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Witnessing Divinity in Southwest Virginia

Who are the people who voted for Trump, and what is their connection to mindfulness? These are our constituents, and we are witnessing divinity in them all.

While it is highly probable that most people in the mindfulness community did not vote for our President-Elect, it is also clear that many people in this nation did. Who are these people, and what is their connection to mindfulness?

At InStill, our vision is to instill mindfulness in every workplace and public institution in southwest Virginia. If you’re not already aware, southwest Virginia voted heavily for Trump. These people are our constituents.

It has been very easy for many to lump all the Trump voters together: racists or misogynists or ignorant or uneducated, for instance. Similarly, these same people are known by many as rednecks or hillbillies or trailer trash by those who really know nothing about them. Indeed, poor white rural people seem to be the one group of marginalized people in this country who are still fair game for derogatory stereotyping by those who should know better (including many in the mindfulness community).

There is no one type of person who voted for Trump, just as there is no unique reason so many people did so, but that condescending outlook by what many of his voters might term ‘elites’ has not gone unnoticed. In many ways, it appears from here in southwest Virginia that the election was a reaction to years of overlooked downward mobility and neglect from those very ‘elites’. While championing the gradual upward mobility of every kind of minority imaginable, they completely shunned those in the heartland who have lost almost everything except their dignity (and often that as well). When the downwardly mobile meet the upwardly mobile on socioeconomic terms—as has happened to the people of Appalachia in relation to many minority groups—a backlash must be expected. That backlash is called Donald Trump.

At InStill, we are reaching out to the forgotten people whose forebears did so much to make this country great in the first place. These people worked their fingers to the bone in mines and factories and on difficult terrain. They did so largely without slaves; and they did so quietly, keeping to themselves and not asking for much. They built strong communities and bred resilient offspring. In so many ways they provided the resources that fueled the American dream.

We are connecting with these people; honoring them; being humbled in their presence. We are not judging them because of the way they vote, or opinions that city folk may consider unenlightened. Mindfulness isn’t about viewpoints, as variable as they can be. Mindfulness is about uncovering the truth within, which is invariable and kind. Mindfulness provides an opportunity to connect on a much deeper level than discourse will allow, and it is that universal kinship that we are helping the good people of southwest Virginia uncover.

Politics is dependent on duality: us versus them; left versus right; good versus evil. Mindfulness is steeped in the universality of consciousness: may the divine in me see the divine in you. We are choosing to witness divinity rather than foster duality, and we extend the invitation for you to do the same.

InStill Mindfulness SWVA

InStill Mindfulness SWVASay hello to InStill Mindfulness SWVA!

For several months our board has been looking for a more appropriate name for what was formerly Life Support. Certainly, Life Support was kind of cute, but it didn’t say what we did. For us, it was just a name to use until we found the right one, and InStill appears to be it.

To give you a bit of context, Life Support was formerly the name of Executive Director Jamie Reygle’s single proprietor business. It was mostly just a little mindfulness-related work ‘on the side’, and was never really much of a going concern until it became a nonprofit run by a competent board of directors, with a vision to bring mindfulness to southwest Virginia.

We had an issue with that terminology, too. Nobody is bringing mindfulness anywhere. Mindfulness is already within all of us. All we are doing is making people more aware of their own capacity for it. So now we say we are instilling mindfulness in southwest Virginia. That sounds better, doesn’t it?

How do you like our new name? We’d love to know what you think.

Instill Mindfulness SWVA

Pilot Mindfulness Program at Blacksburg Middle School

"How do you deal with stress?": BMS 6th Grade students
“How do you deal with stress?”

We are very happy to announce that we have commenced a pilot program in partnership with Montgomery County Public Schools and Radford University to deliver 75 mindfulness classes to 6th grade students at Blacksburg Middle School this semester.

If this program proves successful (and so far it has!), we aim to expand this program over the coming semesters—first through the other grades at Blacksburg Middle School (BMS); then at the three other middle schools in the county; and finally to introduce it to other school districts in our region, as part of our overall vision to instill mindfulness throughout southwest Virginia.

Reygle explains why their stress management strategies work: BMS 6th Grade students
Reygle explains why their stress management strategies work

At BMS (the home of the Titans), the 6th grade students break into 15 ‘Titan Time’ groups for 25 minutes every day. Each Wednesday, Life Support Executive Director Jamie Reygle and four Radford University Counselor Education students come to Titan Time to instruct the students in what we like to term real-world interrelational mindfulness.

In our first class, we begin by asking the students to move their chairs into a circle, while we play them Stressed Out by Twenty One Pilots. We then ask each of them what makes them feel stressed out, and then what strategies they use to deal with stress. As expected, these students are very wise, and are able to provide many effective methods for overcoming stress in their lives.

With their chairs facing out, students face far fewer distractions: BMS 6th grade students
With their chairs facing out, students face far fewer distractions

Fortunately—through mindfulness—we have even more! So we give them a quick explanation of why their strategies work (largely because they focus the amygdala on something else), and then let them know that we’ll be sharing a whole bunch of similar strategies with them over the coming weeks. We introduce them to a chime, asking them to raise their hands when they can’t hear it anymore, and then ask them to turn their chairs out (so they’re not distracted by / distracting other students), and invite them to experience their breathing while we play Breathe by Jonny Diaz.

With a bit of luck, we still have time to put the chairs back at the end of the class!

It’s short, it’s sharp, it’s to the point, and the students and teachers really seem to enjoy it. So much so that next week, Jamie Reygle and Angela Cardenas begin teaching mindfulness to a large cohort of teachers at the school. Teachers will be able to receive re-certification points for these classes, too!

"Experience your breathing.": BMS 6th grade students
“Experience your breathing.”

The Identity Collective (or Not)

Perception
Image by Jon Ashcroft

Think about someone you love, someone you despise, or anyone who is on your mind a lot.

Who is that person?

Are they their body? Are they their brain? Are they their mind? And if they are their mind, what is their mind? Who is this person? What is this person?

And for that matter, who and what are you?

If my experience is anything to go by, the more you contemplate this, the less straightforward the answer becomes. I’m not my body, I’m pretty sure of that. Nor am I my brain. And I have no idea what my mind actually is.

Now, maybe you are saying, No, no, no: you are not any of those things; you are spirit. Or maybe you use the term, soul. Fair enough, but what are these things?

Truly, the more we ponder these questions, the more we realize how little we really know.

But let me ask you this: does this thing that you call you, does it die when you do? Was it born when you were born?

And is this thing that you call you, is this the same thing that I would call you; that your best friend would call you; that your parents would call you? In the words of the Butthole Surfers, you never know just how you look through other people’s eyes. It really isn’t possible.

More correctly, you never know how anyone looks through other people’s eyes. Perception defines how and what we see, and perception belongs to the individual (whoever and whatever that may be).

Here’s what I notice: there is an awareness that identifies as me. Within this awareness is a body and a brain, and when I identify as me, I use these things as reference points. Other reference points would include my memories, experiences, emotions, and personality. If you ask a scientist, they will tell you that these things are products of chemical activity in my brain. For instance, I have a memory of something that happened to me, but the memory itself is just a collection of synaptic connections. The thing that happened to me (1) no longer exists, and (2) almost certainly didn’t happen exactly as I remember it. Indeed, my whole experience of my interaction with the physical world can be explained in biochemical terms. So does that make me merely an electrochemical invention?

And if I am an electrochemical invention, does that make everyone in my life one too?

Personally, I do not know. I can not know. And I don’t really care.

What I can be fairly sure of is that something is identifying as me. And this something has identified what it defines as others, who interact with it and who it identifies by names and personalities and physical characteristics it has perceived.

But we (whatever we may be) are clearly not what we think we are. Think about it: if we can’t know exactly what we are, then whatever we think we are cannot actually be what we are.

So here we all are (whatever we may be) interacting with one another, living our lives, imagining we’re each solid, finite human beings, while really we’re something altogether different.

It’s almost as though there were a big sea of thoughts swimming around, and every now and then a collection of them form and give themselves an identity. These identity collectives then interact with one another, while randomly taking in other thoughts as they pass by, claiming them as their own.

Or not.

It doesn’t matter what we are. What matters is what we make of this. That other person in your life—how do you treat them? If they are a reflection of your perceptions, what does that say about your perceptions? What does it say about the way you see you?

We may not be what we think we are, but we are—in many senses—a product of what we think. And so is the world around us.

So, if it’s true that our experience is defined by our perceptions, we could play with that. You know those people in your life you really want to change? Perhaps the reason they don’t change is because your perception of them hasn’t changed. Instead, why not try and change your perceptions?

See what happens.

Being Selfish

Image by wonderferret
Image by wonderferret

How would you react if I called you selfish? Most of us would get quite defensive, and start listing off all the ways in which we’re altruistic, selfless. We might get sulky, we might get mad, but chances are we would get upset, to some extent at least.

But you don’t have to. Through practicing mindfulness, I have discovered that not only is selfishness something to be glad about, but it is in many ways the goal of this work.

Let’s start by looking at how we act when we are mindful. When we are being aware of how our mind and body responds to our thoughts and actions, we notice something very important: it feels a lot more comfortable to be kind than not. Typically (and I say typically because we all have our unmindful lapses), typically we find ourselves responding to situations more and more in ways that make us feel more comfortable.

This is where the selfishness begins. We begin to develop a desire for the feeling kindness bestows on us. Then we begin to seek that feeling at every opportunity.

It’s a little like the craving many experience with drugs, food, or whatever their particular addiction(s) may be, only it’s not. While satisfying the cravings of addiction and the desire for kindness both can result in the release of endorphins, the latter has a much deeper and more lasting impact. This is because the kindness high comes from intrinsic rewards, while our addictions are for extrinsic things.

This is a key point. The sense of lack that leads to addiction comes from within. You simply can’t fill it from without. So you get a quick high, but that is quickly replaced by the emptiness that led to you seeking it in the first place. Not only doesn’t it last, it actually magnifies the initial feelings that triggered it. Kindness, on the other hand, fulfills us from within.

Have you noticed what happens when you do something kind, and then you tell people about it? The sense of fulfillment starts being replaced by a sense of pride, humility is replaced by ego, and the insecurity starts up again: in short, in seeking external validation we lose the internal fulfillment that felt so complete.

And this is where we become completely selfish. Not only do we actively seek out opportunities to make ourselves feel good (through kindness), but then we keep it all to ourselves. It’s about as selfish as you could be.

So, be selfish. Do everything in your power to feel wonderful. And don’t—whatever you do—share what you did with anyone. And next time someone calls you selfish, you can consider it a wonderful compliment.

Selflessness. It really is the ultimate form of selfishness. Shhh.

No Justification for Justification

La Justification de Suzanne, by François-Guillaume Méneageot
La Justification de Suzanne, by François-Guillaume Méneageot

Mindfulness can have a big impact on how we interact with others. When we are being mindful, we are also being kinder, more considerate, and more helpful. That’s part of the reason an individual’s presence can be so appealing to others.

But not being mindful has a big impact, too. When we are not abiding by the Golden Rule, we are acting unmindfully. After all, the Golden Rule is really a law: I treat others the way I treat myself, and the way I treat myself is (subconsciously, at least) the way I expect to be treated.

One way to discern whether we’re interacting mindfully or not is to look at our intentions: what’s motivating us to treat someone the way we do? Remembering, first and foremost, that mindfulness is about being in the present moment, then if our motivation has anything to do with a preconceived outcome, there must be an element of that interaction that is unmindful.

But wait, you say, every interaction has preconceived outcomes. And you may be right, but who do you know who is mindful all the time? When and if you identify that person, you have found a saint. Learn as much from them as you can. And notice how that individual never operates with an agenda outside of what we might call love; all they seem to want from any situation is greater joy for all concerned.

Why do you try to make people happy, for instance? Is it for the sheer sake of joy, or are you possibly hoping for some future reward? If it’s the latter, notice how that expectation interferes with your joy; notice how it interferes with your relationship with the other individual. Whereas, when you’re pursuing joy for the pure sake of joy alone, nothing seems to interfere with your joy, regardless of how others respond (although it often does appear to be contagious).

But even more importantly, how do you treat people when you’re pissed? See if you can make a list of five mean things you’ve done. Now, ask yourself for each one, Did I feel justified in acting that way at the time? Did you get five out of five? Certainly, we’ve all probably done mean things simply for the sake of being mean, and even then I bet you can find a justification (eg. I was angry at the time; I was trying to be funny, etc.). But what about all those times somebody ‘did’ something to you, so you did something back? You felt justified, right?

So here’s a question: if you were being truly mindful, could you feel justified? Remember, we’re talking about occupying the present moment. To feel justified, you require a past. How would each of those interactions on your list have turned out differently if you were somehow capable of not responding in a justified manner?

Now, take a look around you. Pick up a newspaper; turn on the news; listen to your neighbors yelling at each other; read some Facebook comments: everywhere you will find people attacking one another, and each and every one of them feels justified to act in the way they do.

Let’s aim to break the chains of justification. Let’s make an effort to notice when we feel justified, and at the moment we notice, to stop and practice a little bit of mindfulness, to invite a little bit of presence into our lives when we most could use it. You may want to try something like this:

  1. Close your eyes if you can;
  2. Focus on counting your breaths. Aim to silently count 15 of them, with each count on the subsequent out-breath. If you lose count, go back to one.
  3. Then just focus on your breath. Now you have found a present-moment focus, aim to stick with it for a few minutes. Notice how quickly your mind drifts away to other things (particularly the issue at hand), and every time you do, come back to the breath.

When you open your eyes and return to the real world, notice what—if anything—has happened to the justification you felt before. Has it been tempered at all? Has a realization come? Has a different course of action presented itself to you?

It’s entirely possible something like this has occurred, and entirely understandable from a mindfulness perspective, as well. When we are feeling justified, there is a lot of noise: our minds tick over at a great rate with all sorts of dialogues and plans. But peace comes from stillness. When we stop, when we get out of our own way, when we allow some silence, then the wisdom we hold deep inside is given the opportunity to reveal itself to us.

And every time this happens, a war is averted. And every time a war is averted, there is greater joy for all concerned.

Decisions, Decisions

Image by Carsten Tolkmit

Decisions come in many forms; some are labored, some are impetuous, and some just seem to decide themselves with clarity without any effort on our part whatsoever. These latter ones tend to come about when we’re being mindful; in the moment, present, and aware. Impetuous decisions are more frequently the result of amygdala-fueled excitement or stress that, as we know, often don’t end well. And those labored decisions? Well, when we’re entirely caught up in the future and the past, when we’re unable to connect with that little voice inside that speaks so clearly to us when we’re still, then we tend to personally take on all the responsibility for a decision and its outcomes—it’s a lot to carry, and that makes it hard to do.

It’s an interesting irony that when we’re being mindful, when we’re completely connected with the world around us, when we’re at our most personable; that is when we are least likely to take things on personally. And when we’re not taking things on personally, decisions often prove easier to make. It’s as though the outcome becomes less important than disrupting the sense of peace that we experience in our mindful moments. At these times, the only question we tend to ask when a decision confronts us is, what will bring me the most peace?

It’s a good thing to notice. When we’re in peace, we want more of it. And have you noticed? When we’re in frustration or pain or stress, we tend to find ways to get more of them too. In these times, we may tell ourselves that we want to be free from our suffering, but we behave in ways that counteract that. In those times, it’s often hard to bring yourself down, and no strategy offered by anybody is likely to serve.

But in those times when we’re struggling to make a decision; in those times when we have that nagging desire to say or do something, accompanied by doubts over whether it’s the right thing to do—at times like this, we do have a tool readily available to us. It’s very simple—it’s the same tool we use when we’re being mindful: simply ask yourself, what will bring me the most peace?

What we tend to do in these situations is to get caught up in all sorts of tangents; how will it impact others? what is the best thing for them? what will the different options get me? This is where it gets complicated, but the best solution is invariably the one that brings you the most peace. After all, if you’re in peace, you’re in a space in which you can continue coming to good decisions, and the more good decisions you make, the better things are going to turn out for everyone and everything around you.

So, stop fretting. Take a deep breath. Take another one. Close your eyes and count another 15 breaths or so. Are you in a more peaceful space? Good. Now go back to the decision you were just trying to come to: what will bring you the most peace?

 

What Meditation Isn’t

Image by Alexander de Cadenet
Image by Alexander de Cadenet

It’s become quite evident to me lately that many people have a misperception of what mindfulness meditation is. Most commonly, there is a sense that it is a form of escape. So, in order to help clarify things a little, here is a list of what mindfulness meditation is not:

  • It is not an attempt to ignore pain. Quite the contrary: it can be a journey into pain, to see what is really there. A core component of mindfulness meditation is single-pointedness, in which we aim to use one sense to focus our attention on one thing. If pain is being experienced, this can be an excellent thing to put our focus on.
    But—and this is very important—we are not putting our focus into reducing the pain. We’re not trying to do anything to the pain; all we’re doing is noticing the sensation with curiosity. Noticing with curiosity: that’s mindfulness meditation in a nutshell.
    Now, it’s true that studies have demonstrated that mindfulness meditation reduces pain, but it’s very important to realize that we don’t meditate with the expectation of reducing pain; we meditate with the intention of developing focused awareness. It is through the focused awareness that we begin to experience the pain differently, not through any attempt to reduce the pain.
  • It is not an attempt to ignore distractions. I participate in a weekly sit in a community center. We’ve had loud conversations outside the door; kids playing; toilets flushing; we’ve had cell phones go off in the middle of the sit. And on some days, all of these things seem to happen! Remember what mindfulness meditation is: noticing with curiosity. Now, meditate on the impact judgment has on curiosity . . . . that’s right: judgment kills curiosity.
    So when I judge against distractions, what I’m effectively doing is destroying my practice in that moment. A teacher of mine once said—immediately after a whole bunch of plates crashed to the floor—”Ah, the sound of God.” Whether or not you believe in God, this remains essentially the experience of someone practicing mindfulness meditation effectively: whatever arises is to be noticed with curiosity and without judgment. It’s all God; it’s all good.
  • It is not an opportunity for a nap. Which, of course, is not to say you won’t start nodding off. Sleep has pursued every experienced mindfulness meditator through many a meditation. And just as we don’t attempt to avert the pain, we also don’t attempt to crave the sleep. We notice our sleepiness with curiosity. We attempt to remain detached, thereby not getting caught up in the story of tiredness. As with anything that arises as we sit in silence, our job is only to watch.
  • It is not an opportunity to think things through. In mindfulness meditation, we are attempting to clear our mind, not fill it up. We attempt to sit and notice our thoughts: notice what they do, how they arise, how they fade away; we aim to remain detached from them—just watching, watching, watching. And we find, the less we identify with our thoughts, the clearer our mind seems to get. And with a clear mind, with nothing to think about, we find ourselves in a supreme spaciousness, where solutions arise far more readily than problems.
  • It is not an opportunity to experience deep peace. Although this can often be experienced during mindfulness meditation, it is by no means the goal of the practice. The goal of the practice is to notice with curiosity, without judgment. The result can be very peaceful. And, quite often, you may find yourself lost in thought, or experiencing pain, or feeling sleepy, or constantly distracted—and all of these are perfectly valid experiences, too. The practice is the noticing; what arises is what we notice without judgment. When we enter our meditation with an expectation, then we stop noticing and start expecting, preparing, manipulating.
    So drop the expectation, and enter into your next meditation with just one intention: to notice, with curiosity and without judgment.

Because explaining what mindfulness meditation is, is so much more straightforward than explaining what it isn’t.

A Drop in the Ocean

Image by Sergiu Bacioiu
Image by Sergiu Bacioiu

This mindfulness stuff can appear to be pretty selfish: atrocities are being committed in Syria, Sudan, and the Congo; people are starving in so many places; little kids are working their fingers to the bone just so we can have our cup of joe, our phones, and cheap clothes. How on earth can you, in good conscience, just sit around trying to feel better about yourself, when there’s a whole world suffering out there?

Good question.

The answer is, it is very much because of that kind of thing happening in the world that being more mindful is so important.

Think about it. Who is more likely to perpetuate an atrocity—a mindful or an unmindful person? Who is more likely to take effective action towards resolving hunger in the world—a mindful or an unmindful person? Who is more likely to be conscious about what they consume—a mindful or an unmindful person?

It is easy to confuse mindfulness with inaction. But they are nothing like the same thing. Certainly, part of being mindful is being aware when you’re too busy; and another part of it is finding ways to slow down. But being busy doesn’t equate to action any more than being mindful equates to inaction. There are many mindlessly busy people just spinning their wheels—not getting anywhere really fast.

When we are mindful, we are more likely to make our actions count. We recognize that the busier we are, the more we miss of our lives; and we also recognize what really needs to happen around us. Whether it’s picking up a piece of trash on the sidewalk, being present and available for a friend in need, or making every effort to minimize our impact on the environment, in each instance we are being mindful to act in the most effective way we can. The more mindful we become, the more we find ourselves being moved to act in ways that benefit our physical and interpersonal environments.

And what happens when you act in this way? What kind of impact does it have? It may appear to be such a small drop in such a huge ocean, that it hardly seems worthwhile. But every drop creates a ripple. The drop doesn’t see the ripple; it just becomes a part of it. Part of being mindful is appreciating the intrinsic rewards that come from a job well done, rather than relishing the approval and gratitude of others. We can’t know where the ripples go, but we can be assured they do.

But it’s not just about the ripples. You know what it means when a big, juicy drop of water lands on your head. You know there will be another one. And another. And another, until they pick up speed, and before you know it, there’s a downpour.

How many downpours do we need before our humanity overrides our inhumanity? Only one. I promise you, there is not one happy dictator in the world. There isn’t one person grasping at power mindfully, for that would be oxymoronic. Power is but another addiction, and addiction comes only from a perceived lack. As mindfulness creeps in, that perception changes, and the hole begins to fill. In time, all we want is happiness, peace, and whatever this happens to be in any given moment.

Happy, peaceful people don’t start wars. Happy, peaceful people don’t want to subjugate others to make their own lives better. Happy, peaceful people just want to see more happy, peaceful people; and they’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.

So when equate mindfulness with selfishness, they are absolutely right. It’s the most selfish thing you could possibly do—what could be more selfish than striving for your own peace and happiness? But here’s the thing: through mindfulness we find that, in order to achieve peace and happiness, we need to bring peace and happiness to others. In order to be as selfish as possible, it is essential to be selfless.

Let the downpour begin.

Only Light

Imagine, if you will, a vast ball of light; bigger than the sun, bigger than the galaxy, bigger than anything you can think of. Light. There is only light.
Image by El-Sobreviviente

Imagine, if you will, a vast ball of light; bigger than the sun, bigger than the galaxy, bigger than anything you can think of.

Now imagine, somewhere within that ball, a hollow globe, almost opaque, yet made of the finest, flimsiest cloth possible.

Inside this globe a different universe arises. A physical universe, if you look closely, with millions of microscopic blobs dotting the space within.

Home in on one of these blobs. You will see within it millions of specks of light. Home in on one of these specks. You will see some tiny dots circling it.

And on one of these tiny dots, if you look very closely, you will see movement. Billions of shadowy shapes circulating in an endless, seemingly random, dance.

They come and go, these shapes; drifting in and out of existence in an ongoing cycle of apparent chaos and confusion.

But look closely, really closely. They are but shadows, made of the same lightweight cloth that formed the globe.

What is within that cloth?

What is there besides this cloth?

Light. There is only light. If there were a pin, you could prick it, and light would come pouring out.

It turns out you do have a pin! Well, something like it, anyway. You have a laser; an intense beam of light. It is all there is, so why not?

You use your laser and the cloth melts away. What is left?

Light. There is only light.

 

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