Mindfulness skill-building is best in community

I have been really enjoying the opportunities to train therapists (social workers, mental health counselors, and psychologists) on Mindfulness. My area of expertise is in combining Christian spiritual formation practices and Mindfulness.

What I have been noticing over the years of training folks is that the skill-building practices are better done in community and in person. Sure, there are apps and online trainings in mindfulness. Heck, I even created 12 audio modules that folks can listen to on their own individually. But, there is something about practicing these skills together that really furthers the work. In fact, there are a couple of reasons why I think community is the best place to learn Mindfulness.

Learning Mindfulness Together Ensures Better Practice

Today, I had the privilege to lead a terrific group of social workers who are working hard to serve the Chinese American population (a very underserved group).  These folks are very busy in their daily professional lives. Both patients and other staff rely on them for support, so they give of themselves over and over again.  And, as a Chinese-American social work professor myself, I feel even more compelled to train these folks in Mindfulness for self-care and as intervention.

In the training, after I lead any part of the practice such as breath-meditation, or body scan exercise, we reflect on the practice. We discuss out loud to each other what is working, where are thoughts are going, what is distracting us from the present moment.

This discussion helps in Mindfulness. Learning the skills together provides merging of thoughts, reinforcement that I, as an individual am present in the room along with other who are practicing the same things. It’s easy to be in a room, but not present in the room–does that make sense? Having others to share a breath-meditation, helps us become more aware that we are together. We are breathing the same air, we can hear each other and our bodies naturally sync up to each other. The rhythm of our breaths becomes more alike, our hearts beat to the others in the room.

Shared Experiences Are Meaningful

When we share in Mindfulness practices, we also begin to see our own thoughts–our minds, our concerns, our worries, our values–individually and corporately. We notice that we have similar concerns, shared worries, and can more readily acknowledge shared values. Every time I conduct a training in Mindfulness, I am aware of all the folks in the room.

Each person comes in with their own stresses they carry, as well as hopes and dreams. Mindfulness helps them tap into all those things. It helps to have others to prod them out of us. I will share a short composite example of a couple stories I know. In a training I conducted in the past, there was a person who was transitioning out of a job in the same agency with lots of responsibilities to a position without many of those responsibilities in the same place.

As she sat with her colleagues, she began to notice that she was aware of the sadness and the end of a role that she had poured many years of her life into. In the room were many of the faces and stories she had become accustomed to knowing and hearing. She recognized that in her new role, she wouldn’t be privy to those stories in the same way anymore. Her role as a supervisor and confidante in many ways would shift. She therefore found herself in a state of gratitude for the lives she was able to touch in her workplace as she practiced breathing in silence, listening to her thoughts, connecting to God in that space.

Mindfulness resulted in her being aware of those feelings. She could then grieve the loss, and prepare herself for the transition to the new role. I am certain that she could not do this if she were not in the same room as these people. There is something about learning and practicing Mindfulness with others in the room. As a Christian, I believe that God made us for relationship. God is contained in the trinity and therefore functions in community.

Learning Mindfulness in community can result in deep reflection with yourself, but also how you connect with others. What are your hopes and dreams in relation to others? How do others in the room–familiar and unfamiliar–share in those dreams with you? Other people help us form the connections that we often do not see in our own mind when we enter into awareness in Mindfulness. And, it’s people that can help sustain us during periods when we feel mindless and restless.

So, consider practicing and learning with others. In community is where the meaning of Mindfulness is recognized and played out.

Stay mindful.

I’m not naturally calm, and so I breathe …and give thanks.

People often ask me how I got into mindfulness. I tell them it’s because I need it. I’m a high-energy person. I have lots of thoughts and ideas, and feelings, and engage with each area–thoughts, ideas, feelings–with full passion. I simply don’t know how to turn all this off. Neither do I think I should…

This idea that mindfulness should lead to serene thoughts, muted ideas, and lack of passion does not square with me as a mindfulness practitioner.There is a dull calm that lacks an engagement with life, and a calm to experience in mindfulness that is fully awake to the opportunities of each day.

For instance, after a good yoga session, I often end with a length of time simply breathing. I take stock during this time, of how my body feels. Now, in my 40’s I feel grateful that my body is able to do what it does. The stretch and strength of my muscles, ligaments, and bones reveals my body’s ability. I am still able. I am still alive, and can use my body! It gets me to where I want to go, it enables to still pick up one of my children; I’m grateful to God. After mindfulness practice, I experience renewed vision to do the work that I’m called to do. The space and time to do has readied me to embark on whatever adventure will fill my day.  I feel fully involved, fully present, and ready for whatever comes my way.

In mindfulness practice, I breathe in deeply and my mind does not fixate on any one thing. It flies around at first, searching for a thought that will stick. I think, “wow! I feel good, what an amazing thing to be created by a Creator…” This thought then leads me down a path of gratitude for my creator. I remember that it’s not just me, practicing yoga, practicing breathing, but I’m in God’s presence. He is with me. I’m filled and full of the Holy Spirit that God has promised as a believer to guide and direct my life.

And, life, is full of amazing experiences waiting to be explored. In this season of Thanksgiving, I urge you to pursue a mindfulness practice full of passion for life, for the vision God has cast for you, for the abilities you have to serve, work, and to enjoy…to be fully awake and to breathe in gratitude for today and the days ahead.

Wellness and mindfulness: practical guidelines I have gleaned from Scripture

When most people think of wellness, they often think about health prevention, better nutrition, clarity of mind, increased energy, freedom from disease. Goop and other wellness practitioners offer products to enhance wellness as well as a framework for understanding how to care for our bodies and minds.

I grew up around family members who often sought wellness prevention instead of disease management approaches. As a Chinese American growing up, I drank ginseng and herbal soups to maintain health. I was taught that when I ate tendons and ligaments they would build up my body’s own connective tissue; cupping would reduce my po po’s (grandma’s) aching back, and acupuncture was more than de rigueur–it regulated menstruation cycles, and effectively addressed pain without heavy drugs.

Today, wellness practitioners abound. Spa experiences coupled with botanical skincare and herbal teas along with the latest healing practices–the best your money can buy–are marketed and sold.

This is all for the good, but there is more to wellness than fancy supplements and expensive experiences. Wellness as a philosophy assumes a mind-body connection that those of the spiritual persuasion already know. As a Christian who meditates and practices mindfulness, Scripture provides the tincture that produces healing. And, the Word is the infusion of health and wellness, both spiritually and cognitively.

How does the Word offer health and wellness, especially for Christians who are interested in this mind-body connection?

The Word is a grace-filled scripture that advocates moderation in all things, particularly in what we could consider vices. For instance, on drinking alcohol, the goal is not abstinence, but moderation. To be mindful of how much alcohol is consumed and to enjoy libations with the intent and purpose they serve, as part of an offering of harvest (Numbers 18:12), symbol of abundance and God’s blessing (Deut 7:13), as well as a celebratory experience (John 2:3). Excess drink and drunkenness always led to the worst of human depravity (Gen 9 & 19; Habakkuk 2:4-6; 15).

This is an easy one for me because of my Chinese genetics as I’m allergic to alcohol in general. However, I point to good friends and family members along with other cultures, who have a healthy approach to drinking alcohol for enjoying food and life, while mindfully checking in with themselves so they do not fall into the trap of excess.

For wellbeing, the commandment of keeping the Sabbath day holy (Ex 20:8) was to practice a period of rest and holiness. Keeping the Sabbath lends itself to the spiritual to move in our lives and others. Jesus moved and performed miracles on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:12);  so we can expect the same if we are to be more Christ-like in our efforts in keeping the Sabbath. As we approach the Sabbath as a time of rest, we can find a restored soul and a practice of holiness in our lives that is often lacking.

A weekly Sabbath day, or a few hours even (if you find it difficult to set aside that time), can lead to greater integration of the spiritual in what may feel like a very secular week. For me, the Sabbath was a challenge I began through as a stressed-out college student, and have continued along with my husband, through job and family responsibilities,  and many other time-stressed challenges.  The Sabbath reminds me of my human limits and my dependence on God for not only time, but all things. The practice can be done, and the Sabbath allows me to find balance. I urge you to try it.

For health overall, nutrition and food choices that may be counter-cultural leads to wellness. Mindfully eating what is nourishing is a healthy choice that can lead to physical, mental, and emotional strength, even in the midst of stress. Daniel’s friends show us this principle of eating right when everyone around you seems to eat in way that is mindless (Daniel 1:14-16).

Some folks will want to choose vegetarianism, but that is not the point of the passage. You should choose a nutritional meal plan mindfully and intentionally. Even better if your choices go against our cultural norms of processed, packaged and convenient, which seem to satisfy the gods of our culture: convenience, hurry, and mindless waste.

These are only three of many guiding practices and principles that are sourced in the Word that mindfulness practitioners can find and apply to their lives. They aren’t the only ones, of course, and if none of these I’ve mentioned seem attractive to you or applicable to your life, there is no judgment here.

If you have other wellness practices, (again, going with the definition of disease prevention and wellbeing in life), then please share them by commenting below (appropriate, thoughtful and mindful responses only please).

 

 

 

My mindfulness “plan”

This blog post title is rather deceptive as the core of a mindfulness practice is the absence of making direct, linear goals when being mindful. True mindfulness is not about accomplishment or goal attainment. Rather, mindfulness practice is allowing the practice to take you to the spaces that you are unaware. As true in most things in life, the journey becomes more important than the end goal.

For instance, this summer I am challenged with large amounts of unstructured time. However, I have some real, hard and fast goals for myself this summer I need to prepare for my Fall class teaching schedule, I need to get some publications out, and I need to put a proposal together. In between, I have lots of plan to do some fun things with my 12 and 9 year old sons. We have some vacations planned, but I also have on my list: cooking with my sons, beach trips with friends, swimming, hiking/exploring, and celebrations with extended family.

I have tried to fit in my own wellness goals as well: continue mindfulness practice, vegetarian meals twice-a-week, visits to the doctor and dentist, assess nutritional goals, good skincare, some mild weight training, and yoga practice.

As a Christian mindfulness practitioner, I am aware of the competing theories of mindfulness: relax and let go, versus, let go and let God; do away with cravings versus living into what God may have me to do this summer; continue in the path towards enlightenment, versus, realize my human frailties as a sinner in need of a Savior (daily!)

What helps me settle into a summertime routine, where all my earthly and personal goals have the fighting chance to be accomplished, is to go into that quiet space where I can experience deep connectedness to God. God points me in the right direction, clarity of mind and purpose come in those silent moments of attention to Him, and noticing how my mind and body reacts to the Spirit’s call. Sometimes, His voice simply says, “you are good enough, just relax my child…let go”, it sometimes questions my motives, “are you doing all these things for my kingdom, or your futile one, my love?”, and, “stop striving, let me open those doors, assist you, trust in me for my yoke is easy and my burden light…”

Now, I have earthly responsibilities, don’t get me wrong, but mindfulness practice allows me to be more….well, just mindful about them. As I cook with my sons, I notice their little but growing hands–more mature in length and size than the last time we cooked together. I notice that my preparation for the Fall becomes about the students more than about my place in the classroom. I notice that I am shedding the selfish desires of these goals to a more outward focus.  The shift inside of my mind and Spirit is palpable.

Therefore, the obvious “plan” of mindfulness practice for me is to spend time in God’s gentle love and correction.  So my other plans this summer are open to discussion with Him–I give all plans up, I lay my burdens and my desires down at God’s feet and I sit in silence, in rest, and refreshment while on the journey. Tea&ToDo

Being in God’s presence

Being is a concept in mindfulness that draws from Buddhist thought, particularly in the Mahayana tradition, whereby the person who is mindful, is not simply going through the motions of a practice, but is in full awareness of their personhood.

Being is therefore a lifestyle change and mindfulness is not a meditation that is focused on the self in a goal-oriented way, but submits to the truths contained in Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths.

Christians would say that the concept of being originates in the triune God. God is the great I AM who was at the beginning, is present with us now, and will be forever into eternity. Being is focused on God and understanding the power of God’s love in every aspect of our lives.

If we also believe that God  is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, then the power of His presence is something that Christians can trust and believe.

God knows the troubles, the cares and responsibilities we have and hold. So we can hold our attention to Him in our lives. He is with us, we just need to be aware and pay close attention to Him.

Try something today. Sit in a comfortable position, in a posture that respects the imago dei with eyes closed and then take three deep breaths in and out.

While breathing deeply and with full awareness of your breath, imagine for a moment that God is present with you now… Perhaps His hand is on your shoulder as you give your thoughts over to Him. Perhaps you are resting your head on His shoulder as you heave your stresses and worries over to him, like big weighted dumbbells that fall into His lap.

Perhaps you can picture your breath as a big puff of air entering your body. Receive it as a a gift of life, given to you by the divine. Picture the Christ, with soft eyes, looking at you, piercing your heart with radical acceptance of who you are, just as you are.

Breathe in deeply again.

Continue to use your breath as an anchoring point to remind you of his presence in your life. In your joy, your pain, your deep sorrow, your sense of pride and accomplishment. God is present at every turn so simply being means that you.

If you want to learn more about what it means to be a Christian practicing mindfulness, check out Dr. Roger Olson’s patheos blog.

 

 

 

 

Mindful Sipping

A short 10-minute mindfulness exercise today:

  • Begin with three deep breaths in and out.
  • Prepare a mug or cup of your favorite beverage. Tea is a great choice, of course!
  • Hold the cup in your hand. Feel its weight. Notice how your hands and fingers surround the cup.
  • Take a breath in and while still holding your cup, meditate on this scripture from John 4:14, “…but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life”
  • Next, drink the liquid and attend to the sensation of it going down your throat, filling your belly. Continue to breathe to help you stay mindful as you stay focused on this sensation.
  • Direct your mind back to the scripture while noticing your breath.
  • Contemplate and allow the scripture to sink in just as the liquid you have drunk is being absorbed by your body.

Aaaahhh….

5 Ways Mindfulness Leads to Happiness

Happiness: the state of being happy; an experience of happiness.

HsiLaiTemple

It is a feeling that is often too fleeting. When we have it we want to keep it and make it linger in our heart and minds.  Can it be cultivated and created? Yes, the ancient traditions say… Happiness can be achieved by a consistent mindfulness practice. Here’s why:

1. Mindfulness connects us to an ancient practice that is tried and true and successful in the art of happiness. Christian orders, buddhist sanghas and others have been practicing and teaching mindfulness for centuries. You can see the peace, tranquility and calm on the faces of these monastic believers.  The monastic’s simple lifestyle paints a picture of calm reflection of what is necessary for life and happiness, which are basic. The benefits of mindfulness practices is that it helps us tune out the noise where happiness results from a life of the mind that is not distracted and pulled by materialistic desires. I call it, “cognitive asceticism.”  Happiness ensues when we focus on the gifts of the moment, not the weight of the world.

2.  Mindfulness allows us to tune in to who we are and confront negativity in life, releasing us and others from unhappiness. This past week, I learned about the power of a lojong slogan about confronting resentments for Buddhist followers. Lojong comes from Tibetan Buddhism, of the Mahayana (“big vehicle”) tradition. Training one’s mind toward letting go of resentments is based on effort within because we have everything we need in order to be enlightened, according to this belief system. For a Christian, the central truth is that our God is one of forgiveness. In Matthew 18:22, Peter asks how many times we should forgive someone who has wronged us, “up to seven times?” Jesus responds, “…up to seventy-times seven.”  Happiness comes when we can sit in mindful meditation, working on forgiveness–asking for it and receiving it.

3. Mindfulness provides a brain pause: The practice is an instant retreat from the busy thoughts inside our heads.  There is nothing to do but to focus on connecting with God.  At the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights (Where these pictures come from) as I sit in quiet mindfulness meditation in a simple room, happiness bubbles up. I use the time to focus on breath, as instructed, and center my thoughts on the compassion of Jesus.  It is a true treat to just have one thing on my mind.  My only job for that hour was just to meditate and connect. For the buddhist, the mind connection is to the prakrtri, the true buddha nature that resides in everyone and everything. For the Christian, like me, we can connect to the person of Jesus– transforming into His nature while giving mental and spiritual space to the Holy Spirit to work within.

4. Mindfulness allows scripture to sink deep within: I’m learing more about the dharma, particularly how mindfulness leads to moral behavior and right thinking, which then creates a rippling effect on the world. Dharma and mindfulness practice go together and Master Hsing Yun states, “The biggest reason people do not gain much from their [mindfulness] practice…is they do not properly balance practice and learning [of the dharma]”. (For background, I am studying under Mahayana schools of thought, particularly the Humanistic Buddhist tradition and Tibetan Buddhism).

This rings true for us as Christians as well. Sometimes we focus on scripture, but read it half-heartedly or with half our minds. I have re-connected with the practice of Lectio Divina, Latin for “divine reading”, which focuses on reading scriptures slowly, out loud and in meditation. The slow art of meditating on God’s word has opened them back up, allowing them to sink deeper, drawing on them for support and happiness amidst troubles.

5. Mindfulness leads to transcendence, which are the fruitful seeds of happiness. While sitting in silence, our minds become trained in all of the aforementioned characteristics: simple life, forgiveness, retreating while connecting and scripture-focused. I count all these things as achieving transcendent moments planted in the presence of God. Whatever is going on today can be placed on hold for a moment to be reminded of what is good, what is true, what is noble… the fruits of each resulting in happiness. To experience transcendence, leading to happiness, we must heed the call from Psalmist who states, “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

HsiLaiTea

Reference: Yun, H. (2012). The core teachings: Essays in basic Buddhism. (4th ed.) Los Angeles, CA: Buddha’s Light Publishing.