Posts Tagged ‘focus’

The Post – The Breath, Compassion, and Pacifiers

March 24, 2008

Over the years I’ve read about or studied different kinds of meditation. Some wanted you to focus on a word or sound repeated over and over, others on a lit candle. More recently the focus was on trying to keep a totally blank mind and completely halt all the “noise” and the 10000 things running through your brain every minute. Of course I failed at all of them…as do most people. You’re so focused on a goal, on doing it perfectly, that when you can’t measure up, you give up out of frustration or despair.

On the flip side, I suspect that if you are lucky enough to achieve what these methods want…or at least you think you achieved it, the danger is that then you might walk around feeling so proud of yourself, so much better than others because “you achieved it.” You can try “not to go there,” but it’s hard, and even if you manage not to be proud, there is also the danger of feeling “overly holy and falsely humble” about your accomplishment.

One of the things I like about Buddhism is it’s emphasis on “Middle path.” No extremes of perfection or failure. This extends to its approach to meditation practice – “acceptance” of, in fact, it’s emphasis on the fact that you’ll never be perfect and it’s not about a goal. It’s always about “letting go and coming back to the breath.” Whether the teacher is Thich Nhat Hanh, from the Zen tradition, or Jack Kornfield from the Theravadan tradition, the point is not to “eradicate” what’s going on in you, but on simply to notice it and let it go on. You don’t waste a lot of energy either trying to get rid of all the thoughts, or giving them more importance than they’re worth. You just notice what is happening, acknowledge it, let it go, and come back to the breath.

Even that though, is easier said than done and human beings have a way of making anything a goal or contest. I think the one part of those instructions that I find most useful is: “Come back to the breath.” The reality is, we will be distracted for the rest of our lives. There’s bills, fights with people, retirement planning, kids, whatever. SOMETHING is always creeping in. That’s being human. And as nice as it is to say “notice it, don’t judge it, just let it go” even that is impossible. Something sticks in our throat and it replays in our heads over and over. Our anger, hurt, pride, despair, fear, will get hooked and we have a hard time letting that go. Accept it. We all do it. We always will. Instead of beating yourself up about any of this you simply, come back to the breath.

At first glance that might seem like a useless approach. Someone more “austere” might say “Well what kind of mental discipline is that?” The point is, it’s not about “discipline.” It’s not about self-flagellation, beating yourself up, getting rid of anything, or trying to be perfect. It’s about being human, and it’s about compassion. Being gentle with yourself. It’s about accepting and loving who you are. Even with all the noise in the brain, you can chuckle at your foibles and still say I’m a good person. I’m full of love, even when I’m distracted.

So why bother learning to treat yourself with compassion in your meditation practice? Because it is the way you train yourself to be compassionate with yourself in life. Instead of expecting yourself to be perfect at jobs, parenting, being a spouse, friend, being a human being, you simply note ‘I did my best. Yup, messed that one up, it happens.’ You pick up the pieces. You make amends. You come back to whatever it was you were trying to do and start over. You “come back to it” again and again and again, with no hope of perfection, simply the willingness to “show up and try again.” So if you can accept with compassion, an imperfect meditation practice and come back to the breath, you can learn to do the same for yourself in life.

Is there a benefit to treating yourself with compassion in life?

Yes. Aside from giving yourself some inner peace and acceptance, it is the only way you can exercise that “heart muscle” and learn to give that same gift to others. If you are so hung up on perfection in yourself, will you learn to cut somebody else any slack? Will you even notice anybody is there struggling, too, if you’re so wrapped up in your own struggle to be perfect? And if you can’t accept yourself as less than perfect, will you be able to accept anybody else’s mis-steps? Come back to the breath. Come back to life. Settle yourself, with compassion.

I often noticed how babies settle down when you give them a pacifier. It’s like they need that to stop whatever is winding up in them, settle down, and come back to calm. I’ve joked that maybe adults need them, too. Something that makes you shut your mouth, take a break from the world, focus on something small, and return to calm.

Given that they don’t have adult pacifiers, perhaps coming back to the breath is the next best thing?

PS People often say animals are intuitive and sometimes animals have more compassion than people. If you think the benefits of coming back to the breath and being peaceful, are limited to humans, check out the CNN article:

Zen (dog) Master: A New Take on Prayer Position

This article has two other lessons about life:

1) Sense of humor – Even in religion, a smile is the most important thing for compassion and inner peace.

2) Beginner’s Mind – Keep an open mind to new possibilities. You might write off the dog’s practice, but how do you know that on some level, he isn’t “feeling” the warmth of the compassion in the practice?

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The Post – Good Friday…Last Book Chapter

March 21, 2008

It is Good Friday. A day for some reason, I have always loved. That, Lent, and Holy Thursday. Easter itself, I hate. It always seemed like such a noisy unnecessary thing after the sanctity of the soul’s connection to God on Thursday and Friday.

I loved growing up in Catholic school and going to Mass every morning. Six days a week while in grammar school, I was in Mass. Six days a week for 8 years, I listened to the stories of Jesus’s life. They were as real to me as my family, truly meaningful, and enjoyed as much as Nancy Drew. The readings that cycled every year, dictated by the seasons of the liturgical calendar were as much a part of my life and soul as the leaves changing color, skies staying steely gray, and the crisp cold that smelled of snow dictated by the changing seasons of New England.

Every year there was a constancy, a rhythm, something you could count on to return to. No matter what else happened in life – those were my touchstones. Raking leaves into piles you could jump into, short days and long nights, cold Halloweens with orange full moons in costumes bought at the discount store, my grandfather bringing pails of sand/salt mix home from the Town Garage, the rhythm of those happenings matched the Advent wreath candles and the church readings as we marched toward Christmas.

The anticipation of Christ’s birth matched the anxiety of waiting for Santa Claus. Midnight Mass in a candle-lit church, boughs of pine branches decorating the walls and door arches, being with all those old Slovak immigrants I knew so well, who built that church, even the way they filled the pews inside – old men on one side in the back, old women on the other side in the back, the younger families (unsegregated) in the rows in front of them – all those images and happenings was as much loved and needed by me, as going home to open presents. In looking back, I think actually, that those moments in the church surrounded by those people, those images, those sights, sounds, and smells, are what I remember more than going home and opening presents.

While the church images are crisp, the presents are kind of a fog. A few stand out: a Jon Gnagy art set, a microscope with dissecting kit, a map-making set, my Dick Tracy machine gun with Marine Corps helmet, canteen, and pistol, and in ironic contrast – soft warm new flannel pajamas, and a plastic carrying case with new pretty underwear each one labeled for a day of the week. Perhaps the ones that stand out in my memory are there because they connected with those parts of who I really am. …as to the days-of-the-week underwear…maybe that’s why I love planners???? 🙂 But the bottom line is that if I were told today that my memory was going and I could only retain certain memories and lose the rest, it is those memories of early weekday mornings in church, and holidays spent there, that I would choose.

So it is that same connection that continues to influence me throughout the rest of the year’s happenings and the rest of the year’s liturgical seasons. While I hate Easter – always HATED having to go buy a new dress and coat, then stand around like a china doll with an itchy crinolin slip, shiny shoes, straw hat and purse, and gloves (gloves – why wear something you always have to keep track of, in a season where it’s no longer cold enough to need them????), unable to run around with the boys in the backyard and have fun – I LOVED Lent, Holy Thursday, and Good Friday.

Lent itself was about focus, commitment, ritual and stories. You focused on something – the coming trauma Jesus would go through. You gave something up – allowance money, candy, gum, whatever, for something bigger than yourself. (Though in our house, you were allowed to indulge on Sundays) You did the ritual of the Stations of the Cross around the Church, every Friday and listened to the gospel readings. For both of those, it was about “story.” Each station was a painted picture on the wall that told a part of the story of the crucifixion. The gospel gave the whole story.

Holy Thursday nights were processions in church, long litanies recited in Latin by visiting priests, the smell of the hyacinths we carried as we marched, the sense of being together again in that place where everyone I knew was going to be, and…the stories. The story of the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, Jesus being taken to the Sanhedrin and to Pilate, Peter denying he knew Jesus. I loved the stories. They were like old friends.

Good Friday was a time to hear the whole long, VERY long gospel, so long that halfway through, the priest would stop reading, turn and kneel silently for a minute or two, then stand and finish the rest. It was a day when my mom would make us turn off the radios and TV and keep things “quiet” so you could honor what that day meant. It was a time when the church was stripped bare to symbolically represent the loss of Jesus, and to contemplate what that meant. It was a day to think about a story’s march through rising problems, crisis, and climax, with the relief and resolution Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday would bring.

So here it is today, Good Friday again. I was standing in the bathroom this morning talking to my husband about what I was going to get done today. I said that originally I was going to go to the gym and swim but that I canned that idea. I wanted this last chapter revision of my book finished today, no matter what. I said that it just felt like it needed to be today. He made a joke about it being like our son’s birth- our son was two weeks late, wouldn’t leave even when I started eating Mexican food, had to be induced, and during the last stages of labor I literally remember telling him to “Get out!”

I said, no it wasn’t about labor, but something about the fact it was Good Friday. And I wasn’t sure why. Just felt for some reason, the “season” of my book, needed to match the liturgical season of the day. I said, “I don’t know why but it just feels like this book NEEDS to be finished today, like today is the right day. So the hell with the gym, I’m just going down in the garage (where I work) and finish this damned thing today. At the end of today, I just want to be able to say that this draft is finished.”

Now, I’ll still have “polishing and cutting work to do in the next draft but that will now be a whole different process, almost fun. This draft, like draft # one, was like giving birth, like creating and writing from scratch. Now, I can “play.” The agony of the creating and writing from scratch phase will “be finished.”

As soon as the word “finished” tumbled out of my mouth, the lines from the Gospel of John flashed in my brain:

“After this, Jesus knowing that all was now finished, said, to fulfill the scripture, ‘I thirst.’ A bowl of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to His mouth. When Jesus had received the vinegar, He said, ‘It is finished’ and He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.” (John 19:28-30)

So today is Good Friday, a day I have always loved, though I cannot tell you why, other than to say that always on Good Friday, something in my soul has felt complete. So today, I will honor the silent moments of the liturgical season, with the silence of completing my book. If it takes until midnight, I will finish today, so that the two stories shall meet in the single line: “It is finished.”

The Post – Another Side Trip – In an Instant, Life Changes – The ER and Patton

February 17, 2008

One minute you are moving through your day, clearing tasks off of your to-do list and anticipating all the things you will still tackle during the rest of the afternoon. The next moment you’re wondering if you will make it through the afternoon, and can you ever get what is choking you, out of your throat? In an instant, life changes.

I talked the other day about “awareness and staying in the present moment” in relation to my racquetball game. Shift to the future and you blow the present shot. The same thing happens in life.

My meditation class talks every week about paying attention to what you are doing, and that anything can be a meditation if you do it mindfully, full of awareness. I never thought about this extending to swallowing pills. I also never thought about how I swallow pills as a possible life-altering moment.

It’s something we do automatically. Grab the pills, toss them back, throw in a mouthful of water, all while in motion through the day’s to-do list. As you tip your head back to swallow, your mind is already on the afternoon’s plans and everything you want to get done. Suddenly there is this sense of something horribly wrong.

It is said that when we are in pain, our world narrows. While that’s usually said about emotional pain and our tendency to pull away and close down our connections to the world, the same is true of physical pain.

In just a second or two, the brain, reacting to that sense of something horribly wrong, starts reeling in the attention and cranking down the focus. It shifts gears from 4 p.m. back to 2 p.m. Within another second or two, it registers panic and pain. It tries to rally its resources to deal with the emergency. Whatever was on your mind before evaporates. It is suddenly incredibly irrelevant. You may never get to it.

Now focused very much in the present the brain is frantically trying to get a clear picture of what the hell is happening. It’s processing emergency signals from several places in your body simultaneously – heart rate, throat, blood pressure, lungs, mouth, cervical nerves. The eyes bulge, hands go up to the throat, and the left brain finally grasps that the pills you swallowed without thinking, tumbled down the wrong way. In a one-in-a-million shot they’ve lodged side by side in your esophagus and are blocking the whole passage.

At the same time you’re looking for a waste basket to throw up in and get those things out of you, additional panic shoots through you. The brain has further grasped that not only can’t you swallow, but that the water you took with the pills has backed up into all of your air passages and is now choking you. Inside your head you hear the liquid close off passages. For an odd moment, like time standing still, you notice that the sounds in your head right now are the same as when you’ve dived underwater and everything is flooding with fluid. Except you’re not in someone’s pool. You’re standing in an office wondering if you’ll ever take another breath.

The breath. All those meditation classes. Come back to the breath. Breathe in your pain and fear, breathe out caring and calm. But even the breath has been taken from you. Panic. Focus. Panic. Focus. The battle in the brain begins because it knows if panic wins, you may lose the battle completely.

Suddenly the water drains out and you can breathe. The breath. Come back to the breath. You’ve been given another shot. Don’t blow it. The brain is in command. Stay in the moment. Just this moment. Breathe – just one breath. Assess. What’s your next move? Think. Take stock. Breathe again. Just one breath.

You determine you can’t swallow except for tiny amounts. Okay. Focus. One swallow at a time. Look around. What are your options? Get help. Someone to be here in case they have to call 911. You remember the pills are large. Hard. Coated. They’re not going to dissolve. You need assistance. Get to the ER.

Someone stays with you. They’re trying to help. It’s a comfort and calms you, even though you can’t really respond. You’re using all your focus and energy on “Breathe – just one breath. Swallow – slowly. You cringe. Intense pain shoots up your throat as the liquid shoves the pills against the esophagus wall and ever so slowly drips around them and down your throat. Breathe. It takes a few seconds to swallow saliva that you normally don’t even notice is there. A few seconds more and the swallow is finished. Take another breath.

The brain starts to race – how long will it take my husband to get here? How long to get down the street? How long to the ER? How long before they can do something to make this better? Panic. The brain takes charge again. Stop. Stay in the present. Breathe. Swallow.

Every shift of the car gears hurts. You want to be sick. Take a breath. Swallow. Another bump. Breathe. Rounding the corner. Still a mile to go. Breathe. Swallow. Traffic backing up. Panic rising. Breathe. Swallow. Close your eyes. The ER doesn’t exist. Just this moment. Breathe, swallow. Breathe, swallow. Lean forward because it doesn’t hurt so much. Breathe. Swallow. You turn into the hospital. The ride to the door might as well be an eternity. Close your eyes. Breathe, swallow.

You struggle through admissions. Whisper name, date of birth, insurance, address. Breathe. Swallow. The nurse typing in your vitals seems to be taking forever. Will you ever get relief? Come back to the moment. Breathe. Just one breath. You spot your blood pressure and heart rate. It scares you. Close your eyes. Breathe. Swallowing is harder. Lean forward. Get ready. Breathe, swallow, tighten your fist to take your mind off the pain in your throat. Breathe. Stay calm.

I know my husband is there. His presence is calming. I can’t respond to him. Can’t even focus on him because I am focused on breathe, swallow. For a second I feel his hand on my back. Its warmth relaxes me, radiates through my muscles. Calms them. But I can’t tell him yet. Just breathe. Swallow.

The doctor is approaching the room. Breathe. Swallow. You stare past the doctor and see a room across the department that looks just like the one your husband almost died in a little over a year ago . . . when he almost choked to death. Breathe. Swallow. The nurse pushes in the needle for the IV line. Breathe. Swallow. Meds are moving through your veins. Breathe. Swallow. Breathe. Swallow. Calm. The meds are calming. The muscles in your throat unlock. Breathe. Swallow. Suddenly, a tiny burp. Air is moving up. Breathe. Swallow. They give you water. Tiny sips. It slides down your throat. Pills shift and hurt. Breathe. Swallow. Ever so slowly, the burps get bigger. The sips of water larger. The medicine slows your heart rate. Your blood pressure has dropped. You can swallow and breathe without total concentration. Will you ever take another pill unawares?

Joan Didion wrote a book, The Year of Magical Thinking, about what it was like the year after her husband died of a massive heart attack. She was with him when it happened. It happened in an instant. In that moment as he fell, dead, everything changed.

Even as Kate Braestrup stared at her husband’s cereal bowl in the sink that morning, he already lay dead in his state police car, killed when another vehicle lost control and crashed into him. Her life changed in that instant as she described in her book, Here If You Need Me. Lee and Bob Woodruff wrote a book, In An Instant. He was covering a story for ABC News in Iraq when an IED exploded near his vehicle. In an instant he nearly died. In an instant everything in her day changed dramatically.

It happens so often. It happens to everyone. Yet we all try to ignore that an end will come. We pretend that reality doesn’t exist even though it does. In an instant we are reminded that though we think we are masters of our fate, we never are. It’s out of our hands.

Friday night, terrified after what had happened to my day, my body, and with the calming effects of the valium wearing off, I scrambled to put myself in a place that brought me back to a time where I felt I had power. I retreated to the movie, Patton, about the controversial, powerful, and legendary World War II general, George S. Patton, Jr. His nickname, given by his men, was “Old Blood and Guts.” He never retreated.

It’s a standing joke in my house, that especially when I was younger, I was Patton. I was the general. I ran the situations. Whatever needed doing, I gave the order or executed the action. Failure or retreat was not in my vocabulary. Back then, my thought was, work hard enough, push hard enough, refuse to be defeated or back off, and you can do, achieve, overcome anything.

In the movie, there is one scene where Patton, played by George C. Scott, speaks and my family looks at me and laughs. Patton, has been reprimanded and his command taken from him. Patton, like him or hate him, was a brilliant field commander. He also put his foot in his mouth constantly, and some of his actions were controversial. Yet he was a power to be reckoned with. He bludgeoned his way through things, though aware of the pecking order, did manage to yield some deference to God. In this scene he is speaking to his aide after being told he might be sent home from the war in disgrace:

“I feel I am destined to achieve some great thing, what I don’t know. But, this last incident is so trivial in it’s nature and so terrible in its effect, it can’t be the result of an accident. It has to be the work of God. The last great opportunity of a lifetime . . . an entire world at war, and I’m left out of it?! God will not permit this to happen!! I am going to be allowed to fulfill my destiny!!!” [LONG PAUSE] “His will be done.”

The last four words are said almost as an afterthought, Patton remembering that God just “might” have some say in things. For some reason, at that time in my life, maybe even now a little bit, my family saw a lot of me in that scene. 🙂

So Friday night, I took comfort from retreating to a place and time in life where I felt powerful and in control of everything. Yet, in truth, even as I watched that movie I knew it was just an illusion, a temporary salve for a traumatic day. None of us are really in command of our destinies, only our responses to life’s questions. Even the powerful General Patton learned that. He preferred to die in battle. Instead, in Dec of 1945 he was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of injuries in a car accident. He died a couple of weeks later from an embolism.

I took temporary sustenance from the movie, even as I am aware that we can only take charge of some things, our choices, but for the rest, there is just the one and only powerful tool we can use: stay aware in the present moment, and breathe.

The Post – As Promised, What Photography Teaches You About Writing

February 6, 2008

As I mentioned earlier, photographing fiddler crabs helped me to “be one with them.” Armed with the heart of a crab, maybe I can get that across in the book.

In a broader sense, there are some similarities between the arts of photography and writing:

1) Narrow the topic:

The viewfinder of a camera sets the limits on how much you can fit in the picture. A photo is a one-moment slice of an event. You can’t show everything, so you have to choose. What will you focus on?

Good writing, especially essays and short pieces, needs limits too. Start with too broad a topic and the piece runs too long, lacks focus and depth, and leaves the reader wondering it’s about. You can’t say everything, so you have to choose what you will say. Choose a specific slant and give the reader depth for that one topic.

2) Composition – Create the Scene:

Part of the art in a good photograph is its composition. What did you include and why? How did you choose to portray it? What angle was it shot from? Lighting? Shadows? Contrast?

In a good story, “show don’t tell” is done with scenes. You’re the director. How will you set it up? Who will be in it and who will be left out? Why? What will they say and do? What are they holding? Wearing? Where are they? Is it frigid or tropical? Are they scared or serene?

3) Detail is the life of the creation:

The camera’s eye doesn’t miss much and often sees more details than the photographer did when taking the shot. The details that show up in the picture bring it alive, especially in things like still life and macro photography. The details ARE the photo.

In writing, specifics are the spice that creates the picture. Something doesn’t smell good, it has a licorice herbal aroma that wafts through the sunlit cottage and makes you salivate with anticipation. Something doesn’t feel rough and hurt you, it has a gritty surface that grinds against the tender flesh of your palm until it strips the skin raw and bloody. Specifics create the image.

4) Deliver the vision:

You can see the image you want in your mind’s eye, but if you can’t work the camera, all you’ll get is a dark blur. Master the technology.

The most amazing story may run through your mind. Yet if what appears on paper lacks organization, moves too slowly, leaves out needed plot points, has poor sentence structure, bloated dialogue, or no sensory details, no one will get it. Master your craft.

5) Know what you want to say:

A photograph may be wordless, but it will still speak to the viewer if the photographer knows what he’s looking for.

In writing, you may have a 500-page novel but you still need to be able to sum it up in a line or two. If you can’t do that, you don’t know what your story is about.

In the future, 10 or so things an oil painting taught me about the writing process. Stay tuned.