Posts by Bodhipaksa

Try this simple technique to dispel anxiety

Being mindful of the body is powerful tool for grounding us and calming us down. Paying attention to the physical sensations and movements of the body diverts our attention away from the ruminative thoughts that cause stress. And this in turn allows our emotions to settle so that we become calmer and more at ease. An added bonus is that practicing mindfulness in this way brings about long-term changes in the brain. These changes make us less emotionally reactive so that we have less of a tendency to freak out.

But our body itself has a more direct and immediate effect on our emotions. The very way that we hold the body — the posture we adopt — changes how we feel. The effects of this are measurable. They can be seen in terms of the underlying hormones that give rise to our feelings. They can also be seen in terms of the way we act.

In a study published in 2014 by the University of Auckland, New Zealand, individuals with mild to moderate depression were assigned either to a group where they were asked to sit up straight, or where they just sat normally. The “straight sitters” were asked to straighten their backs and level their shoulders. They were also asked to stretch the tops of their heads toward the ceiling while drawing their shoulder blades down and together.

Researchers asked both groups to do a stressful task: to give a speech for five minutes, while being judged. Those who sat up straight while doing this task used more words in total than the control group, suggesting that they were more energized and had a better mood. They also used the word “I” much less than the other group, suggesting that they had become less self-focused and self-conscious.

Other research shows that when we sit up straight, we are more likely to remember positive memories or to have positive thoughts. A slumped posture, on the other hand, leads to depressive thoughts and memories arising.

In a 2010 study at Columbia and Harvard universities, researchers asked study participants either to adopt a dominant, high power stance (sitting or standing straight, expanding the body, and spreading the limbs) or a submissive posture (involving the opposite). The power posers experienced elevations in testosterone (which contributes to feelings of confidence), and decreases in cortisol (which is a stress hormone). Low-power posers exhibited the opposite pattern.

When the two groups were subsequently asked to play a low-risk gambling game, the high power group were more confident, as shown by their being more likely to take a chance on winning.

Finally, reinforcing how crucial posture is in our lives, Adam D. Galinsky and Li Huang of Northwestern University ran a series of studies on posture. These showed that posture was in fact a major predictor of whether people feel powerful or take action. It was more powerful than either putting people in positions of power or asking them to recall feeling powerful.

This is all excellent news, because our posture is something that’s easy to change. You can do it right now. In fact, I’d suggest that for the next three minutes you do a standing meditation in which you adopt a Superman or Wonder Woman pose, as illustrated below. (Knee-high boots are optional!)

You can also try sitting in a power pose. Sit erect, with your head held high, and with your limbs taking up space around you. Watch out for a tendency to slouch, since this contributes to feelings of fatigue, despondency, and powerlessness. These feelings can cause our thoughts and feelings to spiral out of control.

Keep coming back to your posture during the day. Do this while you’re sitting or standing at work or at home, when you’re driving, and when you’re walking. Think of what it’s like to sit, stand, or walk with confidence. And notice the effect that this has on how you feel. And several times a day, for at least three minutes, adopt a “power pose.”

For a few people, the experience of adopting a more confident posture can at first evoke a feeling of anxiety. It’s as if they’re thinking, “Who am I to show confidence?” If this happens to you, recognize that this is a temporary state of affairs. Remember that the physiological changes you’re creating will soon bring a sense of strength and confidence.

This article is adapted from material for Wildmind’s online course, “Stop Freaking Out.” This, like our other courses, is available free of charge to supporters of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative. You can click here to learn more about this initiative.

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“Trust in the Dharma”

At one of the online meditation sessions the other day we were talking about the powerful attraction of social media. Many people find the lure of social media to be so strong that it’s virtually an addiction. And in fact the designers of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like have invested massive amounts of money into finding ways to keep us hooked.

Research shows that social media make us unhappy and that we’re more content without them. Yet we still keep picking up our phones. Social media sucks us in because of our insatiable attraction for novelty. They suck us in because people “liking” or commenting on what we’ve shared gives us a sense of validation . And it’s hard to leave, because there’s always one more thing we can look at and interact with. The hope that this one more thing might be more interesting than what we’ve just seen is what keeps us on the hook.

And this constant manipulation of our attention has a bad effect on us. We find ourselves no longer able to abide moments when there’s nothing to do, no information to scroll through. I see people in the supermarket check-out lines and virtually every single one of them is staring at a screen. I see people waiting at a drive-through coffee shop, and virtually every one of them is glued to their phone. Even while we’re brushing our teeth or using the toilet, we feel bored and find ourselves picking up our phones. Apparently daydreaming is a lost art.

We get so accustomed to consuming information in small bursts that many people report they can no longer focus well enough to read a book. This is especially hard when we’re reading on an electronic device, where the sirens digitally calling to us are just a click or swipe of the screen away. Concentration is a lost art too.

How can we learn to say no?

I’ve pretty much quit social media now (I have a Twitter account I don’t use and I have a business Facebook account but don’t use a personal account). But back in the days when I struggled with social media addiction I found a very simple and powerful tool that helped me to put my phone down and stop Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey from manipulating my attention.

It’s just three words: “Trust the Dharma.”

Those words have resonance and meaning for me that perhaps they don’t have for you, so let me unpack this.

“Trust the Dharma”

The “Dharma” is a word that can mean “teachings” — in this case the Buddha’s teachings. It can mean “truth.” It can mean “principle.” The Buddha recognized that his own formulations were just an illustration of general principles that lead us from suffering to finding peace and fulfillment. Those general principles are Dharma. When his aunt, who was a nun, wanted a brief teaching before going off on a solitary retreat, he said to her:

When you see that certain things
lead to contentment, not to craving;
to being free, not to being fettered;
to letting go of things, not accumulating them;
to having fewer desires, not more;
to contentment, not discontent;
to seclusion, not socializing;
to energy, not laziness;
to being easy to be with, not to being hard to be with,
You can with certainty hold, ‘These things are
the Dharma, the training, and the Teacher’s instructions.’

Reminding ourselves of spiritual principles

A simple moment of mindfulness helps us move toward calmness. Paying attention to just one breath helps to calm the mind a little. A single kind thought helps us to be more at peace with ourselves and others. Observing a feeling without judgement creates a sacred pause in which wisdom can arise. These are principles that we can trust.

And so in saying to myself, “Trust the Dharma” I’m reminding myself of those principles.

I’m saying to myself:

  • “Trust yourself. You’re OK without looking at your phone.”
  • “Trust that you’re happier without Facebook right now.”
  • “Trust that this moment, if observed and accepted, holds everything you need in order to be fulfilled and at peace.”

All this, and much more, is contained in those three simple words, “Trust the Dharma.”

Evolution versus the Dharma

We need to remind ourselves of these spiritual principles because we so easily forget them. Our evolutionary history has equipped us with principles that are totally in contradiction to Dharma. Primitive parts of the brain operate on the principle that we need to constantly worry in order to be safe, that we should look after ourselves at the expense of others, and that attack is the best form of defense. Less primitive, but still ancient, parts of the brain tell us that belonging to and being accepted by a tribe is the key to happiness, even if this means joining in with their hatred for other tribes and subjugating our own individuality in order to fit in. They tell us that more is better, and that we should therefore scroll, scroll, scroll our way down those screens, until we find satisfaction.

The pressing urgency of all those genetically scripted imperatives can swamp our awareness of those Dharmic principles. So we need to keep reminding ourselves that they exist. And because Dharmic principles and the programming we’ve inherited often conflict, we have to remind ourselves to trust them. We need to keep reminding ourselves to “trust the Dharma.” Trusting the Dharma is something we have to learn, slowly, over years and decades.

Boredom is the trigger

This phrase, “Trust the Dharma” is triggered by that familiar sense that I’m restless, and afraid of being bored, and therefore want to pick up my phone. And every single time that happens I feel a sense of confidence and calm descend upon me. I trust that mindfully paying attention to my present-moment experience is going to be enough. I trust that standing in line at the supermarket checkout, without touching my phone, is going to be pleasurable. I trust that simply breathing, simply noticing what thoughts and feelings are arising, simply turning my mind to kindness will lead me to calm, joy, and kindness.

It works for me, every single time.

I wonder how it will work for you?

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The art of mindfully talking to yourself

A lot of people find it easier to practice with guided meditations than when they “fly solo.” And that’s not surprising. When we have a guide then we have a voice coming in from the outside, bringing with it skills that aren’t yet our own.

The guide’s voice also performs the useful function of interrupting our distracted trains of thought. Without those interruptions reminding us of what we’re actually meant to be doing in the meditation practice we’d remain in distracted states for much longer. A lot of our distractions involve us talking to ourselves.

Generally, then there’s a big difference between the effects of our distracting inner voices and the helpful outer voice of the teacher.

But what if we could get our inner voices to be more helpful? What if they could help us to stay on track, and to be less distracted?

Meditate Like a Train Conductor

In explaining how we can do this I’d like to share with you the Japanese art of shisa kanko, which literally means “pointing and calling.”

Shisa kanko isn’t a meditation technique. It evolved in noisy and distracting working environments where it was important not to make errors. But it does have the aim of helping people to be less distracted and more mindful — especially when they’re doing repetitive tasks that they’re very familiar with. Shisa Kanko the mindful art of talking to yourself.

Japanese railway workers have been using this tool for more than a hundred years. A train conductor pulling into a station will talk themselves through the procedures involved, pointing at things they need to check and naming them out loud. It’s a mental checklist that they’re reciting to themselves as a mindfulness aid.

It’s a remarkably effective method of performing a task mindfully. A 1994 study showed that “pointing and calling” reduced mistakes by almost 85 percent when doing a simple task. In fact, using this method, there were only 0.38 errors for every 100 times a task was done.

Reducing the “Error Rate” in Our Meditation

Now consider that meditation is a repetitive task. And it’s an internal one, without the kind of external and objective demands that a task like bringing a train into a station imposes. If a conductor were to forget to unlock the doors, the passengers would soon remind them. If you start thinking about work during your meditation, your mind can wander a long way before you remind yourself of your intended task.

We don’t talk in terms of “errors” in meditation, but if we did we’d say there was a very high error rate — maybe in the range of 40 to 80 percent for the average person who’s been meditating for a few years. If only we could get down to 0.38 distractions in meditation for every hundred breaths!

As you know, I’ve led a lot of guided meditations. And one of the things I’ve noticed many times over the years is that my meditation practice tends to be more effective while I’m leading a sit. And that’s maybe not surprising, since I’m doing, in effect, shisa kanko (minus the pointing). While I’m leading others in meditation I’m also leading myself.

How to be Your Own Meditation Guide

So sometimes when I’m meditating on my own I offer myself a few words of self-guidance. Often this is just a few words. As I’m settling in to meditate I might say to myself, “Poise … dignity … softening.” Each of those words acts as a trigger for a cascade of inner changes, both physical and emotional. The words poise and dignity trigger my body straightening, my head coming to an effortless balance on top of the spine, my chest opening as I breathe into the sternum. “Softening” triggers the release of unnecessary tension.

I have a little mantra that I drop into meditation over and over: “Soft eyes … open field of inner attention.” Saying “soft eyes” triggers a deeper relaxation response. It also calms my mind, reducing the amount of thinking that’s going on. “Open field of inner attention” leads me into an awareness of the whole body. As well as saying that phrase at the start of meditaion I’ll drop it into my mind any time I realize that my attention has begun to wander.

So this is an example of inner speech that takes me deeper into my present-moment experience rather than distracting me from it. It’s me guiding myself into (and through) a meditation session. And it has a powerful effect, especially with repetition, because of the way that the words trigger particular responses.

I’ve suggested to other people that they try doing this, and they’ve found it helpful too.

Using This Outside of Meditation

This technique is something I’ve used outside of meditation as well. Like many people right now, I’ve sometimes found myself waking up in the middle of the night with my mind racing. So I’ll keep saying to myself, “Soft eyes, senses wide open.”

This is similar to one of the phrases I use at the beginning of meditation (“Soft eyes … open field of inner attention”), but here I’m triggering openness and acceptance in all my senses, outer as well as inner, so that I’m aware of the space and sounds around me, for example. Usually this leads to me falling asleep quite quickly.

So this is something I recommend to you. Find phrases that can help you as you go into and during meditation. Maybe the phrases I’ve suggested will be helpful. Maybe you can come up with your own. Give it a go and let me know how you get on!

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The power of intention

I’ve been very aware recently of what a difference setting an intention can make to the quality of my meditation practice. This was even before I recorded the most recent series of Sitting With Bodhi, which is on the theme of intention. In fact it was because I was rediscovering the power of intention that I decided to create that course.

The act of setting an intention brings a heightened sense of clarity to our practice. Setting an intention for a period of practice helps us to catch our distractions earlier and even to avoid distraction altogether at times.

An intention is something we have to keep coming back to over and over again during a period of practice. It’s not just a question of setting one and then you’re done! That’s part of the strength of intentions, though. They give us something specific to focus on. They give us an opportunity to check in repeatedly to see if we’re still on track. Having an intention is like having a compass to help you navigate. The point is to periodically check your bearings to make sure you’re going in the right direction.

Conscious and Unconscious Intentions

What happens is that our conscious intention meets unconscious intentions.

The mind, after all, is rarely purposeless. We bring our emotional preoccupations to the cushion in the forms of anxieties, things we’re irritated about, things we’re longing for, and so on. So when the mind is turning over a potentially worrisome situation it’s in the grip of an intention. But it’s not one we’ve consciously chosen. It’s the direction that our mind wants to head in by default. Our distractions are unconscious intentions.

Some of our unconscious intentions involve the body as well as the mind. You’ve probably had the experience of suddenly finding that you’re scratching an itch. The intention to scratch has arisen and caused your body to move before you’re even aware or it. You’ll probably have had the experience of your posture having slumped. You didn’t consciously decide to slump. You just notice at some point that it’s already happened.

How Do We Set Intentions?

In theory we always have some kind of intention in meditation. We have the intention to always return to the breathing or to cultivate kindness, for example. But often that’s just not enough, and we need an intention that’s a bit more precise and specifically tailored for us.

For a relevant and effective intention to arise we usually need to bring together two things: knowing where we are and knowing where we’d like to go.

Knowing where we are means paying attention as we’re setting up for meditation, settling into our posture, and so on. We develop an awareness of what’s arising for us. Are we tired, irritable, fidgety, lacking confidence, trying to hard? Are we happy, relaxed, inspired, or focused? We need to know what’s going on. If we’re not sure how we are then that in itself is an important thing for us to know.

Knowing where we’d like to go doesn’t mean grasping after some experience, or having an expectation that certain things are going to happen in our meditation practice (“In this meditation I’ll experience joy, or I’ll die trying!”) It’s not about having an expectation, but is about having an aspiration. It’s not about getting to a certain place, but is about knowing what direction we’d like to head in.

Usually those two things are organically related to each other. And your intention arises from an intuitive sense of how to move forward, often in a very simple way.

An Intuitive Leap

If you’re fidgety, for example, then you might want to head in the direction of stillness. So it might become clear that your intention is to sit still.

If you’re feeling critical or irritable, then you might want to head in the direction of appreciation. And so you realize that an appropriate intention is to meet every experience, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant, with appreciation.

If you’re feeling kind, then you might want to deepen your attitude of kindness. And so a specific intention might be to meet every distraction that arises with kindness.

Be Specific

You might notice that the form of words I’ve chosen allows you to know whether or not you’re following through with the intention. If in a given moment you’re fidgeting, then you’ve forgotten your intention to sit still. But if you’re sitting still then you’re following through with it. If you get annoyed or disappointed about getting distracted, then you’re not meeting your distractions with kindness. But if you have an attitude of acceptance, patience, and benevolence when you notice you’ve been distracted, then you know you’re following through with your intention. A vague intention such as “be kinder” or “be more mindful” isn’t very helpful. In any given moment that you check in with yourself, are you “being kinder” or “being more mindful”? It’ll be hard to tell! So choose a specific intention.

It’s All About Karma

The Buddha said that karma is intention. Why? Well, first of all, karma isn’t some kind of mysterious cosmic force, dealing our punishments or rewards depending if you’re on the naughty or nice lists. Karma literally means “action.” The original sense was “building,” “constructing,” or “fabricating.” Karma is the action that shapes our life: that shapes who we are. And actions start, internally, as intentions.

So, remember when I said that our conscious intention meets unconscious intentions? Our lives are always shaping themselves because we’re constantly exercising behavioral habits. And I’m taking the word behavior here to refer not just to physical actions we make in the world, but to the way we speak and the way we think. These things are very, very habitual. And the more we exercise a habit, the more we reinforce it.

When we have a conscious, skillful intention (“sit still,” “meet every distraction with kindness”) we’re introducing something new into the mix. We meet our unconscious, usually unhelpful habits with more conscious, more helpful ones. If we keep making that kind of gentle effort then those conscious habits start to weaken the unconscious and unhelpful ones.

Our new intentions can, in time, become quite automatic. They’re just how we act.

In other words, by choosing intentions, we shape our life. We shape who we are.

And if our positive intentions have been chosen wisely, then we’ll become happier. We’ll be more at ease. We’ll become more at peace with ourselves. This is the power of intention.

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Old teaching, new perspectives

Way back in my teens I read a book called “From Primitives to Zen,” which was a compendium of texts from the world’s religious traditions, compiled by Mircea Eliade. If you haven’t heard of Eliade, he was a well-known and influential Romanian historian of religion who was Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. His book provided one of my earliest exposures to the Buddha’s teachings, since one whole section comprised extracts of the early Buddhist scriptures.

Buddhism, I quickly discovered, liked lists. The reason for this is that Buddhism arose at a time when nothing sacred was written down. The safest place for the preservation of important information was, people believed, in the human mind. In India at that time paper was unknown, and special leaves were used as a writing material. Probably only relatively ephemeral information, such as brief notes and business sales receipts, was written down.

The Four Right Efforts

Some of these lists baffled me (the fault was with me, not them) but some of them stood out as models of clear thinking. One such teaching was the “four right efforts,” which is actually one item in a longer list, the eightfold path. Here’s a translation of the Buddha’s exposition on right effort:

And what, monks, is right effort? Here, monks, (1) a monk generates desire for the nonarising of unarisen evil unwholesome states; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives. (2) He generates desire for the abandoning of arisen evil unwholesome states…. (3) He generates desire for the arising of unarisen wholesome states…. (4) He generates desire for the maintenance of arisen wholesome states, for their nondecay, increase, expansion, and fulfilment by development; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives. This is called right effort.

So we:

  1. Prevent unskillful (unhelpful) mental states from arising.
  2. Abandon unskillful states if they already exist.
  3. Bring into being new skillful states.
  4. Further develop skillful states that have already arisen.

It is very neat and logical, isn’t it? And it’s practical, too. These four right effects are the core of what spiritual practice consists of. In virtually any moment we have the opportunity to “nudge” the mind in one direction or another. And the reason we do this of course is because it helps us to free the mind from suffering and makes us happier.

The Power of Appreciation

At it happens, I was thinking about another practice the other day — mudita, which I prefer to translate as “joyful appreciation,” and saw a connection between that and the four right efforts.

Most teachers explain mudita in terms of “being happy about someone else’s happiness” or “sympathetic joy.” Originally, though, it seems to have been “joy at appreciating the virtue of others.” Mudita is appreciation, admiration, and gratitude.

One of the wonderful things about appreciation, admiration, and gratitude is that they are very encouraging attitudes. If we express appreciation when someone has done something we admire, then we make it more likely that they’ll do that thing again. And if we admire a good quality in another person, then we’re more likely to develop it ourselves.

Anyway, I was thinking about mudita, and realized that although we usually think of the four right efforts in terms of what we do with our own mental states, we could also apply them to how we relate to other people’s mental states. After all, one of the things about Buddhist practice is that it lessens our emphasis on ourselves, and increases our concern for others.

Turning the Four Right Efforts Toward Others

So how might the four right efforts work as applied to others?

  1. We’d be concerned not to encourage the arising of unskillful states in others. Rather than just be concerned about whether our unskillful states — for example, hatred or craving — will hurt us, we can be aware that our behaviors set an example for others. If we are negative on social media, for example, then we encourage others to act likewise. Mental states are contagious.
  2. We’d be concerned to help others free themselves from unskillful states of mind. Ordinarily, if someone is in a bad mood, what do we do? Roll our eyes? Avoid them? Get snippy right back at them? If we have compassionate concern for them, then we’ll be concerned not just about how they’re behaving and how it affects us, but also about the suffering they’re causing themselves. So we might show them empathy, for example, and ask them what’s going on to cause their unhappiness.
  3. How can we bring skillful states into being within others? Remembering that states of mind are contagious, we can affect others through our example. If we’re kind, that encourages kindness in others. I remember reading about an experiment where a very negative person — someone who complained about everything and everyone — was put in a room with a highly trained Buddhist monk. In time the negative person started being more at ease and ended up, despite himself, feeling happy. Here again we come to mudita, which involves seeing and rejoicing in others’ good qualities. If we give someone positive feedback when we see even a glimmer of some skillful quality in them, we encourage them to focus on, value, and develop that quality.
  4. The kind of appreciation I’ve just discussed will also help someone to grow and develop skillful qualities once they’ve arisen. What springs to mind for me here are spiritual friendship, since encouraging someone to turn their skillful states into steady habits is something that takes consistent contact over a long period of time, and the kind of easy and frank communication that comes from really knowing and trusting someone.

“Taking Care of Others, I Take Care of Myself”

I thought it interesting that I’d never before thought in terms of turning the four right efforts outwards. I’m imagine I’m not the first person to think of this, but I don’t remember them ever being presented in this way.

The emphasis I’m putting here on being a friend and exemplar to others fits very well with many other teachings from the scriptures. For example, the Buddha tells the housholder Sig?laka that he can recognize a good friend because “They keep you from doing bad. They support you in doing good. They teach you what you do not know. They explain the path to heaven [i.e the path of ethical conduct].”

And in one of my favorite teachings, the Buddha explains to two acrobatic performers, whose safety depends on them taking care of each other, “Taking care of myself, I take care of others. Taking care of others, I take care of myself.” When we work directly on our own unskillful states, eliminating the negative and accentuating the positive, this benefits others, since we’re kinder and easier to be with. When we help others, this benefits us, since being connected to others through kindness, compassion, and appreciation is deeply fulfilling and brings us peace and joy.

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Seven lessons from a pandemic

Deserted streets. Shuttered restaurants. Empty shelves in the supermarkets. Dizzying unemployment graphs in the papers. Announcements over the supermarket, warning us to stay six feet away from each other. The new ritual of donning a face mask before going into a public building. Mass graves in New York City. Rotting corpses piled up in rented trucks in New Jersey.

It’s like a dystopian science fiction movie. But it’s real. And we’re living in it. And we’re having to learn new ways of living.

In fact I’m hearing from lots of people that they are, in some ways, thriving. We’re gathering on Zoom: connecting, meditating, learning. We’re finding new ways to connect. We’re experiencing stillness. We’re reflecting. We’re considering life from a more existential perspective: What’s important? What’s life about?

We’re looking for meaning.

I’ve pulled out just seven lessons from this crisis that have been important for me. (I’d love to hear in the comments what’s important for you.)

1. Embrace vulnerability

In the papers there are pictures of demonstrations against stay-at-home orders. There are stories of people gathering in large social groups, even though illness and deaths have been tracked back to similar gatherings. I see people cherry-picking data, trying to convince themselves and others that this virus is no big deal.

I think of all those phenomena as refusals to acknowledge the vulnerability of our situation. These are expressions of unacknowledged fear. It’s scary to accept that this virus is going around, and that in some places, even with the numerous precautions that are going on, medical systems and even funeral homes are breaking down under the strain. It’s scary to accept that a handshake, or even just casually walking by someone, might result in illness or death. It’s unnerving to acknowledge that right now, in this moment, you might be infected and be a danger to others. Rather than face those anxieties, no wonder some people want to carry on as normal, or to pretend that there’s really no risk.

It takes courage to admit to those fears. It takes courage to admit to uncertainty: there’s much we don’t understand. There’s much we don’t know, including how long this thing is going to go on.

So take a breath. Acknowledge that fear. Feel it. See it. You don’t have to let it control you. But you can know that being in denial of it is, in a sense, just another way of letting it control your life.

2. Count your blessings

This situation is hard. It’s hard to have your life disrupted. Many people have lost their jobs. In my small town, several businesses have announced that they’re closing for good. I’ve barely seen my kids in weeks, because my partner is at high risk of being exposed to the virus at her workplace and it’s too risky to have them come over here. I’ve lost one friend to this thing already.

All those things are hard. But however hard it is, you can find someone else who has had it harder.

And so I find it helpful to count my blessings. At least I’m used to working from home. At least I’m an introvert, and used to isolation. At least I’m still working. My income has been affected, but I’m still able to pay the rent. I’m still healthy.

So spend some time every day thinking about what’s going right. And think about someone who’s one or more rungs down the ladder of hardship. In other words, count your blessings. You always have more of them than you thought you did.

3. See the big picture

Although we’re doing difficult things and making sacrifices, we’re also saving lives. Yes, when we wear our masks and swerve six feet to the side when someone approaches, we’re avoiding getting infected. But we’re also avoiding infecting others. Because the chances are that if we catch this thing we’re not going to know for several days, during which time we’d be spreading the virus. So all these precautions are literally saving lives. As has often been pointed out, it’s a strange kind of heroism that involves staying at home on your couch watching Netflix, but it’s heroism (and compassion) nonetheless.

So relate your discomforts to the big picture. You can look back on this in years to come and realize that you saved lives. That’s a big deal, and you can feel good about it right now.

4. Realize what you do affects others

What you do matters. Small actions make a difference. Wearing a mask normalizes wearing masks. It encourages others to overcome their reluctance to do so. Giving someone the “‘rona swerve” reminds others that it’s important that we keep our distance right now. Every time we act, we’re reinforcing or undermining social norms that can save lives.

Everything we post on social media has an effect. Studies show that negative emotions spread much faster on Facebook than do positive ones. False information leaves a mark so strong on our minds that even when we’re given a correction, we’re more likely to remember the myth than the fact. So it behooves us to be mindful of our speech, and to be careful about what we share. Fact-checking, as I like to say, is a spiritual practice.

This is a reminder that we all have power. Remember that. If you’re conscious of this fact, you’re more likely to act wisely and with compassion.

5. Find new meaning

A lot of people, their normal habits disrupted, often with far more time on their hands than is normally the case, are first finding that they’re lost, bored, and confused, but then come through that phase, into a place where there’s a greater sense of meaning and purpose. What that meaning is varies from person to person. It’s only important that you find yours. I can’t tell you what’s meaningful for you, but I’d guess it’s to do with connecting with others, becoming more loving, or being of service to others. Or to do with creating, appreciating the moment, growing, or learning.

So take time out. Reflect. Read. Daydream. You’ll figure it out, this business of having meaning in your life.

6. Embiggen your heart

There’s a lot of suffering in the world. Closing ourselves off from that fact doesn’t protect us — it just causes a different, and worse, kind of pain. It brings isolation, disconnectedness, loneliness. As the 8th century Indian teacher Shantideva wrote, “After seeing the suffering of the world, how can this suffering from compassion be considered great?”

Suffering can often shrink our perspective. In pain, we curl in upon ourselves, mourning our lot. Grieving, we become obsessed with our own unhappiness. But just as there’s a part of us that suffers, there’s a part of us that is capable of responding compassionately to that suffering. And once that’s happened — once we’ve shown support and encouragement to the suffering part of us — we uncurl. We open up. We blossom. We open to the reality that others are suffering as well. In fact may of them are suffering worse than we are. We move from self-compassion to selfless compassion.

Now, compassion is not just a feeling. The Sanskrit word for compassion, karun?, comes from the verb karoti, which means “to make” or “to do.” Compassion is not a feeling, but a desire that propels us to act. Specifically, it’s the desire to relieve suffering to whatever extent we can.

Feeling that we’re going through difficulties alone can be intensely painful. Loneliness amplifies suffering. So, often the best way of relieving suffering is to support others as they go through hard times. Knowing that someone understands what we’re going through relieves us of some of the burden of isolation. It’s easier to carry our suffering when someone is helping to bear the load. So simply expressing support and solidarity is a powerful expression of compassion.

So reach out to others. Call your friends and family. Check up on them. Listen rather than lecture. Let them know you know what they’re going through, and that you understand their pain. That’s more effective than trying to “fix” things for them.

And if you can safely give practical help, do that too.

7. Start planning a better world

Even as hundreds of millions of people around the world are losing their livelihoods, and even as people are dying lonely deaths, the stock market is soaring. Billionaires are adding more billions to the billions that they already have and already could never spend. Workers in Amazon warehouses that complain about being forced to work without protective gear are being fired. Doctors and nurses that complain about being forced to work without PPE are being retaliated against. In Russia, doctors that make these complaints are mysteriously falling from high windows, which happens a lot to social critics in that country.

And it turns out that many of those doing jobs that turn out to be essential, and the jobs that we really miss being there, are those we are led to believe are unimportant and “menial.” And in the US they usually live paycheck to paycheck, can’t afford to take a single day off work, are one bill away from financial catastrophe, don’t have health insurance, and certainly can’t afford to pay hospital bills. The exact details of these inequalities vary from country to country, but it’s clear that although we’re all in it together, some of us are more in it than others. We’re all in a storm at sea, but some are on luxury yachts while others cling to flotsam.

The world that’s falling apart around us has been sick for a long time. We’ve forgotten that everybody matters.

Most of us are craving a return to normal but, let’s face it, normal was not good. So when this crisis is over, let’s make sure that what we rebuild isn’t an exact replica of the old normal. Let’s make it better.

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Tonglen: a practice of compassion for self and other

In response to the coronavirus crisis, I put together a free course on how we can find calmness and balance when things around us are falling apart. It consisted of 28 guided meditations, accompanied by just a few written words for context. The materials were delivered by email.

I also recorded a compassion practice to help us remain open to the suffering within and around us.

This practice of “Tonglen” — “giving and receiving” — is a form of lovingkindness or compassion meditation from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It includes a reminder for us to bring compassion to our own suffering, and so it’s also a self-compassion practice.

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The Eightfold Path: A Tool for Living at a Time of Crisis

I was in the thick of putting together my online course, “Love Your Enemies,” when the coronavirus crisis became serious. As a result I’ve felt a little late in responding to what’s going on right now. I plan to start a new course this month called something like “Meditating In a Crisis.” But today I want to share just a few thoughts on that topic, using the Buddha’s Eightfold Path as a framework.

If you’re not familiar with the eightfold path, it’s a comprehensive system of practices that help us move from ignorance to Awakening, from suffering to peace.

The path is not eightfold in the sense that it’s eight stages to be followed, one after another. The eight components of the path can all be practiced in every moment of our lives. You could think of the path being eightfold in that it’s composed of eight lanes — a kind of highway to Awakening. Or if you prefer an image on a less industrial scale, you could think of it as being like a brick path, eight bricks wide. With every step you practice all eight factors of the path. Or you could think of the path as being like a rainbow, except with eight “colors” rather than the standard seven. Or you could think of it as resembling a cord woven from eight threads.

I hope to show you that the eightfold path is a practical teaching, and that it’s flexible and capable of being applied in contemporary circumstances.

Right View (Samma Ditthi)

In this model of practice, we start with examining our views. Views are core beliefs. They’re the basic assumptions we make about life. Some views we have contribute to our long-term happiness and wellbeing, but some detract from it.

Usually we don’t just go looking for unhelpful views. We find ourselves suffering, and then we look inside ourselves to see what we’re doing to cause that suffering.

A lot of us, for example, carry around assumptions like “Bad things shouldn’t happen to me.” And so when a major disruption like coronavirus comes along, it seems unfair and unjust. After all, we’ve just been trying to get on with life, which is difficult enough as it is. And now this? Views such as this, which  encourage us to have self-pity, aren’t going to help us. Closer to what the Buddha would have described as a Right View is the common saying, “Shit happens.” Things change. They sometimes change in unwelcome ways. And we just have to work with that and make the best of it.

Another view, “This kind of thing always happens to me!” is also unhelpful. It’s a maladaptive attempt to find solace in a sense of “specialness,” as if we’ve been singled out by the universe for mistreatment. The thing is that this epidemic isn’t about us individually. It’s a crisis that affects many people, and no matter how it’s affecting us, there are others who are worse off. Focusing narrowly on ourselves isn’t helpful. In fact it makes us miserable.

So it’s helpful for us to become aware of the views we have around the coronavirus pandemic, so that we can let go of those that are unhelpful, and embrace those that are more in line with reality and that help us be at peace.

So, shit happens. That’s true, and it might be helpful to adopt it as a view. But other views, such as “Every difficulty is a spiritual opportunity” can be helpful as well. As the title of one of my other posts says, “All people and all circumstances are my allies.” Including this one.

Right Intention (Samma Sankappa)

Samma sankappa is also sometimes translated as “right resolve,”  “right attitude,” and even as “right emotion.”)  We’re talking about our emotional interaction with the world, and whether they help or hinder our wellbeing

I mentioned above that some views support attitudes of self pity.  The emotion or attitude of self-pity isn’t, of course, helpful. Panic isn’t helpful. Despondency isn’t helpful. These things tend to happen automatically. But since those reactions cause us suffering, what’s being suggested is that we find other ways to respond. Healthier ways.

What’s healthier? Self-compassion helps because it provides us with an inner source of support, encouragement, and comfort as we face difficulties. Compassion for others helps us because it takes the focus off of us personally, and helps us see that we’re all in it together, albeit to varying degrees.

Right Speech (Samma Vaca)

The Buddhist scriptures define right speech like this: “Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter; that is right speech.” They also describe right speech positively, as holding to the truth, bringing people together in concord, as being kind and polite, and as pointing people toward the goal of liberation, or awakening.

So every time we remind ourselves to be compassionate to ourselves and others, we can take that attitude into the way we communicate. Other people, whether we’re separated from them or confined indoors with them, need our support and reassurance. They need our encouragement. Once we’ve shown compassion to ourselves, we can offer supportive, appreciative, kindly words to others. We can express appreciation to those who are doing the crucial work of helping others.

Although it’s not traditionally included in discussions of right speech, we can be mindful of the kinds of speech we expose ourselves to — especially news media that all too often are calculated to provoke anxiety in order to keep us hooked, and social media, which often expose us to inflammatory or false information. You might want to unplug from those, even if just for a couple of days, to see what effect that has on you.

Right Action (Samma Kammanta)

“Action” here is what we intentionally do. Right action is action that benefits, rather than harms ourselves, and others in the long-term. Traditionally this is seen in terms of not physically harming, not taking from others what isn’t freely given, and not engaging in inappropriate sex.

In terms of our current crisis, we can take care to physically distance ourselves from others, to keep our shopping trips to a minimum, to make sure we don’t take from the shelves more than we really need so that others too can meet their own needs, and so on. We can do all of those things in a spirit of care and compassion. We can also act compassionately by (safely) checking up on friends and neighbors, and especially on those that are vulnerable.

Right Livelihood (Samma Ajiva)

Traditionally, right livelihood means doing work that, at a minimum, doesn’t cause harm. Ideally our livelihood would involve work that’s materially, emotionally, and spiritually beneficial to others.

Many of us aren’t working right now, of course. But we could regard “work” here as what we do with our time. Right livelihood could include taking care of ourselves — for example by exercising as best we can, and making good use of our time, so that we’re learning and growing. It’s been great to see so many people making use of opportunities to practice online. And maybe there are household tasks you can do — getting rid of clutter, doing some gardening, and so on. Those things can leave us feeling much better and create a sense of normality.

Right Effort (Samma Vayama)

“Right effort” brings us back to what’s going on inside ourselves. Traditionally it’s the work we do to prevent the arising of unskillful states of mind, and to generate skillful states.

Right speech concerns what we say to others, but a lot of our communication is internal — it’s self-talk. So we can observe our thoughts, and when we find that they’re making us stressed and unhappy we can drop them and turn our attention back to our breathing, and our bodily sensations more generally. And perhaps we can find more helpful ways of talking to ourselves: “In this moment, I’m OK.” “May I be well and happy, and at ease.” “Today I am grateful for this, this, and this.”

Right effort doesn’t just cover inner speech, though. It’s the ongoing effort to extract the mind from anxiety, anger, craving, doubt, and avoidance, as well as the effort to cultivate kindness, compassion, patience, courage, and so on.

At a time of crisis, worry is one of our “go to” unskillful states. It’s important to recognize that worry isn’t “bad.” It’s just unhelpful. Focusing on things that might go wrong in the future doesn’t solve anything and in fact it makes us unhappy right now. Our inner work involves recognizing that worry has arisen. It involves letting go of worrying thoughts, and coming back to our immediate sensory experience. And it also involves finding ways to bring more helpful mental states into being.

Even if we drop our catastrophizing thoughts, we’ll find that feelings of anxiety persist. If you’re familiar with my teachings on self-compassion, you’ll know that I encourage people to regard anxiety as communications from a part of you that is suffering. And our right effort here is to connect with our innate kindness and to offer support for that struggling part of us. Having done that, we are more at peace, and we’re freer to offer kindness and compassion to others.

Right Mindfulness (Samma Sati)

To do any of the above, we need to have mindfulness. We need to have the ability to observe our minds, to see how we’re thinking and what our attitudes are. We need to see what effect those thoughts and attitudes have on how we’re feeling, and on how others feel, and so on.

And so in every one of the factors of the path that I have mentioned so far, we practice mindfulness. In fact it’s helpful if we cultivate an attitude of mindfulness all the time, or at least as much as possible, by coming back to the sensations of the body and to what we’re perceiving in the world, being aware of our movements, observing our feelings and attitudes, and so on.

This is probably the single most important thing we can do for ourselves in a crisis. We can stay grounded in sensory reality and stop ourselves from being pulled into the world of catastrophizing. We train ourselves to recognize when we are getting sucked into anxious thinking and to instead come back to our actual present-moment experience.

Right Concentration (Samma Samadhi)

Samadhi is usually translated as concentration. It doesn’t necessarily mean concentration in the sense of narrowly focused attention, though. It really means having continuity of awareness. To practice any of the factors of the path requires concentration. When our attention is all over the place, jumping from object to object, it’s hard to cultivate skillful states of mind. We might for example start off intending to cultivate kindness, and find that a moment later we’re daydreaming. So we need to train ourselves to stay on track, at least for long enough to bring about change in our habits.

The ultimate benefit of concentration, the Buddha said, is that it helps us to observe and appreciate the arising and passing of things. Once we realize that anxiety arises and passes away, and that in fact it’s arisen and passed away tens of thousands of times before in our lives, we start to take it less seriously. One of our big fears when we’re anxious is that we’re going to be stuck that way. But it always passes.

And in fact, as we focus more closely on anxiety and see that it’s just a sensation, arising and passing away in every moment, we realize that in a sense there’s nothing real there. Anxiety is like a flickering movie show — a magical display that entrances the mind. And once we start to realize how we’ve been repeatedly fooled by this movie show, we start to become immune to its enchantments.

Three Core Factors

Three of the factors — view, effort, and mindfulness — have a special place in the eightfold path. As the Buddha put it, “These three things keep running and circling around [each of the factors of the path], namely: right view, right effort, and right mindfulness.”

When we’re cultivating or practicing each of the factors of the path we need to understand that there’s a benefit in doing so. We need to have a view that it’s beneficial to be ethical, mindful, and so on. So, right view is always involved in practice.

We need to have the mindfulness to recognize whether what’s going on, or what we’re doing, is skillful or unskillful, helpful or unhelpful, leading to peace or leading to suffering. Mindfulness is always involved in practice.

And we need to put effort in to letting go of unskillful habits and to cultivating skillful ones. Effort is involved in all practice.

So these three factors—view, effort, and mindfulness—are involved in every moment of practice.

So, I hope you can see how a traditional teaching like the eightfold path has very direct relevance to our practice in a crisis such as the one we face today. Hopefully I can go into this in even more depth in the course I’m planning to put together.


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Self-compassion in the kitchen

Unmindfulness Increases Our Suffering

I’m making dinner for my children while they do their homework in the other room. I’m chopping vegetables and putting together a peanut butter sauce and also frying tofu and stirring rice. I’m not a natural at multitasking, and balancing all these tasks is stressful.

One of the kids asks for a drink, and I feel a surge of annoyance. Can’t they see I’m busy?

I heave a sigh and say, rather testily, “I just put the juice back in the fridge! Can’t you just wait two minutes?”

Now my child is upset, and I have yet another thing to take care of. I feel annoyed, but also disappointed with myself for having expressed my irritation. I’ve taken my original stress and added a whole bunch of new sufferings to it!

Mindfulness Leads to Freedom from Suffering

I’m making dinner for my children while they do their homework in the other room. I’m chopping vegetables and putting together a peanut butter sauce and also frying tofu and stirring rice. I’m not a natural at multitasking, and balancing all these tasks is stressful.

But I’ve been training myself to be more mindful of my feelings, and I’m starting to notice the stress building up in my body. I notice that there’s a tense edge to the way I’m thinking. I sense that emotionally I’m being hard on myself, like I’m becoming angry with everything.

In short, I’m aware that I’m suffering. I notice this just as a fact, not as a judgement. It’s normal to suffer. That’s OK. It’s just what happens sometimes.

Letting my awareness drop down into the body, and away from my thoughts, I can sense a painful knot of tension in my midriff. That’s where the suffering part of me is expressing itself. That’s how it’s communicating with the rest of me, trying to get my attention.

I regard this suffering part of me with an inner look of tenderness. It’s the same look I’d have for my children when I feel particularly loving toward them.

I say a few words: “I know this is hard for you. I just want you to know that I love you and want you to be happy.”

All of this takes just a few seconds. All of the time I’m doing this I’m still chopping and stirring.

When one of the kids asks for juice, I tell them, kindly, that I’m in the middle of something, and that it’ll be a minute.

I realize that part of what’s going on is that I’m overwhelmed with tasks at a time when I’m tired and my blood sugar is low. I experience this realization as a relief. It’s not that the world is a horrible place. It’s not that my kids are trying to make my life difficult. It’s not that I’m failing as a cook and as a father. What I’m feeling is just the physiological effect of trying to do a complex task when I’m hungry and tired from working all day. And so I continue cooking, feeling supported and cherished.

The kindness I’m showing myself spills over into the way I’m cooking. I enjoy the actions my body is doing. I enjoy the colors and textures and smells. It affect the way I’m relating to my kids. I behave to them in a way that’s calm and kind. They know I care about them and there’s a loving connection extending from the kitchen to the living-room and back again. A minute or two later, I get them their juice.

The Power of Self-Compassion

Being mindful of our feelings creates a “sacred pause” where we are less likely to respond with habitual volitions like anger, judgement, or blame.

Mindfulness of feelings puts gives us a chance simply to observe what’s happening. It gives us an opportunity to avoid doing things that will just cause more suffering for ourselves and others.

This sacred pause we create in moments of mindfulness not only allows us to temporarily let go of our reactivity. It also allows a space in which more creative responses can arise. It allows us to relate with patience and kindness to the parts of us that are suffering. And it gives us an opportunity to support ourselves, empathetically.

And when we support ourselves with kindness and compassion, we’re more likely to respond to others with those emotions.

The sacred pause gives us a chance to practice wisdom, with the kind of reframing that I illustrated above (recognizing that its normal to suffer, that the irritability is the result of physiological circumstances, rather than being a deep personal failing or a sign that the world is a horrible place).

Four Steps to Self-Compassion

Self-compassion isn’t  always easy to practice, but the steps are simple once we’ve remembered to use them.

  1. Notice that you’re suffering. Let suffering become a trigger for self-awareness.
  2. Drop the story you’ve been building (“This is so frustrating! Why can’t the kids leave me alone while I’m busy?”)
  3. Drop down to observe your suffering as felt sensations in the body. These are mainly around the heart, diaphragm, and gut, usually.
  4. Offer kindness to the part of you that is suffering, by talking to your pain, looking (with your inward eye) at it with loving eyes, and even with a loving and reassuring touch.

To practice these four steps it’s helpful to imagine or remember stressful situations. That gives you a safe space in which to memorize and practice the four steps so that they become second nature. Rehearsing in this way makes it more likely that in the future we’ll spontaneously respond with compassion and kindness to ourselves and others.

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Lovingkindness: the missing link

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on UnsplashSomeone wrote the other day saying that she’d had a hard time forgiving a colleague at work who had reflexly shot down her very excellent ideas. Apparently this colleague does this a lot. It’s just a habit with her.

My correspondent found her colleague’s actions very hurtful. She struggled with resentment for several days as she worked on practicing forgiveness and on cultivating metta. (Metta is “lovingkindness,” or simply kindness). Eventually she was successful, and she managed to forgive her critic. So that’s excellent! Practice works!

The thing is it took her a long time to find her way back to peace. And I think her story highlights something that’s missing from many people’s practice of metta. It’s the missing link in our practice of lovingkindness.

I sometimes worry about sounding like a broken record, but I find that one key thing when we’re hurt is to practice kindness and compassion toward ourselves. I’ve written in a number of places about how we can do this, for example in Self-compassion: lovingkindness squared and The power of self-kindness. You can also check out my book on self-compassion, “This Difficult Thing of Being Human.”

When this colleague reacted to my correspondent, this caused pain. Whenever she felt resentful afterward, that also caused her pain. Trying to wish another person well while we’re not responding compassionately to our own pain tends not to be very effective. (I’m not saying this to blame anyone — this is a very common oversight in our lovingkindness practice. It’s something we all do.)

Resentment is our pain’s way of trying to protect itself. It’s like a kind of bristly, spiky forcefield that we erect around our hearts. If we recognize our own pain and send it our love and reassurance, then we’re “protecting” the heart in a different way. We protect it by offering it love, and by surrounding it with love. It becomes much easier to direct this love toward the person that hurt us. It becomes much easier for us to let go of our resentments. The forgiveness can happen much more quickly. Sometimes it takes minutes or even seconds rather than days.

When we ignore our pain in favor of directing well-wishing to the other person, we’re not being very compassionate to ourselves. In fact we’re unintentionally being cruel. To see this more clearly, imagine yourself walking past a friend who is obviously in distress, without really acknowledging them. You’d be taking a person who’s in pain, and adding to their pain by not being concerned and compassionate.

Now the part of you that’s hurting has exactly the same response. When you ignore it and focus on someone else instead, the hurt deepens. And so your hurt continues to try to protect itself. It continues to erect this spiky forcefield or resentment. And the more you feel this resentment, the more you’re likely to work harder at cultivating compassion for the person who hurt you. And so we stay stuck, until eventually a current of genuine kindness appears, the dynamic changes, we let go of some of our resentment, and your heart feels safe again.

So when we’re trying on the one hand to cultivate kindness to another person, while also (accidentally) cultivating unkindness toward ourselves, it can take us so long to let go of our reactions.

I never used to quite believe the teaching that we have to be kind toward ourselves before we can be kind to others, but the longer I practice the more I see that it’s true.

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