Hiding from pain by pursuing pleasure

August 13, 2015

Fun fair long exposure Photo taken at the fun fair of Hoorn

There’s a famous teaching, the Sallatha Sutta, in which the Buddha discusses our suffering as consisting of “two arrows.” The first arrow is simply the unavoidable suffering that we all experience as a result of being human. We’re all going to experience loss, hurt feelings, physical pain, illness, etc. The wise person simply observes this pain mindfully. The unwise person responds to suffering through resistance: “Why is this happening to me? This is terrible!”

The Buddha called this reaction “grief, sorrow and lamentation,” and he pointed out that this was like responding to the first arrow with a second one! Our resistance to pain simply causes further pain—perhaps even more than we’d originally experienced. … Read more »

Self-compassion: lovingkindness squared

April 2, 2015

stone heart handSelf-compassion is the most radically transformative practice that I’ve stumbled upon in more than 30 years of exploring Buddhism. It’s helped me to cope with many difficulties I’ve faced, ranging from the mundane challenge of a child’s tantrum, to financial problems and even serious illness. It’s helped me to become kinder and more compassionate not just to myself but also to others. In fact I don’t know of any other practice that’s changed me so much. I’d describe self-compassion as “lovingkindness squared.”

Self-compassion is simply treating yourself kindly, responding to your own pain with compassion in the same way you’d respond to the pain of someone you care about. “Self-compassion” is a bit of a … Read more »

The holographic dinosaur; or, How fear is an illusion

December 20, 2014


You’re walking down a busy shopping street, and you hear panicked screaming. You turn to see what the fuss is, and behind a fleeing crowd you see something impossible: a velociraptor. It’s snarling and roaring, turning its head from side to side as it follows the hysterical populace, almost as if it’s herding them. Perhaps it is.

You panic. Before you even realize you’re doing it, you’re sprinting to the doorway of the nearest shop. Fortunately velociraptors, as is well known, are not good with door handles. As long as you get through that doorway you’ll be all right.

Safe behind the protection of the shop window, you watch people on the street fleeing the … Read more »

Buddhism, grief, and loss

September 30, 2014

Ancient Buddha head without body in Sukhothai, ThailandRecently a meditation student who’s only just begun practicing wrote to say that she’d experienced a bereavement. She wondered if I had any suggestions to help her through the grieving process.

I have to say first of all that I’m not a grief counsellor. I’m just a meditator who has ended up sharing what he’s learned about working with pain. And I also would like to add that I’m hesitant to give advice in such situations because I know how feeble words can be in the face of powerful emotions. I long ago gave up on the notion I once held that there is some magical form of words that will make everything better.

Despite … Read more »

Self-compassion webinar

June 13, 2014

hands holding a heart-shaped stoneLast month I was honored to be a guest of Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, who had asked me to talk about and to answer questions on self-compassion.

It was supposed to be a video, but unfortunately my camera decided to stop talking to my computer just as the webinar began. But Leo kindly send me the audio of the conversation, and I invite you to listen to it below.

I discuss the practice of self-compassion in terms of a very useful Buddhist teaching extracted from the 12 nidanas (links) that illustrate dependent origination, or paticca-samuppada. These are (in a slightly adapted form):

  1. Contact: the mind’s filtered and interpreted contact with the world
  2. Feeling: the
Read more »

Separating feelings and thoughts

January 6, 2014

White isolated zipperOne of the participants in our current 28 Day meditation challenge reported that she was experiencing stress because of a new job.

New jobs can be very challenging and bring up a lot of self doubt. I remember that well.

She talked about “feelings of inadequacy and uselessness,” and I could instantly see a practice that would help her deal with the challenges of her new job. The practice is to distinguish between feelings and thoughts.

From the perspective of Buddhist psychology, inadequacy and uselessness are not feelings. Actual feelings that we might experience in a challenging new job include anxiety, or fear, or confusion. “I am inadequate” and “I am useless” are thoughts. … Read more »

“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” Rainer Maria Rilke

November 18, 2013

rilke_33A woman on the Triratna Buddhist Community’s Urban Retreat, which this year focused on the theme of cultivating lovingkindness, or metta, asked a question about how to deal with “strong emotion” — especially grief — that may arise during lovingkindness practice. For this person, grief tended to arise particularly while she was cultivating lovingkindness toward herself, and she wondered how to be honest with her experience but not dissolve into and become lost in it.

I offered her a few suggestions, which I’ll enlarge on here:

1. Stop considering grief as an emotion.

Is grief an emotion? Is “emotion” even a meaningful term, in the context of Buddhist practice?

Increasingly I find the word … Read more »

Even-mindedness and the two arrows (Day 79)

June 30, 2013

100 Days of LovingkindnessUpekkha, or even-minded love, is the fourth of the series of meditations we’re looking at in our 100 Days of Lovingkindness series.

As I discussed in the first post on upekkha, this word has several different meanings, although they’re all related.


  1. Even-mindedness where we are able to accept ups and downs (specifically, pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings) without being thrown off-balance.
  2. Even-mindedness in the deep states of meditative absorption called jhana, where the mind is very stable and focused.
  3. Even-mindedness as one of the four immeasurables (brahmaviharas), where we have even-minded love.
  4. Even-mindedness as a synonym for the awakened state, or enlightenment, where greed, hatred, and delusion have been unrooted, and so the mind
Read more »

How “mindfulness of liking” can enrich our lives

June 8, 2012

Liking feels good, plus it encourages us to approach and engage the world rather than withdraw from it.

Your brain continually tracks whether something is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. In essence, is it a carrot, a stick, or safely ignored? Naturally, we like – we enjoy – what’s pleasant, dislike what’s unpleasant, and wish what’s neutral would get pleasant pronto.

Natural opioids – pleasure molecules – are released when you see things you like; on the other hand, disliking things can activate the neural networks of pain. Liking things feels good, so we approach them; disliking things feels bad, so we avoid them.

We are hardwired to like some things, like the sweetness of sugar, … Read more »

Be the body

December 13, 2011

As a kid, I was really out of touch with my body. I hardly noticed it most of the time, and when I did, I prodded it like a mule to do a better job of hauling “me” – the head – around.

This approach helped me soldier through some tough times. But there were costs. Many pleasures were numbed, or they flew over – actually, under – my head. I didn’t feel deeply engaged with life, like I was peering at the world through a hole in a fence. I pushed my body hard and didn’t take good care of it. When I spoke, I sounded out of touch to others, emotionally distant, even … Read more »