Mindfulness, Meditation

Light

Back in August when Persephone started school my morning routine changed severely. Instead of being responsible for bundling a toddler off to daycare, suddenly I was seeing wife and daughter on their way. I waved goodbye and then they were gone.

And there I was, with the house to myself, and at least an hour before I needed to leave for work.

What to do?

After a couple weeks I’d exhausted the more obvious possibilities. I realized this would be the perfect opportunity to establish a regular contemplative practice, to fit meditation into my daily routine. This was something I’d been wanting to do for at least a year, since reading Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry and attending the Contemplative Academy.

OK, great idea, but again: What to do? There are many types of meditation. Hmm, well, how about mindfulness meditation? That’s something I’ve heard about repeatedly. Sounds interesting. Maybe I could try it.

I found a short article in Psychology Today, titled “How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation” by Karen Kissel Wegela. She made it sound so damned easy.

So I decided to start, just five minutes a day.

I didn’t really know what I was doing. It must have felt good or something because I kept on doing it. In those first few weeks I got some of my most dramatic results. They are hard to describe. The practice seemed to induce an altered state of consciousness, a subtle euphoria, a feeling of mystery. I might say that it evoked a sense of the numinous. After my brief sessions, I tended to want to listen to ambient music rather than my regular eclectic mix, because that seemed to keep the mood better. I also noticed a slight increase in impulse control, and a corresponding negative correlation with alcohol consumption. When I meditated in the morning, as a rule, I seemed to drink less in the evening.

However, as I kept at it, these effects seemed to wear off a bit. The shock of the new practice was over, and my mind was reverting to form. After a time I realized I didn’t even know what “mindfulness” meant. I decided if I wanted to deepen and strengthen my practice I would need to learn more.

I cast about the net looking for resources. They are plentiful, but the diversity of perspectives was a bit confusing. For example, one guy says mindfulness meditation should be limited to five minutes, whereas others talked of sessions lasting for hours.

I needed something deeper than short web articles. I found Mindfulness in Plain English by the Venerable H. Gunaratana Mahathera. It’s a full-length book, available in print but also floating around on the web in various forms.

I read my way through this book slowly over several months. I’d never read anything quite like it — a practical meditation manual. It’s written from a Theravadin Buddhist perspective. I don’t know much about Buddhism, but I gather the Theravada branch claims to be closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. Despite this, or because of it, there was little religious baggage. There was some, however. I’m not sure I buy the talk of enlightenment and liberation and Nibbana. There were also some passages, such as a brief allusion to sign-objects, that I found mystifying. But for the most part the writing is admirably clear, and I found the practical advice very helpful.

My favorite passage:

We are learning here to escape into reality, rather than from it.

According to this author, the ecstasy I sometimes experience is not really the point of the practice. It’s a pleasant side effect, but just like the unpleasant side effects, one should not get distracted. Getting attached to any experience, however pleasurable, is a distraction. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a hedonist like me. But I do see the point.

Let me recount one particular experience I had somewhere along the way. This was several months ago. Like all such experiences it is hard if not impossible to describe. I’m foolish to try, probably. I will have to resort to metaphor because that’s all that I have.

So I’m sitting there, and I seem to become aware of a wind blowing through me, through the house, through the earth, through the entire cosmos. It’s blowing through all of us right now, and has been for our entire lives, through all time, only we don’t ordinarily perceive it. It not only pervades all but gives shape and motion to all.

I guess that’s a classic mystical experience. I find those kind of experiences compelling, but I also understand the need for detachment. If you sit down with a desire for some particular kind of experience, or any particular expectations, you won’t be fully alert and aware to what is actually going on.

There’s a paradox there, of course. We may be drawn to meditation because we perceive we’ll gain some benefit. And there are benefits. But the practice is worth doing for itself with no end in mind, and I suspect it’s more beneficial when it’s approached without anticipation or expectation.

But what do I know?

A truly wonderful thing about my job is that I’m able to explore so many divergent interests. And so it was that I found myself headed to Bryn Mawr College for the Fifth Annual Mindfulness in Education conference. It was a pleasant trip and an interesting experience. (I took some photos.) The conference concluded with a day of silent meditation. I’ve never done anything like that before. On the way home, I wasn’t sure what I’d really gotten out of the conference, but after a few days I realized I’d learned plenty. Sometimes it takes a while.

I’m now able to offer a definition of mindfulness off the cuff. Several definitions, in fact. Mindfulness is paying attention to your attention. Mindfulness is awareness of the present, moment to moment, without judging. Mindfulness can be practiced at any time; formal meditation is just one way to promote it.

I think virtually every human being values and practices mindfulness to some extent. It’s a basic part of being alive. But we also do plenty of things that run counter to mindfulness, sabotaging ourselves and our own best efforts without even realizing it. Formal practice can help us figure stuff like this out, and allows us to cultivate mindfulness in our whole lives.

Footnote: The license attached to Mindfulness in Plain English indicates it may be “freely copied and redistributed.” So I’m taking my first venture into e-book publishing. You can download a copy of the book, reformatted with minor corrections by yours truly, in EPUB format. I’ve not done this before, so if you run into trouble please let me know.

Bread

So for the last seven months I’ve been baking bread pretty much every week.

It started on Lammas, also known as the Loaf-Mass, when Persephone and I baked mother and daughter loaves.

Mother Daughter Loaves

After that I decided to keep baking for a while. Xy and I are in the habit of making sandwiches for lunch at our respective workplaces, so my main aim was to make decent sandwich bread.

Based on a vague recollection, I decided to buy the Tassajara Bread Book. I baked through most of the recipes in the chapter on yeasted breads. Oatmeal bread, summer Swedish rye bread, cheese bread, millet bread. The author, Edward Espe Brown, advocates a sponge method which I found generated decent and consistent results.

Soon I was looking at some of the other chapters. The section on sourdough looked intriguing, but also suspiciously easy. Too easy. I looked online and quickly got intimidated at the prospect of starting my own starter from scratch. So I put out a plea via Twitter, asking if any locals wanted to hook me up with a few ounces of the good stuff. No dice.

Then, a month later, by strange coincidence, Michael Pearce contacted me. He wanted to know if I was interested in some sourdough starter. He never saw my request, but he noticed the photos of bread I’d been posting.

And so I found myself with a batch of starter — but more importantly I found a mentor.

Under his tutelage, for three months I baked nothing but sourdough. Now I seem to be settling into a pattern of baking with natural leavening one week and using commercial yeast the next. I’m now working my way through Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman.

There have been some mishaps along the way, hilarious in retrospect at least. I’ve managed to destroy a ceramic casserole, explode the lightbulb in our oven, burn myself a few times, and of course there was the time I put waaay too much cumin in the dough. Yet despite all these pratfalls, only that cumin batch has been marginal in terms of edibility.

Uh Oh

Whenever possible I try to involve my daughter, though as I’ve fretted more over technique I haven’t always done a good job of keeping her interest.

Baking bread is mostly a matter of technique, and I feel like I’ve come a long way. It’s a trip to look back at my first naïve efforts and compare them to what I’m doing now.

Loaf

Boule & Loaf

But perhaps the prime value I derive from baking is humility. I’ve learned a lot, but there’s always more to learn. No matter how much better I get there is always room for further improvement. And my mentor, who has been baking for well over a decade, feels the same way. He bakes some of the most excellent bread I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat. Yet he tells me, “I’m still waiting to figure out how to bake bread.”

In some ways, to bake bread is to be an eternal novice.

In fact, I’ll go even further: It is a spiritual practice and a religious ritual.

Offering

It may not look like ritual to some eyes, but to me it is. I suppose intention is a big part of it. As Waverly Fitzgerald writes at the School of Seasons:

Bake a loaf of bread on Lammas. If you’ve never made bread before, this is a good time to start. Honor the source of the flour as you work with it: remember it was once a plant growing on the mother Earth. If you have a garden, add something you’ve harvested — herbs or onion or corn — to your bread. If you don’t feel up to making wheat bread, make corn bread. Or gingerbread people. Or popcorn. What’s most important is intention. All that is necessary to enter sacred time is an awareness of the meaning of your actions.

Making bread is a fun activity I can do together with my family, for my family. It connects us to history, culture, science, and the natural world. (Not wild nature, obviously, but nature nonetheless.) And at the end we have a delicious and healthy food. More than just a treat, it’s the very stuff of life.

When I bake bread I feel that sense of reverence and awe and connectedness and wholeness so often described as spiritual or sacred. Not always, not automatically. But that is my intent. Like my levain, it requires regular feedings for renewal.

Writing to Expand the Self

Blurred Reflection of a Dream

I promised to write about my three regular practices: meditation, baking, and writing. The last topic should be the easiest to address. I’ve been doing it the longest, and I feel as if I understand it somewhat.

And yet: Surely it’s foolish to write about writing. Hasn’t it all been said, or written, before?

Come to Think of It

When I was very young, I think I wanted to be a fireman and a garbage collector at various stages. Those are apparently common aspirational points for little boys.

As an adult, the only thing I’ve ever opened my mouth to say I wanted to “be” was a writer.

In fact, I have been writing, and writing, and writing for much of my life.

Yet I’ve scrupled to call myself a writer, because I’m self-published. I still remember the shock I felt when someone introduced me as a writer. And why not? She knew me primarily through my writing.

The vast bulk of my writing in recent years has been here, on this self-published website. I’ve dismissed this as “just a blog,” dismissed myself as “just a blogger.”

At some point over the past summer, I realized I was doing myself a huge disservice. I shouldn’t dismiss something that’s so important to who I am. The act of writing regularly has shaped my life.

It’s a transformative art. At the end of writing something, I’m a different person than when I began. The depth of change depends on the depth of the writing.

Released into the world, words can extend their power. Often they vanish, but occasionally they catch fire. Sometimes I get burned — my words come back to haunt me. But sometimes they open new opportunities. Sometimes they conjure portals.

I resolved, then, to take my writing more seriously.

Word Games

For the most part, I’ve stopped using the word “blogging” to describe this. I’ve stopped calling myself a blogger, except where there’s some strategic advantage. And, indeed, there are times when some advantage may accrue to identifying as a blogger, chiefly when joining with others who are working in the same medium. Strength in numbers, y’know.

The word “blog” is ungainly, even ugly. It has a kind of grotesque feel coming out the mouth. It’s the sound one makes before barfing.

So I accord myself a modicum of respect and call myself a writer. That’s not hubris. I’m not calling myself a good writer. But I am one who writes, and that’s all it means. Graffiti taggers call themselves writers too.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that for the last seven years most of the words I’ve written have appeared on this site, this web log, this blog.

The deeper issue is self-publishing. It’s great to have this freedom, but most of my favorite authors published through others. They engaged that editorial filter with glorious results. I’ve never even submitted a manuscript to a publishing venue. I’ve resolved to do so this school year. More on that later. For now I want to focus on what I’m doing here, on this site.

Frequency and Scope

I’ve kept a journal, off and on, since childhood, long before I wrote my first entry here. It’s a fine process for personal development. It’s listed on the Tree of Contemplative Practices.

For years I’ve aimed to write on this site daily, just as I would hope to do in a private journal or diary. I often fail, but that’s the guiding rhythm. It would be difficult to overstate the general effect of this rhythm on my consciousness, on my sense of identity.

So: If I change the rhythm of my writing, I change the rhythm of my life. For the last few months I’ve been aiming to write here weekly, more or less. This has given me time to mull my topics over, and to engage in a process of revision and expansion that lasts over several days. Some of the results, at least, should be obvious. I’ve been writing longer pieces. Too long perhaps.

In my daily rhythm, I tended to adopt a narrow scope, looking at just one incident or idea and riffing on that. Breaking life into little fragments like that was fine, but lately I’ve been wondering about the whole. I’ve been wanting to attend the endless interconnections.

I am trying to deepen my writing, to strengthen it, and to integrate the diverse aspects of my life through this process.

Problems

There are some problems with this approach, for the reader at least. I’m ending up with slabs of a thousand words, or maybe two thousand. They seem to make a coherent whole to me, but they may look like impenetrable thickets from the outside. In other words, my readership may be suffering. I’m sorry about that, and I am making an effort to exercise restraint, to write concisely. Unfortunately I am not succeeding quite yet.

Also, in trying to take writing more seriously, it may become too serious. Turgid. Dry. Boring, sanctimonious, presumptuous, arrogant, and self-important. I have some tendency toward all these traits, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see that reflected in my writing. It’s my dour Nordic heritage asserting itself, perhaps.

Mechanisms

It’s great to “begin with the end in mind.” However, that’s not always possible with truly transformational processes. When you wrestle with angels there are unforeseen consequences.

How does it work? Writing constructs reality. Words have a power, when uttered, when written. In some sense all language is a lie. But also, words can become truth, overwhelming weak reality. “We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges.” (Props if you can identify that quote.) By writing I’m creating the myth of myself.

But there’s another way in which writing is transformational, more mundane but just as profound. In a word: research. For example, I encountered ideas about emergence as I wrote an account of what’s been going on in my life lately. Through these investigations I found my soul. One could say that writing is my religion.

Such are the fruits of the project I’m setting for myself.

Question of Practice

?

I touched on the idea of dialog as a practice which I hope to cultivate.

Here are some other practices which I’m, um, practicing, with some regularity.

  • Mindfulness meditation.
  • Writing.
  • Baking bread.

I took yoga classes for about three months, but cut them as an austerity measure; now that our finances have stabilized I should pick that up again.

I’d like to address each of these in more depth going forward. That’s the plan, anyhow. For now I thought it might be good to pause and ask you, reader —

What else?

What practices do you find beneficial?

I’m interested especially in those practices which might not seem spiritual or religious at first glance. But anything goes.

What practices expand your sense of self, of connectedness, of context, of the numinous? What do you do on a regular basis that deepens your experience as a living being on this Earth? What you strengthens you as a person? What integrates the loose ends of your life?

And — how often do you do them?

Does this question even make sense?

Photo adapted from original love? / Federico Reiven / BY-NC-SA 2.0

Context Clues

Bayou Conversation

What’s in an Acronym

I work at an HBCU. That acronym is not recognized by my spellchecker, nor was it in my vocabulary until I came to work here. It stands for “Historically Black College or University,” a term which requires even more unpacking.

In a nutshell, the story is this. Once upon a time in America, people of color had virtually no educational opportunities. Even after slavery was abolished, institutions of learning were for white people only, and remained so for generations, especially in the American South. And so eventually HBCUs were established, and over a hundred are still operating today.

Like me, most Americans don’t know about HBCUs, their role in our history, or their continued relevance. To understand this, you have to come to terms with certain painful aspects of our history, which seem to be subject to a peculiar and selective cultural amnesia. Sometimes we’d rather forget about slavery and its legacy. Or perhaps we’d like to pretend that’s all well behind us, old dead history of purely academic interest. Such a view relegates HBCUs to the status of relics, anachronisms, survivals of a bygone age. The truth is that while we’ve made progress we are still living that history, and racial disparities are still significant. HBCUs still have a role to play. I’ve been learning about all this, and more, on the job.

Book Club

I work in faculty development. It’s part of my job to think and grow together with the people who are actually in the classroom teaching.

One avenue to that end is our Fall Faculty Book Club, which has been running for several years now. This time around, we are reading How Black Colleges Empower Black Students, an anthology edited by Frank Hale Jr. The response has been phenomenal. We had so many faculty wanting to participate that we had to split into two groups.

As I read through the very first essay, “HBCUs in the Old South and the New South,” by Samuel DuBois Cook, I learned a lot. I did not know, for example, that HBCUs were at the forefront of the movement toward diversity and inclusion. Most modern educational institutions now embrace these values — or at least pay them lip service. But in the Old South, this was a radical commitment that went against the grain of the dominant culture, and there were consequences. I’ll cite just one instance: The state of Georgia cut off funding to Atlanta University because they had accepted some white students. Read that again if you have to. Atlanta University had been established as an HBCU, and the idea that white students would be attending classes and rubbing elbows with Black students was unacceptable to the establishment. The university administration held their ground and lost state funding. This was in 1885. The university survives to this day, in the form of Clark Atlanta, but it could not have been easy. This is a dramatic illustration of a general principle. HBCUs have always been inclusive and multiracial, long before the contemporary notion of diversity became popular.

Sacred Work

The religious themes in this essay were also striking. These are by no means incidental, as the very first HBCUs were private institutions founded by religious groups. As Dr. Cook notes at the outset,

It was neither accidental nor an experience of minor and fleeting importance and relevance that virtually all of the educational institutions founded to educate freedmen were church-related. Indeed, the church-relatedness of their origin was of overwhelming and enduring significance, meaning, and value. Involved were a theological worldview, formal commitment to the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, and a belief — however insufficient — that ex-slaves and their descendants were human persons endowed by God with intrinsic dignity, value, and worth and were equal in God’s sight.

Furthermore, Dr. Cook refers to the founding and operation of these institutions as “sacred work.” He writes of teaching as a “sacred commitment,” a “divine art and enterprise.” That language gave me pause.

I work at an institution which is not only “church-related” but which was founded by a saint, now canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. The cornerstone of the oldest building here, dedicated in 1932 and built with Indiana limestone, bears this inscription:

God’s greatest work on earth is man.
Man’s master art is the leading of man to God.

Teaching is surely one of those arts that can lead “man to God.” I’ll leave aside my reservations about theological doctrine for the moment, though they are many. As I read Dr. Cook’s essay, I realized that one doesn’t have to be Catholic to participate in this “sacred work.” One doesn’t even have to be Christian. One doesn’t even have to be a theist.

So, in a very real way, I might assert that my job is my religion. Or at least a part of it.

Discussion Group

As I mentioned, interest in this book was so high we had to split into two discussion groups, with my boss facilitating one while I took the other. We had our first meeting on Monday.

In aiming to foster a good discussion, I drew upon a key lesson from last year’s book club selection, The Heart of Higher Education by Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc: Start with a story.

We began by going around the table, introducing ourselves, and telling a bit of our story. “Tell us how you got here,” I said. “Tell us the story of why you are here, both on this campus generally and in this particular room. Tell us how you came to be at this HBCU, and also why you wanted to be here reading this book about HBCUs.”

I began with my own story, in order to model the sort of openness I wanted to hear from the others. I won’t repeat that in detail here, as I’ve written about all this before: How my grandfather was a Klansman, how I went to high school with Klansmen. Despite growing up north of the Mason-Dixon line, I grew up in a virtually monocultural suburb where Black people were rarely seen. My point was that the very notion of an HBCU was completely off my radar. I never heard of such a thing until I was searching for a job back in ’99.

Though I’ve picked up some bits and pieces over the past twelve years, I never got a formal orientation to HBCUs, what they represent, and what it means to work at one. Furthermore, my department is responsible for orienting new faculty each year. So by reading this book, I’m hoping to deepen my understanding, to finally get that orientation, and learn how to orient others.

Around the Table

As we went around the table, a couple interesting things happened. First, people really did open up. The stories people told were heartfelt, candid, and emotional. Second, I experienced a sense of humility and honor and interconnection and respect that seemed quite profound — and I’m certain I was not alone in this. I felt some intangible essence reflected back to me from the face of each participant.

I was reminded that dialog can be a spiritual practice.

On my door to my office I have posted a copy of the Tree of Contemplative Practices. After the meeting was over, I consulted it.

Tree of Contemplative Practices

Sure enough, listed under relational practices one finds dialog, deep listening, and storytelling.

How does it work? Just off the cuff, my impression is that when you really open up to dialog you become part of something bigger than yourself. Sitting in that room, listening to my colleagues and co-workers, we became more than just ten individuals around a table. Some sense of shared purpose and identity began to emerge, however tenuous, however briefly. Most every spiritual path seems to acknowledge the idea of being a part of a larger whole.

We had that sense of expanded context doubly Monday, as we experienced a communion of sorts with one another, and also felt our sense of shared mission within the larger scope of history.

Context is everything.


Tangents & Foonotes: In the process of writing this I discovered the Spirituality & Practice website, which appears to be a great resource. For example, check out the section on listening as a spiritual practice, and make sure to use the listed links for related quotations, books, films, art and much, much more.

I am trying to keep these posts under a thousand words. Trying, and failing.