Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Making Plans and Taking Steps

Life is one plan after another, one decision after another, one step after another. How we approach these plans, decisions, and steps is up to us. If we want the best for ourselves, if we want a life of emotional, mental, social, physical, financial, and spiritual well-being, we keep this well-being at the forefront of our planning, decision making, and stepping. When things go awry as they are apt to do, we can think clearly and calmly and move forward with composure and confidence. We do this by looking within and recognizing our thoughts for what they are: most often ungrounded in reality and what never actually happens. We might have doubts and fears, but we keep planning, deciding, and stepping forward. We feel the fear and do it anyway, as Susan Jeffers advises in her invaluable book of the same title, because otherwise, we never do the things we want to do. Fear will slow down or stop our lives.

This may not sound like Zen but it is. Zen is not passive acceptance or inertia. Zen is not detachment or non-attachment in the sense of not caring or giving up. Zen is not just sitting on a cushion and meditating. Zen is about waking up to our lives. Zen is about positive action for a meaningful, contented life. Zen is about being in the moment as you are doing the moment. That moment constantly changes, sometimes to our liking and sometimes not to our liking. Nonetheless, we must step forward wholeheartedly and appreciatively.

Walking meditation, or kinhin in Japanese, reminds of this. We just take the next step forward over and over again into the present moment. Robert Maurer explains in his book, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, that we can do anything we put our minds to if we just do the next small thing we need to do and take the next small step we need to take. We can go forward in life with serenity instead of anxiety and confidence rather than uncertainty. This is kaizen. When we practice kaizen we take the next step necessary to continue on our spiritual path in a way that is meaningful and mindful to us. Kaizen is kinhin (walking meditation) in our every day daily lives.

 The ability to adapt to the ever-changing future and to know that we can handle whatever comes our day is a crucial skill to have. Adapting often means changing our minds about a situation and making a decision that creates a new and better reality. When we do this we create well-being in our lives. Well-being is the ultimate goal of Zen and of all spirituality and religion.

Friday, May 30, 2014

When We Practice Mindfulness

When we practice mindfulness we develop well being in all aspects of our lives, relieve stress because we realize that we create it, increase emotional health, and discover and express our true nature.

When we practice mindfulness we focus on our breath and body, view our thoughts and feeling as friends temporarily visiting us, acknowledge our senses, and let go of our thoughts, feelings, and senses over and over again as we return to our breath.

When we practice mindfulness we remind ourselves that we don't stop our thinking but rather we compassionately and patiently train our minds to think without attachment and judgment, always remaining in the present moment.

When we practice mindfulness we gain insight because we see the impermanence of our thoughts, often illusory in their discontent, dissatisfaction, and desire, and we see the interconnection and impermanence of our lives and all of life.

Monday, March 17, 2014

My Teaching Vision Statement

Recently at a staff meeting, our middle school's principal shared with us her vision statement about education.  I liked that she did this.  Her statement revealed her passion.  Since then, I've thought a lot about my own vision statement for my teaching with more a mindfulness and kindness based philosophy. Right now it is this:

I teach students to think, read, and write 
critically, creatively, and contemplatively. 
I teach students to think, speak, and act
with kindness toward themselves and others. 
I teach students that learning is life long.
I teach students that life is about
becoming the best person they can become.
I teach students that there are wise people and wisdom
to teach them throughout life if they are willing to learn.
I teach students that life is amazing.
I teach student to appreciate each and every moment in their lives, 
including now.

The Door into My Classroom This Winter

I thought of the idea. My sixth grade advisory students created the image.  All of them had to do at least one part. It was fun to see creativity and cooperation from twenty three students.  

The Smallest Connections

This past Friday afternoon during my prep period I walked from the middle school where I teach to the copying center at the high school.  A long hallway connects the two schools.  After I dropped off my copying requests, and I was walking through the high school atrium, a high school student said, “Hi Mr. Eich.  Do you remember me?” 

It's a question I often get from high school students.  I taught them as seventh or sixth graders, and so often I don't remember them.  It's been sometimes five years since I've seen them and they've changed, grown from a middle school student into a high school student, a child into a teen.  Depending upon which year I taught them,  I taught either 300 or 150 students each  year, so it's easy to forget names and often I do. 

“I'm sorry, I don't,” I said to the boy. 

He told me his name and then said, “Do you still like Steely Dan?”

“I do,” I said. 

Then it clicked.  I remembered him. I taught him in the seventh grade.  I have my students write down personal information at the beginning of each year to get to know them better, and he had written that his favorite band was Steely Dan. It was such an unusual choice for a twelve year old boy. I told him I liked Steely Dan and asked him how he knew about this band.  He said his dad took him to a concert.    I brought in a CD of their greatest hits and gave it to him.  This student, now a senior, remembers me because I made a connection with music and gave him a used CD of mine from when I taught him five years ago.  This small connection is what he remembered about me, something I had forgotten, something that really took little effort on my part.

The moment was a great reminder to me as a teacher and as a person—and for all of us—that what we say or do for other people, no matter how small, can make a difference and often is remembered by them long after we forgot.  

Saturday, March 1, 2014


Two strategies for achieving happiness: one is to change the external environment to meet the needs (or wants) of the organism; the other is to change the internal state of the organism to adapt itself to the environment.  We can either change the world to satisfy our desires or change our desires by adapting to the world.  Both strategies aim at removing the agitation of desires, one by fulfilling them and the other by relinquishing them. 

From Unlimited Mind: The Radical Experiential Psychology of Buddhism
by Andrew Olendzki (2010)

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace.

from The Serenity Prayer
by Reinhold Niebuhr (1943)

A Walk Outside My Home

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness is the awareness of your daily activities, surroundings, and thoughts. It starts the moment you wake up and ends the moment you fall asleep. 

Mindfulness is paying attention to how you do everything: brushing your teeth, eating your meal, driving your car, talking to your children or co-workers, cleaning your house. 

Mindfulness is slowing down enough to notice and appreciate the five senses: what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch throughout your day. 

Mindfulness is becoming aware of your thoughts: what are you thinking? Are your thoughts based in realism, pessimism, or optimism?  Are your thoughts memories of the past, awareness of the present, planning for the future, or imagining possible situations? 

Meditation is focused mindfulness.  You sit still for an extended period of time (ten minutes probably the minimum) and bring awareness to your activity (meditation), your surroundings through the five senses, and your thoughts. 

Meditation is practicing mindfulness for All Other Daily Activities.  It’s a bit easier because you’re still and silent.  You aren’t, for example,  making dinner as your children are requesting your attention and you’re trying to listen to the news, which is more multi-tasking than just sitting still in silence with no distractions and the time and space to become mindful. 

What you learn while you meditate is what you want to bring into your daily activities.  That’s why meditation is important—it develops more mindfulness in our every day activities.  Meditation, and its result, mindfulness, develops patience, compassion, acceptance, and openness.  We could all use more of that during our day.  

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Mindfulness Going Mainstream

Mindfulness has made the cover of  Time magazine.  This is good news.  It means people who otherwise wouldn’t know about mindfulness will read the essay.  The essay states what mindfulness is and why we need it. 

Mindfulness is awareness of the five senses—what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell—and awareness of our emotions and thoughts.  Along with this is an acceptance of those senses, emotions, and thoughts.  This is often the more difficult part of mindfulness because we quickly judge or label our senses, thoughts, or emotions.  Acceptance is acknowledgement of the present moment. Often, however, we’re too hurried, busy, distracted, and caught up in storylines that don’t really involve us to even notice the moment, nonetheless accept it.   Acceptance doesn’t mean we like or dislike it.  Acceptance means this is what is right now.  So seldom do we realize this.

The Time essayist also wrote a lot about how technology has distracted us and how this use of technology, in particular cell phones, has created the current interest and need for mindfulness.  Being mindful of when we use our cell phones is more than societal courtesy; it’s about being more aware of the moment.  She writes about how, for example,  two people are at a restaurant, one leaves, and the other immediately gets on his or her cell phone.   Mindfulness encourages us to just notice where we are rather than use our phone for whatever reason.  Using our phones during conversations is just as prevalent, and again, mindfulness would encourage us to temporarily turn off our phones and just be aware of the conversation—the other person and ourselves--the true present moment.  Mindfulness doesn’t mean never using your cell phone to text or look up something on the internet, but it does mean becoming more mindful of when and why you are using it.   

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Counting Your Breath Meditation

Counting your breath is a good practice to calm yourself and center yourself.  Simply count one to ten and then start over again.  Count each breath.  I do this while I meditate in the morning for ten minutes. I'm surprised how often my mind has drifted and I've lost track of counting.  As soon as I do, I simply start counting my breath again.

We often think meditation needs to be a formal activity where we sit down on a cushion and meditate, but we're not sure what "meditate" means.  I believe it means sitting still for an extended period of time, and in the process trying to get your mind to sit still.  This is difficult.  We tend to think.  Even in meditation our mind thinks. It wanders to the past, present, and future. We plan, we remember.

But when you count your breath, then your mind has a different task that requires concentration.

Sometimes instead of sitting on the cushion and doing formal meditation, I sit on the couch and meditate more informally.  I set a timer, usually for ten or thirty minutes.  Sometimes I just sit; sometimes I drink a cup of tea.  I am not leaving the couch to do something.  I am not reading or writing or looking around.  I remain still and even if I'm drinking the tea, I minimize the movement by keeping the tea on my lap.   I count my breath during this time.  

I encourage you to try this informal meditation.  As I mentioned earlier, counting your breath is a helpful way to prevent your mind from wandering because you are concentrating on counting your breath.  You notice the living room, you notice the sounds. That is being mindful of your surroundings.  But you just notice them. You don't judge them. You don't think about them.  You don't tell a story about them.  Why? Because you also know that the next thought is the next number of your breath, and if you don't pay attention to the breath and the number, then you forget and lose track. If you do lose track, no big deal; just start at one and start over again.  You might start over many times. That's OK.  It's simply an indicator that my mind is a bit distracted. Don't judge yourself. Don't judge your meditation. Don't say "good meditation" or "bad meditation."  Just say "meditation."

Give it a try.