Noises off: The two channels of chatter

IMG_0926“In a sense, silence is God.” –Anthony de Mello

No one can dispute the lack of silence these days. Gone are the days when your boss could only contact you between 9 and 5. Gone are the days when you had to actually be home to get a phone call. Gone are the days when TV was a family event that took place after the dinner hour. No Hulu or Netflix or on demand programming to access on a variety of devices in a variety of places. It has all crept up on us so… silently. And now here we are–if our lives were a forest and noisy distractions were weeds–we would be an overgrown mess.

But there is another form of chatter that gets in the way of silence. My husband and I once went to a 3-day silent retreat. Initially I thought it would be great to get away from it all with my book and chill out from my busy life. But this silence? This was deafening silence. It was like quitting  heroin and dealing with withdrawal. I couldn’t focus on my book, because this silence kept ringing in my ears. When I saw my husband at dinner, his face confirmed he had the same experience–but his withdrawal had been even more crippling. “Whoa–that freaked me out!” he told me. “I had to sit with my thoughts!  That was scary!” IMG_1422To go back to the forest analogy, many say that silence is like the sun to us.  Silence is not just a microsecond of space between two sounds. It’s active. It’s real. We need it in order to be a fully realized human being. If we allow the weeds of busyness, human interaction, and constant distractions to proliferate unattended, the sun can’t reach our souls.

When I went on that retreat, I thought that all that was going to happen would be the absence of external noise. But as my husband testified, after the external noise is gone, what is left is an internal noise that remained to be dealt with. Now that’s the hard part. You can shut off your computer, but it’s harder to shut off your thoughts. Thich Nhat Hanh calls this RNST: Radio Non-Stop Thinking.

When we listen to music, read a book, or pick up a newspaper, it’s usually not because we truly need that activity or information. We often do it mechanically–perhaps because we’re used to doing it or because we want to ‘kill time’ and fill up the discomfiting sense of empty space. –Thich Nhat Hanh in Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World full of Noise

So my discovery at that Benedictine retreat is that there are two kinds of noise: exterior and interior. The exterior noise is the bombardment of Facebook news feeds, text messages, advertising messages, ringtones, superficial human interactions, TV shows, CNN headlines.  Interior noise is the mental chatter that keeps our mind from setting down–the replaying of the past and the fears and hopes of the future–in other words, stuff that doesn’t even exist. The antidote to exterior noise is unplugging from the outside chatter. The antidote to interior noise is plugging in–to the present moment.

Thankfully we don’t need a three-day retreat to face silence head-on. All we need is mindfulness and awareness. As anyone who has practiced meditation can attest, growing in awareness is like practicing any discipline–you start and take few steps and expect it to be difficult until it isn’t. But on the other hand, those who are more practiced agree that you can’t “achieve” meditation results, because unlike our bucket lists and our financial goals, success in meditation is success at just being. Often silence and beingness just come in a flash. The Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello, author of Seek God Everywhere, Reflections on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, relays one of his singular experiences in awareness:

The day before yesterday I went to say Mass for some people in the seminary. I rose early in the morning and went outside to wait for a group of scholastics (Jesuits in training who have not taken final vows). It was quite cold. I was looking up at the sky and this thing hit me, this silence. It lasted for about a minute, but I am still experiencing the effects of it. It is the world we know but there is no knowing. We suddenly sense it. Each of us experiences it in different ways.

What has your experience been in mindfulness? How do you cultivate it in your life? When has it caught you by surprise? Please feel free to comment.

Infinite Riches in the Present Moment, on the Basketball Court and Elsewhere

The road sometimes seems endless, but deep looking at the magnificent sky can keep you in the moment

I haven’t had as much time to blog lately, because of work commitments.  A large part of my job is to go to different cities and interview people at 45-minute sessions.  These past few weeks I’ve had over 100 of these kinds of interviews to do.  Of course, I am so thankful for the work, which I love, but as you can imagine the interviews tend to get repetitive.

I used to get to about the 6th interview in the day and start counting ahead–“oh, good, only 4 more.”  But I have a different outlook now, because I’ve found a trick that works GREAT for pushing through when things start to get mundane.  When I’m on my 7th or 8th interview and I could be thinking about the glass of wine that I’ll be having in 3 hours, I focus completely on the person I’m speaking with.  I look deeply into their eyes and I hang on their every word.  In short, I put myself in the moment.    Doing so, I open myself up to chronic peak experiences.  And in truth, time ceases to exist.  There is no, “when will this day be over” or “can’t wait for that Cabernet!”  Those thoughts become irrelevant.

Wisdom along these lines recently passed through my hands by two very different people.  One was Norvene Vest, in her book, Desiring Life:  Benedict on Wisdom and the Good Life.   She refers to a quote by the contemplative writer de Caussade:  “the present moment holds infinite riches.”  I don’t know why, but that short phrase really stuck to me last week, and I found myself using it as a mantra of sorts.

The second person is the basketball player Michael Jordan.  I found this quote by him at the website Faith in the Workplace:

I’m trying to get in the proper frame of mind for another night in our 82-game regular season schedule. The key to being Mike during a game is to live in the exact moment of time. This means that I forget about whatever just happened prior to that moment, regardless of how I felt about it, regardless of whether what I did was perceived as good or bad. When I’m able to prepare myself, when I get in this “zone,” I have some of my most spectacular performances. Not only do I not remember anything that happened, I also don’t waste any energy thinking about what might happen in the future. When I play this way, at times I surprise myself with what I’m able to accomplish by staying focused in the moment.

So I look forward to my upcoming week of interviews, inspired by the words of Vest, deCaussade, and Jordan, ready to take the challenge of channeling the power of the present moment to enrich me and my work.

Now that it is 2010, I switched my calendar from my 2009 Thich Nhat Hanh calendar to the 2010 calendar that my son gave me for Christmas.  But before I threw out the old calendar, I pulled out one page–the page with the following:

Waking up this morning I smile.

Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.

I vow to live fully in each moment

and to look at all beings with the eyes of compassion.

Simple Home, Beautiful Home, Part II: Stripping of your life

The cart before the horse is neither beautiful nor useful.  Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation…”  –Henry David Thoreau

“…and our lives must be stripped,”:

Years ago, I took this picture of my own dining room table when I saw the irony of where the bumper sticker, a gift from my son who had visited Walden, wound up.

Years ago, I took this picture of my own dining room table when I saw the irony of where the bumper sticker, a gift from my son who had visited Walden, wound up.

If I had a chart that showed the times of my life at its most frenetic, and overlaid it with a chart that showed the times of my life when my house was the least welcoming and the most cluttered, they would line up nicely.   It’s hard, if not impossible, to maintain peace at home, when your life is out of control.

A study, “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers was recently released and highly publicized in the news.  It showed that despite great strides in the women’s movement, women are actually unhappier today overall.  Why would that be?  We have spent the last thirty years bringing home the bacon and frying it up in the pan.  Does that mean we have time to eat it?

Perhaps a correlation could be made in a book about another paradox, “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz, which makes the case that too many options does not create feelings of well-being; on the contrary, too much choice winds up being overload for our psyches.  So, the myriad of options that opened up for women in the last few decades has actually left us wondering, “What now?” in a way that is disconcerting and confusing.  And for society in general, we are simply overwhelmed.

Thoreau tells us to strip down our lives, which can be taken to mean, choose!  “Let your affairs be of two or three, not of a hundred,” he wrote.  Choose your value system, choose your day, choose your desires, and leave the rest alone.   Richard Foster, in his book “The Freedom of Simplicity” tells us that the first step is the most important:  “First seek God’s kingdom.”  Seems easy, but what does that mean?

Maybe we can learn from the choices made by some of the more spiritually evolved.   St. Francis sold everything in order rebuild the church.  That was how he sought God’s kingdom.   In one of my posts, “Decluttering, Purging, and Peace Pilgrim,” I talked about the woman who made her life’s work walking across the country time and again for peace.  That was how she sought God’s kingdom.    I was lucky enough last week to see the Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh at the Beacon Theatre.  He has made it his life’s work to teach people to be compassionate through mindfulness.  That is how he sought God’s kingdom.  I’ll bet that none of these people have spent an inordinate amount of time wondering whether to buy the LG flat screen TV or the Samsung; whether they should go to Cancun or Paris on vacation; whether they should stay in their marriage or leave.  If you’ve ever owned a good SLR camera, when you focus on something through the viewfinder, the rest blurs out of sight.  I imagine that’s what seeking God’s kingdom is like.

I’m not sure how to begin the life stripping-down process, but here’s a little brainstorming:

  • Let go:  of stuff, of worry, of anxiety, of things you can’t control.
  • Stop being a people-pleaser:  Say no once in a while.
  • Be happy with what you have:  Cut the coveting.
  • Don’t go it alone:  Ask for help, hired or otherwise, to share your burden.
  • Recognize that’s it’s impossible to have it all.  What are you trading off for your life?
  • Be easy on yourself.

Finally, the other night, Thich Nhat Hanh told the sell-out crowd that the kingdom of God is right here.

My dining room table today

My dining room table today

Right now.  Right now you can only be in one place.  Right now you can only do one thing.  Right now you can only think one thought. Be present right here, right now in this beautiful moment and you have found the kingdom of God.

For me, that’s where the stripping down starts.

Minimizing Mental Clutter: Being Busy, Zen-style


Work tasks as discrete links in a chain of activity, to be done mindfully, one at a time

Work tasks as discrete links in a chain of activity, to be done mindfully, one at a time

I never know which is more cluttered–my physical environment or my mental one.    It’s like the old “which came first, the chicken or the egg” question.   Do I feel mentally fragmented because all around me is stuff, or is the stuff there because I haven’t been able to focus?

In wondering this today, I recalled a terrific online article I read years ago, and despaired of finding it today, but, wonder of wonders–I actually found it again!   So, click on the title and read the whole thing, because it’s worth it if you relate to feeling like there’s too much to do.   It’s called “Being Busy” by Zoketsu Norman Fischer and it’s a zen take on handling tasks as they come.

The other day, someone asked me how I was managing with all the busy stuff I am involved with. Was it getting to be too much? Well no, it can’t really get to be too much because there are only so many hours in the day and days in the week, and all the time I am only doing what I am doing–no more and no less. Whatever I can do, I can do, and whatever I can’t do, I can’t do.

So I don’t do it. Maybe I’ll do it later. But maybe that later won’t come. Right now, I am doing what I can do, and that’s all that I can do. Whether my list of things to do is long or short, in fact it’s just the same. I am doing what I am doing the best I can do it.

I remember how upset years ago I was when I found out we were having twins. I had for such a long time lived a very simple life–just a suitcase in my car and I was off. Now I had a wife and twins were on the way. It was a source of great anxiety for me until I realized that in the end it wasn’t so different. Before, I’d put one suitcase in the car and was off. Now, I’d do essentially the same thing: Put one suitcase in the car, put one suitcase in the car, put one suitcase in the car…however many there were, it was always just one suitcase. So it was more in a way, but if I looked at it in another way, it was just one thing. A kind of mental yoga. But it worked quite well and it still does.

So there may be a long list of things to do, but really there is just one thing on the list at any time. If you think of it like that, the whole world looks different and you can stay quite calm. Maybe everything will get done eventually and maybe not. You can always have hope. What more does anyone ever have than this anyway?”

I like the way he calls this exercise “mental yoga” because it really is.  It’s very hard for me to slow it down and not mentally jump to two or three other things on my list while I’m doing another.  The cause for this behavior may be anxiety (“how am I going to get all this done?”); or run-of-the-mill worry (“I can’t forget the phone call at 2:00.”) or avoidance (“Ugh, this report is so tedious.  Isn’t there something more interesting I could do right now?”).  In any case, my mind is scrambling like a sprinter at the block imagining herself crossing the finish line before the shot is fired.    How can I slow myself down?  How can I stay in the moment?

Sometimes simple images really help, and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has provided me with one that I try to think about when I’m feeling the need to focus.

In his book Peace Is Every Step, there’s a chapter “Nourishing Awareness in Each Moment.”  In it, he describes a moment–just a moment–that sticks with me.  

One cold, winter evening I returned home from a walk in the hills, and I found that all the doors and windows in my hermitage had blown open.  When I had left earlier, I hadn’t secured them, and a cold wind had blown through the house, opened the windows, and scattered the papers from my desk all over the room.  Immediately, I closed the doors and windows, lit a lamp, picked up the papers, and arranged them neatly on my desk.  Then I started a fire in the fireplace, and soon the crackling logs brought warmth back in the room.”

I love that paragraph!  I think of myself in the same situation.  If it had been me, perhaps I would have been out because the dog needed to go urgently–otherwise, who would have time to go for a walk?  So, I’d have come in, taken the dog off the leash and rushed back into my office to finish up the report that was probably due in a half hour.  Imagine my frustration to see the pages of my report all over the room!  I’d curse, and run around grabbing them, trying to get the pages right.  The dog, reacting to my heightened energy, would be playing tug-of-war with the stray sheets wrinkled up in my hand, and I’d be yelling for her to let them go.  I’d shew the dog out of the room, curse some more and wonder how I was going to make up for the lost few minutes, oblivious to the half-empty coffee mugs, piles of folders, open day-timer, and overflowing waste paper basket surrounding me.

Wow, so Thich Nhat Hahn shows me a different way to approach the same situation, using mindfulness, and concentrating on one small moment at a time.   He describes another image from a different chapter, “Not Two,” in the same book:

Each day I helped translate about thirty applications.  The way I did it was to look at the picture of the child.  I did not read the application.  I just took time to look at the picture of the child.  Usually after only thirty or forty seconds, I became one with the child.  Then I would pick up the pen and translate the words from the application onto another sheet.  Afterwards I realized that it was not me who had translated the application; it was the child and me, who had become one.  Looking at his or her face, I felt inspired, and I became the child and he or she became me, and together we did the translation.  It is very natural.  You don’t have to practice a lot of meditation to be able to do that.  You just look, allowing yourself to be, and you lose yourself in the child and the child in you.

In those last sentences, maybe we can substitute the word “work” for “child”–because often our work is our child–talents that we grow and nurture.  Like a child, it deserves our undivided attention.  Like a child, it is part of us.  The inspiration that is there in the middle of slow, tedious, relentless tasks can be found simply by paying attention.  I love how Thich Nhat Hanh describes his every motion:  “I would look at the child.”  “I would pick up the pen.”  “I would then translate the words.”  “I arranged the papers neatly on my desk.”  “I started a fire in the fireplace”  His work is not a slurry of activity, it is a chain of individual moments of engaged work, elevated to an act of meditation.

Letting Go of Distractions, Worries and Projection: What Thich Nhat Hanh and Thornton Wilder Have in Common

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

I changed my calendar yesterday from February to March. That makes me almost two weeks late. The irony was that my calendar is a Thich Nhat Hanh calendar. This Zen Buddhist monk is a master of mindfulness, and I can’t think of anything more UNmindful than letting almost two weeks escape me without realizing it.

There is a foolproof way to let all your worries go—and at the same time become alive to the beauty and wonder around you—and that is to practice mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh writes extensively about it and how to practice it in many of his books, but his seminal work on this topic is Miracle of Mindfulness.

Read this book if you are interested in:

  • Learning how to begin a practice in living mindfully
  • Learning exercises in mindfulness
  • Learning basic breathing techniques
  • Reading stories and little parables, such as a wonderful one by Tolstoy, that enlighten us as to why we should be mindful of every moment

One of my favorite quotes:

Mindfulness is the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves. Consider, for example: a magician who cuts his body into many parts and places each part in a different region—hands in the south, arms in the east, legs in the north, and then by some miraculous power reassembles whole every part of his body. Mindfulness is like that—it is the miracle which can call back in a flash our dispersed mind and restore it to wholeness so that we can live each moment of our life.  Miracle of Mindfulness, p.14

Now, what do Thich Nhat Hanh and Thornton Wilder have in common?

Thornton Wilder

Thornton Wilder

This Thich Nhat Hanh/Thornton Wilder connection came to me when I saw that there is a new production of Our Town, the classic play by Wilder, in Manhattan. From what I’ve read, it is a must-see. Then again, this is my favorite play. Nevertheless, it got a great review from The New York Times, and from what I read, its approach is very relevant and true to the play’s meaning, and so I plan to see it.

Our Town is set in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire in the 1930s, and it tracks the lives of two families, in particular two of the children, through the major milestones of a person’s young life—adolescence, dating, marriage, and ultimately, death. Emily, one of those children, dies in childbirth but is granted permission to pick one day in her past to return to. She picks her 16th birthday, but as she moves through the motions of that day it becomes stunningly clear to her all that she had taken for granted. She realizes that when she was alive, she had been sleepwalking; now that she was dead she was truly alive–knowing that she had squandered her only chance to simply notice….. everything. And everything now seems very much worth noticing. When her day expires, with despair and sadness she bids farewell to her short life in a monologue that is probably one of the most poignant that I’ve ever seen.  I would quote it, but don’t want to be a spoiler, especially since it really must be viewed in context.

To me, I have always thought that Our Town makes tragic heroes out of most of us, because we are all just growing up and getting through and growing old in a settings very much like the play’s. Whether we live in a small town or large town or whether our community is provincial or metropolitan, or we are living in the 1940s, or a new millennium most of us share with Emily a tendency to charge ahead in our lives blind to the very essence of the stuff that our lives are made of, which is, simply, one moment at a time.

So, right now, be mindful. Stop for 60 seconds to just sit and take everything in. Or, you can continue doing what you’re doing, but do it completely aware of your actions and your thoughts as they occur. Slow down. Pay attention. Appreciate. If you can do that, congratulations. You have just participated fully in one minute of your life.