Mindfulness Northwest News

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  • 18 Oct 2018 9:31 AM | Michael Kelberer (Administrator)

    by Oori Silberstein

    ...And our system is just waiting for an invitation to move in that direction.

    Paying attention in a certain way in any given moment provides such an invitation. I have experienced this repeatedly in myself over many years of practice. I have also observed this in others, over years of teaching and facilitating Mindfulness, meditation, self-compassion and trauma resiliency. But don’t take my word for it. Instead, I invite you to experiment with it yourself to see what you think. Take a day and try out 3 or 4 of the informal practices linked below. Or take a week or a month and practice them every day. But first, a little more background info.

    We all experience uncomfortable moments. Emotionally. Physically. In relationships. In our self-talk. We can't avoid this. As human beings it comes with the territory. This "pain" of living is unavoidable at times. Along with this unavoidable "pain" of living, we also have patterns of reactivity and conditioned responses that add layers of suffering that are not an inherent part of being human. Because the brain is elastic and trainable, we can practice with and over time learn to be able to let go of our layers of reactivity, thereby reducing our stress and suffering in uncomfortable moments. With attention and practice and patience we can learn to make some space around our discomfort in a way that helps our system let go of habituated responses of stress and struggle. Thousands of years of wisdom practices from many traditions have shown this to be true, and so has modern neuroscience.

    Formal Meditation or Mindfulness Practice:

    The simple practice of noticing can be very healing and transformative. Noticing – and allowing what is noticed to just be – there creates a gap or a space between what appears to be bothering us or making us feel uncomfortable, the stimulus, and our habituated response. This gap by itself helps us access our capacity for being okay in the midst of difficulty. Practicing with this during formal practice over time increases how often we find this gap arising outside of our formal practice, and strengthens our ability to find some ease and balance in the middle of everything. Practice also helps us see the difference between the actual experience itself and the reactions to that experience, reactions that arise in the mind and add to the experience of discomfort.

    In formal practice, by which I mean things like sitting meditation, mindful movement practice or the body scan, we practice this over and over again by returning to the breath, or by turning to the uncomfortable experience itself, and allowing whatever is noticed to be noticed with the simple intention to let it be what it is. These ways of noticing, of being with, by themselves disrupt and weaken our habituated responses, without us having to try to do it specifically. It's a by-product of the noticing in a sense. We don't have to try to disrupt, we just choose where to place our attention and our system does the rest. The gap itself is beneficial right in the moment it arises. And, we can also use this gap to step back and make wise decisions that further reduce suffering and increase well-being. 

    Informal Practice: Mixing it In Briefly Whenever We Think of It.

    In addition to formal meditation practice there are lots of very short practices we can do in the midst of our day to disrupt and sometimes reduce the patterns of reactivity that arise in the mind. For example, when we notice difficulty we often try to solve it or figure it out to get rid of the uncomfortable feeling. But that rarely works in the moment when we are worked up or upset or bothered. Instead, we can redirect the attention to something more neutral, like our breath, or the feeling in the body, or the sounds around us.

    As an experiment right now, try the following:

    1. Check in with yourself to see how you feel right now. Really. Just close your eyes for three seconds and take a breath and notice what is going on in your experience in this moment. Just notice, and don't try to do anything with it or about it for a moment.
    2. Now close your eyes again and allow the ears to hear whatever sounds are noticed. It may be one sound (a fan) or lots of little sounds that come and go. And for one whole minute, just keep coming back to noticing sounds whenever the mind wanders.
    3. Now check in with yourself again and notice how you are in this moment.

    For many of us, this simple one-minute break often shifts our experience just enough that we feel a little less entangled or bothered. Or a little more relaxed and easeful.

    More informal practices

    There are other practices we can try in as short as a minute when we notice discomfort or agitation in the body or mind. Follow this link to five of them, on our website:

    Five Informal Practices

    The invitation is to experiment with these and see which ones are useful to you, and then lean into them. And know that what works one day may not feel right another day, so we experiment and build a tool bag we can draw on. I often find a particular practice to be useful for me in a given period in my life, and I take it on as my primary informal practice for week, months or years. I sprinkle in other practices when the instinct arises, and I shift to a different primary informal practice when it seems wise and useful to do so.

    And through all of it, I remember that as I learn and practice different ways of tuning in to my experience that awakens this capacity within me, I increase my ability to feel more okay in the midst of difficulty. So play, experiment, and notice what works for you, and may you find some benefit.

  • 18 Oct 2018 7:30 AM | Michael Kelberer (Administrator)

    Here are some thoughts from Karen Maezen Miller, reflecting on the myriad reasons she can find to not take the time to practice:

    "There are no barriers to practice, no obstacles or wrong turns. So why do we keep finding them? Ironically, that's what mediation is: sitting down and seeing just how much we tumble in the crosscurrents of our likes and dislikes, desires and judgments, worries and doubt, and (this is the important part) staying put and meditating until the bell rings

    "Perceived obstacles don't just prevent people from beginning a meditation practice; they can derail seasoned sitters. After practicing for a while, we develop expectations and attachments. ... This is when doubts begin to sidetrack a practitioner. Am i doing it right?It doesn't seem to be working for me.. Is there something more to it? This hasn't really improved my life the way I hoped it would.

    "Sound familiar?

    "It takes faith to keep going when you are spinning in a swirl of doubt – faith in yourself. Otherwise practice is likely to become one of a long list of things in life that you start with eager optimism and discard in cynicism and despair...

    "In the meantime, all the fits and starts, highs and lows, are just part of the path.

    "There is no path other than the one you're on. Let's settle down right where we are and see it straight on."

    From Just Get Out of Your Own Way by Karen Maezen Miller, Lion's Roar, November 2018

  • 6 Oct 2018 9:33 AM | Michael Kelberer (Administrator)

    Dear Friends,

    Lately I've been thinking a lot about kindness and about serving and helping others. I have a big dose of the impulse to be helpful, to be supportive, to try to help, to be kind to others.  I'm guessing you do too.

    On the one hand, this is a very good thing. It's the essential ingredient in a healthy social fabric. If we didn't ever want to be helpful to others what a disastrous world we'd be in! Think of the small kindnesses of strangers as you go about your day. Think of the common courtesies we take for granted from holding a door to waiting your turn at a 4-way stop sign. Think of waiting in line and listening to each other when we speak. It's a wonderful mindfulness practice to just notice more fully the weaving of kindness, sometimes it's subtle, into most of the interactions we have all day. And then think of the many friends, colleagues, family members and acquaintances you interact with each day too. There's a lot of kindness.

    Kindness actually seems to predominate. It's really common! The mind, with its negativity bias and quick triggers, does tend to notice the exceptions to this rule quite strongly and we can easily feel a surge of outrage when someone acts in a way we consider unkind. A rude interaction can stick with us all day, can't it? It's easy to see such things out of proportion to the amount of kindness we're surrounded by. 

    But what I'm thinking about today is one of the "shadow sides" of kindness and being helpful. I'm thinking of when kindness becomes more of a compulsion. I'm exploring the ways I'm deeply conditioned to always be helpful and solve everyone's problems and say "yes" to everything. I'm thinking about how hard it can be form me to say "no." To anything. Ever.

    This is something I've been investigating for a while and I believe it's driven by a deep fear: the fear that others will reject me or not love me. Or that I'm in fact in some way fundamentally flawed and unlovable. There's a kind of endless unceasing quest to be loved and respected that this primitive part of my brain thinks will be completely undermined if I ever say "no" to anything. 

    Case in point

    There are right now three messages in the "priority!" section of my Gmail which are requests or follow ups around things I've been asked to do, one of them I offered to do but now realize I don't have time. And to make things worse at least one of them was something I offered to do earlier!

    I need to answer those messages with a clear, kind, "no, I'm sorry I've realized I don't have time to do that." But it's hard for me to do that. I keep procrastinating.

    That mind – that wants to always be kind and never wants to disappoint anyone – is captivated by the fear of being unlovable. I become paralyzed and I put off answering those messages, which just causes even more trouble. Sometime I stare at my calendar fantasizing about more time being there or some other obligation going away. Other times I distract myself with another task. It gets a little nutty. Do you do something like this too?

    Eventually I'll end up answering. 

    Will I end up saying "yes" partly fueled by the additional guilt that I delayed the conversation so long? Or will the saying "no" just be that much harder for the procrastinating?

    What helps? Sometimes I seek support from my spouse or another trusted advisor. "I really should say no to this right?" It helps to get the affirmation. But ultimately I think like anything else, it's a practice. I need to practice saying "no" and pay attention to what actually happens. Are my projected fears of rejection actually true?

    So far the evidence is clear. When I manage to say "no" to something I shouldn't take on almost every time the person I feel indebted to is just fine with it. Sometimes they even flag it as a model of healthy boundaries that helps them! Might a few people be upset with me? Sure. But just like with the general levels of kindness and unkindness in our world, the upset is quite rare. Most often it's fine. No big deal. We all understand that people have to say no sometimes. And out of our respect for each other we honor that as part of life. 

    Okay: on to my inbox. Time to practice saying "no" a few more times!

    Little by little may our deep fears and insecurities that drive us be lessened through self-kindness and mindful awareness and... practice!


  • 6 Oct 2018 8:30 AM | Michael Kelberer (Administrator)

    by Tim Burnett

    What are you grateful for?

    This is a really valuable question to ask yourself. In fact, take a moment now to consider this if you would. You might even get out a piece of paper and write down a few things you feel grateful for. 

    Gratitude helps to counteract a tendency of mind called "habituation" – the taking for granted the many things that allow us to live and thrive. The mind, with it's negativity bias, preferentially focuses on the problems and hassles of life and misses the incredible supports we experience every day, such as the very air we breathe and the water we drink. You might take a moment and add to your list any people who've taught you, coached you, and supported you over the years. Would you be where you are now without their support?

    Emotion researchers consistently find that practicing gratitude consistently leads to positive outcomes. According to researcher Robert Emmons practicing gratitude leads to:

    1. Benefits to our mood and energy: we feel more alert, energetic and enthused by life,
    2. Benefits to how we feel physically: this includes feeling better about our bodies and also being more motivated to exercise which has additional benefits,
    3. Benefits to our sleep: we sleep longer and awake feeling more refreshed, and
    4. Benefits to our relationships and sense of connection to others: we feel more affirmed by others and more appreciative of the positive roles they play in our lives leading us to feel less isolated and lonely. 

    A more philosophical point about gratitude

    When we focus on what we're grateful for, as helpful as that is, we’re often operating in a mode of separation: of me over here grateful for that helpful something over there. To counteract this, I love the way gratitude advocate Brother David Steindl-Rast describes the more general and inclusive state of "gratefulness."

    He suggests that this fundamental attitude of gratefulness can permeate our whole lives, whether we're at this moment feeling like we're getting the support we need or not. Perhaps one way to combine "I'm grateful for" with "I'm practicing gratefulness" is to contemplate our gratitude for simply being alive. For being. For this life with all of its twists and turns and challenges and joys. From mindfulness, we know that it is all we have! Even when things are difficult, perhaps gratefulness is more available than we think.

    And then please consider what do you feel grateful for? Right now. As Br. David suggests may we all, "let the gratefulness overflow into blessing all around you." Because, "then it will really be a good day."

    Wishing us all gratefulness,

    Here are some gratitude resources:

    I love watching this lovely invocation of gratefulness with Brother David's narration and the images and artistry of filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg:
    Five minutes well worth spending.

    You can watch a section of a talk by Dr. Emmons describing his research here

    and this article by the same group, the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at UC Berkeley, is a nice encouragement to practice gratitude with a few practice suggestions:

    Recently the GGSC even created an online tool for practicing gratitude that sends you text reminders to notice what you feel grateful for.

    I've signed up for it and I'm curious to see how I'll feel if I can stick with it through their 10 Day Gratitude Challenge.

  • 18 Sep 2018 9:36 AM | Michael Kelberer (Administrator)

    There has been a lot of growth at Mindfulness Northwest of late. Please join us in welcoming these delightful people to our family.

    Teresa Johnson, who, in addition to being a Teacher has been working at MNW as Youth Programs Coordinator and Administrative Specialist since Spring, has been promoted to Programs Coordinator, Youth and Adult Programs and will have responsibility for the planning  of all of MNW's community and organizational offerings. Teresa has dedicated much of her adult life to supporting youth and families, professionally and as a community volunteer. She holds a BA in Secondary Education. and has served youth of all ages in a variety of settings and completed the Mindful Schools and Making Friends with Yourself trainings to teach mindfulness and mindful self-compassion to children and teens. Over the past year, she simultaneously completed the Mindfulness Teacher Training Program and the MBSR Teacher Training Program through Mindfulness Northwest, and she will be co-teaching one of our Seattle MBSR classes (with Beth Glosten) this Fall.  Facilitating and witnessing inner growth in others is her greatest joy, and she’s excited about the many new opportunities to do this in her roles with Mindfulness Northwest.

    Outreach and Events Coordinator Catherine Duffy earned her Master of Arts in Policy Studies from the University of Washington and has worked and volunteered in a variety of leadership positions in both the public and private sectors. When a family member was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 2012, Catherine began studying and practicing mindfulness and is now a certified mindfulness instructor.  As the mother of four grown children – one of whom lives with developmental disabilities – and a new grandmother, Catherine continues to learn the value of pausing, taking a breath, and inviting quiet moments to reset and refresh the day. She currently is completing the UCSD Mindful Self-Compassion Teacher Training program and is also beginning work as a Listening Mothers facilitator.  Catherine loves to support and encourage the transformative effects of mindfulness in people’s lives and is delighted to join Mindfulness Northwest in their thoughtful work toward this end.

    Teacher Beth Glosten, MD, grew up riding horses on Bainbridge Island in the Pacific Northwest. She attended Occidental College, and then the University of Washington School of Medicine. She had an academic Anesthesiology career until physical issues prompted her to step back from that hectic life. She then studied pilates, and through this system embraced moving mindfully. An avid dressage rider, Beth applied the movement principles of pilates to horseback riding (Rider Pilates). She was drawn to meditation several years ago and found it meshed naturally with her approach to teaching movement: turn focus inward to listen to and befriend one’s self. From this place, growth and healing possibilities emerge. Beth is a certified Mindfulness Teacher through Mindfulness Northwest. She incorporates meditation into her pilates-based movement classes and teaches mindful movement and meditation to prison inmates through Yoga Behind Bars.

    Teacher Joe Arellano has devoted his 30 plus year career to the realm of Complementary Alternative Medicine. A graduate of ground-breaking programs through UCLA, the Institute of Psycho-Structural Balancing, and Mindfulness Northwest, he is a Licensed Massage Therapist, Certified Mindfulness Teacher and is enrolled in our MBSR Teacher Training program. Joe has a private practice in Anacortes.

    Teacher Oori Silberstein has been a life long student of what makes us happier and more at ease. He discovered Yoga in high school and Tai Chi in college, and forgot the lessons they taught him for many years. The anxiety he experienced in the business world led him to Buddhist practice and Mindfulness in 1999 which changed his life. He quit the business world ten years ago and committed himself to supporting and teaching others. Oori teaches meditation, mindfulness and self-kindness to adults and teenagers. His style is light and playful, and is informed by the belief that we are all whole and have the innate capacity for deep contentment and happiness, but we sometimes need some support accessing it. He has a background in trauma support and grief support and has worked and taught in schools and hospitals. He is trained as a Chaplain and is an ordained Buddhist minister. Oori is also interested in sharing mindfulness, self-compassion and meditation to populations that do not currently have easy access to such trainings, by supporting those communities and their members in their own move towards self reliance and empowerment. He has been teaching with MNW since April.

    Teacher Cheryl Beighle recently retired after 31 years of practice as a Pediatrician. She completed a fellowship in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in 2002 which lead to her exploration of other effective modalities of healing that are not traditional to Western Medicine. She has studied hypnosis, becoming an approved consultant with the American Society of Clinic Hypnosis, studied energy medicine, chi gong, yoga and, in 2008, started training to teach MBSR at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She finished her training to be a qualified Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Teacher in 2018. She now teaches for Mindfulness Northwest, is the medical director for Integrative Services at Providence Regional Cancer Partnership and does consultative Integrative Medicine at the Everett Clinic.

  • 17 Sep 2018 7:40 AM | Michael Kelberer (Administrator)

    by Michael Kelberer

    I intend that this writing benefit all beings.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the lack of an overtly spiritual practice in my life. I’ve gone through quite a few in my six plus decades: Catholicism, sect-less Christianity, shamanism, Buddhism (although this mainly involved reading about Buddhism, not practicing it).  And here I am still seeking.

    I thought mindfulness might be just the ticket, and meditation would be The Answer. No canon of beliefs, no antique rituals, just “connection.” After two and a half years though, I can still feel the spiritual hole. 

    I recently read an article in Lions Roar (May 2018) with the title “Through this merit, may all beings awaken.” It was about a Buddhist practice whereby, when you finish your practice, whether it be meditation, yoga or praying, you dedicate any “merit” (goodness or value) you have gained from that practice to the benefit of all beings. This, says Lama Palden Drolma, “expands our meditation beyond ourselves.”

    “Expanding beyond ourselves.” It seems like that is a common thread in human kind’s search for spiritual meaning. And a definition that works for me. At face value, meditation appears to be self-centered and isolating, but those who practice know that it profoundly influences one’s relationship with the world. Lama Drolma’s guidance takes this further, encouraging us to feel part of the greater world. Adding a spiritual thread to our practices is the act of connecting to a sense of the greater good itself.

    Lama Drolma says that when she first started this practice, “I immediately noticed a big shift in my meditation. It felt like my whole practice opened up and become more effortless. It wasn’t just about me anymore.”

    While it is fine to make the dedication to any group of beings, she suggests making the group as large as possible, by including “humans, animals, and any and all sentient beings – maybe even alien life forms – in our practice. This expands our consciousness to the unbound vastness.”

    This also, she adds, has the effect of helping us get beyond any beliefs we might hold about our separateness from other life. “When we dedicate the merit of our meditation to all beings, we are in alignment with the truth [that we are interdependent], and our self-concept expands, even if we don’t immediately notice it.”

    So how do we actually do that?

    The dedication itself comes at the end of the practice, and in the article Lama Drolma gives several examples from Buddhism. Here is one that fits my more secular spiritual sensibility:

    “I dedicate whatever fruits have arisen from my practice to the wellbeing of all living creatures, that they may awaken and be free.”

    Lama Drolma also suggests that we can add to this practice by setting a complimentary intention at the start. For example, beginning a meditation session by setting the simple intention of benefiting all beings by virtue of your practice.

    She also points out that the acts of setting an intention and making a dedication can bookend not just our formal practices, but really any activity we perform throughout our day. We can do it before and after washing the dishes, cooking a meal, or walking the dog. I like this idea a lot – being not just mindful during the mundane acts of my life, but elevating each into a spiritual practice.

    So I’ve made a commitment to try this practice (when I remember!), and am looking forward to seeing if quenches my thirst for an “overtly spiritual practice.” 

    I dedicate whatever merit has arisen through this writing to the benefit of all beings, that they may awaken and be free.

  • 10 Sep 2018 4:48 PM | Tim Burnett (Administrator)

    We're excited to be adding a new teacher training program next year. Applications are now being accepted for the 2019-2020 cohort.

    Building on the foundations of our Mindfulness Teacher Training Program (MTTP) or on other training you have in teaching and facilitating, our new

    Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Teacher Training (MBSR-TT)

    Is a hands-on intensive training in becoming an excellent MBSR teacher. MBSR refers to the specific 8-week mindfulness class described here: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)

  • 8 Sep 2018 10:46 PM | Tim Burnett (Administrator)

    You can now listen, and for some of them read the notes, for the 2018 Roots of Compassion retreat's prepared talks. The theme was the powerful set of Buddhist teachings called the "4 Divine Abodes" or "Brahma Viharas" which for an integrated set of practices around compassion.

    Check it out here: 2018 - Brahma Viharas

  • 7 Sep 2018 8:59 AM | Michael Kelberer (Administrator)

    by Oori Silverstein

    Our lives are made up of a constant stream of moments, one after another.  Some are easy and some are difficult.  Some are fun and some are quite unpleasant.  And some are joyful while others are filled with grief and loss.  Moments of all types rolling onward one after another. 

    Most of us live our lives thinking the key to our happiness is to maximize the pleasant moments and minimize the unpleasant ones.  This is natural and sounds easy enough in theory.  But life is filled with all kinds of moments, and it’s part of being a human being that we will experience moments we like and moments we don’t like all the time.  Try as we might, there is no way to stop difficult moments from happening.  Through Mindfulness practice we can find greater joy and meaning in the moments we like, as well as greater ease and connection in the moments we don’t like.

    A happier life

    Mindfulness practice can help us relate to our moments in new and useful ways, to show up more fully for whatever is happening regardless of whether we like it or not, and research shows this leads to a happier life.  Specifically, research shows that how we relate to the moments of our life impacts our happiness more that than what we are actually experiencing or doing. In other words, our level of being present, of engagement in any given experience, impacts our happiness more than what it is we are doing. 

    So how do we show up for difficult moments without being overwhelmed?

    The first thing we need to do is determine whether the moment is too overwhelming to try to meet fully.  When an emotion or an experience is difficult and strong, often the wisest thing we can do if we are lucky enough to notice it, is to direct our attention to some other aspect of our experience that is not as overwhelming. For example, we can direct our attention to something simple and easily accessible, like the sensations in the soles of our feet, or the sensations of breathing, or listening to sounds around us with curiosity and gentle attention. In this way, we can sometimes find some calm and ease in the midst of difficulty. 

    Other times, when unpleasant feelings or experiences are not overwhelming, but we simply don’t like them, it can be very useful to try some simple steps to help us be more present with the actual difficult moments.

    Feel the feeling

    One of my favorite ways to practice meeting difficult (but not overwhelming) moments is to “drop the content and feel the feeling”. What this means is to stop focusing on the story, or the thing that is bothering us, and to look inside to see what the actual experience is in our body. For example, when I feel anxious and I notice it, I stop trying to solve or fix the situation, and instead I turn inward and ask myself the following questions while trying to notice the answer in my body:

    • Where specifically do I feel this in my body?
    • How big is the area where I feel it?
    • What shape is it?
    • Does the area where I feel this have defined edges or are the edges fuzzy? 
    • Is it more towards the surface near my skin or more inside towards the center of that area?
    • Can I notice any particular sensations (examples include tightness, pulling, pinching, heat, cold, buzzing but the possibilities are endless) or is it just a general feeling?  
    • When I bring my attention to these sensations, do they increase in intensity, decrease in intensity, stay the same, or change into something else?

    With practice, engaging with unpleasant experiences in this way changes our relationship to the experiences, and gives us more space and freedom. And it works with any experience, as long as we go slowly and don’t try it when we feel overwhelmed. These practices can also give us confidence in our ability to meet difficult moments more easily, and then they don’t escalate into overwhelm as often.

    For me, these practices have had a powerful impact on my life, as they helped transform anxiety from something that knocked me off balance all the time, to something that is much more mild and manageable most of the time. And these practices can be beneficial in meeting all kinds of difficult emotion or experiences, so I offer them in case they may be of benefit to you. Just remember to be gentle, be patient, be curious, and be kind.

  • 5 Sep 2018 8:58 AM | Michael Kelberer (Administrator)

    by Tim Burnett

    Dear Friends,

    It really hit home for me this week. It was upsetting and difficult to work through, especially difficult to "breathe through" but I came out the other side feeling stronger and more grounded. More real. Determined to do what I can.

    I'm talking about climate change. And I'm thinking about how we learn and how we resist. I'm thinking about mindfulness, and most of all I'm thinking about compassion.

    First the back story

    I've been trying to make it a priority to spend more time in the mountains this summer. Hiking, camping, just being there. I find it really helps me regain perspective, calm down, and sometimes a flower or a landscape just feeds me with pure delight. I've been especially intrigued by mountain streams. The wonderful sound. Watching the water. Mossy rocks. The solidity and fluidity of it. Amazing. And there all those mountain streams are, just waiting for us to visit. Wonderful.

    Last Sunday I was getting ready for a 3-day backpack with my dear friend. It had been challenging to schedule, but we were finally going out. Somehow this trip felt extra important for de-stressing and reconnecting. Both the mountains and the good company of my friend were calling me loud and clear.

    And then he's texting me: "are you sure? so smoky!" But I'm determined to go. I talk him into it. And off we go. I discovered in the process that you can check air quality online so easily. Googling "Bellingham air quality" gave back 51, just barely out of the green "good" zone. Fine!

    Off we drove towards Darrington and our destination mountain off the Mountain Loop Highway.

    And it just kept getting smokier and smokier. Arriving in Darrington we couldn’t even see the enormous Whitehorse Mountain just south of town. Just smoke. We still had cell service so it finally occurred to me to check "Darrington air quality" - 161 Unhealthy. Yikes.

    We had momentum so on to the trailhead for at least a day hike - we're here for goodness sakes, this has been planned for months. Up to a small lake where we would have spent the night before ascending the mountain. And the smoke was hard. Mild headaches. Nausea. Eyes watering. There were a pair of lovely Barred Owls fishing and perching at the lake, something for our trouble. But I started to get out of my determined-to-do-this head and notice my actual mood more clearly. The tension in my gut and jaw. The upset and anger starting to arise. This is awful. Noticing my desire to put a positive spin on it anyway – and not getting much traction.

    Accepting reality - painfully

    Back to Bellingham we drove. Next morning I'm on the couch. The day wide open but I couldn't move. Depression set in. And despair. The very air is unhealthy. How could this be? I felt helpless and burdened.

    It’s not like I’m ignorant of climate change. I've known the science of it since I studied Environmental Studies in the 1980s! And yet I'd somehow kept it arm's length. Seen it as a problem that affects other places. The Pacific Northwest will be fine, right? I don't know how people will keep living in Arizona with 115 degree days but we're okay. 

    Until we're not.

    It's so clear that the hotter drier conditions that are the new normal thanks to climate change - whatever you think about the politics and possible solutions, I think this bit is very clear: it's getting hotter in the West. Hotter in the winter means less snow pack, less spring melting and drier soil. Hotter every summer mean even drier soil and plants, which means more fires and more intense fires. Fires that can't be put out but only contained (if that) until they eventually run out of fuel or the weather changes in the Fall.  All those fires fill the entire West with unhealthy air. Frightening.

    Eventually I roused for a solo overnight at lower elevations where it seemed a bit less bad but I'm sure it wasn't very healthy to be outside nonetheless. But I needed to sit by the Skagit River and think and write and feel. And what I started to feel I eventually recognized as compassion. 

    Turning toward compassion

    Compassion requires a willingness to turn towards suffering. The suffering of our changing climate had finally hit home. I had to have the experience of my long-awaited hike being scrubbed by smoke for it to land. Compassion requires a willingness to face that and try to help. Even in the face of overwhelm. Even when we don't know what to do. But face it with whatever strength and wisdom we can muster. And face with support and good company. We need each other. 

    I still don't know what we'll do. It still feels much bigger than me. Much much bigger. And with so many layers to it. But we're in it together, that helps. We humans contributed to this mess so it's got to be that we humans can help fix it. But only if we show up. Only if we're present to it. Only if we feel it, and that's not easy.

    I do think our practices of mindfulness and compassion help. A lot. They help us to face huge difficulties like this. I hope that as the smoke finally eases, we don't just forget about it ("Whew, that's done, thank goodness we can breathe again!"). But that we find ways, big or small, to turn towards our big problems. And do that with feeling. And do that together. Being with our fear, with our despair, and feeling through that somehow - I don't really know how it works - that we are also strong and capable and wise. Let's find a way.

    Tim Burnett

    Addendum: I may have been assuming a bigger link between climate change and forest fires. Cliff Mass reminds us that a major cause of the increase in forest fires is our history of fire suppression which matches what I learned when I did my degrees in biology and environmental studies. Not to say that climate change isn't a very serious problem and a part of the problem with our wildfires but it might not be the main cause in this case.

    Wendell Berry - The Peace of Wild Things

    When despair for the world grows in me

     and I wake in the night at the least sound

     in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,

     I go and lie down where the wood drake

     rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

     I come into the peace of wild things

     who do not tax their lives with forethought

     of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

     And I feel above me the day-blind stars

     waiting with their light. For a time

     I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

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