Cape Town

Effectiveness as a Teacher

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Cape Town

 

Your effectiveness as a teacher has a direct correlation with the depth of your own personal practice -Jeremy Hunter

Many years ago I was sitting on a mountain in South Africa. It was a warm summer day in Cape Town and I was soaking in the sun on a perch overlooking the magnificent Camps Bay. I was nearing the end of a consulting project in the region and had been mulling over my next steps of a while. I resolved that day I was going to decide what I wanted to do next with my life. No small resolution, but it was time.

I asked myself three questions: “What do I enjoy doing? What am I good at? What makes a difference in the world?” In response to all three questions one word emerged: “teaching”.  I received fulfillment from helping others learn, perceived I was pretty good at, and felt a quality teacher could make a tremendous difference. Plus, both my parents were teachers so I had some ancestral momentum.

Check.

Okay, so what would I teach? The most meaningful thing I had been taught was mindfulness: learning how to be more fully awake to the experience of life as it was unfolding moment by moment.

Decision made; I would teach mindfulness.

Now the question was “Where do I begin?”

A few months after my cliff-side epiphany I found myself having lunch in Los Angeles with Jeremy Hunter, a meditation teacher and college professor who lived for 17 years with a potentially terminal illness and lives to tell the tale. In the course of our conversation, I asked him about how one goes about teaching mindfulness, and he dropped this:

Your effectiveness as a teacher has a direct correlation with the depth of your own personal practice.

It went off like a bomb; the impact resonated and my future direction became clear: The way out was to go in.

Soon-after that conversation I found myself on a Mindfulness Tour of universities and then at Plum Village Monastery for the winter, the home of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. I was taking a leave of absence from my career as a corporate consultant, and at the end of the winter was faced with a decision: go back to management consulting or resign to face the great unknown. I recalled Jeremy’s transmission and knew that if I truly wanted to teach I needed to keep training.

I had entered the monastery with the attitude that I was there to build bridges, and while that was (and still is) a noble aspiration, I realized that first there was some necessary foundational work to engage with…suffering that had been unattended to amidst the initial rush of wanting to save the world. Jon Kabat-Zinn gets at this by recommending that for the first five years that you meditate to not really tell anybody; every time you want to talk about your meditation just sit and meditate. Otherwise before long you’ll be telling everyone about how great this whole meditation thing is, and all your energy will start going into PR. Before you know it you’ll be too busy to meditate.

A few months residing at a practice center was enough to show me I needed at least three years of concentrated practice before even considering branching out to offer practice to others.

So I resolved to spend the next phase of my life residing at mindfulness practice centers, which, in practical terms, meant explaining to my parents why I was giving up a prestigious career to volunteer at some monastery in the woods. Fortunately they understood…kind of.

Now three years later, as I venture into the waters of facilitating and teaching, I continue coming back to this transmission whenever I am considering my readiness to teach. As a teacher I aim to have full integrity, which to me means only teaching from my own direct experience, and not relying too much on things I’ve read, heard others say, or just thought about.

While I know the path is long and that I still have a ways to go, I take refuge in the commitment I’ve made to live each day as if it really mattered, as if the quality of my life depended on it…because, in reality, it does.

Pain in the neck

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OW Boston

One morning I awoke with pain in my neck.

I shrugged it off, reasoning that it was likely just a short-term kink.

The next morning I awoke with a similar pain.

Again, I engaged my habitual response to discomfort and thought little of it.

This pattern continued, but after a week there was worry that something was wrong, and the worry was strong enough to call me to action.

The first thing I did was Google “Neck Pain.” There were 16.8 million results. I skimmed a few articles from seemingly reputable sources, and gathered that neck pain was fairly common. It was recommended that targeted stretches would likely help, as well as bringing awareness to the general use of the body. The articles suggested being checked over by a professional, as the neck is both delicate and a critical part of everyday functioning.

I did some stretching on my own and tried to pay attention to when I was experiencing pain, but after a few weeks the pain didn’t seem to be diminishing. I didn’t like the idea of going to see a physician; I wanted the pain to just go away, and seeing somebody felt like it would make the pain more “real.” Plus there was the logistics of receiving care… I’d have to research and select a doctor which fit my new health care plan and I’d have to schedule an appointment when I wasn’t traveling, plus there could be follow-up appointments… eh I better just wait it out. It’s not such a big deal, I told myself, I’ll be fine.

However, after a few months the pain was still there, and despite my well-intentioned self-guided efforts, the pain began to increase in intensity.

Eventually, I gathered the willpower to seek out help from a few professionals: a Physical Therapist, an Alexander Technique teacher, and a Chiropractor.  They were each very useful in their own right, and afterwards I was tasked with continuing the healing on my own by following specific stretching instructions, and paying close attention to the times during the day when I felt pain, especially time spent on the computer.

Despite a strong resolution to pay attention to my body while at the computer, it was difficult to remember. I had been using a mindfulness bell while working, and had the insight to pair the sound of the bell with a check-in on my body. This worked well. The first thing I noticed was how often my shoulders were unnecessarily raised while typing. The second thing I noticed was how often I was not sitting upright evenly on my sit bones. With practice these two habits became easier to notice, and over time I found myself adjusting on my own, without the aid of the bell to remind me.

I felt encouraged by my discoveries, and thought that soon I would likely be pain free.

But the pain continued, albeit to a slightly lesser extent.

I continued paying attention to the sensation of pain, and then began to notice it was not distributed evenly throughout my neck. Pain was felt more on the left side than the right. This was perplexing to me, as while sitting at the computer I seemed to be using my body evenly.

So I paid more attention to my body away from the computer. Being left-handed I reasoned that that might be an influence, and sure enough I was writing in a paper journal one evening and noticed the whole left side of my neck and shoulder were stiff while writing. I smiled.

Soon thereafter I was having dinner with my parents, and decided to tell them about my pain and my discoveries. Up until this point I hadn’t really mentioned it to anyone other than the physician, as it didn’t feel appropriate to talk about my discomfort when there were so many other things going on in life. After I finished recounting a version of the above story my mom casually offered: “Just now when you reached for your water glass your whole body was very tilted, I wonder if that has an impact.” I was surprised at her comment, as I didn’t recall tilting my body. A couple minutes later my dad suddenly said “stop” as I was mid-reach for a breadstick. My entire head, neck, shoulder, arm, and torso were so tilted it looked as if I was attempting to do a seated crescent yoga pose. Whoops.

I then realized that to truly understand the causes of pain would take nothing less than becoming aware of how I was using my body in each and every moment. No small task. From this experience I had unearthed some general principles:

1.) Reducing pain requires understanding the various causes of pain, some obvious some subtle.
2.) The majority of causes rest in my own habitual usage of the body, often carried out in unawareness.
3.) To become more aware of my usage there are specific exercises/tools that can aid me.
4.) To make lasting change I need support from others (friends and professionals).

I also recognized that in adopting these principles one could expect to face various challenges:

1.) Wishing the pain will go away; not having the willingness to begin to address it directly
2.) Becoming overwhelmed at the depth of the pain; not having the capacity to bring it all into awareness
3.) Clinging to one method and imagining it will fix everything; not exploring the various modalities of healing
4.) Attempting to take it all on ourselves; not asking for help

As soon as I articulated this to myself I immediately saw the parallel to the mind.

Mental pain, often referred to as “stress”, is present for many of us much of the time. The degree of affliction varies by person and over time, but it’s something we all encounter.

There may be numerous causes to this stress, and most are rooted in our habitual unawareness in how we respond to the things we encounter in life (i.e. by craving pleasure / rejecting pain without stopping and looking deeply into our experiences to learn from them). Mindfulness practice can support in bringing these unskillful responses into awareness. But re-training the habit pattern of the mind takes a lot of patience, and requires plenty of support from friends on the path.

Ultimately it boils down to being aware of what’s happening as it’s happening, and responding appropriately.

Sounds simple.

It is.

But it takes a while to learn how.

Personal Sustainability – Mental, Spiritual & Themes

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Balancing Act

In this post I’m exploring the latter half of the four areas of personal sustainability, Mental and Spiritual, as well as sharing a few themes which apply to all.

Sustainability is defined as “conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.” In this way I view sustainability as not just doing something as long as you can, but doing it in a way that promotes well-being (ecological balance) and prevents burnout (depletion of resources).

Mental (focus of energy)

When most people use the term burnout, I think they are referring to mental exhaustion. I don’t know anyone who intends to be burnt out by their work, but I know plenty of people who feel that they are. Here are some helpful ways I’ve found to address this: Continue reading

Sitting with Thay

Sitting with Thay

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Sitting with Thay

Bell

Line forms, patiently waiting

Shuffling of feet, clinking of bowls, heaps of deliciousness

Stepping outside, inhaling freshness

Walk

The sun, it shines

Entering the hall, seeing a path, straight ahead: emptiness

I’ve arrived, I’m home

Sit

Breathing in, breathing out

Opening my eyes, directly in front, I see Thay

Posture straightens, thoughts abound

Breathe

Present moment, wonderful moment,

Following my breath, curiosity steadily rising, who are you?

Zen master, reading contemplations

Eat

Consuming energy, digesting freedom

Looking at Thay, I crave acknowledgment, who am I?

Be free, my friend

Stand

We turn, we bow

I stall awkwardly, hoping that perhaps, we might speak?

He passes, without words

Calm

Woman approaches, announces suffering

Asks for support, my heart opens, I am here

Deep listening, loving speech

Care

She bows, I smile

An insight manifests; Thay isn’t gone, he’s within me

No discrimination, no discrimination

Peace

dessert in the desert

Benefits of Mindfulness

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dessert in the desert

“If you come to mindfulness just expecting benefits, sooner or later you’re going to be confused.”
-Michael Carroll

If you Google “benefits of mindfulness” you will find hundreds of recent scientific studies. There is proof of mindfulness meditation’s effectiveness at strengthening attention in schoolchildren, creating more resilient business leaders, increasing brain density of the pre-frontal cortex, improving the functioning of the immune system, and plenty more. But most seasoned mindfulness teachers will tell you that while all those benefits may be true, they are side-products of the process and not to be focused on as the “goal.”

Three years ago I was speaking on the phone to Michael Carroll, the founder of an organization which focuses on sharing mindfulness to business audiences. We were talking about a new initiative I was involved with, and while I was extolling the numerous benefits of the program he stopped me and said, “If you come to mindfulness just expecting benefits, sooner or later you’re going to be confused.”

I was admittedly confused. Continue reading

Wake Up OI

2014 Aspirations

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Wake Up OI

New Year, New Me. This year I have three primary aspirations:

1. Observe the fruits of practice

On October 15th, 2013 I was ordained into the Order of Interbeing, the core lay community of Thich Nhat Hanh, and given the practice name “True Garden of Faith.” No one is quite sure how names are chosen (except those who choose), but it is generally accepted that your name is an assignment, an indication of how you can grow in your practice of mindfulness, of understanding, of love.

Faith, as defined in The Art of Power, is confidence born from observing the fruits of practice.

Let’s break it down:

Observing: Shining light on what is occurring without judgment, without expectation. Steadily bringing attention back over and over and over to decipher what is truly there. Continue reading

Bros on the rock

Reflections on 2013

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Bros on the rock

It’s that time of year again, to reflect back on the unfolding of the past and prepare for the blossoming which lies ahead.

In this post I’ll share an assortment of  insights from nurturing my four 2013 aspirations (integrity, names, humor and sustainability) throughout the year:

1. Integrity
Integration of thoughts & speech: I’ve always been a relatively communicative guy (this blog is prime evidence), but this year I took as a practice trying to share my thoughts and feelings verbally when they felt cloudy and muddled. I have the tendency to want to share with others only once I’ve already transformed suffering into a beautiful lotus, and not when I’m waddling around in the mud wondering where to go next. The reality is, much of my time is spent waddling. Continue reading

Pops & Son '96

Fame

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Pops & Son '96

I’d like to introduce a new feature in this space: ‘transmissions’.

These posts will each contain one or two sentences that a wise friend once personally told me. Over time these words have served as guiding principles for how I live my life, and in that way I reflect on them as wisdom which has been transmitted to me.

It is in this spirit that I’d like to transmit them to you, here, as perhaps someday they will be useful to you in your journey. To begin, some wisdom from my father:

“Early on in life I knew that I would only be famous among the people I cared about…and that was okay with me.”

A couple years ago I was in the midst of a career change, and found myself talking with my dad about fame. Recognition from others has always been important to me, and for most of my life I viewed ‘being famous’ as something to work towards.

My father shared that in his early twenties he chose to raise a family instead of going to a prestigious out-of-state college, and knew from then on he wouldn’t achieve fame in the conventional sense.

This prompted me to ask myself why I desired fame among people that I didn’t know? I reasoned that it might help provide some external assurance that what I was doing was worthwhile. But this was a flimsy excuse: fame is hardly correlated with ‘worthiness’, and besides, I had all the assurance I needed within my own experience. I was stumped. I kind of still am.

Re-defining fame this way allows me to recognize I’m actually already famous. What else is there to seek? Thanks pops; you’ll always be famous to me too.

Zeppelin, timing, and the desire for control

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Stairway

My joy is like spring so warm, it makes flowers bloom all over the earth,
My pain is like a river of tears, so vast it fills the four oceans,
Please call me by my true names, so that I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
So I can see, that my joy and pain are one.

-Thich Nhat Hanh

During my junior year of college I was introduced to Led Zeppelin. I had listened to music before, but this band transformed my experience of merely listening with the ears to actually hearing with my whole body. I had their Greatest Hits CD (this was before Spotify, and even iTunes didn’t yet carry Zeppelin), and for my birthday my girlfriend at the time bought me the entire Led Zeppelin collection. Whoa; celebration day! With so much music at my fingertips, a question arose: how can I maximize my experience of listening to all this music? Continue reading

Who is playing the piano?

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DubaiPiano

Was it you?

She asked politely.

That expression of beauty, serenading, masquerading in the form of sound?

Looking deeply, I search for an answer…

There is a piano before me.
But this piano is born of plastic, metal and wire constructed by people I’ve never heard of.

There is a sheet of music facing me.
But this music is born of genius, effort and persistence by people I’ve heard of but will likely never meet.

There is technique within me.
But this technique is born of lessons, guidance and feedback by people I’ve met but which are not me.

How can I say it’s me?
It’s more like the piano, the music and the technique played itself.

a brand new day is before me…