthritis. I finally ended up with a spinal fusion at C5-C6. At six weeks post op, my surgeon pronounced me “cured” (his exact word) although I was still reporting significant pain and functional limitations. Long and unfortunately typical story, I’ve seen more specialists, had more tests, and of course, done the usual physical therapy and every other kind of therapy you can name. (I haven’t tried accupuncture yet, but I’m actually exploring that now.) I still have pain on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s a mild irritant; other times it’s so intense it makes me sick to my stomach. The main thing I hate about it is that the pain affects my ability to type and use the computer for long periods of time. I’m writing this post in short bursts, which really wrecks my concentration. (I’ve just gotten a voice activated dictation program; I’ve heard there’s a pretty big learning curve, but I’m hopeful). I’ve also found it difficult to travel. Somehow the vibration of the car seems to make the pain flair. But I did not want this to be a post about pain!

This is about Week 2 of the Sharon Salzberg’s meditation challenge based on her book, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation. The purpose of the month is to give participants an overview of meditation. Week 1, which I wrote about here, was about breathing. This week was about mindfulness and the body. One of the exercises involved doing a body scan meditation and letting your awareness move from the breath to other parts of the body–head to toe somewhat in order. The instructions are to simply notice the sensations; no need to label them. It’s natural to try to hold on to sensations you find pleasurable, but you’re encouraged to notice them, but not cling to them. If you find sensations that are uncomfortable, you’re again encouraged to notice, without trying to make them go away. You can follow along with her on an audio version on her website. I tried doing this once, but actually found I did better moving at my own pace. Sharon also posted a really helpful post about working with pain that you can find here.

As I did last week, here are some of my observations from my practice sessions:

  • I have a difficult time not putting things into words. I guess that makes sense with me being a writer. I kept wanting to silently talk to myself while I was doing the exercise. Sharon’s directions suggest trying to move beyond the level of words and just be at the sensation level. This will take a lot more practice for me.
  • Since I was talking to myself, I made sure to be self-compassionate as I did. When I was feeling the sensations in my arm that were painful, I decided to talk sweetly to my arm. “You know arm, you do a lot for me. You basically work hard all day even though you don’t feel good. Thank you for that.”
  • I’d read enough ahead in the book to know a few phrases to throw in. I told my arm I wanted it to be “free of suffering.”
  • Somewhere (maybe in Sharon’s book) I’ve heard the phrases “soften” and “allow.” So I threw those words in liberally. I also tried to “make space” around the pain, and that actually seemed to help a bit.
  • Sharon wrote in her post: “If there is a whole area that is painful, don’t try to take in the whole scope of it…see if you can find the most intense spot and pay attention to that. Notice if it changes – does it get more intense, less intense, stay the same?” I let myself explore the pain and see that it’s actually quite nuanced. I tend to just say, “My arm hurts,” but it’s much more rich and varied and complex than that. Then the thought popped into my mind, “My elbow doesn’t hurt. It actually feels quite divine.” I was excited about that. Wow! It’s not really my whole arm that hurts.
  • Another point in her post I found really helpful was to see what we might be adding on to the pain – “future projection, a lifetime of hurt, self blame, etc.” I could write many posts about the “add-ons” I bring to my pain. Right now as I’m typing, I’m thinking: Am I doing too much? Am I going to hurt worse tomorrow? I’m being stupid. I should stop now. I don’t want to stop. This isn’t fair… The point is to be able to separate the “add-ons” from the actual experience so we know when it’s reasonable to listen to the thoughts and perhaps take some appropriate action, and when to say, “It’s just a thought.”
  • And finally, at the end of week two, Sharon tweeted, “Let the breath lead the way.” As I found the body scan meditation challenging, and I found comfort in her message. All I really need to do is breathe.

By the way, I had no problem noticing the sensation of a 14 pound Bichon on my belly. Does anyone have any tips for dealing with needy, neurotic dogs?

Just Breathe

kellyraeroberts.com

I’ve just finished Week One of Sharon Salzberg’s meditation challenge. As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve always had a difficult time motivating myself to do any kind of formal meditation. Let me give you some background.

My first encounter with meditation was about fifteen years ago. One of the psychologists where I worked gave an informal presentation on meditation and then we had an experiential exercise. I don’t remember the details, except for the part where I started to cry during the experiential part. I was extremely embarrassed and had to leave the room. I’ve had similar experiences  in yoga classes. During the part at the end where it’s more quiet and reflective, I frequently tear up. (I once read in a yoga magazine that this is not unusual, so I guess I’m not too weird.) There’s a huge movement in contemporary psychology to incorporate “mindfulness” into the therapy process, and there’s plenty of research to back up its usefulness. I’ve tried to keep up with all the developments. I took an online course a couple of years ago called Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. I’d never taken an online course–it was actually a lot of work. We had reading to do, assignments, and of course, we were supposed to practice the various mindfulness exercises. Dare I admit that I often skipped the practice part?

I have no idea what I’m afraid of:

  • If I sit still I’ll be consumed with feelings I can’t manage?
  • My inner life will actually bore me to death?
  • I’m incapable of meditating and will be a failure?

So it was with a little trepidation that I committed to this challenge. But I was also excited! There’s a whole website devoted to these 28 days, and there are people blogging about their experiences. Some of the bloggers are experienced meditators, and others are novices. Every day I can peruse the site and see what speaks to me that day.  And there’s a structure to the month (I like structure!) Each week we’re focusing on a different aspect of meditation.

Okay, so back to Week One. Week One was all about the breath. The first aspect of meditation is learning to stabilize  your attention, and the way it’s usually done is by focusing on the breath. The directions are really simple. You take a few deep breaths, and then you just let your breathing settle at its natural pace. She suggests you do this for twenty minutes. When you notice thoughts, you just let them go and bring your attention back to the breath. Easy, right? I’ll include a link at the end of this post to a three-minute video that shows Sharon Salzberg teaching this.

Here are some random realizations I made throughout the week:

  • I can meditate in the middle of a messy room. One day I had the idea to redo the decorations on the fireplace mantle. This led to a lot of other changes–switch out pillows on the couch, bring things in from different rooms… I had stuff everywhere (it looked like a Hobby Lobby clearance sale), and I wasn’t happy with the way it was going. I wanted so badly to finish, or at least clean up and put it back the way it was. Yet time was running out and I needed to get my meditation in.  I was so proud of myself because I sat down, right there in the middle of the mess, and just did it. (I read somewhere that meditation is mostly about sitting down, shutting up, and seeing what happens.)
  • It does not kill me to ignore my phone alerting me of an incoming text, and I will remember to silence it in the future.
  • Sometimes focusing on my breath was relaxing and I felt all warm and tingly. Other times, I felt agitated and wanted to get up before it was time. Both experiences were actually okay.
  • It’s really hard to meditate with dogs around. Lily thinks she needs to be on my lap 24/7! And Larry thinks he’s a cat the way he nuzzles up against me.
  • I got tearful during a few of my sessions, but I was compassionate with myself (yea!) and was able to keep going without it being a huge sob fest (and even that would have been okay).
  • I skipped one day and I didn’t beat myself up about it. I did, however,  rationalize that there are actually 29 days in February this year, so I was still on track for the 28 day challenge.
  • You can’t fail at meditating! Sharon Salzberg talks about “The Magic Moment”–that moment when your attention naturally wanders. It’s in that very moment when you have a choice to act differently. Do you criticize yourself for this lapse in attention? Or do you simply say, “Oh, my mind wandered. Let’s go back to the breath now.” She says the magic moment is the ability to start over.  One day this week I found myself frustrated and getting irritable. It actually crossed my mind to say to myself,  “Hey, this is a magic moment. I can do an attitude adjustment right here and now.” I was amazed that just a few days of meditating was already making a difference.

All in all, Week One was freeing as I realized that every breath is a chance to begin again.

Here’s the link I promised you of Sharon teaching about the breath.

There’s Something About Birds

Photo by Greg Markway

I had planned to write about meditation today. I’m on Day 5 of Sharon Salzberg’s 28 day meditation challenge and I was going to share how it’s going. Here’s the short version: It’s been fairly boring. Actually, it hasn’t been as bad as I thought. I’ve always had this aversion to formal meditation practice. I like to be doing things. I don’t know, but it might be my German heritage that values productivity (which I’m not knocking; productivity has it’s place). I’m just not so good at being. But all the books I’m reading on self-compassion say that meditation and mindfulness are keys to learning to be kind to oneself. So when I read online about this meditation challenge, I thought, “Hey, I’m in.”

So this morning I’m doing my “sitting”–that’s the lingo for meditation practice. My eyes are closed gently and I’m focusing on my breathing the best I can. I’m letting thoughts come and go gently. I’m trying not to be judgmental (I really suck at this) or expect too much (I’m not having any great insights). I start feeling sleepy. I remember reading that if this happens to open your eyes slightly, which I do. Out of the corner of my eye I see all kinds of commotion out on our deck. There are so many birds flying in the trees. Then the dogs, Lily and Larry, go wild barking to be let out the back door. Now I have a dilemma. Do I keep “sitting”? I’m sure advanced meditators are used to dealing with distractions. But this is too big of a distraction. Now Greg is coming from the other room to see what’s going on. Well, my formal meditation practice ends, but my informal mindfulness practice is just beginning.

For about fifteen minutes, I stand there staring at these amazing creatures. I focused on the cedar waxwings, which I’d never seen before. I noticed their beautiful aerodynamic shape with what appeared to be a black mask across their eyes. They had touches of yellow with a fluorescent red tip on their wings. There were also about a half a dozen bluebirds feeding at the same time. I never before realized how much beautiful color could be right outside my window on a winter day.

This is practice, too. Being open to the present moment. Being open to the unexpected.

Greg went and got the camera and took a few pictures. Soon the birds flew away. Ahhh. Change. Moments are here. Then they’re gone.

Yes, this is practice, with all it’s lessons, both boring and beautiful.

Here are a few other pictures Greg took this morning along with some quotes I found:

“Take this tip from nature: The woods would be a very silent place if no birds sang except those who sang best.” –Bernard Meltzer

“In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence.”            –Robert Lynd

“No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.”                                    –William Blake

“A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.”     –Chinese Proverb