Wait! Wait! Wait! Wait!

A recurring theme in much of the reading I’ve been doing lately has been living in the present moment, and, related to that, mindfulness. Eckhart Tolle, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, even Arianna Huffington, all modern teachers of living in the present and mindfulness

I have seen quoted, time and again, on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and everywhere, ” if you’re depressed, you’re living in the past, if you’re anxious, you’re living in the future.” The only time in which we actually live, the only time we can actually make a difference and have any impact, is the present. Have you tried to live and think only in the present moment? Even for thirty seconds? Not so easy, is it?

And, so, enters “mindfulness”, the practice of noticing and acknowledging thoughts as they enter your mind, and then, filtering out those that are based in the past, or in the future. More than that, mindfulness also allows us to identify, acknowledge, and hopefully, derail thoughts that are not beneficial; judgmental thoughts, limiting thoughts, comparisons, and self-critical thoughts, among others.

A practice that helps us hone our mindfulness skills is meditation, and one that all the authors above practice, preach, and promote. I’ve been practicing meditation, off and on, for a few years. Lately, though, in an effort to evolve, I’ve been making a daily practice of meditation. Like yoga, meditation is not something that is ever perfected, it is something, always, that is practiced. Even well practiced meditators, Buddhist monks, even the Dalai Lama himself, have days where their meditative practice is more or less fruitful than others.

I remember the first time I ever really tried meditating; first feeling very self-conscious sitting there with my eyes closed, legs crossed, on the floor. Even though I was alone in my room. I didn’t quite know what to do with my hands, I tried them this way, then that way, then another, flopping them around in my lap like a couple of recently landed fish on the shore. I remember trying to empty my mind of thoughts, I remember not being able to empty my mind of thoughts for more than a split second. I remember getting kind of discouraged and not really trying to meditate again for quite a while. Months later, still reading of its benefits, I attempted meditation again. Again, dissatisfaction with my ability.

When I migrated my yoga practice from my living room a la DVD to the gym, a guided meditation became part of my routine with each class. Still, I struggled with the mindfulness part, but, out of peer pressure, at least I remained still and in good meditative form for the duration. Like yoga, with practice, I improved at meditation during class, and even with mindfulness. On one occasion, I became so mindful I almost dozed off.

In my daily practice, at home, or wherever I happen to be, I feel as though I am gaining ground. Of course, I’ve really committed myself to the practice this time around. And, by “committed” I mean I’ve committed in the best way I know how; I’ve spent money. I’ve bought a dozen Kindle books, I’ve downloaded several guided meditation MP3s from iTunes and Amazon, and I even have a whole folder of iPhone apps with different guided meditations and soothing noises. I even went so far as to order myself a “tuffet” and a “dog bed”, though I think the proper terminology for these items is “zafu” and “zabuton”. Now that I’m heavily invested, I am compelled to practice, regularly, or be consumed with guilt every time I trip over my tuffet and matching dog bed on the floor of my room.

By the way, this is an oft-employed strategy of mine for remembering all sorts of things; put something on the floor in the tripping zone as a reminder. If I don’t want to forget something when I run errands or leave on a trip, I make sure it’s on the floor where I can’t help but trip on it. I even taught my son, Dogwood, this trick, and he employs it often. So this isn’t something just for the middle aged and forgetful. Dogwood will remember something he needs to do in the morning, after he’s gone to bed, so he just takes one of the pillows on his bed and throws it in the middle of the floor. The next morning, he sees the pillow and remembers what he’s supposed to do. At my age, though, if I just see a random pillow on the floor, I just get confused. My tripping objects need to be specifically related to what it is I am trying to remember. Just a strategy, in case you’re so mindful and in the present moment, you forget everything else!

Still, with all the equipage, props and practice, I struggle. More than I should, I think. But I’m committed and I just keep trying. A few things I’ve learned, I thought I’d share, in case you’re in the same boat as me.

First of all, “bed-itation” does not work. In “Zen and the Art of Running”, a great book I read earlier this year, the author, Larry Shapiro, PhD, warns of “sleeping hazards” when meditating. For me, that’s just about anything that isn’t rock hard, cold or incredibly noisy. The Dalai Lama, in “The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living” while speaking at a large event, warns attendees, all 1,500 of them, that they are likely to fall asleep during a group meditation he leads. “In Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, “Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness,” he recommends, daily, for eight weeks, a forty-five minute guided “body scan” meditation, lying on your back in “a quiet, warm place where you won’t be interrupted by anyone, or by the phone”. I don’t even have to be lying down to fall asleep in a quiet, warm place where I won’t be interrupted! The body scan begins with becoming aware of the breath, then moves to the left, big toe, then up the body to the top of the head. I can usually remain awake for the left big toe. I regain consciousness again at the top of the head. Sometimes. Other times, I don’t regain consciousness until the audio has moved to another track, like rap music. And, yes, I’ve tried the body scan guided meditation in bed. I fell asleep on the second deep breath. Bedi-tation, a sleeping hazard. Hardwood floor offers some success. Be advised.

Another problem I’ve experienced in effective meditation practice; the medi-libation. I usually practice meditation first thing in the morning (bedi-tation), mid- day for a brief spell, if I can, and before bed. Well, sometime between my mid-day meditation, the end of my workday, and dinner, I like to have a beer. After dinner, I like to have a glass, or two, or three, of red wine. Needless to say, my late night meditation is very relaxed. I do not recommend libations any time before or in conjunction with meditation, I did order my zafu and zabuton in wine color, just in case. Now, for insomnia? Medi-libation, in moderation, may be just the thing!

So now that I have a tuffet and a dog bed, I practice my meditation seated, and (reasonably) sober. I am having more success remaining awake. I am still struggling, and probably always will, with mindfulness. I am improving, but I have to be very mindful about being mindful. And, as I mentioned above, I’m in good company, even the monks themselves still practice this for hours and hours each and every day!

So, mindfulness; focusing on the present and being alert and aware of thoughts that enter the mind, then letting them pass like water in a stream. Piece of cake! No, really, among a bazillion other random thoughts, I am likely to picture a piece of cake, then a zebra, then, perhaps, a Tesla Model S P85. I’m likely to think of what to have for dinner, that cute shop in New York City where I saw all those Christian Louboutin shoes, learning to fishing, my next business trip or Disneyland. I also write articles. Every great idea I want to write about begins as an article, drafted in my head, during meditation. I can’t help it. But, I’ve devised a plan.

Every time I catch my mind wandering, I just tell myself “Wait! Wait! Wait!”

WAIT! What Am I Thinking. It’s an acronym, get it? When my mind wanders and I am trying to be still, I tell myself to “wait”, I take notice of what I’m thinking and then let it pass. Mindfulness. Yes.

Tuffet and dog bed
Tuffet and dog bed

WAIT! When Am I Thinking. If I catch myself focusing on any time but the present, I remind myself to “wait”. I can even think about the past, in the future; I plan how I’m going to recount events and circumstances from the past, in a future conversation. And I bet you do too! How “not in the present” is that? Wait! Presence.

Zafu and zabuton (tuffet and dogbed)
Zafu and zabuton (tuffet and dog bed)

WAIT! Who Am I Thinking. When I catch myself thinking about people, especially if I am thinking judgmentally or am making comparisons, I just have to remind myself to wait.

Wait! Wait! Wait! Wait!
Wait! Wait! Wait! Wait!

WAIT! Where Am I Thinking. My mind wanders! It’s normal, I know, but as a reminder, when I want to be more focused, I just remind myself to “wait”.

I tell myself to “wait, wait, wait, wait” when I get off track during my meditation practice AND when I catch myself dwelling on past events, future scenarios, limiting, or undesirable thoughts or when I just need to focus and my mind has wandered. It works great! I swear by it! But, be warned, people will look at you a bit askance if you’re shopping for shoes or filling your car up with gas and you suddenly look startled and yell, “Wait! Wait! Wait! Wait! then smile and go peacefully back to what you were doing. This from experience.

So, I guess to sum up my very mindful thoughts, today, I’d have to say, just stop, wait, and listen. Namaste.

 

Limbo

I was having wine with a couple of my besties last night, just talking about life. We all had news since we last visited, life goes on and on and on. After updating us on all the developments in her extended family life, one friend stated, “we’re just in limbo right now.” I thought about my life and all the events and developments that have accumulated since last I shared with my friends, I’m in limbo, too. Aren’t we all, though? Aren’t we always? Always waiting for the next step; to grow up, the party, Christmas, the right person, summer vacation, the house, the proposal, the raise, the baby to arrive, the end of the school year, the settlement, the promotion, vacation, the kids to go to school, the crisis to end, graduation, the divorce to be final, the economy to recover, the equity in the house to grow, the diagnosis, the kids to go to college, retirement, the cure, death. Life is constant transition, always in waiting, always in limbo. The only certain resolution to being in a state of limbo is death. As long as we are alive, we are in limbo in some respect or another. Perhaps several.

Interestingly, if you look up limbo in Wikipedia, the first result is the theological reference, based on the Latin word “limbus”, meaning the edge or boundary. Of hell. Often, in life, finding ourselves in a state of limbo equates to a hellish experience, does it not?

Transitioning from one phase in life to another, from one circumstance to the next, from a situation to another situation, from one problem to a resolution and on to the next problem, this is really what life is made of. And to live happily along the way, not hellishly. Like walking, one foot in front of the other, repeat, repeat, repeat and if we stop, we are no longer walking. Are we walking towards hell or are we walking happily?

I used to love to go to the roller skating rink on the weekends. There was nothing I didn’t love; free skate, races, couples skate, reverse skate, the red light/green light game. My very favorite, though, was the limbo game. I was good at it, I could bend way down low and glide right under the bamboo stick even at the lowest setting. There was a trick to winning limbo on roller skates; you needed good forward motion, you had to be flexible, have a good sense of balance, and a certain amount of strength, and courage. You had to have the courage to try again and again as the bamboo pole was lowered, inch by inch, turn by turn.  All of this was accomplished with lots and lots of practice, week after week.

Is limbo, in life, really any different than limbo at the roller skating rink? I don’t think so. And since we are in a constant state of limbo, in life, doesn’t it make sense to approach it happily, like a game, instead of like the verge of hell?

To win at limbo at the roller rink, first of all, you need to be skating. Forward. You need to be in motion, to have momentum. So, too, in life. To make progress in one phase and move onto the next, you need to be in motion, to be moving forward, with momentum. With intention. With deliberation. Nothing ever gets better that stays the same. Motion is critical, in life, in limbo.

Skating under a bamboo pole, set at increasingly lower intervals, is tricky. In addition to actually moving forward, you need to be flexible enough to crouch under the pole. So, too, in life, when we’re in limbo, we need to have significant flexibility. To change, to evolve, to progress, to move, from one set of circumstances on to the desired set of circumstances almost always requires some sort of compromise, some sort of change of plans. The more flexible we are, the more adaptable we are, the more creative we are, the easier it is to find a workable solution to anything we encounter. Rigidity, inflexibility and stubbornness usually result in a lack of progress, stalemate, delay, anger, and frustration. Openness, a willingness to consider a number of possible solutions will often get us through limbo more successfully.

Strength and balance, both, are crucial to successfully skating beneath that bamboo pole. As well in life. We need to have the strength to see things through, no matter how difficult. We must have balance, the ability to focus on the right things, at the right time, to make the desired progress.  Those who fell as they tried to skate beneath the pole lacked either strength, or balance, or both. Those who falter in life often lack the strength and balance to progress as desired.

Life, like limbo, requires courage. Life is not for the meek, the timid or the weak at heart. Without courage, life is merely an existence. To face and overcome obstacles, challenges, and problems, to achieve goals and realize our dreams, to evolve into the people we deserve to be, requires a great deal of courage. Daily, we must face our fears and press on, lest we remain in limbo, never realizing anything close to our potential, always existing on the edge, the verge, the boundary.

And none of this is possible without practice. No one ever gets everything right, in fact, we almost always get it wrong a few times before we do get it right. The first time you roller skate towards the limbo pole, you’re probably going to fall, or knock the pole off the stand, how sad to give up then and there. Play the next round and the next and the next until you develop the skill to skate beneath the pole. With each and every obstacle in life that puts us in limbo, we need to approach it, and if needed, approach it again and again, until we figure out how to get past it. With each success will come a new challenge, and with practice, each challenge will become easier to skate under! With practice, we develop the right motion, the balance, the strength and the courage to succeed, in the game and in life.

So lace up your skates and enjoy your day at the rink and when you hear the limbo song begin, get ready to play!