A Special Message for Lauren

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Seven of my coworkers were massacred in 1988. The gunman was a former employee who was terminated for harassing a female colleague. I was working in the human resources department and was a member of the crisis response team. After the tragedy, some of the victims’ families wanted to visit the crime scene, so we made the necessary arrangements to accommodate them. I was assigned to assist a woman named Lauren, just twenty-one, whose husband was shot and killed in his office.

Before Lauren arrived, the facilities staff worked all night cleaning up and renovating the office, which included repainting of the walls. The facilities supervisor as well as the manager of securities inspected the area and they assured me that nothing there would upset Lauren. I wanted to check for myself so I went in the office and sat down at the desk. The supervisor followed me in and whispered that because they were in such a hurry—the desk they moved back in was from another office and not the victim’s. I opened all the drawers, which were virtually empty, and made sure nothing was on top of the desk or on the computer.

Lauren arrived dressed in casual attire: a crew neck t-shirt that was tucked snugly into her jeans. She was wearing tennis shoes. A grief counselor was with her, who informed me that Lauren will be going into the office and spending time there alone. They agreed that the counselor would check in on her after twenty minutes.

The counselor, security manager, and I waited at the far end of the hall, approximately twenty-five feet away. After twenty minutes, the counselor walked down and knocked softly, then entered the room closing the door behind her. Shortly thereafter, both of them appeared and Lauren approached me. Right away, I noticed that she was clutching something against her chest. It was a notebook, measuring seven and one-quarter inches by nine and one-quarter inches.

Lauren and I spoke on the phone later that evening and I asked her where she found the notebook. Lauren replied that it was sitting right on top of the desk. When I informed her that it wasn’t there before she went in, Lauren said she wasn’t surprised. Lauren added that her husband wanted to make sure she got his journal and that she can feel his spirit in the notebook. I believed her.

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Calm Your Mind Without Sitting to Meditate

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Sitting meditation has always been challenging for me; practicing mindfulness—even harder. As a self-confessed worrywart who has contended with constant ruminations, flashbacks, and nightmares for most of my life (more on this later), all prior attempts at being fully present and not thinking merely served as reminders of how little control I had over my mind. Then I took up hiking and stumbled upon a form of meditation that literally transformed my life.

Initially, just being out in nature on scenic trails cultivated calmness and cleared my head. Almost immediately, I realized that hiking provided a respite from intrusive thoughts that have plagued me since I was a tyke.
They include flashbacks of my mother’s numerous suicide attempts in our decrepit Chinatown apartment, my father’s drunken rages, and recurring images of shootings, savage beatings, and other gory crime scenes from my gangbanging days.

Ruminations include the sound of gunfire along with the replaying in my head of toxic utterances in Cantonese that translate to “Giving birth to you was my biggest mistake,” “I wish you were never born,” and my own father yelling “You bastard!” Somehow, walking in nature enabled my mind to slow down and rest, which felt liberating.

Unfortunately, the novelty soon wore out. Merely walking and hiking wasn’t enough to prevent symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress from returning. I reverted to rehashing the past and worrying obsessively about the future.
However, I had gotten a taste of the benefits of mindfulness meditation and discovered that it can be practiced while engaging in an activity I enjoyed. These revelations motivated me to keep at it.

After reading what was available on walking meditation, which typically advise focusing on the flow of our “in” and “out” breaths, I developed my own techniques for practicing mindful walking and hiking. My favorite is to look ahead and select a destination point or object and stay focused on it. It can be a shadow on the ground, boulder, bush, tree, manhole cover, light pole, store awning, mail box, and so on. Once I reached it, I chose another landmark or object, usually a little farther away.

Rough or uneven trails forced me to concentrate on each step for safety reasons. My brain automatically blocked out discursive thoughts; otherwise I could slip, trip, or fall. Other techniques I came up with include fully feeling the ground of each step, following the flight pattern of birds and insects, observing cloud patterns, and being conscious of sounds and scents—moment to moment.

Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, often called “Thay,” which means “teacher” in Vietnamese, is revered throughout the world for his teachings and writings on mindfulness and peace. He has brought the practice into institutions, including maximum security prisons, helping inmates attain calmness and inner peace while being confined up to twenty-four hours daily. Many of them have professed that mindfulness meditation is the most difficult endeavor they have ever engaged in.
We live in a culture where many of us want quick results with as little effort as possible. This applies to how we approach our work, health, pastimes, social interactions, and problems. This mindset is the antithesis of mindfulness.
In my opinion, it is virtually impossible to tackle mindfulness meditation without patience and discipline. Fortunately, these attributes can be enhanced by engaging in the art itself.

When I started mindful walking and hiking, my ability to stay present was measured in feet and seconds. As a highly competitive, emotionally undisciplined, and impatient person, I could have easily succumbed to my frustrations and given up. But the short periods of calmness and inner peace I attained—supplemented by my stubbornness—provided the necessary resolve for me to stick with the program.

As I continued my mindfulness “training,” catching my mind when it wandered occurred sooner, and the ability to refocus took less effort. Using kind, positive messages such as “rest” and “focus” was more effective than phrases such as “don’t wander” and “don’t think.”

Insight and mindfulness meditation are usually practiced separately. Personally, when I am procrastinating about something or seeking a solution to a problem, ideas and answers usually emerge effortlessly during or immediately following my walks and hikes. These epiphanies and aha moments tend to be inspired by kindness and compassion, as opposed to ego.
I was severely beaten by a rival gang member as a teen. For over forty years, I suffered nightmares, flashbacks, and ruminations of the attack. Both conventional and unconventional modalities of therapy failed to provide much relief.

One morning, I was enjoying a relaxing hike when the familiar image of my attacker suddenly appeared. For the very first time, I remained calm and found myself viewing my lifelong enemy as a kindred spirit. I saw him as someone like me, most likely abused as a child, who desperately sought empowerment by joining gangs.

This awakening, along with my spiritual practice, enabled me to cultivate compassion and forgiveness. The nightmares and flashes of the attack ceased at that point and have not returned.

Mindfulness can be practiced pretty much anywhere and at any time. I do it first thing in the morning when I wake up while still lying in bed, in the kitchen, in the shower, at my desk, and most recently while getting dental work done. Whether I devote a few seconds by pausing and taking a deep belly breath—or hiking for several hours—benefits are reaped.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, practicing mindfulness has transformed my life. With a family history of mental illness and a violent upbringing, I have been diagnosed and treated for multiple mood disorders, including manic depression, post-traumatic stress, addiction, and rage.

My mindfulness practice has empowered me to rest and calm my mind, as well as intercept and suppress negative thoughts. It serves as a powerful coping mechanism for me.

For the majority of my life, I was at the mercy of gambling urges and other cravings. When I encounter them now, I pause, acknowledge what is happening, take a few deep breaths, focus on my surroundings, and allow the urges to pass. Staying relaxed enables me to respond instead of react, which places me in a better position to reflect and gain insight into the underlying issues that triggered the desire to self-medicate.

My mood is much more stable and I have better control of my emotions. The benefits I received from mindful walking and hiking has inspired me to practice it throughout the day.

I used to loathe driving because of my road rage. I was terrified of myself, often wondering when I left the house if I would end up in jail or the morgue. My level of stress rose in proportion to the amount of traffic I encountered.
Practicing mindfulness meditation in the car keeps me mellow as well as alert. I have become a patient and compassionate driver, smiling at other motorists and limiting use of the horn for safety purposes. Another insight I gained is that my past aggressive behavior on and off the road attracted like-minded people.

The mental discipline I gained also enabled me to embrace Buddhism, which has interests—yet eluded me for many years. All of this empowers me to attain and maintain equanimity. Now, I can even sit and meditate for long periods without feeling restless or irritable.

So for those who find sitting meditation challenging, or for individuals seeking different ways to practice mindfulness, I recommend mindful walking and hiking. Not only is it a fun way to quiet the mind while getting some exercise, but it can be life-changing—helping us let go of worries, stress, tension, and even the most painful memories from the past.

Bill Lee is a second-generation Chinese American who grew up in the Chinese underworld. He is the author of three memoirs. In his new book, Born-Again Buddhist: My Path to Living Mindfully and Compassionately with Mood Disorders, he describes in detail the positive impact that mindful walking and hiking have made in his life. http://facebook.com/Bill.Lee.author

Healing Our Caged Children

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They’re labeled as thugs, treated like throwaways, and classified by some as “superpredators”: teenage boys and girls who seek sanctuary in gangs, commit violent crimes, and end up in the criminal justice system. Not only are they physically locked up, but these children are caged in emotional turmoil. Childhood friends, teachers, school counselors, social workers, lawyers, and judges are all baffled as to why these kids would choose a lifestyle where they risk getting shot and killed. Analyzing the family dynamics and psyches of these teens is important, yet what is paramount is how we can alleviate their suffering and guide them onto a path toward equanimity and peace.

All of these children entered the world as pure, innocent beings. By the time they grab our attention, they have resigned to the fact that the world is unsafe and cruel, that it is “dog-eat-dog,” and that kindness, compassion, empathy, and forgiveness are all signs of weakness.

These lost souls, who have placed themselves in a subculture wherein they are constantly under peer pressure to prove their loyalty and worthiness by committing crimes and acting out violently. Greed, hatred, and delusions (in the form of perceived threats, insults, and disrespect) are synonymous with gang life. These same characteristics and beliefs were cited by the Buddha thousands of years ago as the root causes of evil and suffering.

Reaching out and connecting with these young gang members is challenging due to their distrust of people and an oath of secrecy they have taken. However, those of us who serve as teachers, guidance counselors, therapists, mentors, foster parents, probation officers, and healthcare professionals have opportunities to make a positive impact. Following are some of the ways that we can help heal and guide these troubled teens:

Listening and Planting Seeds

Lecturing or browbeating will not work; taking pity, instilling fear, enabling, or speaking negatively about their associates or gangs will not be effective. Their street smarts have trained them to smell a hustle and virtually everyone they have ever trusted have disappointed, abused, or outright abandoned them.

We can reach these teens by genuinely caring, listening, and exercising patience, which acknowledge and validate them as worthwhile human beings. They have encountered very few individuals in their lives who truly cared about them without conditions, mixed messages, or ulterior motives. The attitude and the behavior that landed these children in trouble in most cases resulted from one (or more) of the following: inadequate care, poverty, traumatic experience, physical and emotional abuse, mental illness, learning disability, or exposure to negative influences. Helping them get in touch with their true nature and awakening their loving-kindness that has been buried deep inside will be a long process and involve planting healthy, positive seeds. What we teach and expose them to now may not have an immediate impact, but it can begin to alter how they feel about themselves and others. These include those who harmed them as well as the people they hurt. These seeds have the potential of germinating and opening their closed hearts.

Serving as good role models for them at all times is imperative; that means walking the talk. Introducing these offenders to former gang members who have transformed their lives and leading productive, peaceful lives can provide inspiration. Former gang members who are still serving time and have embraced a spiritual practice can have a positive influence as well.

When it comes to rules and regulations, it’s usually best to establish clear, firm boundaries, differentiating between acceptable and inappropriate behavior—as long as it is communicated and maintained in a consistent, compassionate manner. These teens may complain about rules and structure, but there’s a part of them that appreciates knowing what to expect and when. It’s worth pointing out that they had no problem embracing gang rules—taking immense pride in them.

Coping Skills

Up until now, these children have dealt with anxiety, stress, confusion, intrusive thoughts, conflicts, anger, sadness, and other overwhelming emotions primarily by using drugs and alcohol to numb their pain or by acting out in destructive ways. We can help them develop healthy coping mechanisms by teaching them how to deal with conflicts, identify triggers, to be conscious of rising emotions, to express themselves by communicating their needs, and to develop mental discipline through exercises such as meditation.

Mindfulness training can enable these youths to intercept negative thoughts as well as to control their emotions, especially when they’re incarcerated. It will strengthen their focus and attention, and help them attain equanimity, perhaps for the first time in their lives. The skills they develop from practicing mindfulness can serve as the foundation for healing and awakening their loving-kindness.

Their egos along with stereotypes regarding meditation may cause them to perceive engaging in it as being passive and weak, but the activity can be presented as a powerful tool. Informing these gang members that meditation enabled imprisoned monks to withstand inhumane torture—thus prevailing over their captors—puts the practice in a context that they can appreciate.

Encouraging these young warriors to write about their families, upbringing, struggles, and other personal experiences provide a creative outlet for them to express their feelings and emotions. It serves as a catharsis. For these compositions, the emphasis is on content—not spelling and grammar. In a group setting, it’s important to set up guidelines whereby only positive and constructive feedback is exchanged. This ensures a safe, nonjudgmental environment for each individual to write and share their work. It’s not unusual for a gang member to describe in his essay the details that led to his incarceration and have his peers express, out of concern, how they believe he is being exploited. This is another example of positive seeds being planted.

Cultivating Compassion and Patience

Encouraging hardened teens to cultivate compassion for themselves and others can be difficult, as this virtue is often regarded as a sign of weakness. One program that has proven to be effective with incarcerated juveniles is having them care for abandoned dogs and cats. Most of them can easily identify with vulnerable animals. As they bond with these lovely creatures, it connects these youths with their true nature, drawing out qualities that have been suppressed, such as kindness, gentleness, patience, love, and compassion. Slowly but surely they remove their emotional Kevlar and begin to accept how worthy and special they are.

We would be hard-pressed to find a single one of these troubled teens who’s had a happy childhood. Most skipped their boyhood and girlhood altogether; instead, they were forced to grow up quickly as a survival response. Yet, within each of them is a wounded inner child that has been crying out for help, albeit in negative and destructive ways. If we want them to be accountable for their actions, to feel remorse, to make amends, to heal, and to transform their lives, this requires all of us to work together as a sangha (community).

This post was contributed to OM-Times Magazine: http://omtimes.com/2014/08/healing-caged-children/

Living Mindfully and Compassionately with Mood Disorders

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Manic depression, post-traumatic stress, and addiction are all complex psychiatric disorders that many suffer concurrently. Those of us who have been diagnosed with one or more of these mental illnesses (co-occurring) contend with debilitating symptoms, which may include severe anxiety, dramatic mood swings, rage, ruminations, flashbacks, and nightmares. Our manic episodes are often life-changing and can result in death. Although there are no cures for any of these disorders, adopting a Buddhist practice that includes mindfulness and Tonglen meditations can augment our existing treatment protocol.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness is simply being fully aware and present in the moment. It’s like having an orchestra conductor inside our heads, who also serves as a gatekeeper—intercepting negative thoughts, such as urges, ruminations, flashbacks, and addiction cravings. When we’re free of these triggers and symptoms, we can concentrate, reach a higher consciousness, and embrace insights, which can lead to emotional breakthroughs and healing.

Belly breathing is the core technique for practicing mindfulness meditation. Also referred to as “abdominal” and “diaphragmatic” breathing, this is our inborn way of respiring and it has distinct advantages over breathing from our chest. Belly breathing enables us to take in more oxygen with fewer breaths—with more carbon dioxide being expelled on the out breath. Increased utilization of our diaphragm to breathe lowers our heart rate and helps to stabilize our blood pressure. Belly breathing stimulates the area just below the navel, where our body stores chi energy. This is where our Buddha nature resides.

A Natural Mood Stabilizer

Those of us who suffer from bipolar disorder face challenges that our friends and family often have difficulties understanding. A genetic predisposition and chemical imbalance can result in extreme highs and lows as well as rapid mood swings. A mindfulness practice can help us gain better control—not only of our thoughts—but of our emotions as well.

Being attentive from moment to moment enable us to be fully conscious of changes in our mood, which may occur suddenly. Mindfulness serves as a potent coping mechanism for us. When we find ourselves in a stressful situation or sense that we are becoming anxious, overly sensitive, irritable, hyper, fearful, or aggressive, implementing mindful breathing immediately helps us to pause and focus, instead of panicking, retreating, acting out angrily, or resorting to high-risk or excessive behavior—such as compulsive gambling, hypersexual activity, or wild shopping sprees. This brings our mind to a relaxed state, where it can rest and recharge, while maintaining full awareness. Mindfulness meditation reduces our anxiety and acts as a natural mood stabilizer. It is a great way to cultivate loving-kindness for ourselves.

The Four Noble Truths and 12-Step Recovery

Buddhism and the 12-Step Recovery Program have a lot in common. Both traditions promote community (sangha), spirituality, humility, accountability, making amends, ethical behavior, and of course—abstinence from intoxicants. In fact, most of the literature used in recovery fellowships is in accordance with the Eightfold Path.

One major difference between 12-Step fellowships and Buddhism is that the former advocate surrendering to a higher power, while the latter emphasizes the power within each of us. Those unfamiliar with Buddhism may be surprised to learn that Buddha presented himself as a teacher and instructed his followers to think for themselves and not take his words at face value. He did not wish to be worshipped. So addicts who are atheists or agnostics can adopt a spiritual practice without any expectation to turn their will or their lives over to anyone or anything. The solution for our suffering lies in our true nature.

Another difference between the two traditions relates to the perception of time. “Take one day at a time” is synonymous with the Recovery Program, while mindfulness entails being alert and fully conscious moment to moment. In12-Step fellowships, we’re advised not to think too far ahead—but just focus on each twenty-four period. Offhand, that seems to make sense. Unfortunately, when we’re in the grip of our addiction, twenty-four hours still feels like an eternity to stay clean. Also, any period beyond the present moment is the future, which most of us will invariably expend our energy thinking and worrying about. We can also become complacent and at some point during the afternoon or early evening our ego starts celebrating a clean day early. We let their guard down, setting ourselves up for a relapse and hitting a new “bottom.”

The essence of mindfulness is that by being fully present, we’re able to attain and maintain equanimity. We are not resisting or directly suppressing intrusive thoughts. When something triggers us, instead of self-medicating, we focus on our breathing and the present moment. This enables us to pause, cease all thoughts, which instills calmness. Ruminations of getting a “fix” retreat back into our unconscious as seedlings without any drama. When our minds are rested, we reflect, analyze, and gain insight into the underlying cause of the craving episode. Mindfulness empowers us to respond instead of react.

Cultivating Compassion for Our Enemies

Those of us who have been traumatized by violence are at the mercy of our wounded monkey minds, which keep the psychic pains fresh through recurring flashbacks and nightmares. The Buddha believed that loving-kindness is the basis to end suffering. His teachings provide us with the resources we need. The following steps illustrate how our spiritual practice can help us cope and even recover from post-traumatic stress:

  1. We embrace the concept of interconnectivity and acknowledge our antagonist as a fellow human being—someone’s best friend, son, brother, or husband—who entered the world as an innocent child. For example, a traumatized soldier alters his perception of the enemy combatant, viewing the adversary as someone merely defending their homeland, who is just as terrified as he is.
  2. Next, we practice metta meditation, cultivating loving-kindness and compassion for ourselves, followed by friends and loved ones, and finally for the person who harmed us. We’ll call this person, “G.” G is no longer perceived as a threat but someone who has feelings and is suffering like we are. We commit to practicing metta for G on a regular basis. As our heart opens up more and more, it will let us know when we’re ready to proceed to the next level.
  3. Metta meditation brings us closer to our inner Buddha. Now we are prepared to practice tonglen meditation, which is the art of taking in “suffering” and removing it—for ourselves, loved ones, as well as for our enemies. So starting with the in breath, we visualize G’s emotional and physical pain, and draw it in. We pause momentarily. On the out breath, we visualize the suffering being expelled. Practicing tonglen awakens our innate love for all beings.
  4. We are now in a position to offer forgiveness that comes from the heart. We visualize G, verbalize our awakened feelings, extend our forgiveness and wish him peace and happiness. The entire process provides closure, releasing all our pain and negativity. We will continue to cultivate compassion for G and embrace him or her as one of our spiritual gurus. Note: A mother who cultivates compassion for the stranger who murdered her child and advocates for the perpetrator is an example of someone with an awakened heart.

Severe mental disorders such as manic depression and dual diagnosis are typically treated with psychotherapy and psychotropic medications. Although there isn’t a cure, committing to a Buddhist practice can help us attain a brighter prognosis.

(This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended as a substitute for the advice of health care professionals.)