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Vipassana Meditation: The Art of Living

May was my month for exploring matters of the spirit. For my focus I chose meditation. Specifically Vipassana meditation, a 2,500-year-old practice taught by Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise known as the Buddha. I was first drawn to this practice years ago when a good friend of mine came back from a 10-day meditation course a changed man. Calmer. More poised. Less reactive. I’ve been thinking about that transformation ever since, but never quite got up the nerve to try it myself. Until now. Forexmejores Broker

Vipassana meditation is not religious, but it has a strong spiritual component, which makes it a good choice for me as a spiritual practice. I grew up without a religion, but I guess I’ve always had a seeking nature. This year, the year I turned 42, the answer to life, the universe, and everything, as defined by Douglas Adams, seems an auspicious year to find what I seek.

Vipassana means “insight.” Vipassana mediation is a technique for recognizing and turning away from lifelong habits, called sankharas, that result in unhappiness. Buddha is said to have achieved a complete understanding of not just himself, but of the true nature of the entire universe. I guess you could say that he saw God. That’s the goal of Vipassana meditation, the end of the path. I don’t have such lofty aspirations, but even in ten days, the benefits are extraordinary.

I gained a greater sense of calm and equanimity than ever before; a deeper mind/body connection that leads to a sense of well-being and happiness; a perspective on my life that helps me stop sweating the small stuff (i.e., just about everything); a greater sense of compassion for my fellow humans and other beings; a daily practice that helps me realize these benefits every day; and techniques for gliding through life’s inevitable rough spots in the moment, as they happen.

For ten days I and my fellow students arose at 4:00 each morning, sat down to meditate at 4:30, eventually racking up a total of 10 hours of meditation each day. We maintained Noble Silence at all times, not speaking or communicating with each other in any way. The lodgings at the Center were very comfortable, and the food was excellent, though we went to bed without supper each night to keep our minds sharp.

At one point I experienced a gentle cascade of vibrations over my entire body, as though I was immersed in a carbonated beverage. “What is the significance of the vibrations?” I asked the assistant teacher (who we were allowed to talk to). I expected him to answer something along the lines of, if not actual contact with God, at least a peek into His domain. “Nothing,” he said. “It doesn’t mean anything at all. It’s just a sensation. You are to observe all sensations without reacting to them.” Okay, so I was a little disappointed, but also relieved. Contact with God would be a serious challenge to my calm.

The course I attended was at the Vipassana Meditation Center, Dhamma Dhara, in Shelburne, MA. No payment or even donations are accepted from new students; everything—lodging, food, instruction—is free without strings attached.

Here are a few simple techniques that I learned during my ten days as a monk to help you stay calm, focused, and happier in your life:

-Periodically, throughout the day, make an effort to be aware of physical sensations you are experiencing. For instance, as you walk, try to become aware of your clothing rubbing against your body. Also do this for five minutes immediately on awakening in the morning, and before you drift off to sleep in the evening.

-Observe your breathing without deliberately changing it, particularly during moments of heightened emotion. Pay attention to how it changes as the emotion peaks and then subsides.

-Forgive everyone who has ever done something that you don’t like, whether deliberate or not.

-Relax your grip on the material things in your life and observe, without acting on it, your craving for new things.

-Recognize the impermanence and constantly changing nature of all things, including you, your loved ones, every object and life form around you, and all of your emotions and those of the people around you. Repeat to yourself, through good times and bad: anicca; “this will change.”

Tips for a balanced life from Marc & Amy Vachon

I spoke with Amy and Marc Vachon, authors of the Equally Shared Parenting book and blog, about a way of life that has made my family’s year of living adventurously possible. Marc and Amy’s work is pitched to parents, but their ideas apply equally well to any life partners who want to bring more joy and balance into their lives. Call it equally shared living.

What is equally shared parenting?

Amy: Equally shared parenting is a term that clinical psychologist Francine Deutsch out of Mount Holyoke coined as the best way to describe this thing. The thing is a lifestyle for a couple with children that builds on an equal partnership [to give] both partners…a chance at a balanced life. And so that means that they share in the four different domains of their lives together. They share equally in their importance as breadwinners in the family. They also share in the housework. They share in raising their children to the equivalent depth and approximate time spent. And then they each have approximately the same amount of time to have fun, individual lives.

Why do it?

Marc: We both want to spend time with the kids. We’re not trying to avoid them and push them off on somebody else. We both want to maintain our careers. We don’t want to avoid having to go to work. We want to embrace that as a part of who we are, and just have it fit into our life as opposed to be an all-encompassing endeavor. And same with recreation and taking care of the home.

What are the challenges?

Marc: I think it takes a leap of faith. Society is set up in a way to reaffirm the male’s role as the primary or sole breadwinner. Yes, women have come into the workforce in much larger numbers. But to totally embrace this model may call into question some of the long-held beliefs that we all grew up with, which is the man is in charge of bringing in the paycheck. To risk that in any way, I think is scary for a lot of people. It takes some courage.

Amy: Same thing on the woman’s side. I think the depth to which a woman has to let go of her society’s definition of motherhood is under appreciated. We often say on the surface, “Oh, I love when my husband helps around the house. I don’t mind if he doesn’t quite fold the towels the way I do.” But that’s just the beginning of what you have to let go. You really have to believe in the depths of your heart that your husband or your spouse or your partner or whoever is as equally capable of coming up with the best way to do anything as you are. That’s hard stuff.

Tips from Amy & Marc on starting an equally shared life

  • Get on the same page with your partner; agree that you both want to do it.
  • Start slowly.
  • Ask yourself what you want more of in your life, and what you want less of.
  • Ask you and your partner what you want out of your relationship.

Tips for keeping it going

  • Enjoy each domain of your life equally (parenting, career, housework, and recreation).
  • Don’t save the good stuff for later; have it all now—time for fun, time to work, time with loved ones.
  • Pursue meaning for yourself both in and out of the home.
  • Accept imperfection as the nature of life.

How to Make Friends

Two little girls in Washington, D.C. c. 1939-1945

Two little girls in Washington, D.C. c. 1939-1945. Photo: Transfer from U.S. Office of War Information, 1944

What is a friend? That’s the question I’ve had to answer in this, my month focusing on friendship as part of my yearlong project with Wendy to live more adventurously.

I started the month with the vague idea that I wanted more friends in my life and to spend more time with old ones. I’m ending the month with a working definition of what a friend is that should continue to serve me indefinitely.

Step one was to make my life more conducive to friendship. My typical work day began at 4 or 5 a.m. so that I could work before the kids got up. Unfortunately that made it hard to socialize when most people wanted to, at the end of their work day. So Wendy and I cultivated a babysitting team, which we now have in place, so that I could work more reasonable hours. Now I don’t fall asleep during social engagements. Big improvement!

Next I set out to present a more friendly face to the world. I set the simple intention to look for opportunities to make friends wherever I find myself. This involves taking a risk at times, offering something of myself, as well as listening to what others have to say about themselves. This has been wonderful too. I’ve discovered that if you treat everyone you meet as a potential friend, they tend to respond in kind. And I find that by probing gently, I can get past small talk fairly quickly to get to topics of conversation that are meaningful to both of us.

Finally, I’ve been trying to get out of my usual surroundings more, to seek out new places to meet people. A couple of highlights from my month of making friends:

At a trade show, I dropped a superhero reference, with my friendship intention in mind, and I was gratified to find a fellow superhero fan manning a booth. More than that, it turned he was from my hometown and that we had shopped at the same comic shop in the 1980s! We talked happily about our favorite comic writers and titles for some time.

At a conference, I sought out someone I had admired from afar, and found that the feeling had been mutual. Now that we were meeting face-to-face for the first time, it was as though we both felt we had a lot of catching up to do. We talked into the night, long after others at our table had drifted away, exchanging ideas about writing, flying, the nature of creativity, our families, and other topics close to our hearts. Key to this interaction was my intention to approach him as a potential friend rather than just as a professional associate.

Now I’m looking to local events and encounters for friends that I can spend more time with on a regular basis. Although, I’ve come to the conclusion that physical proximity is not an essential ingredient in a friend. However, presence is.

Presence is at the heart of my new definition of “friend.” A friend, I’ve come to believe, is someone with whom you share a mutual liking and who gives you their undivided attention. Could be just for a few minutes. Could be over a period of years. But a person who disconnects from our increasingly wired and interconnected world long enough to focus on you, just you, for however long, is giving you something special and is worthy of the title “friend.”

Making Friends for a Life

Powers comic bookOne of the ways that parenting “shrinks your outer world to the size of a teacup” is that it reduces your time and energy for socializing. But this year Wendy and I are working to break open that teacup. And this month, as part of our year of living dangerously, I’m focusing on friendship.

When I was young, friends were perhaps the most important part of my life. I was one of those people who crossed social boundaries, with friends from different groups who weren’t otherwise connected. I was, in some modest way, what Malcolm Gladwell calls a Connector. It was deeply satisfying, and I miss that feeling of connectedness. Good friends are like comic book sidekicks, ready to share life’s adventure with you. I want to invite more into my life.

But how do you make friends? When I was in school, it was easy. My peers were all around me, in the hundreds, just waiting to be befriended. But adults in teacup universes are harder to reach. I’ve come up with some ideas, and they’re already panning out.

Step outside your normal milieu
Conferences, for example, are a great place to meet people who share your interests. I recently attended two conferences with that in mind, and I made two new friends. Neat!

Go beyond small talk by asking people about their interests, and venturing something about one of your own. At a conference last week, I connected with a guy by making a comic book reference. Our connection grew from there. Turns out he’s from my hometown and we shopped at the same comic book store in 1980s. Amazing!

Take a risk
Last month at a conference, I took a risk and asked someone I knew only professionally if he’d like to join me for lunch. It felt a bit like being back in high school asking someone for a date. But he accepted and we quickly bonded over our shared interest. I learned about his Ethiopian wife and his advanced degree in particle physics. Now I have a standing invitation to call him for lunch whenever I’m in his town. Fantastic!

Follow up
Now that I’ve started some new friendships, I’ll need to keep up with them to strengthen the relationship. It’s something I’ve had trouble doing, and I’ll need to work on it. For instance, I told the comic book guy about the Powers comic depicted above, based on a recommendation from another friend of mine. I haven’t read it yet. Now I’ll get to do that and then tell my new friend how it compares to other books I now know we both like.

Treat strangers as a friends
When you approach people with openness and interest, they tend to respond in kind, leading to deeper connections. I’m finding it elevates my mood too.

Say yes
I find that it’s harder for me to accept a friendly overture than to make one of my own. Maybe it’s an example of Woody Allen’s “I wouldn’t want to be part of a club that would have me as a member.” Now that I’m conscious of this, I’m making an effort to say “yes” to invitations. Just last night, Wendy and I took the girls to dinner at the house of some new friends. Yes, the teacup is breaking open…

Anyone else got any tips for making new friends and keeping up with old ones?

7 Secrets of Productivity

Clock photo by Dave Stokes

Photo: Dave Stokes

I’ve long been a student of the art of juggling work, family, and fun time. Now that Wendy and I are pursing our ambitious live-for-our-dreams project, staying focused is more important than ever. My latest inspiration is Swedish blogger Henrik Edberg’s Positivity Blog and his series of e-books. Here’s some good advice from him, mixed in with my own observations.

1. Create a morning ritual
Get the day off to a good start, and the rest of your day will probably follow. We’re creatures of habit, so creating a ritual of starting well will keep you on the right track indefinitely.

2. Monotask
Multitasking is seriously overrated. Remain focused on one task to completion or a clear stopping point before moving to the next one. You’ll get everything done much more quickly.

3. Check email at only at regular intervals
I cut back to checking every two hours, then just twice a day, and now I’m flirting with Edberg’s ideal of just once a day. Keeping your email program on all the time is a sure way to stay distracted and needled.

4. Make a clear separation between work and family/fun/relaxation time
I don’t work after business hours or on weekends, which keeps me refreshed and focused during work hours.

5. Make to-do lists of only the three most important items per day
Hit those most-important to-dos first thing in the work day and work them to completion. I compose my list the night before so that I can get right to work the next morning.

6. Limit negative influences
I first heard this from a hitchhiker I picked up on California’s Highway 5 many years ago, and I’ll never forget it. “Don’t be SNIOPed,” he told me. That’s Subjected to the Negative Influence of Other People. I’ve since extended that to include media as well.

7. Keep a positive outlook
At Edberg’s suggestion, I downloaded a so-called paraliminal from Learning Strategies Corporation. It has helped me stay relaxed and in a positive frame of mind. You can get a free one from Steve Pavlina’s website.

Check out Edberg’s free e-book The 7 Timeless Habits of Happiness (scroll to the bottom of the page).

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