Learning to Ride the Stallion
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Learning to Ride the Stallion

The thing about those we love, is that at times, they can really piss us off. I’m not sure whether Mercury is in retrograde yet again, but my ability to communicate appears to have curdled somewhat. I feel misunderstood, my irritability is high and my tolerance low.

I’ve been here at different times in my life. This week though, was unique because it actually felt as if I was having two distinct experiences: one, the experience of the Jamie who has spent the last thirteen years tuning my empathy and sensitivity as a therapist, father and partner and developing tools to remain centered in a place of self-love and innate goodness; and the second from the perspective of my ego, which is, apparently, still most comfortable dealing with these situations much the way I did when I was five — like a little boy who takes his toys and storms out of the sandbox when he doesn’t get his way. What resulted was an internal sensation that felt a bit like having my large intestine pulled apart in a giant tug of war.

The Buddhist nun Ani Pema Chödrön has a quote about moments like these. It goes like this: Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves,

“Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?”

My ego, as egos are programmed to do, chose to answer that question with a resounding cry of WAR! The experience was really no different from the many times I’ve confronted similar experiences, which I’m sure is similar to the way your ego reacts too. I took one look at what had occurred between me and my partner and decided right then and there … on the spot … that it was insulting, disrespectful, and tantamount to a slap in the face. I stepped up on my soap box, pulled out my mental resume, and began to recite all of my exceptional emotional qualities of my nothing less than illustrious life that justified the deep indignation I was feeling. Before long my ego, like Mel Gibson’s character in Braveheart, had mounted its high horse and, with blue war paint smeared all over its face, prepared to ride off to do battle with someone I love.

The other voice — the one that sounds a bit more like Ani, the one I begin to listen to as my old way of coping with conflict lies dying in my arms, the voice that’s been honed by the compassion of my teachers, clients, children and partners, the one I’ve grown to trust through hours and hours of silent meditation, the one that always chooses peace — that voice leaned into my ego, gave it a knowing wink and a patient “I know … I know … shhh … it’s all going be okay …” The voice then took my ego, Mel Gibson, and me to the meditation cushion to, as Guru Singh likes to say, ” bolt your butt to the cushion and ride the stallion” — not to battle, but to peace.

There’s a tendency to believe (or perhaps hope) that meditation and yoga turn us into floating saints that never have bull-in-china-shop moments. But it’s not true, at least not in my experience. The truth, I’ve discovered, is a much more vulnerable and honest reality: that is, that we are all human. Inside we are all facing the same fears and insecurities. We all want to be loved, and valued … and we want to feel safe. When someone in the course of a negotiation — or during one of the many normal, everyday interactions we have with others — says or does something that threatens our sense of well-being, our egos pop out to defend us. This is a normal and natural response. In spiritual study and practice we aren’t learning how to turn off our emotions: that’s not real. Instead we’re learning the skills to be okay while we feel them. Meditation and yoga aren’t some magic potion that we take to make every situation perfect, they’re tools that help us to feel okay amidst the difficult situations that come up in life. We’re not learning how to eliminate the ego, just to keep it from destroying all the expensive china when it shows up. That’s why it’s riding the stallion. Because any true sense of well-being must be inclusive of all of life’s experiences, every thought, fear, insecurity, hope, and dream. The practice is to be okay with it all. We are learning to embrace life by riding the stallion, by feeling it all, and in the process we develop the skills of peace and calm so we can have them at our disposal when challenging situations arise.

For much of my life I lacked the skills to achieve what I said I wanted. I talked about ideals like fulfillment, happiness, peace, and love but I rarely practiced them. Instead my days were spent working hard, feeling exhausted and (often) wishing I was somewhere I wasn’t. Those activities became my habits … my routine, my practice, and I developed tools to support them. Soon it was all I knew how to do. When something arrived in life that required a little patience, serenity, or presence, I would turn to my toolbox but all I could find were tools of struggle, fighting, and wishing it wasn’t so. This is true for most of us: lacking the proper tools, we often make things worse for ourselves and others.

That day, as I sat on the meditation cushion listening to the two voices of my indignant ego and my compassionate heart, I experienced something different. I opened my toolbox and looked inside to see what might help. I began with a series of deep, controlled breaths to calm the sensations of fight or flight I was experiencing and open the door for a third option — patience. When the physical sensations had calmed a bit, I grabbed a new tool and began a loving-kindness meditation. First for myself:

May I be loved, may I be safe, may I be understood.

After a few minutes of self-soothing words, I shared the same desire with the person I had been fighting with: may they be loved, may they be safe, may they be understood. Before long the lines between us began to blur. As I experienced more balance and calm, I released my thoughts and just sat there quietly. With the stallion safely resting, my heart opened and I felt a sense of deep well-being. I breathed and allowed myself to experience the innate peace and inner joy that is our birthright.

This week I invite you to open some doors in your life by opening your heart to the voice beyond your ego. Have compassion for your ego while taking the time to listen to the message of your heart. Discover the beauty of connecting around the human desires for love, safety, and comprehension in yourself and in those you encounter in work and life. Explore your toolbox, see what’s in there, be grateful for what you’ve developed, and begin a practice of developing the tools you find are lacking. View the many moments of your day as an invitation to practice choosing:
peace over war,
love over fear,
and understanding over delusion.

May you be loved, may you be safe, may you be understood.

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Meditation and Science are becoming firm friends
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Meditation and Science are becoming firm friends

Brain imaging shows that when we master a task such as playing an instrument or the advanced performance in a sport, specific parts of the brain are transformed — certain neural pathways grow and strengthen. Neuroscientists have now shown that the same is true for mastery of meditation with direct benefits for improving focus, overcoming depression, dealing with pain and cultivating emotional well-being:

“A comparison of the brain scans of meditators with tens of thousands of hours of practice with those of neophytes and nonmeditators has started to explain why this set of techniques for training the mind holds great potential for supplying cognitive and emotional benefits. …

“The discovery of meditation’s benefits coincides with recent neuroscientific findings showing that the adult brain can still be deeply transformed through experience. These studies show that when we learn how to juggle or play a musical instrument, the brain undergoes changes through a process called neuroplasticity. A brain region that controls the movement of a violinist’s fingers becomes progressively larger with mastery of the instrument. A similar process appears to happen when we meditate. Nothing changes in the surrounding environment, but the meditator regulates mental states to achieve a form of inner enrichment, an experience that affects brain functioning and its physical structure. The evidence amassed from this research has begun to show that meditation can rewire brain circuits to produce salutary effects not just on the mind and the brain but on the entire body. …

“Neuroscientists have now begun to probe what happens inside the brain during the various types of meditation. Wendy Hasenkamp, then at Emory University, and her colleagues used brain imaging to identify the neural networks activated by focused- attention meditation. … Advanced meditators appear to acquire a level of skill that enables them to achieve a focused state of mind with less effort. These effects resemble the skill of expert musicians and athletes capable of immersing themselves in the ‘flow’ of their performances with a minimal sense of effortful control. …

“In our Wisconsin lab, we have studied experienced practitioners while they performed an advanced form of mindfulness meditation called open presence. In open presence, sometimes called pure awareness, the mind is calm and relaxed, not focused on anything in particular yet vividly clear, free from excitation or dullness. The meditator observes and is open to experience without making any attempt to interpret, change, reject or ignore painful sensation. We found that the intensity of the pain was not reduced in meditators, but it bothered them less than it did members of a control group. Compared with novices, expert meditators’ brain activity diminished in anxiety-related regions — the insular cortex and the amygdala — in the period preceding the painful stimulus. The meditators’ brain response in pain-related regions became accustomed to the stimulus more quickly than that of novices after repeated exposures to it. Other tests in our lab have shown that meditation training increases one’s ability to better control and buffer basic physiological responses — inflammation or levels of a stress hormone — to a socially stressful task such as giving a public speech or doing mental arithmetic in front of a harsh jury.

“Several studies have documented the benefits of mindfulness on symptoms of anxiety and depression and its ability to improve sleep patterns. By deliberately monitoring and observing their thoughts and emotions when they feel sad or worried, depressed patients can use meditation to manage negative thoughts and feelings as they arise spontaneously and so lessen rumination. Clinical psychologists John Teasdale, then at the University of Cambridge, and Zindel Segal of the University of Toronto showed in 2000 that for patients who had previously suffered at least three episodes of depression, six months of mindfulness practice, along with cognitive therapy, reduced the risk of relapse by nearly 40 percent in the year following the onset of a severe depression. More recently, Segal demonstrated that the intervention is superior to a placebo and has a protective effect against relapse comparable to standard maintenance antidepressant therapy. …

“About 15 years of research have done more than show that meditation produces significant changes in both the function and structure of the brains of experienced practitioners. These studies are now starting to demonstrate that contemplative practices may have a substantive impact on biological processes critical for physical health.”

From: “Mind of the Meditator”
Author: Matthieu Ricard, Antoine Lutz and Richard J. Davidson

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