Falling Awake: Review of Full Catastrophe Living

The net impact of this book, no matter how many encounters I have with it, is awakening. I’m not claiming it makes me “enlightened,” only that it accomplishes its purpose of teaching—or reminding—the reader how to be more fully alive and aware, moment by moment.

Kabat-Zinn is a gentle teacher, a master of the non-judgmental suggestion and the empathic anecdote. His writing style is accessible to his entire target audience—everyone who experiences stress. It’s a friendly, natural style, with some idiosyncrasies. He’s fond of exclamation points and often says things like “our body” and “our mind,” addressing his readers as a group and as individuals at the same time, while including himself in that group. Grammatically, this plural-singular is strange, but that’s his voice, his way of bringing readers into a conversation with him. Though the book is long, it’s low-stress. The themes are expanded gradually, each chapter building on the next, with steady reminders about the practices he’s teaching. I recommend reading it slowly, a little at a time, and letting it soak in. This turns the process of reading into a kind of meditation.

This was my first exploration of the revised edition. It grew by around 200 pages from the original. The updates were needed for two reasons. One is that the author and many other scholars in health psychology and the study of emotions and stress have accumulated decades of well-designed research on the effects of mindfulness. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is no longer an innovation at one Massachusetts hospital but an established, thoroughly studied program taught all over the world. The results of studies are integrated into the rest of the text. At first I wondered why he didn’t make those a separate chapter, a massive appendix, but a lot of readers might skip or skim this information if it was presented that way. When it flows as part of the story of coping with various stressors, it gets read, and adds substance and science where it’s needed. The other reason the book needed an update was the change in the nature of stress and distraction since its first publication. When it first came out, there was no such thing as texting while driving or feeling the need to sleep with a cell phone turned on and lurking under one’s pillow, no such thing as constantly sharing on social media. The stress-creating tendency he described in the first edition—to be in touch with everything except ourselves—has only grown over the past thirty years.

The chapters on coping with physical pain and emotional pain are especially profound. At one point in my progress through this book, I ended up reading it in the emergency room in the middle of the night. It helped me cope mindfully with a bizarre, ambiguous symptom and the decision to get it checked out, to sit with the not-knowing while I waited to be seen, to accept that I might have something serious that could require eye surgery, and to accept that if I didn’t need it, this was how I’d chosen to respond. I was even able to get a couple of hours’ sleep before seeing a specialist in the morning. (In case you wonder, no surgery was needed. I can now cope mindfully with a mere risk factor—and my insurance company.)

This recent experience with sleep deprivation made me relate strongly to the chapter on sleep stress. This chapter doesn’t seem to have been updated with research the way the others have. I agree with Kabat-Zinn that getting upset about being unable to sleep only compounds the problem. Making peace with the necessity of being awake reduces the suffering. It does not, however, reduce the need for sleep. Adapting to the stress of being tired is not the same thing as being able to maintain normal reflexes, attention or memory. I’ve found shortcomings with this chapter, but that doesn’t invalidate the whole book. In fact, the chapter stands out because the rest of it is so soundly supported.

I have one more critique: The material on the benefits of yoga is valuable but the drawings don’t provide good instruction. The little man in the pictures uses his back incorrectly in several forward bending poses, and uses no props. Using a strap to reach one’s foot in many poses makes a big difference in both benefit and safety. The selection of poses isn’t as balanced as it could be and there is one that I think should have been eliminated, a curled-up inversion that could stress the back and neck. Kabat-Zinn does mention approaching it with caution, but there are safer ways to relax and put your feet up in yoga, such as lying on the floor and putting your legs up the wall. My suggestion would be to read the chapter but to study yoga with a qualified teacher who pays attention to each student and who understands anatomy and injury prevention. Don’t use the pictures as instruction.

There’s an option with this book to buy CDs or download guided meditations. I’ve never done that, having studied yoga and meditation with live teachers and developed a daily practice, but as one of my yoga students was saying after class the other evening, it reduces her stress to have someone else guide her. There are beautifully written instructions for meditation in this book, and some wonderful short experiments a reader can do to begin exploring the practice. I think other readers could do as I’ve done and not buy the CDs. It should work well either way. With or without guidance, it’s challenging to commit to daily practice at first. The book suggests forty minutes. (I prefer not timing it, just doing it.) Daily practice is one of the foundations of the stress reduction program in this book, whether one does the body scan (similar to Yoga Nidra), sitting meditation, walking mediation, or yoga, or alternates among these. Daily, one commits to taking time to be present in oneself. It is, as the author once said, both the simplest and the hardest thing you’ll ever do. And it can, through awakening, change your life.

 

 

Open Space

Waiting for an idea, I watch the pages of my wall calendar being stirred by the fan. The current date is empty, a blank white square. The future is full of obligations and anticipations—busy little squares. But none of that is now. Now I sit in the open space of the present, aware of the sensation of sitting and breathing, of the sound of the fan, the breath-like movement of the pages, free to fully inhabit the whole of the moment while gazing at the illusion of time.

Re-Bodying: Movement and Play

runningI’m reading Full Catastrophe Living again. I don’t know how many times I’ve read this wise book, but every time, it makes me more awake and aware. The chapters on mindfulness of the body inspired this blog post. The author, Jon Kabat-Zinn, reflects on how the words remind and remember can be interpreted as re-mind—come back home to your own mind, and re-member—become a member of your own consciousness, and then he suggests we may need the word “re-body.”

Children and animals know: it feels wonderful to move around. It’s not natural to hold still and sit for hours. I recently took a trip to visit friends in North Carolina and in Georgia, and the long drive left me craving movement. My friends are walkers and yogis, not runners. Walking and yoga sustained me for a while, but by the last day of the trip I was craving full flight. My Atlanta friend brought me to a trail along the Chattahoochee, and she walked while I took off in an explosion of delight, faster than I normally run. The novelty of the trail added to my energy. I had no idea what was around each curve or over each hill, and had to stay one hundred percent in the present moment to dodge roots and rocks and poison ivy and still take in the beauty of the woods and water. The speed and surprises were part of my joy, along with the sensation of my feet connecting with the earth, the springy strength in my legs.

We don’t all take joy from the same things, but whether we walk, run, dance, practice yoga, lift weights, do tai chi or go ballroom dancing, it doesn’t matter. We’re designed to move. And when we find the movement that matches our spirit, it’s like coming home every time we do it. I like to think that people who say they hate “exercise” haven’t discovered the kind of movement that will make them happy. They’ve been made to do activities incompatible with their nature. However, somewhere in every human is that child who had to be told to hold still. That child loved to jump, skip, run, and climb. It was play. For me, that new trail was play, the game of finding the next footfall on an unpredictable landscape. Yoga is play in the field one’s self, exploring the organization and sensation of each asana, the interaction of the posture and the breath. After decades of practice, I still find even the most basic poses fascinating.

For some people, the word exercise takes the play out of movement. Years ago, I read a study on why women exercise and why they quit. Reasons for starting: weight loss and looking better. Reasons for sustaining exercise: the discovery that it reduces stress. Reasons for skipping exercise or quitting: time pressures and stress. In other words, movement reduces stress, but when women are stressed (and I would guess this is true for men, too) they tend to forego it, as if it were a luxury. It can feel like one, in either the negative sense of an extra that can be cut from the time budget or in the positive sense of deep pleasure. It can be a luxuriant sensation to move, to be fully embodied, present and in motion.

When I’m writing and the story gets stuck, I find that if I stand up and walk around, ideas come to me. It’s as if the stuckness of sitting starts to affect my brain, and the energy of movement clears it. Movement is as essential to mental and emotional health as physical health, but “it’s good for me” is the last thing on my mind when I’m enjoying a run or a yoga practice or just getting up from my desk and re-bodying for a few minutes. I’m playing, following my movement bliss. What’s yours?

*****

Image by Robin McConnell originally posted on Flickr

Flow, Lived Time, and Wasted Time

Alex_Jacobi_Boots_on_TVThis is another refection on the thought-provoking book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In discussing leisure time, Cziksczentmihalyi observes that people experience the optimal emotional and mental state of flow fairly often at work, and yet they long to go home from their jobs and have leisure—where they tend to waste time. It’s strange how we tend not realize what makes us happy.

“Free time … is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed. Hobbies that demand skill, habits that set goals and limits, personal interests, and especially inner discipline help to make leisure what it is supposed to be—a chance for re-creation.” Instead, many of us waste that free time on things that ask little of us, imagining that passivity will bring happiness. Cziksczentmihalyi mentions frequently throughout the book that if not given focus, our minds tend toward entropy and so do our relationships, and he is especially critical of excessive television-watching as an entropic behavior. He says we spend many hours watching athletes rather than engaging in sports, and “watching actors who pretend to have adventures, engaged in mock-meaningful action. This vicarious participation is able to mask, at least temporarily, the underlying emptiness of wasted time.” The book was written prior to the development of binge-watching Netflix, an extreme example of the peculiar appeal of this kind of wasted time. Can you imagine a TV show in which the characters spent a lot of time watching TV? That would not be an entertaining story. Fictional characters are engaged in challenges all the time. That’s what interests us. Conflict, challenge, growth and change.

Flow activities make us deeper, stronger, and more complex, whether we are reading, dancing, gardening, talking with family and friends, engaged in community activism, or making art and music, and they result in something we can share that adds to the quality of others’ lives as well as our own.

Blogging about a book as I progress through it is a new approach—but this one is making me think so much I had to share the thoughts before finishing.

 

 

Why Reading and Writing Can Make You Happy

BookFlow is a state of absorbed, continuous attention in which skill and effort are perfectly matched. I’m half-way through reading the book on it, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmilahlyi, and it’s given me a lot of food for thought

If your skill is high and the effort asked of you is low, a task could lead to boredom. For example, folding laundry. Most of us probably use some sort of additional stimulus like music or television to make it less dull. Sometimes I work on plots or blog posts in my head while I do things that ask too little of my mind. Boredom is also likely when you’re not paying full attention to a task, due to the lack of effort. Students who skim their textbooks often complain that the book was dull. Oddly enough, according to Csikszentmilahlyi, the man who named and first studied flow, paying more attention to a presumably dull thing will make it more interesting. If I turned laundry into a contemplative awareness activity, it could create flow. His research is full of examples of people who turned repetitious jobs into flow activities by how they focused their minds.

However, even if you are focused and aware, if the required effort for a task is too high and your skill is too low, you’re going to be stressed and frustrated. I ran into this trying to follow directions for using Canva, a web site that supposedly lets even tech-impaired idiots create complex images. My skill was too low even for that!

If skill required and effort involved are both low, you’ll be relaxed or apathetic, depending on the circumstances—or you might have flow, if you’re mindful. A massage requires little effort on your part, and little skill, and the match is perfect. Relax and receive. Unless, of course, you stop paying attention to the experience. I’ve sometimes caught myself becoming absent and had to invoke the skill of mindful presence so I could relax and have a low-key flow.

Paying attention in an unbroken way is a rare blessing for a lot of us. Many of our jobs are built around interruptions. Studies have found that people who get interrupted a lot, when left alone, will continue to interrupt themselves for up to an hour before being able to focus again. Flow is lost.

Fragmented attention is the nature of social media. Each click is a new activity. I like chatting with Facebook friends, but the process is fractured, like conversation at a noisy party. It creates connections, but not flow. Books create flow, either a flow of focused ideas in nonfiction or the flow of a story in fiction. According to Csikszentmihalyi, reading is one of the most reliable sources of optimal experience, aka flow. Unlike more passive entertainment, it requires effort, skill, and imagination. Writers and other creative people know flow when we play our part in this exchange of vital energy. When we’re wrapped up in our work, we lose our sense of self, our sense of time, and become one with the creative process itself. Athletes, scientists, and mathematicians know it, too. What gives you flow?

 

Daily Practice

Yoga,_double_exposure_by_Victor_Tondee_

I had a pleasant and unexpected visit from a student who took my freshman seminar last fall. Its topic was mindfulness and critical thinking. I like to imagine it had a lasting effect, but it’s general education, not a course in my department, so I may not see the students again unless they get into my perpetually wait-listed yoga class as juniors or seniors. This young man stopped by to tell me that he was finishing the books, Work as a Spiritual Practice and The Wise Heart. Like many, he got about two thirds of the way through them during the course. Reading them more slowly and thoughtfully on his own, he’s getting more out of them. He wanted me to know that the class had an impact, and that his way of thinking about and looking at everything was changing. He’s paying attention to what he eats and questioning his choices, not being mindless. This sounds small, but in the big picture of a life, it’s not. How we relate to the world and ourselves through our food can be meaningful as well as have an effect on our health.

That which we teach ourselves, we truly learn. The class gave him the opportunity, but now he’s independently applying and internalizing the skills of meditation and awareness. He asked me for suggestions and the main thing I could say was practice. Daily practice. I’m not a guru or spiritual teacher; I’m just someone who has committed to daily practice. With that, everything changes. He asked about opening the third eye, and I said that it can happen, but it’s not a goal, and in the Buddhist traditions, it’s seen as more of a side-effect than something to get too wrapped up in. Yes, psi occurrences—the siddhis, as they are called in yoga—can result for meditators, but if they are set as goals they can be distractions from present-moment mindfulness. For some people, they never happen. For others they arise for a while and then quietly cease. As I mentioned in my review of One Mind, such events are evidence of interconnectedness and a deeper level of reality, but mindfulness doesn’t strive for special effects in consciousness. There’s nothing to seek, only practice.

*****

Image: originally posted to Flickr by Victor Tonde at http://flickr.com/photos/115887883@N05/16943456596

Teaching Myself to See

Years ago, at a party on the Damariscotta River waterfront in Maine, I met an artist with whom I struck up a long, thoughtful conversation. We stayed in touch for quite a while, but what I remember most about him is this. He said, “I paint to teach myself see.” I was making my living acting at the time, so I responded, “I wonder if I act to teach myself to feel.”

Writing, I have to be actor, artist, and playwright, teaching myself to observe more mindfully, to listen to others and the sounds of the world, to experience my own emotions with awareness, and to notice textures and scents. A smell can trigger a memory more powerfully than anything else. The more I pay attention, the more seeds I have in the seed bank of ideas from which stories, scenes and characters grow.

As well as being part of the creative process, this practice of awareness pops the bubble of busyness and brings me into the present moment. It’s an eye-wide-open meditation I can do at any time, cracking the shell of the ordinary to reveal its depth.

Embracing Darkness

On an ordinary quiet night, I took a break from writing to make a cup of herbal tea. Suddenly, I was in the dark. Tea freshly brewed, and I couldn’t even see the mug. I had to feel the doorway to get out of the kitchen. Funny how the mind works. I have to find light, I have to find light. In the living room, my laptop had gone to sleep on the coffee table, and I found it by the tiny red dot on its rim. I woke it up and used it to see my way around, searching for things I knew I didn’t have. Matches. Flashlight.

Sudden change and loss are hard to accept. I’ve been reading two books that deal with this topic: Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Marc Ian Barasch’s The Healing Path. The first is a novel about both ecological and personal crises; the second is nonfiction, about facing life-threatening illness. My response to the simple lack of electricity confirmed what these writers say about how humans react to an unwelcome shift in circumstances. We want normal. I kept thinking I could go into another room and turn on a light. No. There’s no power. The whole town was dark. Then maybe, I thought, I could sleep through the outage. No. There’s no fan, no air conditioning. What was I going to do in the dark with my laptop battery running low? It was 11:30 p.m. and that’s when I do my best writing.

I shut off the laptop after I’d found my Nook, which had more charge, and took it and the mug of tea outside, using the Nook as kind of dim little flashlight. I thought, I can read.

No. Not once I’d seen the stars. Then, all I wanted was the stars. Even in the desert in a town with little night glare, the removal of all manmade light was … breathtaking? No. Awe-inspiring? Too weak. Sacred.

I didn’t do anything to pass the time in the powerless night. I just lay back and looked at it. Thoughts drifted in. How long will this last? Should I pack up and go to a hotel in another city? I didn’t move. Stars. The lingering craving for electricity grew weaker and weaker.

This is it. The dark still night, afire with diamonds in its endless depths. The ordinary and normal gone. Someday my power will go off, and that will be it. Maybe it will be like the kitchen was, blind nothingness. Maybe it will be like the brilliant, hidden, undiscovered sky. All I know is that I had that sacred moment under the stars, and that I chose not to miss it.

The past, the present and the future walk into a bar …

… and the bartender says, “this could get tense.”

The only stories we normally tell in present tense are jokes. It’s hard to stay in the present, either in telling a story or in daily life. I’ve been thinking about this because of two books I just read. One is Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart, a Buddhist approach to psychology. The other is a short literary novel, Escaping Barcelona, which is written in the present tense. The pairing got me thinking about awareness of the present moment, narrative in the present tense, the nature of what’s in our minds, and whether or not the stuff which fills our heads makes for good fiction.

My freshman seminar students read The Wise Heart with me. One said the most valuable section of the book for him was the one on Delusion, especially the topic of inattention. In his words, “I know there are plenty of moments where I walk around lost in thought, not focusing on my surroundings, to the point that I’m basically sleepwalking.” Mind full, but not mindful.

In class, we did a thought-counting exercise from The Wise Heart. As we noticed our thoughts and began to find space between them, the messy and nonlinear nature of thinking showed up. Thought is seldom focused in the ongoing flow of experience. If consciousness is a stream, the water is full of floating debris: the repetitive cycle of “top ten thoughts” and stuck songs, digressions into past and future, sudden awareness of bodily processes, or commenting and judging and craving, interspersed with moments of clarity and attention.

In a May 2013 article in the New Yorker, Giles Harvey examined stream of conscious in literature from its early roots to the present. (I encourage anyone interested in the topic to read the whole article at http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/minds-are-the-strangest-thing.) Here are few of his observations I found relevant to my recent readings.

How much thought can a novel contain before bloating, or bursting, occurs?

 Does the pleasure we get from seeing the mind at work, or the illusion of seeing the mind at work, cover the cost of the tedium involved in reading this? Art is meaningful because it is life-like without incurring the disadvantages of actually being life—that is to say, without being boring and formless. …

 Minds are weird, without a doubt. But not everything that goes on in them is worth our attention.

Author Henry Martin has described Escaping Barcelona as being written in first person, present tense, stream of consciousness. It is intimate and internal, but no more so than any literary novel written in the past tense. Most of the book doesn’t resemble the actual stream of consciousness. Martin usually shows inner processes fluidly embedded in a compelling story. Once in a while he stalls for a long rant or ramble from the nineteen-year-old narrator, Rudy—and like most mental chatter, Rudy’s inner material, while authentic, isn’t profound. Overall, however, Martin avoids tedium, and his book is neither boring nor formless.

To achieve this, he has to compromise the flow of the present tense, which at times compromises the flow of the story. For around two thirds of the book—not a continuous two thirds—the present tense is inconspicuous as events take place in dramatic sequences with the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings smoothly integrated into them and the clutter filtered out. Rudy encounters situations that provoke intense awareness—new places and people, relief after deprivation, and danger. Such moments could be told effectively in the present tense in poetry or a short story. In a novel, though, the story takes place over time, and the author has to skip over the dull parts and cover the gaps with summaries as he would in the past tense. Because of the present tense wording, I found myself jerked out of the plot by the awkwardness these transitions and summaries. Some of these shifts implied the perspective that what was being narrated in the present tense took place in the past. I want to be fully absorbed when I read, and this distanced me from the story.

In one of the last chapters of The Wise Heart Kornfield gives detailed descriptions of the inner experience of deep concentrated attention, a state of consciousness few of us will ever reach. “With concentration, no matter where we place our attention, it will stay focused.” He explores how this translates into concentration on bodily sensation, on a wide-angle perspective on our whole experience, or on a feeling like loving-kindness. After years of study, a practiced meditator might be able to stay in a state like this for an hour or two. Such a person’s stream of consciousness could stay in the present moment, and with that expanded wide-angle attention, could make a readable, continuous story. Except, a person with that level of wisdom wouldn’t make a good fictional protagonist. He or she wouldn’t make impulsive decisions such as Rudy makes that get the events in Escaping Barcelona started.

On p. 247 in The Wise Heart. Kornfield quotes a Jungian teacher and analyst. “There is in life a vulnerability so extreme, a suffering so unspeakable, that it goes beyond words. In the face of such suffering all we can do is stand in witness, so no one needs to bear it alone.” Escaping Barcelona portrays one young man’s suffering and vulnerability, and asks the reader to stand witness.

I cared about Rudy. He goes through hell without losing his humanity, struggling to maintain what he can of his integrity in a situation that challenges him just to survive. When he gets his big “aha” about himself, it’s a lesson worth learning, though it’s one the reader can see coming long before it hits him. I suspect most of our life lessons are like this. Other people can perceive that we need them, but we can’t until we suffer. The value of a story like this is the engagement of compassion. Escaping Barcelona has many strengths, but sometimes I found myself watching the author write instead of living the protagonist’s struggles. I reached the end impressed by Rudy’s resilience and wishing him well in the next stage of his journey, but I won’t be reading the sequels unless there should be special past tense editions.

I’ll read The Wise Heart again. It has made me stop more often to examine my inner noise and find the stillness beneath it, conscious in the present moment.