A Moment With Awaken – Steven Bend

"Don’t think about the breath, just feeling. And just let that physical sensation be the anchor that keeps you tethered to the present moment."

Welcome to “A Moment With Awaken!”

We are excited to launch this new series of interviews with the people who make up Awaken Pittsburgh. This month we’ll meet one of our Board Members.

Our first interview is with Steven Bend. Steven may have only joined the Awaken team a few months back, but he has decades of meditation experience and a wealth of wisdom to share. Here he shares a bit of advice with us.

Awaken Pittsburgh: When and how did your journey into the sphere of meditation and mindfulness begin?

Steven: That is a long story, let me see if I can condense it into some of the essentials.

Even from high school age, I was interested in things like psychology and philosophy. Things that deal with big questions like- What life is about? What is a good way to live life?...And it was in the mid-nineties that I decided I really wanted to get more involved in meditation, not just reading about it in books. Around that time there happened to be an all-day event by the Buddist Society of Pittsburgh where a lot of the different groups, Zen, Tibetan, Vipassana, came and gave presentations. It was a great event to sense if there was one of these I wanted to join. And there was. They were followers of a particular iconoclastic Zen teacher named Cheri Huber. She’s not at all in the mainstream zen tradition but has a psychological orientation. This eventually led me to practice at the Pittsburgh Zen Center in Sewickley ...That was probably the first four or five years of my practice.

At some point, I started getting more into the insight meditation school of things:Tara Brach, Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield. I decided I wanted to put most of my effort into the insight meditation and started going to a group led by Rhonda Rosen a very experienced insight practitioner who has been leading this insight group for years in Squirrel Hill. And then from there for my last kind of stop, I met someone in that group who said they were going to start a peer-led, specifically insight meditation group in Pittsburgh. And so I got in on the ground floor of that and which became the Insight Meditation Community of Pittsburgh. And that is really my home practice group now. Another thing that I got into at my last job was corporate mindfulness. I got trained to deliver this course called Search Inside Yourself.

Awaken Pittsburgh: So with all that experience what kind of instruction would you give when leading a session?
Steven: Find wherever you can find your breath most clearly, and just pay attention to the physical sensations. Don’t think about the breath, just feeling. And just let that physical sensation be the anchor that keeps you tethered to the present moment.

And it’s not like it’s better to sit for 15 minutes and only be aware of the breath. Because minds are built evolutionarily to think thoughts. Typically we’ll actually find how active our minds are; you might not even finish the first in and out breath and you’ll be thinking about the next thing you're supposed to do or replaying an earlier conversation. So you immediately learn something about your mind. You also learn a very important lesson about starting over again. Meditation teaches you that you can start over with a clean slate every time just by bringing your attention back to your anchor. So I work with this as a form of self-compassion and add that in there too. 

Awaken Pittsburgh: I’ve found self-compassion to be very beneficial for me when I leave the cushion because I notice the retraining of my brain towards gentleness so I’m able to meet judgemental thoughts with compassion instead of more judgement. Because that’s just fighting fire with fire. Now I want to move into something that I think is very relevant considering the past year. When difficult emotions like stress or anxiety come up, how do they play into your practice?
Steven: There are several different things I do. ...We teach a lot of what we call micro-practices, which are very brief meditations. One of them is called the Three Breaths Practice. On the 1st breath, it’s just like normal meditation, you just become aware of the breath in the body. On the 2nd breath, you try to relax the body as much as possible. And on the 3rd breath you just settle more on the heart area and ask yourself “What’s important now?” That’s a tool I use a lot.

And then there’s a similar one called Head, Body, Heart check-in where on your 1st breath you pay attention to your head and also metaphorically to “what are you thinking?” And then on the 2nd breath, you move to the body, or the gut, and you sense “what are you feeling?” Then on the 3rd breath, the heart, where you ask yourself “What do you value?”

But if I’m stressed and I am just sitting down by myself for a practice, I’ll probably start with some loving-kindness towards myself. Or just some breath meditation to focus my awareness a little bit. Because if I’m stirred up it’s because there are thoughts just repeating through my mind, especially fears. I can get into fear cycles if I don’t watch myself.

Awaken Pittsburgh: I’ve never heard the term ‘fear cycles’ before, but it’s a good one.
A: I don’t know if I read that somewhere or if it just came out right now, but it definitely describes what I experience.

Awaken Pittsburgh: So what about meditation do you think breaks those cycles? Is it just seeing it and that gives you some space from it?
Steven: That’s a good question. Certainly I think part of it is just seeing because our minds do a lot of things that we are barely aware of which can lead us into some pretty difficult situations if we have habitual reactions that are driven by our fear or our anger...An example we use a lot in the course is when you receive an email or see a tweet that gets you all fired up and your fingers immediately start moving and before you know it, you’ve replied. But instead we can put a little bit of space in there. A little bit of awareness in there. 

I think the other part of it is the compassion element. Because one thing we’re doing is making space for everything. I think a lot of problems are caused by not really acknowledging difficult situations and difficult emotions. So stopping for a second and making room can be helpful. These other situations also invariably include other people so also feeling compassion for them. Trying to develop a bigger sense of perspective, maybe even specifically trying to look at it from the other person’s perspective. That definitely seems to be something that is lacking a lot right now...So making room for compassion for everyone involved , in my experience, usually puts me in a better space to then deal with a situation.

Awaken Pittsburgh: How would you respond if someone new to the practice asked you about benefits of a regular mindfulness practice?
Steven: One of the things I would mention is the idea of emotional intelligence. There have been studies now that show that emotional intelligence is a greater predictor of success in the world than IQ. And mindfulness has been shown to enhance this. Because emotional intelligence is built on this component of self-awareness, and also awareness of the feelings of others. So, mindfulness starts with this self awareness and the more you can understand what you’re feeling, the better you can understand what someone else is feeling. There’s actually some neurological research that suggests that the areas of our brains that light up when we see something happening to others, are the same areas that light up when something is happening to us.

Overall, I think mindfulness and meditation is an approach that emphasizes a very experimental approach to your own life and your own mind. And if you like making up your own mind on things and finding out what is true for you, I think there are some very tried and true benefits meditation and mindfulness can offer you to assist in that.

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