Posts by Bodhipaksa

“By means of mutual kindness”

There’s a lovely Pali word, sampiyena, which could be translated as “by means of mutual kindness.”

A beautiful expression of mutual kindness is taking place at Wildmind and transforming what we do here.

For a long time we’ve sustained ourselves by offering online courses by donation. Since there were always good months and bad months, that turned out to be a precarious way to keep the site going. As a result, a lot of energy has been diverted into figuring out how to survive, rather than just getting on with the job of teaching meditation.

So we’re moving to a different model. We’re becoming a community-supported meditation initiative, where people who feel moved to support us give a small sum each month, and we provide spiritual support in return.

Our supporters get access to:

  • All of Wildmind’s existing meditation courses (of which there are around 30).
  • Access to all of my new meditation courses that are run through Wildmind (there’s a new one in the works).
  • An online community where we can discuss our practice
  • A monthly newsletter with meditation downloads, and articles that are only for sponsors.

This is a beautiful example of sampiyena because it exemplifies mutual care — supporters taking care of the needs of a Dharma teacher, who is then able to offer guidance to those supporters and others.

Right now, thanks to 400 sponsors, we’re 55% of the way to our goal of being 100% community-supported.

I’d love you to join us! The benefits above are considerable. It’s amazing that for just $6 a month (although you can contribute more if you like) you’ll have ongoing access to all of that meditation teaching and be part of an international community of hundreds of people. But this is what can happen when many people contribute small amounts to a common end.

In the future, membership of the community will be the ONLY way to participate in new courses I develop. Once the remaining shares in our initiative have been sponsored this opportunity may not come again for a while, so I’d suggest acting now.

You can choose any number of shares to sponsor. The average person sponsors two shares. There are no extra benefits (besides good karma) for sponsoring more shares, but that’s an option open to you if you want to show extra appreciation and if you can afford it. I’d certainly be very grateful if you sponsor more than one share.

Love,
Bodhipaksa


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Seven meditative techniques to help you fall asleep

I used to have great difficulty getting to sleep at night. Sometimes my mind would be racing, usually about something that was troubling me. Sometimes there was nothing much going on in my mind at all, but sleep would simply refuse to arrive. The worst times were when I craved sleep, but as I began to drift and dream imagery started to arise, I’d get excited and wake up again.

But that was then. Nowadays I’m usually asleep within minutes—even seconds—of my head hitting the pillow.

Along the way I built up a toolkit of techniques to help me disengage from the kind of mental activity that gets in the way of sleep and that causes insomnia.

1. Mindfulness of the body

Mindfulness reduces mind-wandering. It helps us spot when our thoughts are unhelpful, so that we can disengage from them. That includes things like recognizing that anxious thinking is stirring up our emotions and keeping us awake. So we recognize unhelpful thinking and let go of it. But the mind has to be engaged with something else instead, so we turn our attention to the body.

Being mindful of the body has a calming effect. Because the mind is engaged with being attentive to the physical sensations arising in the body, it has less bandwidth available for engaging in the kind of anxious thinking that keeps us awake. And the rhythms of the breathing can help soothe us.

So we can scan the entire body, right down to the toes, simply being aware of all the sensations arising there.

Even if there are unpleasant sensations in the body, such as a twisting knot of anxiety in the gut, mindfulness helps us learn to accept them without reacting. Without mindfulness what normally happens is that the unpleasant symptoms of anxiety cause the mind to go into overdrive, which perpetuates our anxiety. Mindfulness of the body helps to break that cycle, allowing us to come back to a state of rest and relaxation, which promotes sleep.

2. Mindfulness of the breathing

The breathing is of course part of the body, but I single it out here because another approach to mindfulness is to be aware of the sensations of the breathing in particular.

Anxiety tends to bring our attention up into our heads, and to the thoughts we’re having there. Often when we’re anxious we almost forget that we have bodies! Anxiety also tends to cause our breathing to be rapid and shallow, and to take place more in the chest than in the belly.

So it’s particularly helpful for us to take our attention to the rise and fall of the belly. As well as taking our attention further away from the head, and from our thoughts, this has a soothing effect. It promotes activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, which again brings us back to rest and balance—and therefore to sleep.

3. Mindfulness of weight

Particularly if you have physical restlessness, it can be very helpful to pay attention to the weight of your body pressing down into your mattress. I’ve found that it’s particularly helpful to imagine that my body is becoming heavier and heavier, as if gravity is gradually increasing up to perhaps two G, at which point it’s as if I’m pinned to the bed..

This sense of weightedness promotes a sense of surrender, which helps with letting go into sleep. It promotes physical stillness, which also helps. And it’s a form of body awareness, which itself helps with going to sleep.

4. Imagery

Sometimes when we’re sleepless we have a lot of stimulating mental imagery running through our minds, and a useful way to divert attention from that is to visualize something soothing and even a little boring. I often imagine that I’m watching rain pattering on woodland leaves on an overcast day. This has the advantage of involving nature, which is soothing. The emphasis is on the color green, which is one of the most calming colors there is. The imagery is beautiful, so it holds my attention, but it’s not stimulating in any way.

This is one of the quickest ways I know to get to sleep. Usually when I fall asleep, what happens is that nonsensical dream imagery arises, and my attention switches to that. That’s the point at which sleep happens. If I’m paying attention to the body, then sometimes the arising of dream imagery jolts me back to awakeness. However, if I’m already immersed in the world of imagery, then what happens is that the forest scene is seamlessly replaced by my dreams, and sleep happens very easily.

5. Slow down your inner chatter

Sometimes when I was unable to sleep, my mind would be chattering away to itself. Sometimes this would be because of anxiety and sometimes it would be because I was excited about something.

I found that if I slowed the pace of my inner speech, and also deepened it, then sleep would happen much more quickly. My own self-talk developed a soothing, droning quality. I’d literally bore myself to sleep!

6. Relax the eyes

One thing I’ve discovered is that there’s a correspondence between our physiological states and how we relate to our eyes. Think about the experience of daydreaming, when your mind is gently and aimlessly drifting in a relaxed way. Usually you’re staring into space, and not focusing on anything in particular, right?

When the eyes are narrowly focused, and the muscles around them tense, then we tend to be in a state of alertness, and even anxiety. On the other hand, when we allow our focus to be soft, and the muscles around the eyes to be relaxed, this promotes relaxation.

It’s very easy to do this. With the eyes closed, just let the eyes be at rest, so that you become aware of everything in your visual field. You’ll probably notice that your breathing very quickly begins to slow and deepen.

7. To unwind, be kind

Lastly, general negativity can keep us awake, whether that’s worrying, judging, irritability, blaming, craving, despondency, or whatever.

And this can become cyclical, so that we start to worry or judge ourselves for still being awake. If we become more emotionally at ease with ourselves, then we break this cycle and it becomes easier to fall asleep.

One of the simplest things to become more at ease is to remember what it feels like when we are kind. In particular, recall an experience of looking with kindness and affection. It can be a memory of looking at a baby or a pet. It doesn’t much matter. Just notice the emotional qualities of caring, kindness, appreciation, and so on, that arise as you recall a memory of this sort. And particularly notice how those qualities permeate the way you are looking.

Next, turn your inner gaze upon yourself, bringing those same qualities to bear upon yourself. Be kind. Be patient. Be forgiving. If you’re sleepless because there’s someone you’re upset with, then regard them with the same kindness.

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You can of course combine two or more of these techniques together. For example you might adopt a loving gaze while also being aware of the body, and imagining that gravity has increased. Or you might relax the eyes as you pay attention to the breathing in the belly. Play around and see what works best for you at any given time.

Also, do persist when it comes to experimenting with these approaches. At first there may be times they may not appear to do much, but I’ve found that if you persist with them you train the mind to fall asleep quickly.

If you enjoyed this post, and would like to support Wildmind—a Community-Supported Meditation Project—check out the benefits of becoming a sponsor for as little as $6 a month.

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Keep on keeping on!

You might have heard of community-supported agriculture, where people buy a share of the farm’s output, which is delivered to them as the crops become ready.

Wildmind is doing something similar, and is in the process of becoming a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative.

By supporting us, which you can do for as little as $8 a month, you’ll have access to:

  • All of my existing meditation courses at no extra charge
  • Access to all new meditation courses that I run through Wildmind.
  • An online community
  • A monthly newsletter with meditation downloads, and articles that are only for sponsors.

This will give Wildmind the financial stability to be able to focus on teaching meditation, rather than on trying to stay afloat. Already this has made a big difference. Much of the anxiety of the last few years—will there be enough in the bank to cover our bills?—is beginning to evaporate.

In the future, membership of the community will be the ONLY way to participate in new courses I develop. Once the remaining shares in our initiative have been sponsored this opportunity may not come again for a while, so I’d suggest acting now.

You can choose any number of shares to sponsor. The average person has sponsored a little over two shares. There are no extra benefits (besides good karma) for sponsoring more shares, but that’s an option open to you if you want to show extra appreciation and if you can afford it. I’d certainly be very grateful if you sponsor more than one share.

Love,
Bodhipaksa

Click here to subscribe to the meditation initiative.

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Mindfulness, step by step

Almost anything we do can offer us an opportunity to practice mindfulness. The most mundane activities, such as unloading the dishwasher, driving, or grocery shopping, can become part of our spiritual practice.

Walking as a Practice

Walking is one ordinary activity that we can transform into a vehicle for being more mindful. One of the benefits of mindful walking is that the body is easier to sense when it’s in movement. In sitting meditation a lot of people initially find it difficult to be aware of physical sensations. When we’re walking, the sensations are far more obvious. This means that walking can be a powerful anchor for our attention.

The Irish poet John O’Donahue wrote:

It is a strange and magical fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you. It is an immense privilege, and it is incredible that humans manage to forget the miracle of being here.

Walking is something we take for granted, and we may assume that although we can walk to interesting places, the act of walking itself is inherently uninteresting. Yet the simple act of walking can be a rich and fulfilling experience. In relating to ordinary activities with mindfulness, we may find that they’re not so mundane after all. We begin to see everyday existence as a miracle. Ordinary movements can become a dance, everyday sounds become music, the uninteresting can become fascinating.

Mindful Walking Versus Walking Meditation

In many traditions there is a walking meditation practice in which we pace back and forth at an incredibly slow pace. In this form of meditation it might take several minutes to cover a distance that we would normally traverse in a few seconds. What I’m suggesting here is something different: focusing mindfully on the physical sensations that arise as we’re walking to the mailbox, or to the bus stop, or train station, or taking a stroll in the park, or in fact any other time we’re walking in daily life.

The practice

You can pause for a moment before you start walking, and simply experience what it’s like to stand, noticing the weight of the body pressing into the earth.

The Eyes

Let the eyes be soft and be attentive to the whole of your visual field.

In order to maintain your mindfulness as you walk, I’d suggest not letting your gaze wander any more than is necessary for safety. So avoid things like looking in shop windows or letting your gaze track people’s movements. Just let your eyes look straight ahead, and perhaps slightly downward.

The Pace

Your walk itself should be natural, although perhaps just a little slower than usual. When you walk at the same pace as you usually do, your mind will do the same things it usually does. In other words you’ll get distracted. Slowing your walk a fraction helps you to be less habitual.

The Anchor

The core of mindful walking practice is observing the sensations in the body. A good place to start is with the alternating pattern of the feet making and breaking contact with the earth. This is simple, concrete, and easy to notice. Those rhythmic sensations can be your anchor—they’re what you turn your attention back toward whenever you realize you’ve become distracted.

Walking Into Mindfulness

From there, you can start to become aware of the rest of the body. Start with the lower legs, where you can notice the tightening and release of the muscles. Notice also sensations such as the touch of your clothing against your skin and the vibration of the feet touching the ground rippling up through your flesh, bones, and joints.

You can notice sensations and movements in the thighs, the hips, and the pelvis. You can notice the spine, the belly, the chest. Notice all the movements of the breathing, and how it naturally fits in with the rhythm of the walking. You can notice the shoulders moving, the arms swinging, the way the head moves, and so on.

You’ll find that with the eyes soft and your field of attention open and receptive it’s possible to notice how each sensation of the walking is coordinated with all the others. The whole of our walking, from our breathing to the sensation of air flowing over the hands as they swing at the end of our arms, form one process—an elegant and fascinating dance, as we walk into mindfulness, step by step.

If you enjoyed this post, and would like to support Wildmind—a Community-Supported Meditation Project—check out the benefits of becoming a sponsor for as little as $6 a month.

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Becoming more mindful of our feelings

The “first foundation” of mindfulness is the body, which involves being aware of the physical sensations of the body, the body’s posture, how we move, and so on. The second foundation is “feelings.” Feelings are internally generated pleasant and unpleasant sensations that arise in the body. This isn’t so much sensations like the physical pain that comes from an aching back (although that’s included). More important are the the pleasant or unpleasant sensations that arise, mainly around the heart and gut, which are produced by the brain, through the action of hormones and the vagus nerve. These pleasant and unpleasant sensations tell us whether we like or dislike something, or whether some experience is a potential threat or benefit.

They’re important because much of what goes on in the third foundation of mindfulness—the mind itself—results as a result of reactions to our feelings. Since what the mind does either creates more suffering, or relieves us of suffering, it’s crucial for us to learn to be more mindful and accepting of feelings.

Many of us, myself included, started off our practice being rather vague about what feelings actually are, or how we might go about observing them. I don’t recall ever having been given much guidance in that regard, and when I first tried to be mindful of my feelings often found myself confused about what exactly I was looking for. But feelings are very ordinary. They’re arising in our experience all the time.

So help you practice being mindful of your feelings, I’d like to offer a “Look and Feel Exercise,” which might take you five to ten minutes:

Look and Feel Exercise

Wherever you are now, just let yourself relax. Let the eyes soften a little. Spend a minute or so becoming more aware of sensations arising in the body, including the sensations of the breathing.

Now, begin to let your gaze slowly roam around, alighting on various objects. As you do this, notice any sensations that arise in the body, and especially in the heart or solar plexus. At the most basic level there will be certain things that you don’t like to see and that are unpleasant, some that you find pleasant, and some that your attention skips right over because you have no feelings about them.

Some things your gaze settles on may give rise to unpleasant feelings. You might be aware of a pile of unpaid bills, or a cobweb, or something that’s in need of repair. Where does unpleasantness manifest itself? Perhaps some of it takes the form of tension in certain muscles. Often it’s experienced as a tightening or twisting sensation in the gut, a sense of tension or tingling around the diaphragm, or as a sinking feeling around the heart. Notice those feelings as objects of attention. Stand back and observe them with interest.

Some things your gaze settles on may evoke pleasant feelings. If you’re outdoors this might be a tree, flowers, or a dog playing. If you’re indoors this might be a painting, photograph, or furnishings. How do you know you find these things pleasant? Where are those pleasant feelings? What are they like? Do they feel like softness, or warmth, or openness? Again, notice them with curiosity and interest.

Now, was there anything your gaze skipped over? Perhaps a bare patch of wall or floor, or a door? Probably your attention wasn’t drawn to those things because no feelings were evoked as they entered your gaze. Return to them now, and see whether they remain neutral, or whether feelings do in fact arise as you attend to them.

Lastly, bring your attention to the colors of things. Certain colors may evoke pleasurable or unpleasurable responses, but each color produces a different response: a red cushion produces a different effect from a blue one, although it’s hard to describe the difference.

Patterns and textures also evoke feelings. A patterned rug leads to different feelings compared to a wooden floor or plain carpet, even when both are experienced as pleasant.

Try this “Look and Feel” exercise several times, in different environments: at home, at work, outdoors, while walking or driving. Aim to notice feelings coming into being and passing away as your attention moves from one thing to another. As best you can, observe these feelings without reacting to them, just allowing them to be present. When we’re observing mindfully in this way, the mind doesn’t react to our feelings, and we experience a greater sense of peace.

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Liking yourself is not the antidote to hating yourself

You might think that the antidote to self-hatred is liking yourself. But is that desirable, or even possible? We all contain impulses such as jealously, hatred, and greed. What would it mean to like them? Are we supposed to approve of them? To give them free rein and act upon them?

The idea of liking “ourselves” seems badly put. When I look at myself I don’t see any one thing. I see a broad range of phenomena, some that promote my wellbeing and others that sometimes compromise it. There’s no one “self” there to like.

I have plenty to work with. I have skillful impulses, of course. But I also have destructive or harmful habits such as irritability, a desire to be “right,” depressive doubts about my own worth, and so on. These cause suffering for me and also for others in my life.

But hating these things is pointless. Hating these aspects of myself would just be introducing more unskillfulness and conflict into my being.  To hate ourselves is to be at war with ourselves. And in such a war, who can be the winner? Hatred, as the Buddha observed, can never conquer hatred.

That doesn’t mean that I approve of these impulses or want to express them. If I was to give those habits free rein, I’d just end up with even more suffering in my life.

I certainly don’t like these potentially destructive habits. To like something means we have pleasant feelings associated with it, and I don’t experience pleasant feelings with regard to my irritability, self-doubts, and so on.

I can accept them, though. And I can be kind toward them.

Practicing acceptance simply means that I accept that these things are a part of me. They are part of the broad range of emotional responses that I have inherited as a mammal and as a human being. I didn’t choose to have them. It makes no sense for me to judge myself harshly for having these habits. I don’t need to hate myself simply for being human.

An audience member at a discussion between two Buddhist teachers described how she came to see that it was possible for her to have compassion for herself:

I’ve been thinking a lot about loving myself, but I felt like I would have to like everything about myself to love myself. But then I had a realization … that I could just have some compassion toward myself. I don’t necessarily have to like every part of myself.

It’s possible for us to relate with kindness and compassion to every part of ourselves, including those destructive tendencies I’ve described. I can recognize that they are born from suffering. Our unskillful habits are simply ways of trying to deal with painful feelings that have arisen. Irritability tries to keep at bay some source of distress. Jealousy wants us to have for ourselves a benefit that someone else has access to. Doubt tries to analyze what’s not going right in our lives. Every single unskillful impulse any of us has represents an attempt to find peace and happiness. The problem with them is not that they are “bad,” but that they don’t work.

One of the most radical things the Buddha said was that if letting go of unskillful habits caused pain rather than brought us peace, he wouldn’t have taught us to do it. He didn’t seem to see them as inherently bad. He’d have encouraged us to keep on going with our greed, hatred, and delusion if they actually made us happy. But they don’t.

Our task is to find better strategies. This is what developing “skillfulness” involves—finding ways of being that actually bring about peace and harmony. To lack skill means aiming to create happiness but instead bringing about suffering and conflict.

When we react to our unskillful tendencies by hating them we’re treating them as if they were enemies. They aren’t. They’re just confused friends. They’re trying to benefit us, but most of the time failing. Once we start to empathize with what these confused friends are trying to do for us, we can find more skillful ways to accomplish the same aims. Mindfulness and self-compassion are the most powerful tools we have for doing that.

Our irritability and hatred maybe trying (and failing) to keep some source of distress out of our experience. We’re trying to push the distress out of our lives. Mindful self-compassion helps us see that it’s not the unpleasant feeling that’s our real problem, but our resistance to it. It allows us to be present with painful feelings until they pass, naturally, and can open up the way for us to have fondness and appreciation for whatever it was we were irritated by.

Jealousy may want us to grasp for ourselves some benefit that another has access to (this is of course painful), but self-compassion can help soothe the pain of grasping and also help us feel a sense of abundance; there is so much kindness we can show to ourselves! And this can allow us to feel glad for the other person.

Self-doubt may be a clumsy way of trying to discover if there’s something wrong in the way we are. Mindful self-compassion can help reassure the uncertain part of us, seeing that there’s nothing going on that we can’t work with, reminding us to trust in our practice, and helping us to see our inherent goodness.

In all cases empathizing with our unskillful tendencies helps us to be happier.

Practicing self-compassion is like learning to be a kind and wise parent to ourselves. If our children act badly in some way, they do not need either our hatred. That wouldn’t be helpful for them. Neither, however, should we blindly approve of everything they do. That wouldn’t help them either. When our children act badly they need our kindness, our empathy, and wise guidance.

And this, too, is how we need to learn to relate to ourselves if we want to flourish and be happy in the long-term.

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One of our online meditation courses is available free of charge

sit breathe love

We’re making one of our introductory meditation courses, Sit Breathe Love, available free of charge. The course starts on May 7 and runs for 28 days.

This is indirectly connected to our move toward being a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative, where Wildmind will be entirely sustained through small donations given by sponsors. We’re 35% of the way to our goal in just two weeks, thanks to 200 kind sponsors, who will be getting exclusive access to new meditation courses, articles, meditation downloads, and an online discussion forum. If you’re curious about participating in this initiative, click here.

And to enroll in the meditation course, click here. But be quick! Places are limited and it’s filling up fast.

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A Community-Supported Meditation Initiative

The past

I started Wildmind in 2000 as a website where anyone could come to learn to meditate. It’s been a stunning success; we’ve had roughly 15 million unique visitors during that time! At first the sale of CDs supported my meditation teaching. Later, donations from participants on our meditation courses played a larger role.

That’s the past, and it’s no longer what’s needed. It’s proved to be financially unstable so that too much of my time and energy goes into trying to stay afloat. And it has too narrow an impact on the world. We need to go big.

The future

So we’re moving toward having Wildmind 100% supported by a large number of people giving relatively small donations: as small as $6 a month.

This will:

  • Ensure the stability of Wildmind as we move into the future.
  • Free up my time so that I can focus on teaching rather than publicity and marketing.
  • Allow me to make the courses I’ve already created open to all.
  • Let me create new courses for Wildmind’s sponsors.

How it works

You may have heard of “cummunity-supported agriculture” where small farms are supported by contributions from individual sponsors, who then get a share of the farms’ produce. It’s going to be a bit like that. 

“Community shares” are available at $6 each. You can sponsor as many or as few shares as you like. You’ll get a share of my “produce” for as long as you continue as a sponsor. You’ll get access to exclusive article and meditation downloads, to a sponsor-only online community, and to new courses that I develop. You’ll also know that you are supporting a website that benefits a lot of people. And I’ll be making my existing courses available, free of charge, to anyone who wants to participate.

Every sponsor gets the same benefits, however many shares they sponsor. If you sponsor more it’s because you have more to give or because you care more.

Progress so far

I launched the initiative just over two weeks ago. Here’s a live graph, which we update as new contributions come in.

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It’s time to get on board!

So far:

  • More than a third of shares have been sponsored.
  • We now have more than 200 sponsors.
  • The average number of shares per sponsor is 2.7.
  • The highest number of shares sponsored by one person is 15.

If you want to give more support and can afford to do so, then that obviously helps us more.

You can become a sponsor by using the PayPal form below:


Choose your number of shares
Your preferred email address for this subscription.




If you’d prefer not to use PayPal, you can download a credit card billing authorization form. You can complete this on-screen, then print, sign, and return it to us by mail or email.

Your support is enormously appreciated. The love that’s been pouring in has been wonderful to experience. Already I’m experiencing more freedom from stress than I have in years.

I’m looking forward to being fully freed up from focusing on staying afloat so that I can focus more on sharing my practice with you—my community of sponsors—and so that we can benefit the world by bringing the benefits of meditation to more people.

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“Unusual” meditation experiences, sensory deprivation, and synesthesia

Photo by Aaron Andrew Ang on Unsplash

On a Buddhist discussion forum where I occasionally “lurk” (I’m interested to see what goes on there but I don’t really have the time to get involved in discussion there) someone asked if what are called “nimitta” experiences in meditation are the result of sensory deprivation.

What the heck are nimittas?

If you’ve never heard of “nimittas,” they are slightly unusual experiences that can arise in meditation, that are generally regarded as being helpful for your practice. There are many different kinds of nimitta and they can appear in any of the senses. Sometimes they’ll take the form of a light that appears in the mind, or a subtle sensation connected with the breathing that might have the quality of a fine silk thread being drawn between the fingertips, or the sound of the breathing, but heard internally rather than through the ears.

The word nimitta means a “sign” or even a “hint.” When one of these experiences arises, then it’s an indication that your practice is going deeper. And if you pay attention to the hint that your mind has produced for you, then you’ll go deeper still. Think about what it would be like to be lost on a dark moorland. You’ve no idea where to go, but then you see in the distance the faint glow of sodium lights on the horizon. It’s a town! Now you know which direction to go in, and as you move toward the lights they become clearer and clearer. That’s the function of a nimitta; it acts as a feedback mechanism, steering you toward becoming more absorbed in your experience.

But these experiences don’t arise from sensory deprivation. True nimittas arise as we become more immersed in our direct sensory experience, and as we sense it in more detail. When the mind is full of sensation in this way, there’s less room for thinking, and so the amount of inner chatter begins to die down. In other words we think less. This isn’t that infamous (and mythical) “blank mind” that newcomers to meditation often ask about. The mind isn’t blank. It isn’t thinking so much, but the attention we would normally pay to our thoughts is now directed toward, and absorbed in, the body.

Synesthesia and true nimittas

Now, it seems to me that most of the experiences that I’ve encountered that I’d call nimittas (whether in my direct experience or that have been described to me by others) involve an element of synesthesia. Synesthesia is where information that’s in one sensory channel is represented in another sensory channel. So some people literally experience a particular color associated with certain words. This isn’t them using their imaginations: the cross-over is automatic and consistent, so that if the word “David” is orange today, it’ll still be orange next year.

Synesthesia is reasonably common. When 500 people were studied in Scotland (who were not recruited on the basis of having reported experiences of synesthesia) the incidence was 4.4%. So in a random group of 24 people in a meditation room, roughly one of them, on average, will be a synesthete. But I suspect that a larger percentage of people are potential synesthetes: that is, they have a weak form of synesthesia that they don’t normally notice in the everyday turmoil and hubbub in the mind. It’s only when the mind calms that their synesthesia becomes apparent—for example when they’re meditating.

So as the mind stills and we become more sensitive to our experience, we may notice a tactile quality associated with the breathing, but not directly connected to the actual physical sensation of the body moving. Or mental calm may be represented as inner light, or a sense of being surrounded by a bubble of stillness. As you experience kindness, you may feel warmth or light radiating from the heart. These nimitta experiences are arising because the mind is calming down, and as you pay attention to them and become absorbed in them, the mind calms further.

Sensory deprivation and “para-nimittas”

Now, there are other sorts of experiences that can arise in meditation that are superficially similar to nimittas but aren’t helpful in taking you deeper into meditation. In fact they’ll do the opposite. And those do arise from sensory deprivation. I’m going to call them “para-nimittas.”

Now, sensory deprivation isn’t the point of meditation, but it can happen. If the mind begins to calm down, but you haven’t yet learned to be deeply attentive to the physical experiences arising in the body, then the mind is under-occupied. There’s not much stimulation flowing in from the body, and there’s not that much thinking (i.e. inner chatter or inner movies) going on in the mind. So there’s the same kind of sensory deprivation that goes on if you’re in a neutral buoyancy tank heated to skin temperature and sealed off from external light and sound. In those kinds of circumstances the mind gets a bit dreamy, and odd things happen.

A classic is swirling lights. This is different from the steady radiance of a true nimitta. Or dream-like imagery, such as faces, may appear in the mind’s eye. Or the body may feel like it’s leaning to one side (although it isn’t) or as if it’s floating. So-called out-of-body experiences probably belong in the same category.

These are distractions. They don’t help us become more absorbed in meditation.

If this second kind of experience arises then they’re best ignored. Paying attention to them is like getting more absorbed in a dream that arises when you’re lying in bed, half-awake; you’ll simply retreat further from lucid attention, even though you may feel like you’re fully awake and mindful.

What’s needed here is to become more grounded in the vividness of our actual physical experience, as opposed to the illusory experiences that the mind is conjuring up for us. See if you can notice the sensations of the body and the breathing more clearly, so that your mind is filled with sensory experience rather than deprived of it. You might want to observe, for example, how three different sensations of the breathing are related to each other: say, the air flowing in and out of the airways in the head, the movements of the ribcage in the upper back, and the sensations in the belly. Giving yourself a challenge like this will help you to be more attentive to and absorbed in your moment-by-moment physical experience.

How to tell the difference

True nimittas are stable and esthetically pleasing. The other kind of experience are sometimes trippy, scary, physically uncomfortable, or disorientating.

Although they’re not helpful to pay attention to, these para-nimittas are a good sign! They only arise when the mind is starting to quiet down, so although there isn’t enough depth of experience in the body, they show that something positive is happening. And people who are prone to para-nimittas often experience true nimittas as well.

And if you don’t experience either true nimittas or para-nimittas, that’s OK. Not everyone experiences these things, and although true nimittas are helpful, they’re not essential.

Wildmind is transforming into a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative.
Click here to learn how you can support what we do here, and about the benefits of becoming a sponsor.

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That time I almost quit teaching

A painful path

A few weeks ago I told a few friends that I’d decided to give up teaching meditation. Things just hadn’t been working out financially. In particular it’d been impossible to attract enough people to my online courses. The plan was to substantially wind down Wildmind and get a regular job. So I started creating a résumé (my first since 1993) and scoping out employment opportunities.

Naturally, I had very mixed feelings about my decision, which had been painful to arrive at.  I was sad to be giving up on something I love doing, and that I find immensely satisfying. I was nervous about re-entering the job market. I was excited about the benefits of having a steady paycheck and freedom from financial instability. On the whole, I felt a sense of acceptance. I was even relieved about giving up on something that I just hadn’t been able to make work financially.

A change of heart

I even wrote a long blog post explaining why I was doing what I was doing. But I never published it, because a few days later I had a complete reversal. I realized that Wildmind’s supporters have always rallied around. And I realized that we could turn Wildmind into a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative.

A few people helped me refine the key concepts. It would be community-supported. I’d ask people to sponsor shares in order to provide enough income that I could keep Wildmind alive. Instead of asking for donations for my courses (I’d never felt comfortable “selling” meditation courses) we could make them freely available to everyone. And to thank my sponsors I’d develop new courses that would nourish their practice.

Progress so far

Two weeks ago I launched the initiative, asking the Wildmind community to sponsor 1,500 shares at $4 each [2020 Note: Shares are now $8 each].

Why contribute, and what are the benefits?

One reason for sponsoring shares is that you’ll feel good knowing that you’re supporting a website that has literally reached millions of people since it first started in November, 2000. We project that the website will have over 800,000 unique visitors this year. And I’ll be making the 30 or so courses that I’ve already developed freely available as well. That should give you a warm glow.

But as a sponsor you’ll also get access to:

  • Any new courses I develop, which will be exclusively for our community of sponsors. I expect there to be a new course every two months or so.
  • An online forum for sponsors, where you can connect with each other and with me.
  • A monthly newsletter that’s just for sponsors, containing an exclusive article and a free meditation download.

We’ll be phasing in these benefits  as we make progress to being fully funded.

How do you become a sponsor?

Shares are just $8 each. Every sponsor gets the same benefits, however many shares they sponsor. So far:

  • The range is from 1 to 15 shares per sponsor.
  • The most common number of shares sponsored is 8.
  • The highest number of shares sponsored by one person is 15.

If you want to give more support and can afford to do so, then that obviously helps us more.

Click here to subscribe to the meditation initiative.

Your support is enormously appreciated. Already I’m feeling buoyed up by the contributions that have come in and the love that’s been expressed. I’m looking forward to being fully freed up from focusing on making money so that I can focus more on sharing my practice with you, my community of sponsors, and so that we can bring the benefits of meditation to more people.

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