Grab the Reigns! Training the Mind to Find Happiness

--by Joanna Holsten , Original Story, Feb 3, 2012

Until recently, meditation was a very fuzzy concept to me. Growing up in a pretty homogenous, East coast suburb, I never knew anyone who meditated. My understanding consisted of abstract and puzzling instructions, like ‘sit, quiet your mind, and think of nothing.’ “Nothing! Why would you think of nothing?! What a waste of time,” I thought. Hence, meditation wasn’t at the top of my list of things to try.

But I felt a bit stuck in life. While I had many happy parts of my life, I didn’t feel a baseline of contentment. External things would unglue me more easily than I would like, and negative thoughts and emotions would too often creep into my mind. I had no idea how to feel more consistently content, but I thought there must be a way. I tried many things to find a more peaceful state - including sheer willpower, increasing positive experiences or things around me, and other self-help strategies. Some of these things provided small gains, but the results were fleeting.

After moving to California, I started to meet people who practiced meditation. Something was different about their disposition. They seemed calm at their core, and imbued with a kind of grounded optimism. Sensing that this might be what I was missing, I asked about their experiences with meditation. They described their discovery of meditation as a pivotal experience in their life. “Maybe this is not such a waste of time after all,” I thought. I find that when people describe experiences as life-altering, even if I don’t understand why, I must learn more. Similar curiosities led me to study aboard in college and volunteer in Africa. People said these experiences would change me. Maybe they even described how, but I didn’t fully understand until I went myself.

Still unsure about exactly what meditation was, I dove in. I registered for a 10-day silent meditation retreat. While this was still months away, I realized that I should start learning about what I signed myself up for. What is meditation? I asked the friend that recommended the retreat and about how to prepare. She suggested a book, Turning the Mind into an Ally, by Sakyong Mipham (2003). I didn’t get too far into the book before realizing that it was a very concrete and practical explanation of meditation. It explained that the mind was like a wild horse and you were on its back. Without awareness of this arrangement, let alone training, the wild horse/the mind would go wherever it wanted to go, and you had no choice but to come along for the ride. My mind would lead me through negative thought patterns and harmful emotions in response to relatively minor stimuli, and I was just an oblivious passenger trying to hold on.

As the book explained it, the promise of meditation was that with consistent practice you could learn to lead the wild steed. You could form a mutual relationship with the horse, but you have to patiently come to know it, and work with it to overcome engrained patterns. Like a wild horse, my mind was responding to circumstances and experiencing thoughts and emotions based on patterns I was often unaware of. Sometimes I grasped these patterns on an intellectual level, but the understanding didn’t necessarily provide me with practical tools to recondition my responses. For example, when someone would express anger toward me, I felt scared, internalized the situation to develop negative self-concepts, or struck back defensively. But this pattern, could be just that, a pattern. I didn’t have to respond that way. I could lead my mind to different reactions. I didn’t have to just remain powerless on top of the wild horse. 

The actual practice of meditation includes sitting silently with proper positioning and focusing your attention. This book directed me to focus my attention on breath. Anytime a thought or emotion would come up that was not breath, I would recognize that I was thinking or feeling something else and then return my mind back to breath. It was hard for me to believe that something this simple would help me, but I was determined to try it.
At first, I sat on a couch cushion in the middle of my living room, and meditated for 5 minutes using my kitchen timer. At the beginning, I experienced what the book referred to as a “waterfall” of thoughts. Having never tried to focus my mind on something so simple as respiration, so many thoughts poured down on me: “What am I going to have for lunch?” “What if this doesn’t work?” “I should do a load of laundry.” In these instances, the wild horse takes off. Then you have to grab the reigns, and lead the horse back to the path: your breath. The important thing is to commit to doing this, and not leave your seat until the timer goes off, otherwise the horse is in control instead of the rider.
In meditation, you practice noticing your feeling and thoughts. You train in redirecting your mind rather than allowing it to be swept away. The more you practice, the more you break down the old patterns and establish new ones, improving your ability to redirect when stronger and stronger thoughts and emotions come along. It is not about purging all your desires and thoughts, but learning to react differently to them, leading to a more peaceful existence.

Every other day I would add another 5 minutes to my total time. To build these skills and develop strength in leading the horse, I would have to practice regularly. Weight lifting was used as another helpful metaphor in the book; you can’t expect to walk into a gym, be able to lift the largest weight, and walk out all finished with your training. In the same way you can’t expect to meditate for a week and be able to handle your strongest emotions with peace.

I noticed some immediate positive effects in my everyday life. I was able to recognize emotions more easily than before and at least be aware of them. After more practice, I was able to gain space from the emotions in certain situations. I realized that I had a choice in where to place my mind even when I was not meditating. I was able to remain calmer through difficult situations - arguments with my partner, critiques of my professional work, and small rejections from friends. With further practice, I am learning a lot more about myself and how I want to live in the world.
There are many types of meditation. This is my novice interpretation of only one – mindful breathing. There is lots of nuance I have not captured here. I am just beginning to learn, and I wanted to share how I first came to understand meditation and why it was important in my life, before I deepen my practice and lose the perspective of an initially skeptical and then wide-eyed and amazed beginner.

This article is posted here with permission from the author. Joanna Holsten blogs at "Let's Live Nice,"which documents her journey towards a more critically compassionate life, exploring ideas and actions for a world with less suffering and more happiness.


Openness and Vulnerability

by Bob Wentworth

NVC trainers sometime talk about how connecting, empowering and healing it can be to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. And social psychologist Brené Brown says her research shows that being vulnerable is an important key to happiness and well-being. Yet, the dictionary defines vulnerable as "susceptible to attack or harm." Is that really what is being advocated? Are we being advised to indiscriminately open ourselves to being attacked or hurt? I don't think so. It might be more accurate to say that being open about one's inner experience, in ways that from a war-mentatlity mindset might be interpreted as creating vulnerability, can often offer major benefits. But, the point of this openness is not to make one unsafe or to invite attack. In fact, it makes sense to develop discernment around when such openness is likely to beneficial and safe, and to develop alternative strategies for keeping oneself safe that do not rely on hiding our inner truths. Safety is a desirable goal. Yet concealment is limited in its ability to create safety. Human connection through openness is often a powerful strategy for achieving safety, and has additional benefits.

Often, we conceal aspects of our inner experience because we are ashamed of them. We fear that they render us unworthy and unlovable, make it likely that others will reject us. When we hide these aspects of ourselves, we are affirming we believe the story that we are defective and unworthy, and this intensifies our suffering. When we choose to reveal these aspects of ourselves, we are endorsing (or at least checking out) a different story, a story that we are human and lovable exactly the way we are. If we are judicious about where we share our wounding, we are likely to be received in a way that offers external support to this story of acceptability and lovability. If our inner commitment to this alternative story is shaky, the actual experience of offering up "shameful" parts of ourselves and having it be received with acceptance can be deeply healing. Concealment intended to protect us from attack may be revealed as also having blocked the possibility of experiencing healing. But achieving healing does depend on discernment about what contexts offer some likelihood for this outcome.

While being open about our inner experience plays an important role in healing, it can also serve other purposes:

  • It models the possibility that others might choose to be open.
  • It can help shift an assumption that a war metaphor is the appropriate model for understanding what is happening in an interpersonal exchange.
  • It can offer others a basis for understanding us, seeing our humanity, and feeling sympathetic to our desires.
  • It can surface the information people need to find strategies that will really address everyone's needs.
  • It can touch wounded places in others, bringing what was hidden into awareness, in a way that offers them companionship and healing.

To me, openness is not about increasing the likelihood of attack or hurt. Rather, it's a powerful tool for empowerment, for creating connection with others, for shifting the tenor of a conversation to address what really matters, and for countering the shaming stories that cause so much suffering. Yet, whether openness will have beneficial effects does depend on the context and the way we express ourselves. It takes discernment to know when and how to use openness to achieve these beneficial ends.

I invite you to experiment with being more open. And to do so judiciously, so that you have alternate strategies for safety (e.g., an empathy buddy on call) so that you can take care of yourself if things don't go as you hope. With practice, you're likely to feel less and less need for concealment, and more and more liberation, having found ways of being safe in the world while expressing what matters to you.

(If this essay moves or nurtures you in some way, I'd love to receive your feedback. - Bob - Nov. 27, 2011)

You can read more articles from Bob.


If You Really Pay Attention, by Paula Underwood

When I was a little bitty kiddy, about five, my Dad began a process anytime somebody came and said something to us, my dad would say, "You remember what he said, honey girl?" I would tell my father what the person said until I got so good at it that I could repeat verbatim even long presentations of what the person had said.

And he did this all the time.

Finally, one day there was this old gentleman, Richard Thompson. I still remember his name, he lived across the street. And every time my Dad started to mow the lawn, there came Mr. Thompson. And so I would stand out there.

Dad says, "You might come and listen to this man, honey girl. He's pretty interesting." And so I listened to him, and then my dad would say, "What did you hear him say?" And I would tell him.

Well, eventually I was repeating all the stories he liked to share with my Dad verbatim. I knew them all by heart.

And my Dad says, "You're getting pretty good at that. But did you hear his heart?" And I thought, what? So I went around for days with my ear to people's chest trying to hear their hearts.

Finally my Dad created another learning situation for me by asking my mother to read an article from the newspaper. He says "Well, I guess if you want to understand that article, you have to read between the lines."

I thought, "Oh, read between the lines. Hear between the words."

So the next time I listened to Mr. Thompson's stories, I tried to listen between the words. My Dad said, "I know you know his story, but did you hear his heart?" And I said, "Yes. He is very lonely and comes and shares his memories with you again and again because he's asking you to keep him company in his memories."

It just came out of me. In other words, my heart echoed his heart.

And when you can listen at that level, then you can hear not only the people. If you really pay attention, you can hear what the Universe is saying.

--Paula Underwood, clan mother of the Turtle clan, Iroquois nation´╗┐

Published at www.ijourney.org on Sep 21, 2009

Rodger Sorrow writes, "I was touched, moved and inspired by this story.  What an inspirational description of empathy.  What a powerful and simple way for me to check in with myself during conversations or conflict and ask, "Do I hear this person's heart?  Do I hear what the Universe is wanting to tell me! I believe the Universe is speaking to all of us.  Now is the time to listen."




Sex and NVC


Anne Walton and Rodger Sorrow

As children, many of us grew up in homes where no one in the family ever talked about sex. As a result we decided it must be wrong or bad; so bad that you couldn’t even mention it.  If someone else started to talk about sex, feelings of excitement and curiosity would arise only to be quickly overridden by discomfort, embarrassment, guilt and shame.  

Rodger: Talking about sex or expressing curiosity was not OK.  I didn’t want to get caught because I had been punished before.   I was 10 years old and had drawn a stick figure with two circle for breasts and shared it with another boy in the classroom.  We both laughed and that got us caught.  I was slapped and shamed by the teacher and later by my parents.  It was not OK to talk about sex and it was not OK to talk about it being not OK.  I learn to be more careful.

Anne: I was so curious about sex that, when I was about 10, I would secretly look up “sex” words in the dictionary. Imagine my frustration when I’d look up “vagina” and the word “labia” would be in the definition, so I’d look up the word “labia” and “vagina” would occur in the definition! Sadly, there was no one in my life I felt comfortable enough to ask.

Many of us in this society have wounding around our sexuality, either as a result of directly received life alienating messages about sex or because we made them up in the absence of  hearing anything about sex! Either way, the resulting disconnection from our own life energy has led to pain and anguish for many of us.

Sex is an amazing, beautiful, passionate, precious and sacred part of life. Being able to talk about sex with ease; be fully present when others talk about sex, to be in full self expression of our own sexuality is an innate yearning within us. NVC can support us in healing these old wounds and living life more fully.  NVC can support us in communicating our needs and making requests about sex; whether it be for information about what pleases our partner or what would make life more wonderful for us.  Sex is an amazing super satisfier that can meet many different needs for different people at different times.  NVC can empower an extraordinary conversation that leads to a deepening of intimacy, love and profound connection before, during and after sex.

Anne and Rodger:  We are offering workshops that contribute to healing the wounds of the past and learning communication skills to express who we really are in the present.  We create a safe place to be open and real with laughter, humor, presence and compassion.  For more information about our trainings visit ChooseConnection.com



Two Sides of a Prison Wall

by Alan Cohen

A young Japanese man named Shui was riding on a crowded train when a belligerent drunk made his way through the train car and began to rough up passengers. Shui had studied martial arts for many years, yet never before had he been forced into a public confrontation. Shui felt his blood begin to boil, and realized the ruffian needed to be stopped before he hurt someone badly.

    Shui stood up, blocked the fellow’s path, and the two exchanged angry words. As the men were about to square off, Shui felt a hand on his arm. He looked down and saw a frail old man. “Let me handle this,” the elder insisted.

    Shui watched in amazement as the old man invited the heavy to have a seat next to him. Strangely, he acquiesced. The elder began to engage the fellow, asking him questions about his life and looking him in the eye with kindness and compassion. After a while the thug confessed that his wife had just died and he was in great pain; he had gone out and gotten drunk to numb his agony. The old man placed a comforting hand on the fellow’s shoulder, and he began to weep. Before Shui’s eyes the intruder was transformed from a villain into an innocent child.

    When the train arrived at the next station, the tough guy thanked the old man and exited the car. Shui, stunned, sat down next to the old man and asked him, “Why did you stop me?”

    “You were about to meet that man’s violence with your own,” answered the old man. “In true martial arts, if you hurt your opponent in any way, you cannot call your act a victory.”

    We have all encountered people whom we feel we must protect ourselves from. Yet there is a way to keep ourselves safe without hurting others. It is the strongest way to protect our peace. Although we have been taught that we must wield pain as a weapon to keep others at a distance, it is not so. We gain all together or not at all. To wish ill upon anyone is to hurt ourself.

    I used to visit a prisoner named Ron. Years earlier, in college, Ron had a girlfriend named Jen. One night the couple had an argument, and in a fit of rage, Ron beat her up. Tragically, she died. Ron was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to many years in prison.

    I met Ron when he was up for parole after nine years of incarceration. In contrast to his violent act, I found him to be a gentle soul. He was contrite about his crime and he had used his time in prison to advance his spiritual growth. Ron studied A Course in Miracles, he was active in the prison church, he was liked by the other prisoners and staff, and he had worked his way up to a responsible position managing the prison laundry. When I visited Ron, I sensed no cruelty in him and he certainly did not seem like a dangerous criminal to me.

    Ron told me that he had been denied parole repeatedly because Jen’s parents had mounted a citywide campaign to keep him in jail. Each year when Ron was eligible to be released, Jen’s parents took out newspaper ads, exerted their political influence, and orchestrated a concerted community effort to “keep this killer off the streets.” Yet, looking at this man, I did not see a killer at all. I saw a basically good man who had made a heartbreaking mistake.

    “So how are you dealing with Jen’s parents?” I asked Ron.

    “I send them love and prayer,” he answered. “I understand that they are very angry and they must be in great pain. If I could go back and undo my act, I surely would. More than anything, I wish I could bring Jen back. But I can’t. So I am just deepening my relationship with God right where I am and trying to be a blessing to the world.”

    As I left my meeting with Ron that day, I wondered who was really in prison. Ron was locked up physically, but his soul was soaring. Meanwhile, Jen’s parents were quite wealthy and enjoyed unlimited physical freedom, yet they were consumed by anger and vengeance. It seemed to me that their wrathful thoughts were creating walls more formidable than those encasing Ron.

    Because we are spiritual beings at our essence, what we do with our spirit influences us more profoundly than what we do with our body. Heaven and hell are not places we go or conditions the outer world imposes on us; they are experiences we create with our thoughts and beliefs. A Course in Miracles tells us, “I am affected only by my thoughts.” Where our mind goes, there we are. The desire to hurt brings us instant pain, while the desire to heal brings us instant freedom.

    If you are angry with anyone, or involved in a conflict, keep reaching for a solution that leaves everyone whole. If you feel you need to hurt someone or take something away from them to make things even, you do violence mostly to yourself. Instead of seeing them as a villain, regard them as wounded or calling for love. No one does anything mean or foolish unless they are in great pain. To try to inflict more pain only exacerbates their sense of disconnection. As you connect with your own sense of peace, you invite them to claim theirs. Only then can you say you have won.

Special thanks to Alan Cohen for making this story available free on his website www.alancohen.com