A Modern Mystic

Musings on life, work and contemporary spirituality


Bells and whistles; mindfulness now

There were two related items in my email inbox this morning.

In one, a money coach ranted in her blog about the dangers of electronic banking. She argues that it’s easy to stay in a fog about one’s finances when you just react to a bell by clicking and dragging money into various accounts. In another email  Change.org announced that it had changed the unfair practices and policies of several large companies and institutions based on the numbers of email and online petitions filed by regular people like me.

In the wake of the extraordinary political events taking place in the Middle East, I wonder who is right? Does the World Wide Web keep us in a distracted fog or is it the savior and whistle-blower capable of keeping those in power accountable?

I have decided that neither is true. I agree with Mikelann Valterra that allowing our bank account to alert us when our account gets low, if relied on, will send us into what she calls “the money fog” faster than you can say “Brother, can you spare a dime.” I also feel a need to look closely at what these bells and whistles can do for us.

Put simply: in a world designed to distract us, online services can be another way to practice mindfulness.

Let’s dig deeper.

When I use the term mindfulness I am not advocating a type of meditation where we sit on the cushion and will the world to go away. Many of us have tried and “failed” at meditation because we have an unrealistic expectation of what it can provide. As long as we draw breath (and beyond) we will never stop thinking. So how helpful is it to sit down and try to stop doing it?

I offer beginners a different path to awareness. I’ll illustrate with a story from my own beginnings as a practitioner of mindfulness.

Many years ago a girlfriend and I went on a weekend retreat in Northern California lead by an ex-Zen monk who was later to become quite prominent in the Buddhist movement in the U.S. The retreat was a looser version of the kind offered at Zen centers around the world; there was a schedule of sitting meditation, dharma talks, “work,” relaxation and free time with bells chiming to indicate when it was time to switch activities.

The first morning my friend and I were given a project in the kitchen, where, because our teacher was as famous for his cooking as for his zen-ing, he presided . We spent a happy and sunny hour chopping until, in the flurry of bells chiming and shuffling here and there, we arrived barely on time for our next event, a dharma talk.

Far from expounding profound and sublime words about suffering and nirvana, our host spent the entire period ranting angrily about the lack of mindfulness of two retreatants who left the kitchen without cleaning-up and putting their tools away. He went on to rant about the shoes he was finding in the pathways rather than neatly stacked on the shelves outside the meditation hall, and on and on. My friend and I sat in the hall, our cheeks burning with shame and rage. I never was able to look our teacher in the eye again and it was many years before I could think about him without recalling the fear and trembling I felt for the rest of that long weekend.

The next morning when we awoke at dawn there was a mattress propped outside the teacher’s hut. It seemed his hot water bottle had leaked a quart of water while he slept and he set it outside to air. Mindfulness is a life-long project.

It is only now that I understand the significance of that teaching, the reasons for the formality of Zen practice with its gasho-ing, neatness and thriftiness. Even the anger of that dharma rant is a precious reminder to me. Yes, I did leave a dirty knife at a kitchen station long ago. I just wandered away, not thinking of the consequences that another person might cut themselves, that the knives might rust or get dull, that someone would have to clean-up after me, that my forgetfulness might be the condition for the rage of another human being. Most importantly, I look back at that time with the realization that I was asleep at the wheel most of the time. My life was chaotic because I did everything that way, floating from one event to another without any awareness whatsoever of where I was going or where I had been.

I gently urge anyone who wishes to have more joy, more heart, more aliveness, more presence in their life, to do this simple thing: think about every little thing you do as you are doing it. This is more difficult than it appears, because we are unaccustomed to thinking about the everyday tasks of life. When you get up, make the bed. Do it carefully, with joy. While in the kitchen, clean up rather than leaving the dishes in the sink for later. Put items back where they belong right after you have used them, even if it means taking extra steps. Stop taking the short-cuts. Pay attention to the way your muscles feel when you choose the stairs. Finish one task before starting a new one. Dare to do one thing at a time for just one hour. Tackle the items in your email in-box one at a time. Even the bells and whistles on the computer can be the moment-to-moment signals to remind you to be present, to stop, to face the item squarely, to do the job to the best of your ability before moving on to the next item on the list.

Anything that can be used to put us in the fog can also be enlisted to wake us up.

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Are you coachable?

I sometimes lapse into the bad habit of trying to do everything myself, reinventing every wheel and generally making life a huge struggle. In those moments I am just not open to new ideas about accomplishing my goals. That’s when I usually get feedback from the Universe.

You know who the Universe is—our friends, spouse, children, clients, cat, even the perfect stranger who seems to be doing what they’re doing for the sole purpose of annoying us. Whatever the issue, when it’s time to face it, forces of nature seem to conspire to bring it to our attention time and time again.

I have sometimes insisted on doing things my own way for long periods of time. Very long periods. I just stubbornly keep doing what I’m doing while wishing for a different outcome. This is known as pride in Buddhist thought. Pride is the particular type of negative thinking that says, “I already know that” or “I don’t need to learn that” or “I can do that on my own” or sometimes, “I’m such a wreck no one could possibly help me.” One doesn’t have to be flashy or arrogant to display pride. In fact many of us display the most pride in the areas of life in which we experience lack or decline.

Recently I’ve had a chance to really explore the way pride has caused me a lot of unhappiness. Like many people in our cyclic economy, I have struggled with financial issues. You name them, I’ve dealt with them, including divorce, single-parent wage-earning, job loss, career change, debt and other fiscal challenges. And despite being intelligent and resourceful I have eschewed the kind of help that could get me on track.

Luckily the Universe is smarter and more persistent than I am. Last September she threw me a client, a financial planner and money coach who needed some edits for several writing projects. For several hours every week I was reading and editing content about how to heal one’s relationship with money.

There was lots of drama and emotion around this work, more than with my other clients. I began to notice the money coach balking at proposed edits, not listening to my advice or doing the opposite of what I advised, not paying me promptly, calling me outside normal office hours with last-minute requests and generally requiring higher maintenance than I felt my fee justified. I was really miserable and I began to push back. Although she was a steady client and I depended on the income from our work together, I considered dropping her altogether.

Finally one day she called to tell me that she had hired a writing coach and that she would be reducing her use of my services. At that moment my Buddhist training kicked-in. I began to see how I was projecting my own discomfort with taking advice in an area where I needed help. I recognized that it was the negative thinking of pride that kept my cup full of resentment and a know-it-all attitude. And a full cup cannot take anything else in.

Since the ah-ha I’m happy to report that things are better. When my client offered an 8-week course on money management I jumped at the chance. It was hard for me to admit that I need help to learn simple tasks like budgeting and charging properly for my services, but I showed up and paid attention. I am enjoying the freedom of finally coming to terms with the negative financial patterns that have kept me stuck. I emptied my cup and allowed some healthy humility to show me the next steps.

I realize that to be coachable is to be vulnerable and human. It is the most creative place, one of fertility and curiousity. I have never felt more positive about my future and my ability to learn the financial skills I need to get to the next stage in life. And all I had to do was ask for a little coaching.

And my coach? She called this morning. Seems that she needs a little advice about the direction her blog is going. Wow. Being coachable is beautiful thing that successful and happy people seem to understand.