Stressed out? Anxious? Maybe the holiday chaos has gotten to you. Maybe the bills have stacked up and you're trying to figure out how to pay for a new car battery. Or, maybe you're dealing with some big life challenges, like domestic violence and substance abuse.
If you're looking for a calm place to cultivate wisdom, gratitude and serenity, try the weekly Mindfulness Meeting, run every Friday at noon by South Peninsula Haven House.
Last summer, Haven House got a grant from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority for training in the Japanese philosophies of naikan and Morita therapy through the ToDo Institute in Vermont. "Naikan" means "inside looking" or "introspection." Morita training, created by Japanese psychiatrist Shoma Marita, seeks acceptance of both good and bad feelings so that we can take action that can lead to a change in our feelings.
Haven House uses the philosophies in its programs, and through the Mindfulness Meeting, presents that training, but not with a religious tone, said Rachel Romberg, Haven House victim services coordinator, who ran last Friday's Mindfulness Meeting.
"We're not trying to convince or convert," she said.
Last Friday, seven women and one guy -- that would be me -- sat in a darkened room at Kachemak Bay Campus to gain a little peace and serenity in a safe place. Romberg laid out a few ground rules:
* No crosstalk -- that is, let people finish what they're saying and don't interrupt.
* Respect confidentiality. Talk of the experiences but don't name names.
* Have an open mind.
At the start, Romberg asked us to write down what we carried to the meeting -- what was bothering us. No one spoke of the things we carried, but just writing them down seemed to lighten the load, at least for me.
Next, we did a meditation.
"Just give yourself a quiet place to breathe," Romberg said.
Romberg played a tape of a woman guiding us through simple breathing exercises. Breathe in. Hold the breath deep in your lungs. Slowly exhale. Breathe in and tense the face muscles. Exhale, releasing the tension. Repeat through the muscle groups of the body. I didn't exactly turn into a limp noodle, but I did begin to relax.
One of the ideas in Morita training is to pay attention to the things in our lives we might not notice, Romberg said.
"We are what we pay attention to," Romberg said. "We assume we are what happens to us."
As an example, we read "Grateful for Nothing," an essay by Gregg Krech, the ToDo Institute director. Krech wrote about a friend, Donna, who prepared for Hurricane Sandy -- and then the East Coast storm missed her area. Anticipating the worst, when the power didn't go out, when trees didn't fall and when homes didn't flood, Donna felt like she had won the lottery, because ... nothing happened.
"When was the last time you felt grateful because nothing happened?" Krech wrote. "And yet when you expect to die, or you expect your home to be destroyed, nothing happened is like winning the lottery."
Bouncing off that essay, Romberg had us write down two lists. In one list, write down some challenges we're facing. In another list, write down a list of people and things who helped us be there today.
We also learned about the idea of the naikan, or introspection. Romberg gave us three questions to ask ourselves. For a daily exercise, she suggested answering one of these questions:
* What have I received from someone?
* What have I given to someone?
* What troubles and difficulties have I caused to someone?
A fourth question -- "What difficulties has the world caused me?" -- we don't need any practice with, Romberg said. We all seem to be pretty good with that one.
Days later, the Mindfulness Meeting sunk in. Driving out to the Spit on Sunday, I took a left turn from Lake Street onto the Sterling Highway. I had a green left-turn arrow, and as I turned into the intersection, a driver in a big black truck ran the red light. Thinking that I would get T-boned, I watched in horror as a slow-motion collision unfolded. Then the guy stopped. He realized his error.
I didn't get T-boned, I didn't get hurt and I made it safely on my way for a sunny walk on a chilly day at the beach with my dog. I took a deep breath, relaxed and pondered gratitude.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.