I pride myself on having a fast brain. I make decisions fast, I answer questions fast, I play games fast. Somehow I’ve thought that fast was better. Maybe I felt like it made me seem smarter, I don’t know. But my brain also goes around in circles. I’ve always thought that it helped me with remembering things or thinking things through but I’ve always been sure that it helped me. Then a couple of years ago, I felt like I was going a little nuts. I had thoughts in a loop. They would go round and round. Not necessarily important things either. Things like groceries I wanted to get the next day or people I needed to call or emails that needed to be returned. The thought would enter my brain and jump on a loop. This would happen especially when I was trying to go to sleep. I couldn’t stop it.
Enter-Mindfulness. I didn’t start practicing mindfulness to stop my mind from going on a loop. I started it because I wanted to learn how to do it so I could teach my son. Many people told me that Mindfulness would help him with a number of things-focus, anxiety, pain, stress. Never once did I consider that it would help me too. But I signed up for a class and noticed almost immediately that my brain was changing or at least how my brain was thinking. When I was practicing mindfulness, it felt like I was “training” my brain. One part of my brain was teaching another part of my brain how to work. I have this brain, which is an amazing organ, but never have I taught it how to work, right? I was born and it started going. It knew how to tell my heart to beat and it knew how to tell my lungs to breathe. Soon my brain started absorbing everything that my eyes saw and sent it to my brain. Same with sounds, smells, touch and taste. Nonstop input. But never did I think about teaching my brain how to take some time off. I mean, come on, our brains work constantly! They never stop. So mindfulness is a way for me to give my brain a little break. Somehow, in my genes maybe, I was under the impression that being stressed meant I was busy. Being tired meant I was getting stuff done. It was always go, go, go. But what I’ve learned is that by giving my brain a chance to reboot by practicing mindfulness, I am able to think more clearly. My body is more relaxed. I am more patient with my husband and son. I am more patient in my car. I am more compassionate. I am less anxious and less stressed. I did not plan on this! Really. I just got on the train and went along for the ride.
It gives me great pleasure to introduce you all to one of our regular contributors. Some of you probably know him. He has been a big part of my life, well for my entire life. We have often times walked this path together, inspiring each other and supporting each other. At least he has been a constant source of inspiration for me. This is his first of many posts and I hope you find as much inspiration as I do. My dad, Donald English from Greenville, NC.
My Evolving Practice
Nearly twenty years ago I began practicing yoga. My teacher called yoga “meditation in motion.” I began to let go of the struggle in the poses and settled into a practice of enjoyment. About five years into my yoga postures practice, I became a certified yoga teacher and learned about meditation as a separate, but related, practice. A friend who had a lifelong meditation practice gave me some basic instructions, and I began sitting for a couple of minutes a day. Over time my sitting practice lengthened and deepened.
By learning to be present for my breath, I learned to be present for other things as well, and the interesting thing is it happened without really thinking about it. Being present means that I don’t react as often out of the dictates of the junk that’s stored in my unconscious. I still do, of course, but with less frequency because a gap has been created between stimulus and response. This creates time for me to choose my reaction rather than react out of habit. The result is more calm and less stress, but it didn’t happen suddenly overnight. And certain buttons still get pushed.
For years I have ended my yoga classes with an invocation in which I seek to become a source of loving kindness, “May I be filled with loving kindness. May I be happy just as I am. May I be free from pain and suffering.” Then extending it in ever widening circles, to friends and loved ones, to enemies and those who would harm me, and finally to all beings. When I began to do this, I thought it was just a nice yogic way to end the class. It was several years before I realized how much it had changed me.
Over the years another very powerful practice that has grown out of my meditation is cultivating yoga’s Four Attitudes: friendliness toward the joyful, compassion for the suffering, celebration of the good in others, and impartiality towards the negativity of others. This is not always easy to put into practice, especially when dealing with a person I feel has slighted me in some way. In a very real sense, cultivating the Four Attitudes has made the loving kindness practice real and tangible.
Mindfulness has been defined as being in the moment, on purpose, and without judgment. Recently I’ve been working on the non-judgmental part of mindfulness meditation, not only reserving judgment about people, but also about events. The story about the farmer whose horse ran off is illustrative. His neighbors said, “Such bad luck.” And the farmer said, “Maybe.” Then the horse came back with three other wild horses, and the neighbors said, “Such good luck.” And, of course, the farmer replied, “Well, maybe.” When the farmer’s son was injured trying to tame the wild horses, the neighbors said, “Such bad luck.” And the farmer answered, “Maybe.” Then war came and the army drafted the village youth, except for the farmer’s son who was still recovering from his broken leg. And his neighbors said, “What good luck.” And the farmer, being a man of few words, said, “Maybe.” There are probably many lessons to take from this story, but one certainly is that as one door closes, another opens.
As I look back at my practice, I realize how organic it has been, growing over time, branching off in new directions to accommodate my personal explorations and needs. But to keep perspective, it is important, I think, to realize that this seemingly complex practice began simply as an attempt to be present for my life by focusing on my breath. These ancillary practices were not part of my original practice. They evolved in response to insights that grew out of the breath practice.
I learned at an early age that I wanted to continue to become a better person. I never wanted to stop growing emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. It was very important to me that I find ways to do that. And I have.
I have tried many different paths. Some I continue to walk and others have fallen away. What I do want, for myself and my son, is to live a life of service, compassion, empathy and kindness. I want to always think, “What can I bring to the party?” so to speak. I learned that from my friend Sandy and it has stuck with me for 25 years! I’ve tried to ask myself, “How can I make the situation (any situation) better?”
I tried Zen Meditation years ago and, for a while, I liked it. It brought me closer to some people I really love. It gave me a connection to a power outside me. Inside me? I’m not sure. But it was good for a bit, although I was not able to keep it up. I lost stamina and it fell to the wayside.
I’ve practiced yoga on and off for years. There is a very mindful nature to yoga, one that I appreciated very much even though I didn’t get that at the time. It’s one of the reasons I connected to yoga.
And now I find myself here, on this journey. I feel like I have jumpstarted my life. Mindfulness combined with exercise, and healthier eating have put me in a groove! A good groove!
So come with me. Get in this groove. Take what you connect to and leave the rest. I will do my best to inspire you, help you, support you in any way I can, the same way so many have inspired, helped and supported me.