Live to Learn

Mind

I am a lifetime student. We all are.

I would have never thought that back when I was younger and was actually required to go to school. But when I started college years ago, I discovered that I really loved learning. I have a passion for subjects such as the psychological and biological sciences. I love to learn new art forms. I love physical classes such as yoga, aerobics, kickboxing, and dance. As an adult, I’ve taken cooking classes, guitar classes, painting classes, all types of yoga/pilates/aerobics classes. I took ballet for the first time at 19 years old when I enrolled in a beginning adult class. If there is an opportunity for me to show up some place and somebody teach me something, I am all about it.

Twice recently I have had the opportunity to learn new things (and also further my formal education) without any financial cost to me. With the assistance of a grant, I am back in college to finish a psychology degree I started years ago before I became a nurse. To fulfil a sociology requirement of said degree, I’m currently taking a Cultural Anthropology class. A required ethnography project sent me on a search that led me to a Buddhist monastery that has free mediation and Buddhism classes. So, one class that’s helping to further my formal academia, also helped to get me started in another class that’s teaching me about the wonderful practice of meditation and the history of Buddhism. One door opened to another door to another door. And I’m learning such fascinating things!

LEARNING IS SO GOOD FOR YOU IN SO MANY WAYS.

Learning experiences like learning a new language or skill have been proven to increase the size of the brain.

I think this is awesome! One study done by neuroscientist Arthur Kramer showed that just 45 minutes of brain exercise three days a week actually increased the volume of the brain. Brain exercise improves cognition so that one can better plan, multitask, and remember.

And formal education is not required to learn new things and exercise the brain.

You can watch a video to learn origami or teach yourself to sew. You can take up drawing or painting, all on your own. It is all still beneficial to the brain. I do believe, though, that the social interaction that comes from being in an actual classroom setting offers so many opportunities. To meet new people. To have different interactions. For a change of scenery. All of it.

So, if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to learn something new, or if you even have to go out and find those opportunities yourself… DO IT!! Learn to dance. Learn a new art. Further your formal academia. Learn a foreign language. Whatever sounds interesting and fun to you. It is so worth it. It is good for your brain, which is good for your life. And it could end up opening other doors you never even thought of.

“It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to use it well.”

~Descartes

So, I’m still meditating regularly. Not every day. I’m really just not that organized. Or should I say, to cut myself some well deserved slack in the spirit of compassion and kindness, I have way too busy a life to expect myself to be able to perfectly fit it into a strict daily routine. But I have succeeded in doing it ALMOST daily, which is WONDERFUL for me.

Today, I used some tips from a book on meditation that I have slowly been reading, normally only 5-10 pages right before I meditate to help me learn more and get in the groove. In today’s session I focused on love and kindness. I started with trying to focus on a love for myself. Let’s start by clarifying that I don’t think that I have necessarily have a low self esteem. I believe I normally hold myself in quite high regard, really. If I get down to the truth, I do believe that I am smart, kind, talented, strong, hard working, loving, and trustworthy. But to have these vague ideas of what one thinks of oneself and to actually feel and show genuine love and kindness towards yourself are two completely different things. It is just the same as if you were considering someone else. You may look at another person in your life and think very highly of them, believing them to have many admirable attributes and characteristics that you like. But this does not mean that you truly love that person. As a matter of fact, you may have no special feelings towards this person at all. You may even NOT like them because they DO have so many admirable characteristics that you find it irritating.

When it comes to the people in my life whom I truly love, I can tell you the basic reasons why I love them, such as: they are a good person, they are trustworthy, they are fun and kind and good to me, et cetera. But, really, I love the whole of the person, faults and everything. I not only accept them for who they are, but sometimes their weakness or faults may be part what makes me love them more. It’s like the nuts on an ice cream sundae. It may not be a sweet flavour, and not everyone may like it, but it does add a different taste. And I love it. With my friends and family, I am very good at loving unconditionally, faults and all. I hardly ever really judge their actions, unless forced to by some conflicting situation. I love them for who they are.

I do not really love myself in the same way, though. How I feel about myself at any given moment is not an unwavering, unconditional love. It is a situational thing, based on how “good” I think I’ve been doing in my life. Like I said, I don’t believe that I necessarily have a low self esteem. I do not believe myself unworthy of all that is good. But I have not really loved myself unconditionally, not until today.

Today the part I focused on was internalizing and taking that unconditional love that I so freely give to those most treasured in my life and graciously bestowing it unto myself. I envisioned the love that I feel for my children and took that feeling and focused it on myself, as if I were my own parent, loving myself in the way every child deserves to be loved. I envisioned the love and admiration I have for both of my parents and turned it inwards to myself. I thought of the tender love I have for my significant other, my siblings, and my closest friends. I used these examples and others, basically any thing or person that invokes that feeling of love in me, as models to show myself the same love and kindness. It was such a good, beautiful feeling. Though, admittedly difficult to focus on myself. I would be caught in the moment. And then it would be gone. And I would have to refocus my attention and try again. I did notice, though, that it seemed to get easier through the session, and the feeling seemed to stay with me a little more and a little more. It’s a sweet, warm sensation, loving myself unconditionally, faults and all, without expectation or contrition; just as I am, without feeling any need to change myself at all.

It sounds so simple. But the truth is I’ve never really loved myself this way, not in practice, atleast. I may have thought, or even felt at my deepest inner core, that I loved myself unconditionally and wholly, but the truth is I am always trying to change something about myself. Improve myself, I should say. It’s always to make myself “better”. So, I don’t know that I would call it unhealthy. I realized today, though, that there must be some balance between self improvement and self acceptance. It’s easy for me to find that balance towards others, to want the ones I love to be their best and live their happiest, but to still accept and love them endlessly no matter what. It just never occurred to me that maybe I needed to treat my own heart and soul with that same kind of unconditional love and kindness.

My meditation continued during my session today with me taking the love that I was feeling towards myself and then mentally extending it towards others. Focusing on some person or thing or situation, breathing all my love and good vibes into it through my heart and mind’s eye, and then releasing it and going on to some other subject in need of love from my soul. Or maybe it is my soul that is in need of feeling the joy that comes from giving such love and kindness.

That is the beauty and truth in it. Any psychologist could testify to the good effects of showing love and kindness to yourself and finding a way to truly love oneself unconditionally. That has to be a good thing. But the idea of spending a half hour just sitting cross-legged in your living room sending out good joojoo love vibes to those you think might need it may sound a little far fetched to some. However, I do believe in the energy of the world and that my own personal energy has an effect on it. I do believe in karma. I do believe in prayer. Sending out meditative mental love to the world is something of a combination of all of these things. It is also well known to psychologists that compassion and kindness to others plays a major factor in increasing one’s own happiness. So, even if you believe in none of these other things, the fact remains that unleashing in yourself a feeling of unconditional love towards yourself and then extending that compassion and love to others is going to have a positive effect on your own mental and emotional health.

This is what I learned today. I am so grateful for learning and experiencing it. I hope that I will be able to remember it and practice it more often. And I hope that it helps me to continue to grow, with an open mind and a courageous heart, learning more about myself and the world everyday.

writing

Meditation and Me

Happiness, Meditation

I’ve heard and read many times how good meditation is for you. I’ve done some in my life, but never enough to amount to much. I haven’t done any since having children, even though it could probably be more beneficial to me now than any other time in my life. I read an article the other day that inspired me to start trying it again, though. There were two things the article said that made me decide that this could be good for me right now. The first thing was the fact that one of the benefits of meditation is it helps a person to get to their creative roots, so to say. In this busy, over multi-tasking world we live in, it’s hard to go from work, kids, bills, house, responsibilities, family, work, kids, bills, and on and on to a creative mindset. Taking the time to meditate helps put you back in that state of mind and will hopefully help keep you there most all the time, as opposed to being a wound up robot, just stressed out and working yourself to death.  Secondly, you can start small. The main reason I hadn’t really even thought about doing any mediation lately is because it seems I have no time. I have always just kind of figured that a real meditation session should last for at least an hour or so. What I read, though, talked about starting with as little as a few minutes twice a day. Even busy me can manage to fit that into my schedule somewhere.

So, I’ve been meditating for about a week now. I did start very small, five minutes twice a day, adding a couple of minutes to my sessions each day, if I had the time.  At first, I just started with some deep breathing exercises and maybe repeating one of my favorite quotes as a mantra, such as “The secret of life is to fall seven times and to get up eight times” by Paulo Coelho or “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars” by Max Ehrmann.   During my first five minute session, I simply repeated the words “beauty” and “light” over and over again just because they were the first positive, comforting words that came to my mind. For me, repeating a mantra helps to reinforce positive emotions but also just helps to keep my brain from wandering in every which direction. By the third day, I was doing my first fifteen minute session.  After meditating for three days, I had somehow convinced myself that there was some magical process occurring. That taking the time to sit quietly for five minutes twice a day was somehow making me feel better about life.  Imagine my surprise when I realized how hard it can be to sit and meditate for 15 minutes.  There were no feelings of complete connectedness with the world around me.  It seemed impossible to get my brain to shut up.  I tried to focus on a mantra, but my mind kept wandering and random thoughts incessantly crept in. I was reminded of a book I once read that was written by a neuroscientist who had suffered from a stroke. She used something like meditation to help her focus on regenerating and reconnecting the synapses in her brain.  While trying to focus on this task, random thoughts would creep into her mind. Instead of trying to ignore these thoughts, she would face them, greet them, focus on them, and then let them go. In this way, she was giving her brain the respect it deserves for being able to carry on so much thought at once.  At the same time, though, she was training it that now was not the time so that, using the same patient way that you might use with a child, she was teaching herself to control her thoughts. This is what I attempted to do for my 15 minutes of difficulty focusing. I repeated my mantra, which on this day was simply “I am a child of the universe”. I envisioned various scenes in my head of my body being connected with mother nature and the universe. Things like the air in my lungs feeding a river that runs from my spine into my organs, giving life to my organs and making them grow plump and healthy, like fresh fruit on a vine. My favorite vision is of me sitting in a beautiful lush field, with soft green grass underneath me, and a big, open, pastel blue sky dotted with billowy cotton clouds. Behind me standing tall, protective, and majestic is a giant oak tree. Strong and sturdy, its leaves are large and green with yellow on their trim in such a way that it makes the tree glow and shine in the setting sun. While this vision did bring me pleasure, and I do relish the memory and idea of it now, I can’t really say that during my meditation it made it any easier for me to focus on the present moment. I can’t even say that my fifteen minutes of meditation necessarily made me feel any better. I may have actually felt worse in some ways, having inadvertently focused on things that bother me during my quiet time. But to say that I got nothing from it would be a lie.  If I had to pick one word to express how I felt directly after, I would have to say “hope” or rather something like “pre-hope”, like that moment just before everything starts to get better. The future did not necessarily look bright and easy, filled with nothing but love and happiness. But, it did feel manageable, as though somehow I had already considered and faced everything stressful in my life and was no longer bothered by it. Instead of worrying unnecessarily, I felt like I could take my life and make it better. I didn’t quite have a plan to make everything wonderful, but I was pretty sure I could make one. And then it occurred to me that it was the perfect time for me to go out for a walk. I love to be outdoors. I love the air. I love the sky. I love the feeling of the blood rushing through my body as it moves against gravity. Suddenly, I knew what I needed to do, and I did it. I went for walk on a crisp fall day with beautiful trees and a sultry sky. Then I wrote this journal entry, with all the feeling I had felt during my brief fifteen minute meditation; reminiscing of pastel blue skies and golden, shining giant oak trees of sweet, loving protection. And thinking to myself, there really must be something to this.

I am currently up to about thirty minutes daily, sometimes 15 minutes twice a day, sometimes 30 minutes once during the day, depending on what my schedule is like.  I won’t claim to have found any deep inner peace, yet. But I am enjoying it.  It makes a lot of sense to me, that it can be very beneficial, to simply take time to sit and listen to your body and let the world fall away.  The one thing I have discovered is something that I am now considering an essential truth:

Your mind, body, heart, and spirit. They know what’s most important to you and the secrets of your happiness. And they will share these secrets with you, if you will be still long enough and listen.