Posts by Bodhipaksa

A new direction for Wildmind

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Today I invite you to help transform Wildmind into a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative.

This is urgently needed, because the way we’ve been doing things is no longer viable, to the point where a few days ago, I seriously believed I would have to give up teaching.

But I also want to make these changes so that Wildmind reflects my deeper values, and because of the sense of urgency I feel about bringing more mindfulness and compassion into the world.

The Old Way

I started Wildmind almost 20 years ago as a website where people could learn meditation for free. (That’s been a great success. We’re on track to have over 800,000 unique visitors this year. Our most popular articles have been read more than 600,000 times each. We are having a large, positive impact.)

To fund the website I sold guided meditation CDs and offered online meditation courses, first by charging, and then mostly by donation.

But things have changed. Few people buy CDs and even MP3s, and with more apps out there, fewer people are enrolling in our online courses.

The old model is no longer viable. We need to go in a new direction. And we need to do it now, or Wildmind will no longer exist.

A New Direction

I’ve long dreamed of having my teaching supported entirely by donations from supporters. We made moves in that direction a few years ago, but we didn’t pursue that aim as persistently as we should have, and the initiative stalled. But that, I am convinced, is the direction to go in.

It’s time to take a leap forward, and so that’s why we’re transforming Wildmind into a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative.

Community-Supported

I am thankful that the Wildmind community has always stepped up in the past. When we’ve had a special project we needed to fund, you were there. When there was a financial crisis, you were there. Thank you from my heart.

Our strength and our future lies in you. What we envision is that lots of supporters like you would contribute a small amount each month to support Wildmind’s teaching work.

A Community, Supported

A community that supports a meditation initiative deserves support in return. And so I’ll be offering the following:

+New Courses for Sponsors

Any new courses I develop will be exclusively for Wildmind’s supporting community. There will be no charge to you for these courses. I anticipate adding a new course at least every two months, which is roughly what I’ve done in the past.

+Special Newsletter for Sponsors

At present we send out three newsletters a month. In future one of those will be for sponsors only, and will contain an exclusive article, a meditation download, and news of sponsor-only courses.

+Private Online Discussion Forum

I’m setting up an online forum for sponsors, where you can connect with other community members in an environment free from advertising and from the kind of data-harvesting that goes on in Facebook.

All my current courses (and there are presently around 30 of them) would be FREE for the general public. Potentially many thousands of people would benefit each year, and this is a gift that YOU, as a sponsor, would make happen. You’d have the satisfaction of knowing you were promoting mindfulness and compassion in the world.

This new model feels much more in line with my core values and with the tradition meditation teachers being supported by donations from the community.

How We Can Accomplish This Together

To bring this vision to life will initially require just $6,000 a month, made up of donations as small as $6. This total would cover what I need in order to keep writing, teaching, and recording, and will cover administrative support, bookkeeping, and the cost of hosting the website and newsletter.

So we’re breaking our $6,000 target into 1,000 “Wildmind Community Shares.” We’re asking you to sponsor as many or as few Wildmind Community Shares as you feel comfortable with. Some of you might sponsor two shares ($12 a month) three shares ($18 a month), or more. Others might sponsor one share at $6 a month.

There is no hierarchy of sponsorship levels, with increasing perks as you contribute more: if you give more it’s because you can afford to do so, and because you value what we do and want to support it. Every single sponsor’s contribution will be a valued building block in reaching our goal and sustaining our vision.

It Starts Now

Transforming Wildmind into a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative starts today. Click here to subscribe to the meditation initiative.

An Unfolding Transformation

  • 25%: Once we’re a quarter of the way to our goal of $6,000, we’ll open up the Online Community for sponsors.
  • 50%: Once we’re half way to our goal, one of Wildmind’s three monthly newsletters will be sent only to sponsors, with an exclusive article and monthly meditation download.
  • 75%: When we’re three-quarters of the way there, I’ll launch new courses that are just for supporters. I’ll also schedule a live monthly conference call where we can practice together as a community. (This’ll be archived and sent out to you if you miss the call.)
  • 100%: Once the goal is fully achieved, I’ll some of my existing courses free to the general public, enlarging our meditation community and potentially benefiting hundreds of thousands of people.

Let’s Make This Happen!

Let’s do this! Let’s transform Wildmind into a unique, Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. It’s very doable—with your support.

Become a community sponsor now, using the form below.

With love and gratitude,
Bodhipaksa

Read More

From fear and denial to love and acceptance

Photo by Erico Marcelino on Unsplash

In the opening words to his book “The Road Less Traveled,” the late psychiatrist M. Scott Peck says:

Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

I’d put this less absolutely than Peck does: once we know, understand, and accept that life is difficult, it becomes less difficult. This difficult thing of being human is made easier when we accept the inevitability of suffering.

I’d like to offer a series of suggestions to help you see the truth of this. And so I invite you to read the following points slowly and with care, allowing yourself time to take each suggestion on board, testing them in the heart and comparing them honestly with your own lived experience.

Drop any defensiveness or desire to be seen as perfect, and allow yourself to feel your own vulnerability. Let go of any desire to see yourself as “succeeding,” and let yourself be gloriously, humanly imperfect.

I suggest you spend at least a minute on each of these thoughts, and perhaps a bit longer on the final one.

  • First, as you read these words become aware of your vulnerable human body, with its beating heart, and the constant rise and fall of the breathing. This body is aging, and prone to injury and illness, as are all human bodies. Recognize yourself as an embodied, living being who will not be on this earth for long. If this is at all uncomfortable, see if you can regard those painful feelings with kindly eyes.
  • Next, allow into your awareness that your feelings are important to you. Perhaps in this moment you’re not feeling much, but sometimes you suffer, and sometimes you are happy. Consider the reality of this, recalling moments of happiness and of unhappiness, recognizing yourself as a feeling being.
  • Consider that you want, as your deepest desire, to find some kind of wellbeing, or happiness, or peace, and to escape suffering where that’s possible. When you remember times you’ve been unhappy, was there a desire to be free from that suffering? When you remember times of peace, happiness, or wellbeing, was there a wish to remain in that state? Recognize yourself as a being who desires happiness as your deepest yearning.
  • Now, remind yourself that happiness is often elusive, and that you experience suffering far more often than you’d like, were life ideal. Recognize yourself as a struggling being—as someone who is doing a difficult thing in being human.
  • Finally, try saying the following words to yourself for a few minutes: “May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be kind to myself and others.”

The first four activities help you empathize with yourself. Through them you sense yourself as a being in need of support, worthy of support. And this empathetic awareness of yourself provides a grounding for being kind to yourself. The phrases—“May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be kind to myself and others”— are ways of showing yourself support. By the time you got to the fifth suggestion you may have felt that you actually wanted to offer yourself kindness and encouragement, and that you wanted to offer yourself support.

These reflections open us up to experiencing our own vulnerability, and this can be an uncomfortable process. It may be, for example, that heartache or sadness arose. That’s a common response. These reflections can put us in touch with yearnings that we have, perhaps out of duty or fear, long suppressed. We can spend much of our lives pretending to ourselves that we’re much happier than we actually are. We can pretend that suffering is an unfortunate accident we’re on the verge of recovering from. It can be frightening to take on board the truth that we frequently suffer, and that we’re not fully in control of our own lives.

Should painful feelings of sadness or heartache arise, it’s wise to accept them and show them kindness. If they do appear, that’s a good sign, because it shows that we’re getting more fully in touch with the reality that life is difficult. Empathizing with ourselves, and being kind toward ourselves, is essential if we’re to accept that reality, because it allows us to let go of the fear that leads to denial.

These reflections help us to more from fear and denial to love and acceptance. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable lets us see how challenging and difficult life is, but it also allows us to empathize with ourselves and to offer ourselves kindness and support as we do this difficult thing of being human.

Read More

Navigating the culture of outrage

A little over 35 years ago I heard the Dalai Lama speaking in Edinburgh. Someone asked him, “You’ve talked a lot about love today and you’ve talked a lot about the dangers of anger, but isn’t anger useful? Doesn’t anger get stuff done?” And his answer was, I thought, very astute. He said, as best I can recall, “Yes, anger does get things done. Anger can make things happen very quickly. And that’s why you have to be very careful with it.”

The thing is, anger speeds things up. It’s like hitting the gas pedal in the car. And if we’re going to speed up it’s helpful for us to check that the vehicle is pointing in the right direction.

Ambivalent Outrage

Psychologists have a similar ambivalence about outrage, which is similar to anger but can be (and in my opinion should be) distinct. Moral psychologists, who study how we judge what’s right and wrong, traditionally regard outrage as a bad thing because it disturbs our wellbeing and is potentially destructive. On the other hand intergroup psychologists (who study how different groups interact) often think of outrage as a good thing, because they’ve seen how it has brought people together to bring about positive change.

And nowadays some psychologists are starting to see outrage—and emotions in general—as being neither good nor bad. What’s important is what we do with our emotions. So it might be best to think of outrage and anger principally in terms of whether they’re effective or ineffective.

Is There a Distinction Between Anger and Outrage?

Outrage isn’t necessarily angry at all. My dictionary’s definition of “outrage” is that it means “to arouse fierce anger, shock, or indignation.” Note the word “or,” which indicates that outrage is not intrinsically angry. In fact I often experience outrage in terms of my conscience being shocked, with an accompanying passionate desire to right a wrong. Anger is not required.

Anger is similar to outrage, in that it’s a passionate desire to cut through some obstacle or to change something, but it’s often personal, and takes the form of hurtful words.

Outrage can easily bleed over into insults or other displays of anger, but those can and should be avoided, since they’re ineffective. Outrage needs careful management, which is why I’m writing this article. This distinction reflects my understanding, incidentally. You and I might understand these words differently.

The Good and Bad

Moral outrage, as intergroup psychologists have pointed out, has helped indeed us in many ways, for example with eliminating or reducing various injustices. Stimulating outrage can be very effective if you want to make the world a better place. If for example you’re promoting an environmental group, then including pictures of beautiful places is much less effective than showing pictures of, say, a polluted beach. Feelings of anger and outrage often motivate us far more than pleasant feelings do.

On the other hand, outrage can can be very destructive. For example it can turn into destructive anger and bullying, where online mobs hound people and destroy their lives, sometimes over quite minor things.

Auditing Outrage

Buddhist journalist Robert Wright recently discussed this theme of how outrage can sometimes be effective and sometimes not, by examining two different cases. One of these was Jeanine Pirro on Fox News. She had made some anti-Muslim comments on air, essentially questioning whether a Muslim member of Congress could be a patriotic American. The other was “Russiagate”—concern about whether the Trump campaign had improperly colluded with the Russian government.

What Wright did was a kind of cost-benefit analysis: what would have happened if there was or wasn’t any substantial outrage? In Pirro’s case, in the absence of outrage she would have gotten away with saying what she had said, and the belief that a Muslim cannot be patriotic would have moved toward normalization. Instead, what happened was that, as a direct result of popular outrage, Pirro got suspended. Presumably she and other TV presenters will be more careful about making statements like that in the future. Outrage here brought about a (small) shift in our culture.

Wright also talked about “Russiagate,” and the almost two years of outrage that have accompanied it. Again, what difference does outrage make, Wright asks? Well, there was an investigation (actually several investigations) going on. If there’s no outrage, those investigations will continue to their various conclusions. What happens if there’s a highly outraged reaction? Well, exactly the same thing! The Mueller report comes to its conclusion (and presumably the report will eventually be released in its entirety). Various congressional investigations will continue. Our outrage in this particular case makes almost no difference.

So what’s the practical difference here? The practical difference in the case of Jeanine Pirro, is that advertisers pick up on our outrage. They get skittish. They pull their ads. Jeanine Pirro’s employers get skittish in turn, tell her to back off, and in fact take her off the air for a while.

So there are times when our outrage will have a good effect, times it will have a minimal effect (perhaps none) and times it will have an effect, such as getting somebody fired, that might be disproportionate. (Of course it’s not always easy to assess the effects of outrage.)

Outrage Addiction

In addition, outrage is exhausting. It’s draining. Outrage takes psychological and physical a toll on us, especially when it spills over into anger. And yet at the same time we can come to feel that we can’t live without it. It becomes a kind of addiction. On some level we enjoy getting outraged. It makes us feel that we’re on the right side. It helps us feel that we are bonding with others who have similar views. But when we’re continually in “outrage mode” it’s really very, very unhealthy for us. And it’s also hard to know when to stop, which is probably contributing to our outrage culture where thousands of people publicly sometimes shame people for minor offenses.

Managing Our Outrage

So those questions — Is my outrage proportionate? Is it useful? — can help us to keep the outrage that we will inevitable experience, from turning into angry mob behavior. It’s vital that we question ourselves in this way, otherwise we can end up being swept along in other people’s emotions. It’s wise for us to learn to be selective about what we’re going to be passionate about so that we don’t get exhausted.

Of course some people will say that we should steer clear of outrage altogether—that it’s an unskillful emotion. But if it’s possible, as Buddhism traditionally says, for us to eliminate anger altogether, then presumably we first of all have to learn to moderate our passionate energies, and to direct them wisely, and to be mindful about when and when not to use them.

Read More

The Joy of Missing Out

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

At the moment I’m teaching an online course called Calm In the Storm, which is about finding peace in the midst of our turbulent and contentious times. I often benefit from teaching because it focuses my attention on particular aspects of practice, and as Seneca the Younger noted, “Men learn while they teach.”

This course has forced me to become more conscious of my relationship to the news, to social media, and the technology that delivers those things to me. And it’s this, more than anything I’ve said about mindfulness or equanimity, that’s had the most powerful effect on my sense of wellbeing over the last few weeks. In fact, the result of changing my relationship with technology, the news, and social media has been astonishing. I feel much calmer and more at peace than I did even just two weeks ago. I’m less anxious. I have more of a sense of clarity and purpose. I’m getting more done and consequently I’m feeling more of a sense of confidence and accomplishment.

See also:

Before I discuss what changes I’ve made, I want to say a little about my social media use, which is probably a little unusual. I’ve already been withdrawing a lot. I was a big Google Plus user, but Google is pulling the plug on that soon, and so I’m barely there these days. I’ve already withdrawn from Facebook since I find that there are too many argumentative people there. I recently stopped using Instagram, partly because it’s owned by Facebook (who can’t be trusted with personal information) and partly because I found that it my use of it was caught up with an unhealth desire to be acknowledged by means of “views” and “likes” and whatnot. So Twitter is the only social media service I currently use heavily. But you can probably apply what I’m going to talk about to any social media site.

Social Media Addiction

I had been finding myself spending too much time on Twitter. And it didn’t have a good effect on my emotional life. Much of the content there is fueled by outrage. The short format does not exactly encourage deep thought, and tends to promote sloganizing, blaming, shaming, and arguing.

My mind kept turning to Twitter over and over again during the day. I spent a lot of time reading discussions, and following links  to articles that people had shared. I experienced FOMO—the Fear of Missing Out. If I’d been away from Twitter for any length of time, I’d feel a sense of anxiety in the pit of my stomach. Even while I was on the app or the website, I’d see those notifications of new tweets, and feel the need to what they were about. Click. Twitter is designed to be compulsive: you “like” and “share” counts on popular posts tick upwards as you watch, and notifications keep appearing to announce the arrival of new tweets. There are always new tweets.

News Addiction

My Twitter addiction overlapped with a news addiction. There’s a sense of crisis unfolding around us, both in my native Britain and in my adopted home, the US. It felt important on the one hand to stay informed, but also I was aware that the news can create anxiety, and anxiety can create a compulsion to stay in touch with the news. This is an unhealthy vicious circle.

So here are some steps I’ve taken to find some sanity and calmness in the midst of the current state of crisis.

Step 1: Reducing Access to the News

I get my news online. And again this can be compulsive, so I needed to reduce my access to that form of stimulation. (I don’t have cable or an antenna, so I already don’t watch the news on TV. When I’ve seen the TV news while visiting family, I’ve been shocked by how visceral, urgent, and unpleasant the experience is.) The Chrome browser on my iPhone had been creating a custom list of news articles that appeared every time I opened a new tab. I’d often spend too much time browsing those, so I switched off that feature. My phone came with the Apple News app installed, and headlines from that would appear in the notifications center. So I deleted that app. Both those changes have saved me a lot of time.

I still glance at the news. Often just reading the headlines and a brief description of a news story tells me what I need to know. The rest is needless detail. I do delve into some articles when they really interest me. Usually those are about science or psychology.

Step 2: Limiting Access to My Phone

I no longer sleep with my phone by my bed. It used to function as my bedside clock, and so it would be the first thing I’d touch in the morning. And as soon as I’d picked my phone up I’d be aware of emails, text messages, and app notifications that had come in overnight, so I’d get sucked into work and social media as soon as I woke up.

Now I charge my phone overnight in the living room, and leave my Apple Watch charging by my bedside overnight so that I can tell the time or set an alarm. If I didn’t have that I’d go buy myself a simple alarm clock, which would work just as well.

Step 3: Improving My Following Habits

I’ve often been astonished by the grace with which Chelsea Clinton and Cory Booker in particular deal with critics. They’re invariably kind. If there are more people like that, please let me know. I want to drink in and fill myself with their positivity. I’ve unfollowed or blocked people who I find are simply interested in attacking others, or who post nothing but insults. I deliberately choose to follow some people I disagree with, but not with the purpose of arguing with them; I just like to be exposed to a different way of thinking. I don’t want to exist in a bubble.

Step 4: Deleting the Twitter App

I wanted to cut down on my Twitter use, but it was remarkably hard to do so. I deleted the app from my iPhone, but I could still access it on my computer, or on my phone’s browser (I use Chrome and sometimes Safari). In fact Chrome on my iPhone had conveniently created an icon for accessing Twitter, because it was a site I visited often. Merely deleting the Twitter app didn’t make much difference in my usage. But it was an important thing to do in combination with the following two steps

Step 5: Blocking the Twitter Website On My iPhone

I wanted to make it even harder to access Twitter on my phone and I wondered if it might be possible to block an individual site. I discovered that it was. By going to Settings > Screen Time > Content and Privacy Options, I could toggle on the “Content and Privacy Restrictions” at the top of the screen. I could then, on the same screen, go to Content Restrictions > Web Content and tap on “Limit Adult Websites.” And then under “Never Allow” I could enter the URL for Twitter. Yes, I’m treating Twitter as if it were a porn site!

Now I can’t access Twitter on my phone at all, unless I undo those changes. But I don’t need it to be impossible for me to access Twitter. I just need there to be some friction in the process so that it’s easier to avoid it. If you’re on an Android device, I imagine there are similar settings.

This left my computer as the only way to access Twitter. Of course I’m on my computer a lot, so that had to be dealt with.

Step 6: Limiting Twitter On My Computer

Enter, Stayfocusd. This is a browser plugin for Chrome that allows you to limit the amount of time you spend on certain sites. It will even let you block them altogether. I decided to go with a 20 minute daily limit for Twitter. Once the 20 minutes has expired, I can’t visit the site at all, and just see a screen that says “Shouldn’t you be working?” You can’t extend the time limit once it’s expired. No cheating! (There’s an equivalent for Firefox and no doubt for other browsers too.)

This has led to me being much more selective in what I pay attention to on Twitter. I visit two to three times a day, and knowing that I don’t have much time I focus my attention on what seems particularly meaningful. I find that my mind now skips over snark and outrage, and tends to focus on more substantive contributions. I’ll open a couple of articles in new tabs, and then close Twitter.

Step 7: Reducing Other Notifications

Your brain is a hot commodity. Marketers spend billions of dollars to try to attract your attention, because attention is time, and time, as we know, is money. So in an effort to reclaim my attention, I’ve turned off notifications where possible. Essentially I’m down to silent email notifications (I don’t want to be disrupted while I’m working) and audible alerts for calendar events (since those are things I need to be interrupted by), text messages, and phone calls. When I really want to focus my phone goes on Do Not Disturb mode. Life on my phone is pretty quiet. It’s now 3:00 in the afternoon, and my phone tells me I’ve used it for a total of 16 minutes so far today.

From FOMO to JOMO

There have been some withdrawal symptoms. I’ve sometimes restlessly picked up my phone and stared at it, feeling the emptiness that comes when you expect to see something but find nothing. And for a while I felt drawn to check Twitter, over and over. But that is passing. This morning I found myself looking at my phone and thinking, You can’t bring me happiness. You’re a tool for me to use. My mind is not a tool for you to use.

The benefits have vastly outweighed the discomfort of these minor withdrawal symptoms. The results of these changes, as I’ve said, have been powerful. I’m much calmer, happier, and more focused. I’m getting more work done, which pleases me. I’ve also been reading more. I’m now almost finished a novel that I started about a week ago. That is satisfying. I feel that my mind is my own again. I feel free.

One of the participants in the course wrote, “Anything that stimulates my solar plexus when I read it, I am going to notice, breathe, then make a decision regarding whether this enhances or detracts from my quality of life. It feels good and empowering to be making these decisions.” Simple practice; deep results.

The changes that I’ve described have in fact had more effect on my wellbeing than my daily meditation practice. My daily life has more of the simplicity and joy of a meditation retreat.

Am I missing out? Yes. I’m missing out on stress, anxiety, and overstimulation. “Missing out” is wonderful. I invite you to join me, perhaps in some of the ways I’ve suggested, and perhaps in ways of your own, in moving from the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) to the Joy of Missing Out (JOMO).

  • If you find this article helpful, perhaps you’ll be interested in making a one-time or recurring donation to Wildmind to help support our work.
  • And it’s still possible to enroll in my online course, Calm In the Storm. One couple who are participating wrote this morning, “Our mood and productivity is way up, as is emotional resiliency … We both thought that we would experience more withdrawal than we actually are, and are feeling more relief and release from the firehoses of negativity than expected.”
Read More

Seven tips for people who struggle with lovingkindness practice

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

In the tradition I practice in, lovingkindness (metta bhavana) and mindfulness meditation are considered equally important, and yet my own informal surveys suggest that about a third of long-term practitioners have essentially given up on lovingkindness practice, doing it hardly at all, or skipping it altogether.

Often people have problems with the first stage, which is about cultivating lovingkindness for oneself. They look for (and are often encouraged to look for) feelings of kindness toward themselves. If those feelings fail to appear, they get anxious or despondent, assuming that they’re defective in some way.

In many cases, though, it’s the practice as a whole that they find difficult. Again, feelings of love may fail to appear. And when this happens people can take it to mean that they’re somehow personally lacking in love. That’s, of course, a depressing thing to think about yourself.

So there can be a sense of failure around the practice, which leads to self-loathing. This is of course the exact opposite of what should happen.

I’d like to suggest a few approaches to lovingkindness meditation that can take away that sense of failure, and help make the practice more accessible, effective, and rewarding.

1. Stop thinking of it as “lovingkindness” meditation.

“Lovingkindness” practice is what metta bhavana is commonly known as, but I don’t talk these days about cultivating lovingkindness. Instead I use the much more accessible term, “kindness.” “Lovingkindness” is not part of our natural vocabulary, and it suggests that we’re trying to bring into being something unusual. Using the word “kindness” reminds us that we’re simply connecting with a very familiar, everyday quality. And kindness is what metta is. Both kindness and metta begin with an empathetic recognition that a person is a feeling being who wants to be happy and doesn’t want to suffer. Having recognized this, we don’t want to act in ways that cause them to suffer, and we want to support their long-term happiness and wellbeing.

2. Start by sitting with kindness.

Right at the very beginning, as you settle in to meditate, bring qualities of kindness into how you hold your body. It’s not kind to hold yourself rigidly upright. Neither is it kind to force yourself into a posture that you think is “right” or “cool” but that doesn’t allow you to sit comfortably. Find a way to sit that supports kindness and relaxation. Let your muscles soften, especially as you breathe out.

At the same time, it’s not in your long-term wellbeing to slump or to lie down (unless you have an injury that you need to protect). So you’re aiming to find a balance of uprightness and relaxation. The words “dignity” and “ease” convey this very well. So sit with dignity and ease.

3. Regard yourself with kindness.

We all know how to look with loving eyes. We can remember times that we’ve looked with love at a child, a lover, a friend, or even an animal companion. At the beginning of a session of practice, remember experiences such as those. Notice the quality of your experience around the eyes in particular, and anyplace else they might manifest. Let those qualities persist, especially around the eyes, as you turn your attention inward to your own body. Observe your breathing human, animal body with the same fondness that you would have for a sleeping child or beloved pet. Don’t try to make anything happen. Just let it happen.

Keep checking in with your eyes during the practice. If necessary, recollect again the memory of looking with kindness.

4. Empathy before kindness.

Kindness is based on empathy, but very few people actively cultivate empathy at the start of the practice. What I recommend is the following:

  1. First of all recall that that you are a feeling being. Your happiness and suffering are important to you. In fact these are your deepest concerns. You want to be happy (or to have some sense of wellbeing) and you don’t want to suffer. Feel the truth of this in your own experience.
  2. Recall that it’s often difficult to find happiness, and all too easy to suffer. And so you’re doing a difficult thing in being human. You’re not failing when you suffer; you’re being perfectly human.
  3. Knowing that you’re doing a difficult thing in being human, realize that you need and deserve your own support and encouragement. And the main way to provide that is by wishing yourself well, using “lovingkindness” phases.

You can repeat exactly the same steps for anyone else you call to mind in the practice.

5. Remind yourself that the point of the practice is kindness.

The “lovingkindness” phrases I was taught were, “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be free from suffering.” These tended to give me the impression that the point of the practice was to become happy. But the practice is about becoming kinder. Usually if we become kinder we’ll be happier too, but that’s not the main point. So now I usually say something more like “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be kind to myself and others.” This reminds me, over and over, what the purpose of the practice is. And the word “kind” can be a trigger for kindness. It can remind us of the experience of being kind, and thus bring qualities of kindness into our experience.

6. Give yourself time and space.

It’s not kind to bombard yourself with words, so when you’re repeating the phrases it’s important to give yourself time to digest them. So I’ll usually say one phrase on an out-breath, then take a full in-breath and out-breath, and another in-breath, and then say the next phrase on the following out-breath. This allows your being time to take in what you’re saying.

7. Forget about having “lovingkindness for all beings.”

When I was introduced to metta bhavana practice I was told that the purpose was to develop “universal lovingkindness.” Of course I wanted this to be possible, but it always seemed like a lofty goal. You don’t have to call everyone in the world to mind. In fact that’s impossible.

In the final stage of the practice I go back to the principle outlined in an early commentary, the Vimuttimagga (path of liberation). There the final stage of the meditation practice is described in terms of “permeation.” And so what I do is to permeate my awareness with kindness, so that anyone I encounter, either in the world of the senses or in my mind, will be met kindly. That is what universal kindness is. In other words, anyone I meet or think of will be met with an awareness that they are a feeling being, that they want to be happy, and that they need my support because they’re doing a difficult thing in being human.

If there is anyone around me that I’m aware of, I meet them with kindness. When there are people I’m indirectly aware of—for example if I hear cars or airplanes—then I meet those people with kindness. If I call to mind people from other places, then I meet them with kindness too. I simply embrace with kindness anyone who I happen to encounter with my awareness. So I’m not overwhelming my mind by trying to do the impossible task of wishing everyone in the world well.

So if you’re one of those people who struggle with “lovingkindness” meditation, these are seven very practical things you can do to help your practice go more smoothly.

Read More

This one small shift can help you be more at peace

Photo by Wyron A on Unsplash

Often when we see change we act like it’s a big surprise that the universe has been hiding from us. “Who’s that old person looking at me from the mirror?” we ask. We see new gray hairs or wrinkles and treat this like it’s a personal failing. It’s as if we think we could have stopped this natural process of change if only we’d tried harder.

Blind to change

Sometimes we don’t even see change. Psychologists have been studying the phenomenon of “change blindness” for many years. In one of my favorite experiments, people who volunteered for a psychological study were asked to report to a certain office. As they checked in at the reception area, the receptionist said he needed to give them an information packet. He’d then duck down behind the counter, stand up, and hand it to them.

What the overwhelming majority of participants failed to notice was that the person who stood up was not the same person they had been talking to just a moment before. An accomplice had been hiding behind the counter, and immediately after the first receptionist had ducked down, a second person would stand up. The two people had different heights, different facial features, and were dressed differently. Yet very few study participants noticed the these changes. Our minds simply aren’t good at noticing change, even when that change is, you would think, obvious.

We also tend to see others as fixed and unchanging, and yet appreciating their impermanence can help us be more patient with and forgiving toward them. The following exercise might help you to experience this directly.

The Three Ages

Think about someone you tend to get into conflict with. This may even be someone you’re intimate with. Perhaps they have some habit that irritates you or hurts your feelings. (Right now I’m thinking of a colleague who sometimes sighs and rolls her eyes when I express my opinions, as if she thinks I’m naive, unintelligent, or tiresome in some way. I don’t enjoy being treated in this way, and just remembering these things is painful.) Visualize the person who upsets you, and whatever it is they do that upsets you. Notice what feelings arise in the body, and observe them as mindfully as you can.

Now, imagine that on one side of this person you see them as a baby, maybe just under a year old. The baby is able to sit up but not to walk or even to talk, beyond cute babbling. And on the other side you see them as an extremely old person, perhaps in their late 90s. They’re frail, and barely clinging to life. Now you have three images of this person you get annoyed by. You see them as a baby, as they are now, and in extreme old age. And with that image in mind, call to mind once again that annoying thing they do that bothers you. Now see how you feel.

What this does

Most often as people who do this exercise experience either greater compassion for the other person, or a sense of sadness. They find that that annoying habit just isn’t that annoying, once they see it in the context of an entire human life. These responses of sadness or compassion arise because we’re appreciating the fleeting nature of human life.

This awareness of impermanence can help us let go of resentment and other forms of reactivity. We see that in the context of our short time together on this planet it’s simply not important.

Applying this in my life…

I’ve found this approach useful in my daily life with my children. Sometimes, like all children, they are difficult to deal with. When they were young they went through tantrums, and now, as they’re approaching their teens, their behavior is sometimes challenging in different ways. In the midst of a difficult interaction with them I try to see them not just as they are now, but as they were when they were adorable babies, and as I imagine they will be as mature, confident, and well-rounded adults.

When I see them in this way I see that their current selves and current behaviors are nothing more than a passing phase. My role as their father then becomes being compassionately present with them as they move toward adulthood. The more I  bear this in mind, the more relaxed and kind I am with my children.

…and in yours

You might want to try this way of seeing people you have difficulty with. Try playing with this at times you’re not actively in conflict with them. This practice makes it more likely you’ll relate to them compassionately when difficulties do happen to flare up.

This simple shift in perception brings us calm, peace, and compassion.

Read More

The miracle of being here

The main quality we’re cultivating when we meditate is mindfulness. Mindfulness is just another word for observing. To observe our experience we have to be present with it. Part of the mind has to be standing back a little from what it’s observing. So in a way, mindfulness is very simple. But it can take us a long way—to acceptance, living with self-compassion, and an appreciation that every moment of life is a miracle.

Where we start

Usually we start by paying attention to the body, observing the physical sensations that are arising there. We are not thinking about the body. We’re not visualizing the body. We’re simply observing the body’s sensations, paying attention to them in a relaxed way.

In particular we notice the sensations of the breathing. These are the most dynamic and obvious part of our experience of the body. We can notice the sensations of air flowing in and out of the body, the rise and fall of the chest and the belly, and even the ever-changing contact our skin makes with our clothing. But we may well notice other things as well—the sound of a passing truck, a breeze, our buttocks touching our seat. This is fine. We’re not trying to exclude anything.

Practicing acceptance

The mind will still create thoughts, and from time to time some of those thoughts will be compelling enough that we shift our attention fully or partly from our direct sensory experience, and back into the world of mental experience. We find ourselves planning some task, remembering and rerunning in our mind a conversation, or fretting about whether we’re doing the meditation practice properly. This is natural, and it’s not something we can stop from happening. But whenever we realize that we’ve been caught up in compelling trains of thought, we let go of them and return our attention to the body, the breathing, and anything else that presents itself to our senses.

Practicing self-compassion

Relative newcomers in particular tend to become disappointed and frustrated with the amount of thinking that’s going on. But accepting that it’s normal for us to become distracted is a self-compassionate act that helps us to be patient and accepting. We’re not failing when we get distracted; we’re just being human. Every time we realize we’ve been distracted is an opportunity to be kind to ourselves. It’s an opportunity to bring our attention gently back to the breathing again. Sometimes I suggest to meditation students that they be gentle in the way that they would if they were returning a baby kitten to its mother when it has strayed from the nest. Our distractions give us an opportunity to practice self-compassion.

In fact we have an opportunity to practice self-kindness and self-compassion just in the way we’re sitting. One way we can be unkind to ourselves is to hold the body in a tense and rigid way, or in a posture that we’re not able to sustain without discomfort arising. Often, for example, people will want to sit in a cross-legged posture even though they aren’t flexible enough to do this comfortably. But we don’t need to impress anyone, and there’s no one “perfect” posture that we have to sit in. We want to be comfortable.

At the same time we don’t want to slump, in the way we do when we’re relaxing in an arm-chair. Slumping compresses the chest in a way that makes it hard for us to breath effectively. And poor breathing causes the brain to be poorly oxygenated and makes is hard for us to be attentive. So, look for a posture that feels both relaxed and upright. One simple thing that sums this up nicely is the idea of sitting with a sense of dignity.

Lying down is another posture that makes is hard for us to be mindful. We’re likely to find that this makes the mind drowsy at best, and at worst it’ll send us to sleep. If you have some kind of injury that makes sitting upright impossible, then by all means meditate lying down. The sleepiness is something you’ll just have to learn to work with.

Seeing the miracle

As the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donahue said, “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.”

Mindfulness helps us to appreciate the simple miracle of being here. It helps us to become a kind and compassionate presence for ourselves. And this is something we do not just in meditation, but in every area of our lives.

Read More

The third arrow

The weekend that my wife told me she wanted a divorce, she took our kids away so that she could spend a few days with a friend. The children, who were four and six years old at the time, had been at school all day and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to them. My wife thought this was no big deal, but to me it was a hard blow at a difficult time, and it set me up for a lonely weekend in an empty home. As with many people, my first instinct was to stuff myself with unhealthy, fatty foods, and to open a bottle of wine.

I imagine that evolutionary biology would say that we’ve evolved the instinct to eat high calorie foods at times of crisis, to help us weather whatever trials are ahead of us. Experientially, fatty, salty, carb-laden food like burgers and fries just feel comforting in the short term. But they often leave us uncomfortable, bloated, sluggish, and unhealthy. I felt this urge, but since I’d been working on being self-compassionate, I decided that a Thai curry, full of fresh vegetables, would be healthier and more pleasurable in the long term. I also avoided the temptation to drink, since I knew that was likely to make me feel depressed and self-pitying. I touched base with a few friends in order to let them know what was going on, and to get some emotional support. I went for a walk. I meditated.

See also:

None of this made the emotional pain I was going through vanish. Nor could I expect it to. But I wasn’t hiding from my pain, and I wasn’t doing anything that was going to negatively affect my wellbeing in the long-term. In fact I was doing many things—from exercising to bonding with friends—that would make me more resilient in the future.

The Buddha gave a very well-known teaching on the “two arrows,” which pointed out that the mind reacts to pain with resistance, which then causes more pain. Our initial pain is like being shot by an arrow. The pain that comes from our reactions is like being shot by a second arrow. But there’s a third arrow as well! This third arrow is in the same teaching, but for some reason the Buddha didn’t offer an image to go with it. Here’s how it’s described:

Touched by that painful feeling, he delights in sensual pleasure. Why is that? Because the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person does not discern any escape from painful feeling aside from sensual pleasure.

It’s not so much pleasure that becomes our escape from pain, but its pursuit. Pursuing pleasure can distract us from pain, even if we never actually experience any pleasure. Emotional eating, trying to drink our sorrows away, compulsive Netflix binges, and so on — if they’re enjoyable at all, they usually end up making us feel worse in some way.

So what kind of arrow is the third arrow? Perhaps we could think of it as an arrow that’s been dipped in a narcotic drug. It numbs us for a while, but it leaves us with an emotional hangover.

The healthy alternative to the third arrow is practicing wise self-care. Wise self-care is any course of action that contributes to our long-term happiness and wellbeing and that helps us to cope better with our painful feelings.

Wise self-care is the opposite of the third arrow. Third arrow activity involves pursuing pleasure in an attempt to escape painful feelings; wise self-care starts with accepting those feelings. Third arrow actions have short-term pleasure as their aim; wise self-care takes into account our long-term happiness and wellbeing

Third arrow actions are reactive and unwise; wise self-care, as the name suggests, comes from a deeper, more mature perspective. Third arrow actions result in more suffering being created; wise self-care reduces our suffering, and in fact liberate us from suffering. Third arrow actions prevent us from growing and learning; wise self-care leads to growth. The third arrow is blind and habitual; wise self-care is aware and consciously chosen.

Wise self-care isn’t necessarily all about dealing with crises, though. It can be an ongoing effort to deal with the minor difficulties we experience in life.

If you keep trying to push away the jarring effect of being in messy surroundings, wise self-care might mean decluttering the house. If you worry about money and find looking at your bank balance to be stressful, it might mean creating a household budget. If you have low energy, wise self-care might mean getting eight hours of sleep, or taking a walk on your lunch break. It might involve making sure you see the doctor annually and the dentist twice a year, or taking a day off when you’re sick. It might mean setting up a daily meditation practice, or reading a book instead of watching TV. These are things that help us, and that also help us to help others. If we take care of and nourish ourselves, then we have more energy to help support others. In the long run, we need to take care of ourselves if we’re to be of service to others.

If you find this article useful, perhaps you’ll make a one-time or recurring donation to Wildmind to help support our work.

Read More

The gift of a compassionate “no”

Photo by travelnow.or.crylater on Unsplash

Last night when I was talking with a friend, she mentioned the need for us to be careful about our boundaries and not to say “yes” to every request for help that comes our way. I’m writing a book on the practice of self-compassion at the moment, and my first thought was, “Wow! I’ve completely forgotten to include anything in the book about boundaries. I’ll have to add something as soon as possible.” Writing this article is my first step in that direction.

My own bias may be one reason I hadn’t thought to include something about compassionately saying “no” to requests for help. This tends to be a gendered issue, since there are more pressures on women than on men to be helpers and pleasers. I hear from a lot of women who take on doing far too much because have difficulty saying no. They want to be “agreeable,” which is an interesting word since it implies that being likable is the same thing as agreeing with someone. Women have also often been taught that it’s “selfish” to take their own needs into account, although I have to say that this has affected me as well.

In fact, setting boundaries is something I’m still working with. I sometimes take on too many responsibilities, and often that’s to do with bad planning. But bad planning is just another term for “neglecting my needs.” Sometimes when requests come in, I’m excited and don’t want to miss out. And then I don’t sufficiently think through how much I’m likely to have going on, and so I end up overbooked. Other times, though, it’s just that one task takes me longer than I’d anticipated, and so I’m still up to my eyeballs in that work when it’s time for me to start other work I have planned. And unexpected things do happen…

However, I do consciously work at not over-scheduling myself, and quite often do say no to requests. And so I’d like to say a bit about that in case it’s helpful.

Be Mindful of Your Habits

If we don’t protect the boundaries or our time and energy, we’re not practicing self-compassion. The first thing is to become mindful of the habits that surround responding to requests. Do you have a desire to please? Are you worried about what people will think of you if you say no? Are you worried about hurting their feelings? Or are you like me and you’re excited to be doing something new and afraid of missing out on an opportunity? Mindfulness gives us an opportunity to pause before we act, so that we can consider whether it’s wise for us to act on our desires and fears.

Why Are We Concerned About Approval?

Those fears can be strong. If we’re conditioned to think that what another person thinks of us is more important than our own wellbeing, then it can be hard to say no to them. So we need to really ask ourselves, Why is it so damned important that other people approve of us?

Often we want others to offer us approval because we don’t offer it to ourselves. Many years ago, I realized that I was doing too much because I was seeking approval from others. And so I adopted a slogan: “I am my own source of validation.” This was a reminder to me to remember to appreciate myself—not just for the things I was doing but for who I was. Even just a short period spent appreciating my skillful qualities, appreciating the efforts I’d put into doing something, or celebrating what I’d achieved (“Yay! I wrote 2,000 words today!”), changed how I felt about myself. I felt much more secure and more confident in my own worth. I was also much less inclined to be disappointed if I didn’t get appreciation for others when I expected it, and was more careful about making promises I couldn’t keep.

This was important both for myself and for other people. Not only did I become stressed when I took on too much, but I tended to do a bad job with or neglect some of the tasks on my to-do list. I’d start off trying to please people and end up disappointing them.

Be Concerned About the Right Things

And if I am going to be concerned about what other people think about me, maybe I could upgrade those concerns. I think it’s more valid to hope that they value me for my integrity rather than my compliance. Many people will find it inspiring if you offer them an example of how to practice self-compassion. Courage is inspiring, and self-compassion shows courage. Maintaining healthy boundaries by saying “no” can be a courageous act in which we demonstrate both that we care and that we matter. To exemplify this for others is a gift. Ultimately, though, what other people think about us is up to them. Our happiness doesn’t depend on everyone liking us.

How To Say No

Of course we should be kind when we say no. We should be aware that others have feelings and not act in a way that we know will be hurtful. But if a person feels disappointed, it’s up to them to deal with their feelings, not us. I stress that I’m talking about a mindful and compassionate no. I’m not talking about saying no in a harsh or condescending way.

You might want to experiment with not apologizing. You’re under no obligation to do something to help another person. It’s a favor. Now it’s lovely to do favors when we can, but it’s not always possible or advisable. And when that’s the case, you’re not doing anything wrong by saying you’re not able to help. You have nothing to apologize for.

When decline someone’s invitation, we can thank them for the opportunity they’ve offered us. We can express appreciation for their confidence in us. Or, we can tell them we’re honored, and that we’d love them to ask us again when circumstances are different. Or we can say we feel torn, or that we wish we were able to help. But we don’t have to apologize. There’s nothing inherently wrong with saying no. Delivered in the right spirit, a “no” can sound like appreciation and feel like gratitude.

If you find this article useful, perhaps you’ll make a one-time or recurring donation to Wildmind to help support our work.

Read More

You do not need to be ashamed of being imperfect

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
We’re all subject to conditioning that affects our ability to be happy and sometimes makes us miserable. This conditioning actually starts before birth. Research has shown that your grandparents being exposed to stressful circumstances can change the way that your genes are expressed, so that genes that leave you feeling more anxious might be more active, while those that can made you more mellow remain switched off. We don’t choose to have such things happen to us. It’s not our fault.

We also don’t choose our early childhood conditioning. How much our parents hold us, how they communicate with us, whether they are loving or not, whether they are cruel, whether they are consistent in their affections — all these things change the very structure of our brains in a way that can leave lifelong scars.

Growing up in a household where affection was not expressed freely and where criticism was common, I have been left with certain insecurities. These include anxieties about whether I’m valued, loved, or liked. I can be hyper-sensitive at times to signs that I’m not appreciated, and this can cause me to react in ways that make me less likable — a classic self-fulfilling prophecy. This make me suffer, and it makes others suffer as well. Your early experiences may well have been different from mine, but we all have conditioning that makes us suffer, and we didn’t choose it. These things are not our fault. And so we don’t have to feel bad about being flawed. Our conditioning is not us, but is something that has been done to us. To recognize this liberates this from self-blame.

None of this means that we have permission to act badly. As adults we have to take responsibility for how we act. No one else can do that for us. If we want to be happy in the long-term, we need to become more aware of our early conditioning and understand how it affects our behavior, especially where it impacts others.

Recently I saw a social media post where a young woman wrote,

Me, dating at 21: ‘So, what do you like to do for fun?’

Me, dating at 27: ‘How aware are you of your past traumas and how actively are you working to heal them so that you don’t project that shit onto me?’

When I read that I wished that at the age of 27 I could have been so aware of the importance of past conditioning. But, I reflected, my conditioning was such that in my twenties I was in denial about such things. There’s no point blaming myself even for that.

There’s also no point me blaming my parents for not being more affectionate and for being overly critical. They too were simply living out their conditioning, in a time and culture in which most people didn’t even think about how the way they acted affected their own and others’ wellbeing.

You do not need to be ashamed of being imperfect. We were all made that way. You do not have to be ashamed that it’s so hard to work with your imperfections: the very tools you have for doing this are imperfect. We are all truly doing a difficult thing in being human.

Recognizing the many ways that we’ve been set up to suffer — by our brain structure, by our genetic and epigenetic inheritance, and by our childhood conditioning — is an important aspect of self-empathy, and thus of self-compassion. We’re all flawed. We’re all suffering. We’re all doing this difficult thing of being human. Understanding these things allows us to give ourselves a break. You’d do this for a person you loved. Why not do it for yourself?

If you find this article useful, perhaps you’ll make a one-time or recurring donation to Wildmind to help support our work.

Read More
Menu