Christmas Greetings 2010

Mom’s mantra: ‘we’re going to clean out the basement – this year’. Somewhere between bridge clubs and borders (both gardens and guarded – the international type) in my memories of my mother’s favoured obsessions, sat this phrase, usually uttered after a protracted search for some item or other that had been lost to this heart of darkness of my childhood home. So one can imagine the angst that began to swell when these self-same words surfaced early January (this year – not circa 1956) with a targeted completion date of December 31, 2010. The chill deepened as crosshairs locked onto kitchen renos attended by the equally scary: ‘so what’s my budget?’ I needn’t have worried (well maybe just a little) wed to both an accountant (read sharp pencil) and an Ikea devoté (read not custom-designed). And so the steady march toward the Guinness Book (and beer!) for ‘most drawers in a single kitchen by a non-commercial customer’ (as awarded by Len, our Irish installer – whose day job merely provided opportunity to test drive his latest stand-up routines). We did, however, finish second in the puck light competition, ceded to our neighbours, equipped (in the ever-hyperbolic words of our shared electrician, Roger) sufficient to preclude the need for a cook top: “just set those strip loins on the island and turn the pot lights to broil”. So with Magnus (the Viking – range, not the Scandinavian) and faithful companion, Thor (the exhaust fan during whose initial fire up we’d been warned, by Roger of course, to remove small dogs and children from the immediate vicinity – lest they find their way airborne toward Shakespeare), we christened the new laboratory for Nicola.

Who could resist the siren call of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and Benjamin Bunny? Clearly not us. Early April, when the UK was bracing for its final blast of inclemency (we had snow while Perth County was sunning itself in 26˚ C temps), found us in the Lake District’s Beatrix Potter country and Chester’s cathedral for Holy Week. Simon, wrapping up his stint as organ scholar, was beginning to cast his eyes colony-ward for future prospects (more of that later); doing yeoman’s service as local guide. For better or worse, we were left to our own orienteering devices for the balance of the trip, doing our best imitation of Heathcliff and Catherine slogging about the glorious landscapes of the Peak District from our base in a little stone cottage in Cheshire. Walk ratings of ‘easy to moderate’ are so much sheep dip (of which there was certainly no shortage either!).

All illusions of father-daughter idylls, crossing the finish line together, clasped hands raised high in personal victory have now dissolved, the ephemeral vestige of an aging man’s dream world. The writing was on the asphalt at this year’s New Year’s Eve run – a modest 5-, or 10- for the hardier, kilometer ‘fun run’ that ushered in 2010 (and by the time dad coasted into the finish paddock, we were well into 2010). Left in the slush, as training for Jill built to a half-marathon and ultimately to a first full 26 miler (in the old tongue) in September on a sunny Sunday in Toronto accompanied by 3,000 or so of her closest friends. 4:01:53, a whisker from the 4-hour goal and incentive to push all the harder in 2011. Even the ‘race photographer’ status has been surrendered: Brant is now the official — with his credentials becoming better established as I write. First film screened in November this year.

So what’s a body to do – but find an alternate sport. Hmmm? Skydiving, wind surfing, rock climbing – surely all within the grasp of this now 64 year old (well, only if I use my right hand, grip strength having flagged considerably on the non-preferred side!) Perhaps not. Ah, something sensible, even familiar: like bicycling – and there were six of these things hanging, bat-like from the basement rafters already. So after the RBG garden tour commitments were safely satisfied and we had our yard to ourselves once again; and after the angst of a bus load of blue hairs, armed with notebooks and an ample supply of obscure botanical questions (necessitating the usual ‘oh, that must be the other rodgersia pinnata, native to southern China – they are so easily confused’), Provence appeared on the radar. Six glorious days of cycling up hill and down (the French have this oddly understated definition of what constitutes a ‘hill’ – something to do with category 1 or ‘beyond classification’ . . .or something) from Nimes to Aix, and as many four- and five-course dinners in between as one could stuff into those already stressed spandex shorts. The 70 kph Mistral aside (well really from all sides!) – defined by Mr. Wiki as ‘the strong, cold and usually dry regional wind in France, coming from the north or northwest, which accelerates when it passes through the valley of the Rhone river’ (where we just happened to be); and the ‘slide into second base’ along several feet of asphalt (after the fender wedged in the back spokes) notwithstanding (which I certainly wasn’t – along with a good part of thigh, calf, knee, and shoulder epidermis) on a descent (much too cavalierly) from Les Baux, all was sunny and worth every drop of the IV antibiotics on return home. It must have been all that good Cotes du Rhone medicine that forestalled the pain.

And so to the prodigal – nope, make that prodigy – son. Quite a year for Andrew. After four hugely formative and supportive years at St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto, the opportunity – and what an opportunity it was – to move over to St. James’ Cathedral surfaced in early May as assistant organist. Two months into the gig and he’s playing for no less a parishioner than the Queen herself. Never sure where the ‘ice water in the veins’ comes from in musicians – but nary a mis-note. With some comings and goings amongst personnel, the ‘assistant’ has been replaced with ‘interim’ and the ‘organist’ morphed into ‘director of music’. Not bad for 23 and counting. Not surprisingly sights have shifted to Canadian opportunities from the hoped move to the UK. Even a little 2nd British invasion, with longtime friend and fellow organist, Simon arriving to cultivate a future in the colonies.

As for the basement: cleaned out, revisioned as sewing room and exercise centre and with storage that would have Martha Stewart turning green (that would be with envy, not environmental sensitivity). And it’s only December 7th!

God Bless from 90 Neal and . . .

Nicola, David, Jill, Brant, Andrew, Simon, Martha, Oban, Morag, and Charlie (and any blue hairs who couldn’t find their way out of the backyard).

Developing A Mindfulness Practice

Following are notes / handouts from an eight-week group intended as an introduction to mindfulness practice. Materials are drawn from the following resources:

Mindfulness – In Plain English. B. H. Gunaratana.
Full Catastrophe Living. Jon Katat-Zinn.
The Mindful Way through Depression. Williams, Teasdale, Segal, Kabat-Zinn
Wherever You Go, There You Are. Jon Katat-Zinn.

Beyond Anxiety & Phobia. Edmund Bourne
Week 1
General Introductory thoughts.

Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition mindfulness:

Paying attention (to the breath)
In a particular way (formal structure of meditation)
On purpose (with intention, not in the largely automatic, “unconscious” way we generally conduct our day)
In the present moment (vs. stuck in past, worrying about future)

Transcending. Breaking thru’ what Gunaratana describes as a wall of automatic / conditioned / reflexive thoughts and behaviours — ‘the monkey chatter’ of moment to moment experience.

Becoming more a witness to
And less a participant in ‘what’s going on in the moment’.

Less drawn into our thoughts – and all the automatic behaviours and emotional reactions this might imply – less judging of them; and more an observer of them; with the control and choice to engage or not.

Emphasis on non-judging. Resisting the categorizing of thoughts, experiences as
+ve = attachment,
-ve = avoidance,
or neutral (ignored, mindless)

Meditation as a tool for stepping outside of these compulsive patterns – choosing (intentionally, on purpose).

Part of transformation is to cultivate an internal authority – not an external comparison – to see if we should be happy, sad, disappointed.

Meditation teaches an ‘inside – out’ process

Right Technique: Guidelines for Practicing Meditation

There is a technique to proper meditation. Probably the most important aspect is to sit in the right fashion, which means sitting upright with your back straight either on the floor or in a chair. There seems to be a certain energetic alignment within the body that occurs from sitting up straight. It’s not likely to happen when you’re lying down, although lying down is fine for other forms of relaxation. It’s also important to relax tight muscles before you meditate. In historic times, the main purpose of yoga postures was to relax and energetically balance the body prior to meditating. The guidelines that follow are intended to help make your meditation practice easier and more effective.
Find a quiet environment. Do what you can do to reduce external noises and distractions.
Reduce muscle tension. If you’re feeling tense, take some time (no more than ten minutes) to relax your muscles. Progressive muscle relaxation of the upper portion of the body—your head, neck, and shoulders—is often helpful. The following sequence of head and neck exercises may also be helpful (some progressive muscle relaxation in addition to this sequence isprobably optimal).

• Slowly touch your chin to your chest three times.
• Bend your head back to stretch the back of your neck three times.
• Bend your head over to your right shoulder three times.
• Bend your head over to your left shoulder three times.
• Slowly rotate your head clockwise for three complete rotations.
• Slowly rotate your head counterclockwise for three complete rotations.
Sitting Properly
Eastern Style: Sit cross-legged on the floor with a cushion or pillow supporting your buttocks. Rest your hands on your thighs. Lean slightly forward so that some of your weight is supported by your thighs as well as your buttocks.
Western Style (preferred by most North Americans): Sit in a comfortable, straight-backed chair, with your feet on the floor and legs uncrossed, hands on your thighs (palms down or up, whichever you prefer).
In either position, keep your back and neck straight without straining to do so. Do not assume a tight, inflexible posture. In general, do not lie down or support your head; this will tend to pro­mote sleep.
Set aside twenty to thirty minutes for meditation (beginners might wish to start out with fifteen minutes). links you to online meditation ‘timers’ of varying lengths. Alternately you may wish to set a timer (within reach). After you have practiced twenty to thirty minutes per day for several weeks, you may wish to try longer periods of medita­tion up to an hour. Typically, however, 25 to 30 minutes is a desirable and sustainable meditative period as a long term goal.
Make it a regular practice to meditate every day. Even if you meditate for only five minutes, it’s important to do it every day. It’s ideal if you can find a set time to practice meditating. Twice a day—upon rising in the morning and be­ fore retiring for the evening—is optimal; once per day is a minimum.
Don’t meditate on a full stomach. Meditation is easier as well if you don’t practice when you’re tired. If you are unable to meditate prior to a meal, wait at least a half hour after eating to do so.
Select a focus for your attention. The most common device is the rhythm of your own breathing .
(From Beyond Anxiety & Phobia, Bourne)

Beginner’s Mind
To observe your immediate, ongoing experience without any judgments, precon­ceptions, or projections is often referred to as “beginner’s mind.” In essence, it is per­ceiving something with the freshness you would bring to it if you were seeing it for the very first time. It’s seeing—and accepting—things as they actually are in the present mo­ment, without the veil of your own assumptions and judgments about them. For exam­ple, next time you’re in the presence of someone familiar, consider seeing them as much as possible as they actually are, apart from your feelings, thoughts, projections, or judgments. How would you see them if you were meeting them for the first time?
Almost everything you do during your day is likely to be goal-directed. Meditation is one thing that is not. Although meditation takes effort to-practice, it has no aim other than to “just be.” When you sit down to meditate, it’s best to clear your mind of any goals. You are not trying to relax, blank your mind, relieve stress, or reach enlighten­ment. You don’t evaluate the quality of your meditation according to whether you reach such goals. The only intention you bring to meditation is simply to be—to ob­serve your “here and now” experience as it is, observing your breath to assist your focus. If you are tense, anxious, or in pain, you don’t strive to get rid of these sensations; instead you simply observe and be with them as best you can. You let them remain simply as they are. In so doing, you cease resisting or struggling with them.
Acceptance is the opposite of striving. As you learn to simply be with whatever you experience in the moment, you cultivate acceptance. Acceptance does not mean that you have to like whatever comes up (such as tension or pain, for example), it simply means you’re willing to be with it without trying to push it away. You may be familiar with the saying, “What you resist persists.” As long as you resist or struggle with some­thing, whether in meditation or life in general, you actually energize and magnify it. Ac­ceptance allows the discomfort or problem to just be. While it may not go away, it becomes easier to deal with because you cease to struggle with and/or avoid it. In life, acceptance does not mean that you resign yourself to the way things are and cease trying to change and grow. On the contrary, acceptance clears a space in your life to reflect clearly and act appropriately, since you remain unfettered by reacting to or struggling with the difficulty. Sometimes, of course, it’s necessary to go through a range of emotional reactions first—such as fear, anger, or grief—in order to get to acceptance.
In meditation practice, acceptance develops as you learn to embrace each moment as it comes, without moving away from it. As you learn to do this, you discover that whatever was there for a given moment will soon change. More quickly, in fact, than if you tried to resist it.
An important prerequisite for acceptance (as well as for beginner’s mind) is non-judging. When you pay attention to your ongoing experience through the day, you’ll notice that you frequently judge things—both outer circumstances as well as your own moods and feelings. These judgments are based on your personal values and standards of what is “good” and “bad.” If you doubt this, try taking just five minutes to notice how many things you judge during that short time interval. To practice meditation, it’s important to learn not so much to stop judging but to gain some distance from the pro­cess. You can simply observe your inner judgments without reacting to them, least of all judging them! Instead you cultivate a suspension of any judgment, watching whatever comes up, including your own judging thoughts. You allow such thoughts to come and go, while continuing to observe your breathing.
Patience is a close cousin to acceptance and nonstriving. It means allowing things to unfold in their own natural time. It is letting your meditation practice be whatever it is without rushing it.
Patience is needed to make time to meditate for a half hour to an hour every day. Patience is also required to persist with your meditation practice through the days or weeks when nothing particularly interesting happens. To be patient is to stop hurrying. This often means going against the grain of a fast-paced society where rushing from one destination to another is the norm. The patience you can bring to your meditation practice will help assure its success and permanence. Sitting in meditation regularly will help you develop patience, as it will help you cultivate all of the characteristics described in this section. The attitudes that help you develop a meditation practice are the very same attitudes that are deep­ened by the practice itself.
Letting Go
In India there is an efficient way to catch monkeys, recounted by Jon Kabat-Zinn. A hole is drilled in a coconut just large enough to accommodate a monkey’s hand. The coconut is then secured to a tree by a wire. Then a banana is placed inside the coconut. The monkey comes, puts his hand in the coconut and grabs a hold of the banana. The hole is small enough so the monkey can put his open hand in but cannot pull his closed fist out. All the monkey needs to do to be free is to let go of the banana, yet most monkeys don’t let go. Our minds are often like the monkey. We grab on to a particular thought or emo­tional state—sometimes one that is actually painful—and then we don’t let go. Cultivat­ing the ability to let go is crucial to meditation practice, not to mention a less anxious life. When you hold on to any experience, whether pleasant or painful, you impede your ability to simply be present in the here and now without judgment or striving. Learning to let go of things is assisted by learning to accept them. Letting go is a natu­ral consequence of a willingness to accept things as they are. If you find that, prior to meditation, you have a hard time letting go of some concern, you can actually use your meditation as a means to witness the thoughts and feelings you’re creating around the concern—including the thought of “holding on” itself. The more minutely you observe the specific thoughts and feelings you have created around a problem, the more quickly you’ll be able to expand your awareness around that problem and let it go. When the concern is intensely charged emotionally, it’s probably best to release your feelings by talking or writing in a journal about them before you sit down to meditate. Cultivating all of the attitudes described in this section will help with letting go.
Another important attitude to bring to meditation is a basic trust in yourself. This means you honor your own instincts, reactions, and feelings, regardless of what any authority or other person may think or say. You refrain from judging what comes up in your experience and believe in the inherent goodness of your soul—your essential self. The practice of meditation is about becoming more fully your own self. Practicing mindfulness means you take responsibility for your own experience on a moment-to-moment basis. It’s you who are responsible for your experience and no one else. To fully embrace that experience, you need to trust it. Trusting you own insights and wis­dom helps you to develop compassion toward yourself as well as others.
Commitment and Self-Discipline
A strong commitment to work on yourself, along with the discipline to persevere and follow through with the process, is essential to establishing a meditation practice. While meditation is very simple in nature, it’s not easy in practice. Learning to value and make time for “just being” on a regular basis requires a commitment in the midst of a society that is strongly oriented toward doing. Few of us have grown up with val­ues that cherished nonstriving, and so learning to stop goal-directed activity, even for just thirty minutes per day, requires commitment and discipline. The commitment is similar to that which is required in athletic training. An athlete in training doesn’t prac­tice only when he or she just feels like it, when there is time enough to fit it in or other people to keep her company. The training requires the athlete to practice every day, re­gardless of how she feels or whether there is any immediate sense of accomplishment.
To establish a meditation practice, it’s best to sit whether you feel like it or not –whether it’s convenient or not—six or seven days per week, for at least two months. (If you find you’re unable to sit that often at first, don’t chastise yourself—just do your best.) At the end of this time, if you’ve truly practiced regularly, the process will likely be enough of a habit (and sufficiently self-reinforcing) to continue. The expe­rience of meditation varies from session to session: sometimes it feels good, sometimes it seems ordinary, and other times you will find it difficult to meditate at all. Although the point is not to strive for anything, a long-term commitment to regular meditation practice will transform your life fundamentally. Without changing anything that might happen in your life, meditation will change your relationship to everything you experi­ence, on a deep level. In my personal experience, the hard work involved in establishing and maintaining a meditation practice is worth it. There may be no conscious aim of meditation practice itself, but the benefits that naturally follow from developing your observing self are profound.

From Beyond Anxiety & Phobia, Bourne

Mindfulness of the Breath

1. Settle into a comfortable sitting position, either on a straight-backed chair or on a soft surface on the floor, with your buttocks supported by cushions or a low stool or bench. If you use a chair, it is very helpful to sit away from the back of the chair so that your spine is self supporting. If you sit on the floor; it is helpful if your knees actu­ally touch the floor; experiment with the height of the cushions or stool until you feel comfortably and firmly supported.
2. Allow your back to adopt an erect, dignified, and comfortable posture. If sitting on a chair, place your feet flat on the floor, with your legs uncrossed. Gently close your eyes.
3. Entering a state of GRACE: Ground; Relax; Aware/accept, allow; Centre; Engage.
Ground: Bring your awareness to the level of physical sensations by focusing your attention on the sensations of touch and pressure in your body where it makes contact with the floor or whatever you are sitting on. Spend a minute or two exploring these sensations.
Relax. Scan your body for places where tension is being held. Gently relax and let go of as much of that tension as possible.
Aware, accept, & allow. Allow your attention to fall on whatever sounds, sensations, etc. seem to surround you in the room. Some will be irritating or intrusive; accept these as a part of your environment and allow them to be — flowing around you and past you, but resisting becoming to attached to them.
Centre. Gently bring your attention inside, moving away from elements in the room into your own body.
Engage the breath. Bring your awareness to the changing patterns of physical sensations in the lower abdomen as the breath moves in and out of your body.
4. Focus your awareness on the sensations of slight stretching as the abdominal wall rises with each in-breath, and of gentle deflation as it falls with each out-breath. As best you can, follow with your awareness the changing physical sensations in the lower abdomen all the way through as the breath enters your body on the in-breath and all the way through as the breath leaves your body on the out-breath, perhaps noticing the slight pauses between one in-breath and the following out breath, and between one out-breath and the following in breath.
5. There is no need to try to control the breathing in any way—simply let the breath breathe itself. As best you can, also bring this attitude of allowing to the rest of your experience, There is nothing to be fixed, no particular state to be achieved. As best you can, simply allow your experience to be your experience, without needing it to be other than it is.
6. Sooner or later (usually sooner), your mind will wander away from the focus on the breath in the lower abdomen to thoughts, planning, daydreams, drifting along — whatever. This is perfectly OK—it’s simply what minds do. It is not a mistake or a failure. When you notice that your awareness is no longer on the breath, gently congratulate yourself—you have come back and are once more aware of your experience! You may want to acknowledge briefly where the mind has been; (“Ah, there’s thinking”). Then, gently escort the awareness back to a focus on the changing pattern of physical sensations in the lower abdomen, renewing the intention to pay attention to the ongoing in-breath or out-breath, whichever you find.
7. As often as you notice that the mind has wandered (and this will quite likely happen over and over and over again), as best you can, congratulate yourself each time on reconnecting with your experience in the moment, gently escorting the attention back to the breath, and simply resume following in awareness the changing pattern of physical sensations that come with each in-breath and out-breath.
8. As best you can, bring a quality of kindliness to your awareness, perhaps seeing the repeated wanderings of the mind as opportunities to bring patience and gentle curiosity to your experience.
9. Continue with this practice for the next __ minutes, perhaps reminding yourself from time to time that the intention is simply to be aware of your experience in each moment, as best you can, using the breath as an anchor to gently reconnect with the here and now each time you notice that your mind has wandered and is no longer down in the abdomen, following the breath.
10. When the bell sounds, gently open your eyes and come back to the room.
(From The Mindful Way Through Depression, Williams et al.)