This week I’m feeling the invitation to pause, breathe and show you these! I traveled to Denver a few days ago for a training in the Enneagram & somatic (or body) awareness. It was a rich experience and I will share more about it in the weeks to come– but for today some pics of Colorado nature:
Giant dandelions are pretty much happiness in puff-ball form.
One of the reasons I love living in Texas is the big sky. Whether flying back in from my junior year abroad in London, or in my immediate post-college years as a domestic violence advocate in Indiana, or later when coming back from Peace Corps in Nicaragua and then grad school in Cambridge/Boston, my soul would open up a few notches when I found my way out of the Dallas/Fort Worth airport.
The big sky held me and calls me home.
My encounter with Colorado skies on this trip evoked a similar feeling.
This feeling has a name: equanimity. Equanimity is our ability to position ourselves within a vast world. To remember our place in the larger whole and to allow ourselves to contribute our part without losing perspective of the fact that there is so much that remains beyond our control.
Equanimity is also one of the two key ingredients for growing our capacity to be resilient. Read on for more, but first one more tree. Pause this time and see if you can feel your own smallness vis a vis this big growing one and rest there for a breath. That is equanimity.
Welcome to week four of the Summer of Meditation Challenge!
I hope you experimented with last week’s practices of taming your inner critic + the compassion meditation. If not—no worries, there is no behind in the Summer of Meditation Challenge! You can read the whole reflection on Compassion here or just continue with today’s prompt and begin again!
Today’s meditation challenge is about cultivating resiliency, or the ease with which we come back home to ourselves after life has knocked us down or off course. It is also the ground on which we stand to rise again.
Meditation: Balancing Your Energy Meditation (15 minutes in AM) + 15 minutes in PM of a walking meditation or reflecting with gratitude on your day.
Real World Mindfulness Practice: Discharge Your Stress
(How to engage in both of these practices is explained in detail below.)
The Reflection: On Resiliency*
Resiliency has two vital ingredients: equanimity and compassion.
What does this mean?
Compassion is the trembling of the heart in response to suffering– our own suffering or more commonly the suffering of others. This is a beautiful human response, yet it can lead us down a path to overwhelm if we find our heart continually moved and assume that all that suffering is ours to fix, or at minimum to feel.
Equanimity is the complementary perspective. It is what allows us to live with an open heart but also maintain a grounded presence. Equanimity is about remembering– remembering that we have but two hands in this big, big world. That it is not within our capacity to simply will the suffering of another to vaporize (would that it were!)
Without equanimity we forget that we hold this spacious quality, like the sky, within and instead interact with the world more like a sponge. We drink in the pain, the heartache, the injustice until we are sopping full of it and leave ourselves no room to breathe.
This is not what is asked of us– in fact when our own response to the pain in the world takes center stage it is no longer compassion but has a different name: empathetic distress.
Meditation keeps us balanced so that we can both profoundly care, and yet not become unable to cope because of that caring.
A study comparing Buddhist monks skilled in meditation and non-meditators reveals the positive effects of a regular practice. Dr. Tania Singer designed this study where both groups watched videos of people suffering. fMRI scans showed heightened activity in the minds of the monks in the brain areas associated with care, nurturing, and positive social attachment. For the non-meditators, in contrast, the videos were more likely to trigger brain areas associated with pain and feelings of sadness.
It takes skill to cultivate a response to suffering wherein our own pain does not become the focus of our attention.
This week’s practice is especially important if your work has heavy care-taking demands (professionally, in family life or both.) I know in my own life I recognize symptoms of this empathy overwhelm when I start to feel like a heart balloon– easily blown and battered by the emotions of others or the pain I encounter or hear about in the world. That then becomes my invitation to cultivate equanimiity and do the things which stretch my perspective out from my feelings and what I want to do fix things to instead feel the love which holds us all.
Empathy distress may be easier to recognize if you are a helper type– and know that you can easily be brought to tears by others’ pain. But empathetic distress can also look very different.
For example if you withdraw from yourself and others to avoid an emotional response to a situation or numb out in the face of pain — those can also be symptoms of overwhelm.
In either case, weepy or overly stoic, we are invited to learn a different relationship to suffering starting with acknowledging the pain we are witnessing and the pain we ourselves feel. It is from that place, of telling ourselves the truth about the situation, that we can meet suffering in an open yet sustainable way. In so doing we water the seeds of our own resiliency.
Discharge Your Stress
This week the real-world mindfulness practice is to bring awareness to how we release our stress.
Quick tip: this would be a great practice to do in a summer of meditation journal. Don’t have one? Grab a piece of paper and just write a few thoughts. Not in a writing mood? Simply read and live the questions over the next week…
What are the current stressors in your work and personal life?
This could be everything from money concerns, to conflicts with co-workers, friends or family, to feeling like you aren’t being truly faithful to your own gifts but are instead staying in a job or field because it is convenient. Getting the concerns out of your head and onto paper can help them seem more finite and manageable.
Read over your list or call to mind the stressors so you remember how they make you feel in your body, then begin to list all the strategies you employ to handle the stress. This might include exercise, gardening, soulful friends or spiritual community, and reading trashy vampire novels. Go ahead and include it all, without judgement or blame, (no one else need read your list!)
Then, and this is the really important bit, allow yourself to appraise how those practices make you feel during and afterword. If they truly help center you, perhaps you want to continue or even strengthen them. When given an honest look, if you see that they actually bring you down, consider replacing them. (And what you might like to replace them with.) Sometimes we may be doing something out of habit when we no longer really enjoy it or get benefits.
Our stress-coping strategies need room to change throughout life to make space for our growth as a person.
And numbing and discharging stress are not the same thing.
If a practice is really helping us cope with the excess energy in our system, it leaves us lighter, breathing easier, and has no side effects. If instead you find yourself feeling heavy or cloudy, hungover from the practice literally or figuratively, it might be your invitation to take a second look. Not because you are bad for doing it, but because some alternate choices might actually make you feel better.
Play around with this one! We are each bio individualists so what works well for one will not serve another.
A Balance Your Energy Meditation
Get settled & take a few breaths. Notice that the breath always completes itself. You don’t have to drive it or make it do anything. It is always there under the surface of life, really serving you.
If you like, allow your eyes to gently close. Notice the energy in your body right now. Take the temperature of your current state– where are you on the spectrum of relaxed to rigid?
Create an experience of balance between these two ends of the energy spectrum first in your posture. Elongate your spine so you feel awake but not stiff. Allow yourself to sit comfortably but not to the point of leaning back or slumping over. Find the sweet spot in the middle. Don’t think about this, rather use your intuition and your body to return again and again to the center.
To aid you in attending to your own energy–imagine you could hold something in your hand. Something precious. I like to think of it as a bird. Something alive and delicate. If you were to grab it too tight could hurt it, even squeeze the life out of it. But if you are too relaxed and let your hand fall open you could disturb or drop it.
Maybe it appears to you like a little chick, a bird which cannot fly, and is really dependent on you to be a this steady, living perch. Be in touch with it, cherish it.
This bird is a metaphor for your breath. One breath is really fulfilling—when not overriding it nor shrinking back from it, just meeting it completely. On different days and moments we will bring different energy to our practice and indeed to our lives.
We can still choose to put our attention toward one breath as if nothing else mattered. And with the breath comes the balance. Between alertness and relaxation. The balance between compassion for ourselves and others and equanimity, allowing the tremble of the heart in the face of suffering, our own and others, but also remembering that there is always so much more than what we can see. And allowing ourselves to rest in that spaciousness.
Feel the balance between these qualities of calmness and alertness, compassion and equanimity. This is the ground of your resiliency. Be with that sensation for a few breaths.
When you are ready bring your awareness up from inside to the back of your eyes and allow them to gently open. Give yourself (and your nervous system) a chance to slowly engage other activity.
The Commitment. Now it is Your Turn.
What do you what to try on this week? Ready to keep going with a daily or almost daily practice? Great! Overwhelmed but think you could try to hold a bird and observe your own energy level? Wonderful.
This is your summer of meditation challenge! I do encourage you to get clear, even if only to yourself, about your commitment for the week– specificity is powerful. Write it on a sticky note. Tell a friend. or better… leave it for me as a comment below. I’d love to hold it with you this week.
* Themes for the Summer of Meditation Challenge are drawn from Sharon Salzberg’s new book: Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace (2014).