For Ryan, the raisin was the beginning of a transformation. The retreat, conducted by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, led Ryan on a search into how the practice of mindfulness — sitting in silence, losing oneself in the present moment — could be a tonic for what ails the body politic.
As soon as I walked out of Farragut North metro station this morning and felt the wind and rain grab my umbrella, it seemed as if I had lost control of my day. All the way to my office, I was letting the wind steer me. Once I was in my cubicle, I was set in motion by a different kind of force. My task list was like a big sail that hauled me through the hours. I am now back at the Farragut North station and I almost don’t know how I got here.
I wish I had taken 60 seconds and a few quiet, deep breaths to plant my legs on the earth, get my bearings and sense that the winds was coming to me. Blustery winds and a restless mind commanded the day.
The Heart of Peace: An Evening of Chant and Meditation with Krishna Das and Sharon Salzberg, at Sixth & I on at 7:30 pm, Sunday, July 10. Tickets are $35 each purchased online or $40 at the door. They are making a special joint appearance in honor of the Kalachakra for World Peace. Their chance meeting in 1971 in Bodhgaya, India, where the Buddha found enlightenment, was the beginning of their individual spiritual journeys and their life-long friendship. Krisha Das is a leading practitioner of kirtan. Salzberg is a prominent voice that brought mindfulness, meditation and Buddhism into the American mainstream.
This event honors the Kalachakra for World Peace Empowerment in Washington, DC offered by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, July 6 – 16, 2011. Kalachakra is a Tibetan Buddhist ceremony that stretches over 11 days. “The Kalachakra, open to all who wish to participate, has the power to benefit all beings on this planet. The Capital Area Tibetan Association welcomes you to join in this historic event, offered with the heartfelt motivation to inspire harmonious relationships and abiding peace in our hearts and in our world.”
If all things go well over the next few hours, I will be flying from Port of Spain to Paramaribo (that’s Suriname for those who failed sixth grade geography. I will be working the week at a meeting of my organization. Needless to say, posting to this blog may be sporadic. Not that Internet access is scarce, but my free time will be. I have no idea of how I am going to fit in yoga. So far, plenty of opportunity for mindfulness, waiting in airports, in airplane seats, in going through customs and airport security.
You have five months to clear your schedule of the DC Mind-Body Week, which is to take place on October 13-16. An initial dab of information is available at the website, with developing news also flowing out through the LinkIn page. Among the organizers are my friend, Rachel Permuth-Levine, Dr. Deborah Norris and Thrive Yoga, among others.
Herbert Benson will be the keynote speaker at the event. He is Director Emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI), and Mind/Body Medical Institute Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School. He has defined the relaxation response and explored how it affected health and well-being.
More news about location, speakers, demonstrations and other details will emerge as we get nearer the event. Rachel has organized similar events in the past.
Grieving has been on my mind the past few weeks, so I naturally noticed the e-mail that came through my Inbox. Operating out of Frederick, Heather Whittington provides yoga therapy for grief. Her site Mindful Grief provides information on her workshops and groups that help deal with grief and other human suffering. She also offers private sessions. I will be spending more time with her online materials over the coming weeks.
Yesterday, I went to Buddha and the Body retreat organized by Jonathan Foust from the Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW) in a rented basement of a Northern Virginia church. Life has been so hectic over the past six-nine months, I’ve stopped attending the Wednesday evening IMCW session with Tara Brach, and not been able to find a more convenient time slot to engage in group meditation. I figured that I could cram my meditation requirement into an intensive day-long session (9:30-5:00, with several breaks).
What I did not count on was the physical beating that my body would take from being seated in easy pose for much of the day. Because my hips have opened up over the past year, I decided to bring my zafu cushion and sit on a yoga mat, rather than be a wimp stilling on a chair. What was deceptive was that I felt extremely comfortable seated in easy pose, propped up on a folded blanket and my cushion, and could keep my spine poised vertically over my hips with ease. Both legs (thighs, knees and calves) were resting on the ground (my right left tends to rise). But I did not realize how grueling the experience would be. My muscles were not used to sustaining the pose for hour after hour (with breaks, of course), especially in the deepest reaches of my core muscles. In previous extended sessions of easy pose, I found myself slumping over and tilting the hips back, being unable to hold the arch in the small of my back, which was a clear alert to shift to a different posture or seating arrangement.
All this fatigue crept up on me. After the lunch break, I noticed that it became harder and harder to keep my mind focused on meditation. I was so numb and fatigued that I could not identify where the problem was. Even when we were laying down, I could not keep my mind on target. I felt as if I was just skimming over the surface of my mind. If there had been symptoms, such as leg cramps or going to sleep, I could have identified it and changed my sitting posture.
After the retreat finished, I took the long Metro ride home from Ballston, Virginia. It seemed to take ages (more like 90 minutes, with a transfer at Metro Center, thanks to the slower Saturday train schedule). I had dinner, took the dogs for a walk, and then took stock of my body: I realized that I was extremely exhausted, even though I did not have any sore muscles,. I hit the bed and did not regain consciousness until 7:00 the next morning. Once I was back on my feet, I could tell that my hips and associated muscles had the post-exertion ache of being pushed beyond standard limits.
Of course, I should really be talking about Jonathan Foust’s dynamic meditation method and the impact of the meditation itself, but it will have to come in another entry.
Mindfulness techniques are appearing everywhere, with incredible data showing the health benefits of developing a meditation practice. Meditation is proven to be a reliable practice for managing the stress response. Since stress has been linked with most forms of chronic illness, this may account for how meditation is so therapeutic.
Health Promotion LIVE has an audio recording of a recent webinar Mindfulness in Medicine and Healing with Dr. Deborah Norris, who is the Executive Director of Science for Health Energy, Inc. and Founder of The Mindfulness Center in Bethesda. Norris packs a lot of scientific information into the open remarks (20 minutes) and webinar playback shows the PowerPoint presentation (Deborrah, you need some graphic relief: too much white, small, text on blue background; gets some photos). An excellent summation of the most recent research findings and their impact on healing and medicine. In the second half, there’s an interesting exchange among several panelists and several participants who tuned into the webinar.
The Mindfulness Center is a “wellness center providing Meditation, Yoga, Massage, Acupuncture, Tai Chi, Aerobics, Nia Dance, and other Mind-Body programs to bring mindfulness to all dimensions of life,” Deborrah’s site says. The webinar confirmed in my mind that The Mindfulness Center is an invaluable resource to have in the DC area. It opened up recently so it’s good to see that it’s finding its following (I assume from the crowded schedule of classes and workshops).
Practices such as meditation, yoga or Eastern martial arts can aid the process, but mindfulness is fundamentally an “acceptance” or “coming to terms with things as they are,” not in the sense of passive resignation but active awareness, says Kabat-Zinn.
Although this article from October does not break new ground — the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) approach is well known — but Kabat-Zinn’s insistence on mindfulness not being a spiritual or religious experience is germane to the public discussion about all these exotic practices taking over the American mind. He’s so clear in how he opens up the discussion by suspending the more traditional terms for defining the experience. I’m going to have to re-read one of his books (well, maybe an article or a chapter).
In mental health terms, mindfulness is the awareness that emerges from focusing on the present and the ability to perceive — but not judge — your own emotions with detachment; it enables you to choose helpful responses to difficult situations rather than reacting out of habit. While Western thought separates religion and science, Buddhists see mindfulness as both a spiritual and psychological force.
Also check out the test for innate mindfulness. None of this stuff is earth-shattering news for anyone who has been practicing. It’s the mainstreaming of non-Western knowledge.