As you may know, I have been taking pottery classes with my husband. The class meets one evening a week. The pottery is also available at other times of the week during “open studio”. Open studio doesn’t cost any extra. It is free time that is available to continue working on projects or getting additional practice. During the first quarter of the class, I didn’t use the open studio time at all. I thought about it, in passing, and then quickly told myself that I didn’t have time.

When presented with a new opportunity, I often tell myself that I don’t have time. I feel stressed and hurried. I am waiting for the other shoe to drop, something unexpected and bad to happen. I’d better keep on the look out!

I find, however, that at the times I am most mindful and aware, there is a space between the opportunity and my decision. It is a space that says, “Why not?” It says, “That sounds fun.” Or, “This is a good chance to do x, y, or z.”

These are the times I treat time in a doctor’s waiting room as time to put on my earphones and listen to a guided meditation. I don’t have to spend that time being prepared to jump up for my name to be called. I will hear my name, open my eyes, and go to my appointment.

A couple of week’s ago, I was making yogurt in my pressure cooker. I knew that it had about a half hour left before I had to tend to it. My meditations are 30 minutes. At first I thought, “But I won’t be ready when the pressure cooker beeps!” Then I laughed at myself thinking, “I’d better keep myself ready for yogurt!” So I meditated for the 30 minutes and walked to the kitchen. The pressure cooker beeped as soon as I got to it. See? No yogurt was harmed in the making of my sanity.

As I continue to make meditation a regular practice, I find my life slowing down. I find myself more productive at work because my concentration is better. My first inclination is to fill that time with more work. Aren’t we supposed to be busy and overworked? Doesn’t that make us worthy and competent? Doesn’t this keep the bad things from happening?

I find that it makes me tired, anxious, and irritable. I am happy to report that this quarter, I find myself working at the pottery wheel during open studio about once per week. I even went twice last week, once on Friday afternoon. I had actually gotten my work done for the week so I took the opportunity of extra time to do something fun. Bad things have and will continue to happen in my life but not during every moment or even most moments.

There are opportunities every day and sometimes the sense of having no time is just a feeling. Feelings are real and they have something to say. But they don’t always communicate in the most straight-forward fashion. Sometimes, they are telling you to slow down, pay attention, and enjoy the moment. And having the thought, “I have so much to do!” is actually not the same as getting something done, no matter how many times I repeat it to myself.

Today you might get an opportunity to try something new. Perhaps you will tell yourself, “Why not?”

 

My first pot, started in September, was not what I had envisioned but then again, it was a step forward.

20160210_121401

Here’s the pot I threw during last Saturday’s open studio.

20160206_142919

Can you imagine if people said everything on their minds? It is believed that there was a time in human history when this was the case. However, I don’t think we said a whole lot back then, either. At some point, human brains became developed to a sufficient extent that the motor cortex was able to suppress the muscles involved in speech so that we could have what we now refer to as thoughts. (Did you know that researchers have put tiny measurement devices on speech muscles and that they are able to detect movements, not discernible to the naked eye, while people are thinking? This fascinates me to no end.) Once we were capable of thought, we gained an important level of privacy and capacity for introspection.

We also gained significantly in the capacity to tell lies. Lies to avoid punishment, lies to seize power and dominate, lies to survive, lies to protect the feelings of others, lies for attention, and lies to self enhance. All of us have told lies, sometimes out of politeness but other times for very unhealthy reasons. I consider myself one of the most honest people that I know but even I have told unhealthy lies.

Right now we are surrounded by bald-faced liars on the national stage. It has become popular among a segment of our politicians to tell a lie after lie and not even pretend to be telling the truth. If the lie is repeated enough and has the “zing” factor or stirs up enough hate, it becomes truth. I find this incredibly sad, frustrating, and frankly, terrifying.

I abhor dishonesty that hurts people, including the unhealthy lies we tell ourselves. Yesterday, a story broke in my neighborhood newspaper citing “reliable sources” that a young women who lives in my community and who has been an extremely hard working fund-raiser for the Komen Foundation, has admitted (to the reliable sources) that she faked her stage 4 breast cancer.  I do not know her but I know some of her friends and she is well known in the community. I am not printing her name here because 1) the story has not been confirmed (I believe it will be national soon enough), 2) if true, she is someone with an extremely pathological need for attention, among other issues, and I will not feed that, 3) if true, a public shaming will not treat her mental illness, and 4) if false, oh, that would just be horrible for her.

If this is true, she has committed fraud and has done the unconscionable, over and over. Her alleged deeds cannot be undone by the amount of charity money that she has raised. People who fake cancer, especially those with a high profile such as hers, wear away at the trust of the very people we need to support each other. They encourage suspicion and cynicism.

Anger, outrage, hurt, sadness, grief, you name it. All of these emotions are justified. I have read some comments on the news story that have given me pause, however, most notably a suggestion that the only right thing for her to do would be to “commit suicide”. There were other comments by people who know her, people who even participated in supporting her at a very high degree. These were comments expressing shock and disbelief as well as the inconsistency between the alleged acts and their experience of this person. These comments contained a great deal of hurt but they also contained compassion.

I was more impressed by this compassion than I was with the hateful comments since comment threads are the convention sites for people to spout hatred. None of these folks were saying, “We should have compassion and she should not be held accountable.”  They also weren’t saying, “This is understandable and excusable.”

I have a lot of gratitude when I am able to function from a position of compassion. When the compassion is directed toward someone who has wronged me, it helps me operate more effectively and I am better able to maintain my own priorities, priorities of effectiveness, self-respect, and/or maintaining a relationship. The highest priority can be different for a given situation.

Compassion is active rather than passive. It is extremely powerful and I strive for more each day.

Several years ago, I observed a primary grade classroom in which one of my patients was a student. This student was exceptionally bright; however, he was not exceptionally fast with new information. It took him the whole school day to process the information. When his teacher called on him, this student would have a blank look on his face or say something off topic. By the time he got home, though, he told his parents about all of the things he had learned, with great enthusiasm.

The class this student was in was for intellectually gifted students with very high levels of academic achievement. He had tested into the program. I attended a meeting during which his teacher restated what he had previously told the parents, which is that he “did not see” this boy’s giftedness. I knew this child well and had done his testing. Based on the findings of the testing, the fact that it took him more time to consolidate information into long-term memory was expected. This boy in particular, had difficulty expressing what he had just learned. After a few hours to digest the information, he could do it and the understanding he demonstrated was extremely high. I told his teacher this. The teacher changed his tact and complained that he had “no way of measuring” this child’s giftedness.

The implication was that this child did not belong in the program. I wish that during the meeting, I had learned that this teacher only evaluated his student’s based on their performance in class. He DID NOT look at the students’ homework. If I’d known about this, I would have said, “Hey, I know how you can measure his learning. You could grade his homework!”

This teacher isn’t a bad teacher or even a dolt. I have visited his classroom a few times. He is one of the most impressive teachers I have ever seen. He has won a national teaching award. He is extremely entertaining in the classroom. He explains sophisticated concepts in a highly skilled manner. When he reads a story to the classroom, he does all of the character voices like a very good actor. He is extremely funny. He moves fast and asks the students lots of questions.

He is an amazing teacher and I have known students who have done extremely well in his class. But he didn’t look at or grade homework. He had one way of measuring student success. He had one way of teaching. He wasn’t going to budge. If your brain did not fit his instruction, you didn’t belong in the gifted program even if you qualified to be there according to the same criteria used for other students there.

I have the wonderful fortune of knowing some exemplary teachers both in my professional and personal lives. I suspect they may not be the performer that the award winning teacher in their classroom. (After all, said teacher also had professional actor and improvisational comedian in his resume.) What these teachers do have, however, is an exemplary ability to teach that also includes responding to the variety of learning needs in a classroom. This is called differentiated instruction.

In other words, teaching is not one sized fits all. Not surprisingly, Nancy Stordahl, author of Cancer Was Not a Gift and It Didn’t Make Me a Better Person, is a teacher and the daughter of a teacher. She is also the author of the breast cancer blog, Nancy’s Point. One of Nancy’s main messages conveyed in her blog is that there is no one-sized-fits-all way to be a breast cancer patient or breast cancer survivor. Dealing with cancer is no doubt a learning experience as all major life experiences are. We all learn our own way and not necessarily while decked out in pink feathered boas.

Being a breast cancer blogger myself, I soon found myself reading Nancy’s excellent blog. I have also previously read her book, Getting Past the Fear: A Guide to Help You Mentally Prepare for Chemotherapy. I didn’t have chemotherapy myself but impressed with Nancy’s practical, instructional, and well-researched blog, I bought the book for my Kindle and read it. Nancy has a way of explaining things in a very organized, straight-forward manner without a lot of flowery touches. And despite the lack of flowery touches, she also conveys a reassuring level of emotional support and empathy. Nancy has a way of being direct, concise, and practical without being cold. How does she do this?

The new book also has the tone of our no-nonsense Nancy with extra layers. This book is a memoir and in reading it, I learned more about Nancy. I have a personal relationship with Nancy as a fellow member of the blogging community. Nancy has always impressed me as being a very solid person who is very close to her family. Her breast cancer advocacy is intensely fueled by her love for her mother, who died from metastatic breast cancer just two before Nancy was diagnosed with breast cancer herself.  Nancy’s ties to her family is a major theme of her book. Her love of her parents, husband, and children are apparent in her writing, which is respectful of her own as well as her family’s privacy. Nancy also describes solid ties to place, namely the U.S. Midwest, especially in her descriptions of the natural places that give her peace and are also places associated with extended family gatherings.

Nancy’s writing is an excellent example of the dance we all try to do in our experiences of loss. We balance the need for commonality and connection with others with our need to for individuality, our need to maintain the reality that our losses do not define our entire being. Nancy is not a black and white thinker. She does not see her life as all good or all bad. Likewise, Nancy does not attribute everything good or everything bad in her life to her experience with cancer.

It is simple to say that life is gray but harder live that way. If you want to read about someone who has spent the last several years navigating the uncertainties of life, the good, the bad, and the ugly, from a point of honesty, empathy, and respect, I think you will very much appreciate Nancy’s book.

When I was still in my 20’s, I decided to give yoga a try. Maybe it was my age, but I had the idea that it was a bunch of gentle stretching and meditating. Yes, I’d seen photos of women doing challenging looking poses requiring great strength, balance, and flexibility, but surely beginning yoga would be a breeze. Plus I was young and strong. I signed up for a class at the student recreational center.

Oh, how wrong I was. Yoga, even beginning yoga, was hard! For one thing, it can be aerobic exercise! What????? I thought all of the deep breathing would be for meditation, not survival!!! It also required a great deal of strength. By the end of the hour, my arm muscles were in a spasm of fatigue. What was not surprising was my lack of balance. I am athletic but I am better at balancing while in motion than while still. I am also afraid of heights so the idea of doing a back bend freaks me out. That was true even when I was a much shorter and fearless kid.

The biggest surprise in yoga, however, was how incredible I felt at the end of class, lying in the corpse pose. Even though my body was exhausted, I felt a warm ease and comfort. I have returned to yoga a few times, but for whatever reason, I’ve had trouble making it a habit of more than 3 or 4 lessons, even though I very much enjoyed it each time.

I suspect some of my difficulty has to do with the fact that I need a class in order to get good at it and I am historically self-conscious about being “bad” at something for too long. Although I’ve flailed my way through many aerobic dance classes with my initial difficulties following choreography, especially trying to mirror a teacher whose right and left is opposite mine, I am able to get the steps eventually and by that time, I would be one of the stronger students in the class. Meanwhile, flailing is very effective at getting one’s heart rate up. Flailing will get you a good workout.

I don’t know what a yoga class would be like for me now that I’ve gone through cancer treatment. So much of it is flailing, trying to move forward, having everyone look at me in various stages of undress, and not knowing what the Hell I was doing except trying to follow directions and make some kind of sense. Everyone is different but I found having vulnerability and my body on display over and over as a person going through frequent and invasive medical treatments, I broke through some anxiety and self-consciousness. In clinical psychology, we call this exposure, meaning that I repeatedly put myself in anxiety provoking experiences, and each time with the world not coming to an end or anything, I learned to deal with it. But as I said, everyone is different and what is the appropriate level of exposure (literally or figuratively) for one person could be traumatizing to another person.

This is a personal blog and one of the things I try to convey is the fact that my life is highly fulfilling but also highly messy. My life is not an inspirational poster. I am not perfect and I am getting more and more okay with that. In fact, the more okay I get with it, the more okay I am with everyone else. So this is perhaps a very good time to give yoga another try. In fact, it is the latest practice in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program that I am doing.

Knowing what I know about MBSR, I did not expect the yoga to be super hard. I mean, after all, MBSR is used frequently with individuals with chronic pain problems. Also, I learned that yoga as a mindfulness practice is more focused on being mindful of breath and bodily sensations than on doing fancy poses. The video that accompanies my program is taught by a health psychologist and if you are keeping score at home, she uses Hatha yoga poses.

The poses are mostly stretching with a couple of strength and balance poses. The stretches are sublime, hitting every spot in my body that gets tight and achy. My favorite thing that the instructor says after saying that her motto is “No pain, no pain” is that we are to find “the sensation that is delicious”. That is exactly the way those wonderful stretches feel, too.

The strength and balance moves are a bit more challenging for me though not frustratingly so. A particular challenge are the poses that rely on abdominal muscle strength. Historically, I had naturally strong abdominal muscles. With my TRAM breast reconstruction two years ago, I lost one of my abdominal muscles. I haven’t done abdominal crunches since right before my TRAM surgery. I was instructed to a lot of walking and daily crunches to prepare for the surgery. I was already walking three miles a day and I got up to a pretty high number of crunches, at least for someone who does not hang out in a gym.

Imagine my surprise, when I was lying on my back with my knees bent and my feet on the floor, and I was unable to lift myself to a sitting position without putting my hands on the floor. My core is not working the same way as the yoga instructor’s core. My core got gored. By the end of the 30 minutes, I got that same delicious sense of relaxation and time well spent that I got at the end of the more rigorous classes of the past. I felt present, engaged, and exactly where I wanted to be. In spite of my flailing, my bobbling, and my imperfect strength, I felt great.

I may need to learn this lesson of strength, peace, and balance through imperfection, a million more times. And how wonderful would be? To learn this lesson a million more times is to live a long and mindful life.

For a few weeks now, I have been doing sitting meditation as part of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course that I have been completing.

I expected to have trouble sitting still.

I do.

I expected to be distracted by noises, thoughts, and sensations.

I do.

I expected to be bored at times.

I do.

What I didn’t expect was the small bits of anxiety triggered by stillness and silence. The meditation I do is guided, meaning that I listen to a 32 minute long audio file. However, as the meditation goes along, there are periods of silence, which seem to get increasingly longer. There are two spots in particular, somewhere past the 20 minute mark. Even as recently as two days ago, I opened my eyes, figuring that the audio had gone off on my smart phone. It hadn’t. It was just silence. And the silence passed. Then the voice came back on.

Today, I made an intention at the beginning of the meditation not to check for operating difficulties with my phone and to just treat the silence as if it belonged. By sitting with my anxiety and impatience, I learned that they went away by themselves without my having to do anything.

Another thing I have observed during sitting meditation is that I stop feeling certain physical sensations. This is natural, and in psychology, it is referred to as habituation. Sensory experiences fade when they are constant after a time. For example, when I visited Venice, I only noticed the city’s infamous sulfur scent for the first twenty minutes right after I awoke each morning. Then my perception of it was gone until the next day.

I meditate with my hands clasped on my lap. Today, after 20/25 minutes, I noticed that I could not tell if my hands were touching one another. It was almost like they were asleep except that they weren’t. In the past, I have moved my fingers slightly and I can feel again. There is something vaguely anxiety provoking about not being able to sense my own body. I don’t know if this is related to the vague unease caused by the numbness on my torso from multiple surgeries. My sensation is returning rather slowly over the years. It still doesn’t feel right to feel less.

Today, instead of moving my fingers, I just observed the numbness and my anxiety lessened. I have also observed itch and it has decreased.

I am so grateful for these small experiences, the lessons that most problems are not really problems, and much discomfort subsides if I don’t do anything to it, it I just let it run its natural course.

Stillness has a way of seeming like a problem because I am a person who yearns for feedback on my actions. But sometimes a still moment is just that and perhaps in time, even when unexpected, something to savor or just let be.

My daughter was a precocious baby. She was able to hold her own head up from the moment she was born. My mother will tell you that she first rolled over at 1 or 2 weeks of age.  She sat up, crawled, walked, and ran with ease.

I don’t remember learning to sit up for the first time. I do remember relearning to sit up. It was March of 2013 and I had just had a major reconstructive surgery that involved moving a big flap of my abdominal tissue up to make a new breast.  I still have the hip to hip wide scar to prove it. The day after surgery, I was in the hospital feeling not horrible but certainly not peppy.

As many of my friends know, one does not get discharged from the hospital without being able to get up and around and using the bathroom. Also, as many of you know, the hospital is no place to rest. One of the things I learned throughout the course of the nine surgeries I had in two years is that I am a fast healer. One of my nurses, noticing this, suggested that I try sitting up. I was resting comfortably but wanting to go home so I said that I would give it a try. He needed to help me, however. I had just had major surgery and lost an abdominal muscle in the process, after all.

The nurse expertly put his arm behind my back and slowly helped me raise to a sitting position. My first surprise was how little strength I had in my core. Wow, I had been spending my life taking a lot of muscles for granted! The second surprise was the incredible wave of nausea. Sometimes sitting up makes you want to hurl. If memory serves, I informed my nurse of this and asked to rest briefly, which I did.

I didn’t want to get up but at the same time, I wanted to heal and change, even the kind of change that highlighted my weakness and was punctuated by nausea, was needed. I got up. I took my steps outside of the hospital room, along with my husband and using my rolling I.V. stand for support. I completed my mandatory loop around the hospital halls. Within short time, I had also made the mandatory bathroom stop. Noting the difficulty in getting on and off the toilet given the state of my abdominal muscles, I later opted to walk out of the hospital instead of getting in and out of a wheelchair. At that point, sitting was harder than standing or lying down.

Last week, I learned to sit up for the third time. I learned to sit up for meditation. I have a confession to make. I have a hard time with sitting meditation. I was measurably relieved when I looked at the schedule for the Mindfulness-Based Stressed Reduction (MBSR) program that I’ve been doing. It started with a body scan! Body scans are done lying down. Body scans were a wonderful way to stay in bed in the morning for an extra 30 minutes without any guilt because I am doing my mindfulness meditation.

I started the new MBSR lesson on the day after Christmas. This was also the lesson during which sitting meditation is introduced and to be practiced for 30 minutes, six times per week. I had fully intended to stay in bed for this, to keep lying down for my meditation. I didn’t want to get out of bed. My bed is beyond warm and comfy.

On the first day, I turned on the audio for the sitting meditation. The gentle voice on the recording said something like, “You may wish to sit up for this meditation, in an erect and dignified posture.”

Something unexpected happened. Upon hearing this invitation, I sat up in bed and completed the meditation as it was intended to be done. There is something quite freeing about the lack of “should’s” and commands in this program. The meditation scripts are so encouraging. I found myself open to the moment and in that moment I literally rose to the occasion.

I have known myself for 50 years. One of the things that I have learned is that at times I have trouble getting started or making a change. Over time, I have found that if I allow myself the possibility that making any change in the intended direction even if it is not “perfect” is a good move. These moves help me get unstuck from my own perfectionism and toward acceptance of where I am at a particular moment.

It really is easier to move forward  from the reality of my imperfection than a false world of perfection.

The Winter Solstice was three days ago. It has been so dark, which is to be expected at this latitude but it has also been persistently gray and rainy for weeks. Yes, there have been a couple of clearings in the sky, “sun breaks”, as they are called in these parts, but it has been pretty gray around here. Oh yeah, it has also been pretty windy, too windy for me to carry an umbrella during my last few walks.

As unpleasant as the weather has been, we eagerly anticipated the Solstice. This is the day when the pit of darkness finds its deepest point. On the 23rd, I took another walk. It seemed that I could actually tell that there was one more minute of morning light we had gotten. I knew that we’d get an additional minute on the end of the day.

Two minutes. Two more minutes of sunlight. I thought about it as I walked in the rain and wind. I thought about it even as the rain soaked my gloves and my hands grew cold.

Two minutes of light is noticeable.

Two minutes is meaningful.

I fixed my gratitude on those two minutes.

Thinking of this, I took another two minutes to do a visual mindfulness exercise. I turned my head to the left and looked at the plants and rocks that ran along the sidewalk. Turning away was a natural thing to do as during these moments, a rainy wind was pelting me in the face. I saw some interesting patterns and lovely colors.

In between these mindful minutes, I had a few thoughts of, “Wow, it is nasty out.” But those thoughts did not last long. I just returned to walking.

I got where I wanted to go. I found meaning. I found beauty. A couple of minutes at a time.

There are times in my life when those moments and small bits of time, the time that is not awful, provide a glimpse into a fuller reality. I find them anchoring.

Today I had more than minutes of not awful. Today I had a lovely Christmas with my family.

Ivy enjoying an extra minute of morning light. 12/23/15

Ivy enjoying an extra minute of morning light. 12/23/15

Parents often tell me that their children are “very verbal”. Typically, this means that their child talks a lot. Sometimes, it also means that their child has a creative way with language or that he or she is particularly bright. The children who fit the latter description, also tend to talk more than average.

My first and last negative report card comment was in kindergarten, “talks during rest time.” I am verbal. I talk a lot. I like to think that I have a lot to say. Whether I have a lot to say is debatable, but what I believe is a quite objective truth is that my mind has a lot to think and that a lot of those thoughts are verbal. There’s a lot of talking that goes on in my head. No worries, people! It is my voice that is doing the talking.

There are a lot of advantages to having a busy verbal mind. I have a quick sense of humor. I am good at observing and solving problems. My thoughts are useful in my writing, in my interactions, and in my daily contemplation.

Sometimes, however, I can’t get it to stop. My thoughts are worried and frenetic. They keep me up at night. At other times, they are relentlessly busy conveying boring but mindsucking information. I generally dislike Talk Radio. Talk talk talk. Going nowhere. Taking up space where meaningful existence could occur.

At many times, the most meaningful existence is rest. It’s slowing down. I love the holidays. But the hustle and bustle amid the dark drizzly days of the northern latitudes can be difficult. Tonight will be the longest night of the year. There will be about 8 hours of daylight tomorrow. We have 16 hours of daylight on our longest day. If you tell me it makes no difference, I would guess that you live at the Equator. I get tired when it gets dark. During the holidays, there is a lot to do during the lowest energy time of the year.

You’d think during this time of year since my body slows down that my thoughts would, too. You would be wrong, I’m afraid. Although the Talk Radio in my head does not seem to require much energy to produce, it certainly takes energy from me.

The holidays are not the best time to take on a campaign for changing my habits. But I did just that when I decided to complete a self-directed course on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. The current formal mindfulness meditation is the body scan. The body scan is just that. It’s a guided meditation during which I shift my attention and awareness to different parts of my body. The particular scan I am doing  takes 32 minutes.

An advantage of the body scan, compared to other formal meditations, is that it can be done in bed. My Fitbit has recently confirmed that I am a very restless sleeper. Consequently, I often awake not feeling altogether rested and happy to stay in bed to do the body scan. I’ve been doing the daily body scan practice for over a week now.

At first, my thoughts constantly interrupted the words of the recorded voice on the body scan. This has been such an issue in the past that I decided against doing guided meditation for nearly three years after first giving it a try. It was like an exercise in voices interrupting one another, mine and the voice of the recording. This time, I decided to give this another try.

My young cats, Leeloo and Basie, have added an extra element of challenge. They are energetic and social. They like to use me as a blanket and running path while I am meditating. I also experienced one meditation, using my tablet since my phone was not working. Unfortunately, my tablet was set up to turn itself off every 5 minutes. So, I had to turn it back on every 5 minutes.

I have enough experience with mindfulness meditation to just keep going with my meditation, redirecting myself back to the exercise, even if it is very interrupted. I will obviously try to plan better for the next meditation, if there are factors I can control. If not, I go with it. In the past, I would have stopped meditating because I was frustrated that I was not “doing it right”.

One of the things I love most about mindfulness meditation is that all of my experience is part of the meditation as long as I stick with the process of trying. Sometimes I have a “good” meditation. Sometimes, I have a “bad” meditation. But every meditation is a meditation. Every meditation counts.

I have found over the course of my body scans that my thoughts are slowing down, bit by bit. I still have fits and starts. Sometimes I fall asleep or zone out. But it is a helpful process, a useful one.

Arguing with the Talk Radio in my mind has not been useful in my life. However, listening followed by redirection, has changed the channel.

DSC02108

 

As I mentioned in my last post, I am leading a mindfulness group on social media. I posted a short mindfulness activity this week. Inspired by an article about adult coloring books posted by my friend and fellow blogger, Yvonne, I developed a simple 5-10 minute long mindfulness exercise on coloring. I provided a link to free coloring pages for those that did not have their own book. Adult coloring books are popular right and there was some enthusiasm among group members for doing this exercise.

The instructions for the exercise were to engage in coloring for 5-10 minutes, with the goal of staying engaged, non-judgmental,  and in the present during the activity, noticing sights, sounds, and tactile sensations as well as thoughts and emotions during the exercise. Although I wrote the instructions for the exercise, I did not complete it myself until a couple of days later.

I love art. I have yet to learn how to draw or paint. I even took a self-directed course designed for people to whom drawing does not come easily. I did well until the exercises advanced to the point when I had to learn how to draw three dimensional scenes rather than line drawings. This was one of the early lessons. I still have all of the art supplies necessary to complete the course. In general, I have amassed a lot of art supplies. I have used most of them for various craft projects.

A few months ago, I bought a couple of adult coloring books. The patterns were mesmerizing. I love colored pencils. However, I’d worn my beloved colored pencil collection down to nubs. I decided to buy new pencils. I looked online and drooled over the possibilities. I ended up buying a lot of colored pencils. Like A LOT a lot. It was actually five sets of 24 that I bought. Yes, that’s 120 pencils. Well obviously with that kind of pencil population, I also needed a case in which to store them. My dream was that I would have a case that would allow me to see what I had while I was using them and keep them organized.

My dreams were realized with the purchase of a zippered multi-section pencil case that holds 120 pencils. I spent a couple of hours unwrapping and sorting those pencils by color. This, in and of itself, was a mindfulness exercise. Here they are in their color-organized glory:

20151208_210237

Yes, I realize that the photo is a bit out of focus. It is hard to focus when I am drooling and misty-eyed over the beautiful spectrum of my colored pencils.

Oh wait, did I mention that I can not yet draw a lick? Though it is true that I have used pencils for craft projects and that I used to use them often, I had not done any colored pencil related crafts in some time, maybe at least a year or two. Maybe even three years. I bought a couple of adult coloring books and waited for inspiration. I waited for awhile.

I was eager to do this mindfulness exercise. I had my case of 120 colored pencils and a barely used coloring book full of glorious flower patterns. I got out my materials and set a timer. I looked at the page. I looked at my colored pencils.

I don’t remember mindfulness meditation having so many choices!!!!!! What now? I was a little overwhelmed but I connected with my breath and chose a flower. What now? Then I chose a pencil and I started coloring. What now? In the middle of the 15 minutes I had allotted for this exercise, my family walked through the front door. They started asking me questions and giving me greetings. Can you believe it? Did they not know that I was trying to be one with my coloring?

My mindfulness exercise was full of decisions and interruptions but I kept taking my mind back to the exercise, listening to the sound of the pencil rubbing against the paper, feeling the pressure of the pencil against my fingers, and looking at the combination of colors that emerged on the page. As I worked, despite the interruptions, my work became more organized and less overwhelming. I felt more grounded just seeing that something had happened to which I had connected.

12309650_10207820860389852_8988977096973527105_o

I picked up my camera and took a photo of my work.  It popped visually off of the page just like the flowers that I encounter and photograph on my walks do. I am not always mindful, but when I am, things come to my full attention. Sometimes this means seeing something clearly sticking out from the background.

As Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, says, “mindfulness is not doing, it is being.”

Now what?

Now can be sloppy. Now can be imperfect. Now can be an interruption. Now can be painful. Now can be joyful. Now can be peaceful. Now can be sweet.

Now what? Now is what.

What else can there be?

I started writing this post while at the Palm Springs Airport waiting to board the first flight back to Seattle, which is my home. My family and I had just enjoyed the long Thanksgiving weekend in the southern California desert.

I have long associated Palm  Springs with wealthy retirees and mid-century modern style, a place where the Hollywood elite used to live.

I chose Palm Springs as a 50th birthday trip due to its proximity to Joshua Tree National Park. It’s not that I don’t like the other offerings of the area, the style, the history, or the architecture. I love those things. But what I also love and what I needed for this trip was to in nature and to be in the sunshine.

I had never visited this part of the country.  We flew into Palm Springs in the late morning. We flew into a valley surrounded by mountains. The mountains were right there. Close. Really close. I had no idea. I was smiling as I lugged my cooler full of food to the rental car. (My allergies mean that I can’t eat at restaurants and there was no way I was going to waste time in California at the grocery store, especially on Thanksgiving Day.) We drove to the rental house, ate a little lunch, and my daughter, who hates traveling and doesn’t suffer in silence, retreated to her room. It was just after noon.

You know what is open on Thanksgiving besides grocery stores? National Parks. I looked at my husband and said, “Let’s drive to Joshua Tree.” We climbed into our rental car and drove past more and more mountains, mountain-shaped stacks of rocks, wind farms, and tumble weeds. We arrived at the entrance to the park and pulled over.

Joshua Tree is full of surreal beauty, of endless marvels to behold, despite the fact that it is a very harsh land with not enough water most of the time and too much at others. In the summer, it is incredibly hot. There is not a lot at Joshua Tree to support life even on a beautiful cool November day. And yet there is life, tucked into the lifeless rocks and in the soil, which could kindly be described as “poor”.

This is Joshua Tree in it’s quiet stillness. I am from a mountainous area and I know what the majesty of mountains can mean. Where there are mountains, there are the edges of geologic plates, those seams in the Earth’s surface that prove to us that there is no such thing as solid ground. There are earthquakes. There are volcanoes. There is a sizable section of the southwest border of Joshua Tree that runs right along the southern tail of the famed San Andreas Fault. I got a look at it from a vista overlooking the mountains and Coachella Valley. I could see it! Honestly, despite the fact that I live in a part of the world that is considered to be geologically dangerous and have happily camped on top of the large caldera also known as Yellowstone National Park, being so close to that fault was a tad disconcerting.

This area is an area of natural disaster. It is an area of famine and devastation. As I was hiking, I couldn’t help but think about how this area is not only beautiful despite past devastation but in large part, because of it. And yet, I was having a marvelous time. To be honest, I have found myself worn down lately by the onslaught discouraging and heart-breaking national and world events. A lot of people are being violent and hateful. Actually, there will always be individuals who commit violent and hateful acts. This is sad but what I find nearly heartbreaking and stretched to my limits to bear is the violence and hatefulness of our culture. Dealing with individuals is one thing. Trying to change sick and dysfunctional aspects of a culture, is another endeavor entirely.

Lately, I have found myself more discouraged. I have found myself to be more harshly judgmental. Harsh judgment is incompatible with compassion. I strive to be a peaceful and compassionate person. I have found myself struggling to maintain my balance. The change is not dramatic. I’m not flailing but I feel more effort of my daily life. When I was in Joshua Tree, I found balance and peace. The stark and beautiful landscape pulled me into the present and into a state of mindfulness.

I have been practicing mindfulness for about 3 1/2 years now. I’ve been walking most days and taking photos for about that long, too. I try to eat healthfully. I try to post regularly to this blog.  I’ve lost a bit of steam and focus. I have been contemplating strategies to help me renew my efforts and avoid losing further momentum.

Last night, my friend Rachel, who is also one of my major college mentors, posted on Facebook. “I want to start a cyber commune. Any ideas?” I suggested that we start a FB study group to do a mindfulness meditation program together. She asked me to lead it. Seeing the opportunity to refocus my mindfulness practice, I immediately agreed. Within 5-10 minutes and with my agreement, Rachel had set up the group and we started inviting people. I identified a self-guided online program last night.

I don’t want to spend so much time looking at the fault in the valley, wringing my hands, and hoping for rain.

Joshua trees and rocks in Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua trees and rocks in Joshua Tree National Park.

 

Keys View Point.

Keys View Point.

 

From Keys View Point, overlooking Coachella Valley and the San Andreas Fault.

From Keys View Point, overlooking Coachella Valley and the San Andreas Fault.

 

 

 

KomenWatch

Keeping our eyes and ears open.....

Life in a Wheelchair

You never think it could happen to you!

4 Times and Counting

Confessions Of A 4 Time Breast Cancer Survivor

Nancy's Point

A blog about breast cancer, loss & survivorship

After Twenty Years Cancer Research Blog

Exploring progress in cancer research, care and prevention

My Eyes Are Up Here

My experience with breast cancer

Woman in the Hat

Cancer to Wellness in 1,038,769 Easy Steps!

Dglassme's Blog

Wouldn't Wish This On My Worst Enemy

SeasonedSistah2

Today is Better Than Yesterday

Telling Knots

About 30% of people diagnosed with breast cancer at any stage will develop distal metastasis. I am one.

The Pink Underbelly

A day in the life of a sassy Texas girl dealing with breast cancer and its messy aftermath

The Asymmetry of Matter

Qui vivra verra.

Fab 4th and 5th Grade

Teaching readers, writers, and thinkers

Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

making sense of the breast cancer experience together

Telling Knots

About 30% of people diagnosed with breast cancer at any stage will develop distal metastasis. I am one.

Entering a World of Pink

a male breast cancer blog

Luminous Blue

a mother's and daughter's journey with transformation, cancer, death and LOVE

Fierce is the New Pink

Run to the Bear!

The Sarcastic Boob

Determined to Manage Breast Cancer with the Same Level of Sarcasm with which I Manage Everything Else

FEC-THis

Life after a tango with death & its best friend cancer

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 382 other followers