God Is in the Details

I stand in a 105-degree room with seven others, following the teacher’s instruction to stretch up and over while noticing the half-moon arch of my body as it leans to the right. I’ve heard these instructions countless times since I began the practice of Bikram Yoga (the original hot yoga) eight or nine years ago, but today they register in a new way. I feel the arc; indeed, I am the arc—the wholeness of its every inch, from my feet to my hips, waist and shoulders, and up through the tips of my fingers clasped high over my head. The experience is curiously exhilarating.

I’ve heard the saying, “the devil is in the details,” but my experience tells me that God lies there. I am a student of minutiae—of the discrete particulars of experience—and I’ve cultivated many intentional practices over the years so as to know life’s richness more deeply. Yoga is one of them. I love these practices, too: examining nature up close through the lens of a magnifier (how much we do not see), delighting in the birds at the feeders outside my window in winter—binoculars at the ready, watching the movement of mind in meditation, and seeking to know the subtleties of my senses by asking of experience: what it is to truly see, hear, taste, touch, smell?

While on a juice fast at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health several years ago, I experienced the sense of taste in a profound way. Our week of fasting was coming to a close, and the retreat leader led our return to solid food with an experience of mindful eating. We were served a warm, blended zucchini soup and guided to take small spoonfuls slowly and with awareness.

I don’t recall eating any food as savory as this simple soup. Its aroma was inviting and warmth soothing. As I took my first taste, I noticed subtle yet distinct flavors bursting at different places on my tongue. Swallowing, I was aware of nutrition entering my body. Taking another spoonful, I was aware of hunger or satiety, and whether it was my body or my mind that had the desire for more.

We were sipping in silence, but I wanted to exclaim, “What a symphony of sensation!” It was an experience I will never forget. I felt as though I had never really tasted food before.

Most of us eat mindlessly most of the time. Maybe we want to satisfy our hunger or quell some difficult emotion. Maybe we’re bored. Whatever the motivation, all too often we gulp our food down without thinking and in a rush to move on. But what are we missing in doing so? Perhaps the moment—and each sensory experience—holds the thing we’re looking for.

Every meal can become a simple and pleasurable way to cultivate mindfulness—and it’s so much easier than sitting in a meditative posture contending with a mind crowded by thought. If you’d like to give it a try, intentionally set aside a meal in your near future and follow these simple guidelines:

  1. Set the scene. Put aside your phone and turn off the TV so you can eat in silence.
  2. Arrange the food on the plate in a pleasing way, and take a moment to give thanks.
  3. Tune into the sight of your meal and its aroma.
  4. With each bite of food, chew slowly and notice the flavor, whether sweet, sour, salty, bitter or savory. You have taste buds on the surface of the tongue and all around the inside of your mouth. See if you can discern when they get triggered.
  5. Before each bite, tune into your sense of hunger or fullness. Let your awareness guide your decision to continue or stop eating, not the food remaining on your plate.
  6. Enjoy!

It was through my first mindful eating experience that I discovered how much of my sensory experience I had underestimated and taken for granted. In fact, our five senses are capable of delivering richness far beyond what we notice with our busy, every-day minds. What if we perceived more? How would our world open up and change? How would we open up and change? I’ve got the strong hunch that meditation and mindfulness are the tools to take us to these deeper places, and that can’t help but transform us—in the best of ways.

Kathy Simpson is a freelance writer with Copper Beech Institute who specializes in mindful living and holistic health.

if you’d like to explore the practice of mindful eating more deeply, Copper Beech Institute is offering a workshop, Mindful Eating: Free Yourself from the Diet Mentality and Learn to Trust Your Body in the Process, Saturday, March 18, 2017 from 1–5 p.m.  

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10 Quotes to Inspire You

Words to live by, by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?

The time is always right to do what is right.

We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.

On Introversion, Solitude and the Virtuous Life

Long before mindfulness was fashionable, Arnie Kozak was studying, practicing, and teaching mindfulness and Buddhist psychology. His lifelong practice of meditation began with journey to India in the 1980s. In 2002, he created Exquisite Mind in Burlington, Vermont as a vehicle to expand the value of mindfulness to larger audiences in the professional world and among individuals. We talked with Dr. Kozak about the life experience that has made him a contributing voice in the mindfulness revolution.

arniekozakDo you consider yourself to be an introvert?

Yes, I am an introvert—a strong one.

What does it mean to be a strong introvert?

Strong introverts prefer to be alone most of the time, and prefer socializing in small groups to large ones. Free form social gathering, such as sitting down to a roundtable of eight or 10 for a formal dinner, can be draining.

Strong introverts would rather people watch than talk with strangers, and prefer email over the telephone. Personally, I think Open Table (the online restaurant reservation system) is the greatest thing to happen since sliced bread!

However, despite being introverted and a highly-sensitive person, I enjoy the high stimulation activities of snowboarding (at high speed) and riding my Harley (not necessarily at high speed). These nontypical introvert interests highlight how we are all unique. 

How has introversion manifested in your life? What challenges has it posed for you personally in today’s “loud and crazy world”?

I always felt somewhat out of place as a kid and never knew why. It wasn’t all to do with introversion but it was a good part. It’s hard to be someone like me who has high self-expectations to live in a culture where my way of being is not the normative way of being. This led to a lot of negative self-judgment when I was younger.

Over the past few years, I have realized more and more the implications of being an introvert. One manifestation is that I have arranged my life to avoid the types of situations that I find wearing. I have built a great deal of solitude into my life. Most days, I am working from home with a focus on writing. I avoid talking on the telephone wherever possible. I mostly seek to avoid the loud and crazy world and when I do enter it, I usually do so in small doses.

What brought you to meditation and mindfulness?

I started meditating in college and did a more yoga-based practice for the first six years. I started doing mindfulness meditation (vipassana) when I was in graduate school. There were many factors from my childhood that likely contributed to my receptivity to meditation and yoga. I had discovered something akin to meditation on my own when I was a high school athlete. By the time I got to college, I had an interest in the mind and when I was exposed to meditation, it just made sense to me.

What teachers have guided your path?

I have had many wonderful guides along the way. My initial teacher was Gurumayi Chidvilasananda of Siddha Yoga. His Holiness, The Dalai Lama was also an early influence. My first vipassana teacher was Larry Rosenberg of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge, Mass., and his influence is probably the strongest. We are both Jews from New York, Larry from Brooklyn and me from Queens. Different generations, of course, but we both have that metropolitan earthy, edginess to our teaching style.

How has your life been transformed by meditation and mindfulness? 

Meditation has been at the very center of my existence for my entire adult life. It’s a bit like asking a fish to describe water—it is the immersive medium where I dwell. The principle benefit of meditation is to reduce reactivity and I pretty much see a direct correlation: the more I practice, the less reactive I am. Meditation over these decades has also contributed to at least a fledgling sense of wisdom—insights into the deeper meaning of existence.

Specifically, my practice gives me the ability to cope with just about any situation, no matter how stressful. For instance, if I’m stuck in a crowded airport with flight delays, I use mindfulness to create a portable sense of solitude. I breathe a space around myself that provides a comforting sanctuary. I become curious about the sights and sounds around me at the same time that I extricate myself from the internal narrative about how “awful” the situation is. The result is that I can be with this, or whatever situation, with some equanimity—peaceful engagement in the midst of chaos.

Do you have a partner, and how has that shaped your contemplative experience in this life?

I am very fortunate to be married to another strong introvert. We resonate at pretty much the same frequency and so we are in harmony when it comes to managing our social, travel, and solitude calendar. To borrow a phrase from Rilke, she is the guardian of my solitude, and I hers.

My wife is not a meditation practitioner herself, yet she has an interest in mindfulness and our relationship has a lot of solitude built into so I have the uninterrupted time for meditation practice (recently, about two hours each day).

What courses do you teach as assistant professor in psychiatry at University of Vermont Larner School of Medicine?

I teach a month-long elective to fourth-year students focused on bringing mindfulness into medicine. It’s based on the novel curriculum developed at the University of Rochester School of Medicine integrated with my own methods and curriculum from years of teaching mindfulness in the community and to undergraduates at UVM.

What is the typical profile of someone attending one of your retreat programs?

My attendees have ranged from teenagers to octogenarians. Mostly, folks are middle-aged and predominately female. Many already have had some exposure to mindfulness and want to deepen their understanding, and others have heard about it and want to get started. With my solitude and introvert programs, obviously introverts are coming. There is a definite positive correlation between introversion and interest in meditation.

You’ll be offering Solitude and the Virtuous Life at Copper Beech Institute in February. What will participants come away with at the end of the retreat?

Participants will learn practical tools such as mindfulness meditation and a technique I developed known as “Story Art” that combines journaling practice, meditation, and creativity to help people to free themselves from difficult situations. For this program in particular, participants will also come away with a deep appreciation for solitude and hopefully a commitment to integrating it into their lives. This appreciation will be based on science, poetry, and wisdom perspectives.

What words of wisdom do you have to offer introverts who seek greater peace in their lives? Extroverts?

Introverts and extroverts alike need more solitude in their lives. That is the central teaching and purpose of this program. It’s not just about introverts. Mindfulness is a key in the process of facilitating solitude in our lives.

Any guidance for readers as we embark on a new era of leadership in our country?

Variability is the nature of the universe and, as always, we live in variable, uncertain times. It’s really no different now than ever before but perhaps we are just more aware of it. The process is the same: meditate, breathe, nurture solitude, and work on jettisoning any sense of entitlement that things should always go the way we think they should go. Cultivate a sense of curiosity towards even the things that feel aversive. Out of this curiosity, there is the opportunity for feeling compassion, love, and even gratitude.

Arnie Kozak, PhD, is a psychotherapist, clinical assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, and workshop leader at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, Copper Beech Institute, and Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. He is author of several books, including “108 Metaphors for Mindfulness: From Wild Chickens to Petty Tyrants, Mindfulness A-Z: 108 Insights for Awakening Now,” and The Awakened Introvert: Practical Mindfulness Skills for Maximizing Your Strengths and Thriving in a Loud and Crazy World. He will be offering Solitude and the Virtuous Life at Copper Beech Institute February 24–26, 2017.


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Sanity Tip for the New Year

by Millie Grenough

New year, new challenges, new opportunities! This Oasis Sanity Tip is short and to the point. Take 60 seconds to do it now.

Take a minute to pause.
Thank the old year.
Welcome the new year.
Look around you.
Bring to awareness one thing that you are especially grateful for now.
Take three breaths in and out to savor it.

Mille Grenough is an ex-nun turned nightclub singer, an ex-shy Kentuckian turned international presenter. Millie delights in inspiring people to do what they thought was impossible. She is a professional coach, motivational speaker, instructor in psychiatry at the Yale University, blogger for the Huffington Post and author of 10 books. Millie will offer the day retreat, “Finding Oasis in the Overwhelm” at Copper Beech Institute on March 19, 2017.

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The Gift of Mindfulness

By Lori Pelikan Strobel

To sit with the uncomfortable and recognize it. To not judge myself for my imperfections. To know it’s all right to be me. To accept this being and body with its many flaws and quirks.

This is mindfulness to me. Mindfulness is not all peace and joy. It’s also recognizing the difficult and awkward. It’s not a place on a map or a location you can come to easily. Sitting here on an uncomfortable bench with the sun on my face, I peer into the forest of trees before me and wonder about the whereabouts of this place called mindfulness. Before me I see paths, a road and a mess of leaves dumped from the outstretched branches above. My attention is drawn to the heart song of birds and I think about the bumpy trail to finding home in the wisdom of imperfection.

I’ve always strived to make everything perfect in my life. It’s my default position—perhaps because I am the eldest sibling or the only daughter, or the mom who needs to make it better for everyone, or the woman who always does what is right. I think I’m just naturally hard wired to seek perfection in myself and I don’t see it changing any time soon. It has served me well, but it has also come with a price—the price of endless worry and anxiety that quietly lies in wait to take me over.

If there is too much stress, I go into full anxiety mode. I get stressed for not understanding or for not being smart enough to figure things out. Why can’t I figure out Photoshop? Or why don’t I understand how my insurance claims are calculated? Why does it seems no one else is worried that they are stuck in traffic and going to be late? Or what if the plane is stuck on the tarmac and I can’t get where I want to go?

When it becomes too much, my fight or flight response kicks in and I want to run screaming, “Let me breathe!”

I don’t like this weakness in me. I don’t feel good about myself when I feel powerless. I want to live authentically and forgive myself for this frailty.

Somehow in learning to practice mindfulness, I began to see this apprehension within myself more clearly, as if through an unfiltered lens. I’ve come to realize that I don’t need to escape my anxiety, but rather I can let go of the feeling that I need to do everything and make everything right. My decisions don’t need to be perfect. I don’t need to understand everything. I don’t have to be on time. I don’t need to fly a plane. We all have special gifts and those aren’t mine. I need to sit with my uncomfortableness and recognize it for what it is. When I sit with this, the curtain of perfection blows away to show me that it’s still me—imperfections and all. My breathe alone—each inhale and exhale—provides me with clarity to bring all of myself to this moment. I now yell, “I can breathe!”

It’s not always easy. All my mess, my flaws, and frustrations are here, and that is all right because I have tools to use when anxiety sneaks in again. Mindfulness has given me this gift. The guided meditation, the yoga, the contemplative thoughts, the focus, the breathe—these are my instruments. I will play them to help me disengage from an unhelpful default mode of music.

Mindfulness is a place of the moment. That moment does not discount my past, my future, or my character. Who I am and what I want to be are so inexplicably entwined. There is no mindfulness without me being who I am and recognizing that there is joy and peace in taking care of myself. Physically and emotionally, a mindfulness practice allows me to discover my goodness and my limits. It allows me to listen to them in a non-judgmental manner. Mindfulness is to engage my mind, enlist my heart, and embrace my love.

A glow of light fills the air as I look out from where I’ve been meditating, and I see the leaves not fall from the trees but rather flutter and float gently to the ground. As I sit here on this warm bench with the sun pouring down on my face, I’m crying. These are not tears of sadness. I’m crying for the realization that I’m ok even when I go to my default position of expecting perfection in myself. I’m crying with relief that somewhere along the way I may have gotten lost in flight and that too is ok. I didn’t even know that I was lost until this perfect moment—this moment as I see the leaves drift with no real destination. They will settle where they find themselves, while I sit here uncomfortably on the bench with the sun shining on my face and say hello again to me.

Lori Pelikan Strobel recently participated in a recent Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Course at Copper Beech Institute. She is a wife, mother of two adult daughters and a dog named Louie, and her work experience has ranged from pharmaceutical sales representative and Pilates instructor to community college teacher and real estate agent. You can find more of her writing at www.loripelikanstrobel.com

Copper Beech Institute offers the eight-week MBSR course during both day and evening. We invite you to learn more »

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