Sunday, August 11, 2013

Mindfulness in Prayer: Eat an Orange

Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. It is a way to observe your thoughts and feelings without putting any sort of value judgement on them.  It is living in the moment and paying attention to all that is offered within that moment.  

Praying mindfully is a way of paying close attention to where your thoughts and emotions are, acknowledging them without judgment and allowing yourself to sit with all of the nuances, conflicts, affirmations, and sheer variety of human experience. Have you ever been in a situation where you were flaming angry, or deeply sad, yet could also see gratitude or relief, hope, excitement, hatred, compassion, regret and a whole world of other sensations there at the same time?

As a psychologist I have often counseled people in grief, devastated by the loss of a loved one, and tortured with relief that a death long in coming also brought time to rest and the ease of responsibility, and tremendous guilt that comes along with that relief. This scenario is all too common, not just in grief, but in many troubles and delights as well.  Life is rarely so plain and simple that we experience only one side of a coin when encountering almost any event, pleasurable or miserable.

A path to clarity, calm and connectedness is to allow all of those mixed, conflicting, mis-matched, swirling thoughts and feelings to be as they are, without judging them as good or bad, useful or not, or revealing something desirable or not about ourselves. 

Like many other prayer practices, it is a useful tool and a skill that can be learned.

As such, to this I say, eat an orange.

Find a time of quiet, make yourself comfortable, and eat an orange.  As you choose it, peel or slice it, bite it, chew it, swallow it, pay very close attention to each action. How does the orange feel in your hand? Is your mouth watering? Does your lip twitch in anticipation of the taste?

As you peel it, does the peel get under your fingernails? Does that cause you some discomfort? Does juice squirt out from the fruit? Notice the stringiness of the white pith. The dimples of the zest. The weight of the fruit. Take the time to notice everything you can that comes with the action of peeling the orange.  

Take a bite. Do you peel off a section? Cut the fruit into quarters? Do you just bite into the whole fruit? What do you experience in that bite? Is it juicy and sweet? Tart? Dry? Woody? How does it feel sliding over your teeth and tongue? What do you experience as you chew? How does your throat feel? Your jaw? Are you salivating? Is there juice on your cheek or hands? Does the pulp of the fruit feel different in your mouth than the pith? Are there seeds? Do you swallow them or spit them out? What does the fruit smell like? What does it sound like to chew? When you swallow, what do you notice? Does it go down smoothly or stick in your throat? Does the taste linger on your palate? Do you feel sticky? Can you feel it move down your esophagus? 

Take your time. Linger. Take another bite. Ponder it. Relish in it. Soak up every tiny nuance of the experience of biting, chewing and swallowing, of your thoughts and feelings while eating. Immerse yourself fully into each moment of your encounter with this orange. 

That, my friends, is mindfulness.

Do the same as you ponder the ebb and flow of each day, of each prayer. Allow yourself to acknowledge and experience all of the aspects of wherever you are, whatever you are dealing with, hoping for, wishing for, grieving about. There are always two sides to the coin of all we experience in life. Allowing yourself to experience them both and in all of their complexities and nuances will open yourself up to wholeness and healing.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Monkey Brain

My post this week is going to take a direction I have not taken before. I'm going to write less about using a prayer practice and more about Monkey Brain and how it can absolutely gut prayer. 

I started taking Tai Chi lessons last week. I have had a few lessons in the past, but it was not an art I have every really studied.  I have been interested in learning most of my life, but I never found a class I liked. Until last week. I now find myself in that exhilarating and agonizing place of realizing fully that someone has been dropped into my life in this place, in this time, for a reason. Part of me is fascinated in this realization, and part of me is terrified- and what is worse, there is very simply no where to hide. My instructor (or "Sifu" in the trade) has me pegged. He had me pegged two minutes after we met. It feels like one of those dreams where you show up at school naked. But, I digress.

In case you have not noticed yet, prayer, for me, is a rhythmic thing. Just about any practice that has a steady rhythm to it will draw me into a deeply transcendent place. 

Except when it doesn't.

Meet Fred
And in that place, is Fred. You know that voice in your head? The one that rambles on and on, endlessly yammering and distracting you? Even criticizing, nagging, and being a general pain in the noggin'? In lots of different mental disciplines, that little voice is called Monkey Brain.  My Monkey Brain's name is Fred (and I apologize to all of the real "Freds" out there- no slight intended).

I was not in a productive place during my Tai Chi class tonight. Actually, Fred was in fabulous form and I spent most of the class fighting off anger, frustration, and tears. I could not clear the worries and frustrations of the day from my mind, nor could I leave them to God. Fred kept up a downright admirable volley of distracting commentary, and when that did not break my resolve to FOCUS ON THE TASK AT HAND, he got nasty. There was no worry, no insecurity, no fear that Fred did not lob at me tonight. I tried putting him the back room. I tried sticking him in the truck of the car. I tried tying him to the backyard fence.  

I think that just made Fred that much more determined to press me, and in the end, Fred won. Class ended with me in tears and I beat it out of there as fast as I could without looking like I was trying to achieve warp speed sans dilithium crystals. I cried all the way home, cried while I fed the cats, and cried in the shower, all with Fred chanting "you suck!"

Ok, this is not a bid for sympathy. There is no need to send cards or encouraging e-mail, (though Belgian chocolates are never out of line). Sometimes you get into that place you want to be, and sometimes you don't, and sometimes you miss the mark SO badly that you wonder why you ever try. The point is, my friends, to continue to turn back to whatever discipline you practice that creates that space where you encounter the Holy. The obstacles and "failures" are insignificant. Ignore them. They are just Monkey Brain distractions on steroids. It is in those times where Monkey Brain is the strongest and we are the weakest that God meets us. It is the reaching out, it is the invitation to engage, the desire for relationship that counts, regardless and in spite of everything else.

So, Fred, tonight when I am finished saying my prayers and I settle into bed to practice abdominal breathing, I am introducing you to a roll of duct tape.

Good night, Sifu. Tomorrow is another day.