Embarking on a New Journey in 2015 – Mindfulness and Meditation

meditation-6-600x399 Everyone can learn something new no matter where they begin. Last summer, after discovering two wonderful apps on my smart phone, Insight Timer and Headspace, I began trying to regularly meditate. Now meditating regularly actually just met listening to a guided meditation usually 5-10 minutes while sitting on the floor in the living room. Later in the summer, I bought myself a meditation cushion which greatly enhanced the experience. I highly recommend you get one if you are interested in meditation as it has brought much more comfort during the practice. I also got myself a soft blanket that I have designated as my meditation shawl.

Once school started, I realized I had a short possible meditation window, between the time my daughter left to catch the city bus to school and the time my son’s alarm rang to start his morning routine. I found that if I had my mat and cushion all set up in the living room and I planted myself down the minute she’d left I would have exactly 15 minutes to do a guided meditation. It wasn’t perfect but it was a start and it did seem to work.

During the fall, I was happy that I was “finding” or perhaps making time to meditate regularly. Thanksgiving weekend, I attended my first all day retreat led by Robert Beatty the founder of The Portland Meditation Center (PIMC). These retreats are offered regularly at the meditation center but I’d never been to one and decided it was time to check it out.

Imagine being in a room with fifty strangers. People you’d never met before and sitting, not talking, with them for an entire day and at the end you do feel like you have had a shared experience, a deepening and a bonding that happened in almost complete silence. It was utterly eye-opening to me since the whole experience was so different from what I am used to in Jewish services. To be honest, I hadn’t known that it was going to be a silent retreat. I knew I would be meditating but hadn’t really thought about what that meant. It was a wonderful surprise.

I had three poignant “aha” moments that day.

I had been to the PIMC twice before for qigong meditations. One of those times, my mom had come along. I wasn’t really expecting the flood of emotions I had while I was sitting, remembering being there with her. She had enjoyed it very much and being in that space felt like a positive experience that we had shared. I have no memories of her in either of the synagogues we’ve belonged to while we’ve been in Portland or at the Unitarian Church where she chose to attend. She had never felt comfortable at my synagogue and I had never joined her either for her Sunday worship. The thought made me sad, and as is the case when you are confronted with emotions during meditation, a little weepy.

One of the most amazing parts of the day was lunch. Here is why. We partook of our entire lunch time – one hour – in complete silence. Fifty people waited in line together in silence not looking at phones but just “being” quietly. This time allowed us a chance to look out the window and notice that the sun had come out AND that rain drops were also falling off of the downspout. I noticed the pictures hanging on the wall and some of the pussy willows displayed on the buffet. It was so different from the rushing to a table to get “kiddush” luncheon with people sort of grabbing at things for themselves as is often the case at synagogue. I waited in line quietly for almost twenty-five minutes, but it was mindful time not filled time. A very different experience. Then when we chose what we wanted to eat from the potluck buffet, I realized I had a taken a HUGE plate of food. It all looked so healthy and good and I wanted to try all of it. What I noticed from the meal was the textures of the food, the crunch of the pickle, the tang of the beets. On one of the salads, a spinach salad, there was an apple mixture on it that reminded me of charoses, the apple mixture we eat at Passover, suddenly I looked up and had this thought of who else in the room was Jewish and might have actually noticed this connection as well. I ate much more slowly and methodically than I ever do. Not talking while I was eating helped me remember to feel grateful for all this abundance of food that I was eating and enjoying.

When we got back to the meditation hall after lunch and I shut my eyes, I immediately felt compelled to recited the Birkat Hamazon, the Jewish blessing after eating, in my head. It felt appropriate to recite this blessing for the food. I actually felt the sustenance and satisfaction in my body.

After the retreat, I knew I wanted more of this in my life. I’d been listening to amazing talks on Dharma Seed when I’d walk the dog and felt like I wanted to deepen my connection to meditation. A week ago, I began the process. I signed up for a year-long course that Robert Beatty was offering to Deepen Your Meditation. In our first class, Robert invited us to sit each day last week for 30 minutes. I started feeling overwhelmed. I thought, “I’ve never sat that long. How will I be able to do it?” Instead of telling myself I couldn’t do it, I just tried and surprise, surprise without all that much trouble I’ve actually been able to do it each day all week. Not only that but this week, I sat without listening to any guided talks from the various apps and CD’s I have. The Insight Timer offers a timer and interval bells that can help you in your practice. I actual found that the interval bells have a lovely way of (b)ringing me back to the present. Sorry for the terrible pun, but that is what the sound does for me. Bring me back to my breath or my body. Helping me be present and remind me to gently guide the chattering mind.

So what about you? Are you a long time or recent meditator? Do you have a practice that has evolved? I am so excited about what this year holds and I am eager to learn some more about deepening this incredible and simple but not always easy practice of meditation. In the new March 2015 edition of Shambahala Sun, you can read Thich Naht Hanh’s helpful hints on how to sit even if you don’t have a teacher or a community. I look forward to sharing all I learn this year and hope to learn from you as well.

Gift Cards for Good

photo-143Did you know that 41 billion gift cards went unused between 2005 and 2011? According to TIME magazine roughly $2 billion worth of gift cards went unredeemed in 2012. I had no idea. That means that the companies love us to buy gift cards because they will receive the revenue but very likely we won’t actually spend the card.

So what happens? Perhaps some of these cards actually get lost but others might just get forgotten in a drawer or file and since we don’t actually see them we don’t remember to use them. Perhaps setting an alarm on a calendar or making an appointment time to actually go spend the card would be a more likely way to utilize our gift money. Or perhaps we want to consider collecting all those unused cards right now during the holiday season and donate the cards knowing that it will go to a worthy non-profit with fine results.

A few years ago, I shared about a wonderful non-profit called Gift Card Giver helping those unused gift cards go to worthy non-profits. We actually did a gift card collection for my own daughter’s bat mitzvah ourselves and saw the exchange in action.

Here is what you do:

STEP 1: Use as much of your card as you want (or send a full card).
STEP 2: Write how much is left on your card using a permanent marker.
STEP 3: Place the card in an envelope and send it to Gift Card Giver at:

Gift Card Give PO Box 17628 Atlanta, GA 30316

Gift Card Giver collects all the cards and organizes them in secure bins by company name. Then Gift Card Giver gives the total amount of those cards toward a project, person or organization that can best use that gift card for a significant need. Sometimes, Gift Card Giver buys the gifts themselves and delivers the gift directly.

So go gather your new or partially used gift cards this holiday season and help them do some good rather than gathering dust in your drawers.

Happy Holidays.

Note: When I posted about this concept originally nearly two years ago one subscriber commented about purchasing egift cards in the first place. This would save billions of pounds of PVC that gets thrown away and into the landfill each year. Another great suggestion from a reader.

Humanity for every human being

Empathy. Compassion. Understanding.

“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” ~ Mahatma Ghandi

How can we possibly know what another human being is experiencing unless we engage in dialog and conversation with them? We can not know what they are experiencing when we don’t connect with them on a human level. Last week, I had the privilege of chaperoning my daughter’s 9th grade St. Mary’s Academy retreat immersion to learn about the issues of homelessness. The immersion created opportunities for the girls to engage in dialog with their peers, staff at their school and folks living on the street.  Although, I consider myself someone who is empathetic, I have often felt uncomfortable when someone has a sign and asks me for money on the street. This immersion, though only a day, gave me additional information about the services currently available here in Portland and some of the many challenges, as well currently facing this population.

Our morning began in a lovely safe space at St. Andre Bessette church in Old Town Portland, where we were greeted by a young man named Taylor. He asked us to discuss  what our expectations of the day were. Our thoughts, questions or concerns. After discussing this in smaller groups we shared with the larger group. In our group, some girls shared myths or beliefs they had about why people were homeless, that they were afraid of these people, that they were uncomfortable interacting with someone who was homeless or engaging them on the street. I shared that sometimes I feel guilty when I see someone who is experiencing homelessness, that I have been blessed by good fortune in my life and have had opportunities that perhaps others have not.

Next, Taylor shared with us several items that someone experiencing homelessness might need: a toothbrush, mittens, a blanket, a plastic bag to carry everything, socks, an ID which we learned can be a very difficult item to maintain if you don’t have the appropriate documents like a birth certificate. With no housing and no address and your birth certificate how can you get ID or anything you might need that requires an ID? I had never thought about how difficult it would be to go through my life without documentation or ID of who I was.

After our initial dialog, we took a tour of the area and learned about the Blanchet House for hospitality which has been serving three hot meals a day for free in the downtown Portland area for more than 60 years. Last month, this non-profit moved from an older building into a brand new building to provide these meals. They serve more than 800 meals per day, 6 days of the week. Later in the day, our group stood in line with others experiencing hunger and homelessness and were served a hot meal by the volunteer staff.  I realized that day, that in all of my years of doing volunteer work, I hadn’t ever been on the receiving end of the serving of food. It was very dignified and I was happy that the food was tasty and plentiful.  We also met the founder of p:ear, a non-profit that works with young adults experiencing homelessness. We visited a brand new facility called the Bud Clark Commons that offers computers, showers and mailboxes plus notary republics and other important assistance this population may need access too. Along with food, these organizations provide humanity. A friendly face and smile to someone who might feel invisible as they go about their day. Being without lodging doesn’t mean you aren’t a human being and there are basic human dignities that everyone deserves, like bathrooms and shelter.

Imagine the looks we got when we got in line for a free hot meal at the Blanchet House passing dozens of other (mostly men) in line? Two men in front of us asked if we were volunteers? One asked if we were hungry. The girls were encouraged to not bring food with them that day, though many did. However, by 12:00 noon, I know I was feeling hungry. The guy behind us, made the girls laugh out loud when he said, “You guys are looking pretty good, how long you guys been out?”

The best part of the day was sharing food and conversation with the others at the Blanchet House. Asking where they were from began a conversation. One man who’d been on the streets for five months told us that he’d come on some difficult times recently. He also told us that the cops in Portland were kind and helpful as far as he was concerned another man at the table piped in as well that he’d come to Portland from California and thought it seemed like a great place so he stayed. One of the gentlemen mentioned that he liked eating at the Blanchet House because they always had fresh fruit which is rare to get. What I remember most about one man were his eyes. They were smokey blue and quite beautiful. I didn’t pay much attention to his unwashed clothing but rather spoke to him with eye contact. I am sure when we normally pass someone on the street we don’t even notice their eye color let alone really make eye contact with them.

Right 2 Dream Too Encampment

After lunch, the girls and I continued our exploration of the area. We bought meal coupons from the Sister of the Road Cafe to have on hand to give out to those asking for food or money. These meal coupons allow someone to have a meal at the cafe for free. They can also barter and work at the cafe to get a meal as well. On our way back to the church for our final reflections of the day. We stopped by Right 2 Dream Too, a model community encampment at the entrance of China Town 4th and Burnside. Two men, explained what they were doing to the girls and myself, providing a safe space to break the cycle of homelessness. Stop by sometime if you are in the area and have a look. In addition, perhaps you want to visit their website and see what they currently need.

The situation is certainly challenging. Not enough beds in shelters for folks who are in need. Mental health challenges make finding work and housing difficult for some but there are many who have just lost their footing and need support in returning to stable housing. I realized last week that I don’t need to feel sorry for the opportunities that I have had in my life but I can’t turn away from those who are in more dire straights. I have the opportunity to give more time, money, expertise or whatever I can offer to this community and that can make a world of difference.

When we returned at the end of the day and reflected on our experience. I know I had been moved. I know about some of the resources that exist, when I am asked for money on the street. I can also volunteer for any of these worthy organization and expect to do so in the near future. Do you know what the resources and challenges are in your community? Perhaps it’s time for you to find out as well.

Volunteer Expo 2012

Yesterday, I attended the 2012 Volunteer Expo sponsored by The Standard in downtown Portland at the Pioneer Courthouse. What originally started as an event for The Standard employees to learn more about local volunteer opportunities has become so successful that it is now open to the entire community. What an amazing opportunity for folks who are interested in learning about volunteering in our community to directly connect with more than 125 non-profits.

My goal was to discover and learn about Portland non-profits that I wasn’t already familiar with in town.

Of course, there were a few that I knew well like Girl Scouts, Portland Children’s Museum as well as Dress for SuccessSCRAP and Portland Parks and Recreation. I also thanked Friends of the Trees for the work they have done in our community to plant trees. I appreciate those every time I bike on the Fanno Creek Trail near my house. All of these have wonderful volunteer opportunities.

When I approached the American Red Cross booth and the volunteer asked if I was interested in donating blood I sheepishly replied no. To which she shared that there are many other opportunities to help volunteer with them that don’t involve giving blood, like helping on a disaster relief event or even checking people in for blood drives. Regardless, there are a plethora of opportunities.

One of my favorite discoveries was Store to Door. Their mission is to facilitate independent living for Portland area seniors by providing low-cost, personalized grocery shopping and delivery service. They look for volunteers who will deliver groceries and makes sure the senior is safe and notices if other home care services are needed. Considering the fact that I have known the work of Loaves and Fishes for years I was surprised to learn about this wonderful additional service to provide seniors independence.

For another organization geared to seniors, I’d recommend you learn about the non-profit Elders in Action whose mission is to assure a vibrant community through active involvement of older adults. They offer events and a speakers bureau with an array of subjects and have meaningful volunteer opportunities for seniors.

The Portland Kitchen is a new emerging non-profit. The founders are hoping to create a comprehensive culinary after-school program for high school youth in the Portland metropolitan area. Earl Frederick was familiar with FareStart in Seattle that I wrote about last fall and hopes that his non-profit will have aspects of that very successful program. He is looking for partners, donations, equipment and sponsors to help him build this non-profit.

A second non-profit geared to high risk youth is PAL the Police Activity League (which despite the name does have a chapter in Beaverton as well). Their mission is to build a partnership between youth and police through multiple programs designed to develop good citizenship. They offer youth a safe place, allowing them to broaden their horizons and imagine a different future for themselves. They are always looking for coaches, tutors, fundraisers and event planners.

Trillium Family Services needs mentors to provide assistance to families in crisis. This may also include entire families. Their development director shared a story with me about a boy and his family that joined the program when the boy wanted to volunteer as part of a mitzvah project for his bar mitzvah. They continue to stay involved. The Albertina Kerr Centers continues to offer programs after more than 100 years in service to this community. They have an array of volunteer opportunities from executive chef to cashier, managers to sales people.

Ever wanted to go on a service learning program but don’t have a month or a year to devote to it. Well you are in luck, International Volunteers in Action (Ivia) offers international short-term programs designed to provide adults with opportunities to do volunteer service abroad in addition to sightseeing on their vacation. They recommend this as an option for a mile stone birthday or a family reunion. What an awesome opportunity for giving and celebrating. Definitely worth checking out!

Finally, the Partnership Scoop Shop was on hand to provide free scoops of Ben and Jerry’s when you got your CONNECT card stamped by five non-profits. It was a sweet win-win learning about new organizations and getting a delicious scoop of ice cream for the effort.

The Volunteer Expo reminded me why Portland is the second best city for volunteering in the country with nearly 37% of our population giving their time. With so many amazing non- profits in our city I hope anyone who hasn’t already found somewhere to give some of their valuable time will look into it.

If you need help figuring out where your skills and passions could best be used in a volunteer position, feel free to contact me. I’m happy to offer an assessment of your passions and needs and help make appropriate recommendations to help you find a meaningful and fulfilling volunteer opportunity.