My new home boasts a small picture window. It peers out at a scene that could be mistaken for a painting. The big stalk of a pine tree is offset to the left with a crumbling rock wall cascading in front of it. The ivy wends it way up the slight slope and pine needles and leaves litter the winter floor. It's a dream come true for me.
My living room couch is positioned to look out this window and I can tell it appreciates it. I can tell, because it welcomes me with open arms to join it in reverence during morning meditation.
On this particular morning, the snow began falling just about day break. Slight flurries drifted on occasion and as the incense stick slowly burned down, I would open my eyes to discover the changing scenery. Each time, something new presented itself--little chickadees darting in and out, scratching for a morning meal; large Stellar Jays bullying their way to the food; a sideways snow flurry; a bit of sunlight; and on.
Without a concern, care or comment, the window frame held and revealed it all.
Touch has been a key component of loving relationships and traditional healing modalities for eons. Today, it is increasingly being studied in mainstream medicine to confirm its therapeutic properties.
Some experiments involving touch show symptom benefits in a number of areas, including asthma, high blood pressure, migraine headaches and childhood diabetes. Other studies indicate touch lowers stress levels and boosts the immune system. One of the most common findings in the research is that touch lowers heart rate and blood pressure. We know this intuitively—we experience a release and letting go when we receive a good nourishing hug.
Friendly touch (e.g. hand holding, hugging, etc.) decreases cortisol (the stress hormone) and increases the release of oxytocin, the hormone connected with love and human connection. Oxytocin release contributes to every day well being, our ability to handle stress, and can lead to feelings of devotion, trust and bonding.
Additionally, multiple studies have found massage therapy helps reduce pain and soreness, as well as speeds recovery from injury or surgery.
When we bring mindfulness and intentionality to touch, the comforts are increased both for the giver and receiver (even if they are one and the same).
Am I a racist, bigot, misogynist or religiously intolerant because I have those thoughts?
When we purposely work with a mindfulness practice we focus on including the gamut of our human experience--thoughts, sensations, emotions--whether positive, negative, or neutral. We do this, in essence, by creating a "container" made up of our curious attention, non-judgmental acceptance and allowance, and an intention to compassionately and kindly meet whatever arises.
Over time, our formal practice spills into the rest of our lives and we gain a more attentive, richer and pleasant life. We also receive the all important gift of a spacious pause between our experience and reactions, enabling us a chance to consciously decide our next course of action.
In this way, mindfulness supports us actively aspiring towards higher ideals than our biological and instinctual reactions would otherwise allow. We can consciously evolve ourselves into a wiser, kinder and more generous being. While these characteristics are already innate in us, and we can consciously grow and strengthen them, our perceptions of threat, which activate our biological survival systems, can get in our way.
I've practiced mindfulness for 25+ years and have come to accept the fact that I may never be able to live wholly from my chosen values, as much as I try. Our bodies and minds are not only a product of evolutionary forces that respond to threats with fight, flight or freeze, they are also molded during early formative years to reflect the values and beliefs of those around us--our parents, extended family, friends, local community, and the larger culture.
Personally, I can still hear the harsh judgments and commands from growing up in rural 1960's America in a large and dysfunctional Italian Catholic family. Today, though, I'm still surprised and ashamed when the racist, misogynist, and religiously intolerant ideas and beliefs of that era pop into my mind seemingly of their own accord. Back then, they were just invisibly weaved into my life's narrative.
But, am I religiously intolerant, a racist, bigot, or misogynist because these thoughts still arise? Or do the labels only apply if I believe or take action upon them?
Ribbons of intention placed during Tri Uplifting: Lake County 2016 at Rabbit Hill, Middltetown, California. There are three McNab Cypress trees protected by this fencing and our intentions. Trees dontated by Lake County Land Trust and are seedllings from those destroyed in the Rocky Fire of 2015. (Photo credit: Melissa Kinsel)
(At our recent Tri Uplifting: Lake County 2016 I gave a talk and guided visioning session for mindfully uplifting our community in Middletown, CA. I was encouraged to share the talk as the information and ideas can be used for any community.)
In order to create an uplifted community, we must first do some exploration--Firstly, what is uplifted community? Inspired? Thriving? What does it look like? What does it mean? What creates it? What are the conditions needed for it emerge? To be sustained? How will we know we've reached it? In other words, what will we receive/experience when we have it? How do we get there?
Zion National Park. Photo by JoAnn Saccato. All rights reserved.
When we begin the 8-week Compassion-based Mindfulness for Peace, Clarity and Freedom courses, we spend the first evening creating the container for the ourselves and the course as we embark on this journey of discovery to ourselves. Most of us can understand what a container is for inanimate objects, such as liquids and solids, but what about something that is alive and moving through time and space, such as ourselves?
Not only does our container include our physical surroundings, but also the quality of our attention at the time, the intention we have for the moment and the attitude with which meet it. Mindfulness practices increase our attention not only in the moment they are practiced, but in subsequent moments following. If we allow our “practice” to overflow to all areas of our life, then our life becomes our practice.