Stepping out of compulsive thoughts, and into freedom

May 19, 2016

Gold Fish Jumping to Empty Bowl

The moment when we realize that we’ve been caught up in a distracted train of thought is a valuable opportunity to bring skillful qualities into the mind, and to cultivate insight.

This is something that’s very familiar to anyone who’s meditated. We’ll start by following the breathing, or some other object of attention, but then without our making any conscious choice to shift our focus we slip into a dream-like state in which we’re rehashing a dispute, or fantasizing about something pleasant, or worrying about some situation in our lives.

These periods of distraction can be so intense that they are like hypnotic states. They’re like dreams. They’re like mental bubbles of an internal virtual … Read more »

Dealing with creative distractions

March 25, 2016

creativity: man surrounded by star trailsSomeone recently asked me about how to deal with useful distractions:

As a creative writer, I think I get some of my best ideas while in a meditative state such as when showering or shaving. My question is what I should do when a ‘useful’ or ‘epiphany moment’ happens while meditating. My instinct is to get up and write my idea down and my fear is that if I go back to my breathing I will lose this idea which has bubbled up from my subconscious. I don’t really see my wandering mind as a thing to avoid but a thing to embrace – which confuses me regarding the practice of meditation.

Mind-wandering is partly … Read more »

Facing the demon of self-doubt

April 22, 2015

KrampusSomeone wrote to me the other day, asking for advice:

I just started regularly meditating about a month ago. I’m scared to continue now though. I had a sudden feeling of self resentment and I felt it so deeply. I remembered the bad choices I have made in my life and felt so unworthy of love and compassion. I felt unworthy of the meditation itself. I felt like I was the most selfish person in the world. I can’t even begin to describe how painful it was.

What she’d described is what we call the “hindrance of doubt.” There are five of these hindrances, which are mental patterns that stop us from being at ease … Read more »

Being mindful of the effects of your thinking

February 3, 2013

100 day meditation challenge 034Some kinds of thinking are helpful in terms of what we’re trying to achieve in the meditation, and some kinds aren’t.

So in mindfulness of breathing the counting (which is a form of thought) is helpful. In lovingkindness practice the phrases that we say (“may you be well,” etc.) are also helpful. And less “programmatic’ thoughts can also be helpful in bringing about greater attentiveness, relaxation, calmness, or other qualities. You can recognize these by their effects.

But generally, most of the thinking we do is concerned with worrying, doubting, arguing, criticizing, yearning, etc., and most of that thinking perceptibly stirs up suffering of one sort or another.

I’d simply suggest looking at what your … Read more »

The opportunity of “the magic quarter-second”

November 13, 2012

In her book My Stroke of Insight, brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor explains that the natural life span of an emotion—the average time it takes for it to move through the nervous system and body—is only a minute and a half, a mere ninety seconds. After that, we need thoughts to keep the emotion rolling. So, if we wonder why we lock into painful emotional states like anxiety, depression, or rage, we need look no further than our own endless stream of inner dialogue.

Modern neuroscience has discovered a fundamental truth: Neurons that fire together, wire together. When we rehearse a looping set of thoughts and emotions, we create deeply grooved patterns of emotional … Read more »

Doctor Jekyll and Mister Amygdala

August 15, 2012

A friend just wrote to me with a troubling story. He’s had a few upheavals in his life recently, including a divorce, but then he made a dreadful ethical slip and got involved with a former patient of his. Of course that’s a huge ethical no-no in the caring professions, and it may have life-long consequences for his career.

But in responding to my friend’s letter I was reminded of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Most of you know this story from cheesy horror movies, but the book is actually an astute spiritual parable that sprang directly from Stevenson’s subconscious in the form of a nightmare. The story stands up psychologically … Read more »

Inquiry and naming: Practices to dispel the trance

June 13, 2012

Sometimes, when our carefully constructed lives seem to be falling apart – when we get a divorce, lose a business, or are laid off, for example – we can torture and berate ourselves with stories about how we’re failures, what we could have done better, how no one cares about us. Yet, this response of course only digs us deeper into what I call “the trance of unworthiness.”

Distracted by our judgments, we are unable to recognize the raw pain of our emotions. In order to begin the process of waking up, we need to deepen our attention and touch our real experience.

One tool of mindfulness that can cut through our numbing trance is … Read more »

Give your head a rest from thinking

May 22, 2012

“Rest your weary head.” The traditional saying that’s this week’s practice has been sinking in for me lately. Thoughts have been swirling around like a sandstorm about work, things I’ve been reading, household tasks, finances, concerns about people, a yard that needs mowing, loose ends, projects, etc. etc. The other day I told my wife: “I’m thinking about too many things.” Know the feeling?

By “head” I mean the cognitive aspects of experience such as planning, analyzing, obsessing, considering, worrying, making little speeches inside, going back over situations or conversations, and trying to figure things out. “Weary” means being fatigued due to continued exertion or endurance, sometimes also with a sense of being dismayed, even … Read more »

Meditation hindrances and how to work with them

December 17, 2011

I remember my first weekend retreat at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in the summer of 1993. I took the weekend “off” from family and work obligations to learn how to meditate and take an Introduction to Buddhism class. My first meditation experience in the Meditation Hall at Aryaloka was blissful – even the outdoor birdsong quieted and the stillness was palpable.

During that first meditation class, I was excited to learn the list of hindrances to meditation: sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and anxiety and skeptical doubt. I could relate to that list because I experienced those hindrances off the cushion too, to varying degrees, and regularly.

Having the list of hindrances was … Read more »

How to deal with anger

December 12, 2011

I don’t know if anger, rage, and frustration are getting more common, but it certainly seems like they are.

As we find ourselves snarled in impossibly heavy traffic, overloaded with life’s complexities, dealing with technology that we think should work but sometimes doesn’t, and struggling to survive in a precarious and heartless economic system, it seems a lot of people live with hot coals of irritability burning inside them, and that these hot coals have more than ample opportunity to burst into the flames of anger, or to erupt as emotional explosions of rage.

Techniques from meditation can help us to damp down the flames of our ill will.

Stop, drop, and love

If you … Read more »