The Breath

The breath is closest to us, it’s what gives us life and sustains us. Using the breath as an anchor is one of the most powerful ways to stay anchored in the present moment. Breathing seems like the most insignificant thing we do every day yet miracles are in the smallest things if we care to observe.

Breath, Kabir

Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
You will not find me in stupas, not in Indian shrine rooms,
nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals:
not in masses, nor in kirtans, not in legs winding around your
own neck, nor in eating nothing but vegetables.
When you really look for me, you will see me instantly—
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.

Guide: Noelle Lim

Image credit: Timo Volz, Unsplash

Patience

In a fast-paced, relentless environment that we live in, patience could be short in supply. Here we practise mindful patience, training the mind to focus on where we want it to be, steadying it.

Patience, Rabindranath Tagore

If thou speakest not I will fill my heart

with thy silence and endure it.

I will keep still and wait like the night

with starry vigil and its head bent low with patience.

The morning will surely come,

the darkness will vanish,

and thy voice pour down in golden streams

breaking through the sky.

Then thy words will take wing

in songs from every one of my birds’ nests,

and thy melodies will break forth in flowers

in all my forest groves.

Guide: Noelle Lim

Image credit: Anna Kumpan, Unsplash

Noticing the choices we make

It’s said that the choices we make shape our destiny. Here’s a practice of noticing the little choices we make moment-by-moment to deepen our capacity to become more conscious of the important choices we make on a daily basis that could have far-reaching consequences. In mindfulness, the invitation is to notice that we always have a choice of how we want to engage with whatever thought that arises – sometimes we can’t help thinking about something – how we choose to face it is a choice. We could choose to judge ourselves or simply just watch that thought.

Inspired by the Autobiography of 5 short chapters

I.

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost. I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

II.

I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I still don’t see it. I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place. It isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

III.

I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there, I still fall in.
It’s habit. It’s my fault. I know where I am. I get out immediately.

IV.

I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.

V.

I walk down a different street.

Guide: Noelle Lim

Image credit: Nine Koepfer, Unsplash

Titration For Healing

Like a dance, we move towards and away from something so that our nervous system, mind and body can process what is occurring whilst learning to get comfortable with difficult emotions or when being out of our window of tolerance. We’re practicing self-regulating, finding balance and staying flexible in the present moment. So we start by grounding ourselves, and then feeling what’s arising for us, be it a thought, emotion, mood or sensation, and where it gets uncomfortable, we shift our attention back to our breath or a part of the body that feels safe for us, for example the belly or feet, and returning again to feeling what’s arising. We allow ourselves to move from one point to another according to what feels “safe” or “right” for us – a titration process.

It is a useful meditation when you’ve had a hard day and are finding it difficult to sit, or if you generally find it hard to sit through a meditation due to constant intrusive thoughts and difficult emotions. Also useful for those who are experiencing PTSD or had experienced trauma and are wanting to practice meditating as part of healing.

Whole & Worthy, by Jennifer Healy

A miracle is known not by its fullness alone,

But by its emptiness.

Even a blank piece of paper is a miracle,

Like a sky is worthy even if

The stars are hiding.

Guide: Noelle Lim

Image credit: Abed Ismail, Unsplash

Playfulness, Lightness

Sometimes we take life, our experiences, our unwelcome emotions too seriously. This meditation is a reminder to live life with a sense of lightness and playfulness.

Let Your Life Lightly Dance, by Rabindranath Tagore

To the guests that must go bid God’s speed
and brush away all traces of their steps.
Take to your bosom with a smile what is easy and simple and near.
Today is the festival of phantoms that know not when they die.
Let your laughter be but a meaningless mirth like twinkles of light
on the ripples.
Let your life lightly dance on the edges of Time like dew
on the tip of a leaf.
Strike in chords from your harp fitful momentary rhythms.

Disengaging From Rumination

Rumination—thinking, thinking, going around in circles—brings us down the spiral, and causes depression, anxiety and stress. The invitation is to disengage from it, setting your thoughts free, and using the body to hold you steady.

Thoughts, by Myra Viola Wilds

What kind of thoughts now, do you carry

In your travels day by day

Are they bright and lofty visions,

Or neglected, gone astray?

Matters not how great in fancy,

Or what deeds of skill you’ve wrought;

Man, though high may be his station,

Is no better than his thoughts.

Catch your thoughts and hold them tightly,

Let each one an honor be;

Purge them, scourge them, burnish brightly,

Then in love set each one free.

Guide: Noelle Lim

Image credit: Andreea Popa, Unsplash

Have Hope

Whenever you’re feeling down, overwhelmed, anxious, have hope that these feelings don’t last forever and we’ll find our way home eventually. Inspired by “Hope” is the thing with feathers, by Emily Dickinson.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.


Guide: Noelle Lim

Image credit: Tran Mau Tri Tam, Unsplash

Arriving In The Moment

Arriving and embracing the present moment with the people around you instead of frequently being lost in the head with our thoughts, often reviewing the past or speculating about the future, or being buried in our mobile phone.

Inspired by Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem: Please Call Me by My True Names (extract).

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —

even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving

to be a bud on a Spring branch,

to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,

learning to sing in my new nest,

to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,

to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,

to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death

of all that is alive.

My joy is like Spring, so warm

it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.

My pain is like a river of tears,

so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,

so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,

so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,

so I can wake up,

and so the door of my heart

can be left open,

the door of compassion.

Guide: Noelle Lim

Duration: 19 mins

Image credit: Lasma Artmane, Unsplash

Watching The Mind

Happy 2022! The mind is an incredible machine that generates ideas, solves problems but it can also produce thoughts that cause us grief and make us do things that we regret. How do we practice disengaging especially from thoughts that are not true, not realistic, not useful and only serve to weigh us down? 

Inspired by the tradition of Soto Zen, we simply watch our thoughts, coming and going as they are as we are a third party, not identifying ourselves with thoughts, not judging, not needing to react to every single thing the mind tells us to do. Here we are just sitting quietly and watching. The pause allows wisdom to emerge and perhaps a new found appreciation for how the mind works.

Emily Dickinson describes this in her poem (extract).

The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside —

The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets — do

Guide: Noelle Lim

Duration: 19 mins

Image credit: Matheus Queiroz, Unsplash

What The Heart Longs For

As we wind down for the year and set New Year resolutions, we anchor on what the heart longs for without judging ourselves. Simply just holding our desires in mindful awareness and allowing whatever emotions that arise when we bring to mind and feel in the heart what we truly want at the deeper level.

Inspired by William Wordsworth The Rainbow (or My Leaps Up). Life begins when we embrace our humanity with grace, and acknowledge what we really want even if it’s not within reach or seems silly.

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man;

And I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety.


Guide: Noelle Lim

Duration: 20 minutes

Image credit: Andreas Brun, Unsplash

Radical Self-Love

Radical self-love by paying attention to the body with care and compassion is a way to tap into our subconscious wisdom for guidance instead of being confined by limiting stories and beliefs the mind tells us. We end with this poem on Self-Love by e.h. (Erin Hanson).

Every heart’s a hurricane,
Each soul a starlit sea,
Every mind’s a meteor
Unbound by gravity.
And everybody’s wishing
They could learn to tame their tides,
When nothing more than nature
Is what’s echoing inside.
Every life’s a lightning bolt,
Yet everyone’s told no;
Bite back all your thunder
And don’t let the wild things show.
Every heart’s a hurricane,
Everyone a world within,
Every life too short for loathing
Any storms beneath your skin.

Guide: Noelle Lim
Duration: 20 mins
Image credit: Ludemeula Fernandes, Unsplash

Today Is Precious

If every day is precious, every moment is too. This practice is about taking the time to just be, to appreciate the preciousness of each moment as it is. To just sit without constantly living in the head, in our stories and plans. Finding the balance instead of striving or planning in the head on how to strive. Being in the being mode. 

Inspired by Days, written by Billy Collins, former US Poet Laureate. 

Each one is a gift, no doubt,

mysteriously placed in your waking hand

or set upon your forehead

moments before you open your eyes.

Today begins cold and bright,

the ground heavy with snow

and the thick masonry of ice,

the sun glinting off the turrets of clouds.

Through the calm eye of the window

everything is in its place

but so precariously 

this day might be resting somehow

on the one before it,

all the days of the past stacked high

like the impossible tower of dishes

entertainers used to build on stage.

No wonder you find yourself

perched on the top of a tall ladder

hoping to add one more

Just another Wednesday

you whisper,

then holding your breath,

place this cup on yesterday’s saucer

without the slightest clink.

Guide: Noelle Lim

Duration: 19 mins

Image credit: Jeanie de Klerk, Unsplash

What Will You Let Go?

The question of the day is: what will you let go of? Here is a meditation session of learning to let go of what upsets and weighs us down, recognizing that all our experiences, good and bad, are impermanent. Often thoughts and desires that accompany the feelings magnify our distress, the need for things to be in a particular way, like the need for us to stay calm and centered during a meditation. Otherwise the session feels like a waste of time. Actually the best time to practice is when the mind is unsettled. We’re cultivating accepting situations or reality as they are before deciding on the next best response. 

Nothing Gold Can Stay, Robert Frost

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

Guide: Noelle Lim

Duration: 20 minutes

Image credit: Dorothe Wouters, Unsplash

Self-Love

Today’s Wednesday Pause is a practice of self-love. Cliche as it sounds, its really an invitation to be gentle with ourselves, meaning whatever that is arising, whether we like it or not or find it inadequately stimulating, we gently accept the moment as it is. This reduces the hold unpleasant feelings has over us. And if we find ourselves experiencing strong emotional energy be it grief and anxiety, we respond with gentleness without needing “to do something” to fix it and make it go away. It’s as if you respond with gentle energy instead of brute force, counterintuitive as it may seem.

Inspiration sought from Walt Whitman’s poem Song of Myself (1892, extract).

I celebrate myself and sing myself

And what I assume, you shall assume

For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.

I exist as I am that is enough

If no other in the world be aware I sit content

And if each and all be aware I sit content.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless

And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged

Missing me one place, search another

I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Guide: Noelle Lim

Duration: 22 mins

Image credit: Mathilde Langevin, Unsplash

Directly Experiencing

We practice directly experiencing reality instead of through the filters of the mind which is easily clouded by cravings and fears. Our thoughts often demand that situations have to be in a particular way and we are dissatisfied when they are not. Why not accept life as it is, moment-by-moment, in its ups and downs so that we can respond wisely instead of in a deluded way that only prolongs suffering? There’s more to life than “should be”s, labels and opinions. Inspired by Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching verse 12.

The five colours blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavours dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.

Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.
He lets go of “that” and chooses “this”.

Guide: Noelle Lim

Duration: 24 mins

Image credit: Eric Han, Unsplash

Above The Noise

This is a practice of decoupling or de-centering from mental chatter, and viewing thinking as a mental event. It’s often not easy as our thoughts are so compelling and urgent, requiring us to act on them immediately, in the process exhausting us. Here we develop our capacity to observe and let go of the need to answer back or to react toward our thoughts. The practice ends with a reading of Robert Frost’s poem The Sound of Trees (extract).

Here’s the full poetry. 

I wonder about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace,
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.

Guide: Noelle Lim

Duration: 20 minutes

Image credit: Erica Leong, Unsplash


Meeting Anxiety

This practice is about meeting anxiety as and when it arises. Anxiety is often characterized by a fast beating heart, sweaty palms, and maybe throbbing pain in the head. The feelings seem unpleasant, naturally compelling us to want to push them away or to get rid of them. By giving in to this reaction, we are merely avoiding and allowing anxiety to have a grip over us. We are not learning how to respond skillfully to difficulties.

The invitation is to allow ourselves to witness whatever that is arising by pausing from judging, staying as still as we can (not needing to react), and staying with the experience (not needing to run away, distract ourselves or zone out). If the feelings are overwhelming, we approach by dipping our toes and homing in slowly, as best as we can seeing anxious feelings as transient (even if they seem to last forever or they’re recurrent), and as merely outcomes of the mind and body (even if they seem so real). They do not define our identity, they are simply experiences, and we can choose how to respond to them. The response can be not to do anything but simply to just observe and embrace all life experiences as they are.

Poetry for today is Between Going & Staying, by Octavio Paz (translated).

Between going and staying the day wavers,

in love with its own transparency.

The circular afternoon is now a bay

where the world in stillness rocks.

All is visible and all elusive,

all is near and can’t be touched.

Paper, book, pencil, glass,

rest in the shade of their names.

Time throbbing in my temples

repeats the same unchanging syllable of blood.

The light turns the indifferent wall

into a ghostly theater of reflections. I

find myself in the middle of an eye,

watching myself in its blank stare.

The moment scatters. Motionless,

I stay and go: I am a pause.

Guide: Noelle Lim

Duration: 19 minutes

Image credit: Chaiyaporn Atakampeewong, Unsplash

Feeling Tone

Feeling tone or feeling sense is a sense of awareness that we typically interpret as unpleasant, pleasant or neutral. It is what puts us in a foul mood or a good one. The Pali translation in Buddhist text is “vedana”.

It is natural to desire pleasant experiences, to avoid unpleasant ones, and to zone out or feel bored, restless and even empty when there are neutral feelings (the mind constantly need stimulation). It is those underlying desires that cause us to be unhappy or stressed when things are not going according to our wishes.

The antidote is to become conscious of and to tune in to any feeling tones so that we are aware what is causing us to “suffer” in the first place. And then, we let these feelings come and go without needing to get caught up in them. We weaken the grip of reactivity, and find peace.

The practice ends with the poem On Pain by Khalil Gibran:

And a woman spoke, saying, Tell us of Pain.

And he said: Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.

Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.

And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;

And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.

And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.

Guide: Noelle Lim

Duration: 22 mins

Image credit: Tucker Good, Unsplash

Part 1: Of Mindfulness & A Masterpiece

Luncheon of the Boating Party, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1881. Image: Phillips Collection.

The painting above, Luncheon of the Boating Party is one of Renoir’s finest masterpieces, and one of his last Impressionist work. More interestingly from my perspective, it was painted using his left hand because he broke his right, but the awkward experience ended up giving him new inspiration. He wrote in a letter to a patron: “It’s even better than what I did with the right (hand). I think that was a good thing that I broke my arm. It allows me to make progress.”

That’s the essence of the program I teach, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)—giving ourselves permission to respond in new ways to difficulties instead of falling back on the security of our habitual “doing” tendencies. In the process learning new wisdom.  

Q: What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is about intentionally paying attention to the present moment with non-judgement. We pay attention to what is arising on the outside such as smell, and in our inner world: thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, impulses to act, and feeling-tones. We assume a sense of equanimity, which means staying engaged and accepting whatever that has arisen or is arising without needing to like nor dislike the experience. It is aided by bringing to bear the attitude of a beginner’s mind or curiosity, and kindness or friendliness. By doing so, the mind is more steady and less reactive. We can be more wise in our actions and speech.

Q: What then is Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)?

MBCT combines mindfulness practices and cognitive therapy principles. Three psychology professors—John Teasdale (Cambridge), Mark Williams (Bangor, now Oxford), and Zindel Segal (Toronto)—developed MBCT with the aim of providing a non-drug alternative to reducing depression relapses. This was in the 1990s. MBCT is approved by NHS England and is now also widely taught to the general population to deal with stress and to flourish. Together with MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), MBCT is considered a gold standard secular mindfulness program because they are evidence-based, and observe rigorous teaching standards. 

MBCT starts off by learning to switch out of autopilot and to ground ourselves. Henceforth we are more awake, anchored and less automatically derailed by triggers. We remain guided by our values, and have more capacity to be calm, compassionate and resilient.

Cognitive therapy is widely used by psychologists to help clients become aware of how their thoughts and feelings drive behavior. Here we appreciate that thoughts and feelings are simply outcomes of the mind and body processes. They are outside our locus of control, they are impermanent and innocuous. Hence, instead of striving to get rid of thoughts and feelings which had already arisen eg anxiety, we stay in the present moment and focus our energy on what we can do, which is forging a kind relationship toward them. Eventually anxiety reduces its grip. 

All this sounds easy and logical but when we are caught in the heat of the moment, we easily lose sight of this wisdom. That’s why we practice mindfulness frequently to allow the mind to unlearn and learn new habits. I am learning this every day!

Q: Is MBCT about just letting it be, not progressing and changing our circumstances? 

Generally, our default reaction to difficulties is to “do something” eg ruminate, blame others, avoid, suppress, neutralize with positive thoughts (even if they are untrue or unvalidated), or to keep ourselves busy and distracted. We can’t help ourselves! Mindfulness calls for a different response of non-doing. Something far less exhausting.

The invitation is to connect directly with our inner world experiences (as opposed to analyzing them in our head), to practice letting go of the need to get rid of or to fix unwanted experiences, and to accept our humanity its warts and all. This creates conditions for us to be more flexible and to see a bigger perspective rather than be ruled by our “lizard brain”. So we are on a more steady footing to decide our next course of action instead of habitually launching into avoiding, distracting, and running around in circles. 

Q: Is MBCT or mindfulness religious-based?

MBCT is adapted from MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and adds to it the understanding of cognitive therapy. Jon Kabat Zinn started a stress reduction clinic and developed MBSR at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the 1970s. His work is influenced by his yoga and Buddhist practices of calm, compassion and insight by simply accepting the present moment as it is; and to integrate these teachings with empirical research. To date, more than a thousand studies have been done on the efficacy of mindfulness-based programs, mostly showing positive or promising results for responding to physical and mental health conditions eg stress, chronic pain, depression, and anxiety.

MBSR/MBCT is informed by Buddhist psychology that suffering eg unhappiness is due to cravings and aversions formed by our non-discerning (unwholesome) judgements. But MBCT/MBSR is not Buddhism per se because it does not prescribe core Buddhism beliefs of rebirth and karma. 

It should also be noted that mindfulness and meditation are mentioned in all mainstream religions. They just differ in purpose. For Christians, the centre of awareness is God while Buddhism is about achieving enlightenment (nibbana) that requires a high level of concentration.

MBCT/MBSR is about practicing equanimity and kindness in responding to life. The anchor is whatever that is available such as sound. MBCT/MBSR program is therefore universal and secular. It is about uncovering the masterpiece within us.

For more info about my MBCT course, see 8-Week Mindfulness (Jul-Aug) here

Feel free to join my talk on the Art & Science of Mindfulness to get more details about how MBCT works. On Wed, 26 May, 7:30 – 8:30pm MYT/SGT/HKT via Zoom. Register on Eventbrite at www.bit.ly/asmindful4

Drop me a note if you have any questions or feedback: noellelimlj@gmail.com

Thanks!

Keeping Quiet, Resting The Body

During this Eid festive season, the invitation is to allow the mind to quieten and the body to rest and recharge. For those who had or will be receiving their vaccination shots for Covid-19, this mini body scan offers a helpful response to ensuing side effects like fever and body aches. Stay safe and healthy.

Inspired by Keeping Quiet by Pablo Neruda.

Life is what it is about…

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with
death.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.