Got Mindfulness? | Mind | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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Got Mindfulness? 

It can be your ally on this journey called life.

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Riding the Waves

It's often some of life's biggest challenges that bring people to mindfulness in the first place. Stephanie Speer, an MBSR teacher based in Stone Ridge, was going through a divorce when she signed up for a five-day program that incorporated mindfulness practices at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck. The course helped her find a greater ease of being that she could carry through good times and bad. "There's a phrase that's often used: 'You can't stop the waves but you can learn how to surf,'" says Speer. "We all have these challenges, these stressors. With mindfulness we can meet them with more ease. For some of us, we're under the delusion that if everything gets aligned in our lives, then we'll be happy. We think that's where happiness is—dependent on external circumstances. If we're waiting for that, then we're probably going to be very unhappy. There's always going to be stuff. If you have a mind and a body and you live on this planet, there are going to be difficulties."

When Lynn Cramer, a retired computer programmer in Poughkeepsie (whose name has been changed for anonymity), took Speer's MBSR class in 1998, she'd been battling depression and having trouble with her grown kids. "It really woke me up," says Cramer about the course. "It opened so many doors for me." She delved deeper with weekly group meditation sits, yearly retreats, and books by American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. When Cramer was diagnosed with cancer in 2002 and underwent four surgeries, she drew on her practices to stay grounded. "I can't imagine going through something like that without mindfulness," she says. "In general, I've become so much more nonjudgmental and forgiving and compassionate. Little things that might bother me don't bother me anymore. I can see things, understand things, that I never was able to see before." Yet Cramer is careful not to give newcomers to the practice unrealistic expectations. "It's not like you're euphoric. You still feel pain and everything. But somehow it's enabled me to focus on 'What can I do?' instead of 'Why me?'" Cramer still takes medication for depression, noting that Western medicine has its place and mindfulness is not a cure-all. "But I attribute all of my personal growth to the mindfulness, not to the medication. I don't think the medication would help me forgive my mother," she says with a laugh.

Beyond "Monkey Mind"

In Shaw's next exercise, we are to practice sitting meditation for three minutes, bringing the same deep curiosity to our thoughts and sensations as we did to the raisin. "That was hard—my mind was all over the place," says one student afterwards. "That's okay," says Shaw. "We're learning to become the observer. The work of mindfulness lets you see, 'Oh, I'm worrying' or 'Oh, I'm regretting'. When you become the observer of your thoughts, you can disidentify with those thoughts." Our goal with meditation, he suggests, is not necessarily to still the mind. The point is not to get caught up in our thoughts—especially the negative stories we tell ourselves. "With one finger we can blot out the world," says Shaw. "That's what we do with our thoughts. If you have a thought like, 'My life's a failure' or 'I'll never find love' or 'My kid's a disaster,' that one thought can blot out your life. Sometimes what we tell ourselves isn't so. The present moment is not as terrible as what we're telling ourselves with our story." If we sit and observe long enough, Shaw suggests, we discover that all things observable—including our thoughts—are impermanent. They arise and pass away. Once we realize this, our thoughts have less power over us.

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