Read an Excerpt
Finding the Center Within
The Healing Way of Mindfulness Meditation
By Thomas Bien Beverly Bien
John Wiley & Sons
Copyright © 2003
Thomas Bien, Beverly Bien
All right reserved.
KNOW WHERE YOU ARE
* * *
If you are trying to know God, you must imagine that death is already
gripping you by the hair. If you are trying to win power
and fame, you must imagine that you will live forever.
-Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)
Pushing the Stone Uphill
Judy flew home from the peaceful retreat center on the northern
California coast. The day was cold and gray. Newark airport was
busy as ever. Though she half expected it, the indifference and suspiciousness
of the travelers and the airport workers shocked her. Reflexively,
she smiled at one person as she had been doing all week on
her retreat. He looked away quickly, as if to say, "What do you want?
Leave me alone." Men touched their pockets to check for their wallets;
women guarded their purses.
The airport atmosphere contrasted dramatically with the smiling,
happy people at the retreat with the famous author. She felt well,
whole, and calm just beingthere with him and all those friendly
As she stepped into the dark emptiness of her house, everything
she'd left behind engulfed her: the loneliness, the half-completed plans
and projects, all the unfulfilled good intentions. Even her cat's gaze induced
guilt for leaving him. As cats sometimes do, he punished her for
her absence by pointedly ignoring her. Six messages from work nagged
at her, and her heart sank when she heard them. They were like a
strong undertow pulling her down with great force. She reminded herself
quickly that her next retreat was only two months away. For although
this had been her fourth retreat this year, she always had the
next one planned. Her friend Mark said it was the workshop, and
though she did not recognize the name of the famous leader, she nodded
knowingly when he mentioned it. Yes, of course she'd heard of her
from the Oprah show.
Seekers like Judy deserve credit. They have taken a crucial step.
They have paid attention to their sense that something is missing and
are trying to do something about it. At least they are looking in places
that actually contain help, instead of the more indulgent, destructive
paths some follow. The difficulty is in connecting these insights to
Judy tried to bridge the gap between the mountaintop experience of
her retreats and workshops with the valley experience of everyday life
by staying one step ahead of herself-always having the next retreat or
workshop planned before returning from the present one. Her real life
was overwhelmingly complicated. It was easier to live with vague fantasies
of self-improvement than to face the complexities. Someday she
would get it all together. Someday she would have the right job, the
right relationship, enough money, live in the right place, and have all
the right thoughts and feelings. Someday she would know peace and
wholeness. It all seemed to depend on finding the right workshop, getting
the right prepackaged answers.
Judy had been a retreat and workshop junkie for years. Her strategy
of always having the next workshop planned succeeded just enough at
staving off anxiety that she never saw its futility. She kept pushing that
stone up the hill and ignoring that it always rolled back down. The retreats
and the workshops that she attended were wonderful, and she
found wisdom and supportive people at them. The problem was not
with the retreats. The problem lay with something deeper, with the way
Judy kept the focus off of herself and her own life, the way she kept
looking outside herself for the answers. Judy could not resist the urge
to tinker with herself. The more she did this, the more the peace she
sought eluded her grasp.
Connect Where You Are
The essential thing people want to know from teachers and therapists
comes down to this: How can I be happy? How can I find peace?
The essential answer is always the same: Begin where you are.
If the 1970s were the "Me Decade," and the 1980s were the decade
of greed, today we look back on a century of growing self-preoccupation.
Freud published his first major work, The Interpretation of Dreams,
right at the birth of the twentieth century. And from that point on, we
have been increasingly fascinated with ourselves. Yet at the same time,
our anxiety and uncertainty have only increased. For all this fascination
and preoccupation, we are more estranged than ever from ourselves
and our world.
The reasons we have failed to find peace through all this astonishing
effort are doubtless complex. But part of the answer is that we are looking
in the wrong place. Part of the answer is that all of our searching
leads nowhere if it is rooted in a fundamental distrust of ourselves and
our nature. Psychology can help and spirituality can help. But as long
as our searching is rooted in self-distrust, we will always be trying on
someone else's answer. Workshops and retreats and other tools can only
be helpful if you use them to help you connect with where you are.
There are many different complications, roles, and roadblocks in our
lives that contribute to pushing the stone uphill. There are also many
attitudes and beliefs that contribute to our incessant motion that leads
us nowhere and in fact keeps us stuck in the same place. But before trying
to understand the way out, we need to take a look at how we got
into this mess in the first place.
Look at Life's Curveballs
Sometimes life throws a major curveball at us. Times of major change,
for good or ill, are obvious challenges to our capacity to remain centered.
At such times, even the most spiritually advanced and psychologically
whole among us will be thrown off.
Among the negative changes, there are the obvious traumatic events,
such as the death of a spouse, parent, child, or other loved one; the unexpected
and undesired divorce; the major health problem. These are
difficult passages, requiring time, patience, and a lot of support from
others. We are thrown out of rhythm and balance. And indeed it would
be strange and unnatural if death or major loss did not affect us deeply.
For a time, life is empty and pointless. But as time passes, we resume
our lives and go on. As we move through our grief, we begin to heal and
gradually we are able to return to center. Eventually we integrate the
loss and function again, though we remain changed by the experience.
Less generally acknowledged is that positive changes, such as promotions,
marriage, career changes, graduations, significant success, and
the birth of children, are also difficult curveballs. While we may feel incredibly
happy, the earth is shifting beneath our feet, and it can be difficult
to stay centered and peaceful. And so even in the face of good fortune,
we may lose our center.
Life's curveballs, while difficult, are nonetheless opportunities for
learning and growth to take place. Life is a school and the universe is
constantly sending us lessons. But we need a way to come back to the
center so that we can look at the havoc that these events can wreak
on our psychospiritual well-being, understand them, and continue on
But perhaps even more important are the background tensions, the
chronic conditions of modern life that make it difficult to stay centered
during times of major change.
Open to Abundance
So why do we lose our way even when there are no major losses or
changes? What knocks us off course and prevents us from holding onto
that balanced, peaceful place: the center within?
In Buddhist cosmology there is a strange and peculiar realm called
the land of hungry ghosts. The land of hungry ghosts overflows, as the
Bible would put it, with milk and honey. It is a land of abundance. The
beings that dwell there, however, are a little strange. They have huge,
empty, distended bellies and tiny, pin-size openings for mouths. This is
a picture, in other words, of a huge appetite, but an inability to satisfy it
no matter how abundant the surrounding world. In fact, the hellish aspect
of this realm is not that anything is lacking, but rather, that everything
is there, right in front of you, readily and easily available. Only
you cannot avail yourself of it because you can never get enough of it
through your tiny mouth. It is not lack, but the inability to open to the surrounding
abundance that is the source of the torture.
In some ways the developed nations of the West are just such a
realm. We live in a land overflowing and abundant, but we are plagued
by anxiety, depression, and dissatisfaction. Instead of enjoying the
abundance, we focus on what is lacking. Like hungry ghosts, we never
get enough. The abundance only convinces us that we are not getting
our share, increasing our already swollen appetites. No matter how
much we have, the focus remains on having more.
The point is not so much that desire is wrong per se. You are not a
materialist for wanting abundance or a careerist for desiring success.
The universe is generous and longs to bless you with your heart's desire.
But these things can become problematic when we put them at the
center. Desire can lead to an endless cycle. While we imagine a particular
level of wealth will suffice, once achieved, this level is no longer
quite enough. We then need still a little more. The attempt to find
peace by such means is an attempt to quench our thirst with saltwater:
the very nature of our efforts only makes it worse.
Escape from the Future
Another reason we lose our center is that we postpone life rather than
live it. Planning is unavoidable to some degree, and planning is no
more the enemy than desire is. But when planning for the future takes
over the present to such an extent that the present becomes unreal, insubstantial,
and ghostlike, we have lost our center. Planning mindfully
means knowing we are just planning. We do not confuse it with the
present reality. When done in the right spirit, there's a lightness about
planning. You know reality is endlessly complex and endlessly evolving
beyond our capacity to foresee. And since our plans therefore need
continual refining and adjustment-if not total revision-there is no
sense to get too caught up in them.
Can you enjoy future food? Can you drink tomorrow's water? Most
of us try to do just that, yet you can only nurture yourself with the food
and water that are here and now.
Judy avoids living today by focusing on the next retreat or workshop.
The student postpones life till he gets his degree, the businessperson
till she achieves some imagined height of financial success. Is that person
out running around the track truly happy? Perhaps not. His head
may be filled with visions of what he will be like six months from now,
when he can run farther and faster, when his body-fat percentage is
even lower. And in the meanwhile, all of us are missing it. We are missing
our lives. The irony is, a life full of so-called purpose and planning
and goals is ultimately without point. For while we are preoccupied
with our plans, life is happening. Life is not waiting until we are done
planning. And while we are defining our goals, we are missing the
whole thing. For life consists only of this present moment-the very
one we are so busy running away from.
Where Are You?
Right now: Where are you? Come back from your worries and plans, to
where you are now as you read. How are you breathing? How are
you sitting? How does your body feel? What is the quality of your
thinking, your self-talk? Don't criticize or try to change any of this. Just
spend a few minutes being quietly aware, as much as possible without
This is it. This is your life.
* * *
The Experience (Tom)
As I write this, my fingers feel cold. I feel the precise resistance of
the computer keys, feel the pressure of my wrists where they rest
on the edge of the desk. My stomach anticipates lunch. I hear
birds outside my window trying to sing spring a little closer while
the cold, March New Mexican winds try just as hard to keep it
winter. There's a slight tightness in my abdomen as I focus intently
on writing. There is both a sense of curiosity about how this
chapter will turn out, and the effort to get the sentence and the
paragraph to come out right.
Become Aware of Fragmentation
A special problem of present-day life that detracts from our well-being
is the fragmentation we experience as we are pressed between conflicting
roles and tasks. The many masks we wear and the roles we play can
lead us away from the center.
Our work can be fragmenting, and it doesn't matter how complicated
the job is. Sometimes other people's work looks enviably easier
than our own. But when you're in that apparently simple job, it still has
many aspects and demands. Being a homemaker, for example, is not the
simple task others romantically imagine: "What is most important for
me to do now? Should I do the grocery shopping or go to the cleaner's?
Do the banking or vacuum the carpet? Have I done enough now to be
able to take a break and do something I enjoy, like watching my favorite
program, reading my book, listening to my favorite symphony, or just
calling a friend and talking for a while? Or do I need to do more first?
And, oh, I forgot to defrost something for dinner tonight." And just
when you think you've got it figured out, the kids come home from
school and demand your attention; the phone rings and that aggressive
long distance carrier tries yet again to sell you its services (how did you
ever get on its list, anyway?); the doorbell rings; you suddenly remember
you need to pay the mortgage.
There is nothing easy or simple about running a home. Even within
this one role, there are many competing demands. And of course it is
more complicated than this for many of us. Most of us must deal not
only with the complexity of one role, but with balancing the complexity
of many roles.
Is it any wonder that we sometimes find ourselves yearning for some
other, simpler time; some past or future Eden; some time when we
know what is expected of us; some time when things are easier; some
time when we can just earn a living, or just be a homemaker, or just be a
parent or a friend or a spouse; or some time when we do not have to do
any of that at all and can just sit on the beach and sip margaritas? Beverly
says, let's move to the islands and sell T-shirts. Yet she knows this is
the time we have, the life we have.
Acknowledge Your Many Roles
Get out pen and paper.
Excerpted from Finding the Center Within
by Thomas Bien Beverly Bien
Copyright © 2003 by Thomas Bien, Beverly Bien.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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