~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Staying on Course

March 21, 2020
Hello, my friends -

I hope you are faring well in this difficult time. I hope you are staying home as much as you can in order to help slow the spread of this virus, as experts have begged us to do. I hope you are managing to keep calm amid the fear and uncertainty of all that lies ahead.

If you have ever tried to meditate, you know the drill: You settle yourself in, you relax your body, and you instruct the mind to rest with the breath - or with some other anchor, like sounds or a phrase or even the sensations rolling through the body. You shine the spotlight of awareness onto that anchor and you stay, stay, stay.... until your mind wanders off into some fantasy or regret or angst or story. Your mind roams in the thicket for some time, until finally you notice that it has wandered off. And typically you sigh in exasperation and then return your awareness back to the anchoring focus.

This happens over and over and over. Lots of people give up, certain they are failed meditators. Those who stick with it find that little by little the mind can rest in one space for longer periods of time, growing steadier and clearer all the while. The moments of wandering still happen, but they grow less frequent and we get better at noticing when we have steered off course. Little by little, we grow skillful at returning the mind to the space where we want it to be.

The benefits of meditation are manifold. Our thoughts grow steadier, our minds grow calmer, and we see more clearly the truth of what is and what needs to be done. This helps us serve as better citizens of the world. As meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein says, "When we see clearly, we behave impeccably, out of love, on behalf of all beings."

The practice of meditation includes a secret side benefit, beyond the lovely stilling of the mind. That secret benefit emerges from the most frustrating part of the practice: the moment when we notice the mind has steered off track. Some meditation teachers even tell us that this moment - the instant when we say, "I wanted to mind to rest with the breath, but, wow, it wandered way off track" - is the most important moment of all.

Over and over in meditation practice, we notice we are steering off course and then we return the mind back on track. And then little by little, we discover that this skill is translatable into our greater lives. We become better drivers both on the meditation cushion and off.

Maybe we receive an unsettling email. We bang out our response. And then instead of hitting send, we pause and notice our anger and frustration. We ask ourselves if this is the wisest response, and then we hit delete instead of hitting send. Or maybe after a long and challenging day, we begin snapping at the kids - or eating junk food, or railing at the world. And then that moment comes: "Wait a minute. Is this really where I want to put my mind and my life? Let's get back on track in a better way."

It is the noticing that is key. As my wise mother taught me, when we are aware, we have a choice about how to respond. And when we aren't aware of what's really going on, we are just stumbling in the dark.

Do you see why this is so important right here and right now? Our world has been turned upside-down. The rules of what to do and how to respond have been largely obliterated. It's like all of the roads we know so well have disappeared in an instant, and we are left to find our own way across the country from East Coast to West. In the absence of roads and signs and guardrails, we are left to find our own way.

We need to be able to course correct. We need to strengthen our own inner compasses, so that we notice when we are steering off course and we know how to get ourselves back on track. Maybe we see two last packages of toilet paper on the shelf, and fear leads us to grab them both. But then we pause, we notice the bedraggled old gentleman wandering up the aisle, and we hand him the very last roll.

In my own life, I have noticed how the nonstop flow of news has left me feeling rattled, unsettled and unhinged. I'm a journalist by training and spent several years as a Washington, DC, reporter, and my brain still likes to figure it all out. But this well-worn habit - News Alert! News Flash! Breaking News! - isn't serving me well. It's leading my life to steer off course. I'm less present, more anxious and less clear. I've been sucked out of my life and into a vortex of unending news. My nerves feel frazzled and raw.

I've noticed that my mind isn't where I want it to be, and I am now course correcting. (Thank you, meditation practice!) I've turned off the television, and I've returned to the more genteel NPR and the quiet of written news. I'm practicing "intermittent fasting," avoid news altogether from sun down to sun up. And I'm breaking the habit of racing to the computer whenever I find a quiet moment in the day. I'm making a real effort to keep my mind in the here-and-now: this moment, this breath, this lovely beam of light as it streams through the window and onto my face.

And how about you? Are you managing to stay on track in the midst of all of this uncertainty? Have you also found yourself steering off the road and into the thicket? Maybe you're not eating as well, or you've forgotten to exercise, or you've been snapping a bit more at loved ones. Here is your opportunity to practice skillful driving in the world. Here is your opportunity to course correct. It's better to do it now than wait until the car has driven off the road and rolled over into the ditch.

My sense is that we are still driving into the tunnel of darkness that this virus has brought. We have a long way to go until we see the light at the other end. Not everyone is going to behave well. We need to keep our wits about us. We need to remember that we are all in this together. We need to take good care of ourselves and take care of those around us.

We need to keep our lives on track, and we need to be able to course correct as needed so that we can avoid a dangerous crash. We know how to do that. We just need to keep our minds steady, our eyes open, and our hearts clear.


Now is our chance to practice, and, of course, I have a few suggestions on how to do that. My website includes lots of articles about meditation practice (start here for a primer) and even some guided audio practices.

You don't have to be able to sit still in order to meditate. My qigong teacher Jeff Chand has just released a lovely qigong routine that you can practice daily. I highly recommend it!

And you are also welcome to join me for movement and meditation classes, which resume this week via the Zoom video platform. Please join us.

Take good care, my friends, and keep practicing!