Gratitude meditation

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, October 26, 2014

“In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School.

“Furthermore, feelings of gratitude directly activated brain regions associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine.” Psychology Today

Rubbing your eyes as the light enters your bedroom, pushing down on that soft eyelid skin with your index finger, it occurs to you how lucky you are just to have eyelids in the first place. Imagine life without them. [No, don’t!] Is there a poem about eyelids, because they deserve it, they do. Be grateful for them. Breathe in. Breathe in through your eyelids, then through your eyes.

An eyelash has irksomely lodged itself in your left eye, and as you pull the lid down to try to get it out, lying there staring at the ceiling with your one good eye, you notice something — and that is that this bedroom ceiling of yours doesn’t have that cottage cheese texture, the ugly blow-on stuff you hate. [Don’t like, rather.] [Bonus gratitude points for not being a hater.] It’s a smooth ceiling. Hallelujah!

Breathe out, feeling the joy of not having something in your life you don’t like. For that, my friend, is gratitude, as well. You are not in a war-torn country. You are not in a straightjacket. You are not wrongfully imprisoned and in a jail cell for the rest of your brain-frying days. In fact, you are not in a place that is not one of the most beautiful places on earth! Thank you. And thank you, double negatives, for yet another miracle of language. Two minuses equal a plus. Thank you, some form of mathematics or philosophy or whatever that is.

Speaking of cottage cheese, what a deliciously old-fashioned treat. And, yes, in this life, you’ve been gifted a substantial amount of cheese, not just cottage, but some very, very high quality and tasty and esteemed cheese, indeed, some of it shared on picnics in lovely places such as rugged mountain bluffs with golden leaves cascading down like coins.

It’s easy to be grateful for cheese, if you’re a cheese lover. Breathe in and smell the cheese, breathe out and unsmell it as you focus on the falling leaves, right outside your window, leaves with yellows so yellow they cling to your ribcage and warm your heart. Goodness, let’s have some gratitude for the mind’s eye, fashioning all these metaphors into a heartwarming vest. [Is there a mind’s eyelid?]

Breathe in what you remember autumn smells like, that leafy, deciduous, crisp, dank, rotting, earthen, and heady smell that makes you sigh in delicious tenderness. Should there be more gratitude for a) the nose or b) the smell itself? Thank you, notions that are hard to parse, because they make your brain feel stretchy, a stretchiness that indicates new neural pathways. [And thank you, power of the imagination, not just for the mind’s eye but the mind’s nose when we actually smell what we are thinking we smell.]

Breathe in hard, with your eyes wide open, breathe out making a little “Oh” mouth, because Oh! (with eyes wide open) is a syllable of delight and gratitude. And it makes you smile — eventually. Thank you, 26 muscles that make you smile and the mystery of why extending your mouth into an upward arc makes you feel good even when you don’t feel much like doing it. Thank you bad moments that contrast and then morph into good — eventually. Would there be light without dark? Rainbows without rain? Sometimes it’s darkest just before a smile.

Thanks, aphorisms, now known as affirmations. Thank you, clever people who formulate pithy one-liners that spark us out of victimhood and sadness and helplessness and frustration and misery and being stagnant.

Here we are, at the core of this meditation.  Breathe in and out about two hundred times, simply acknowledging the breath, which, in a nutshell, is human life itself.

Eventually, you hear the teakettle, and seriously, at this point, you feel that the steam itself should be thanked. Why not? Water making a variety of sounds — from whistling, to gushing over rocks, to crashing onto sand, to landing hard on the earth in sheets of rain, to the gurgling of a tiny desk fountain — is brilliant. So, gracias, copper kettle, for your urgent call, and for the coffee that is about to be made by someone else.

And are you ready to say thank you, when the coffee arrives? You bet your sweet dopamine receptors you are.


Man cave meditation

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, July 20, 2014

For this one, sire, stay in bed.No one ever need know you are traveling within if you simply do not move before getting up. In fact, pretend you are still asleep.

Breathe in, through the nose. You can feel the slow intake of air through your nose hairs. Nice and easy. Breathe out slowly, emptying your lungs. Your lungs? They are carwash sponges: wring them out until they are light as a feather, so Nerf-y, they practically float.

This is what is known as a guided meditation, and all you really have to do is follow along. If you get tripped up, just go back to carwash-sponge breathing, wringing out and filling up. Wringing out, filling up.

If it helps, imagine that you are washing a black Jaguar F Type Project 7 you just paid cash for and haven’t even driven yet. Wring out the sponge, then fill up your lungs. Remember the Mona Lisa’s smile? Put that on your face. It’s a unisex expression, in case you knew not, and you are a mystery man, relaxed, healthy, and effortlessly achieving without being driven. Your secret? You know how to relax. How to smile enigmatically at life. It’s all so easy, isn’t it? That’s your mantra, which is a phrase you repeat until you believe it to be true. It’s. All. So. Flippin’. Easy.

Deep breath in as you feel your lungs and chest stretch and expand. So good, right? Hold the breath in for four and exhale through the mouth without making a sound. All they see is a blob still in bed, but you know better. You know you are meditating, taking care of the delicate filament of life that lives within your strapping terrestrial existence.

Now, see yourself getting ready to walk down a flight of stairs, going deeper and deeper into calm, a kind of post-long-hot-shower calm. There is no judgment or competition here. Mysterious smile followed by two carwash-sponge breaths. Even calmer.

You are wearing your favorite sweats, by the way. Feeling the soft terry of your thousand-year-old hoodie against your head, breathe in. Yes, the hood is up. Feel the soft, worn-in leather of your imaginary flip-flops as you descend the staircase of your inner man cave. With each step down, you are deeper into your personal man mystery, the image of the Jag finding purchase in your third eye, located right between your eyebrows. Like a hood ornament!

Breathe out, and take a few more steps down to the bottom, where a dark but cozy mahogany-paneled room awaits you. There is an armchair in the room, one made of oiled and worn leather, a chair so inviting it begs the question of whether man was really meant to stand at all. You are one with the cavescape. You are one. But who, in fact, are you? It doesn’t matter. Really? Yes, really.

Do the Army breath — deep breath in through the nose, then hoooaaaahhhh, out. And repeat, deep breath in, then hoooaaahhh car-wash-sponge out, focusing on the third-eye jaguar, the leaping jaguar stilled for a perpetual moment in the middle of your face. Are you that jaguar?

No, you are the guy in the Maxell commercial, the guy sitting in the chair with the windy music blowing at you while nothing else exists except you and the music of life. Only there is no music and no wind. Sitting in the chair now, in your soft sweats, you are riveted by a screen in front of you, a $9,000 LG 55-inch curved HD screen, the one everyone wants. There is a remote in your hand and you finger it idly. You could probably use it blindfolded. But, for now, it is just residing in your hand as you stare at the blank screen. It is on, but silent, and the most beautiful night-sky black.

As you sit, quietly and peacefully staring, all you think of is your breath. Not your morning breath, of course, but the capital-B breath of energy. You continue doing the carwash-sponge respiration cycle for several minutes until you feel utterly refreshed. Then, at that place of utter mancalm, you take one last breath in, a long, slow breath with all the gratitude you can muster for your life. You note a faint smell in the air now, a faint smell of … bacon. Heavenly.

And returning to Earth — 5 bacon, 4 bacon, 3 bacon, 2 bacon, 1 —  you feel the weight of your body in the trough of your bed. Peace be with you, brogi. You’ve earned your coffee.

Queue meditation

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, September 1, 2013

Start with several deep abdominal breaths — in for four, hold for four, out for four — trying not to think of the movie you just saw, the program in your hand, or the line you are in for whatever. This is the movie. You are the star of it. It is a movie about being in a queue and about meditating in one. Only guess what? You don’t have to write any dialogue!

Maybe — given your spotty history with meditation — this will be better in the end, seeing it as a story about a person meditating. You’re brilliant, imagine that. Brilliant at this thing called meditating. What does it feel like? If you play the part with conviction then maybe the part will start to play you. You’ll become authentic by virtue of your runaway imagination. Wouldn’t that be great.

On the other hand, maybe movies make one less authentic. What if they’re movies about meditating though: Wouldn’t that somehow make it more viable?

Let’s see, movies with actual meditation scenes: you are not Forest Whitaker in the mediation scene in “Ghost Dog” and certainly not Julia Roberts in the meditation scene in “Eat, Pray, Love,” not if you are lucky you aren’t. If anything, you’d want it to be as good as that hilarious meditation scene in “Hangover 2” — that is, if this were a comedy, which it’s not.

What it is, is a drama: you, in a movie line, without a companion. Alone. It’s serious. Life is serious. It’s philosophical. There’s duality — or is it dualism. What is that again? There must be movies about it — Swedish ones, or German ones, or shorts. Maybe you’d be more authentic if you saw more philosophical movies.

Are you aware you just sighed, sighed as if it were all so … tiring? Get back into your body right this instant: You’re thinking too much! Stop using words and stop having thought bubbles. I don’t know, the thought bubbles are probably fine if you fill them in with color. Or water. Or light.

Mmmm, yum. You smell coffee go wafting by. Is there such thing as a smelling meditation?

Coffee guy with the nice jacket finds his place in your line next to a woman actually reading a novel as she waits. Don’t make assumptions about how fascinating they probably are. Shakespeare said it: All the world’s a stage. And these actors? Well, are some far more powerful and riveting than others. Oh god, listen to yourself: If you were the kind of person who meditated, you would not be judging people. You would not be comparing people in the line to yourself. It was a thin novel.

Wait a minute, no wonder this is impossible, you forgot to close your eyes! Put on your sunglasses and then close them. Feel the little plastic thing on the bridge of your nose. It’s just you, the sunglasses and your closed eyes: that’s it. And the patchy, unreliable sun that is blazing hot when it wants to be and then pouf, it’s cold out. These mountains are real, no doubt about that. Maybe they are what’s really real.

Was that a raindrop you felt? Because that flimsy plastic orange poncho in your satchel is a last resort, at best. Only 10 minutes until you go in, the perfect amount of time to sneak in some weather-permitting meditation.

So feel the air on your face and breathe: in for four, hold for four — ignoring the woman behind you talking about that movie you wanted to see earlier but couldn’t get into and therefore couldn’t tick off. Good lord. Have you become a ticker offer?

Wait, is that the line moving already? Really?

It is moving! Ahhh. Feels so good to be going in. Surrounded by a sea of people, all moving in the same direction. Feels so good to find a seat and plop yourself in it and just sit there staring at the screen. Feels good to smile once the very last seat is taken and the lights go down and the theater becomes dark and quiet for a few brief moments before the story begins. And wow it feels so good to experience the slow, even rising and falling of your breath now happening so naturally. To relax, to fall into someone else’s story, to allow it to fall into you.

And there in the black, facing the same direction as everybody else, anticipating without really anticipating, your heartbeat finally slows, your mind finally lets things just pass through. Almost as if … you were meditating or something.

Guided meditation (for when your child goes off to college)

Telluride Daily Planet,  Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sit comfortably on planet Earth, which is nestled quietly among the more than 300 billion stars in its galaxy and swathed by an interstellar medium of gas, dust and cosmic rays. Your eyes are closed, palms facing upward. No one is looking at you. No one cares what you look like sitting there. You are unseen. Try to un-see yourself.
Take a deep breath in, and then breathe out, noting the feeling of air near the nostrils. Note also — peripherally — that the air you breathe has been circulating since the beginning of Earth time. Note that you are, therefore, breathing the same air as Plato, Shakespeare, the early hominins, Medieval nuns, Egyptian slaves and Elizabethan queens. Think of Queen Elizabeth, without her neck and wrist ruffs on, breathing the air a bit less regally. Her face is free of the makeup she wore to cover her smallpox scars. All of her is breathing, even her skin, and as she feels the heavy folds of her velvet robes against her torso, she sighs, wishing to rip the corset off and get more air in her lungs.

Relax your shoulders and breathe. What is air, anyway? Is it space? Time? Is space/time untaken breaths of spirit? Maybe air is negative space with quantum memory. What if you imagined space as positive and matter as negative: then, with your brain stretched out in unfamiliar territory, could you meditate better for a few split seconds?

Stop thinking unanchored and abstract thoughts. Release the tension in your eyeballs so that they float in the orbital bones like jellyfish eyes. That tight muscle on the bridge of your nose and across the flat plane of your upper cheekbones? Make it like liquid, along with your lips, and then believe that all you have to do to meditate is relax your entire face. Your face is melting. You are meditating now.

Feel the emptiness of the space between your relaxed ears, the negative space inside the cranial bones of your head. It is small yet it is huge in there. Besides being 100 billion neurons each firing somewhere between five and 50 times a second, what is the brain? What kind of organ weighs three pounds but sucks up 25 percent of the glucose processed in the human body?

Could you stop trying to do math? Sincerely, though, what is math? Is everything numbers? As a counterweight, think about how you are so not thinking when you are doing balancing pose in yoga class, how you are actually more like your childhood dog, dead in his tracks in the middle of the room, head hanging, pausing. Maybe pausing is meditating: what a brilliant notion. Or is that just your ego shining its artificial light?

Blue sapphire light in your throat, think about that. How blue it is, that clear yet mysterious gemstone color! Does the color exist for you without the letters b-l-u-e attached to it? Relax your throat. Call it a gullet and relax that. Feel particles of light filling your blue gullet and then radiating out into your limbs until they feel like they will explode. No, not explode. Yes, explode, why not explode?

Once you explode like a star, you can blow your monkey mind to smithereens. Words are scattering across the globe, the same word-atoms that Shakespeare and people like Virginia Woolf used. With words sprayed everywhere and all the letters tumbling over each other in three dimensions, they rain through you, cleansing you, especially the vowels. They come out your fingertips and drip out, and all of a sudden you’ve accidentally swallowed the blue in your throat and it goes to your heart and wow you notice when it gets there it turns green, just like the yoga teacher says. Green like the moss in the forest the other day, which is a green so vibrant and wet and alive it glows, there in soft tufts along the banks of the river, water lapping up on to it every so often, spume occasionally dotting it with fairy mist.

Picture yourself in the forest, now, a green-ness down deep in your core where its vibration then bounces off your heart and back out again, pinging you into triangulation with every other green living thing around you. The forest floor, soft from rain and fir needles and shade, meets your feet and then you run. You run, run, run until you feel the universal heart throbbing through you, life blood hot in your ears and drowning everything out except the pulse of the eternal present.

And there is where you stay, for as long as you can, breathing in, breathing out.

Apple a day, metaphors at bay

Telluride Daily Planet, Tuesday, November 30, 2010

My current obsession? I want to be better in bed. Here it is, flu season, and — clearly — I’m just as rotten at being sick as I ever was.

My very own custom-made version of the winter crud, which begins — mysteriously enough — with a whistle in my ears, is here; and by day three it’s in my chest and my vocal cords have gone through a meat grinder.

Very shortly after that, the four horsemen — chills, aches, hacking cough, and fever — career into my body, and, with their hoofing and snorting, I go down. But not gently.

No, I kick and fight back and pretend it’s not happening as long as I can until finally, eyes shiny and face flushed, I collapse, strapped onto the symptom gurney and being wheeled away to I don’t know where.

All I can think about is that wellness grass, over there, on the other side of the fence, and how green it is, how envious I am of the people standing there. Am I on the outside looking in? The inside looking out? Why did I get this thing? Will I ever be well again?

Of course, this kind of pitiful, prattling interior dialectic thwarts healing. I know this.

So then I start wishing I were more like my sick-people role models: the ones who sleep for three days straight. Or toss back Theraflu until one day it’s simply replaced with a life-resuming morning Cappuccino. Most of all I envy the ones who accept their fate with peace, drink their green tea, and then fall into difficult 900-page novels.

Because of the fact that envy is misguided, I then opt for a thoughtful meditation on the sick boys and girls from childhood stories, the pale ones who patiently watch as seasons of birds, leaves, and snowflakes scud by their window panes until the scarlet fever or what have you is finally vanquished. There is beauty in the natural process of going through the dark night of sickness to get to the new dawn of health.

So why can’t I be more natural with it, huh?

Maybe the answer lies in etiology — the childhood causes of this disease of resisting disease. Here is so complicated and rich a field to mine, I don’t know where to start.

Double pneumonia, delirium, and a bathtub filled with ice cubes? Fabricating an illness in Mrs. Wilson’s fourth grade until the symptoms become real? Long, empty sick days in a big house with a mother who cannot, under any circumstances, have her housecleaning schedule interrupted (which explains a visceral response to the combination of soft-boiled egg/sound of floor waxer)? I don’t know!

And when I don’t know, the car of my mind will inevitably veer onto the MetaphorLand off ramp. There are those, as we know, who believe all illness and injury are primarily a reflection of spiritual, emotional, or psychic imbalance.

Sinuses are about repression of grief and unshed tears. Hands are about not being able either to hold on or let go. Etcetera. I am so prone to this kind of thinking — not just about illness but about every single thing in life — that I need to be polemically reminded that there are also those who disagree.

One of them is American woman of letters Susan Sontag (1933-2004), who in her 1978 celebrated treatise Illness as Metaphor states up front that “…the healthiest way of being ill — is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.”

She names tuberculosis and cancer, and later AIDS, as illnesses that have not benefited from being culturally viewed as metaphors for anything. In fact, her view is that patients suffer unnecessarily by attributing additional meaning to their disease.

Exhausted by meanings, I partially agree! As I lie here, then, trying not to attribute much meaning to my symptoms, their related organs or body parts, or to illness as a whole, I try imagining a world without metaphors. To do this, I have to imagine myself as a crow or a box or a bolt of lightening, which, though they exist in our human world as metaphors, exist to themselves as simply themselves. I am able to hold this thought — myself as crow — for about six seconds before my stream, river, flood of consciousness collapses the dike.

Fast forward to now: I have managed to stay on the couch for four solid days and get better. How do I do it? Ha! A lucky combination of blocking metaphors, drinking gallons of hot fluids, and four entire seasons of a TV series I’m too embarrassed to name.

Now that I’m better, however, I know what I’m in for: that inevitable flooding back of metaphors. So, I’m rolling up my pants.

Wombos that bite

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, October 22, 2010

I’ve just encountered the word “hormotional” for the first time and don’t know whether to laugh it off, throw my hands up, or throw the laptop and its Urban Dictionary across the room at the whole English language. Because in addition to loathing “wombos” (word combo = wombination = wombo = an ugly word describing an uglier trend of compound travesties like dramedy and backne and ginormous), I’m hormotional. Very hot. And very bothered.

And in just a few, surprise number of minutes, I’ll be very hot, and very bothered, again.

Because just when I was about to break out all my coziest sweaters sanctimoniously and smugly, hot flashes — after a “fantabulously” cool six-month hiatus — have returned. Hot flash, hot flash, hot flash. Anybody cringing at the unabashed use of terminology from the Female Lexicon?

OK, then, for the purposes of this discussion, I’m having triggered neuro-endocrine responses that corrupt my body’s normal thermoregulatory system. Sometimes 20 a day and three a night. Atypical thermoregulatory reactions. We’ll call them ATRs.

So here I am, standing in front of my sweater piles, eyes resting wistfully on the turtlenecks and tight pullovers. Beautiful, soft things meant to keep a person warm in the dead cold of winter. In a world without ATRs, that is. Now, evidently I’ll have to find my way back to the sweaters of Winter ‘09-10, the loose cardigans and cotton jobs and wooly bags with sleeves: garments that can be pulled off and on quickly in case of — Hold that thought! It might trigger an ATR. Yes, ATRs can be sparked through any variety of complex neuropsycho-biochemical responses. Or NBRs.

Other possible triggers besides thoughts? Oh, gosh, pretty much everything is a potential NBR: interesting foods and beverages, stray feelings, furrowed brows, sleep, waking up, anything hot (including the word itself), changing seasons, changing circumstances, change in general, weather, heating ducts, blow dryers, the moon, moodiness, claustrophobia, elements of surprise, the list goes on. To-do lists, there’s another one!

Conversely, however, and on the other end of the spectrum, ATRs simply trigger themselves. This is done via the inevitable biological arcing in the mid-life segment of the female of our species, in North America at least and not including indigenous cultures.

So, here’s what happens with a hot flash, just to clarify, for once and for all. One minute, you are walking down the aisle at the grocery store trying to figure out if the whole world is based on wheat especially now that you are trying to eliminate it from your diet … and then the next minute you feel your skin warming, as though you are being wrapped in a body-sized hand warmer. Where is the heat coming from? you wonder for the thousandth time, as if the question were freshly bewildering each go round. Where, from my core? My morphing prana? From brain cells exploding and then dying in a caloric puff?

While pondering this, sweat starts to form down your spinal column and on your sternum and the heat builds, swirling itself into tropical microclimates. You rip off your side bag, then your coat, and then you yank at your collar while looking around to see if anyone else is in standing near the Fritos. Which have no wheat and only three ingredients, corn, oil, and salt, which is why you believe in them, except in excess, which generally leads to water retention and/or guilt and eventually on to NBRs and ATRs.

You pull at your clothes, tenting them, feel the cooling breeze. Then, sweat, not knowing how else to behave, cools you. It makes you clammy, then it makes you cold. You forget about the Fritos, get your coat back on and then forget what you were doing in the store in the first place. Outside, the bracing air clears your head and for a moment — poised perfectly in the present — you are an empty vessel, neither here nor there biochemically and seemingly in a state of stasis. If you weren’t so panicked by the unruly and rebellious state of your body, you might use the moment to consider the beauty of the day.

Are there any questions?

Men should know that they are not exempt, by the way. It is estimated that 25 percent of males in the U.S. experience hot flashes as a side effect of Andropause or Male Irritability Syndrome. I wish it were more. Because imagine for a moment that all men were subject to such temperature fluctuations. We’d have invented a whole new spirituality based on body heat by now. We’d have given someone a Nobel Prize for discovering how ATRs, NBRs and the entire realm of mind-body connection work.

I guess for now we’re stuck with the fact that the average temperature on Venus is 900F and on Mars -55F. But it’s important to have compassion. Sympathy. Understanding for all homosapiens. Or is that hormosapiens? (Just kidding.) (Or am I?)