“What we call obstacles are really the way the world and our entire experience teach us where we are stuck.”
This quote is by one of my favourite Buddhist teachers Pema Chödrön. It’s from her incredible book When Things Fall Apart, which I highly recommend to anyone looking for wise words on how to meet difficulties in life.
These particular words encourage us to practice befriending what we see as an obstacle, instead of viewing it as the enemy. Pema Chödrön tells the story of how Buddha was sitting under a tree, on the night he was to attain enlightenment. While sitting there, he was attacked by the forces of Mara (illusion, desire, death and rebirth). The story goes that they shot swords and arrows at him, and because of his power of awareness, their weapons ended up turning into flowers.
She reminds us that we call obstacles, are really the way the world and our entire experience teach us where we’re stuck. What may appear to be an arrow or a sword, can turn into a flower, depending on our relationship with ourselves. The first step is being able to acknowledge and willing to meet whatever discomfort or pain that is arising. If we are not open to it, if we just push it away, it will be hard to find any teaching there, and to move through that place where we are stuck. Sometimes that is needed too, and the flower in that situation is just being aware of what and how we tend to push things away.
Mindfulness gives us awareness about when and in what ways we try to escape those difficult emotions (a natural thing we all do). It’s not something we should be hard on ourselves for, but instead see as very valuable information – it’s how arrows turn into flowers. Most importantly we will notice that we can fully meet all these experiences, which are a natural part of life. And that to be truly alive means to never really arrive. There will always be new arrows – but we learn that we can let life have its natural ebb and flow, and still rest in our presence and find wisdom there.
The beauty of mindfulness is that it is meant to be practiced in our daily life. We are not only practicing when we are sitting on the meditation cushion. And essentially, the more we practice the more mindfulness becomes integrated into all that we do.
Here are some simple mindfulness techniques to do throughout the day
– When you wake up in the morning take a few moments to feel and get in touch with your breath. It’s a good idea to do this before going to sleep as well.
– Connect with your breath as much as you can during the day – do a short breathing anchor meditation. Notice how many times throughout the day you are in touch with your breath.
– Pay attention to moments when you shift from one position or activity to the next. For example getting up from the chair or sitting down. Do these as mindfully as possible. Stay in touch with your breath and notice how the movement feels in your body.
– Belly breathing. Notice how you are breathing right now. Put your hand on your stomach and take a few breaths all the way down to the belly, feeling how it expands on the in-breath and contracts on the out-breath.
– Slow walks. Take a walk while paying attention to how your body feels. Feel the soles of your feet against the ground when you take each step. Notice how your body feels when you are walking slowly and then how it feels when you take faster steps. Remember to also feel your breath now and then during the walk. Then also, try to pay as much attention to your surroundings. See the buildings or the trees, notice the colors, the shapes, the movement you can see. Then you can shift by noticing the scents you can feel, or the sounds that you can hear.
– Make a habit of noticing some positive situations during the day. One idea is to write them down in the evening. You can do the same with a negative situations or events that seem to stay with you, and pay attention especially how you react or respond to them, what reactions they might have caused in your body – without making any judgements.
This poem by Rumi is often read in connection to mindfulness, and I think it’s a beautiful reminder of how to meet discomfort in our practice, and our lives.
Each morning we wake up to certain feelings or sensations, and each morning there is something new. Sometimes we feel rejuvenated and content, other times we are tired, in pain, feel a heaviness or something else we would categorize as negative. Even pausing for a moment to simply meet & feel whatever is there, will increase our awareness and sense of presence. We practice meeting it all with as much patience, kindness, and curiosity as possible.
In mindfulness meditation we practice focus and observation, which in time helps us gain a different perspective of what we are feeling and sensing, instead of becoming absorbed by it. If we feel pain somewhere in the body, we can try and imagine breathing into and out of that place, I have found this to be helpful with for example headache and shoulder pain.
We practice meeting our feelings and sensations. We try as much as we can to invite it all in, even the discomfort. After all, it may be clearing the way for new joy.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
Living a mindful life means waking up from a kind of slumber. The slumber of living solely in the mind – of moving through life on autopilot. To wake up from that autopilot-state, we practice paying attention to, and truly allowing and feeling, everything that arises in us – specifically paying attention to the body. Because the body is always in the present moment.
Meditation and mindfulness are, in a sense, a deeper kind of listening. We listen, not with our analytical mind that wants to come up with solutions, new ideas, or stories. But we listen in a way that connects us deeper to what we are experiencing. In this way, we also get more in touch with the body and its intelligence.
Through listening deeply, and our willingness to sense and be present for it, we create space for all that is arising, for any emotion or sensation that is stopping by. Can we welcome even what we judge as negative, instead of following the impulse to push it away? Can we allow everything to come and go – as it does?
We practice fully observing all that is arising, without trying to change anything. There is no outer goal to attain.
We are simply gifting ourselves our full attention. This in time gives us a bigger perspective, an even greater sense of presence, and courage to meet things that come our way.
This practice also expands our awareness of how we relate to different sensations, maybe wanting to hold on to the pleasant ones, and to avoid the unpleasant ones.
The beauty of mindfulness, is that it is meant to be practiced in our daily life. And essentially, the more we practice the more mindfulness becomes integrated into all that we do.
You can choose any daily activity, like doing the dishes, taking a shower or taking a walk, and practice being as present as possible for it. Pay attention to the sensations or feelings that you are experiencing, especially all that you are sensing in your body. If you notice that your thoughts begin to wander someplace else, remember your breath is always there to guide you back to the present. It can also be helpful to pay attention to the sensation of the soles of your feet against the ground or floor reminding you to come back to your body and here and now.
Explore how you feel throughout your day. See if you notice when you are feeling present in your body, and when you feel less so. Are there moments or activities during your day where you perhaps feel less present? You can always use breath anchoring to deepen your presence in those specific moments.
Through meditation and mindfulness we expand our awareness of the constant flow of thoughts, sensations and emotions that occur in each moment of our life. Through our practice, we also begin to notice the connection between the thoughts, sensations and emotions, and how they are constantly influencing one another. Awareness is key in our practice. In one way, meditation and mindfulness are an art of paying attention. To meditate is to really pay attention, deeply and sincerely.
Once we become aware of, for example, the thoughts that are arising in a given moment, we automatically create a little bit of space between our being and those thoughts, or the mind. In yoga, teachers often talk about creating space in the body. Most of the yoga poses are designed to lengthen the muscles, and as we do them, along with breathing deeply, we are creating more space in the body – so hopefully muscles that were previously tight or had knots in them, become expanded and relaxed. Energy can flow more freely in the body. Similarly, mindfulness and meditation create space, not just in the body and the mind, but it creates a sense of space that expands into all areas of our life. The truth is, this space is always present, but just like the space in a room it can become cluttered with objects so that it ends up being almost unnoticeable. When we have more space it becomes easier for us to notice the more subtle things in ourselves and in our life. We might see patterns in our behaviour and simply notice things we would have otherwise missed. So not only does this space give us a bigger sense of ease and peace, but just like a muscle that becomes stronger and more flexible, we become more and more perceptive, and more skilled in that art of paying attention.
To pay attention is also to focus or concentrate on something. In meditation we work with different techniques of concentration. A common one is focusing on the breath. As I mentioned in the previous post, our breath is a great tool for our practice because it is always there with us. And it connects us to our body and the present moment. Once we start practicing this in meditation, as well as our daily lives, even just by taking a few moments during the day to notice and feel the breath in our body, we will notice that space is starting to expand.
If you want, you can take a moment right now to notice your breath, how it feels in the body, how it is flowing in, and out. Pay attention to the small pauses between each in and outbreath. Maybe close your eyes for a few breaths, and see if you can notice any difference in how your body feels when you open your eyes.
I want to share one of the most simple mindfulness meditations, sometimes called a breathing anchor. The beauty of our breath is that it is always there with us, so it makes it a very good tool for focus and concentration, as well as a tool for connecting more to our own body and sensations – always right here and now.
This meditation or breathing anchor can be done at any time, for example if we want to take a break during the day or even when we are walking – in fact the more we do it the better. In this post I will explain it as a seated meditation.
1. If you want you can set a timer for 5 to 10 minutes – but of course you are welcome to sit for as long as you wish. Find a comfortable seat, perhaps a chair or sofa. Lower your shoulders and sit up straight, but not stiff. Find a position that you can hold for a few minutes, one that feels relaxed but also attentive. Close your eyes.
2. Direct your attention to the soles of your feet. How does the floor feel against your feet? How do your legs feel against the chair? Your back or shoulders against the back of the chair? See if you can notice any sensation anywhere in the body?
3. Now direct your attention to your breath. See how closely you can follow it. From the inhale, through the nose, down into your chest, and further down into your belly. Then all the way out again. Follow the natural flow of your breath. Where do you feel it the most? Perhaps in the nostrils, or the chest, or down in your stomach – perhaps when it expands on the inhale, and lowers on the exhale? See if you can notice the small pause between each exhale, and the following inhale. And the pause between each inhale, and the exhale. Can you feel the body expand on the inhale, and relax on the exhale?
4. Keep following each breath, as closely as you can. When your attention shifts from the breath – maybe you drift off into your thoughts, or to a sound you hear – just gently direct it back to your breath. All you need to do is notice when your attention is no longer on the breath and gently guide it back to it. As many times as necessary.
5. When you are ready you can end the meditation by taking three deep breaths, and notice how your body feels at the end.
Remember that you can connect with your breath at any moment, so you can do this meditation anywhere, even standing or walking, whenever you want to come back to the present moment or deepen your connection to it.
The quote in the title comes from the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön, and I think it’s a great reminder for most of us – especially in the intense times that we are in at the moment. When negative emotions, thoughts or events are happening in our lives, it’s common for us to think there is something wrong. That somewhere along the way, something has gone wrong, or we have done something wrong – either to cause or to deserve what’s happening. From a mindfulness point of view, this is (in part) not true, but most importantly, it’s irrelevant in this very moment. Of course it’s good to reflect on what might be the cause of things, to know how to make clearer and more beneficial choices in the future. Looking at it from a Buddhist perspective everything does have a cause – it’s the law of karma, of cause and effect. At the same time, there is nothing we can really do about something that is already occurring – if a sensation is arising it’s already here. All we can do is decide how to meet it, here and now. What we do here and now is also what will shape our future moments. I heard someone once say: at this moment, we are completing the seeds of the past, and planting the seeds of the future. So it’s the way we meet this moment that matters the most.
Another point is that it can be very hard for us to know what truly is negative in our lives and what is positive. Sometimes a negative event brings us a beautiful gift. I think that most of us have experienced this in some way? And sometimes we think something really great has happened in our life, only for it to bring a lot of pain later on, or just turn out to be not that great at all. When it comes to our own sensations and states of mind: what we judge as negative, is perhaps (and most probably) rising to the surface to show us something – something we may need to become aware of. This is why curiosity is an important part of mindfulness – as well as non-judgment.
Sometimes non-judgment can look like saying to oneself: “I don’t think I can feel ok with what is happening right now, I’m worried, I feel afraid…” Or whatever feeling it may be. And to not judge whatever that emotion might be, but to observe it, and let it arise, let it be. And let it pass, as it will. Curiosity might sound like: “This is interesting. Let me maybe look at this more closely. I wonder what it would be like, to let myself feel this feeling fully? Where in the body do I feel or sense it the most?” And so on.
Of course, when a moment arises which we feel a strong aversion towards, it’s not always going to be easy to meet it with curiosity or in a non-judging way. This is why we practice. Just like we train in a sport or practice playing an instrument, we practice meeting life and our sensations, thoughts and emotions, in a kind, non-judging, and curious way. With practice and in time, it does become easier to rest in a state of presence and non-judgement. Our awareness of the moment when we are judging (ourselves, our feelings or thoughts or sensations) grows and expands, so it becomes easier to notice and easier to then guide ourselves back to our presence, instead of creating stories around an emotion or a thought.
In mindfulness practice we don’t try to remove unwanted or uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. But when we really pay attention, we begin to notice that our thoughts and emotions are constantly changing, just like life is constantly in flow and change. And we might learn to relate to them in a way that gives us more space, as well as courage to really feel and look at everything that is happening in our life, both the pain and pleasure. We notice that we can let things be as they are, through all of life’s clouds and different weather.
If you are interested in more wise words by Pema Chödrön, here are two of her talks/courses on Sounds True.
Mindfulness can be described as a way of waking up to life. In mindfulness, we practice how to relate to life with openness, curiosity, non-judgement, and compassion. We make a conscious effort to be present, here and now. It is a state of being truly awake. A state of really paying attention. A state of presence.
Even though mindfulness has gained more attention in the last few years – partially thanks to an increasing number of studies that show the benefits of the practice – there are still many misconceptions about what mindfulness is. It is not that strange considering it’s still a relatively new concept in the western world.
One common misconception is that practicing mindfulness means to passively sit around and allow everything in life to be as it is and to never really make any efforts to change anything. But mindfulness is not passivity at all. In truth, it takes some effort, mostly in the beginning when we are just getting into it and making it into a daily practice, and ultimately a way to live our life. I believe that living connected to ourselves, to others, and to here and now, is our natural state. But it takes effort – and intention – in part because of our conditioning, and because our everyday life these days doesn’t really make it easy for us to live mindfully.
The non-mindful life For many of us, life is stressful. We tend to operate from a “flight or fight-mode” a lot of the time. Society, unfortunately, promotes quite a non-mindful and unconscious way of living. The human brain hasn’t really developed for the modern lifestyle that we have created, which explains why stress-related illnesses keep increasing. It can be painful to see how disconnected many of us are today from ourselves, each other and just life in general – life as it’s happening right now. Many discover mindfulness when they are searching for ways to deal with the difficulties of life, stress, anxiety or any kind of mental or physical pain. This is something we all share in our humanness – we all go through difficult times in one way or another at some point. Life is a constant ebb and flow, a constant change, and, in a way, mindfulness helps us to ride those waves of life as gracefully as possible. Most importantly, it takes us deeper into our humanity. And, I would say, it gifts us with courage to meet life fully.
Some benefits of mindfulnesspractice – Lowers stress and anxiety. Mindfulness practice and meditation have been shown to lower the stress hormone cortisol. – Improved sleep – A stronger immune system – Help with pain management – More creativity – More focus – More compassion and kindness, towards ourselves and others – We become better equipped to deal with difficulties in our life – We open up to experience more joy and peace in our life
The mindfulness brain Several newer studies show just how mindfulness helps when it comes to stress-related problems. What effect it has on the brain and how the practice helps to calm down our mind and put us into a more relaxed and receptive state. How it helps us shift from the fight-or-flight mode that so many of us are in more often than not these days. Or the dopamine-triggered-state, which has become an even bigger problem with the addictiveness of smart phones and apps.
I love seeing new studies having to do with neuroscience, as I find it super interesting. So I might write more about this further on. Our brains are so complex and fascinating, and there’s still so much to explore in this area. It’s exciting to me that science is beginning to bridge the gap between our modern lives and what has been known in some cultures and parts of the world for centuries. In a way, neuroscience is just further explaining things that humans already know from experience.