The Benefits of Motivation and Curiosity: On the Road and in a Meditation Practice July 31, 2021 16:55
(photo credit: Muhammad owsama via Unsplash)
If you prefer to listen to this month's blog post, please click here for the audio link.
These past few weeks, I have been grateful to be able to drive to Bloomington to attend Dharma teachings in-person at TMBCC (Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center).
The center is now open for weekly teachings, and visitors are required to wear masks (an act of compassion that protects themselves and others).
An ongoing (and major) construction project is happening on State Road 37, which is the road I usually take to B-town. Part of this highway is closed, and a detour is required in order for me to reach my destination. The orange cones, "rodeo barrels," and ever-changing traffic patterns with unexpected curves and sharp turns make this weekly commute a continual surprise. The road is forever morphing and changing.
However, dedication, curiosity, and motivation inspire me to navigate my way back and forth each Sunday. I wake up a little earlier. I leave the house a little sooner, and I keep an open, judgment-free mind. Expectations typically create unwanted limitations, and they are a sure-fire way to set myself up for disappointment and stress.
I type in the address on the GPS system in my car and follow the directions (usually--a few rebellious "route recalculations" are part of the fun). Each time I've taken this trip, my car has led me on a different route.
I'm exploring new pathways.
I'm trusting the guidance.
I'm open to discovery, and I'm curious about the journey.
This is SIGNIFICANT growth for me. I am notoriously bad at directions, and I get lost and turned around very easily. As a result, getting lost used to be quite anxiety-triggering for me...to the point that it would prevent me from exploring new places and experiences.
I'm also not usually thrilled about driving long distances, either. This commute takes me well over an hour each way. However, I have been enjoying these excursions. I'm more relaxed and patient in the car. I'm less fearful and more open. I'm less disoriented and more curious. I don't worry about the time as much as I used to, and I have enjoyed taking in the new scenery each week.
I'm not sure what's changed, but because my motivation is strong, I'm more flexible, accepting, and eager to discover new pathways.
Meditation practice is like this, too.
Meditation is a method of self-regulation. Over time, a regular practice regulates my thoughts, which can trigger a relaxation response in the body.
Scientific studies have shown that meditation can reduce inflammation, which can ward off harmful disease. Meditation can increase insulin production, which can improve blood sugar regulation in the body. Meditation can also have anti-aging effects by preserving the ends of chromosomes (called telomeres).
Consequently, training the mind through a regular meditation practice can indirectly affect the expression of genes and influence the production of hormones. In other words, meditation can affect your body on a cellular level!
It can also encourage the growth of new neural pathways in the brain. This process is also known as self-directed neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to adapt to change. The environment, thoughts, and actions can influence the brain's ability to create these new neural pathways.
A regular meditation practice can improve the ability to focus and remain present. It can lead to reduced stress and anxiety, and it can also enhance and improve intuition and interoception (an awareness of sensations inside the body).
Meditation naturally leads to improved self-awareness and self-regulation. It can also prevent age-related brain atrophy and protect against memory loss. Meditation retrains the brain to become more fully present and to rely less on living unconsciously on "auto-pilot."
It's not easy to break away from ingrained habits--to bust out of the status quo and embrace new things.
Change is possible.
Growth is possible.
Where you choose to place your attention determines the quality of your life.
Personally, meditation has encouraged me to take more responsibility for my life. I feel more confident, and I'm more willing to explore new experiences and interests. I'm also less judgmental and fearful.
So, maybe not being able to travel to Bloomington and attend Dharma teachings in-person for several months gave me more time to meditate at home and hone my own self-directed neuroplasticity skills.
And, maybe all of these construction projects with their detours and alternate routes are pushing all of us, gently, out of our well-worn habits and encouraging us to explore and appreciate the scenery of unknown roads.
The path to awareness is both a physical and mental journey, and being open, curious, and motivated will help make this journey more meaningful and enjoyable.
Speaking of enjoying your practice--I have added several new mala designs to the online shop. Feel free to check out the full collection here.
Meditative Musings: Brood X Cicadas May 31, 2021 16:02
If you prefer to listen to this blog post, please click here for the audio link.
It's a Sunday afternoon. I'm sitting outside in the backyard listening to the Brood X cicadas sing in the trees. One of our neighbors is tooling around his yard on a lawn mower, but the cicadas are drowning him out.
There's a distinctive undercurrent of sound--like a constant "Ha" or a steady, but subtle baseline, and then a spiraling, melodic layer of sound pressing over it. I love this sound--this steady crescendo and decrescendo--and I love the creatures who create this sound; they inspire me, and they motivate me to continue to practice.
Any creature that burrows underground and stays "in retreat" for seventeen years, emerges, molts, mates, and sings all while constantly at risk of being eaten by just about every other creature (ants, birds, squirrels, raccoons, dogs, etc.) has my total respect.
Cicadas are mascots of endurance and patience, and it's particularly fitting that their emergence coincides with our own cautious emergence from the COVID-19 pandemic, at least here in the U.S.
For the last couple of weeks, I've wandered around our yard every morning and afternoon examining the trunks of trees for their empty husks--or, exuviae--evidence of successful molts.
And they are everywhere! Scattered in the grass, stuck to the undersides of leaves, they cling to the bricks of our home and line the outer edges of our garage door.
Not all of them make it. I've seen several "failed molts" of would-be cicadas trapped in their former "nymph" selves, unable to escape--or they escape, but with crumpled wings damaged in the molting process. When I see them, I whisper "Om.Ah.Hum" on their behalf.
A few days ago, I was lucky enough to witness a successful molt from start to finish. It was a cool, foggy morning, and I noticed a dark brown shell at eye level on a cherry tree in our front yard. This exoskeleton didn't have a vertical split down the center of the thorax, so I knew the shell was still occupied.
I wandered around for a few minutes looking at other trees in the yard. When I came back, the shell was pulsating, so I decided to stick around.
I stood by the tree and watched this cicada emerge from its exoskeleton--the entire process took a little over an hour.
It wriggled and pressed its way out of the confines of the exoskeleton that protected him in the earth. His body was pale, and his wings were small and delicate.
When he emerged, he looked like he was doing a back bend until his wings and all six legs were free from the shell. He moved, wriggled, and stretched all of his legs, then returned toward the tree, climbed over his shed exoskeleton, and rested until his crumpled wings slowly unfurled and dried. Then, he took his first steps as an adult cicada and began to climb up the tree.
You may be wondering, at this point, what on earth does this have to do with meditation practice? This is a valid question.
Today is Monday--Memorial Day--and I took some time to sit outside to meditate this afternoon.
The temperature was cool, and the sky was cloudy and overcast.
I closed my eyes and listened underneath the intermittent bird song, the occasional slam of a car door, the sputtering motor of a nearby riding lawn mower, and the sound of a motorcycle accelerating in the distance. Beneath these distinct "sounds of samsara" was a constant hum that seemed to be coming from nowhere and everywhere at once.
What started as the roar of applause, or the sound effect from a B-rated sci-fi flick, transformed into the hush of cause and effect, the infinite sigh of the earth, the soft, primordial thunder that held all other sounds together. It held space for sound, and it, too, was the sound of space. This ubiquitous murmur was the sound of transformation, the backdrop of interconnection, and a beautiful reminder that life is precious, that time is limited.
This is the sound of generosity; this is the sound of ethics; this is the sound of patience; this is the sound of joyful effort, this is the sound of focus, and this is the sound of wisdom.
For me, these Brood X cicadas are simple but powerful symbols that embody and sing the benefits of daily practice. All we have to do to benefit others, as well as ourselves, is to observe, to listen, and to be still.
May you all enjoy the remnants of this holiday weekend, and may you all find time for your own practice today....and every day.
Thanks for reading or listening. If you haven't checked out the Middle Moon Malas online shop in a while, be sure to visit middlemoonmalas.com. I've added a few new designs recently that you might like.
Take care, everyone!
This Is a Test...of Your Meditation Practice...This Is Only a Test February 20, 2019 18:24
My practice said, “Bring it!”
The universe said, “OK!”
I recently completed a five-month meditation program in Crestone, Colorado, that included daily somatic meditation sessions, readings, lectures, monthly group calls, individual check-in calls, and two, week-long silent retreats, one at the beginning, and one at the end of the program. In addition to all of this, I also included daily personal practices: a sadhana and japa recitations. So, I’ve been doing a lot of meditating over the course of the last few months, and I’ve noticed an interesting trend…I am attracting all kinds of irritable, defensive, and angry people along with a few tumultuous situations as added bonus features.
What’s interesting…and new for me…I’m not freaking out about these cranky peeps and problems. In fact, I’m leaning in to welcome them…and to learn from them.
During these last few months, I’ve noticed that I’m more inclined to remain calm and steady, and I’m not taking the agitated behaviors or the unexpected surprises so personally. These practices have helped me navigate my way safely into the “eye of the storm.” I may be surrounded by upheaval and drama, but I am no longer contributing to it or participating in it.
I’m also not running away from it, which is new for me, too. I’m holding space and finding equanimity, and I credit these daily practices for helping me to remain calm and to generate compassion for these challenging people and circumstances.
I recently shared an interesting article that I read on a social media platform. It was about meditation—how important it is to choose your words carefully when cueing if you are leading a meditation session in a yoga class environment, particularly if students who are prone to anxiety are present in the class. This article was a personal narrative from the author’s blog. I thought she had some valid points and an interesting perspective, so I shared it.
A few minutes later, a Buddhist friend of mine wrote seething criticism about the article and questioned the author’s credibility as a meditation teacher. Clearly, he held a different view and interpretation of this article, which is fine, and as we exchanged comments, his language choice became increasingly more judgmental, agitated, and angry. The author did not write her blog from a Buddhist perspective, and she hadn’t trained in a specific lineage, so to my friend, this was not only appalling, but inappropriate. To him, only meditation teachers who trained with Buddhist masters for decades could be qualified to lead meditation sessions, even those occurring in local yoga studios. Ultimately, my friend commented that defending this author was deplorable, and before I could respond, he unfriended me.
The old me wouldn’t have engaged in an online debate to begin with. I would have been too timid to express my own views and explain why I found the article interesting and relevant. The old me would have complimented my friend’s vast knowledge of Buddhist wisdom (overlooking his obvious attachment and arrogance, of course) and apologized for posting the article in the first place. The old me would have immediately deleted the article from my timeline.
This time, however, I didn’t evade, avoid, apologize, flatter, or delete. Instead, using calm, respectful language, I defended my viewpoint. I remained open-minded and open-hearted as our written conversation progressed. I wasn’t participating in an argument—I was communicating in a clear, honest way. I wasn’t ashamed, angry, agitated, or scared. Instead, I felt relaxed, steady, and open. I also felt compassion for my friend, who was clearly growing more agitated as the conversation continued, but I didn’t take his reactions personally, and I also didn’t push my viewpoint or claim it was more valid than his. I did, however, feel sad that he ended the conversation abruptly and severed our social media connection. I would have gladly recommended that he look into the meditation program at Crestone :).
Granted, I still have a lot of work to do (Don’t we all?), but it’s promising to see the positive benefits of a steady meditation practice both on and off the cushion. These are just a few that I’ve noticed from my own practice:
- I’m less judgmental and critical of others
- I don’t lead with my expectations (or ego) as often
- I’m more relaxed
- I’m more open-minded and receptive
- I’m more courageous and confident
- I speak up more
- I’m tactfully honest (or, at least aspire to be)
- I’m more accepting
- I’m more present
I've completed a retreat program, but I'm not planning to stop practicing anytime soon. These benefits will continue to motivate and encourage me to embrace whatever surprises may come my way... and to grow from them.