The sun rises every day — you can too

When my kids were younger, if they had a bad day, I would often remind them, “Every day is a new day.” It sounds like a platitude, but I was trying to get across to them that we don’t have to be defined by our mistakes. We have the opportunity with each new morning to start fresh, set a new intention, smile and act differently than we did the day before.

That might seem daunting, but the capacity for reinvention is in all of us. This idea was brought into focus for me while reading Laura Bates’ book, “Shakespeare Saved My Life”. She has taught Shakespeare in prisons for many years, even to people in maximum security who have no chance of parole. Her star student, Larry Newton, was convicted as a teenager, and sentenced to life without parole or even the right to appeal. He had never attended school regularly past 5th grade, and had been in isolation for years because of behavioral incidents in prison. If all of that isn’t a reason for despair, I don’t know what is. Yet, after he was accepted into Bates’ program, he blossomed. He started examining his life and his choices, he read and studied voraciously, and he became a teacher of other inmates. Here is what he said after realizing that he had been faking it, not making his own choices, but just trying to impress others in his earlier life:

And as bad as that sounds, it was the most liberating thing I’d ever experienced because that meant that I had control of my life. I could be anybody I wanted to be. I didn’t have to be some fake guy that my buddies wanted me to be. When I started reading Shakespeare, I was still in segregation; that circumstance didn’t change. But I wasn’t miserable anymore. Why? The only thing that was different was the way that I saw myself. So the way that I felt about myself had to be the source of all my misery; we perpetuate our own misery. And that realization is empowering! So Shakespeare saved my life, both literally and figuratively. He freed me, genuinely freed me.

When the prisoner-students read and discuss Shakespeare, they frequently talk about prison as a metaphor, even though for them prison is real. But they can see that all of us put ourselves in prisons on a regular basis, when we trap ourselves in negative patterns of thought or irrational beliefs about ourselves. If a maximum security prisoner who will never get out can start looking at himself differently and more positively, shouldn’t we all be able to?sunrise2

Too many times, we become passive bystanders in our own lives, just letting circumstances drive us and other people define us. Yoga teacher Jo Tastula says that we need to be more aware that we are the creators of our own lives, and that our thoughts, our words, and our behavior set us on the path to what we make of it. When we are under stress, or experiencing a lot of negative emotions, it’s easy to veer off the path we want to be on. Somehow we can sense that things aren’t lining up right anymore, but we trap ourselves on that wrong path because we think there’s no way back.

That’s why paying attention to the cycles of nature can inspire us. Every day, the sun rises again. Every month, there’s a new moon. Every spring, the trees and flowers come back to life. These are reminders that change can happen over and over again; and they are opportunities to renew and reinvent ourselves. So tomorrow when the sun comes up, ask yourself: If a convicted murderer and prisoner for life can become a scholar-writer-teacher-mentor, what can you become today?

Let your senses do the walking

Quick – can you name your five main senses? When was the last time you really tuned in to them? We take the senses for granted, probably relying too much on sight, if anything. Only when we lose one do we appreciate how important it is. As Helen Keller poignantly put it, “Of all the senses, sight must be the most delightful.”

So one way of being more mindful of self and surroundings is to fully utilize all five senses: sight, smell, sound, touch and taste. I have a book from the 1960s called “Sense Relaxation Below Your Mind”. The title conjures up images of psychedelic experiences and love beads, doesn’t it? And the book certainly has a lot of artsy photos of blissful people engaging in touchy-feely exercises in sensory awareness. But it is actually a useful source of ideas for re-establishing your connection to your senses, and using them to mediate your experience of the world.

The thing I like most to do from the book is a sense walk, either in a familiar place or somewhere new. The way to do the sense walk is to concentrate for 3 minutes at a time on just one sense: first sound, then smell, then touch, then sight. After the first four, you sit down and eat something very slowly and mindfully, focusing on taste. You finish the experience by continuing to walk mindfully, seeing if you can fuse all five senses into a complete experience.

When I do a sense walk at this time of year, the signs of spring are foremost in my experience:

What do I hear? Birds singing and chirping more than just a week or two ago, but also sirens, traffic, children playing.

What do I smell? Mulch and manure as plant beds are replenished for the season; cooking aromas; cigarettes.

What do I feel? Everything is warmer to the touch; my feet connect with cobblestones; cool breezes kiss my skin.

What do I see? Forsythia and dogwood are blooming; the Washington Monument comes into view as I walk down the hill; spring break tourists walk dazedly, lugging Disney tote bags.

What do I taste? One piece of chocolate savored for several minutes. It reminds me of eating Almond Joys as a child when I used to nibble around the almonds and save them for last!

The sense walk offers an opportunity for a ‘beginner’s mind’ experience, or as Barbara Sher says, “When you start using senses you’ve neglected, your reward is to see the world with completely fresh eyes.” Instead of listening to the endless chatter of our minds, we start to hear the sounds of nature. Instead of smelling only what is close by, we learn to notice the aromas all around. Instead of being more familiar with the hard plastic of our digital devices than the feel of our own skin, we have a chance to rediscover the touch of something natural. Instead of focusing just on what’s relevant to us, we learn to look around and notice others. And instead of shoving food mindlessly into our mouths, we take the time to truly taste and be nourished.

Sense relaxation is about remembering what you innately know already. It is about giving yourself permission to just let go for a while. It is about being alive to your full experience. Try it.

Where stillness resides

Does stillness catch you by surprise sometimes? By stillness, I mean the hyper-focused, super-engaged moments of true mindfulness. These are the moments when you’re not fidgeting, your mind’s not wandering, and every sense is on heightened awareness.

I had one of those moments yesterday, notable mostly because of how rare it is. As much as I try to be mindful in my daily life, to bring my full attention to whatever I am doing, I can see that most of the time there is still a lot of noise, static, in the background.

What are the necessary elements for finding these moments of stillness? First, not being afraid to let the on-going mental narrative subside so you can see what else is there. Too often, we give the monkey mind free rein, burying any chance for stillness under layers of busy-ness and planning and worrying, because we are afraid of what it would mean to accept ourselves and this moment just as it is. What would happen if you turned down the volume for a while?

Is solitude a prerequisite for stillness? Maybe. I found myself alone in the morning this weekend while my husband travels for work. The rhythms of the day changed, slowed, were more reflective. No one was waiting to hear me say something, so I said nothing. I have never thought I could handle a silent retreat, but a silent morning once in a while opens something up.IMG_0072

Nature also contributes to the capacity for stillness. A particularly beautiful day – crisp air, brilliant sun, the smell of fallen leaves – stimulates the senses so deeply sometimes that we snap to attention and appreciation. It is impossible to ignore the birds singing, the breeze blowing, and my presence in the midst of it.

Thoreau famously went to live in the woods at Walden Pond in order to find these moments of stillness. But even he realized that solitude in nature wasn’t realistic all the time. He wrote, “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” He understood that there was a time and a need for each of these. The two years of solitary living showed him a path for how to live, though, and as Brooks Atkinson observed, confirmed that he “could find all truth within himself.”

If we are to find the truth within ourselves, how we start and finish our days matters. Those beginnings and endings are the set-up for our energy levels, our potential for everyday mindfulness and even our creativity. Soren Gordhamer recommends 30 minutes in the morning for activities that “help you meet the day with calm and clarity,” and 60 minutes in the evening for activities of relaxation and ease that help you “transition from the day to sleep”. There is no one prescription for these activities, the idea is simply to pay attention to the inner life instead of the outer life that dominates so much of our time. So whether you meditate, pray, read, take a walk, enjoy a warm bath, or listen to music, you will probably improve the quality of your sleep and your ability to focus during the day.balance

These deliberate practices open a door to so-called “dispositional” mindfulness, being aware of what we are thinking and feeling in the moment, which is connected to healthier lifestyles, better heart health and fewer symptoms of depression. The more often you step over that threshold into the quiet place where stillness resides, the better able you will be to locate stillness again, even when life moves too fast and feels out of control.

Taking the slow road on Earth Day

Okay, I know it’s a bit of an oxymoron — driving on Earth Day. But if we assume the drive is necessary, can it be a mindful celebration of nature?

Driving into the city, I have a choice: Take the busy highway and then the congested main street, or make the journey on the slower parkway that meanders along the water, but gets me to the same destination. Today the road less traveled is clearly the better choice.

It’s mid-afternoon with a light rain falling. The road twists and turns, following nature’s path, not mine. Suddenly I am fully awake to my experience. This is not the time for rote driving; rather, the road grabs my attention and demands that I give it its due.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that any time we use an instrument or a machine, we change. We become something else that is a blend of self and machine. He suggests reciting this verse before driving, to make the experience more mindful:

Before starting the car,

I know where I’m going.

The car and I are one.

If the car goes fast, I go fast.

imageI settle into a steady rhythm as I respond to the organic curves in the road. There are stretches where I can go faster, but being forced to take my time around the curves makes keeping a slower, steady pace more fluid. On the main roads, I would have been speeding up just to stop. Here on the parkway, pauses are fewer, the motion is smoother, and I feel calmer as I drive.

I notice places in the creek where trees have fallen and boulders have piled up, chaotic spots that are reminders of wild winter weather. At the same time, Spring is announcing itself with a full-on burst of color. The bright yellow-green of new growth and the intense magenta of redbud trees flash around every turn. I realize what a gift it is to have this way of coming home.

Thoreau wrote that, “There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.” During the thirty minutes I’ve spent on the parkway, it’s been impossible to think about work or worries for very long. Nature has taken over my attention, if only for a little while.

Celebrating Earth Day by driving might not be what environmentalists had in mind when they inaugurated the occasion back in 1970. But before we can care for the environment, we have to notice it, and a mindful Earth Day drive has a way of stirring close observation and appreciation for all that surrounds us.

 

Spring recharge

We take for granted that our phones and other devices have to be recharged every day or every week. If we don’t do it, we lose the ability to communicate or do our work. The same is true of our minds and bodies, but because we don’t totally shut down, we don’t sense the same urgency to recharge.

April is coming to a close and it’s starting to feel like spring. What can we do to refresh ourselves? The weather teases us, with a few warm days followed by a really cold one; the pollen is challenging some of us to keep our heads clear; flowers are blooming, yet we’re still wearing winter jackets; kids are getting restless in school, but they have two months to go – we can answer that uncertainty and unsettledness by learning what serves us well and making changes in our routines.

Here’s what my spring recharge looks like:

Rediscovering nature – Sustainability is a buzzword all year long, but Earth Day still serves as an opportunity to get people outdoors. A few days ago, I went on a Nature Conservancy hike at Great Falls Park in Virginia, overlooking the Potomac Gorge. As many times as I have been there, I never fail to be awestruck when I see the falls with all their power and beauty. Vultures, cormorants and herons were soaring over the gorge as the river rushed over the rocks. In the park we saw the first spring wildflowers, and I learned that the flowers of redbud trees are edible (salad garnish!) It doesn’t take a whole day to do something in nature: in the May issue of Yoga Journal, there are ideas for connecting with nature in a minute, an hour, a day or a week.Great Falls NP_1

Fresher, lighter food – The warm, comforting foods of winter will soon be a memory. Florida fruit is starting to appear in my grocery store, and I love tracking the progress of the blueberries for sale: first Florida, then Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey and later in summer, Michigan. Spring and summer will mean more local food, more raw or lightly-cooked food, more fruits and vegetables. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has published a book about the best basic foods including best fruit (guava, watermelon and kiwi), best vegetables (kale, spinach and collard greens) and best beans (soybeans, pinto beans and chickpeas). Think of the combinations!photo

Cleaner spaces – Our homes suffer over the winter too. They’re closed up with stale air; dirt and toxins have accumulated; and closets are cluttered with heavy coats, sweaters and boots. Last week I cleaned out my coat closet, and I can’t stop admiring its organization and empty space. (We’ll see how long that lasts!)

A clearer head — Working on mind clutter is valuable too. Could you possibly let go of activities that are draining you and wearing you out? Sometimes I realize that just the process by which I’m doing something is too complicated, that there is a simpler way that uses less energy. Often it’s because I’m trying to control something too much. But by letting go of some control, the process becomes easier, and I am freer in a way. Recommitting to a meditative practice helps me figure this out.

Reuniting with friends and family – Feeling other people’s energy can be a great way to recharge. Spring is the perfect time to connect with people who stimulate and challenge you, support you and nourish you. It’s the time when we start planning family reunions and summer picnics. Maybe it’s a time to commit to putting out more love, and less fear and judgment; to look for the beauty in people that mirrors springtime’s beauty.

Great Falls NP ChickweedI don’t think there is any season that nourishes the spirit, or gives us more reason to feel hope and optimism as spring does. As the writer and abolitionist Harriet Ann Jacobs wrote, “The beautiful spring came; and when Nature resumes her loveliness, the human soul is apt to revive also.

Need inspiration? Go outside.

If I told you there was an app for your phone that would help you be more creative, would you buy it? What if I told you that giving up your phone for a while might enhance your creativity? Is that as appealing?

A new study published this week shows that people performed 50% better on a test of creativity after spending four days in nature with no electronic devices. The researchers aren’t sure what exactly caused the gains in creativity — being in nature or giving up the devices, but there’s support for the idea that it’s both of those things.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There’s something called “attentional restoration theory” that apparently relates to multi-tasking. Basically, multitasking requires a lot of executive functioning in the brain, which is kind of exhausting, and the theory is that being in a natural setting can replenish that functioning ability. Other studies have demonstrated that hiking can improve certain mental abilities.

The sad reality is that most of us don’t spend nearly as much time in nature as did previous generations. It’s true that we are not an agrarian society anymore, but it’s also a fact that recreation in nature has declined as time spent with electronics has increased. Yet there’s a lot of evidence that we crave what nature offers us.

Look at our holidays, both religious and secular. Many revolve around symbols of nature. Yes, those holidays originated during agrarian times, but the important thing is that we still celebrate them. So at Christmas, people bring trees into their homes; at the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, people build structures outside, decorated with leaves and branches, in which meals are eaten; at Thanksgiving, a cornucopia is often symbolic; and summer holidays are an occasion for picnicking.

Why are homes and apartments with views of woods and water more valuable? Why do we have houseplants? Why are landscape paintings so popular? Why do we take dozens of photos of sunsets? We are striving to bring the outside in and make that connection with nature.

At the same time, taking a break from 24/7 connection with devices is important too. I read yesterday that silent retreats have become hugely popular in recent years: places that offer solitude and a chance to look inward have waiting lists of people who crave some time in silence. The time spent alone in stillness can be an opportunity to find mental space, to discover things about themselves, to replenish the spirit.

That kind of mental space also nourishes creativity. Why is creativity important? Not only can it help you enhance your ability to reach your highest potential, it is also critically important to managing stress. People who are creative thinkers perceive potential stressors differently, and come up with more ways to cope with them. Creative people are more open to new experiences, so fear doesn’t get in the way of solving problems or achieving dreams. And people who are more creative are also more flexible, enabling them to adapt to new circumstances.

Did you ever get stuck on a problem at work or school, and decide to take a break and go for a walk? Did you find that during your walk you came up with an idea that might move you forward? Fresh air, sun light, and views of nature are food for the mind, body and spirit. As John Muir once wrote, “Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

Handle with care

I watched a video on YouTube yesterday called “A Wild Year”. It depicts the activity at just one spot in Banff National Park in a time lapse taken over a 12-month period. The video reveals all the different seasons and the various creatures that crossed the path in that spot, including people, bears, deer, moose, goats, and what looks like a mountain lion. What’s fascinating to me is that each species is at the spot at a different time, and it makes me wonder how much awareness each had of the others.

We all know that animals use more of their senses than people do. Humans rely overwhelmingly on vision most of the time, and hearing second. Would paying more attention and cultivating our other senses allow us to become aware of others in a way that we usually miss? Watching the Banff video raises the question of how we fit into the bigger world. How does what we do affect others? Who can tell that we were here?

The question applies to environmental issues, bringing to mind the American Indian ethos of “tread lightly on the earth” and the Boy Scouts’ philosophy of “leave the world a little better than you found it. “  We can broaden the concept, though. Bringing mindfulness to all of the micro-interactions we personally have every day might change the stamp that we leave on the world.

There is a mindfulness practice I sometimes assign my students, called “Letting Go”. It was created by Gregg Krech of the ToDo Institute.  It involves paying close attention for one full day to how you let go of things: a doorknob, a pen, a dish, someone’s hand. Are you letting go with a sense of intention, or in a careless way? Can you be more deliberate about how you let go, noticing the movement and how it feels? Does the texture, shape or weight of an object determine how you let go of it? At the end of the day, what were the consequences of paying attention to the act of letting go? How did things change?

Most of my students who have tried this practice say that it heightened their awareness of their actions, and of the physical world around them. They became more conscious of their sense of touch. Slowing down their actions also helped calm them, by avoiding unnecessary abruptness and noise.

If we bring more sensory awareness to our everyday acts, maybe our presence can leave things, people and places just a little bit better than how we found them.