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Loving the Living With the Love of the Dead

May 6, 2015

I have a wide open day ahead of me here in the San Francisco Bay Area and am eagerly anticipating a welcome return to the coastline of Point Reyes National Seashore and a meandering and rejuvenating drive up the coast through my childhood coastal stomping grounds. One stop along the way might be a brief visit to the seaside grave of my father-in-law, whom I have never met, but who rests in my heart because of what he meant to my beloved wife and the warmth and admiration that flows from her every time she speaks of him. I am the welcome and grateful recipient of his fatherhood in this way.

And so the thought floated up out of my waking moments: “What if we could be with the living breathing people in our lives, the way we are with the dead?” That may sound a little strange, but bear with me for a moment.

How are we when we stand there awkwardly looking down at whatever tangible marker might have been placed as a proxy to the vibrant existence of a family member or friend? We feel a certain presence of the deceased, but largely our attention is broad enough to include a kind of warm attentiveness to our own selves as we recall the person who once walked and talked and breathed with us.

We are quiet, respectful, patient, receptive and tender in our attention. We may feel the reverberations of grief and loss that the person’s passing brought to us, but it is a kind of nostalgia (the roots of that word referring to “the pain of remembering”) that bears the mellow sweetness of the time that cliché has told us heals all wounds. And we are finally free of the constricting web of a change agenda for the other. The “if only” and the conditional melt away with the reality of the absolute and the imperative of this very moment as it is, without holding or pushing away, even if we would like to do so.

We may also ride the harsher waves of hurts, resentments, wounds that never really healed, anger at abandonment, fear of life without this person who simply desired what we all desire: to have peace, satisfaction and joy in life, no matter how he or she went about seeking that. But we are finally and ultimately aware that absolutely nothing can be done but to meet this suffering within ourselves with some degree of kindness and gentleness, and perhaps the wisps of forgiveness. Forgiveness of this person who was ultimately and inevitably human, flawed and subject to failure, mistakes, desire and delusion, and vulnerable to the reality of mortality.

And perhaps some opportunity for forgiveness of ourselves is also present in the space of dwelling in the presence of the dead and buried. Forgiveness of ourselves as we realize that we are the only ones that have been truly and completely bequeathed to our daily and lifelong care. If we are to experience healing, change, improvement, relief and release, it will come from deep within us when we shift our relationship to the outer world and tend warmly and compassionately to what is within us.

How would it be if we had tea with a friend and sat with them as we sit with the dead: delicately attuned to our own experience, reflective but fully present, riding the gentle undulations of the heart as the encounter unfolds word by word, expression by expression, emotion by emotion. Is there, in the end, a more respectful and self-compassionate way of connecting with those we love than by connecting warmly with our own tender beating heart and treating it in the same warm way we treat a heart in its eventual repose?


Steven Hickman is a Clinical Psychologist, Executive Director of the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness and the Director of Professional Training for the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion. Steven will be co-leading 5-day Mindful Self-Compassion courses on June 1-6, 2015 in London; July 5-10, 2015 at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York; and October 5-10, 2015 at Fara Sabina Clarisse Eremite Monastery in Rieti, Italy. For dates and locations of other MSC courses around the world, see the Center for MSC website.

How About Making an “Old Year’s Resolution” to Be More Compassionate to Yourself in the New Year?

October 29, 2014

UCSD Center for Mindfulness

steve-hickmanBy Steven Hickman, Psy.D.
Mindful Self-Compassion Teacher and Teacher Trainer
Executive Director, UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness

Perhaps you have seen the clever t-shirt depicting a pirate on his ship exclaiming “The beatings will continue until morale improves!” We tend to laugh at that sentiment because at some point in our lives we have probably found ourselves on the receiving end of that sort of “logic”. And we also laugh because we know it is a ridiculous notion that pummeling someone with negativity will bring about more positivity. It’s like continuing to put your car in reverse in order to move forward.

But consider for a moment where your New Year’s Resolutions come from and see if there are some seeds of this approach in how you treat yourself. Do you look into the mirror and think, “Listen Big Guy, I know you want to lose a few pounds…

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Seasoning as symptom?

March 8, 2014

Bottled_Seasoning,_Trinidad_and_TobagoI had the delightful opportunity to sit this morning in an unfamiliar but tremendously comforting place, to gaze lovingly out onto a winter-bare meadow glistening in the morning sunlight angling through the woods and bursting onto the reflective whiteness of frozen snow. And to eat a plain hard-boiled egg.

OK, so the egg part doesn’t sound so romantic or poetic, but indeed it was. I took a moment to briefly feel some gratitude toward the chicken who birthed it, but mostly I simply enjoyed it as it was.

The pieces of shell yielding to my gentle touch.

The micro-rush of being able to pull off a particularly large piece of shell intact.

The quick sweep of my finger across the smooth surface to detect any lingering shards of hardness.

And then I ate it slowly and mindfully.

It was delightful. Just as it was. And it nourished my body as well as my senses by being what it was and allowing itself to be eaten.

Soon after finishing my little egg meditation I thought about how I usually eat hard-boiled eggs. Quickly, without much attention and with a lot of seasoning. Salt and pepper maybe, or some other spices sprinkled on each bite, with an underlying imperative that something has to be added in order to make the experience complete. And then I thought of how I eat eggs in other forms, quite often with some sort of hot sauce like Sriracha or Cholula.

And then I thought of my friend Hubert, a wonderful German chef who often cooks for our mindfulness training retreats. He once bemoaned how so many people want seasonings and condiments for the food he prepares, even before they have tasted the food. It seemed as if he was a bit insulted by this behavior.

I put this all together and wondered if perhaps our growing reliance on spices, sauces, and flavorings (witness how many flavors of potato chips you can buy these days!) is because we are actually honoring some deep desire to simply taste our food?

But because of our frenzied pace and fractured attention, our food is often dismissed, overlooked or simply consumed thoughtlessly like fuel. What if, when we reach for the hot sauce we could see it as our deep desire to remain intimately connected to the life-sustaining essence of our food? Could the salt and pepper be a mindfulness bell that reminds us to pause and be with the process of eating so that we can give ourselves what we deeply need: the simple experience of tasting what we are putting in our mouths?

It’s hip to be a foodie these days, but maybe being a foodie is really an inflated version of our deepest instinct to taste. What might it be like to pause and consider the chipotle-infused, citrus-brined and applewood-smoked pork loin chop nestled in a bed of hand-massaged, lemon-macerated kale beside a hillock of garlic-laden goat-cheese-topped whipped Andalusian parsnips? And to instead see the pork chop, garden greens and vegetables that it is. And then really EAT it with full awareness, unlocking all that it has to offer, bite by bite, without distraction.

Might this be the deepest expression of our true nature to connect with and taste what we eat? What would it be like to let go of needing our food to be ANY different than it is? What would we learn? What would we lose? What would we discover?

Maybe our meditation practice can simply be each meal. After all, you were going to eat anyway, right?


The Myth & Pitfalls of Meditation “Progress”

January 25, 2013

buddhalightA good friend surprised me with a little trinket the other day that really made me smile at a particularly stressful time. It’s a little key fob Buddha with a button on his back that you can push to turn on an LED flashlight to find the keyhole to your home, that lost lipstick in the bottom of your purse, or the last jujubee you just dropped on the floor of the movie theater (best to practice “letting go” of that last one. Really.)

I had a little fun with my gift by sharing it on Facebook with the photo of it (on the right). Here’s what I wrote:

“Thank you Michelle for my new Buddha LED Light Key Fob! Apparently when you become enlightened then some of that light shines out of your butt. The problem is that as soon as you get up off the meditation cushion to see if it’s shining, you aren’t enlightened any more and the light is off. Kind of the reverse of the whole “does the light in the refrigerator really go off when you close the door?” dilemma. Ahh, enlightenment is soooo complicated and paradoxical.”

A friend responded with the inquiry “Does this mean you have to be on the cushion to be enlightened?” A reasonable question, but in general I find myself so unable to address any issues around enlightenment that my eyes glaze over and the best I can do is an enigmatic smile and a deep wish that the conversation would shift to subjects I can handle like “Will the Oakland Raiders EVER Return to Glory?” (Feel free to post a response to this blog on that question if the whole meditation thing doesn’t pique your interest. I could use a little hope in that regard!)

What I was referring to in my Facebook post was that inevitable pull we feel to check to see how we are doing, whether it is relative to how we USED to be doing, or how OTHER PEOPLE are doing, or (even more problematic) how WE THINK WE SHOULD be doing. But in the end we are just doing. Or more accurately, just being. No comparisons necessary. Contrary to almost everything else these days, meditation is not a competition, you can’t do it better, faster, bigger or more fuel-efficiently than anyone else. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says in a chapter called “This Is It” from Wherever You Go, There You Are:

People usually don’t get this right away. They want to meditate in order to relax, to experience a special state, to become a better person, to reduce some stress or pain, to break out of old habits and patterns, to become free or enlightened. All valid reasons to take up meditation practice, but all equally fraught with problems if you expect those things to happen just because now you are meditating. You’ll get caught up in wanting to have a “special experience” or in looking for signs of progress, and if you don’t feel something special pretty quickly, you may start to doubt the path you have chosen, or to wonder whether you are “doing it right.” 

Trust me on this one. I have the true test to see if you are doing it right. Ready?

Question #1: Are you meditating (aka “doing it?)  ____Yes    ____No

If your answer was yes, you are doing it right.

So consider this: “What would it be like to let go of needing to see any signs of progress and only practice for its own sake?” Would that be possible? I would invite you to see what that might be like.

And quit peeking to check to see if you’re enlightened yet. You’ll probably just tumble off the cushion and hit your head on the floor anyway. Hardly very enlightening, but then again, sometimes a good (figurative) whack upside the head is what we need to remember to just sit 🙂 As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “This is it.”

To Be OBE or Not to Be, You Choose

December 26, 2012

In the frenetic lead-up to the holidays this year, I kept revisiting an oppressive and frankly scary state of mind that peeked out from behind holly-encrusted Christmas decorations and burst forth from the comforting depths of a pitcher of holiday eggnog like the Creature From the Black Lagoon. You know the feeling. It’s that sense of dread that you are going to be literally squashed under the weight of too many things to do without enough time to do them.creature

I have occasionally gotten a bit over-confident on a treadmill and cranked it up to about 4 notches faster than I could really maintain for any reasonable period of time, and then did the “dash of dread” in which you push yourself beyond your capabilities out of sheer terror that you will be literally flung across the gym in front of hysterically laughing hardbodies before you can crank it back down to a pace that doesn’t threaten to explode your heart.

So you know that feeling right? I thought so. I once had a patient who had been in the Navy and he referred to it as OBE: Overcome By Events.  An online definition reads: “a term of military origin used when a situation changes so rapidly that previously proposed courses of action are no longer relevant.” (The same online search yielded a few interesting alternative meanings for OBE, including “Out of Body Experience,” “Order of the British Empire,” and its pejorative step-cousin “Other Buggers Efforts” because the former is often awarded to small time politicians and councilors who only APPEAR to do a lot of work and hence are often said to have received it for “Other Buggers Efforts.” But I digress.)

So the question becomes: what, if anything, can one do when that familiar OBE feeling arises? Run faster? Freeze like the proverbial deer in the headlights? Take them all on with the grim vengeance of Chuck Norris or the magical wizardry of Harry Potter? Good luck with that. Take a look back on how you have coped with being OBE in the past and ask yourself, “How’s that workin’ out for me?”

Why not ask yourself a question at that quintessential overwhelmed moment? What if you contemplate the silly but simple question: “What am I afraid of?” Could you possibly just notice the fear arising and rather than give it legs, you just noticed it washing over you? Would it be possible to pause, breathe and look deeply and curiously at it?

Note that the definition points to “previously proposed courses of action.” In other words, we had other plans for how things would go, and when they didn’t go that way, we are flummoxed, fearful and flailing because we don’t know how to make them go that way. When we don’t float through the holidays, relaxed and oozing good cheer, issuing forth handwritten Christmas cards and homemade gifts while sipping mulled wine and tucking in the happy children, we panic. We start to try to exert a certain degree of control that we don’t actually have in order to make things “right with the world”, or at least our idea of how the world should be. Anne Lamott, in her recent book “Help, Thanks, Wow” references an old joke that is relevant here. She poses the riddle: “What’s the difference between you and God?” The answer: “God never thinks he’s you.”

Perhaps one possibility when feeling OBE, is to let go of trying to prevent being overcome. What if you just watched it all unfold, from the safety of your own two feet in the present moment and waited to see what happens? You might be surprised. Try it when that feeling arises in meditation, as if you will literally be swallowed up by all that has to be done, and here you are messing about, frittering your life away on a meditation cushion while important things are not being done. Watch it. Breathe. Watch some more. Feel what happens. Breathe again. Notice what arises with curiosity. Notice dread. Notice fear. Notice the faint but unmistakeable sound of holiday joy happening. Breathe in. Breathe out. Notice what it feels like to stop running from or to anything at all. Choose a path for yourself and re-engage when you are ready, secure in the knowing that events cannot actually overcome you, but you can definitely overcome the feeling of OBE by simply BE-ing instead.

Tales of a Meditation Whisperer

October 22, 2012

My dad was a wizard of understatement. He did a number of things in his life but I suspect that the work he found most rewarding was teaching art to troubled high school kids in what was referred to as a “Continuation School.” My recollections of him are suffused with emotion-laden aromas of turpentine and oil paint from his downstairs studio. A couple oil paintings and a watercolor self-portrait are my most concrete memories of this man whom I lost before my eyes at the age of 13 (he was 39). But what has always touched me most was his quiet, his gentle manner and his way without words.

My mom remembers this better than I, but he would have innumerable students come to him proudly with their latest works of inspiration and creativity, literally bursting with pride and hungry for positive feedback in lives that were often lacking in much of that. They would thrust a painting or piece of jewelry into his line of sight and say “Well? What do you think?”

I can picture my dad, stroking his multi-colored scruffy beard and contemplating carefully and thoughtfully. The moment lingered and the tension grew. One can almost picture the excited student nearly levitating off the floor in anticipation of something encouraging from is or her beloved art teacher.

“Hmmm,” he would utter enigmatically. “Ahhhhh,” he would say confidently.

And the student would bounce off to gush to her friends about Mr. Hickman’s encouraging feedback. Often he would become verbose in these situations and utter an “interesting” every now and then to make sure that people knew he was cogitating and considering what was put before him.

These moments of observing things as they were and expressing keen interest without judgment are moments of inspiration to me in my meditation practice. I find that when I am seeking my own validation or evaluation of my performance, I am just on a slippery slope to ruminative and unproductive commentary and ridiculous supposition about random topics.

But I find that if I can observe the arising of activity in the mind and simply say “Hmmmmm” or even “Yes!”, I can simply continue to observe and find myself less entangled in the discursive process of what is referred to by neuroscientists as the “default mode network” of the wandering mind.

The so-called Horse Whisperer or Dog Whisperer have gained fame from their ability to approach a willful beast and cooperatively coax a behavior that the animal really wants to engage in anyway. The task in meditation may be to see this pesky brain as a willful beast, and work with it like this. Observe it. Show your genuine interest in what it is doing. And whisper in its ear “mmmm hmmm” while staying present. No disengagement or dismissive attitude here. Just pure allowing and accepting of whatever it is dishing up in the moment.

Try this and let me know what happens for you. For me, I feel encouraged and supported in my practice. And I still haven’t gotten any feedback on whether I’m doing it well!

Now We’re Finally Getting Nowhere!

October 12, 2012

(A recent conversation between teacher and student in a meditation class. Or was that in my head? Hard to say.)

“I was really having a rough day yesterday, what with the company stock price doing what it did and I was so stressed out I just had to do something. I decided to meditate to get my head straight and it was a fiasco! Over and over, I found myself caught up in one nightmare scenario after another. Then I would notice I was caught up in it all and I’d bring myself back to my breath. No sooner than I had returned and it seemed like I was back into the muck again. I was really frustrated and I could feel a knot in the pit of my stomach.”

“Excellent!” I reply enthusiastically.

“No, you don’t get it. I was tense and riled up and my mind was so stuck on what might happen if this keeps up and my retirement fund shrinks more. It was like my brain was a broken record, playing out the worst case over and over. I couldn’t stop it no matter what I tried. It just kept up.”

“Wow! You were quite aware of the ‘full catastrophe’ weren’t you?” I exclaim.

“Well, yes, yes I was, but I really had the idea that the meditation would help me get centered and out of the mental rat race I was in. I had the thought that ‘this just isn’t working for me today’ and I felt really disappointed in myself for not being able to calm myself down. It was like this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.”

“Ahhh,” I exclaimed. “Interesting. Anything else?”

“Ummm, well I guess I noticed that the sinking feeling was really uncomfortable and I had the thought that ‘maybe I’m not cut out for this meditation stuff. I ought to have managed this much better than I did.’ And I guess I got a little sad too. And this reminded me of how badly I’m managing my money and then I was back on the hamster wheel of my thoughts about the market. It all felt so fruitless!”

“Hmm. Fruitless huh? Were you hoping for apples or bananas?”

“What? I don’t get it. I didn’t actually want fruit! I just meant that all that time on the cushion seems completely wasted because I couldn’t change the anxious and sad feelings that came up. No matter how much I tuned into my breath, I didn’t get anywhere!”

“Where did you think you were going to go, sitting cross-legged on a lifeless meditation cushion? Paris?” I say with a smile.

“You know what I mean. I couldn’t change how I felt and all I could do was to watch it all unfold, including my frustration over wanting it to be different, the sinking feeling, the frustration, the sadness. Coming back to my breath, over and over again, getting lost, getting tangled up, coming back. And through it all, wanting it to change and get better, wanting to feel better, differently.”

“Oh, I see. You wanted things to change because now you’re meditating?”


“What would it be like to let go of wanting anything to be any different in the moment?

“I don’t know. It wouldn’t be my usual mode of doing things, that’s for sure!”

“How’s that mode working out for you?”

“Hmmm. Not so well lately.

“Now we’re getting nowhere!”


Meditation: It’s not what you think. Really.

September 3, 2012

Ok, so that gem of a headline isn’t original. I’ve seen it several places, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Or relevant, especially if you find yourself facing some difficult thoughts or feelings that come up when you practice meditation. You may not have realized it when you embarked on this voyage of mindfulness, but there is a great deal of courage that may be needed from time to time on this sometimes meandering path. Scary feelings, provocative images and haunting thoughts sometimes make their way into our consciousness when we pause and practice presence. What do you do when these these specters emerge? I recommend doing what I did once on the golf course at Disney World in Florida. Confused? I’m not surprised because so was I, for awhile.

So I’m not used to the humidity and heat that Florida offers up in June, so I was actually pleasantly surprised when I learned that I could get a tee time at noon on a desirable Disney course. My pleasure turned to dismay when I realized I had a tee time at noon on a course that felt remarkably like a greener, moister version of hell itself.

But I was determined and set off down the fairway to get the most out of my experience (and money). I was doing well until I, as I am wont to do on many a golfing occasion, hit my ball off into the surrounding woods. After hiking a fair, sweaty distance, I found my ball in a clearing and turned to make my way back into the open. It was then that I first heard it.

A rustling in the bushes that I could only imagine was an alligator (the only Florida animal that immediately slithered to mind). I quickened my pace to match my escalating heartbeat and began to allow my mind to run with me. A puma perhaps? A ravenous javelina? A man-eating manatee? Who knew? Not me! And I was quite certain that the mysterious beast was continuing to pursue me.

I finally burst through the last of the underbrush and the relative safety (?) of open fairway, a sweaty, out of breath and terrified mess. It was only at that moment that I actually took the opportunity to swivel and confront the predator I was sure had nearly nipped at the heels of my golf shoes, while it crashed through the shrubbery. The greenery rustled a bit and then the beast made itself visible to me.

Never had one small fuzzy bunny rabbit made such a violent impression on a human being (except perhaps the one that appears in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Yes, it was indeed the most harmless little fuzzball you could imagine that inspired a racing heart, wheezing breath and quick mental episode of “Steve Hickman, This Is Your Life!”

So when your scary thought arises, it may not be a loveable bunny rabbit, but you’ll never know what it is unless you look, and even if it purports to be scary, important, true, or imperative, remember that it’s still just a thought or feeling. A mere brain secretion, as I like to refer to them. Don’t believe what your brain tells you about its contents. As the comedian Emo Phillips once said, “I used to think that the brain was the most important organ in the body, until I realized which organ was telling me that.”

It often takes a great deal of courage to choose to stay present with a difficult feeling or troubling thought, but that courage is rewarded mightily in the form of ease and equanimity over time. It just takes intention, practice and a little playful curiosity.

August 22, 2012

A lovely description by Jiovann Carrasco of how we get tangled up in goals when it is really intentions that count.

Run With Yoda, Meditate With Mermaids

August 12, 2012

I run like I meditate, as regularly as possible and with a certain degree of dogged determination. The only real difference is that I don’t tend to sweat profusely or twist my ankle while meditating and I rarely nod off mid-stride on the road.

The view on my morning run.

This week I am vacationing with my family on the Central California coast and I have taken the opportunity to run each morning up and down the beach. Perhaps “run” is too strong a word. If the image of a gazelle comes to mind when you think of running, aim lower. Perhaps the shambling gait of a water buffalo better captures my stride.

But be that as it may, as I labored north toward a distant pier, it occurred to me that running along the hard sand near the waterline is a lot like meditation. The rhythmic waves of the Pacific are like my breath when I sit, coming and going of their own accord, sometimes more, sometimes less prominent in my awareness. My northward direction is like my intention to sit, gently guiding me, keeping me on track amidst the arising stimuli of the landscape.

The fog-shrouded surf offers occasional glimpses of craggy rocks, the lines of dutiful seabirds shuttling along, or the seen-but-not-seen illusion of mythical creatures in the mist. It all resembles the flights of fancy I periodically find myself in while meditating, the seductive, the scary, the lure of the unknown.

And land to my right feels much like what we tend to refer to as “real life.” The mussel shell splayed open in the sand, the luxurious home on the bluff, even the malodorous rotting fish head represent certain aspects of what life offers from time to time. I noted a jab of nostalgia when a certain shell reminded me of a distant memory. I smiled inwardly at a particularly rambunctious puppy chasing his tennis ball in the surf. I even speeded up a bit when I noticed I was approaching another runner from behind who looked even more winded than me, breezing past as if the Olympic marathon was in my future (and simultaneously hoping I didn’t stumble or pass out in full view of my fellow athlete seconds later).

But I realized that none of this (mermaid or sand dollar or imagined competition) was actually what my run was about. My run was my run, and all that arose while I was running was just what it was. Existing in a moment of my time, fleeting and insubstantial, like the thoughts that arise while sitting.

My wife asked me upon my return if I had a good run. I have thought in the past that a run is a run and there is no good or bad to it, but realized that it was actually a “good run” BECAUSE I ran! A meditation is good if you formulate the intention to meditate and then sit down. I like to quote Yoda from Star Wars when someone says that they “tried” to meditate. “Do or do not,” says the small, wise green creature, “there is no try.”

I run, therefore it is a good run. I have a good meditation if I stop, pay attention and notice what happens. We sometimes confuse what we notice with the fact that we are noticing, and it is the latter that matters. 3+ miles covered, sweaty running gear that is now spring-fresh tumbling in the dryer and a few thousand footprints in the sand, all fleeting evidence of a good run. A butt-shaped dent in the meditation cushion, a couple of stiff knees and a ton of random thoughts that seemed important . . . until they didn’t, all signs of a good meditation. There isn’t any other kind!