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Spring Break

Have We Learned Anything?

As Covid numbers surge in various countries around the world, it is a stark reminder that this pandemic is not over and that we need to remain vigilant when it comes to public health practices. To our listeners in Brazil, my heart goes out to those suffering so terribly, as well as other areas being hard hit right now including Italy, India and Africa.

Here in the U.S., our numbers are dropping dramatically, but I feel like we’re about to be tested. With spring break upon us, will we discard public health guidelines and party hardy, possibly pushing us back into a surge, or will we quietly celebrate spring, as well as Easter or Passover, with household and/or pod members, taking precautions not to spread the virus? Are we a mindful society or mindless? Images coming out of south Florida don’t look promising, but I’m crossing my fingers.

I have to confess that part of me doesn’t want the full re-opening that seems to be coming here in California for reasons other than concerns about another surge. While I can’t wait to see my family members and friends again, there was a lot about our pre-pandemic country I didn’t much like. This past year under restrictions seems to have given a lot of people time to reflect and gain insights. Racial and social injustice came under intense focus, health disparities between the rich and the poor bubbled to the surface, climate change rose to the forefront of our attention along with our need to make immediate changes before it’s too late, hedonism practically came to a grinding halt and the frantic busyness that seemed culturally required slowed down to a crawl.

I fear that once we’re completely free, we’ll forget what we learned and revert back to what in hindsight seems like a mindless form of living. We’ll get right back on the hedonistic treadmill, doing jobs we don’t find meaning in so that we can buy more stuff to help us feel better about our meaningless jobs. We’ll discard efforts toward social justice and climate change interventions, becoming too busy again to deal with big challenges. And, we’ll forget how this pandemic started and return to destroying forests and animal habitats which experts believe will lead to more pandemics in the future.

Then again, perhaps the part of me that doesn’t want a full re-opening is just resisting change. We’ve all gone through so much constant change over the past year, we’re probably change-aversive at this point. But, we can’t stop change. It’s coming, whether we like it or want it.

There are of course many upsides to the changes coming. The many people who lost their jobs will be able to return to work. Those who have been isolated can enjoy being with family and friends again which is a huge boost for our mental health. Children can get back to fully learning and socializing again, course correcting back toward their healthy development. And perhaps most importantly, we won’t be living under constant anxiety, and fear of becoming sick.

I wish we could blend the best of both worlds. Can we live and work better together this time around? Can we change our lifestyles to reduce the negative impacts of climate change? Can we continue working on eliminating racism and social injustice in the world? Can we slow down a little and pay attention to the present, minimizing judgment and increasing compassion? Of course we could, if we choose to do so.

And that’s the crux of it. Do we pick right back up with a lifestyle based on me or shift our consciousness toward a lifestyle based more on we? The pandemic was a blatant reminder that we are all connected and what we do affects others. The intensifying weather events across the globe have shown us that climate change is real and will only get worse if we don’t change. The divisiveness experienced over the past year, at least in the U.S., resulted in an attempted government coup and did nothing to make life better, but only intensified our feelings of insecurity and anxiety. We can be better than this.

I think that’s why I feel like we’re being tested. We’re so close to getting out of at least this one mess, the pandemic, but instead of waiting for 70% of the population to receive vaccines which would lead to herd immunity, many states here have already lifted restrictions and ended mask mandates in order to revive their economies. Just in time for spring break and big holidays. So the question is, will we work together and voluntarily cooperate with mask-wearing and physical distancing, or revert back to our own desires and ignore the bigger picture?

One hopeful sign emerged last week, with the release of the findings from a private, U.S. study conducted that showed that we might not be as divided as we thought. Populace released its American Aspiration Index, which measures what people prioritize for the long-term future of the country and since it’s a private survey, people don’t feel the need to stick to a political party line, although the Index identified Trump voters versus Biden voters.

It turns out, both democrats and republicans identified the same top 5 priorities out of the 55 included in the index. Ranked #1, independent rights, #2, quality healthcare access for all. Coming in third, successful strategies to deal with climate change. Fourth was accountability by public leaders, and #5 was clean air, water and open spaces. The 6th through 8th overall rankings were equality for all, safe neighborhoods and a bias-free criminal justice system. There were many differences, of course, like immigration policies and unfortunately, national unity, for example, but overall, it appears that the number of issues we disagree on is narrower than our perception of those differences. That’s hopeful!

Who knew with all of the political rhetoric that Americans are on the same page about what any of our priorities should be for the future? And if that’s so, why do we behave so differently in public than what our values seem to be in private? The Index reports that the divisiveness 82% of Americans state is real, is largely learned. We’ve been told, over and over again through the media, that we’re divided on everything, when in fact, that may be an illusion.

Misperceptions, misinformation and misunderstandings have led to our perception of severe divisiveness. That’s good news if we pay attention. And that supports being more mindful, including the practice of non-judgment. We can listen to others’ opinions without the need to defend, attack or justify. We don’t have to agree, but if we can be more open to accepting that people’s opinions differ on various subjects, while understanding that we do agree on several of the biggest issues we’re facing, we might be able to work together to address those challenges.

Non-judgment is one of my ongoing challenges in practicing mindfulness and I think that’s true for a lot of people. We’re wired to judge, so it’s definitely not a natural state. Through mindfulness meditation, we can change that wiring over time, however. Studies show that with consistent practice over a long period, our automatic neural connections change and non-judgment can become our default, but it does take dedicated effort to achieve this. Non-judgment includes self and I get lots of practice there. Do you judge yourself harshly? Do you talk to yourself in ways that you would never speak to someone else? I even judge myself for judging others! I usually recognize my self-judgments quickly and either reframe my thoughts or forgive myself for judging myself.

Another technique I use is to label judgments, which is very simple to do. Each time you recognize that you’re judging, you simply say to yourself, “judging.” The more you do this, the more quickly you’ll notice when you’re judging and by focusing on the judgmental thoughts, they begin to lessen. I’ll probably have a lot of opportunities to practice with mask mandates lifted and spring break in full swing! But seriously, it’s important to remember that what we see in the media is not representative of most people. Most people are being careful, are wearing masks and are concerned for others as well as themselves. And judging those who are not isn’t going to change their behavior, so why even go there?

It’s helpful to remember that we don’t know, well, pretty much anything. We don’t know why a person is doing what they’re doing, we don’t know what they’re thinking and just because we disagree with it doesn’t mean we’re right. We don’t know. There are cities and states that have never gone on lockdown, for example and have experienced no surge in the virus at all. We don’t know why. There are policies made about issues that are incredibly complicated, like immigration or economic sanctions, where we have strong opinions, but we don’t really know what the long-term ramifications are for us or them. So judging is a mindless act because it’s not based in fact and it only causes us to suffer. When you judge someone else, it doesn’t hurt them, it hurts you. It sets off the stress response in our systems, so we’re not doing anything to change someone else’s behavior, but we are harming our own state of well-being.

In addition to labeling judgments, practicing the loving kindness meditation helps reduce judging as it expands our compassionate state. This meditation has been scientifically validated to be effective in not only increasing empathy and compassion for others, but for ourselves as well. You can find a guided loving kindness meditation on our YouTube channel.

Meditation has a large body of science behind it now, showing that it can improve our health and well-being, so it’s definitely worth the effort of finding a type that resonates for you. Continuing with our exploration of different types of meditations, today we’ll look at Zen Meditation.

For most who have never meditated, Zen meditation is what comes to mind as what meditating looks like. The meditator sits in the lotus position, legs crossed over each other and hands in a specific mudra position. Zen meditation, also known as Zazen, is a meditation technique rooted in Buddhist psychology and its goal is to regulate attention. Zazen is the form of meditation that the Buddha practiced over 2,500 years ago and it has been passed down through generations as a fundamental path to enlightenment.

According to Very Well Mind, Zen meditation is similar to mindfulness meditation in that it's about focusing on the presence of mind. However, mindfulness focuses on a specific object, like the breath, and Zen meditation involves a general awareness. It is sometimes described as “thinking about not thinking.”

Zen meditation involves increased awareness of the ongoing physical and self-referential processes in an attempt to expand our attentional scope to incorporate the flow of perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and subjective awareness.

Zen meditation often involves keeping the eyes semi-open, which is different from most other forms of meditation that encourage closing the eyes. During Zen meditation, practitioners also dismiss any thoughts that pop into their minds and essentially think about nothing, the opposite of a mindfulness meditation practice.

We tend to see body, breath, and mind as separate, but in zazen, we begin to see how they are one inseparable reality. Attention is first directed to the position of the body, establishing an awake and relaxed posture. Because the body and mind are one, posture directly effects our breathing and state of mind. A stable, relaxed, wakeful posture helps cultivate a mind that is stable, relaxed and wakeful. The most effective zazen posture is the position of the seated Buddha. Sitting on the floor is recommended because it is grounded and offers a more stable base. A zafu, a small pillow that raises the pelvis and hips just a little, is used so that the knees can touch the ground. This forms a tripod base that is natural, grounded and stable. There are multiple forms of Zazen, including Bompu Zen, Gedo Zen, Shojo Zen, Daijo Zen and Saijojo Zen.

Bompu, which means “ordinary”, is probably the simplest form of Zazen and has no philosophical or religious content. It’s thought that practicing Bompu Zen can improve physical and mental health by bringing about feelings of happiness and well-being and I believe is the closest in practice to mindfulness meditation, as the breath is a key aspect of the practice. In Bompu, you focus the mind by bringing attention back to each breath when the mind wanders, but instead of watching or following the breath, feeling the breath is used to learn concentration and to control and calm the mind.

You can learn how to restrain your thoughts, resist temptations, and get rid of attachments through Bompu Zen, which allows for intellect, feeling, and will to develop. It helps cultivate your personality and strength of character and strengthens your ability to face any difficulty in life with ease.

Gedo means “outside way” and refers to teachings outside of the Buddhist tradition. It is connected to religion and philosophy related to Hindu yoga, Confucian sitting practices and Christian contemplation practices. The intent is to reach an altered state of consciousness or perform physical feats of which you’re not normally capable.

Shojo Zen focuses on the examination of suffering and confusion and although it is Buddhist, it differs from Buddha’s highest teaching, including a belief that some states of mind are better than others.

Daijo Zen is the type of Zen taught by the Buddha and is considered a religion of enlightenment. It allows you to understand that you are inseparable from all beings and leads to the realization that we affect everyone else just as they affect us. This understanding allows for deeper intimacy and compassion. Daijo Zen also teaches us to break free from the illusions of the world, to remove boundaries and limitations, and to focus on the nature of the self.

Saijojo Zen is said to be the greatest practice because the focus isn’t on trying to realize or achieve anything. It brings you back to the essence of your true nature, which is perfect and its focus is practicing the practice. Your seated practice becomes simply sitting and being.

Over time, Zen meditation leads to learning how to keep the mind from wandering and may even be able to tap into the unconscious mind. Often, the goal is to become more aware of preconceived notions and gain insight into oneself.

As with mindfulness meditation, you can learn Zen meditation through a variety of options, including books, videos, online learning programs or through class instruction. I encourage you to give one of the Zazen types a try and remember to stay open and curious as you explore.

During this holiday season, instead of celebrating in large groups, we could quietly reflect and feel gratitude that we’ve made it through a really challenging year and we have the opportunity to emerge from this experience wiser, more aware of ourselves and our surroundings, and full of gratitude for the opportunities that are coming.

Have a wonderful week and enjoy your spring break. Happy Easter and Passover as well. Until next time.

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