I have been a spiritual person all my life. Professionally so.
But also, in the most personal of ways, private and deep, this sense of the world and supreme being who it, that is, absurdly larger than myself, has allowed me a faith, hope, love which are also not based on the mere work of my hands or will at all. It was the wonder of this freedom that invited me into the more, that finally was known, in stillness.
Most of my hobbies as a man are loud. Fast, active, physical and loud. Boxing, gun sports, exercise, cars and motorcycles. Running and some lifting. Action and competition and bodily. I love these things. They are who I am. I live into these things and then live back out of them. They make me more of me. But also, the “noise” of all of these things tire me, fatigue me. More than a physical exertion that simply tires the body. These, on top of all the things me in life (dad of 5 daughters, grandpa of 6, someone who works, someone who worries...etc), pile up in a way that wearies me until I cannot quite catch my breath.
I am a fairly new at meditation. It is a hidden, neglected part of most faiths, even the Christian faith, that was intended to allow the participant to join the divine in a stillness that defies all the noise around us. But it is also a stillness that allows a strength and focus that is impossible to know otherwise. Absolutely, utterly, nowhere possible.
So, 3 simple observations from a man who now meditates:
I can choose to be still.
Amid all the chaos of these days (and I do not presume these days are any more chaotic than any others, per se) I can embrace stillness. I can enter into this. Amid all the things simply me.... relationships and job and play, I can enter this. As I begin to go there, I can know, I can be aware of and even envision, that all the universe around me can is loud and frantic in its energy, in its discord. Personal or otherwise. Collective or individual. Circling. And yet, I can choose to be still. Right there. Exactly there, I can choose to be still with all of this swirling around me. I can choose, with practice, to to quiet all the negative, repeating thoughts inside of me as well; inside my own head as a man, as a male, I can let go all of the swirling secret, private thoughts that I am a failure, that I am not all that I should be. That I don’t measure up. I can enter into that quiet and do something that is a simple kindness to me, knowing the deep stillness where I am as exactly as I should be.
I find my strength within me.
When I meditate, I most often have a sensation of moving down. I get to be gathered back into myself and the feeling of that, for me, is to move down into myself. I feel my body, secure and solid, sitting. Core. Shoulders and arms. Ass and legs, sturdy. Safe. Secure. And from there, from that strength, I move down into myself. No longer fragmented or scattered about for the sake of all I need to do, all I need to be. In this moment, in these breaths, I am just me. In myself. I can, from this sense of still-strength, I can simply be a watcher of me - of my feelings, of my thoughts, of my fears, of my heart’s contentments, and as the simple, strong observer of this me, I can let things go.... I can make more of what I wish to. I can recognize the best parts of me and let go of those things which finally are little of me. And all of that, for me, feels like a squatting down. A settling down. An allowing a downward move into myself that then tends toward lightness, freeness as I end the practice and move into my day. I can re-arrive at this place whenever I choose, even as I do my day. Driving. Readying for bed. Any time that I need to find this strength, to move down.
I'm more present and engaged in my life.
Also, then, I can be the wild animal who crouches in the brush, camouflaged, gathered, hidden for the sake of moving up and out of that stillness to hunt. To live life fully engaged. NOT playing catch-up. NOT always behind the curve. NOT always waging a losing fight. You may rise up and out of the quieted stillness and be altogether aware. Present. We as men typically measure ourselves by all that we achieve, often times at the expense of those relationally in our lives. But, out of stillness, like a big cat who suddenly appears full speed out of crouching, we can do, literary do our lives, purposefully. Not haphazardly. Not accidentally. Not unawares. All the things I love to do that are loud and forceful and driven, I enter these from the strength and focus of stillness. For all those whom I love, from this practice, I love them better, both in knowing who myself to be, but also with some of the fears set aside, literally quieted, I get to love and be a better presence in their lives.
Out of stillness, thoughts emptied out for the expressed purpose to quiet the soul, we come from that, free to choose up the best parts of ourselves. The highest versions of ourselves comes up and out of stillness, not out of the frantic, desperate attempts to keep up. Not out of the endless losing battle to get enough things done. With meditation, I live, love, work, and play much more fully and with greater attention to that which, those who, bring me joy.
Alan is a former Pastor, serving the Lutheran Church for over 25 years. He is now retired from ministry and serving at-risk young men at a residential treatment facility. He enjoys loud things, quiet time, and the love of friends and family. He learned to meditate in January 2020.
I was quoted in Forbes! 😲
It's a pretty good day when you find out your words and name appear in global publication such as Forbes! Here's the quote:
“We’re losing the battle for our attention if we don’t make time for meditation every day. Meditation empowers us to respond with our brilliance rather than react with our fear-brain to stressful situations,” meditation expert Angela Swanson of Cloud Nine Meditation tells me. “Our brains need to rest. A daily meditation practice gets us off the hamster wheel of our incessant worrying, problem-solving, and analyzing and gives us much needed time to pause and relax. When we’re calm and centered, the more effective we are. We’re able to meet the needs before us with uncommon clarity, creativity, and compassion.”
One thing is for sure, the holidays can be extremely stressful for some of us.
Seems like there's an extra helping of sadness, anxiety, disappointment, and grief this time of year. And what makes it even worse is that it's supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year.
If you find yourself in the hollow empty spaces of dark thoughts and feelings, first know that you're not alone. You don't need to suffer in silence. (See below for crisis hotlines)
Second, consider unwrapping these two gifts that darkness brings:
1. Unconditional permission to take care of yourself
Whether this means removing yourself from toxic situations or calling a friend who's a good listener or simply asking yourself this question, "what do I need right now?" Honoring your needs is essential. I can't tell you how many people I know who think they have to suffer through their pain instead of tending to it.
2. Light for the way
If you stop and think about it, light is brightest in dark places: headlights on cars, a lighthouse in a storm, stars at night. Darkness and adversity threaten to blind us BUT if we open our eyes and look around we can see clearly where help is, where hope is, where love is. If you simply can't see it, go back to #1. Taking care of yourself clears the mental lens so you can find your way.
I love you, my friend.
With joy, wonder, and unapologetic self-care,
Are you a list-maker?
I’ve got something for you that you can put on the list in your mind. (Because I know you’ve got a few lists going there, too!)
Good news! It’s just ONE thing!
I want you to know the 1 single thing that’s absolutely required to realize the benefits of meditation:
You have to do it.
All the knowledge in the world isn’t enough to reap the rewards of meditation. Here’s what you don’t get if you don’t actually meditate:
So on those mornings you’d rather sleep-in than meditate, or when you’re tempted to read, read, and read some more about personal growth instead of practicing what will help you get there, remember this one thing:
Knowing about it won’t help you. Doing it will.
Do you need help getting started with meditation? Or making it a daily habit?
Learn to meditate so you can stop trying to meditate.
I'll be honest. There are a few people I wish would not show up at the holiday gatherings this year. You know the ones: they talk too much, complain too much, drink too much, laugh too loud, and they don't help with the dishes.
Dangit. It makes me want to avoid gatherings altogether and stay home and binge-watch Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel. 🤦♀️
The trouble with people is... they're just like me.
Ouch! That didn't feel good. (Hang in there, buttercup, it gets better.)
Just a little bit of empathy can go a very long way with people you're having difficulties with.
This exercise can be done with someone you barely know or with someone who triggers you left and right. It's a way to let go of assumptions and focus on what we have in common with others.
Just Like Me Exercise
Bring a person to mind. Focus on the center of your chest or put your hand on your chest, and mentally say to them:
Try it out!
You'll feel a lot better and that person you have difficulties with will feel better, too.
With joy, wonder, and pumpkin pie,
(Just Like Me Exercise adapted from Google's Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute)
Are you a good sleeper?
Oh man... I usually sleep like a baby. But lately, my eyes pop open at 3am way more often than I'd like.
What is it about 3am that turns normal thoughts into a band of wild horses galloping through my mind? I mean, is there really nothing I can do to stop that from happening? Well... making sure I'm not missing my daily meditation practice is a must, obviously.
But then what do I do if it still happens now and then?
Here's what works for me:
Allow it all
The more I fight the thoughts and try to push them away, the more they advance and swarm, and the whole scene turns into an epic Western shootout.
Two words: neurological junk
I consider these thoughts are coming from the lower brain (limbic system) and are most likely a habitual response to stress. Instead of engaging the thoughts, I wait them out; giving them little or no attention until they move on outa there. This is easier said than done. Having a breath-awareness or body-scan practice is essential to help me to redirect my attention to the present moment instead of wandering around aimlessly while lugging around heavy baggage in the dust storm of my mind.
It's amazing how much this helps. I take some paper and a pen (it's best done freehand) and write quickly and freely whatever comes to mind. It doesn't make sense and it doesn't have to. I just follow the train of thought wherever it leads. Sometimes it's weird stuff that I don't understand and my writing is hardly legible. No matter, I just let it flow onto the paper and it becomes a channel for all those rowdy thoughts to clear out so my mind can rest (it feels like taking a big exhale in my brain). This also is a great exercise to do at work when you want to spark creativity because it shifts you out of the left brain (analysis) into the right brain (creativity). And indeed, after you do this free-writing exercise at 3am, you may have sparks of insight that you can jot down. But then, go back to sleep if you can! :)
I get a little "woo-woo"
I ask the Universe, "What do you want me to know?" Many times I've been guided to a very specific idea, or solution to a problem, or a peaceful resolution to a worry when I assume I'm awake for a reason. Once I allow whatever wants to come, to come, I fall asleep instantly. Again... not fighting it is the key.
Do you struggle with horses galloping through you head at 3am, too? If so, what works for you? I'd love to hear. Feel free to try any of the above - I'd love to know how it goes. Seriously - send me a note.
Wishing you peaceful rest and sweet dreams that carry you all the way through the night. Or at least a good binge-worthy series on Netflix (kidding!)
Food is tricky. But is it, though? No, it's not. Food is just food. We make it tricky with our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. Here are 3 things that are true about food that might go against popular opinion:
1. You know what you need. Your body knows. Many of us have been seduced by marketing and wellness-culture to trust "gurus" who have the answer that perhaps worked for them (or have something to sell)... but they are not you. They have different bodies, different needs, and different motivations. Nobody has the answer for everybody. Remember that. Take what works for you and leave behind the rest. Or better yet, learn how to get back in touch with the wisdom of your body and how to trust yourself again.
2. It's ok to eat for reasons other than hunger. It's ok to eat to soothe emotions, to eat when you're bored, to eat to celebrate or to mourn. It's ok. If your default reaction to dealing with stress has been linked to food and you feel like you have no self-control to choose to eat or not to eat when stressed, anxious, sad, bored, etc... that's something that you can work with and rewire if you want to. Be kind to yourself.
3. Dieting can be a dangerous trap. I'm proof of this and know it's true for many others. Dieting that's restrictive creates survival-based habits in the brain that we can feel powerless against. Simply put, restriction leads to overeating and binging. Period. If you obsess, often overeat, or binge and don't know why it's likely because you've restricted food to the point that puts your brain in survival mode. This shuts down our ability to make executive-level choices... choices that come from our higher brain and truly nourish us. If you'd rather eat in joy-mode rather than survival mode, stop dieting and learn how to veto lower-brain urges. There's nothing wrong with you, you're not broken, your brain is just doing its job. It needs to know you're not going to starve which is why you need to feed yourself adequately and find ways to say no to the urges to obsess and binge. Soon enough the urges will disappear and you’ll regain your power to choose.
A few mindful eating tips:
And finally, here are instructions for how to eat:
Eat what you want when you want it, mindfully.
>> Learn how to eat a mindful meal.
Seated at a big round table in the dining room of a conference center in Monterey, California, my breakfast, a bowl of yogurt, waited in front of me along with eighty-five other women who were sitting in silence as per the rules. No one was eating.
None of us knew quite what to do in the large space of silence. We’d been instructed to wait for the retreat leader before eating and she took her long, slow, sweet time getting there. While waiting and waiting, we sat in various stages of angst. Some were visibly agitated. Others were trying to pass off serene zen-vibes that eventually gave over to nervous fidgeting. Others had smug “even though I’ve been sitting here for over twenty minutes and I’m starving, this doesn’t bother me at all” smiles on their faces which I knew was total bullshit because they were the ones watching their scrambled eggs get colder by the nano-second.
It seemed like forever before the ring leader arrived. Geneen Roth was tiny in size but her presence packed a punch. Let me tell you what ninety pounds can do; without saying a word, she had the undivided attention of an entire room of hangry women. It was impressive.
She did a little workshopping with us, the “hard part” of this process, and eventually gave us permission to eat. I looked down reverently at my bowl of yogurt, picked up my spoon like a prayer and slowly took a bite.
The cool, creamy tang hit my tongue like a cloud of delight. “I’ve never tasted yogurt like this,” I thought. “I wonder what brand it is! I must buy this brand when I get home. After breakfast, I’m going to go ask the kitchen staff about it.”
That’s when the tears started. There was a catch in my throat and my mind down-shifted. It was as if my tongue wanted my mind to shut the eff up so I could actually enjoy this bowl of deliciousness. “Geez…” I thought sheepishly, “I’ve never cried over yogurt before.”
But there I was, tears streaming down my face as I took one sensual bite after another; feeling every slippery ounce in my mouth, tasting every creamy nuance there was to taste. I was experiencing the full fidelity of what that yogurt had to offer. It was singing in my mouth. It was divine.
What brought me to this table was surrender. Over the course of thirty years, I had struggled with an on-again-off-again eating disorder. For the past five years, it had been very on-again and there seemed to be no end in sight. I could tell you I was worried about my health and I didn’t want to die and blabbity-blah, but the fact was, I was tired. It takes a lot of effort to sustain an eating disorder; the extreme-sport-mind-games with food, hiding the behavior, keeping the secret from absolutely everyone, and getting back up from the floor of shame to do it all over again.
The next five days at the retreat were wonderful and awful. The three days we spent in silence were surprising (because I somehow overlooked this detail in the course description) and transforming. Being a meditator and meditation teacher, I love being in silence; thirty, forty minutes, an hour. Three solid days of silence were grueling. But at the end of it all, after oceans of leisure-time, writing in my journal, walks along the beach, and experiencing food in a way that felt like falling in love, I finally came to a place that felt like coming home; back into my body, back to my self.
What the retreat taught me was that I could eat in a way that both nourished and pleased me. I could have what I wanted and as much as I wanted, which is just the right amount it turns out, as long as I’m eating mindfully and following a few guidelines. I learned to feed my body instead of my aching heart or my stressed-out mind. I learned many other women were hungry for a way out of the same life-sucking boat.
During meditations and visualizations, I connected with a wise and powerful woman who had the presence of a queen. She turned out to be me. Meeting The Queen was such an empowering and moving experience, I wrote a poem about it and read it aloud to my small group and made them cry. I think they cried because it’s what we were all there to do; to reclaim our power which we’d relinquished to a God named Food.
The fact that I’m sharing this story at all is mind-blowing to me. It’s a secret I’ve been ashamed of and kept hidden all these years. To make matters worse, I’ve felt an extra dose of shame because I’m a meditation teacher and “I shouldn’t have problems like this.”
Well, I’m here to tell you it’s true. Teachers of all kinds are humans with problems. The most ironic part of this story is that the answer to my problematic eating was found in mindfulness. I teach mindfulness. Why I hadn’t applied it to eating? I don’t know. But what I do know for sure is that knowing about something (like mindfulness) is worth nothing if you don’t apply it.
For the past year, I’ve studied, gone on retreats, and finally started practicing mindful eating. It’s been like a miracle for me. My first clue that mindful eating was going to change everything was at that Geneen Roth retreat. Since then I’ve cried over lots of things (because I’m digesting my feelings now instead of numbing with them with food) and slowly have formed new habits that give me peace and freedom to eat with pleasure and not guilt, shame, or regret.
Now I’m powered by something other than my destructive urges. Something like ravenous grace. The more I meet the secret parts of myself as the benevolent queen looking into the eyes of a lost child, the more invincible I am in my vulnerability. I consider myself ridiculously fortunate when moved to tears by the truth I find in all things — the shadowy rawness of humanity, a heartfelt conversation, a spoonful of yogurt.
>> How to eat a mindful meal.
I’ve meditated close to 100,000 minutes.
Guess how many thoughts I’ve had over these past eight years during meditation? A gazillion.
Sometimes they’re really juicy and intriguing like thoughts like, “How can I spend the winter in Honolulu.” Or, “I wonder if James Bond is a meditator.”
See what I mean? Sometimes I can barely stay focused on my mantra.
So here’s what I do and what you can do, too:
Be Really Kind To Yourself
I know it can feel frustrating to be taking time to meditate and be inundated with rambling, incessant thoughts. The point of meditation is to “quiet the mind” right? Well… that’s not exactly true. Many people have the misconception that we shouldn’t have thoughts during meditation. The truth is that it’s the nature of the mind to think and no amount of trying to stop your thoughts will ever work. You can’t stop thinking by thinking about it. So be kind to yourself when you have thoughts during meditation. Don’t judge yourself or be harsh, just notice what’s happening with an innocent curiosity. And then make a choice.
Choose To Come Back To Your Focus
Maybe your focus is the breath, come back to that. Maybe it’s your mantra. Come back to that. Maybe you were in the middle of a body scan when thoughts about that meeting you need to prepare for swept you away to planning-land. It’s ok. Come back to your body and begin again. You can always begin again. When your attention wanders away, gently guide it back like you would a toddler or a puppy. With deliberate but gentle kindness. Not with force. Never with force.
Don’t Try To Stop the Thoughts
Again, it’s the nature of the mind to think so having thoughts during meditation is completely normal. The mind will not quiet down because of any effort you’re making through resistance or some kind of mind-control. That is an exercise in frustration. The skill we’re cultivating during meditation is to be aware of the thoughts instead of engaging the thoughts. When you’re aware of thoughts you’re automatically not lost in them, you’re observing them. This is often referred to as “cultivating the witness.” All of us get lost in thoughts sometimes and it’s ok. As a meditator, you have a powerful skill to be aware of what you’re doing and then choose to do something else.
Change Up Your Focus
Sometimes my mind hurls so many ideas at me that it feels like my mantra is being drowned out in a cacophony of noise. Instead of fighting this, I change things up and simply listen to myself breathing. That will help, but if the mind is still really distracting, try switching it up again. Pull your awareness way back, opening it like an aperture on a camera and do an open awareness practice. Open awareness is when you become aware of everything that enters the field of the mind: thoughts, sounds, sensations, images, etc. Allow it all, resist nothing and watch all the activity like it's a movie on a big screen and you're sitting in the audience. I don’t normally advise switching up your focus during meditation but if it helps, then do it. I’d much rather have you continue meditating than give up in frustration.
Acknowledge Yourself For What You’re Doing
Give yourself tons of credit for having a meditation practice. Meditation is a radical act of self-love. It’s not always going to be quiet or deep or interesting but the point of meditation isn’t what happens during meditation, it’s what happens in your life. That’s why sticking with your practice is essential. Meditation helps us live a wonderful life.