Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Guest blogger: MindfulRookie

At one point I had the intention to blog each week.  I did succeed in accomplishing a weekly post during the 8 weeks of the Fall 2010 MBSR.  And then I really just felt done with that intention...   Now I blog when I can.   And I've asked some fellow practitioners if they are interested in helping out here and there.  A good friend who goes by MindfulRookie submitted this blog post.   Many thanks to MindfulRookie for being my first guest blogger!

Out of Practice

The dentist said to make sure to brush every tooth individually.
That should be no problem for a practitioner of mindfulness, I thought
but was I a practitioner? It had been-- phew-- a while since I took
the time to sit and meditate. As I brushed my teeth I started to
daydream about beginning my practice again. I remembered how good I
felt when I practiced every day. I had so much more energy. I started
thinking about all the things I could do with my extra energy. I would
be so accomplished and successful!
The timer on my electric toothbrush went off. I had been brushing for
two minutes. Did I brush every tooth? I wondered. I couldn't be sure.
I hadn't exactly been in the reality of my experience, had I?
This is a little trick of mindfulness. You can't get into shape by
thinking about riding your bike. The problem is that mindfulness kind
of involves doing nothing. So it might seem like thinking about or
reading about (or blogging about) mindfulness can seem like enough.
But *understanding* mindfulness doesn't actually have much of an
influence on your stress level. On the other hand, understanding
mindfulness can help you get the most out of your practice, if you
commit to one. And unlike committing to get into shape, you can pretty
much do nothing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hammy Time

For my city apartment, the "back yard" consists mainly of the space between the fire escape and the chain link fence. A while ago, I put up a hammock there. One end of the hammock is attached to the fire escape. The other end of the hammock is attached to the post of the chain link fence. I hang out there on a regular basis, sitting on the hammock maybe with a cup of coffee. For some days, I have one minute. Other days I have time for a nap. Some days, I bring my headphones and listen to the MBSR body scan. I can lie down and look at the sky, I can sit up and look around me. My family has come to call this my Hammy Time, shortened from Hammock Time, so named because there was a rap song in the 80's called "Hammer Time" by MC Hammer.  The theme is that this is time that's all about me.

In between the buildings, trees, and fences, sunshine does fall on my hammock.  And the timing of direct sun, and the sun's intensity shifts with the seasons. Right now it's October in Boston, and it's been one of those exquisite golden Octobers that fuels the New England fall tourist industry.  During the summer, I avoid the times of day when sun beats down on the hammock. But not now. The October sun dapples the hammock through oak leaves in the morning, it bathes the hammock in the afternoon, and it highlights the hammock towards sunset.

Art and poetry happens between that fire escape and the chain link fence, moment by moment.  Through this movement of light and shadow, I tune into an archetype that inspired clocks - long before all the mechanical ticking (and tyranny of time) stuff happened.  Many days, I don't have much "time" to spend on my hammock.  But as I'm doing my other work, I know that the hammock is out there. And there's a kind of tuning-in moment that happens when I ask myself where the sun would be if I were on the hammock in that moment.

Finding the -time- and the motivation for formal mindfulness practice can be difficult.  Currently, we are in week #3 of an MBSR program here in the MindfulBoston Universe.  My students have described a common cycle.  MBSR class happens on the weekend. The motivation built up during class carries them through Monday and Tuesday, but then Wednesday and Thursday are tough.  During last Friday's class, they asked me how to keep up the practice.  There are so many ways to answer that question...! We went over some ideas in class. I would like to be able to offer an answer, yet there is no one answer that really fits the multiple dimensions of that question. Any succinct answer diminishes the enormity of the question.  How to keep up the practice. How to make the time. It's immense.

Mindfulness is present in the mind. It's a part of the human experience to be aware. In MBSR class we create formal structures in order to relate to our own mindfulness capacity.  I see a metaphor to my hammock.  The October sun has always shone upon this land. From October to October since before chain link fences, or even the language skills to say the word october ever existed.  And I have set up my hammock as a viewing platform to tune into the seasons, and a more natural sense of time.

In a similar way, the formal MBSR practice can be seen as one platform from which to tune into the human capacity for mindfulness.  In many ways I don't feel that I teach mindfulness itself to my students, even though I am called a mindfulness teacher. I feel more like I am reminding my students about something that they (we all) have always had.  We just all need to tune into it.

On Wednesday night, it's possible that a ticking clock might feel like the end of any hope of a formal practice.  And yet here I am, in my capacity as a person who can remind others, blogging a little free advise out to you.  I recommend reminding yourself that mindfulness existed in the human brain before ticking clocks existed.  And it is even possible that the human capacity to observe/be aware/be mindful in itself is what made the conception of ticking clock time even possible.  Time is a concept, a thought.

In this moment, you have a choice.
-Notice- the fact that you have a choice, and already you have achieved one moment of mindfulness practice. And then in the next moment you also have a choice.
Are you between emails?
Are you between dinner and bedtime?
In those in-between moments, you could create a five-minute Hammy Time meditation, if you have set up a hammock. Or you could go outside for one minute.  It's raining tonight. Could you do one minute of Rain-On-My-Face meditation? On a future moon lit night, could you do one minute of Look-At-The-Moon meditation?  Observing the phase of the moon mindfully for one minute each night could be an excellent practice.

But, maybe for some reason, that won't work for you.
If so, simply noticing the lull of Wednesday night counts as a mindful moment, as part of noticing the cycles of your own week. Feel free to log it on your MBSR homework sheet.

One benefit of engaging in the formal structure of an MBSR program is that each of us is carving out eight weeks to assess the structure of our lives. It's eight weeks to figure out what structures are serving us in being happier and less stressed.  These eight weeks might be a time of erecting a physical support, such as stringing a hammock from a fire escape and/or a time of creating internal supports and structures and habits for self care.

To my MBSR students, I say this:
To the best of your ability, each day, just do it.
Just do a formal practice.
Just do it.
And that being said, if a day (or a week...) happens when you don't do a formal practice, know what's happening, know why it's happening, and have -awareness- and -choice- be a mindful part of your non-practice moments.

Monday, October 10, 2011

What's the difference between a Yoga Nidra practice and an MBSR Body Scan?

Today's MindfulBoston Blog is dedicated to a couple of yogis out there who have asked me the following question:

What's the difference between a Yoga Nidra practice and an MBSR Body Scan?

If you don't know what Yoga Nidra is, then you haven't been spending much time in a Kripalu Yoga Sudio.  Yoga Nidra is a meditation that is sometimes done at the end of an asana practice as part of shavasana time.  
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As an MBSR teacher I lead a lot of body scans and as a yoga teacher I lead regular Yoga Nidra workshops. I do see that there are a few surface similarities between the two practices that might lead to confusing them. From my direct experiences of teaching each practice, I am of the opinion that the two are distinct and that each has a different purpose. 

I have studied at Kripalu with Yoganand Michael Carroll and have taken a specific Yoga Nidra Teacher Training workshop at Kripalu with Tarika Diana Damelio. From what I have heard each of these senior teachers say, my understanding is that the term "Yoga Nidra" is more a description of the inner state a yogi reaches through any of a number of meditation practices rather than a description of one specific format.  There are many different practices that could potentially lead a meditator to a state of Yoga Nidra, and there is a form of body scan that is included in the typical Kripalu format of Yoga Nidra practice that I've encountered.   In a similar way, there are many different practices that could potentially lead a meditator to a state of Mindfulness within the MBSR program, and the MBSR form of body scan is one of them.

So, the first layer of my answer to the question "What's the difference between a Yoga Nidra practice and an MBSR Body Scan?" is that a Yoga Nidra practice is designed to create an inner state of Yoga Nidra. While an MBSR Body Scan practice is designed to create an inner state of Mindfulness. 

"Yoga Nidra" is translated from the Sanscrit as "yogic sleep." And Richard Miller, who is writing the books on Yoga Nidra these days wrote, "Yoga nidra is not simply a technique for deep relaxation, but a tool for psychospiritual healing as well as a profound meditative inquiry that ultimately reveals and awakens us to our true nature—the ultimate goal of yoga."

Mindfulness has many definitions, but one by Jon Kabat-Zinn who founded the MBSR program, is, "mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally."  He also wrote in the book Full Catastrophe Living, "Meditation practice is, more than anything, a way of being. It is not a set of techniques for healing."

The differences between the two quotes are subtle, and interesting.  I note especially Richard Miller's focus on tools and goals, and Jon Kabat-Zinn's refraining from tools and goals.

But back to the actual practices...  I'll start by describing the basic format of each meditation practice.

The Yoga Nidra format that I learned from Tarika at Kripalu would loosely follow the following points during a one hour meditation:
  •  A "sankalpa" which translates as a setting of intention.
  • A very quick body scan that starts with the right hand and then moves across and down the body. The scan moves rather quickly through the body so that the mediator doesn't focus for very long on any one area. 
  • Being aware of parts of the body, then the whole body, then points of contact between the body and the floor, then points of contact on the body itself.
  • Counting the breath backwards using a number such as 108, 54, or 27 that has Hindu associations to divinity.
  • A period of creating or "awakening" sensations in the body that were not present before. In a way, imposing a sensation onto the body from the mind. In my opinion, this is a very important opposition to the intention of an MBSR Body Scan. 
  • A creative visualization that loosely follows the chakra system - which is considered an energy-body that is not necessarily the same as physical parts of the body. 
  • A creative visualization that involves expanding consciousness.
  • Using wording that describes concepts that are not related to the physical body such as "witness conciousness" and being awake within an alternative mental state.  For example, in my Yoga Nidra Teacher Training, I was told about theta brainwaves in a way I have never encountered in my Mindfulness trainings.
  • There is an intention towards creating an alternative or expanded consciousness that could very well include feeling an "out of body" or "above body" experience and/or dream-like images. 
The MBSR Body Scan format is simply scanning the physical body as-it-is throughout the meditation.
If you practice the MBSR Body Scan for one hour, you will spend one full hour tuning into your direct experiences of your physical body very slowly. 
  •  Starting with "Beginner's Mind" which is a form of openness, without presupposition. (Which also means no intention-setting.)
  • The instructions are to slowly move through the physical body as it is. Starting with the left foot and moving up. 
  • Being awake to sensations that are currently present within the physical body.
  • Refraining from creating anything extra, or imposing a feeling that wasn't there before.
  • Focusing on one area of the body for long periods of time is welcome.
  • There is no wording about alternative states or any associations with divinity.
  • There is an extra emphasis on making conscious decisions for self-care.
 As I look at the above details of each practice, I see very different intentions behind each meditation.

What I see in Yoga Nidra is an expanded form of consciousness where the mind is in a very different state than a normal work-a-day state. Just for example, I personally would not want to do my banking while my brain was in a Yoga Nidra mode.  Though it is a wonderful experience on a yoga mat.
In practice, I see people using Yoga Nidra practice as a way of changing the self starting from the outside and going inward, where they set mental intentions for self-change and use a Yoga Nidra practice to make their intentions "stick."

What I see in the state of Mindfulness, on the other hand, might be very useful the next time I do my banking. Being very present and aware of physical reality is a support in many work-a-day situations. And in practice, Mindfulness is not about setting intentions or goals or making resolutions.  It is about coming to a sense of peace with how things are as they are.
When self-changes are made as a result of mindfulness practices, change starts with an earnest assessment of what is already present on the inside, and then moving forward, navigating the world based on the inner resources that are here now.  So, I see more change originating from the inside and going out.

There is an article about Yoga Nidra at the Kripalu Website.
Information about MBSR can be found at the Center for Mindfulness website.