Grace by Bandwidth

“I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite, black and white, good and bad. My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: Love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity to name a few.” —Brené Brown

There are a few things that I am certain of: we are born alone, we die alone, and I could eat rice pudding until I explode. Other than that, it’s all a crap shoot. The remarkable breadth of possibility in the world is met by an equally broad range of uncertainty. And so, in order to embrace a life filled with expansion and growth, we must also be able to sit with uncertainty and the discomfort of vulnerability it brings with it.

Here are 3 ways to increase your tolerance for discomfort:

1. Play with Your Edges

I had a boyfriend once who insisted, one night, that we sleep upside down in our bed—with our feet at the top, heads at the bottom. His point was that we would never forget that night. Many years and lovers later, I can confirm that he was right. But something else happened that night. We woke up.

By definition, habits are unconscious thoughts and actions. When we begin to dismantle habitual patterns, we awaken to our experiences with a heightened state of awareness. We usually embody this wakefulness across the board, bringing new perspective to many areas of our lives—a state of enlightenment.

Rather than wait to be passively woken up out of our sleepy habits by an accident, trauma, or other existential bump in the road, practice stretching the edges of your comfort zone when life is calm and peaceful. Actively creating insignificant changes for the purpose of sitting in discomfort, will help to develop the muscles you need when life takes you on a roller coaster unexpectedly.

Some suggestions:
Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand.
Forgo one of your go-to comfort foods for a month.
Drive a different route home from work for a week.
Read before bed instead of watching television.

2. Self-Soothe

Those of us who are parents know how important it is to teach our infants to self-soothe. It is an area in which many of us are still underdeveloped, even as adults. When we are emotionally uncomfortable, it is easy to act out in ways that ultimately will contribute to an increased state of discomfort and distress.

Some suggestions:
Choose a cup of hot tea, instead of a pint of ice cream.
Take a warm, candle lit bath, instead of opening a bottle of wine.
Read a book to escape perseverating over a situation, instead of calling a friend to vent about it into the night.

3. Delay Action

As a culture, we are conditioned to focus on Doing, and not so much on Being. When faced with challenging circumstances, we usually will find ourselves saying, “I don’t know what to do about this.” Very often, the doing is something that could—or even should—come later. A better statement of inquiry would be, “I don’t know how to be with this.” By resisting the urge to take action, we afford ourselves the room to sit with our thoughts and feelings. Give yourself permission to have your thoughts and feelings, but at the same time, realize that your thoughts and feelings do not define you. One of my favorite Pema Chödrön quotes is: “You are the sky. Everything else—it’s just the weather.”

Some suggestions:
Name your pain. Unpack it, spread it on the table, inventory it, write it down.
Sit with it and get to know it.
Draw distinctions between what you think and what you feel.
Breathe into the part of yourself that transcends “the weather”.

Poison Control

“Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” —Anonymous (often attributed to Gautama Buddha)

All yogis aspire to being peaceful, loving, compassionate people, and yet, anger and resentment are part of the human condition. Contrary to all the quotes and idioms about it, anger is not necessarily a bad thing. How we handle it makes all the difference in neutralizing its potential toxicity, and making it an agent of transformation and enlightenment.

Here are five steps to soften your anger:

1. Sit With It

The combination of egoic attachment and impulse control often has us assign false urgency to situations which raise our anger. Taking a moment of stillness with our strong emotions allows us the opportunity to get more comfortable with the discomfort of anger. It can also halt the escalation of conflict that tends to result from emotional reaction rather than intentional action.

2. Unpack It

My mantra for anger is, “I am not upset about what I think I am upset about.” In other words, there is more to your anger that meets the eye. Whatever the plot of our particular story is, there is an additional subtext that deserves our attention. To dig deeper, ask yourself these questions, “Why is this situation painful? What am I fearful of? Which of my values are being violated?”

3. Use it Wisely

Anger is our inner voice letting us know that our boundaries are being pushed. Diving deep into self-inquiry at these times affords us the opportunity to do some core spiritual detective work. What we discover about who we really are—and what we will or won’t accept in our lives—can be used to make significant and sustainable changes.

4. Disconnect from It

Being a witness to our own drama allows us the room to step back and disconnect from the emotional experience of the human condition. We are more than our feelings. Give yourself permission to feel angry, as well as, fear, pain, or anything else that lays below the anger. And then redirect your attention to the part of you that lives beyond emotion. Go for a hike, take a yoga class, feed your soul the best way you know how.

5. Hold it Gently

The expression and experiencing of strong emotions like anger can upset our status quo for quite a while. What we unearth in the intentional management of anger can shake us to the core. The stronger the anger, the bigger the change that is asking to be made, whether internal or external. Finding compassion for all parties involved cannot be rushed, but is essential to peaceful resolution. In the aftermath of inner and/or outer conflict, allow the awareness to grow, and hold it gently.

Can I Get a Witness?

 “Learn to watch your drama unfold while at the same time knowing you are more than your drama.” —Ram Dass

Suffering is part of the human condition—especially for those of us living out our dharma in the fast-paced, urban trenches of Los Angeles. Sometimes, when we are highly emotional about something, we say we are “really in it”, as if we are submerged in the suffering itself. The most powerful—and perhaps, essential— ways to navigate emotional suffering is to develop the ability to be simultaneously SUBJECTIVE and OBJECTIVE—to observe ourselves in this state without judgment. In other words, we can have our feelings, but we are not our feelings.

The greater our ability be our own witness, the more adept we become at acknowledging, recognizing, understanding, accepting, and releasing our suffering.

Here are 6 ways to cultivate your witness:

1. Slow Way Down

Stillness is the prescription for bringing consciousness to anything. Rushing through the experiencing of anything, including feelings, means that we miss subtleties and nuances that feed our understanding of it. The first step in separating ourselves from our drama is to slow down and be with it. Resist the urge to DO. Simply BE.

2. Invoke Your Third Person

It may feel silly at first, but when you are in the middle of an emotional reaction, stop and say, “This is Zoë having an emotional reaction.” Or, “This is Zoë feeling angry.” Work your way through it until, “This is Zoë accepting what is and knowing that all will be okay.” If you don’t get all the way there, don’t worry. This is a practice in distinguishing yourself from your emotions, first and foremost.

3. Checkpoint: Mindfulness

Set an alarm at regular intervals four times a day. When the alarm sounds, do a brief mindfulness practice. Notice your physical presence in its environment. You might articulate it like this: “Feet on the floor. Feet on the floor…Hands on the keyboard. Hands on the keyboard…” Repeating it twice gives the mind and extra beat to become fully present and objective.” Interrupting the flow of the day with Mindfulness develops our ability to discern between emotional and physical experience.

4. Take a Nature Walk

The muscles we use to observe the world around us are the same ones we use to witness ourselves. The way the clouds drift in the sky, the palm fronds rustle in the breeze, or birds fly in formation, gives context to our suffering, by reminding us that we are one small part of something much greater than ourselves.

5. On the Arc of a Rainbow

Just as connecting with nature can set a context for a difficult moment, stepping back and considering how that moment fits into your life story can set a different, and equally powerful context. We tend to assign undue urgency or importance to our experiences—especially when they are emotionally-charged—when they are really just one small chapter in the arc of our entire story.

6. Lighten Up

There is a not-so-fine, and fairly blurry line between pain and self-pity. Denying or burying our emotions can be hazardous to our health. At the same time, so can taking ourselves too seriously. Holding things lightly can go a long way in cultivating grace in the dancing with our feelings.

Perspective as a Power Tool

“I kind of quit surfing when I got out of high school, but then a few years ago I started to take it up again. I’m not an expert by any means, but it’s so wonderful to get out in the ocean and get a different perspective on things.” —Jeff Bridges

It’s part of the human condition that we come upon challenging moments when it feels as though the people in our lives—or life itself—is beating us down. Or perhaps there is a specific aspect of a situation or relationship that is showing up as a persistent source of discomfort. At these times, we lose objectivity and become immersed in our own myopic experiencing of the circumstances. Emotional pain has a way of clouding our vision. The suffering can be compounded when we react with emotional charge, without the benefit of time and distance to balance the way we see things. The first step in deciding what to do with something is choosing how to be with it. Perspective can be defined as the interrelation in which a subject—or its parts—is viewed in it’s context. Bringing choice to the way we hold our experiences, releases us from victimhood and hands us back our personal power.

As Byron Katie says, “Don’t believe everything you think.” So how do we change the way we perceive things? Here are 3 ways:

1. Change Your Geography

Changing our external environment can shift our internal landscape. Going to a yoga class, taking a weekend out of town, or even just stepping away from our desk for moment can not only divert our attention, but the visceral feeling of a new environment can cause a somatic shift in consciousness. How many times have you said, “Let me look at this from a different angle?” Taken literally, it means moving your body to a different location to see what things look like from there. Adding the element of physical exercise draws energy from the mind to the body—breaking up fixated thought patterns, and opening up pathways to a new perspective. 

2. Try on a Role Model

We all have people in our lives who we admire. Maybe they have qualities we find admirable or maybe it’s the sum total of how they show up in the world. When we are struggling with a situation in our own lives, it can be a great exercise to try on the persona of someone we would like to emulate. Ask yourself, “What would the Dalai Llama do?” Whether its your sister, your teacher, or Meryl Streep, borrowing the consciousness of someone we look up to and applying it to our own situation can fast track a shift.

3. Pull Focus on the Big Picture

When we are in the thick of a situation, we tend to be focused on the intensity of our own personal experience. Taking a moment to balance the micro with the macro can be like a breath of fresh air. “How does this moment fit within the larger context of my life? What feels important about this? What values are being challenged?” are all questions which have a perspective shift built into them. Another way to reframe is to ask yourself what you would like to say about this moment when you look back at it five years from now. Considering the context of our personal life history is often just the change in perspective we are looking for.

Transforming Suffering: Tonglen

These days, it is easy to be aware of the suffering in the world. All we have to do is turn on the news, open the newspaper, or scroll down our Facebook newsfeeds to get a clear sense of the struggle to find peace in the world—as individuals, and in local and global communities. As witnesses to suffering, it is natural to seek peace by avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. In this sense, the practice of Tonglen is counterintuitive, but it is one of the bravest and most powerfully transformative practices in the Buddhist tradition.

Tonglen translates simply to “Giving and Receiving”. The focus of the practice is not to turn away from suffering, but to connect with it, everywhere we go. As the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says, “It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us.”

Begin to familiarize yourself with this powerful practice by focusing on someone you know personally who needs some relief. Perhaps a friend or relative who is ill or suffering a loss of some kind. Once you become more comfortable with the practice, you can extend your focus to groups of people who share a particular set of circumstances. You can even practice a quick on-the-spot Tonglen whenever you notice someone suffering as you move through the world on a daily basis by breathing in darkness and breathing out light. It’s a generous way to embody the words of Gandhi and “be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Tonglen Practice as described by Roshi Joan Halifax:

  • Sit in meditation posture, relax in a chair, or lie down. Gently close your eyes and let your body and mind settle. You want to feel relaxed and open.
  • Begin by breathing in whatever you are feeling—fear, agitation, anger, resistance—and accepting it. On the exhalation breathe out well-being. Continue until you feel settled.
  • On your inbreath imagine that you are inhaling heavy, hot air. On your outbreath visualize exhaling cool, light air. Continue with this pattern—breathing in heaviness and breathing out lightness—until it is familiar to you. The heaviness is suffering; the lightness is well-being. Now imagine that you are breathing through all the pores of your body. On the inbreath heavy, hot air enters every pore. On the outbreath, cool light flows from every pore.
  • Now visualize a metal sheath around your heart. This metal sheath is everything about you that is difficult for you to accept: your self-importance, selfishness, self-cherishing, self-pity. Dissolve this metal sheath and open your heart to its natural nonjudgmental state of warmth, kindness, and spaciousness.
  • The reason you are doing this practice is that you are suffering, others are suffering, and you wish with all your heart that all beings could be free from suffering. This wish needs to be specific, personal, and sincere. Bring to your mind some being, dead or alive, with whom you feel a deep connection. You would do anything to help this one. Be with this one and feel what she is experiencing. Let your whole being turn toward her suffering and your wish that it might be relieved. See how vulnerable she is. Like a mother who will do anything to help her child, you will do anything to help your friend.
  • Visualize the suffering of your beloved as polluted, hot smoke and breathe it in through your whole body. The instant that the inbreath of suffering touches the metal sheath of self-centeredness around your heart, the sheath breaks apart, and your heart opens to the suffering. The hot smoke instantly vanishes into the great space of your heart, and from this space spontaneously arises an outbreath of mercy and healing. Send a deep, cool, light, and spacious healing breath to your friend.
  • Let this one friend’s suffering remind you of the many others who find themselves suffering in the same way. This friend is your connection to them. Breathe in their suffering. Let your heart break open. Send them healing with your outbreath. Continue with this practice.

Fall into the Gap: Primordial Sound Meditation

Deepak Chopra created Primordial Sound Meditation in the tradition of Transcendental Meditation (TM), originated by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Both use the repetition of mantra to alter one’s consciousness and reach a state of restful awareness. Usually a mantra is given directly by a guru. With Maharishi’s permission, Dr. Chopra and his partner, Dr. David Simon, developed a way of ascertaining an individual’s mantra according to the time and date of their birth. Essentially, your personal mantra is the sound the universe was making at the moment you were born. The Chopra Center incorporates mantra initiation into all their programs. It is also wonderfully effective to use the mantra, “So Hum,” for the Primordial Sound Meditation. So Hum is a Sanskrit phrase that translates roughly as, “I am that.”

Primordial Sound Meditation:

Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Take a slow, deep breath through your nose while thinking the word, “So.” Exhale slowly through your nose while thinking the word, “Hum.” Continue breathing easily, while silently repeating, “So…Hum…” with each inflow and outflow of breath. Whenever your attention drifts to thoughts in your mind, sounds in your environment, or sensations in your body, gently return awareness to your breath, silently repeating the mantra. Continue this process for 20 minutes with an attitude of effortlessness and simplicity. When the time is up, sit with your eyes closed for a couple of minutes before resuming your regular activity.

Tips:

Maintain an attitude of “no resistance” during meditation. Relinquish your need to control or anticipate what is occurring during the practice.

You mind will drift off into a stream of thoughts. Sometimes these thoughts will be almost dreamlike and other times you may feel that you are just thinking with your eyes closed. In either case, when you remember that your attention has drifted away from your breath and the mantra, gently return to it.

Eventually, you will have the experience of a thoughtless state. Your mind is silent and your body is deeply relaxed. This is called “going into the gap.” With regular practice, the inner silence you experience in the gap will infuse every aspect of your life.

Peeling Potatoes: Zen Meditation

American pop culture has embraced the word Zen as an adjective to convey serenity or simplicity. “I am so Zen. This guy cut right in front of me in line at Starbucks and I just smiled and told him I liked his shirt.” Perhaps you have one of those novelty trays of sand for your desk with a tiny rake and a few stones: a “Zen Rock Garden”. The mainstream perception of “Zen” makes some sense, though its true essence is far more complex in it’s simplicity than its common use suggests.

Zen is a school of Buddhism that developed in China during the 6th century, and later spread to Japan, Korea and Viet Nam. It emphasizes the attainment of enlightenment through direct, personal insight into Buddhist teachings, rather than through the study of scriptures and doctrines. As the great philosopher, speaker and self-described Zennist, Alan Watts said, “Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.”

The focus of Zen is finding spirituality by discovering the self in the ordinary, dropping illusion and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts: “Sun is warm. Grass is green.” Though the true and full practice of Zen involves working individually with a master teacher in the confines of a monastery, the essense of Zen can be incorporated through the practice of Zazen.

Zazen:

Zazen literally means “seated meditation” and is a focused investigation into the nature of the self by subtly abandoning anything that resists the simplicity of just being.

  1. Body Position: Settle into the stillness of a seated Buddha position with an upright spine and a slight curve at the base of the spine, assisted by a cushion that subtly tilts the pelvis eliminating any strain. Gently fold the legs so the knees touch the floor and create a stable triangular base. Hands can be held in “cosmic mudra” as pictured.
  2. Facial Postion: Gazing 2-3 feet in front of you, keep the eyes mostly covered by the lids, lessening the need for frequent blinking. Gently press the tongue on the roof of the mouth and swallow once, creating a seal that will lessen the need for frequent swallowing. The chin is slightly tucked in.
  3. Breathing: Breathing naturally and through the nose, begin stabilizing the mind by counting the breaths up to ten. Then begin again. At first, count each inhalation and exhalation separately. When you are able to stay with the counting without drifting and repeat it several times, start counting each pair of inhalation and exhalation as a pair. Eventually you will be able to abandon the counting altogether and just be with the breath.

Meditation in Motion: Vipassana Walking Meditation

Vipassana is a meditation technique that focuses on the deep connection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to physical sensation. This style traces directly to the way the Buddha himself practiced, and although non-sectarian, it is common to all Buddhist traditions. What we commonly call Mindfulness Meditation is rooted in Vipassana.

Most people think of meditation as sitting quietly, but traditional Buddhist teachings identify four meditation postures: sitting, walking, standing, and lying down. Walking meditation brings a number of benefits in addition to mindfulness: awareness, concentration, and stamina.

Buddhist teacher and Theraveda monk, Gil Fronsdal says, “In our daily lives, we spend more time walking than sitting quietly with our eyes closed. Walking meditation can serve as a powerful bridge between meditation practice and daily life, helping us to be more present, mindful, and concentrated in ordinary activities. It can reconnect us to a simplicity of being and the wakefulness that comes from it.”

Formal Walking Meditation:

Find a path 30 to 40 feet in length and simply walk back and forth. When you come to the end of your path, come to a full stop, turn around, stop again, and then start again. Walking back and forth on a single path allows your mind to disengage from negotiating the path. Keeping your eyes cast down, settle into a slow, easy pace. Bring your awareness to your legs and feet, and the physical sensations of walking. Labeling each step as “left, right,” or simply, “stepping, stepping,” will help you stay present. Try to dedicate your attention to the sensations of walking and let go of everything else. When thoughts or feelings come up, turn your focus back to the physical sensation of walking. Though there is no prescribed length of time for a walking meditation, a minimum of 20 minutes will allow the mind and body to more fully surrender to the process.