Why Practice Mindfulness? by Charlotte Bell

Charlotte Bell Mindfulness

Last July, I had the good fortune to sit an 18-day meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, California. Often as I prepare to embark on retreat, friends will comment that sitting in silence for several weeks sounds relaxing. As anyone who has endured multiple days of uninterrupted sitting and walking meditation practice knows, it’s not a trip to the beach.  

The barrage of annoying chatter and ingrained patterns of neurosis that come to the surface when you stop and pay attention is humbling. Aiming the monkey mind at the present moment is way more challenging than herding cats.

So why do I subject myself to it? Why not take that trip to the beach instead? Every retreat since my first 5-day venture has led me to understanding I could never have imagined. More than anything else, this is what fuels and inspires me. This year was no different, and in some ways, it was the culmination of my 28 years of practice.

On the first day of the retreat, I received the results of a biopsy I’d had a few days earlier. The biopsy showed a malignant tumor in my left breast. The tumor was very small, but still the words “invasive ductal carcinoma” slammed into me like a runaway train. The adrenaline rush lasted most of the day.

As the concept—breast cancer!—began to sink in, predictable mental and emotional states appeared: fear, anxiety and grief for the healthy, low-maintenance body I’ve enjoyed all these years. Remarkably absent was the frenzied commentary I fully expected after so many years of watching my mind intimately.

There was no “Why me?” or “Poor me,” or “What did I do to deserve this?” or any of the myriad judgments my mind would have added to the same situation 20 years ago. In fact, most of the time, I felt buoyed by a deep, underlying well of equanimity. The situation was most certainly not what I would wish for, but my mind, after so many years of practice, had been trained not to make matters worse.

The first nine days of the retreat were devoted to metta (lovingkindness) practice. This created a soft field of kindness around the emotions I was experiencing. A week into the retreat, metta gave way to equanimity.

From equanimity came overwhelming gratitude, not for the cancer of course, but for the years of hard work that had allowed me to sit with the reality of a potentially life-threatening condition without losing balance. When I reported the situation and my response to it to meditation teacher and author Joseph Goldstein, he said, “This is why we practice.”

This is absolutely true. While mindfulness is recently being touted for its ability to help us focus and “get ahead” among other benefits, its original intention was to help us navigate the inherent suffering in our lives.

The Buddha first became aware of suffering inherent in our human lives while on a clandestine trip out of the palace where he was born and lived. On this journey, he encountered a person wracked with old age, another wasting away from illness, a human corpse, and an awakened person. In the face of old age, sickness and death, what was it that the awakened being had discovered that allowed him to be at peace with the suffering in the world? This began a seven-year journey into extreme asceticism—to counter the opulence he’d grown up with—and finally, a realization that neither extreme leads to happiness. The “middle way” is the path

From this understanding emerged the Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering, the truth of the causes of suffering (clinging to what is impermanent, which is everything in our conditioned experience), the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path to the end of suffering.

No matter how much yoga we practice, how healthy our diet or how stress-free our lives, we all age, experience illness and eventually, pass out of our bodies. We will all experience gain and loss, and pleasure and pain, multiple times throughout our lives. This is not a mistake. It is simply the way our lives unfold. Our choice is in how we meet these inevitable ups and downs. And as I’ve discovered, we can train our minds to respond to life’s vicissitudes with equanimity and grace.

The retreat also reminded me in no uncertain terms how unsustainable my life had become. Working four jobs and taking off maybe three or four days a year is not how I want to spend this precious life. This has become even more apparent as I move through the cancer treatment process, which is far more complicated than I’d imagined. I’m still figuring out how to find the middle way that allows me to pay my bills, negotiate the cancer process, and add some much-needed down time to my life.

I sometimes experience sadness, stress and worry. Sometimes I get caught in these emotions. Sometimes I don’t. Practice has taught me to be okay with the times when I get caught. No need to add judgment to an already less-than-ideal situation. Equanimity, including accepting my mind’s unhealthy patterns, has become my baseline.

This is why I practice. The underlying field of equanimity I discovered on retreat remains through the highs and lows of this new unfolding process. It is always present, even when things ought to be unbearable. To my teachers and mentors, I feel nothing but gratitude for supporting me on this life path. May all beings be at ease, no matter what path they choose.

Charlotte Bell Charlotte, founder of the Mindful Yoga Collective, has been practicing yoga since 1982, and began teaching in 1986. Certified by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1989, she has established and taught regular classes along Utah's Wasatch Front, and in California and Hawaii. For her full bio, click here

A Different Approach to New Year's Resolutions by Scott Moore

Scott Moore

There are a few things that run rampant this time of year: top ten lists, post-Christmas/end of year sales, and of course New Year's Resolutions.

Personally, I chafe at the term resolution. In years past, a resolution represented an expectation. When life invariably went a different way than my expectation, I became disenchanted with the whole notion of my resolution.

I heard this recently, "Expectations are premeditated disappointment." This notion turned me on to the idea of setting my sights toward something in the new year, different than a resolution but an intention.

Yoga celebrates the idea that life can be a practice with room to course-correct as things change day to day. An intention for the new year rather than a resolution suggests there is room to move, grow, and adjust as the circumstances invariably so as well. So now, I set New Year's intentions instead of resolutions.

Surely there is commitment involved. Sometimes this can get us into trouble unless we see that we are committing to something larger. Here's what I mean. I have a really good friend who last year set her New Year Resolution to run five miles every day for the month of January. So on Jan. 1, she dusted off her old running shoes and without having run for years previous, hit the pavement. She felt great. . . for like 10 minutes. Then her joints and muscles started to hurt. But that's par for the course, right? Exercise is sometimes a bit of a sacrifice, right? Well, she was committed and kept running and after a week or so, she called me in a panic, "Scotty! What do I do?! I'm running every day and I feel terrible." Her muscles were killing her, inflamed and unhappy. She started to develop some pretty serious conditions in her Achilles tendons and hips. We have a mutual friend who is a gifted and seasoned physical therapist. She told my friend to stop running immediately and start therapy for her aching body parts, which she did immediately, all too happy to have permission to abandon her new year's resolution.

But what about the commitment and resolution and all that? My thought was that in addition to setting our sights for a goal or something for us to grow into—maybe eating better, improving our yoga practice, or running—do we have the commitment and foresight to take ALL the steps necessary to ensure the longevity of our intention? Maybe start by buying a new pair of shoes, researching a bit about running, and start by walking regularly, then running a little, walking a little, then finally running. It might take a few months to start the kind of discipline we'd imagined for ourselves but we've done it in a way that will help ensure our own wellness and optimal growth.

And take on your New Year’s intention like a practice, with room to course correct along the way when things invariably go differently than maybe you’d hoped.

I invite you to commit New Year's Intentions, something that will help you grow and understand yourself better in a way that is completely satisfying and long-lasting. I invite you to commit to the entire process which might mean starting off slowly and arriving at a rigorous pace a bit later on. This follows the yogic principle of balancing life with two essential elements: steadiness and ease (sthirim and sukham).

Hopefully this way we can all enjoy our opportunity for new growth rather than torture ourselves with it. And by the way, deepening your yoga practice is perhaps the best way I know of growing Self. It also compliments any other intention we have for the growth of our physical, emotional, or spiritual being.

SCOTT MOORE is a yoga instructor who is passionate about helping his clients feel alive, grounded, and purposeful through the art and practice of yoga and meditation. He's spent the past 15 years studying, practicing, and teaching yoga and meditation. To read Scott's full bio, click here.

Mindful Eating: A Habit to Savor by Charlotte Bell

Charlotte Bell Mindfulness

On every silent Insight Meditation retreat I’ve attended—at The Last Resort in Southern Utah, or at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California—meals have always been always been the most reliable source of daily pleasure. This is partially due to the expertise and caring of the people who plan and prepare the meals, which are always wholesome, flavorful and prepared with love.

Another reason retreat food brings such pleasure is that it’s not up to me to plan the menu, buy and assemble the ingredients, and prepare the food. I love to cook, but I also love to be surprised. It’s wonderful to walk into the dining hall not knowing what’s in store, but knowing it will be delicious and fortifying, because it always is.

Perhaps the most important element in the enjoyment of retreat food is that after days or weeks of practicing mindfulness, every activity—sitting, walking, showering, doing your yogi job and eating—becomes a part of the practice. Slowing down and being present with your daily activities makes everything you do more satisfying.

Here are some of the benefits I’ve noticed from eating mindfully:

  • The Textures and flavors of food spring to life.
  • Slowing down helps digestion.
  • I tend to eat less because I'm more aware of when my body is full; I eat what I need rather than what I want.

Eating mindfully is really common sense. But most of us lead busy lives, juggling many responsibilities. We often eat on the fly, or multitask while we’re eating. I’m as guilty as anyone, but I do try to slow down and enjoy at least one meal every day. Here are some tips that might help you cultivate a mindful eating habit:

  • Set a doable intention. Start with something easy, maybe eating one meal each day—or even each week—slowly and mindfully. Intentions are powerful. Deciding that you’re going to explore mindful eating is the first step.
  • Invite a buddy. If you have a partner or family, encourage them to join you. It’s a lot easier to start a new practice when you and a friend can keep each other inspired. For example, you could commit to sitting down to one mindful family meal each day. If you can’t do it every day, then try three times a week, or once a week.
  • Start with a moment of silence. Before digging in, take a few moments to savor the sights and smells emanating from your plate. Cultivate gratitude.
  • Be mindful of the entire process. Here’s how this might look: Be aware of the movements and sensations in your arm and hands as you reach for your utensils. Feel the weight, texture, coolness or warmth of your fork, spoon or knife. Follow the movement of your hand and arm as you move it toward your plate. Feel the weight of the food on your fork or spoon as you lift it toward your mouth. Be mindful of the movements of your jaw and teeth, and the flavors and textures of the food you’re eating. Chew, with presence, until the food is completely broken down. Be present with swallowing.
  • On one meditation retreat at Spirit Rock, Sally Armstrong talked about the practice of “putting down the fork.” Quite often we’ve already got our next bite on the fork, ready to shovel in, before we’ve finished the food we’re currently chewing. Instead, while you’re chewing your food, set your fork or spoon on your plate and refrain from picking it back up until you’re ready for another bite.
  •  If you like to journal, write down your experiences. Writing can help you clarify your intentions and the benefits of your practice.
  • Mindful meals don’t have to be at home. You can follow all these steps when you enjoy restaurant fare

It’s not always easy to develop new habits, so go easy on yourself. Set your intention, but know that you may not always be able to make good on it. If you miss a day, it’s okay. You can begin again with your next meal.

Eating is essential. Consuming healthy, nourishing food replenishes our prana. We’re going to eat anyway, so why not pay attention?

CHARLOTTE BELL, founder of the Mindful Yoga Collective, has been practicing yoga since 1982, and began teaching in 1986. Certified by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1989, she has established and taught regular classes along Utah's Wasatch Front, and in California and Hawaii.  To read Charlotte's full bio, click here.

Setting Sail: Riding the Wave to Calmer Seas

Do you know the feeling of easefully sailing through life and then in the next moment feeling as if you are pushing against a strong head wind? A natural response to conflict or pain is Resistance; an instinctual desire to push away the difficulty or wanting to rid ourselves of the discomfort. Why? Because turning toward pain is a vulnerable process and if we don't have the tools (yet) to sooth the vulnerable part of ourselves we tend to push away from it. If we buy into the story that we will be swallowed up by our own vulnerability then we feed the resistant behavior. This familiar cycle to many of us leads to more pain and difficulty. We may spend hours if not days, months or even years ruminating and replaying the details of an event, blaming others, anything really to avoid accepting what has happened and moving in the direction of empowered course correction. Can you relate to what I am talking about? However, if we acknowledge and honor the unpleasant feelings that accompany resistance then we free our minds & hearts to make a clear course correction and to adjust our sails to move with the changing winds. This requires courage to acknowledge what we are feeling, compassionate tools to nurture the part of us feeling anxious or upset, and to consciously choose a new course of compassionate action.

Suffering has many appearances: outward suffering such as a broken arm, inner suffering such as anxiety and depression, and the deepest seeds of suffering such as belief systems that keep us in a place of separateness. The way we respond to our own suffering will either perpetuate suffering through varying degrees of violence toward ourselves or others or will turn into a healing and growth opportunity. The way we response to Resistance and Suffering will determine the course of our life. 

When we find ourselves distracted, blaming and sending negativity to another we can remember that this is likely a sign that we are personally suffering and what we truly need is to take honest and nurturing care of the part of us who begs for nurturance. Many people have not been shown or taught self-nurturance and may find relief in seeking support from a trusted friend or mental wellness professional to gain self-compassion skills. Others possess self-compassion skills and must courageously dig deep to bring mindful awareness to the conditioned habits of responding to suffering. Wherever we land on the continuum, the path to healing is clear. Move on over shame and fear, move on in Self-Compassion. 

When we find ourselves feeling resistance (gentle reminder: pushing away the difficult sensations rather than turning toward and soothing the part of us who is in pain) we can use this awareness as a reminder that a course correction is required to locate smoother waters. It can be helpful to reframe the role of resistance in our lives so that we might actually welcome it. Rather than resistance serving as an avoidance tool it can serve as a reminder for self-compassion. It is as if we have a built in compass which offers moment to moment feedback requiring courageous course correction urging us to a path of living life with greater ease...adjusting our sails with each deep breath. 

In meditation the metaphor of the vast ocean is often used to remind us that underneath the wave lies a vast, still and peaceful ocean. When we practice  slowing down and responding compassionately to the suffering in life we will find peace, clarity and hope even in raging storms . The wave IS the ocean, wherever a wave has formed there is calmness below. 

This post was shared from beccapeters.com.