Posts by Bodhipaksa

From the burden of illusion to the joy of freedom

Photo by Josh Boot @joshboot, Unsplash, photo-1482164565953-04b62dcac1cd

I’m going to say something about the arising of insight that I’ve never heard any teacher say before, yet which I think is crucially important if you’re at all interested in where Buddhist meditation can take you.

But first I’ll have to offer you just a little background.

Samatha and Vipassana

Traditionally, Buddhist meditation has been seen in terms of two different approaches: tranquility (samatha) and insight (vipassana).

Tranquility involves calming the mind, steadying the mind, and cultivating peace and joy. The experience that arises is called jhana, or absorption. The vast majority of references to meditation in the Buddhist scriptures are about this approach to meditation. The Buddha in fact described jhana as “the path to Awakening.”

Insight involves looking closely at our experience in order, ultimately, to see that we have no substantial, permanent self.

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The Traditional View

In the early scriptures, which are the closest thing we have to what the Buddha actually taught, tranquility and insight are never described as being two different types of meditation. In fact there’s little or no emphasis on distinguishing them. At the most, they’re two synergistic approaches to meditation. They are meant to be developed together. They complement and support each other.

The relationship between them is usually said to be that we need to learn to steady the mind through developing tranquility so that it can then closely observe the nature of our experience through insight practice. An analogy would be that the light from an ordinary flashlight can’t cut steel. There’s enough power there but it’s not focused enough; the light waves are scattered and out of phase with each other, so that they cancel each other out. But turn the light into a laser — that is, take the same amount of light, line up all the waves so that they’re in phase and pointing in the same direction — and it now can penetrate metal. Tranquility, or concentration, is said to steady and focus in the mind in a similar way, so that it can cut through delusion.

This is the explanation that I’d like to challenge. I don’t think it’s wrong. It’s just missing something crucial.

Jhana is Insubstantial

What’s the missing element? It’s that tranquility is itself a way of completely changing the way we relate to our being. Absorption is in a sense a form of insight practice.

Here’s how.

In developing tranquility we’re learning to experience jhana (absorption). We learn to calm the mind so that we are no longer caught up in stories and are free to pay close attention to the body, its feelings, and the qualities of our emotional experience.

And what do we find?

We find that we experience the body less and less as a solid object. In fact we find no solidity. Instead we experience the body in terms of energy: a pleasurable tingling aliveness. Even what you would expect to be the most substantial physical experiences, like the contact the knees make with the floor, dissolve into twinkling pinpoints of sensation, constantly changing, vanishing as soon as they arise.

As we go deeper into absorption we “tune out” the body and become more fascinated by joy. Virtually everything else vanishes. In ordinary life we might be able to describe where joy is in elation to the body — it’s often centered on the heart, for example — but when joy becomes our whole experience we can’t even do that. Joy becomes everything. Joy is of course a very intangible quality, but it’s also changing moment by moment by moment. So our whole experience becomes one of constant change.

As we practice absorption our whole experience moves from the very ordinary sense we have of the body being a solid object, to experiencing ourselves as nothing an ever-changing, evanescent, flickering, constellation of physical and emotional sensation.

From Samatha to Insight

And then the question comes up: Where in this is there, or could there be, a stable, permanent self? Of course, such a thing is impossible. And at some point — BOOM! — our belief in such a self vanishes.

The normal sense we have of having a solid body is revealed to be a mental construction — part of our delusion of a solid self.

So this, I believe, is the main way that concentration and absorption aid the arising of insight. Yes, it’s got a little to do with us developing our ability to focus. But that’s only a small part of the story. The main benefit of absorption is that it dissolves away the solid self we assumed we always had, and reveals nothing but glittering points of sensation suspended in space.

In this disappearance we don’t actually lose anything except a burdensome illusion. And we’re left with a joyful sense of freedom.

One of the things I do is to guide people, step-by-step, into the experience of jhana or absorption. Jhana is not some mystical state that can only be experienced by elite meditators. Once you know how, jhana can arise quite naturally and easily. It’s just a question of knowing the steps. And even before jhana has fully arisen, we get a strong sense that our experience is becoming insubstantial. This dissolving of our normal sense of solidity is a major support for the practice of insight.

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When your meditation practice does itself

Sometimes I compare the mind to a cat. Just as it’s in a cat’s nature to wander, it’s in the mind’s nature to wander. But just as it’s in a cat’s nature to come home, it’s also the mind’s nature to come home — to come home to mindfulness.

In a couple of days I have an online meditation course starting that explores a practice called “Just Sitting.” In a way this is different from other meditation practices such as mindful breathing meditation or where we cultivate kindness or compassion. There’s no specific aim in the Just Sitting practice. Strictly speaking we’re not even trying to be mindful!

This might make this form of meditation seem pointless. After all, if you’ve meditated at all you’re probably very aware of how much the mind wanders and how much work seems to be involved in bringing your attention back to your object of attention, whether that’s the sensations of the breathing or a person you’re cultivating kindness for. You may wonder: if you don’t make an effort to be mindful, wouldn’t you just sit there in a distracted state and end up wasting your time?

It’s not like that at all!

Of course, as with any meditation practice, when you’re Just Sitting there are times when mindfulness is just absent and the mind wanders. But the interesting thing is that the mind always finds its own way home.

You’ve probably noticed many times how although your intention may be to remain mindful of the breathing, for example, your mind gets distracted without you deciding that it’s going to go wandering. Unmindfulness just happens. You don’t have to decide that’s what your mind is going to do.

But have you ever noticed that your mind always brings itself back to mindful awareness again? For every time that distraction happens, there is a time that mindfulness happens. It’s a one-to-one correspondence. And you never “decide” to come back to mindful awareness, do you? Mindfulness just happens. You don’t have to decide that’s what your mind is going to do. One moment you’re daydreaming and the next you’re aware that the daydream has ended, you have mindful awareness, and you return to your original intention. Your mind knows how to do this, and you have nothing to do with it!

Often when the mind has come home like this, we feel disappointed that it’s been wandering, or we feel it’s time to knuckle down and get back to practicing again. But neither of these things is very helpful.

If your cat was to walk through the door after an absence and you were to yell at it or try to force it to sit in one place it would probably head straight out of the door again.

If you were to welcome your cat home warmly and give it time and space to settle in, it would eventually find a place to sit quietly and be at peace. So what if your attitude was to warmly welcome when the mind has — quite spontaneously and with no effort on your part — found its way home again? What if you were to feel a sense of gratitude, and happiness, and even wonder? Perhaps your mind, just like a home-coming cat, would settle down more quickly?

At first we’ll probably think about welcoming the mind home as something we do in meditation. But in time we may come to appreciate that warmth and appreciation too are qualities that spontaneously arise. Just as our attention spontaneously comes home, so warmth and appreciation spontaneously appear to welcome it. And we find that there’s now less sense of us actually having to do anything in meditation. Meditation is no longer work. Our meditation practice is doing itself. The mind has come home, and is at peace.

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The secret to self-discipline is having empathy for your future self

Photo by Garidy Sanders on Unsplash

In general, we human beings have trouble doing things that are good for our long-term wellbeing, but which may be challenging in the short-term.

Meditating or exercising regularly are good examples of habits where self-discipline is required. It can be stressful to fit a regular meditation practice or exercise routine into our already very busy lives. It can be difficult to sit when we’re feeling restless, and exercise tends to cause discomfort. Sure, in the long term, these things are highly beneficial to us and make us healthier and happier. But the long-term isn’t here, now. The short-term is. The future seems a long way off, and we can have difficulty in taking it seriously.

We can try and power through — forcing ourselves to do things that are hard now but bring long-term benefits, but it can be hard to sustain that kind of effort. In fact there’s often a backlash. We diet — but then we binge. We train hard — but then we veg out.

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But I’ve found an incredibly simple — and self-compassionate — way to overcome short-term resistance and to commit to your long-term wellbeing. In other words I’ve found that self-discipline can arise from self-compassion. In fact, self-compassion makes self-discipline easier. I’d like to explain how that works.

Here’s the simple hack: have your present self treat your future self with compassion. Treat your future self as a friend, and be kind to them.

So here are some examples:

  • It’s late, and I’m about to head to bed when I realize that there are still dirty dishes on the kitchen counter. Normally I might just say “Screw it” and leave them until the morning. But then I think of how Morning Bodhi will feel about waking up to a dirty kitchen. He’s going to have an unpleasant sinking feeling. I think about how Morning Bodhi will feel about waking up to a clean kitchen. I realize he’ll be happy, and also grateful to Evening Bodhi. So I wash the dishes. I feel good knowing I’ve helped Morning Bodhi.
  • I want to go out for a run, but I’m kind of tired and it’s drizzling. Again, my first response is, “Ah, screw it.” But then I think once more about how Post-Run Bodhi will feel. From previous experience I guess he’ll be tired immediately afterward but will also have a post-run high and will feel a sense of accomplishment. Well, I want that for Post-Run Bodhi, so I put on my running gear and head out the door. And it turns out that Post-Run Bodhi does feel pretty happy. He even says thanks to Pre-Run Bodhi.
  • It’s one of those months where I’m trying to be careful with my money, but a friend has been raving about a new book and I’ve just looked for it online. I really want to read this book and I’ve been a bit stressed, so it would be a nice treat. I can get a reward just by clicking that “buy” button. But then I think about Future Bodhi. How will he feel as the end of the month approaches and his bank balance is running low? Will he be happy that Past Bodhi bought the book, or will he wish that past Bodhi had passed up on it? Probably the latter. He’ll almost certainly feel much happier having saved the money.

Letting yourself off the hook and giving up easily involve short-term thinking: this feels unpleasant now, so I’ll stop doing it. Self-compassion, on the other hard, is about what will benefit you in the long term: this feels unpleasant now, but how will I feel later?

This way of establishing an empathetic and compassionate relationship with your future self makes it easier to have self-discipline. It takes most of the pain out of persuading ourselves to do what’s for our long term benefit. Having empathy for our future selves stops self-discipline being self-punishment and turns it into self-care.

There’s less likely to be a backlash because you’re not forcing yourself to do anything; instead you’re persuading yourself in a rational and kind way. Thinking about the pleasant feelings you future self will have as a result of your present actions brings a sense of joy into the present moment. Having gratitude in the future for your past self’s actions is also a source of happiness. All this is much more pleasant than trying to “power through.” And a self-compassionate approach helps you to feel better about yourself, because you see yourself not as an enemy or as an obstacle to your own happiness but as a friend and as someone who helps yourself to live happily.

In short, when you have empathy for your future self it’s much easier to avoid impulsive and self-defeating behavior and to act in ways that promote your long-term wellbeing.

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“It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.” Antoine de Saint Exupéry

“It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.”
Antoine de Saint Exupéry

When he wrote these words the legendary aviator and author of the children’s classic, The Little Prince, was talking about the evolution of flying machines, but they apply equally to meditation.

One of the traditional terms for meditation is “bhāvanā” which means “cultivation,” “producing,” or “developing.” We use that term when we talk about lovingkindness meditation, for example: mettā bhāvanā. And this can give us the impression that meditation is something we do. But essentially meditation is about not doing. It’s about letting go of all effort that interferes with our well-being and that hinders our being in harmony with ourselves and others.

Where we’re headed in meditation — our “goal” if you want to use that language — is a state of natural ease and awareness. Resting in natural ease and awareness is not something you can “do.” It’s something that emerges as we let go of unnecessary effort. By way of an everyday analogy, sometimes when we’re tense we unconsciously make a fist. The muscles in our hands tighten, and so our hands ball up. Tightening your muscles is doing something. It’s an example of unnecessary effort. What we call “relaxing” isn’t doing something. It happens when we cease to do something that isn’t necessary and isn’t helpful. When our hand is not doing anything it is naturally open and relaxed.

Meditation involves ceasing to do things that aren’t necessary or helpful. It’s about becoming naturally open and relaxed.

Every time we let go of distracted thinking and let our awareness settle down into the body, we’re letting go of unnecessary activity that makes us unhappy. That’s what distracted thinking is: unnecessary activity that makes us unhappy.

When we let go of unnecessary thinking, we start to become happier. Happiness isn’t something we do. It’s something that starts to happen naturally when we stop pummeling the nervous system with thoughts of worrying, wanting, disliking, and doubting. When the nervous system is at rest — when we’re at peace with ourselves — we feel happy and balanced.

We often talk in terms of “bringing our awareness back” to the breathing or to the body, but actually our awareness has never left the breathing or the body. Our nervous system doesn’t stop functioning when we’re not paying attention to something. So even if we aren’t consciously aware of the body or the breathing, nerves are still carrying sensations up to the brain. This is happening in every moment. We’re never really bringing our attention back anywhere: we’re simply letting go of focusing unnecessarily on something else. As soon as you start to let go of unnecessarily and unhelpfully focusing on your thinking, sensations from the body (which are always there) are noticed. Your attention brings itself back to the body, by no longer excluding it from conscious awareness.

As we spend more time in the body, pleasant feelings of relaxation and aliveness begin to emerge. Again, this isn’t something that we do. It’s something that simply arises as the body responds to being noticed, and as we stop flooding it with stress hormones.

I’m not making the argument that we shouldn’t ever do anything in meditation. For a long time it’s inevitable that we’re going to have a feeling we’re doing something. There are times we might want to direct our thoughts — for example when we’re cultivating compassion and we direct the mind toward suffering, or when we’re cultivating appreciation and turn the mind toward things that are good.

But the more there’s a quality of allowing, the more alive and vital our meditation practice is likely to be. Allowing brings with it openness and receptivity, and those things enrich our experience; sensations and connections we hadn’t noticed before become evident, and there’s a sense of joyful discovery. The more we think in terms of “doing,” the narrower our focus becomes. And this kills joy.

So I suggest that you think less in terms of doing and more in terms of letting go and allowing. Think less in terms of “meditating” and more in terms of simply sitting and allowing what is unnecessary and unhelpful to fall away, revealing joy, beauty, and presence. And as we allow this to continue, day after day, moment after moment, we let go of everything that diminishes our wellbeing, until there is nothing more to remove.

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Find and sustain your inspiration

sitting with bodhi

Sometimes our inspiration dries up and we find ourselves going through the motions. We might even stop meditating regularly. And sometimes we listen to a guided meditation, online or at a retreat or workshop, and it feels like new life has been breathed into our practice. But then after a while things go back to normal again.

So here’s a new thing I’m doing that can help you sustain your inspiration: offering a new 10-minute guided meditation every day.

Last year I piloted this project with a meditation app start-up company, offering a daily 10-minute meditation, with the aim of providing spiritual nourishment to people who’ve been meditating for a while. Here are some of the comments people made:

  • This was awesome. I could not only quiet my mind, focusing on the skin, but the sensations of my circulatory system at work as well. The heart beat, but also sensing arteries at work through the skin. This has been unique. Thank you Bodhi!
  • The introduction to this meditation was a masterpiece!
  • Sitting with Bodhi feels like “I am sitting with Bodhi.” It’s intimate, and primes the pump just enough for me to then “riff” off of the theme or tone Bodhi sets. I have a little digital timer that I start for 25m when I start the session. This has worked well for me…
  • This was my first meditation with Sitting With Bodhi and it’s my new favorite. The imagery resonated immediately and the timing was perfect. Beautifully done! I meditated for 30 minutes but then just continued after the bell for some time.
  • Your tone of voice always calms my mind, Bodhi. I do struggle to stay focused throughout intros at times but with these meditations as it is something new every time I seem to be staying much calmer and focused. Maybe the trick is because it is a different topic each day.
  • I really enjoy and value the daily feed of meditation guidance. It’s helping me progress.

These short meditations don’t have an “end.” They simply introduce an approach to meditating and then leave you to sit for as long as you like. So you can set a timer for anywhere from 12 minutes (the minimum recommended) to 20, 30, 40 minutes — however long you want. These introductions give the raft of your practice a little “shove” into the river to get you started.

Sitting With Bodhi is a great way of learning new skills and of nourishing your practice. The first month-long series introduces highly effective ways to help you slow down your thoughts, calm the mind, and create a sanctuary of peace in the midst of your busy life.

There are two options for Sitting With Bodhi. You can opt simply to stream the guided meditations, or you can have both streaming meditations and a daily download. You can see more details and sign up below!

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Mindfulness: portal to a more conscious life

Photo by Madison Grooms on Unsplash

Mindfulness is a huge buzzword at the moment. Hundreds of clinical studies are run every year, looking at how it might benefit our health and wellbeing. It’s being used for stress management, pain management, addiction treatment, and to help people become better leaders.

But let’s go back to basics and ask, what is mindfulness anyway? Yes, Jon Kabat-Zinn says that it’s “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” And that’s true.

But to me the essence of mindfulness is observation. When we’re unmindful there’s no sense, or only a very distant and insignificant one, of us being an observer of our experience. We’re so caught up in our experience that there’s no part of us outside of it.

So we might be angry. You know what that’s like. There are angry thoughts. Our body tenses. Our endocrine glands release stress hormones, pushing up our blood pressure and raising our heart-rate. We raise our voice and us vocabulary that’s critical, sometimes designed to hurt, and say things that are often not entirely true. There’s lots going on. But there’s no significant portion of us that’s stepping back, observing all this happening, and asking the very important questions, “Is this really what I want to be doing right now? Is this helpful for my long term benefit and wellbeing?”

Everything changes when we’re mindful. Now there’s a part of us that’s observing and monitoring our experience. We notice an angry thought arising. We notice tensing in the body, the presence of unpleasant feelings in the gut, signs of stress building. We notice that this is unpleasant. We might notice that perhaps the thought isn’t entirely true, but contains an element of exaggeration, which is contributing to our stress. We can ask those questions: “Is this what I want to be doing? Does this serve my wellbeing?”

We can let go of some of the anger, take a breath, come back to balance.
Now we’re able to sort though the anger response — to know better what it is we’re angry about and whether there’s something in the world around us that we might like to see changed. And we might be better equipped to do that in a way that’s sensitive to others, straightforward, and effective — at least compared to when we simply let off steam.

Now we all have the capacity to be mindful, but we spend a lot of time being unmindful as well, and so our habits of unmindfulness are well developed. We have to train ourselves to be mindful. It’s a practice.

At first our practice can be very bumpy. It can actually make our inner turmoil seem worse. Say we’re now observing all the things I mentioned up above: the angry thoughts, the tensing, the unpleasant feelings. We’ll often find ourselves getting upset because this isn’t how we want to be. And so we might switch from being angry at someone to being angry with ourselves (or perhaps being disappointed, doubting ourselves, or anxious). This can happen at first. But we learn to be mindful of that too, and to let go of it and simply be with and observe our experience.

All of this is deeply transformative. Mindfulness is a portal to a more conscious and purposeful approach to life. Mindfulness itself is not curious, but it allows curiosity to arise. Mindfulness itself is not kind, but it allows kindness space to manifest. Mindfulness is not itself wise, but it opens a doorway through which wisdom can make an appearance.

Mindfulness much more than a “relaxation technique,” a therapy, or a way to become a better leader. It’s the foundation for a life of spiritual practice, a life based on the conscious intent to be the best possible version of ourselves.

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Calmness as a revolutionary act

Extract from  "Reasons to Stay Alive" by Matt Haig.

I came across this extract from “Reasons to Stay Alive” by Matt Haig this morning. I thought it was worth sharing:

The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an antiaging moisturizer? You make someone worry about aging. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? By highlighting their physical flaws. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind.

To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own nonupgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.

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Don’t believe everything you think

We’re rightly concerned about “Fake News” — fabricated stories created in order to sway people’s political choices or simply to sell online advertising. But our thoughts are often “fake news,” and similarly have powerful effects on us. Much of what we think isn’t true, and that’s especially true of the thoughts that make us freak out and cause us to become anxious, panicked, or depressed.

Our minds create stories. They perform the important function of taking fragments of information and turning them into narratives. Sometimes these stories are true and helpful — for example when our ancestors learned that eating a particular berry led to painful stomach cramps. Creating a story out of those two snippets of experience could literally be life-saving.

But we often create stories that are neither true nor useful. For example, when we’re in pain or sick, depressed or anxious, we commonly assume that how we’re feeling is going to continue forever, or that it’s going to get worse. We might tell ourselves that nobody cares. Those thoughts are stories, and they take already existing pain and add on top an extra and unnecessary layer of suffering — hence the expression, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

The worst thing is that we’re like gullible news-consumers; we tend to believe every thought that passes through our minds, often not even entertaining the possibility that they might be lies.

As you practice mindfulness, however, you can learn to be more skeptical. You can learn to notice whether or not a particular thought is true and whether it is helping you. One rule of thumb is this: notice what effect your thoughts are having on your feelings.

Do your thoughts spark feelings of joy, connection, and engagement? Or do they make you feel small and powerless, or push your emotional buttons until you feel that your mind is out of control, in a spiral of anxiety, depression, or anger?

In observing the effects that your thinking has on how you feel, it’s particularly useful to observe the area around the heart and the solar plexus, since these are the primary places our feelings are experienced. And when we talk about noticing feelings, we’re talking about observing sensations in the body. Often when you ask someone how they feel, they’ll say something like “I feel like a loser.” But “like a loser” is a thought, not a feeling. The actual feeling — the pattern of sensations in the body, might be something like “despondency” or “sadness.” Name what you feel. Let go of the thoughts.

If you find yourself noticing that a thought makes you feel unhappy, this can be a prompt not just to let go of engaging with it — dropping the story — but to investigate whether the thought is actually true. Ask yourself, “Is this thought true?”

Often the mind clings to old patterns, however, and so it’ll say “Yes, it’s true! Of course it’s true!”

So ask again, but this time ask probe a little deeper: “Is this absolutely true?” Asking a second time usually prompts us to find exceptions and counter-examples to the story we’ve been telling ourselves. It helps us to let go of old patterns of thought.

And another very interesting question for us to ask ourselves is this: “What would things be like if I didn’t have this thought?” (This is a question that the spiritual teacher Byron Katie is famous for.)

So a typical pattern might be like this:

We have a thought like, Nobody likes me. I’m always going to be lonely.

Notice that the thought creates unpleasant feelings.

Ask: Is this true? “Yes!” comes the response.

Ask: Is this absolutely true? “Well, I do have friends, and there are people I get on with at work.”

OK. Now we’re less attached to our suffering-inducing thoughts.

Ask: What would it be like not to have this thought? “Well, I guess maybe I’d feel less fearful of whether people liked me or not. Maybe I’d feel more confident. Stronger.”

Now you’ve begun to step out of your normal mindset — the trap of stories that you’ve woven for yourself — and have opened up to the possibility of change.

But it’s crucial to allow the insight “Not all of my thoughts are true or helpful” into awareness. We need to seriously take this on board, and start to be more skeptical about our thinking. Only then will we start to see how often our minds exaggerate or lie to us, creating stories that cause us to freak out.

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“Turn toward the fire, and enter, confident.” Dante Alighieri

Today I’m going to talk about pain and how meditation can help you deal with it. You may not be experiencing pain today, but it’s something that happens to us all, and hopefully there will be something here that you find useful. Also what I’m going to say applies not just to physical but to emotional pain (hurt, anxiety, loneliness, etc.) so it’s relevant to everyone.

In the midst of pain there is magic. If you find this puzzling, let me tell you how I know this and how you can see it for yourself.

I started having migraines when I was perhaps 13 years old. When I first tried meditating with migraines it did not help. As soon as I took my awareness to the nausea it would become more intense. And there was no way on earth I wanted to turn toward the headaches. I just wanted them to go away.

It turned out, though, that being mindful of less extreme forms of discomfort, like an aching back, hunger, an itch, or even emotional forms of pain, such as sadness or grief was a useful way to train for more extreme pain. It became more natural to turn toward what is painful rather than to turn away. I found that much of the pain that is involved in such experiences is actually caused by my resistance. When we tense up physically or emotionally around pain, it gets more intense.

Part of the practice of investigating pain was to see that it wasn’t a unitary phenomenon. We can use the single word “pain” to refer to, say, a sore back, but that doesn’t capture the richness and complexity of the experience. When I looked closely, I found that the pain was composed of a number of interwoven sensations. There might be heat, pressure, tingling, pulsing, throbbing, stabbing, and so on. One or another of these might be the most prominent part of the pain at any given time. Each of them changed, moment by moment. Pain stopped seeming so solid. In fact even the individual interwoven sensations I’ve mentioned stopped seeming solid, and instead had the appearance of twinkling points of sensation suspended in space. Sometimes, in turning my attention toward pain, I’d find that there was no pain to be found.

I’ve noticed the same in other arenas in life. I often edit my own meditation recordings, and sometimes I’ll have to remove a click that’s in the middle of a sound, like the AH sound in the word “relaxed.” And I noticed that when I zoom in really close to a sound like AH — down at the level of fractions of a hundredth of a second — there’s no AH to be heard. This morning, at the end of my meditation, I was looking at a white candle, and I couldn’t see any white. There were infinite shades of browns and yellows, but no white. So, sometimes when you look close enough at a thing, it has a completely different appearance from when it’s viewed from further away or with less attention.

So a few days ago I woke up with a migraine. I observed that there were many sensations in the body that were unrelated to the migraine at all. When we fixate on pain we miss those. I found that my calf muscles in particular were full of pleasurable tingling energy, and the more I paid attention to everything that was not the migraine, the more intense and widespread those sensations became. And then turning toward the pain and the nausea, everything very quickly took on that now familiar sense of transparency. Around 15 minutes into the meditation my tummy started rumbling, which is always a sign that the migraine is on the way out, since my entire digestive tract shuts down during a migraine. At that point the migraine wasn’t entirely gone, but it was quite manageable and I was able to get up and go about my day.

I don’t want to give the impression that I have this sorted out. Sometimes pain sneaks up on me and I forget to be mindful of it. And there are some forms of emotional discomfort that I have most definitely not learned to embrace in awareness, and that I react to strongly. I’m still working with all this and trying to learn to do it better.

But I’d strongly suggest, if you have problems with pain (and you all will at some point) that you practice turning toward smaller discomforts as a way of training yourself to be mindful and equanimous with difficult experiences. Over time I hope you’ll find, as I have, that in the midst of pain there is magic.

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The world needs your kindness

Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings,
Radiating kindness over the entire world.
–The Buddha

Just as a child needs nurturing parents, the world, now more than ever, needs our wisdom, compassion, and care. But changing the world starts with changing ourselves.

For 2,500 years the Buddhist meditation tradition has offered powerful tools for self-transformation — for becoming wiser, kinder, and more compassionate.

Our 28-day online course introduces the practice of lovingkindness meditation, which helps us to be more at ease with, more patient with, and more supportive of ourselves, as well as calmer and kinder to those in our lives — from our dearest friends to those we find ourselves in conflict with.

I invite you to join me on this path of the heart, this discovery of the hidden power of kindness.

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