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Sep 02, 2014

The Buddha’s radical path of jhāna

Stone Buddha statueJhāna — a progressive series of meditative states of absorption — is a controversial topic in Buddhism. This should be rather amazing given that the Buddhist scriptures emphasize jhāna so strongly. In the Eightfold Path, Right Concentration is consistently defined as the four jhānas. The Buddha said things like “There is no jhāna for him who lacks insight, and no insight for him who lacks jhāna.” The jhānas are enumerated over and over again in the Pāli scriptures. They’re also implicit in teachings like the Seven Bojjhaṅgas, the 12 positive nidānas, and the Ānāpānasati Sutta, which mention various of the jhāna factors.

Despite the scriptural importance of jhāna, some teachers, like …

Sep 02, 2014

Emotional hijacking

Young woman cryingIn light of the machinery of survival-based, emotional reactivity, let’s look more narrowly at what Daniel Goleman has called “emotional hijacking.”

The emotional circuits of your brain – which are relatively primitive from an evolutionary standpoint, originally developed when dinosaurs ruled the earth – exert great influence over the more modern layers of the brain in the cerebral cortex. They do this in large part by continually “packaging” incoming sensory information in two hugely influential ways:

  • Labeling it with a subjective feeling tone: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This is primarily accomplished by the amygdala, in close concert with the hippocampus; this circuit is probably the specific structure of the brain responsible

Aug 29, 2014

Empathy versus compassion

Avalokitesvara_BodhisattvaOn the Boston Review, Paul Bloom has a provocative article titled “Against Empathy.” It’s not advocating an uncompassionate approach to life, and in fact central to his thesis is that there is a distinction between empathy, which he says can limit and exhaust us, and compassion, which he points out is more sustainable.

There’s one particular section where there are several references to Buddhism and to Buddhist practitioners:

It is worth expanding on the difference between empathy and compassion, because some of empathy’s biggest fans are confused on this point and think that the only force that can motivate kindness is empathetic arousal. But this is mistaken. Imagine that the child of a

Aug 28, 2014

How firmly should you pursue your intentions?

Rural road through the field in the mountainsHow firmly do you pursue your intentions? Neither too tight nor too loose a rein.

As with the balance of the capital city and the provinces, it’s worth considering what your tendencies are and if there is an imbalance. For example, some of us hold onto our goals to a fault (myself, ahem) going down with the ship – pull up! It’s a trap!! – while others give up way too soon or don’t take their own needs and wants seriously enough.

From the Buddhist perspective, the path that leads to the greatest well-being and goodness for oneself and others steers clear of over-striving on the one …

Aug 27, 2014

Sweet Nirvāna!

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 7.26.08 PM

I found this sweet hymn in a book by Paul Carus, called Sacred Tunes for the Consecration of Life: Hymns of the Religion of Science. Carus (18 July 1852 – 11 February 1919) was an early German-American translator, compiler, and popularizer of Buddhist texts.

Carus seems to have been fond of hymns, since he published an entire book of settings of Buddhist texts. This is available online, courtesy of archive.org.

Unfortunately my sight-reading skills have atrophied through decades of disuse, and I’m only able to guess at what the tune is.

Here is the rest of the song.

Sweet Nirvāna,
Highest Jhāna!
Rupture sweeter than all pleasures,
Thou the

Aug 22, 2014

Patterns of closeness and independence

Couple in love at sunsetIntimacy and autonomy are independent dimensions, and it is their combination that counts.

The qualities in each category, imperfectly summarized by a single word, characterize both types of individuals and, more importantly, states of mind we all transit:

  • Integrated – Comfortable and skillful with both closeness and agency; able both to carry others in her heart while pursuing her own aims, and to be completely authentic in the most intimate moments; symbolically, “you” and “I” are about the same size.
  • Engulfed – Highly connected, but not free to act or express himself fully; giving up “me” is price to be “we;” unnecessarily dependent; clutching, beseeching, placating; could resist encouragement to be

Aug 15, 2014

The Power of Mindfulness: an introductory meditation course begins September 2, 2014

1401 POM 400pxDo you want to be calmer, happier, and experience more freedom from stress? Mindfulness has been clinically proven to reduce stress, promote feelings of wellbeing, and improve mental and physical health.

The next Power of Mindfulness online course starts September 2, 2014. It’s a four-week meditation course that’s accessible 24 hours a day, every day of the week, wherever you are. All you need is an internet browser. You can even participate on an iPad or other mobile device.

The convenience makes this perfect for people who don’t have meditation classes nearby, or who work irregular hours or who can’t travel because of illness, childcare arrangements, etc.

The course is web-based, and …

Aug 13, 2014

The 6 Elements CD

CD7-500pxNew release!

The Buddha taught the Six Element Practice as a way of challenging our assumptions of our own separateness and permanence. In this practice we reflect on the various “elements” that compose our being (solid matter, liquid, energy, gas, space, and consciousness itself) and see how each is a flow, rather than something static. Through this practice we come to see that every aspect of our being is in a permanent state of flux, and that we are nothing more or less than the universe become conscious of itself.

The practices on this CD will help you to:

  • let go of limited views of yourself
  • feel a greater sense of awe and wonder
  • experience a

Aug 11, 2014

What is mindfulness?

蓮の花Q: So today I had a “bad moment” – got stressed and upset about a work situation. My first thought was to let go of the negative thoughts that were running in my brain by actively taking in the good. Then I wondered if that meant I was running away from (ignoring or more importantly trying to change) the negative feelings in my mind/body, which seemed counter to mindfulness.

A: My take, take it with a bucket of salt:

  • Mindfulness is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
  • Mindfulness itself is sustained attention to something, typically with some meta-cognitive awareness of the quality of one’s attention. Mindfulness itself is morally neutral. A

Aug 06, 2014

The machinery of upset

Unhappy little girl crying(Emotional) life is great when we feel enthusiastic, contented, peaceful, happy, interested, loving, etc. But when we’re upset, or aroused to go looking for trouble, life ain’t so great.

To address this problem, let’s turn to a strategy used widely in science (and Buddhism, interestingly): analyze things into their fundamental elements, such as the quarks and other subatomic particles that form an atom or the Five Aggregates in Buddhism of form, feeling (the “hedonic tone” of experience as pleasant-neutral-unpleasant), perception, volitional formations, and consciousness.

We’ll apply that strategy to the machinery of getting upset. Here is a summary of the eight major “gears” of that machine – somewhat based on how …