Posts by Bodhipaksa

Five ways to forgive yourself and let go of painful regret

I’ve seen many people suffering because they can’t forgive themselves. Maybe they hurt someone in the past, or allowed someone to get hurt, or missed an opportunity, or made a bad choice. And they torture themselves about it.

Sometimes people hold onto these regrets—and the pain they cause—for years or decades, and have great difficulty letting go of them. And regret festers. It’s like a wound that never heals, and that, like an abscess,  poisons our entire being. It can turn into self-hatred—the belief that we, in our very core, are bad or unworthy.

Now there’s no way to instantly forgive ourselves. It’s a process that can take years. But I’d like to suggest a few things that can help with this important practice.

1. Know that you did the best you could

The past of course is past, and we all know we can’t really go back and change things, but we can end up replaying events over and over in our minds, wishing we’d made different choices.

When I recently told someone who was suffering because of regrets, ‘You did the best she could,” she pulled a face. I said to her, “You don’t believe me, do you?” She said I was right. “So you think that if you had a bit more mindfulness or a bit more compassion, things would have turned out different, right?” Right. “But did you actually have, at that moment, a bit more mindfulness or a bit more compassion?” Well, no. “So you did what you could with the resources you had available to you.”

That’s all we can ever do.

This perspective is deeply counter-intuitive for many people. We’re wedded to the idea that we could, had things been different, have acted differently. And it’s true that had we been a different person we would have done something different. But we weren’t, and we didn’t. So obsessing about an alternative version of the past is pointless and a source of pain.

We can talk about having free will, or the ability to choose, but in any given moment we can only choose from the limited options available to us. And at times our very ability to choose can be severely constrained. There are certain situations (panic, extreme stress) when the mind has great difficulty considering alternatives to pre-programmed courses of action: defense, aggression, retreat, paralysis. Our options can be extremely limited. Right now we might not be able to completely forgive ourselves, but we can take steps in that direction.

With practice we can learn to develop our mindfulness and our ability to stay in (or come back to) balance so that we have more flexibility in how we behave. We can increase the options available to us. But practice is something we do now, not in the past. And it affects how we act in the future and not, again, in the past. The past is past. You did the best you could with the resources you had at hand. The best you can do right now is to accept that what happened happened, and resolve to do better in the future.

2. Do the right thing — now

When we’re caught up in regret and self-blame we’re focused on wanting to do the right thing — but in the past, which is the one time period we can have absolutely no effect on.

So focus on what you can do right, right now. This is the only moment you can directly affect. And how you relate to this moment determines your future happiness and wellbeing.

Self-hatred is toxic. It undermines us. It makes us miserable. It weakens us. The right thing to do right now is to bring as much mindfulness, compassion, forgiveness, and wisdom into this moment as you possibly can. To the best of your present ability, let these qualities manifest in you. You’ll be a better person as a result — not in the past, but in this moment and in moments yet to come.

3. Be a friend to yourself

If you were witnessing a dear friend torturing themselves over past actions, what would you do? Would you tell them they must be a terrible person because of the mistakes they made? Probably not. Would you tell them they’re broken? I doubt it.

You’d probably suggest to them that it’s unhelpful that they give themselves such a hard time. You’d probably tell them they were making themselves suffer unnecessarily. You’d probably suggest that they be gentle on themselves, and that they let go. You’d probably tell them about the good qualities you see in them, and suggest that their mistakes don’t define them.

In other words you’d suggest that they relate to their past in a more wholesome way. So why not give the same advice to yourself now? Be a friend to yourself.

4. Recognize that you need to forgive yourself in order to forgive others

The way we relate to ourselves tends to form the pattern of how we relate to others. If we have difficultly being empathetic and kind to ourselves we probably won’t do those things with other people either. If we judge ourselves harshly we’ll probably judge others too.

And the converse is true. If we want to be better to the people around us that we love — if we want to love them better — we need to work on loving ourselves better. Taking care of yourself, you take care of others.

5. Love your regret

In Buddhist psychology, regret is a skillful volition. It’s a positive thing! Regret is what’s skillful in us encountering an ethical slip. Regret is a sign that you want to be a better person. It’s a sign that you have ethical values.

When we don’t understand this, we tend to freak out. When we experience regret we take it as a sign that we’ve failed, or that we’re bad. Because regret, although skillful, is a painful experience. And it’s natural for us to assume that when we’re in pain, there’s something wrong.

The important thing is to learn to deal with the pain of regret in a way that doesn’t cause us more pain. So we can understand that regret is a natural and important part of being a human with ethical values. We can be mindful of, and accept, the pain of regret. And we can be kind, supportive, and compassionate to the part of ourselves that’s suffering. In other words, we can practice self-compassion.

So these are a number of things you can bear in mind to help you let go of shame, regret, and self-blame. Again, there’s no magic bullet. You’ll make progress a little at a time as you gain insights into the pointless painfulness of self-blame and as you learn how to bring your focus more into the present moment.

And if you’re interested in learning more about forgiveness and other spiritual practices, please check out Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative, which will give you access to many of my online course, including Forgiveness: The Art and Science of Letting Go.

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Four steps to self-empathy and self-kindness

Karina Vorozheeva on Unsplash

One thing that’s changed my life more than any other is the practice of self-empathy. Simply hearing the term for the first time was a revelation for me, since I immediately recognized that I wasn’t in fact empathetic toward myself. It had never even occurred to me to have empathy for myself. And this was despite the fact that I’d been, at that point, practicing lovingkindness meditation for more than two decades.

My lack of self-empathy showed itself in the way I could be down on myself when I was struggling. I took being unhappy as a sign of failure, as if I was meant to be happy all the time. At one point my not-very-conscious habit of self-blame led to me being overwhelmed by depression, since I was responding to feeling unhappy by making myself feel even more unhappy.

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Over the years, I got better at being understanding toward and supportive of myself. In fact I now see the cultivation of self-empathy as an indispensable prerequisite for cultivating self-metta—kindness toward oneself. And since kindness for oneself is the basis of kindness for others, self-empathy is therefore the foundation of the entire practice of lovingkindness.

Probably the best way to explain self-empathy is to say how you can cultivate it. It’s easier to understand when you see it in action.

1. Recognize Yourself as a Feeling Being

So first, recognize that you’re a feeling being. You are wired to feel. You feelings are important to you. You can override them for a while, maybe even for a long time, but there will be a cost in terms of a diminished capacity to enjoy life, a sense of emotional brittleness, and difficulty in connecting with others in meaningful ways. It’s quite common for us to suppress an awareness of ourselves as feeling beings in the service of pursuing goals like work. Having self-empathy involves accepting that it’s OK to feel.

2. Sense Your Deepest Needs

Next, recognize that, deep down, you want to be happy and want to avoid suffering. This is an instinct that all sentient beings have, and it’s among our most primal instincts. Feelings have evolved as a way of helping us to survive by moving toward potential benefits and away from potential threats. We’re wired to do this, although again we can suppress or ignore those drives, and can see feelings as a source of weakness. Having self-empathy involves having a sensitivity to our emotional needs.

3. Understand That Life Is Challenging

It’s difficult to have our desires for wellbeing and to be free from suffering in a world where wellbeing is frequently elusive, and where various forms of suffering visit us all too commonly. Empathy can involve recognizing that we’re doing a difficult thing in being human. You’re not failing when you’re having a hard time, you’re just being human. You’ve been set up by your evolutionary past.

4. Offer Yourself Kindness and Support

Putting this all together, we start to think of it as natural for us to give ourselves support and encouragement as we encounter life’s inevitable difficulties. As the Rev. John Watson said in the 19th century, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” And who, out of this “everyone,” do you encounter most often?

That person is, of course, yourself.

We’re already offering ourselves a considerable amount of support just by empathizing with ourselves in this way, but there are many ways we can show ourselves kindness. For example I make a practice of talking o myself (usually internally) when I’m having a hard time. The standard lovingkindness phrases—things like “May I be well, may I be happy”—can be useful, but using natural language is even more so. So I might say something like “I know you’re anxious right now, but I’m here for you. We’ve been through this before and we’ve always come out the other side.”

Another way of showing kindness is to have a kindly inner gaze. Think of how you might look at a beloved sleeping child, or a dear pet, or at a lover (not when you’re sexually aroused, but when you’re feeling particularly loving toward them). Sense the qualities that arise in your gaze as you do these things. And then turn that same quality of attention inwards as you observe your own body and feelings. To look at ourselves with this kind of fondness, tenderness, and appreciation communicates a sense of being supported. And when we feel supported we’re better able to weather difficult times.

A third way to show ourselves kindness is through touch. Your first instinct when a loved one is experiencing grief or some other form of suffering may well be to hug them or place a hand on their arm or shoulder. I’ll often just place a hand on my heart. I might do this at the same time as I talk to myself and regard myself with kindness. This is all very sustaining.

Some people assume that developing self-compassion will make you soft. The opposite is the case. Research shows that individuals who have the best developed self-compassion skills are the most emotionally resilient. And learning to turn toward and accept painful feelings is challenging, to say the least.

What I’ve found over the years is that the more I’m able to be empathetic and kind with myself, the stronger is my empathy and kindness for others. Just as I want to be happy, so do others. Just as I want to be free from suffering, so do they. Just as I often need support as I go through life’s challenges, so also do they. And so this sense of empathy for others communicates itself as kindness, which may be expressed simply in the way we look at them, or in words, or touch, or in helpful actions.

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Four things to remember when online discussions get heated

While Buddhism teaches that all beings have the potential for awakening, and that we should endeavor to relate with kindness and compassion to everyone, I admit that this is especially difficult for me on social media.

We live in particularly challenging times. Society is becoming more polarized and tribal, and I’m shocked to see a resurgence of racism and of desire for authoritarian rule, for example. Those things really stir me up emotionally when I see them online.

I’d like to offer just a few suggestions that I’ve found helpful when dealing with people I disagree with online. None of this is rocket science, and I’m not presenting myself as an expert. This is all work in (imperfect) progress.

1. See each online communication as an opportunity

Every interaction we have offers us an opportunity to get better at communicating, at dealing with conflict, at learning to practice empathy, and so on.

It’s best not to regard every interaction as an opportunity to show off your skills: Look how good I am in discussions. I’ve fallen into that trap before and it always backfires. It’s not about being right: it’s about learning to connect more compassionately.

2. Be mindful of your feelings

Unpleasant feelings flare up in the face of viewpoints we disagree with in the same way they did for our ancestors when they were physically attacked. We respond to insults and even disagreement as if they were threats to our very existence.

I try to notice when I feel emotionally provoked, and take a break. I step back and recognize the discomfort I’m feeling. When I step back and observe that I’m suffering, I can create a mindful pause in which I can evaluate the best way to respond.

Rarely do we have to reply right now. We can wait. The angry parts of the brain tend to respond very quickly. The wise and compassionate parts of the brain operate more slowly. Give the better angels of your nature time to get their boots on.

It may be that you decide you don’t have to respond at all. Certain people are trolls, just looking to provoke a response. Sometimes ignoring them is the best thing to do.

You don’t need to have the last word. I’ve found that it can be hard to walk away from an argument, though, even when I realize that it’s never going to go anywhere and that engaging is just going to cause more suffering. At first it’s agonizing. Sometimes it takes a couple of days for the painful feeling of not engaging to die down. But it does eventually vanish; all feelings are impermanent. I’ve always been glad in the end to have let someone else have the last word in a pointless argument.

I’m not suggesting that we “just experience our feelings” in order to avoid conflict, by the way. It’s just that there can be times we realize that a productive discussion is never going to happen.

And we shouldn’t ignore actual physical threats. Earlier today I reported both to his web host and to the FBI one person whose blog was advocating violence against political opponents. Some threats need to be taken seriously.

And I’d suggest that you always stand up for others, and not ignore racism, misogyny, or threats of violence. Bullying needs to be stood up to.

3. See the other person as a human being

I find the golden rule helpful in internet communications: This person I am talking to is a human being, just as I am. They have feelings, just as I do. This person I am arguing with is, like me, suffering.

Ask yourself as you’re responding — am I trying to convince this person or am I trying to make them hurt by showing that they are wong? Usually we can’t do both. It’s hard enough for others when we criticize what they say and do — none of us like it when that happens — but it’s even harder for them when we attack their character.

It can be tempting to insult someone in order to change their mind. But how often has being insulted online actually changed your mind? Probably not often. Insults don’t help. I try to remember that they just create further suffering. I try to notice even very subtle digs and delete them before posting. The other person probably won’t see them as subtle.

One beautiful exchange I saw on Twitter involved the comedian, Sarah Silverman. After someone responded to one of her messages with a single offensive word (with four letters, starting with c) she said that she’s read a number of his tweets and empathized with the physical pain he was experiencing. She also invited him to see what would happen if he decided to choose love. This led to a dialog in which he revealed past abuse and in which Silverman helped him to find affordable medical treatment.

One thing we can bear in mind when we’re online is the Scottish writer, the Reverend John Watson’s saying, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

4. See the other person as capable of change

Many times recently when I’ve seen someone being outrageously offensive online — being racist, or insulting a person’s appearance, for example — I’ve said the same thing: “You can be better than this.” I haven’t criticized them or their words. I haven’t told them how they should behave. I’ve just reminded them that they are capable of acting differently. So far I haven’t had a single angry response to that. Of course I don’t know how this line is actually received, but the fact that people who have said some pretty vicious things to others and have refused to back down in the face of criticism haven’t responded to me adversely makes me think I’ve struck a chord.

“You can be better than this” acknowledges the simple truth that many times we’re capable of acting better than we do. It recognizes that all beings have the potential for awakening. We’re all potential Buddhas, and we need to remind ourselves and each other of that fact.

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You are the universe become conscious of itself

Photo by Will Swann on Unsplash

My favorite meditation practice from the Buddhist tradition is also one of the least well-known. It’s a reflection on the interconnected nature of our being, and it’s called the Six Element Practice.

It’s my favorite for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s deeply poetic, evoking our nature as intrinsically part of the universe. For another, it aligns closely with contemporary science, which is a subject I love, and which gives the practice added richness. Lastly, it’s very effective: I and many people I’ve taught this meditation practice to have found that it radically changes our sense of who we are. It gives us a sense of connectedness, of lightness of being, and of freedom.

The meditation involves taking the six elements that make up our being, and seeing how each of them isn’t in any ultimate sense who we really are.

These six elements come from an ancient way of understanding the universe, but although it’s a model of reality that we no longer use, it makes perfect sense on an experiential level. So we have, in the traditional order:

  • Earth, which is anything solid in our being.
  • Water, which is anything liquid.
  • Fire, which is the energy that animates us.
  • Air, which is anything gaseous within us.
  • Space, which is just space — the “container” for the other elements — our sense of being separate from the universe.
  • Consciousness, which is what is aware of the other elements and of itself.

The first four are the four classical elements of antiquity, and are very common-sense. We’re made up of solids, liquids, gases, and energy. This is how we experience the world.

In the Six Element Practice we reflect on each of these elements in turn. First of all we connect with the element within us — which we’d normally think of as being me, myself, or mine. So for the earth element we can experience the solid touch of the body against the floor or our seat. We can be aware of the bones and muscles, and teeth and hair. And what we can’t directly experience, like our inner organs, we can imagine.

Second, we connect with the same element outside of ourselves. So for the earth element we recollect whatever is solid in the world. We can call to mind our experience of walking on solid ground, of picking up a rock, of touching the rough bark of a tree, of holding an apple in our hands. It’s particularly useful to recall experiences of food, like the bread and fruits and vegetables in your kitchen.

This is useful because, thirdly, we reflect that there is in reality no “me” earth element or “other” earth element, but just one earth element. And we can do this by connecting with how the element comes and goes in the body.

Where has all the solid matter in the body come from? All of it, we can realize, comes from the outside world. Your bones and muscles, hair, teeth, inner organs, etc., were formerly soil and rock and wheat and milk and vegetables and so on. And because of the way your body constantly replenishes itself, what was previously your body is now soil and plants and air and animals, and everything that’s presently in the body is in the process of returning to the world again.

And having reflected in this way, we now have a different view of the solid matter in the body. What at first we may have looked at as a “thing,” separate from the world, now is seen as a flow or a process, inseparably part of the world. We see the earth element flowing from the outside world, through this human form, and back into the outside world again.

And lastly, as we observe this flow we say to ourselves, “This is not me. This is not mine. This is not myself.” Because how can you “own” something that’s just passing through?

So we reflect in the same way for the other physical elements, and see that all the solid, liquid, gas, and energy that’s inside us is really just temporarily passing through.

But passing through what? This brings us to be space element. We think of there being a space — a human form — through which the elements are passing. But what is this human form but the first four elements themselves? Take those away, and what’s left? We come to see that there is nothing at all in our physical makeup that is separate.The elements of the body that came from the outside world never really left the outside world. When you see your body you are seeing nothing more or less than a living, ever-changing part of the universe. Separateness is an illusion.

Lastly, there’s consciousness as an element. The traditional description of this is quite involved, but it starts with a recognition that there are three inter-related things: 1) form (the first five elements), 2) the perception of form in our sense organs, and 3) consciousness of form in the mind. The suggestion seems to be that these three things form an inseparable continuum. We tend to think of consciousness as being something separate from what it perceives, but this practice leads us to let go of identifying any part of this continuum as being either “me” or “not me.” There’s a unified, non-dual phenomenon of the universe perceiving itself — the universe become conscious of itself.

So if even your consciousness isn’t “you” in any real sense, then what are you? I think this is one of the great things about the Six Element Practice — it just leaves you with a sense of mystery. A sense of mystery is a kind of openness. It’s a setting-aside not just of definitions but of the need to define. We no longer, temporarily at least, need to try to pin down who or what we are. We no longer need to separate our experience into the categories of “self” and “other.” There’s no me “in here” experiencing a world “out there.” There’s just a vibrant aliveness, the mystery of the universe become aware of itself, and a sense of liberation — life without boundary.

If you’re interested in the Six Element Practice and want to explore it further, join me for a six-week online course starting July 12.

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Practicing in balance

Photo by Jordan Steranka on Unsplash

There’s an unfortunate tendency these days to see mindfulness as being the only quality we need to develop in meditation, and that everything else follows automatically. But that’s not how practice works, or how it’s traditionally been taught.

Just the other week I had a conversation with someone who seemed rather proud that the only form of meditation practice he did was mindfulness of breathing. He saw this as being a complete and sufficient practice unto itself.

The problem was that his personality seemed very lopsided. He was very austere and emotionally dry. In our conversation there was no emotional give and take, and when I talked about a personal matter that was troubling me his responses totally missed the mark. It was like we were talking two different languages that, rather confusingly, used the same words to mean very different things. It was very perplexing. Although I think he wanted to be able to respond empathetically, he didn’t seem to be able to actually do so.

What was lacking was the balancing factor of kindness and compassion. There is a whole set of meditation practices to do with things like kindness, compassion, appreciation, and reverence. And those practices are important; they are not optional extras but part of Buddhism’s core curriculum.

Now some people are naturally warmer and more emotional than others. They may have very well-developed connections of love and affection in their lives. There may be a lack of balance in their practice, but it doesn’t become a big problem like it does with the person I just talked about. They may not even notice the lack of balance, in fact. But they’re not tapping into their full potential.

Now, mindfulness meditation can be taught with an emphasis on warmth and kindness. I do this myself, and call kindness plus mindfulness “kindfulness.” It’s possible for us to bring quite a bit of kindness into our experience this way. But even if we do, there is still an imbalance. We’re still not developing our full potential as compassionate human beings.

Mindfulness is wonderful. It allows us to see how the mind functions. So it lets us see how anger manifests, for example. And it gives us an opportunity to change the way the mind works. So when we observe that anger is making life unpleasant, we can choose to let go of angry thoughts. We might also realize that we have reserves of kindness and compassion available that we can tap into. And so, when we’re mindful, we may find that we’re also, quite spontaneously, a bit kinder and more compassionate.

But traditionally, kindness and compassion are not just faculties we can tap into, but faculties we can develop, strengthen, and deepen.

In the past we might have just thought of kindness and compassion as rather mysterious “things” inside us. But now we can see that they actually involve specific parts of the brain. Those parts of the brain, like any others, actually grow as we exercise them, in the same way as muscles grow when we use them. And the parts of the brain that are active when we’re compassionate are not the same parts that are active when we’re simply being mindful, so they aren’t exercised automatically as we practice mindfulness.

And this is why there are specific meditation practices to help us cultivate kindness and compassion. They use very specific mental muscles.

If we never did any leg exercises at the gym but only worked on our arms, we’d probably find that our legs did get a bit fitter. After all, if you’re standing and you’re holding weights in your hands your legs are doing some work. But that’s not the same as doing a leg workout. If you only worked out your arms, your legs would end up underdeveloped. This is what can happen with our emotions.

This is why in my own teaching, and in the teaching tradition I was trained in, both mindfulness of breathing and lovingkindness practices were stressed equally. I was always encouraged to alternate these practices and to give them equal weight. In fact, as one of those people who was not naturally very emotional and with a tendency to negativity, I was encouraged at times to put more emphasis on lovingkindness practice. I needed to restore a balance that was missing.

And so that’s how I still teach. When I introduce people to meditation I introduce both mindfulness and lovingkindness practices. And I encourage my meditation students to, where possible, alternate these two approaches to meditation. Mindfulness and lovingkindness practices need equal attention so that we can become not just exceptionally mindful and aware individuals, but exceptionally empathetic and compassionate as well.

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Jack Kornfield: “The trouble is, you think you have time.”

Jack Kornfield, in Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, says, “The trouble is, you think you have time.” In other words, we put off important things, assuming that we can do them later. But there may not be any “later.” Life is short; make good use of it.

This quote is often attributed to the Buddha, but it’s not something he said. It’s Jack Kornfield’s adaptation of something from Carlos Castaneda’s fictional Don Juan in his third book, “Journey to Ixtlan,” where the shaman says:

There is one simple thing wrong with you – you think you have plenty of time … If you don’t think your life is going to last forever, what are you waiting for? Why the hesitation to change?

The resemblance isn’t coincidental — Jack makes reference to this quote in one of his talks.

Recognizing that our time here is brief can help us appreciate life and see what the important things are. One of the things the Buddha encouraged us to do was to reflect on our own impermanence, and how, in the light of that, it’s important that we take responsibility for our lives.

Life is short; make good use of it. When people hear this they sometimes think it means “life is short, have as much fun as possible.” But if you really take on board how brief our time here is, you’re also forced to recognize what’s truly most valuable. And for most of us that’s loving, being loved, and living meaningfully. “Fun” comes much further down the list. Love and meaning, it turns out, are more fun than fun itself.

Notice your breathing, aware that each breath comes only once. Each breath is unique. Being aware that the breath you’re taking right now will never come again makes it seem more significant and worthy of attention.

In fact, as you pay attention to your breathing, try noticing how each moment is unique. That moment, and that moment, and that moment—each one flits by. Each one is precious. This may sound like a platitude until you “get” it. Then it’s a simple and profound truth: each moment is precious.

Think about those around you, about those close to you, about those you’re connected to with ties of blood or love. Think about those who barely register in your attention, and about those you don’t like. Every one of them is going to die. And you’re going to die.

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Life is unpredictable. When you’re with someone, you have no idea if you’ll ever see each other again. Everyone you see today—this may your last encounter. And maybe you should behave as if it was. What last impression, what last words, would you like them to have of you, should either of you die tomorrow?

As I often say, “Life is short; be kind“.

Try adopting as a mantra, “We may never meet again.” Let yourself feel vulnerable and tender. Let yourself feel affection. Let yourself appreciate others’ basic goodness. Let your tendency to focus on the negative fall away, and recognize that you’re surrounded by good people who are struggling to find happiness in a world where true happiness is rare. Let yourself love.

The trouble is, you think you’ll have time to love later, and you might not, so behave as if you don’t have time to waste, and let yourself love: Now.

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Whatever is difficult within you, offer it love

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

Someone wrote to me recently about realizing that she has an underlying feeling of anxiety around the solar plexus that’s there much of the time.

I have that too. It’s not always there, but it is a lot of the time. It doesn’t ruin my life. It doesn’t stop me from being happy. But it’s there. It’s not something that I can “fix” or make go away. And in fact it isn’t helpful even to try. This anxiety is something to be lived with, not banished. And the best way to live with it, I’ve found, is to love it.

Before you can love it, though, necessary to become aware of it. It can be uncomfortable to do this. But it’s an essential step. You can’t respond skillfully to such things unless you’re aware of them.

I think a lot of us have this kind of anxiety and don’t even realize it. Whether we know it’s there or not it affects us. We act out of it but not realizing that it’s there in the background, like a puppet-master controlling our actions, making us turn on the TV to avoid the anxiety of being alone, or pour a glass of wine to dull our worries about work, or making us snap at our partner because we’re worried they might not care about us.

The good news is that we can be at peace while the anxiety is present. The presence of chronic, low-grade anxiety need not affect our wellbeing. As we practice being mindful of those sensations we can learn to regard the anxiety as being not a threat, but just a sensation.

This takes practice, but it’s doable. Start with very minor anxiety, drop the thinking that accompanies it, drop the thinking about how unpleasant your anxiety is, and just notice it. What is this sensation like? What is its texture? Where is it located? How does it change, moment by moment? As we take this approach, anxiety becomes less loaded. It’s just a sensation like any other.

Then we can love it. Loving anxiety does not come naturally to us. It’s definitely something we have to learn to do because it’s not our natural response. The whole point of anxiety is to make us wary of something the mind has flagged up being a potential threat, and even to turn away from that apparent threat. Anxiety is meant to be unpleasant, so we become wary of anxiety itself, and see it as being a threat to our wellbeing. So we want to avoid it. Why wouldn’t we?

We can regard our anxiety not as an enemy and not as something to be gotten rid of, but as a signal being sent by some part of us that is suffering. Some animal-like or child-like part of us is scared and calling out to us. Can we offer it reassurance? Can we love it like we would a pet or a young child?

So we can relate to anxiety in a kind and parental way: “Hey, you! How are you doing today? I’m sorry you’re suffering. I just want you to know that I love you and care about you.” We can place a tender hand on the place where it manifests most strongly in the body. We can look at it with love. In these ways we can offer reassurance to the part of us that’s afraid.

Perhaps eventually this low-grade anxiety will go away. I certainly hope that the part of me that’s afraid learns to feel secure, confident, and unafraid. Until then I’ll offer it as much love as I can.

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Sitting With Bodhi II

I invite you to join a new format of course that I pioneered a few weeks ago. It’s a different kind of meditation course with a new format.

It’s called Sitting With Bodhi.

The second series starts tomorrow, and the focus is on lovingkindness — although I prefer to call it simply “kindness.” It’s all about being more accepting and less harsh toward yourself and others.

It consists of 28 guided meditations which are 10 minutes long but open-ended; they get you started and then invite you to continue with the practice for as long as you want.

And you can work through these entirely at your own pace. Thanks to some kind of internet magic that I don’t pretend to understand, the next email isn’t sent out until the day after you’ve played the meditation in the previous one. So you don’t end up in that situation where you miss a couple of days and then despair because you realize you can’t catch up. Here the material is delivered completely at your pace.

And there are no readings at all! It’s just pure meditation.

I did a survey during the first course and 92% of respondents said they’d want to continue. And they offered comments like these:

  • “I learned more in the first 10 meditations than in the last 6 months. So many new ways to explore. My sitting is now so much interesting, with focus…i am excited about each sitting….i have one comment….Thank you Bodhi!”
  • “Starting with an intention of at least 10mins a day makes it easy to sit, and then sit for longer.”
  • “The meditations have helped my practice become more consistent, thank you.”
  • “I’m really enjoying the meditations. Thank you Bodhi for all your gentle guidance.”
  • “Thank you!! For all the work you’ve put into this. This course and knowing a new meditation will arrive each day has got me to my cushion again daily, which is such a relief and a joy.”

There’s an online discussion group for support, and I’ll also be doing two live online meditation sessions. If you can’t make it to those they’ll be recorded and archived for you.

Click here to find out a bit more or enroll.

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The deep practice of just being peace

Recently I’ve been reading The Buddha Before Buddhism, by Gil Fronsdal, which is a translation of what is believed to be one of the oldest Buddhist teachings. It’s had a powerful effect on the way I practice.

It’s interesting how simple this text is. There are no lists: no elaborate eightfold path, no detailed exposition of four noble truths. Rebirth comes up mainly when discussing the beliefs of other teachers; the effects of our actions are mainly discussed in terms of this life, here and now.

There’s nothing about Nirvana, or some future state of spiritual breakthrough. Bliss or happiness are not the main goals; peace is.

And that is the part I find most interesting. Peace, or being at peace, is the goal. There’s not a great deal of emphasis on how to get there in the future. Instead it seems that we’re just to be there now.

And that’s where the effect of reading The Buddha Before Buddhism comes in. I’ve found myself simply noticing whether “unpeace” has arisen, and simply pausing. Sometimes the thought, “What do I need to do or let go of in order to be at peace” arises.

That thought triggers spontaneous action. I ask, “How do I move my body in such a way that peace manifests?” Well, I move slowly and gracefully. “How do I eat in such a way that I feel at peace?” I eat slowly and mindfully, and without trying to do anything else at the same time.

If I’m feeling a bit tired and over-stimulated the question, “What do I need to do or let go of in order to be at peace” triggers the desire to rest. I put down whatever I’m doing, and just become aware of my surroundings, my body, my breathing, and so on. It’s not necessary to be happy; just to be at peace.

If I find myself anxious, the question is not “How do I get rid of this anxiety,” but how do I be at peace with this anxiety?” And my mind seems to already know to stop striving to be free of anxiety, and instead to accept it with mindfulness and kindness. There’s no need to get rid of anxiety in order to be at peace. Peace and anxious states can co-exist.

These “questions” that I’ve mentioned don’t necessarily appear as words. It’s more of a wordless realization that there is a state of peace that’s accessible, and that a way can be found to allow it to arise. It’s just like when I’m going to the local post office: I don’t need to talk myself through the journey. I don’t need to say, “OK, now I go up these stairs, then I turn left onto Main Street, then I cross the road at the lights…” Just as it’s enough to know that the post office is my destination for my feet to be able to find their own way there, it’s enough for me to remember that peace is what I want, and then my body and mind will take me there.

And there’s no intellectual process I have to work through in order to figure out how to respond. I don’t need to think anything through. The movement toward peace just happens spontaneously.

I suspect that for most people the greatest barrier would be the belief that they have to do something in order to get themselves to a state of peace. But really you don’t need to do anything. You just need to get out of the way and to let peace happen. You don’t need to learn what to do: your mind and body already know what needs to be let go of.

Another barrier might be the habit we have of constantly thinking that we have to defer wellbeing for sometime — specified or unspecified — in the future. “I just have to get out of debt,” of “I can be happy once I’ve lost 20 pounds,” or “I can relax once this busy spell is over.” This really is a habit of unconsciously deferring wellbeing — often to a time that never arrives, since we keep thinking of new things that have to be done before we can feel happy.

But the practice I’ve been doing is very simple and immediate. It’s also radically simple. And in my experience so far it’s been surprisingly effective.

A third barrier might well be that of expectations. We might have the expectation that peace is something extraordinary. And so when peace is present, and seems quite ordinary, we might think “This can’t be it” and return to craving some kind of ideal state, rejecting the peace that’s already present.

The “solution” to these barriers — grasping, deferring, rejecting — is incredibly simple. It’s just what I’ve said, which is asking, “What do I need to do or let go of in order to be at peace.” Let go of grasping, right now, and experience peace. Let go of deferring happiness right now, and just be at peace. Let go of your resistance to peace, and just experience it.

Peace is right here, right now. Stop ignoring it, and let it be your experience. Just be peace.

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