Mindfulness

When Times Get Tough, Pull a Thoreau

“An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” ~Henry David Thoreau

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The seasons have changed again without my expressed consent. Fall, with its kaleidoscope of colors and blazer temperatures and soup recipes, does have its allure. But it’s not summer anymore, dammit, and fall is the harbinger of the upcoming cold, grey suck of winter. It has been dark and rainy here for the better part of a week and a half, and my dog and I are tired of dampness and soaked feet. In Denver, fall traditionally arrives with blue skies punctuated by rippled cirrocumulus clouds, a landscape bathed in yellow rabbitbrush, and ideal hiking weather. Pumpkins come out, indian corn goes up, hay bales and scarecrows adorn yards swathed in fallen leaves. I often slip into fall with only a twinge of sadness at the loss of summer. This year with the rain landing me unexpectedly in the middle of seasonal affective disorder months earlier than usual, however, it’s felt like a 55-mile-per-hour rollercoaster descent into disappointment. Combined with relentless barrage of heartbreaking news over the past five weeks, from Harvey to Irma to Maria to Las Vegas, I have been living in a why-even-get-out-of-bed state in my head.

This morning the sun reappeared, not in a cloudless sky but more obviously than she has shown her face recently. I jumped at the opportunity to walk the dog in dry conditions before delivering our sons to school. As Ruby and I padded along, scores of butterflies scattered before us. Hundreds of them, migrating through on their way to the warmer climes of New Mexico and Arizona, flitted across our path making it impossible not to stop and stare. For the first time in weeks, the clouds in my head lifted, borne upwards on the wings of painted ladies.

When I need it the most, this planet slaps me with its marvels. The intricacies of our connections to the earth and its flora and fauna are miracles too immeasurable to overlook. It’s common to check out of the moment and to check into problems that are either too big for adequate and timely solutions or too meager to stress and belabor. In times like these, I always benefit by pulling a Henry David Thoreau and taking a walk to remember what beauty is and where peace lies. Turn off the television when the news is too much. Go find yourself again where you didn’t know you lived. The only certainty we have is this moment. Don’t waste it.

“There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.” ~Henry David Thoreau

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Painted lady pause

Sorry, B.B. — The Thrill Is Not Gone Yet

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Trying to overcome negativity while wearing a shirt that says NOPE.  Me in a nutshell.

This weekend I am doing something I have never done before. I am going to be the drummer for a band — live and on stage. When my drum instructor mentioned back in July that he was going to set up a performance for some of his students, my first reaction was to laugh, all the while thinking Oh hells no! When he asked me what I thought of the idea of performing, to my surprise, while my head was in a there’s-no-way-nuh-uh-you-can’t-make-me space, my mouth opened and spoke what I knew in my heart.

“It would probably be good for me.”

We chose a song for me to perform at the exhibition. And we were off.

Jeff showed me a preferred beat for B.B. King’s The Thrill Is Gone, a slightly stepped up version of a beat I know already. But the minuscule sixteenth beat that the “fancy” (as he called it) version added turned out to be Herculean in scope for my brain. I have only one other drum beat in my repertoire that includes a sixteenth beat hidden among the eighths. That beat took me four months to get under command. I’m still not proud of my fluidity on that one, but at least when Jeff tells me to play go-go beat I no longer stare at him blankly. Progress.

Learning drums is a formidable task. You are training four limbs to do four different things, all while operating from the same one brain. No brain wants to operate four limbs independently. Humans don’t work that way. To drum, you have to retrain your mind to get your body to do what it has no natural inclination to do. Learning to drum requires infinite patience with oneself. I am infinitely short on patience for all things, most especially myself.

I spent the last two months whittling away at the mental impediments to procure the fancy drum beat for this song, all the while continuing to learn the other elements so I would be ready in time. I was fully committed to performing that fancy beat. And I spent an hour to two a day for fourteen days after the boys started school again working on it with my new bass drum pedal so I could go into my lesson last Friday and show Jeff I had met my goal. And I really thought I had gotten there, or at least within striking distance of there.

I hadn’t. When I got to my lesson, I could not do the beat. My brain and my right foot, in complete defiance of every bit of progress I had made, flat out refused to pop in that extra note. Each time I missed it, I grew more anxious and more despondent. I had spent triple the amount of time I usually ferret away for drum practice to nail that beat, and in the clutch moment it had vanished. Sensing my frustration and with a week left before the scheduled performance, Jeff told me to scrap it. He told me to focus on the groove and let that beat go for now. I agreed that was the best decision, and we continued the lesson without it.

The moment I got to my car, though, I lost it. The tears gently fell and my head ran a steady stream of self-flagellation until I reached my son at school and pulled myself together. Perhaps drumming wasn’t for me? Maybe it was time to burn the sticks and drop the kit into the dumpster? Maybe this dog was too old for new tricks? A year into drumming, and I still sucked at it. I felt lower and more exposed than a naked mole rat. I was an imposter and soon an entire audience would know it. Fantastic.

I have spent the last week doing some additional brain retraining. I haven’t been focusing on that bass drum part. I have been getting my ego in check and my attitude on straight. Turns out this has been nearly as difficult as acquiring the fancy drum beat, but I am finally there. Drumming is supposed to be fun. It was always supposed to be fun. I knew it would be difficult and, to be honest, that is why it appealed to me. Drumming is about the sense of accomplishment when something clicks and becomes automatic and I am able to advance to the next goal. The trick lies in not focusing on what is left to learn and instead noticing how far I have come from the point a year ago when Jeff handed me a pair of his drumsticks and I sat behind a kit for the first time ever.

I am performing on Saturday for better or worse. I’ve decided to be excited about it. I’ve decided to remember that the best things in my life have always come at the end of my comfort zone when I have taken on something that scared the bejeezus out of me and that I wasn’t sure I could handle. I’ve decided to play and be present and let go and not expect anything but a three-minute-long life lesson. It’s about the journey. I’ll get that fancy beat eventually. Until then, I need to refocus on the ride because B.B. was wrong. The thrill is not gone and, knowing my determination, it won’t be gone until I am.

Justine 2.0 Eclipses The Original

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Our Nebraska eclipse home

Back in February, at the bequest of my eldest son, I added the eclipse on August 21st to our family iCalendar. Then I forgot about it. In April, Joe mentioned he wanted to travel to Casper, four hours north of us, to view the eclipse in totality. He told me this eclipse was a huge deal and we should make a plan. I shrugged it off. August was months away. I told him I would get to it. By early June when I finally got to it, there were no rooms available. No rooms. Zero. In Casper. Wyoming. No camping spaces anywhere within the Wyoming area of totality either. On AirBnB, houses were renting for upwards of $1k per night with a two-night minimum. I thought I was in a parallel universe. This is a state where you can travel for hours and see more pronghorn than people. Joe enjoyed a hearty told you so, and I ate crow and dug out Plan B.

So on August 21st, we awoke in Nebraska. Through ludicrous amounts of searching, I managed to discover a spot within the Nebraska area of totality to park our rPod trailer for a bona fide, eclipse-mania bargain of $50 a night (two night minimum, of course). We spent the previous night camped in a grassy field in the Morrill County Fairgrounds in Bridgeport with about fifty other families who also had put off nailing down an eclipse plan until the last possible moment. These likeminded procrastinators were my eclipse tribe, and we were poised to use our verified, paper, solar-eclipse glasses to see our magnificent star blotted out momentarily by our only satellite. We lucked out. The morning fog had burned off, and the Nebraska sky was clear, blue, and ready to oblige us with an unobstructed view.

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Rocking their eclipse glasses waiting for totality

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As midday became night

I struggle for sufficient words to describe what I felt as the moon eclipsed the sun. As a family we had made a conscious determination to spend our minute seven seconds of totality present in the moment and not absorbed with the misguided notion we could capture and catalog this singular experience with an iPhone. When the moon made midday in Nebraska into dusk and exposed me to a 360-degree sunset, I exclaimed to myself (but somehow loudly enough for my family to remember): This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. It was incomparable. I could not hold back the tears.

I recount this personal tale not because I felt the world needed yet another #solareclipse2017 story, but because I realized on our way home from Nebraska that an older version of me, a Justine 1.0, would have missed the experience of totality. Being ever realistic and focused on the big picture, I would have done what many Denverites did. After finding lodging completely booked and reading road signs warning of high traffic and news articles advising travelers to bring extra cash, extra food and water, and emergency gas cans because of the unprecedented amount of day travelers expected to make the trek, I would have cut my losses and stayed home. I would have decided it wasn’t worth the risk or the expense or the vacation day hubby would take or the potential 8-12 additional travel hours in endless traffic or the missed first day of school for the boys. I would have determined that 93% of an eclipse was close enough. I would have told myself I would catch the next total eclipse in 2024. And I would have shared all those same rationalizations with my son in lieu of an apology for making him miss something he had been begging to see. I would have told him he had an entire lifetime to catch one later.

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The one photo I took during totality that proves you can’t capture an experience with an iPhone

But I am no longer Justine 1.0. I am Justine 2.0. Because of my sons, I am daily aware how short life is and how quickly time goes. I know you don’t always have a second shot, a do over, another day. I have learned sometimes if your intuition tells you something might be important, you have to take a leap. You have to decide the adventure is worth it. You have to make it a priority. You have to tell the myriad excuses to talk to the hand. We left the house Sunday night hoping to see a total eclipse, but knowing we might not. We discussed all the things that could go wrong, including rainy skies, running out of gas, and wasting hours in traffic to see not much more than we could have seen from our yard. We decided that at the very least we’d come out of this with an amusing anecdote of a crazy family trip. At most we would fulfill our expectations and maybe even be surprised by something greater.

We weren’t disappointed. Despite the glitch that left us scrambling for lodging at the last minute, Justine 2.0 proved a definite improvement over the earlier version. I’m starting to suspect that Justine 2.5, currently under development, will be even faster on the uptake.

Running Out Of Time

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Before our run this morning, my son summed up how I felt about our run this morning.

Joe decided after his successful foray into track last spring that he would go out for cross-country this fall. A couple times during the summer, he received emails from his coaches encouraging training plans and providing workout schedules, emails which he deleted because denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. Once August hit after an entire summer of remaining exercise free, I suggested he do a few weeks of a Couch to 5K training app to dip his toes into the water again. Being a teenager dripping with disdain for anything requiring effort, he had less than zero interest in or enthusiasm for such an endeavor.

If there’s anything anyone who truly knows me knows about me, it’s that I don’t run. I think you should only run when you’re being chased by something bigger and heavier than you, like a large carnivore with sharp teeth or a runaway grand piano. While I have participated in a plethora of 5k events because I enjoy doing fun activities with people I like, I have not finished even one race where I ran the entire course because, as I mentioned, I don’t run. I. Don’t. Run. If you know anything else about me, though, it’s that I am doggedly determined once I set a goal. And this goal was to get Joe on his feet again.

To that end, being the super annoying mother I am, I downloaded the Couch to 5k app to my phone, waltzed into his room at 8 a.m. one oddly cool morning, tossed some socks and his running shoes onto his chest, and told him we would be leaving in 10 minutes. That was two weeks ago. I have been running with him every other day since then because it turns out I love complaining about running while running with Joe more than not running.

Today we were finishing up the last minute of our brisk-walk warm up when I noticed an elderly couple traveling side-by-side on the narrow path in front of us. He was moving along unsteadily with the aid of a cane while she held a walking stick in each hand to assist her. It was a bittersweet scene, at once a charming vision of long-term commitment to a life partner and yet a heartbreaking exhibition of the difficulty of aging. I couldn’t decide how I felt about it.

The gentleman heard us approaching, turned to verify our presence, and slowly moved behind his wife to allow us room to pass. Billie (our annoying, imaginary running coach) barked from my phone that it was time to jog. Joe sprinted off with his long, sixteen-year-old legs. I plodded along behind him and offered a polite greeting as I prepared to pass the couple. The gentleman replied in kind.

Then as I hit my stride next to them and began to leave them behind the way Joe had left me, she sighed and spoke.

“To be that young. Oh, to run again.” 

That hurt. I mentally clutched my heart with my hands.

We spend a lot of time bitching about what we must do. Our monkey minds run a non-stop chyron of obligations through our heads, preemptively sucking the joy out of doing. I’ve spent considerable time the last two weeks bitching about running, mainly while running. It didn’t make the running any easier.

Life is not about what you have to do. It’s about what you can do, even if you haven’t found your way to enjoying it yet.

 

 

The Permanence of Impermanence

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Saw this pink flamingo slowly dying on the street this morning. Wonder if someone is missing it? 

You have to pay attention because, if you don’t, you will miss the best things.

My mind has been parsing the notion of loss lately. I’m not talking only about losing a person or pet to disease or losing my children as they grow and become their own people, although these two particular losses have been weighing heavily on my heart recently. I’m also talking about losing things like my hair or the bottle of peppermint oil I had in my hand a minute ago or the astounding piece of wisdom I was about to share but which vaporized before I could pry it from my brain. I seem to be losing everything these days.

When the universe persists in presenting me with opportunities for growth, eventually I catch on to the pattern. And the current rate at which I have been facing loss has given rise to non-stop mulling about the loss and what loss even is and where it comes from and how I can best deal with it in the moment and how to survive it long-term and what I can learn from it to help me along my path. Searching for meaning is what I do as a double Gemini.

Buddhism teaches that suffering is a constant condition of the human experience, and our inability to deal with all types of suffering (from physical pain to the pain of persistent change to the pervasive conditioning that finds us repeating the same negative behaviors from which we need to escape) keeps us from experiencing true happiness. If you are born, you will suffer and you will die. It’s how we choose to approach suffering that determines the quality of life before we leave.

Loss is painful because we have a misguided notion we have some right to claim ownership. We don’t. We don’t own our bodies, we occupy them. We can’t keep them from aging or changing. We may be able to lessen the visible effects of our unhealthy behaviors and the constant pull of gravity and genetics, but we cannot stop our march towards death or the visible proof of that continual process. We don’t own others. They too have a timeline and will move through this life on their own path. Our inability to accept that life is transitory and that the people in our lives are as impermanent as we are creates a path to misery because loss of life is unavoidable. In the poignant words of Walter White, “Every life comes with a death sentence.” We don’t even own items we own. A burglar can take my computer. An auto accident can wreck my car. A fire can incinerate my home and everything inside it. And there is very little I can do about any of it, really.

This morning I looked out my bedroom window into the park-like backyard I am fortunate enough to enjoy. There were finches and nuthatches clinging to the feeder. Squirrels chasing each other around the tree trunk. A mouse scurrying away with a fallen bit of feed corn. A small bunny gnawing a dandelion. This is not the same bunny that inhabited our yard before (I will never forget you, wherever you are, Wobble Bunny), yet our yard still has a bunny. The dead squirrel we found last week has been replaced by another squirrel happy to stake his claim. The players are different but the play is the same. This, in a nutshell, is life.

Loss is certain. Change is inexorable. Pain is compulsory. How we approach and what we take from these guarantees is a choice. My children are almost grown, and I can wallow in sadness about their impending departure or I can appreciate them now. People I love will move on. My hair will get thinner. Items I have lost may show up eventually or they may not. But squandering time perseverating about the loss of people or belongings I could never stake claim to in the first place is useless. I am going to practice appreciating life and its players now. So, I am going to close up my computer, drag my sons out of their basement cave, and take them outside to appreciate the carousel of revolving life in our yard because the only loss I can avoid is a wasted opportunity to own the fullness of this moment just as it is.

We Are All Wobble Bunny

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“The wise bunny knows to live in the world that is rather than the world that should be.” ~Bunny Buddhism

Wobble Bunny lives in our yard. I first discovered him a couple weeks ago. I glanced out the bedroom window and there he was, resting close to the fence near a hole I hadn’t previously noticed. I know that bunnies are bad for our lawn and our garden, but that has never stopped me from appreciating them. Not sure if it’s their skyscraper ears or their soulful round eyes or their puffy white tails that tug at my heart, but the bunnies speak to me, and so I have decided to let them do what they must to our yard in the name of survival.

Wobble Bunny is not like other bunnies we’ve shared our yard with before. As he munches in the grass, he often rolls over. It starts with a wobble and then he lists and rolls onto his side or back. At first I thought perhaps he has neurological issues or had gotten into something he shouldn’t have. Upon closer observation, however, I discovered he has an issue with his back left leg. It is weaker than it should be and this causes Wobble Bunny to lose his balance and topple over while sitting or lapse into a barrel roll as he hastily hops toward his hole to avoid danger. It’s simultaneously comical and heartbreaking. It’s an outward display of his vulnerability, and it just makes me adore him more.

I’ve lost hours observing Wobble Bunny. I never let the dog out until I am sure he is safely hiding under the neighbor’s shed or ours. When Ruby perches herself over his hole, her legs mindlessly dancing the doggy Charleston in excitement over a furry prey, I scold her and rein her in. I’m vigilant about protecting this wild bunny, not because I can save him or tame him, but because Wobble Bunny’s shaky existence is a metaphor for all humanity. We are all Wobble Bunny.

The First Noble Truth of Buddhism explains that life is suffering. This does not mean that life is a continual sufferfest. It isn’t. There are rises and falls, but we are constantly exposed to suffering. It begins at birth and continues as we get sick, age, lose loved ones, and don’t get what we hope for or want. It is an inescapable condition of life on this planet. We all suffer. Learning to acknowledge, accept, endure, and alleviate our own suffering (and the suffering of others) is the way to a peaceful heart. It’s a bitch of an obstacle course to run.

Wobble Bunny is my daily Buddhist meditation. There he is. Hopping through his life the only way he knows how, with wobbles and tumbles and missteps. He goes on falling and getting up over and over again because he must. He knows no other way. I wish I could take away his suffering and his weakness. I can’t. But in watching out for him, in doing what I can to make his life less stressful and insecure, I make my own life better.

“My responsibility it not only to other bunnies. It is to all creatures everywhere.” ~Bunny Buddhism

Wobble Bunny reminds me daily to let go of negative thoughts, to be compassionate to other creatures, and to face suffering for what it is…a given. I can’t eliminate all the undesirable conditions, but I can learn to negotiate the minefield with greater skill.

We are all wobbly bunnies. Practicing acceptance and patience around that knowledge is the greatest gift we can give the world.

 

 

Putting A Lid On My Monkey Barrel

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Bowls so full they almost look solid

(Snapped this photo quickly on my way out of my first Buddhist meditation class tonight. It’s not an impressive photo or anything, but I was drawn to these glass offering bowls from the moment I saw them. How did they fill them so precisely? They remind me a bit of the offering candles in the Catholic church we attended while I was growing up. I’m not sure if the intentions are the same behind both, but I find it intriguing where different traditions intersect.)

The idea of physically attending meditation classes, rather than attempting to learn meditation solely through an iPhone app I bought, came to me through my incredible drum instructor, who also happens to be a Buddhist monk. He is a calm, centered person who listens intently, thinks before he speaks, and is a perfect antidote to my nervous personality. He has talked to me about how mindfulness can help me get into a better mental state for my drumming, and I certainly could use any help I can get. But, beyond that, I noticed recently that I have been letting my mind run away with me too often. It’s embarrassing what the lawless monkeys in my head will get into if I leave them unattended.

Before Christmas, I was speaking with my father about world religion and he said, “Buddha is good for personal improvement, but I don’t need it.” While I appreciate his self-assurance about not needing help with personal improvement, I don’t have that same certitude. I openly admit that my head is a mess in need of a maid. If I want to overcome negativity and increase happiness, if I want to foster the mental fortitude for writing a book, then I need to rein in those damn monkeys and harness their energy for later use. Given how active they’ve been lately, this may prove a harder task than I imagined. And given that I was also born in the Year of the Monkey, perhaps I was doomed from the start?

Still, hope springs eternal so Steve and I drove to the Kadampa Meditation Center downtown where tonight’s theme at the beginner’s class was New Year, New You. Ruth first spoke a bit about New Year’s Resolutions and how people (myself included) think that by changing external things in our lives, like getting a new job, finding a significant other, or getting fit, for example, we will find happiness. She then burst our bubble by telling us something we probably already knew…happiness only comes from within. So, all our work running around trying to establish new habits or make changes to create a better sense of self are more or less worthless if we don’t change our minds at the same time. We can create the illusion of happiness externally but, the minute something derails, our minds will still freak out and remind us we aren’t really happy after all.

After speaking to us for a while about meditations and Buddhist teachings, she guided us through a short meditation. I have meditated before, mostly for short periods of time, and I’ve some experience with conscious breathing courtesy of yoga practice, so I didn’t find the exercise altogether impossible. I was able to redirect the monkeys that began jumping around when my legs got twitchy and even shut up the ones that started chattering when my phone vibrated in my bag courtesy of an unexpected, ill-timed Facetime call from my sister, although Steve did mention he could hear my yoga breathing get louder during that episode. Hey…wait a minute. He shouldn’t have been focusing on my breathing. He was supposed to be paying attention to his own breath and keeping his mind on his meditation. Hmmmmm….guess it’s a good thing we both attended this class.

Before we left, I took a moment to notice where my mind was. I felt relaxed, focused, and confident, which is the way I usually feel after a yoga class. I thoroughly enjoyed my evening and learned a thing or two as well. I’m ready to train my mind not to fly off the handle or to become overwhelmed by negative thoughts. I think I’ve got the timing right on this journey too. If the current media reporting is any indication, this country is on the precipice of major upheaval. I’d best begin taking lots of meditation classes and getting a lid on my monkeys. 2017 may be a bumpy ride.