Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mental Hygiene

I've loved the fall for as long as I can remember.  Growing up in the Pacific Northwest I was unknowingly spoiled.  The spectacular colors, the clear blue sky, the crisp air, the gentle kisses from the warm sun...and of course, football!  There is something whimsical and magical about this season for me, a dynamism that evokes vitality, and an emotional response similar to that of a spiritual experience.  I find my outlook on life renewed, my troubles small and manageable, and I feel like a child- giddy and care free.  You can feel the energy shift around town as neighborhoods come alive, and the tender autumn days awaken the sleepy streets recovering after the summer’s toil.

My work schedule rarely affords me the opportunity to be outside during the day.  However last week, I had a couple appointments that had me running around town mid-day.  It was near lunchtime and I decided to stop by home and let my dog out for a few minutes.  And since my precious puppy, Prince Riley, completely resents the fact that I have the audacity to leave him for 10 hours a day, any opportunity to make it up to him, I try to redeem.

I love my neighborhood in any season, but I have more affection than ever for my map dot now that autumn is here.  Directly across the street from my front door is a park lined with large mature trees, and on the backside of the park there is an off-leash dog area.  Next to the dog area is a playground, and adjacent to the playground is an old picturesque brick school building.  While this is most definitely an urban neighborhood, there are still many families with small children and plenty of dogs, enough to balance out the homeless people and crack-heads at least.

As Riley and I entered the park, the vivacity of the day was palpable.  We walked up the gentle hill, passing a group of several teenagers who were sprawled out on the park’s (rather ugly) sculpture.  But instead of smoking, screwing, or doing God knows what, these teens were singing acapella (just imagine a scene from Pitch Perfect).  In fact, they sounded so good that Riley and I felt compelled to stop and listen for a few moments.  Once I reached the off-leash area of the park, I set Riley free, and watched as he bounced like a bunny, completely forgetting his age and sore hips.  He ran around playing with the others dogs, springing in and out of the piles of dry leaves.  The sound of children laughing and playing at the nearby playground was prodigious and completely drowned out the noise of the street.  A sense of nostalgia took me over and brought me back to my own years of playing outside.   It was heavenly.

On days like these, a sense of gratitude literally overwhelms me, and I want to simply be carried away by the season.  But because I am slightly crazy, I feel a sadness start to creep up inside me, and I am not able to lose myself in the moment as I desire.  This happens because I know that before I am ready, the autumn will slip through my fingers, and it will be winter.  Every year, as I am caught-up in the height of my love affair with these Indian summers, I simultaneously start to mourn its imminent departure.  Why is this?  Why can’t I just sit in the beauty of the moment without fearing the melancholy that will set in upon its passing?  I pondered this question as I sat on the dry grass and watched my dog attack piles of leaves and clothesline unsuspecting people with the stick he had hanging out of his mouth.  Why can’t I turn my mind off, take my thoughts captive, and just “be” in the present?  Eventually, it was time to go, and I whistled to Riley.  He dropped his head, and slowly started to walk my way, emphasizing his sulk and his displeasure in knowing his time at the park had come to an end.
I feel like my mind can at times behave like an exhausted toddler in the midst of the ‘terrible-two’s”.  It throws tantrums, it pouts when it doesn’t get its way, it plays games, it can be mean, jealous, selfish, and it often lacks the ability to intelligently articulate the source of its frustration when it has reached the point of fatigue.  Luckily I know my mind; I know its ability to betray me, and its innate need for regular “timeouts.”

If I let my mind run wild, it will isolate me from the world around me- from people, from my experiences, and it most definitely will hold the present moment hostage.  An unbridled mind can steal the little blessings, as well as disguise the important purposes.  I feel that learning to control and clean-up our thought process is a form of hygiene, mental hygiene.

I showed horses growing up, and anyone with an equestrian background understands the unique way in which dirt sticks to your body when riding horses.  It really is a mystery how dirt can take up residency in every crevice.  And then, after you shower, there is somehow the unforgettable ring of dirt you have to scrub off the shower walls.  Playing soccer is uniquely similar, somehow the nasty-factor is exponentially higher than if you were just running or working out.  It’s weird.  I can’t in good conscious come home from horseback riding and flop down on the couch and relax, or come home from a soccer game and crawl into bed- that would be disgusting, not to mention downright poor hygiene!

So here is my question… Why do we treat our minds any different?  They too need to be cleansed.  They constantly get caked with crud and develop a residue of rubbish from their activities and responsibilities.

Clearing our minds of clutter is no less necessary (and maybe even more so) than cleaning our bodies, and should have the same value and priority as our physical cleanliness.  We need to shake off the shackles the can imprison our minds, so we can be free to tap into our gifts and talents, realign our priorities, and have unveiled eyes in order to see others and the world accurately and with compassion.  I believe our awareness is directly related to the condition and health of our minds.  “The quality of our life depends on the quality of our mind.”

For me, mediation is an effective way to cleanse the mind.  This is not to say that fighting the mental battle and learning to be still is easy.  Disciplining my mind has been a struggle for me throughout my life.  Hell, disciplining any aspect of my existence has been a struggle throughout my life (you would know this to be true if you have ever seen me eat).  The art of sitting still is not something that comes naturally to me, I’ve often wondered if I should get an Adderall prescription to help aid the cause.  Despite the challenge this presents, I do recognize the importance of working on this area of my life and learning how to control my thoughts.

To be honest, progress has not come overnight.  In fact, my initial attempts at meditation resulted in many successful naps, and not much else.  The only benefit I gained, beyond getting in a little rest, was learning that I am not one who can meditate lying down. (Side note: this is equally true for me in yoga – I have had an embarrassing moment or two of dozing off at the end of class).  I’ve also learned that I am easily distracted - please feel free to reference an earlier blog post  Recently, I was sick and discovered that even the sound of breathing through my stuffy nose proved enough to cause me to lose focus.  Often even a simple smudge on the window can put me into a tailspin of commotion and cleaning.  It seems that the very second I start to quiet my mind, the floodgates of “to-dos” opens and begins to pour over me.  I’ve learned that this is the moment I must patiently wait through, so that my mind can catch its breath and re-center.

The thing about mediation is that regardless of one’s spiritual views or religious affiliation, most of us would agree that there is significant value in unhooking from the noise of the day-to-day, stilling our minds and spending time in silence.  Maybe you pray, maybe you chant, or maybe you simply reflect.  Perhaps this is a time to disconnect, or reconnect, or both.  

In what seems like forever ago, I read a book titled The Practice of the Presence of God. The book is a compilation of sayings from the 17th century French monk, Brother Lawrence. One of the book’s consistent themes is learning to be in constant awareness of God’s presence, and training our minds to see no separation between the divine and the natural. Brother Lawrence writes, “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”  This resounds with me, and I long for this ability.  To be able to not as much “set aside time for the spiritual,” but rather to incorporate my spirituality into my entire existence.

The Buddhists have given us many teachings on different meditation styles that train us how to detach from the external, and transform our minds.  By learning to develop concentration and clarity, you can master the patterns of your mind, and focus on cultivating a new way of understanding and processing life.  There is a reason people say “just breathe” when someone is freaking the f@#! out.  Focusing on breathing can bring us back to the present.  Modern medicine and science also show us the value of meditation even on a cellular level.  Right now we are even seeing the value of mental cleansing being recognized in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks (go Hawks).  Pete Carroll is attempting to change the way players are cared for as individuals.  Commenting on the team’s new meditation time, Russell Wilson, the Seahawks star quarterback said, “We talk about being in the moment and increasing chaos throughout practice, so when I go into the game, everything is relaxed.” .

While I have no aspirations to strap on a helmet, don an orange robe, or move into a convent, I believe that my attempts at practicing proper mental hygiene are improving my quality of life.  As I continue to hone these skills, I am hopeful that soon I’ll be able to hold my ground, even when wave after wave of distractions crash through my mind.  And who knows, perhaps before the leaves finish falling, I will be able to just sit outside and get lost in the season.  Instead of allowing my thoughts to say, “This is so wonderful, it will be over soon, and I will long for this moment for months,” I will just be able to say, “This is so wonderful, thank you,” and enjoy the moment for what it is- a precious gift.


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