Dewy daisy

I met someone recently who has a feature on his phone that allows him to tap his screen and make water seem to ripple from the touched spot. He said it relaxes him, and given that he’s a newly recovering addict, I reigned in my critical impulse—I mean, I hope his phone does have a calming influence, since that would beat the hell out of his using heroin.

Even so, I have questions: Is such a device the portable tech version of the tabletop Zen sand garden, which is itself a marketable version of actual Zen gardens, careful oases of stillness and contemplation on a crowded chain of islands with a militaristic past and consumerist present? Is rippling water on a phone a translation of ancient wisdom for our times—a digital, audiovisual haiku—or a trading of engagement for instant gratification?

Mindfulness seems to be everywhere and nowhere these days, and I can understand why some Buddhists take issue with the trend—those of the opinion that meditation without precepts is an ungrounded activity. I don’t share that perspective exactly; I see lots of evidence that mindfulness, as a non-affiliated practice, can be transformational. Indeed, that has been my own experience. But “practice” is the key, and I don’t believe there are shortcuts for that. No apps, no props, not even good books on the subject can accomplish what just sitting regularly in meditation can.

For my groups at the jail, for example, I developed a ten-week curriculum on “The Skills of Mindfulness,” and I could open my notebook anytime, anywhere, and credibly explain my outlines and handouts. But the difference between theory and praxis is as great as the biblical “letter” vs. “spirit” of the law. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what I’ve already learned from mindful meditation, how it’s made me aware of myself in a new way as I interact with the world. But whatever memory for the benefits I possess, when I’m not actively practicing, I feel different—more harried, less steady, a poorer communicator. Out of touch with myself and what matters to me.

How much meditation is enough? At a minimum, I would say five dedicated minutes every day without fail are worth more than thirty now and then, and for those new to meditation, taking on too much can backfire. Bhante Gunaratana warns against this in Mindfulness in Plain English, making clear that starting modestly allows us to incorporate a practice into our actual lives (and thereby transform them), whereas an extreme commitment is usually untenable and will quickly fall to the wayside. This also resonates with Dorothea Brande’s advice to aspiring writers, worth quoting at length:

“We customarily expend enough energy in carrying out any simple action to bring about a result three times greater than the one we have in view. This is true from the simplest matters to the most complex and of physical effort as well as mental. If we climb stairs, we climb them with every muscle and organ laboring as though our soul’s salvation were to be found on the top step, and the result is that we grow resentful at the disproportionate returns we receive from our expended energy. Or, putting a great deal more energy out than we can use, we must take it up, somehow, in purposeless motion. Everyone has had the experience of pushing a door that looked closed with more vigor than was necessary and of falling into the next room as a consequence. Or we have picked up some light object which looked deceptively heavy. If you notice yourself on such an occasion, you will see that you must make a slight backward motion merely to retrieve your balance.” (from Becoming a Writer)

One way to recognize a trend (as opposed to, say, a movement) is to notice whether it’s feeding commerce more than it feeds the human spirit. However often we now hear the word “mindful” spoken in various contexts, talking the talk is ultimately meaningless if that’s all that’s happening. There is a garden within to tend; there are waters to touch and observe. To quote that excellent song by the Dirty Projectors, “stillness is the move.”



What’s this about April being the cruelest month?* You’d never catch a pollinator saying that! Not in this latitude, anyway. After a seemingly endless winter, with its freezing sleep, the earth is waking up—and I, for one, spend my days diving in and out of crocuses. You haven’t lived until you’ve felt the great sky behind you but suddenly distant, the violet silk of petals all around, and golden pistils lighting your way into the chambers of another world…

Okay, so I’m not a bee—but I remember vividly a time last summer when I noticed a hydrangea tree buzzing all over. As I paused to watch one bumble bee at his labors, his back legs thickly padded with pollen, something about the way he dipped again and again into the same blossom gave me a dizzying physical sensation of his motion. At a certain point, he cupped the blossom and pressed it close around his head, and I felt a kind of creature-to-creature empathy.

This became one of the activities in my mindfulness class at the jail: not to imagine we could know another’s thoughts or feelings, but to give ourselves over to the pure sensation we might extrapolate from various physical cues. Right now I’m facing a wall; what would it be like to be on the other side of the table, facing the door? I’m wearing a soft aqua sweater today; what would it be like to wear a worn gray sweatshirt instead? What would it be like to be taller, more muscular, bearded? What would it be like to hold my forehead with that tension, deeply creased? One group member was driven half-mad by a noisy cellmate, and I suggested he imagine, next time the man was carrying on, those words at that volume issuing from his own mouth.

To evoke the spirit of the activity, I passed out photocopies of this poem by Pattiann Rogers, who kindly gave me permission to post it here.




Suppose Your Father Was a Redbird


Suppose his body was the meticulous layering

Of graduated down which you studied early,

Rows of feathers increasing in size to the hard-splayed

Wine-gloss tips of his outer edges.


Suppose, before you could speak, you watched

The slow spread of his wing over and over,

The appearance of that invisible appendage,

The unfolding transformation of his body to the airborne.

And you followed his departure again and again,

Learning to distinguish the red microbe of his being

Far into the line of the horizon.


Then today you might be the only one able to see

The breast of a single red bloom

Five miles away across an open field.

The modification of your eye might have enabled you

To spot a red moth hanging on an oak branch

In the exact center of the Aurorean Forest.

And you could define for us “hearing red in the air,”

As you predict the day pollen from the poppy

Will blow in from the valley.


Naturally you would picture your faith arranged

In filamented principles moving from pink

To crimson at the final quill. And the red tremble

Of your dream you might explain as the shimmer

Of his back lost over the sea at dawn.

Your sudden visions you might interpret as the uncreasing

Of heaven, the bones of the sky spread,

The conceptualized wing of the mind untangling.


Imagine the intensity of your revelation

The night the entire body of a star turns red

And you watch it as it rushes in flames

Across the black, down into the hills.


If your father was a redbird,

Then you would be obligated to try to understand

What it is you recognize in the sun

As you study it again this evening

Pulling itself and the sky in dark red

Over the edge of the earth.


Pattiann Rogers

from The Dream of the Marsh Wren: Writing As Reciprocal Creation


* T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land.”


In the Rider-Waite tarot tradition, the twentieth card in the major arcana (the portion of the deck representing archetypal themes) stands for Judgment.

It’s a heavy word, isn’t it? Even spoken, a product of breath and vibration, those two syllables seem weightier than others. Judgment. Some of us carry it on our backs, some of us bear it in our arms. Some of us, like Sisyphus, push it perpetually uphill. The tarot card, however, represents forgiveness, renewal, rebirth. Judgment in that tradition is also penultimate to the card of integration and fulfillment, the final card in the Fool’s journey, and is meaningful as such.

While the birds were concluding their dawn chorus today, I made one of my rare visits to the town’s Episcopal church. I guessed the theme, given the day, would be resurrection, and that’s a potent word for me, as I near the end of an exceptionally long four-year process. How will I emerge? What will I find when I do? I thought the sermon might stimulate my thoughts. The salt-of-the-earth rector’s talks rarely disappoint; he brings boyish enthusiasm to the experience of awe. This morning he said that most of us live as though resurrection is a concept of the past, a subject for historical discussion, or a concept of the future, a fate that awaits. But no, he said—it is present, it is with us, it is active. “Not a spectator sport,” he said. The action of resurrection is love and forgiveness.

I thought about the ramifications of such an attitude for my personal life and in relation to the broader world. I thought about the value of co-construction.

Restorative justice is a model of judgment that incorporates the concept of renewal, and as I paused on the front walk of the building where I live, to examine the tight red buds tipping the trees, my thoughts turned to the county jail. Late last summer and into the fall, I led a ten-part “skills of mindfulness” course there, with two different groups, one of men, one of women. Roughly halfway through, I asked all participants to write two letters: one to a loved one, living or dead, explaining the concept of mindfulness; and one to me, in which they were to evaluate their progress in the class. This letter is shared with permission.


Hi EA,

There are definite pluses and minuses to incorporating mindfulness into a convict’s daily life, as I’m discovering. On one hand I have a routine every day. It’s always the same and as such, I am able to choose a time for meditation that best fits. For me, just after lunch works. I’m awake and there’s ample time before the noon lockdown to get into the correct state of mind. And if it falls through I have time to plan and execute another.

On the other hand, interruptions are a way of life here. Just today, as I meditated, I had three visitors come in the room and twice they wanted to talk. I usually have earplugs in to lessen the effects of shouting, TV, showers, toilets, intercoms and all other such matters of distraction. I imagine it’s the same on the outside. Sometimes it works better than others.

But I’m also trying to work mindfulness into regular living, accepting that this is where I am now and how things are. I’ve been trying to be less judgmental for the past year in response to my legal situations. I realized that I needed to change for the positive, that a lifetime of being negative and bottling things up, as is expected of males in our society, did not lead to a happy, fulfilling life. And I hope mindfulness can bring some good changes. It definitely seems to relieve tension, even in this not so perfect climate. I have yet to see if mindfulness is something I will be able to continue in regular life (on the outside), but I will try.

My girlfriend actually started me on mindfulness and meditation before I was incarcerated and day to day living seemed to throw things at me that made me forget about the daily practice.

But I consider it a marathon, not a sprint, and a journey, not a destination, so hopefully it will become more integral to my life as the months and years pass.

Thank you for your part in my journey.


For a little over a year, I’ve been aware of, and making use of, a mindfulness technique put forth by Dr. Nirbhay Singh and colleagues. It’s officially called the (unwieldy but descriptive) “Meditation on the Soles of the Feet” and was designed for use with a developmentally challenged, aggressive adult in a community living environment.

It’s a protocol well suited for such a client because the directions are quite simple, and the practice itself doesn’t require a lot of patience. For those same reasons, I think it appropriate for most everyone. I have personally employed it on occasion, shared it with inmates, and taught it to several kids, whose responses have been notable and encouraging. More about that in future.

The basic directions for this protocol can be found here. And, for purposes of illustration, below is a graduate student demonstration of the technique, in which Student A (“Sarah”) is meant to be eight years old, and Student B is meant to be her school counselor. There are several things I like about the video (the decor not being among them—please, someone, deal with the blinds!).

For one thing, it was extemporaneous. Without rehearsal, Student B had to adjust and respond to whatever Student A said, lending verisimilitude to the project. “Sarah” brought her own set of feelings, reasons, and metaphors to the situation; her counselor was more likely to succeed with her by incorporating them.

Something else I appreciate here is that, while clearly looking, and mostly sounding, like a young woman in her twenties, Student A struck upon something that many, many kids feel in situations that end up landing them in hot water: “I just wanted him/her/them to listen to me.” Often these are kids who aren’t feeling heard at home, for whatever reason. A sensitive counselor helps in large part by doing good listening, at least partly meeting that need.

A special note: in this video, the counselor suggests enlisting the classroom teacher to remind “Sarah” of the mindfulness skill she’s learning. This kind of collaboration can work beautifully or fail utterly, depending largely on the teacher’s approach. Expressed kindly and privately, a helpful reminder can serve its purpose—but children resent it, as do we grownups, when some bit of privileged information seems to be used against us, especially publicly. That being said…

* This demonstration is rather free-form and doesn’t follow the full protocol contained in the authors’ manual, which was unknown and hence unavailable to these students. It may still have some merit. Video used with permission.


I was once in a band of two. Having no ear for music, I was the frustrated lyricist, dependent on my bandmate’s gift for composition. There was one song we sang together, however, that was wholly mine. It had but four lyrics, repeated: Clemency. Softness. Sweetness. Mercy. I see that now as an inadvertent loving-kindness meditation.

The tradition of loving-kindness meditation is a long one and takes many forms. The one I use, said to be Tibetan, looks like this: “May I be filled with loving-kindness. May I be well. May I be peaceful and at ease. May I be happy.” Susan Kaiser-Greenland, in her good work, uses the term “friendly wishes” and encourages children to invent their own; she writes about that in her book The Mindful Child.

Loving-kindness as a practice involves directing positive intentions first toward ourselves, then toward those we care about, followed by those for whom our feelings are relatively neutral, and finally toward those against whom we harbor ill will.

This can be a slow progression; words like “first,” “then,” and “followed by” misleadingly elide the steps, which are meant not only to be sequential but to represent increasing mastery, gained over time. For myself, I tend to think the practice is lifelong and nonlinear. Love of self isn’t necessarily the easiest step, despite being the first.

In my mindfulness groups at the county jail, I chose not to introduce the whole concept of loving-kindness at the start, wanting to establish purity of focus and prevent bias or resistance. (The notion of wishing that good fortune might befall an enemy is easier to swallow when one’s own life has been sweetened.) As I was explaining the first phase—sitting mostly with addicts, who tend to struggle with self-esteem—a picture flashed into my mind. I described it thus:

Imagine that you’re looking into a well, and the water in this well is pure and sweet, but there’s no bucket or ladder to help you access it. There are stones on the ground, however—smooth, clean stones that you can drop in one by one to raise the level. At last, you can bend, cup your hands, and drink. Loving-kindness is like that. Each intention is a smooth stone that, eventually, can help you quench your thirst. May you be filled with loving-kindness. May you be well. May you be peaceful and at ease. May you be happy.


The first woman to arrive walked through the door at 8:15, with red pillow marks creasing the right side of her face. She had woken suddenly, she explained, fearing she’d missed the class. For several days preceding, she had been “in the hole” and had worried, there, that she wouldn’t make it back by Sunday to the unit where we meet. Her abrupt waking that morning, I inferred, was ignited by the fuel of the whole week.

This past Sunday morning was my third spent facilitating mindfulness groups at the jail. It was not so easy for me, either, to wake and rise, with earth’s tilt and spin holding the dark in place longer—a striking change, in just one week, that raised my consciousness of the season the way goose-pimpled skin raises hairs in their follicles. Fall is coming, and winter right behind.

It seemed perhaps this shift was felt throughout the jail. When I arrived at the women’s unit, the cafeteria space was sparsely populated, and the bunk beds beyond were full. I organized the photocopies I’d brought while I waited for the group to gather. As I waited, I had the chance to reflect on how I was feeling about the waiting—the quietly rising stress of not having time to get through the day’s agenda, and the discomfort of knowing that group members would need to be woken in order to join me. (The fact that the stress rose quietly represents progress I’ve made.)

My self-noticing was buttressed by a scrap of conversation I’d caught en route to the jail, between On Being’s Krista Tippett and her guest, cellist Yo-Yo Ma. As I drove along the tree-lined highway, beneath a sky cleared by the night’s rain, he commented on how his performance is affected not just by the instrument he’s using, but also by the space he’s playing in, which he considers another instrument. The environment is part of what happens—it has to be. “If you’re going to perform someplace,” he said, “please don’t fall in love with what you’ve constructed.”

My plans for the day involved a discussion of “fight, flight, or freeze” and the maladaptive role that our evolutionary stress response can play in situations that are not actually a matter of life or death. I was looking forward to hearing the inmates’ perspectives and also to communicating my enthusiasm for the power of the brain as demonstrated by Dr. Ellen Langer’s research, gathered in Counterclockwise, and V.S. Ramachandran’s work with those suffering from phantom limb syndrome, as profiled some years back in The New Yorker.

(When I discuss such concepts, I like to ask first if the inmates in my group are familiar with them; if they are, I invite them to share what they know with any others who require explanation—a tried-and-true approach to increasing involvement in the class and also one that demonstrates respect for inmates’ experience and learning, the richness of which many times flies in the face of common assumptions about jails and those who end up there. One young man in a group I guest-led in August, for example, knew about the Ramachandran discovery using mirrors to “restore” the missing limb of an amputee. I loved hearing him tell it and knew I could always restate things if I saw the need, or fill in any gaps after he had finished speaking.)

All this is to say that I had plans, and I thought they were good ones. Our period of discussion was intended to lead into a body scan activity, followed by one involving progressive muscle relaxation, after which I would share handouts for them to keep, detailing the two exercises. I was nervous to bear the responsibility of being the guiding voice during these, but I was eager to offer the women (at 8:00) and the men (at 9:00) potentially new skills to practice in the weeks to come.

Our session didn’t begin until 8:30, though, and even then was missing two members—one who’d been removed from the unit for a spell and not made it back, and one who sent word that she was sick. The call for medication dispensing further interrupted proceedings, as did a brief discussion about the circumstances leading to all this lost time. Body scan? Muscle relaxation? Not a chance. There was barely time to consider what to prioritize in my notes, although I settled quickly on “adaptive” and “maladaptive,” another pair of terms I relish from my social work education.

I admit, I was disappointed and also challenged as to how I’d make up the lost half-hour in our eight-week curriculum, which I’d plotted out so carefully over the course of the summer. But in that first fifteen minutes, when it was just the one young woman and myself, she shared with great excitement that she had been allowed just one book during her time of exile, and that some inspired person in the jail—blessings upon whomever that was—had given her Thich Nhat Hanh’s Anger to take with her. She shared with me that she’s not usually much of a reader but devoured this book and identified deeply with it. “I don’t know,” she said, seeming to marvel at the confluence of events. “This class, this book—there’s just something about mindfulness.”



Trees and water

Yesterday morning, I led my first “skills of mindfulness” groups at the county jail. (Within the institution, the group meetings are referred to as classes, and I’m considered a teacher; but I think of my role more as that of facilitator, since I’m strictly a volunteer and there to learn from the inmates as well as to relay what I can.) I found the experience so profound that I felt I couldn’t simply return home afterward and instead did something I too rarely do: I went to a park and sat at a picnic table to look at my curriculum and just be with my thoughts under the sun and shifting shade of old trees.

Somehow it surprised me how many other people came to the park and seemed to respect it as a quiet refuge, too. Among them were an older woman, a younger woman, and a boy of perhaps three. They walked down to the edge of the pond and spent a long time there. I was absorbed in my contemplations and didn’t look up all that often, although I noticed the pleasure the boy seemed to take in throwing stones into the water. Finally, I heard them discussing plans to return home, and the boy, with infinite curls, ran ahead of the women. As he passed my picnic table, I offered, “I like your stripes!” He had horizontal stripes on his shirt, vertical stripes on his shorts. He said, “I’m running so fast!” “You are,” I said, “you’re running like the wind!” Up the hill he went, the two women following.

Ten minutes or more later, I glanced up and saw him making his way back down the hill, drawn like a magnet to a utility pole with some fuse boxes on it. He reached up to touch them, and as the women were not yet in sight, I called out, “Hey—you know, I think there’s electricity in those boxes, so it’s probably better not to play with them.” “Oh!” he said, and ran over, directing his curiosity toward the large jar of tea that sat on the table. We had a little chat about my tea, and how much of it there was left to drink, before the women caught up to him, and again they made their way to the water before turning around to head home.

This time, the boy did not run. “You’re walking!” I said. “Before, you were running like the wind. What are you walking like?” He came over and grasped the edge of the table in his small brown hands, seeming to give the matter serious thought. “I walk like a person,” he concluded.


How does this story relate to mindfulness? It’s the fact that we were both so much in the moment. We shared the present moment together. And because of the way he seemed to let his mind rove through the realm of possibilities, in a manner that I imagine would delight Dr. Ellen Langer, before landing on the one that struck him as true and right. The beauty of his free and open mind reinforced the joy I’d felt that morning, sitting in two different rooms, in two different units at the jail, with men and with women who were choosing to try something new. There they were, and there I was, sharing the present. All of us, each of us, being like persons.