Why Mindfulness?

Transcript — EA Chapel Talk 5/19/16

Please take your seat.

It’s an honor to be back at The Episcopal Academy. This is a sacred chapel, and EA is a special place. I was flattered to receive this invitation to speak to you today. I thank Bridget Boyle, and the entire Vestry, especially Rev. Jim Squire for making today possible. I am humbled to be here.

In preparing for today, I procrastinated (Read Adam Grant) and watched the chapel talks of my former fifth form students — now wise seniors preparing to graduate. I was in awe of each and every one.

I will echo Christina Chambers: I, too, am “still figuring life out” and it’s “okay not to know” if you don’t know what you want to do in life.

Hopefully, by now, you know what mindfulness is.

You know about the many health benefits. You may have an App or two on your phone. I, too, recommend Headspace as well as the podcasts of Tara Brach. (I thank Walidah Justice for introducing me to Tara Brach.)

Last spring before leaving EA, I gave two chapel talks. In my first talk last April, I mentioned a book called The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. Just for review:

1. Be impeccable with your word.
2. Don’t take anything personally.
3. Don’t make assumptions.
4. Always do your best.

In 2010, Don Miguel Ruiz published The Fifth Agreement which is:

“Be skeptical. But learn to listen.”

In my second chapel talk last May, I talked about mindfulness.

So, I am here to remind you of what you may already know.

Once again, let’s start with why? Why mindfulness? Why meditate?

I rather show than tell.

Let’s take one minute. Close your eyes.

Listen to your next inhale, your next exhale.

Listen to this breath. This breath out.

Pause between this inhale — and the exhale.

Let it go.

Breathe in. Let it all go.

As you inhale, sit taller.

Roll your shoulders back.

And as you exhale, allow your heart to open.

Allow your shoulders to relax.

Soften your jaw.

Breath in. Breathe out.

Listen to your breath.

Feel your finger tips. Open your hands wide; then, relax them.

Feel your toes.

From your toes to the top of your head, feel whole.

Breathe.

Now listen to your breath.

Listen to your heart.

How is your heart?

How are you?

Be mindful of what voices you listen to…

Remember, to be skeptical as you learn to listen.

In The Fifth Agreement, Don Miguel Ruiz writes, “Don’t believe yourself or anybody else. Use the power of doubt to question everything you hear: Is it really the truth? Listen to the intent behind words, and you will understand the real message.”

At it’s core, mindfulness is simply a practice of listening.

And remembering.

As we creating a distance — a space between what is said — and how we react.

Take another deep breath. Let it go.

Together, let’s take another big breath in.

Slowly open your eyes as you exhale.

As Marcel Proust once wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

In his book Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life , Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “Perhaps the most ‘spiritual’ thing any of us can do is simply to look through our own eyes, see with eyes of wholeness, and act with integrity and kindness.”

Mindfulness opens the heart to empathy while the “Science of Mindfulness” offers great promise regarding the neuroplasticity of the brain.

When it comes to matters of race and racial literacy, mindfulness is the key to opening hearts and minds in conversations, quelling anxiety between intent and impact. In their essay, “Engaging the Racial Elephant”, Dr. Sherry Coleman and Dr. Howard C. Stevenson write:

“Talking about race can be stressful. No one wants to say the wrong thing or be seen as one who always raises the issue, who always challenges the dominant narrative…The most socially responsible thing we can do is to prepare our students to be culturally literate in an increasingly global community and to equip them to interact with a broad range of people… — and that takes practice.”

Coleman and Stevenson argues mindfulness practices can help schools “engage in productive and supportive conversations around equity and inclusion”. Through mindfulness, we learn to step back and recognize the respective physiological, cognitive, and behavioral benefits.

We mind our thoughts and emotions.

In terms of personal relationships, the author, speaker, and comic storyteller, Cindy Pierce travels to high schools and colleges talking about healthy relationships and social courage. She writes that mindfulness offers “more independence and techniques to manage stress and anxiety on [our] own. Meditation helps us understand ourselves better and lets us tap into our inner compass.”

Mindfulness protects our inner compass.

On our good days, the voice (or the voices) in our head may be kind.

And yes, we internalize the voices of our parents, teachers, family, friends, frenemies, and enemies. We learn from advertising and pop culture that we are not ________[blank] enough — not articulate enough, not rich enough, not smart enough, not talented enough, not whatever enough. We feel less than in constant comparison, so we strive and we compensate — and we over compensate. We can be less than compassionate with our inner voices.

On our bad days, our rainy days, or dark days of depression, we regret the past. Or we become consumed by anxiety, fearing the future.

When we practice mindfulness, we return to our inner compass.

We find the power of now. This is it. And we doubt our doubts.

We are more than enough.

We are stronger than we think we are.

In this practice of listening, we step back and ask the voices: is it really true?

We have to question our assumptions. We have to be mindful of our blindspots and biases — and see how we often take things personally. We cannot let our stories in our head get the best of us.

Give yourself permission to rewrite your narrative.

Mindfulness brings light to the stories that are lies.

Perhaps, you subscribe to the cynical notion that mindfulness is hogwash and not for you. I implore you to explore the work of once skeptical newsman Dan Harris turned “public evangelist for meditation” and author of 10% Happier. He acknowledges mindfulness will not solve all of your problems in life; Harris challenges the “Fallacy of Uniqueness” — the good news and the bad news — that you are not that unique. Your mind wanders like everyone else’s — really no more, no less than the person next to you. Harris explains mindfulness is simple: “Start over. One breath at a time. You get lost in thought. You start over. And over.”

At times this year, I confess I lapsed in my meditation practice, especially this spring. I regret not pushing for a daily meditation at lacrosse practice like we did last year.

The days I meditate in the morning, I would notice the difference in my mood and energy. The days I’d rush to class without meditating, I’d be preoccupied and even impatient. I wouldn’t be surprised if my students could guess and tell the difference between the days I meditate and the days I didn’t.

I am grateful for this opportunity — to start over.

I remember we are creatures of habit. We must make mindfulness a habit.

In preparing for this talk, I am reminded of one of the lies around meditation: “I’m too busy. I don’t have time for this.”

Meditation takes just 5–10 minutes a day: ideally once in the morning — and once in the evening or before you go to bed.

Like brushing your teeth, make meditation part of your daily routine.

It’s not a selfish waste of time. Sure there’s many health benefits for you, but it’s not about you. It’s about how you slow down and relate and listen to the important people in your life. Understand the time you take to focus and refresh with meditation, you will create time by being more creative and productive after you meditate. (Read this.)

So, let’s close our eyes one more time. And listen to this poem by one of my favorite poets.

Engage your senses. Picture the blue sky in your mind’s eye.

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — 
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

You belong in this “family of things”.

Be kind to yourself.

Trust that you are exactly were you need to be.

You belong here.

Now, take a deep breath in. Sit up taller.

Stretch your arms to the sky. Hands high over head.

And slowly open your eyes.

Pat your friend on the back. Smile.

I wish I had a mindfulness practice at your age. You’re lucky to begin now.

Yes, the future is uncertain. That’s what makes it scary and exciting.

How do you deal with uncertainty?

Just Breathe.

And yes, study. Read.

Read beyond what you need to know for exams.

Lean in. Lean into discomfort.

And lean on your friends and family.

Have each other’s back.

Be a try hard. Don’t shame the efforts of others for caring. For trying hard.

Help each other. Instead of pulling friends down, lift them up.

If you’re down, reach out.

Learn how to ask for help — that’s wisdom, not weakness.

Flex your social courage like a muscle that grows stronger with each rep. Remember, you’re stronger than you think you are.

Please, embrace the disposition of a life-long learner, an intellectual that is curious about the world we live in. Leave it a better place than you found it.

Seek solutions to the challenges we will face as human beings on this precious earth.

I’m grateful that our paths have crossed again on this journey.

I wish to leave you with this truth from Mahatma Gandhi as a final answer to why mindfulness:

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”

Namaste. Peace and Love to all of you.

Thank you for listening.

Thank you for everything.

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