Posts by Bodhipaksa

Pivot toward the skillful (The Social Media Sutra, Part 1)

Background

In a series of six posts (here are links to the IntroductionPart 2Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5) I explain, using teachings from the early Buddhist scriptures, how we can free ourselves from our addiction to social media. These teachings are found in the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, which outlines five strategies for overcoming compelling trains of thought and the urges that accompany them.

“Vitakkasanthana Sutta” literally means “the Discourse on Quieting Thinking,” but I’m going to call it “the Social Media Sutra.” I do this mainly because it’s a more convenient and catchy monicker than a literal translation is, but also because it reminds us that these teachings can be directly applied in this important aspect of our lives.

What is Social Media Addiction?

By our being “addicted” to social media, I mean that we use social compulsively despite their having harmful consequences for ourselves and others. That’s the classic definition of an addiction. When we’re addicted we repeatedly do something that harms us, but feel out of control and have great difficulty stopping ourselves from giving in to our urges.

Often there are secondary consequences of addictions: for example, we may feel ashamed of our “weakness” and become secretive about our activities. Attempting to cut back on social media use may lead to strong anxiety. And we might, in indulging in social media, also become addicted to anger and outrage. This can, for many people, be the most important and troubling part of social media addiction.

The first tool

The Social Media Sutra offers us five tools to overcome compelling urges. This first of these is described in the following way:

Take a practitioner who is focusing on some object that gives rise to bad, unskillful thoughts connected with desire, hate, and delusion. That practitioner should focus on some other object connected with the skillful. As they do so, those bad thoughts — imbued with desire, aversion, or delusion — are given up and come to an end.

And then the Buddha offers an illustration: “It’s like a deft carpenter or their apprentice who’d knock out or extract a large peg with a finer peg.”

The Buddha doesn’t explicitly talk about meditation here. He may have had meditation in mind, but what he says can be applied in any area of life, including our online activities.

It’s not that social media and so on are inherently bad, but that our minds often turn to them in an addictive way. And we could include here not just Facebook, Twitter, and so on, but other online activities that can be compelling, from reading news articles to playing games.

Mindfulness gives us choices

What’s being suggested is that we switch from an unhelpful (“unskillful”) urge to some more helpful (“skillful”) way of behaving. This is based on a basic principle of Dharma practice, which is that mindfulness gives us choice. Mindfulness allows us stand back and observe what’s going on within us. It allows us to see that some choices we make will make us happier and others unhappier.

It isn’t always comfortable when we become mindful. We see things going on — like addiction or anger — that make our lives miserable. And we can end up blaming ourselves. But one of the first things we need to do is to stop blaming ourselves in response to our addictions. Blaming ourselves is just us responding to unskillfulness with further unskillfulness.

Having a tendency to be addicted isn’t something to take personally. It’s not weakness. It’s just causes and conditions unfolding in our lives. So we drop the blame. That’s a choice we can make.

To apply the teaching of pivoting to the skillful, first, with mindfulness, recognize that you’re doing something that’s making you unhappy. Notice that you’re causing yourself to suffer.

Now, become aware of what kind of unhelpful mental habit has arisen. What’s the unskillful activity that you need to switch from?

The Image

Just a word about the image the Buddha used to illustrate this tool or pivoting to the skillful. He said that switching our focus to a skillful object is like using a small peg to knock out a larger peg. I remember doing this to remove a pedal from my bike, using a hammer and a nail punch to remove the cotter pin holding the pedal onto the crankshaft.

Note that you’re using a small pin to knock out a larger one. Although you might think that the forces of addiction and anger are powerful, and your mindfulness and compassion are weak, it’s good to remember that your mindfulness or compassion, even though they may seem feeble, just need to be used in a directed way.

And remember that when a carpenter uses one pin to remove another, it doesn’t take just one blow of the hammer. It takes repetition. So don’t be discouraged if it takes time to change your habits. Just keep working at it.

Three forms of unskillful activity (and how to overcome them)

In my experience the three most common forms are: craving stimulation, craving attention, and becoming angry. Let’s deal with those one at a time.

1. Craving Stimulation

Our addiction might take the form of craving continual input. We just don’t want to stop browsing. We feel anxious if there isn’t a constant flow of information coming at us.

Overcoming Cravings for Stimulation: Trust This Moment Is Enough

If you’re craving stimulation, take a mindful break. Notice physical sensations in the body, feelings, sensory reality of your surroundings. This is a different kind of stimulation — a more wholesome and grounding kind of input for the mind. And while online stimulation can never truly satisfy us, being mindfully aware of the richness of our experience does leave us feeling more fulfilled.

So here you’re switching your mind from mindless stimulation to mindful appreciation of your direct experience.

You can learn to trust that this moment is enough. You can be content right now.

2. Craving Attention

Another component of addiction is the craving for acknowledgement. We might crave the reassurance we get when people “like” or comment on our posts. If people don’t do those things, we’re hurt or disappointed.

Overcoming Cravings for Attention: Trust You Are Enough

Now, if you’re craving attention, then you probably aren’t feeling good about yourself. There’s probably an underlying sense that you don’t matter, which is why you’re dependent on seeking reassurance from other people. You’re probably not valuing yourself, or giving yourself appreciation. You may even be putting yourself down.

So to switch to a skillful alternative to craving attention, you can give yourself some love, compassion, and appreciation. You can place your hand on your heart and say to yourself, “It’s OK. I’m here for you. You matter, and I care about you. I will take care of you. Let yourself feel this love.”

You can learn to trust that you are enough.

3. Getting Angry

And yet another common form of unskillfulness bound up with social media is “outrage addiction.” We become dependent on the feelings we get from being self-righteously angry.

We might, out of anger, say things calculated to hurt people, or block them so that we don’t have to face up to our own reactions to them.

Overcoming Anger: Trust In the Power of Kindness

When you get angry,  you probably don’t have enough kindness and empathy toward others. When you’re seeing others acting or speaking in ways that disturb you, you react with ill will. Maybe you speak or write unkindly. Maybe you hurl insults.

Switching to a more skillful way of relating means bringing more empathy and compassion into the present moment. So, first, recognize that if you’re angry or outraged, you’re suffering. So once again, place a hand on your heart and offer yourself some kindness. “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at peace.” Breathe.

And then remind yourself that the person you’re angry with is a feeling being, just as you are. They feel happiness, just as you do. They suffer, just as you do. They prefer happiness rather than suffering, just as you do. And then, having connected empathetically in this way, perhaps you’ll find that you naturally relate and communicate in a more empathetic, kinder way.

You can learn to trust the power of connection, empathy, and kindness.

Trust the Dharma

Another thing you can trust is the Dharma: trust your practice. Sometimes when I catch myself tempted to mindlessly pick up my phone so that I can check Twitter or read some news articles online, I say to myself “Trust the Dharma.”

So I’ll pick up my phone in order to mindlessly go online, I’ll remind myself, “Trust the Dharma,” and then I can gently put the phone back down again.

This phrase is just a reminder to myself of everything I’ve said above about the potential and the power of making mindful choices. “Trust the Dharma” means trust that there is a something better than craving. It means trusting in your ability to let go of painful habits. It means trusting that true contentment is possible, and that we don’t need any special conditions for contentment to arise: just be present with your experience, and everything will sort itself out.

Summary

So what we’ve learned here is that the first tool for dealing with unhelpful behaviors and mental habits around social media is to switch our attention to an object connected with the skillful — bringing skillfulness into our present moment experience.

When you’re craving stimulation, you can learn to trust the present moment.

When you’re craving attention, you can learn to trust that you are enough. That you matter. That you can support yourself.

When you’re angry, you can learn to trust in the power of connecting empathetically first with yourself, and then with others.

And in this kind of way, you can switch from unhealthy ways of relating to social media, to having a healthier relationship with them.

One last thing. I’ve said a lot about trust. Trusting the present moment. Trusting that you matter. Trusting in the power of empathetic connection.

Trust the Dharma. It works.

Click here to read Part 2 of The Social Media Sutra: Look at the Drawbacks.

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How I learned to love (but not like) Donald Trump

We live in a time where it’s common to have unbridled admiration for your chosen political leader, who can do no wrong, and equally unbridled hatred toward opposing political leaders, who can do no right.

The common wisdom is that this hyper-partisan situation is worse now than it used to be, and I suspect that that’s true.

I don’t think this highly polarized state of affairs is at all healthy. In fact I think we need to find ways to reverse this trend. We need to do this as a society, which means that we need to do so as individuals. The individual I have most influence over is myself, so that’s where I have to start.

Now, I have to confess that over the last few years I’ve harbored ill will toward Donald Trump. There’s been plenty of dislike, and even loathing — I find him to be a morally repellant individual on many levels — but dislike isn’t the same as ill will. My understanding of Buddhist ethics is that disliking someone is morally neutral.

Having ill will or hatred goes further. It means, at the very least, wishing for someone to suffer or taking pleasure in their suffering. It may even mean wishing to see them harmed. Often it means being prepared to believe the worst about their motivations and automatically believing any negative stories about them. If those stories turn out to be untrue perhaps we don’t care. All that’s important to us is that the story is harmful to our opponent. Ill will tends to make us casual with the truth.

But I have to confess, that I’ve not just disliked Donald Trump, but have had ill will for him. I’ve taken pleasure in his discomfort. I’ve even wished him harm. From the point of view of Buddhist ethics, this is of course not OK. It’s unskillful, and will cause harm not just for others but will be a source of suffering for me as well.

Perhaps some of you reading this support Donald Trump and are displeased to hear that I’ve disliked and had ill will for him. Perhaps some of you dislike Trump even more than I do and are alarmed by the title I’ve chosen, thinking that it means I’ve gone all “MAGA.” I wouldn’t be surprised if a few people cancel their subscriptions without even reading the article.

In reality all I want to do is to share how I’ve learned to drop my ill will. I’ve found that I’m able to love Donald Trump. I still think that morally speaking he’s a horrible individual, and I don’t think he should have power over any kind of organization — certainly not an entire country — but my emotions around him have softened. Bringing this about wasn’t particularly hard. It just required a shift in the way I thought about my relationship to him. Perhaps, if you have ill will for him, what I did will help you too.

So what did I do? Simply, what I did was to imagine that Donald Trump was my wayward older brother. I think most families have a black sheep — someone who, for example, doesn’t respect the normal “rules” of reciprocity and who is prone to exploiting others, or who perhaps lies, cheats, or steals. Perhaps they’re an outright criminal. I know that my own family has (or had) someone like that.

It’s not invariably the case, but often ties of family soften our attitudes. So when I imagine Donald Trump as my wayward elder brother, out there breaking norms, breaking the law, and creating havoc, even if I believe he deserves to go to prison I’m no longer gleeful about that. I now have mixed feelings. If he’s my wayward older brother I can imagine visiting him in prison, not to gloat but to see if he’s going OK, and to be a support. I imagine hearing him protesting about being framed, and instead of being angry I feel compassion for him in his denial and delusion.

This approach has certainly been working for me. I feel much softer around Trump. My heart’s more open. Reading the news is less scary. I’m suffering less.

Perhaps this will help you, too. I’ve had to keep reminding myself to adopt this perspective, because emotional habits such ill will are strong and persistent. But every time I think of Donald Trump as my wayward elder brother, I feel compassion for him rather than hatred.

Perhaps this approach has been influenced by the Buddhist teaching that all beings have, at various times in the endless cycle of samsara, been one’s mother and father, brother, sister, sone, and daughter. That’s certainly not a teaching I take literally, but I imagine its purpose was to stimulate the same kind of attitude-shift that I’ve been talking about.

Let me be clear that I don’t approve of many of Donald Trump’s actions. He’s done many, many things that I consider to be unethical or illegal. But I no longer have ill will toward him.

Sometimes people cling to their hatred because they think that they need to hate their enemies in order to oppose them. But that’s not the case. You not hate and still tell right from wrong. You can not hate and still want to see your wayward elder brother prevented from causing further harm. You can not hate and still believe it’s right that they face the legal and moral consequences of their actions.

We don’t need hate. In fact we’re better off without it. I know I am.

As the Dhammapada says, “In this world, hatred is never appeased by hatred. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is an eternal truth.”

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Mindful tools for overcoming social media addiction (The Social Media Sutra, Introduction)

Photo by Marc Schaefer on Unsplash

Introduction

In late 2019 I recorded a series of talks for “Tricycle” magazine. These discussed how tools from the Buddhist tradition can help us to overcome social media addiction and internet addiction. The talks didn’t appear online until January of the following year but in the meantime I thought I’d turn my notes into a series of articles. There are six in total — this introduction plus one article for each of the five tools.

I’ve expanded a little on what I said in those talks. Because of course as soon as you give a talk you realize all the things you could have said but didn’t!

Here are links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

My name is Bodhipaksa, and I am an addict

I put my hand up as being a social media addict. Or having been one. Because of the way I teach, I spend a lot of time online. And because of that I’ve had to deal with getting sucked into social media. Like most people I carry a device around with me. We call it a “phone” although it’s a device that I hardly ever use for making phone calls on. Instead it’s a kind of glass portal that leads to a world of endless distraction.

So, spending a lot of time online, and carrying around a device that allowed me to do that any time I wanted, I’d often find myself spending way too much time on the internet. My work would suffer, and sometimes I’d stay up too late, reading fascinating articles, usually about science and psychology. What I was reading was good, but I just couldn’t stop, and I’d end up depriving myself of sleep. Even though reading books is something I’ve always loved, I became unable to stay focused on reading a book. Without the deep immersion of reading books, life seemed shallower.

Sometimes there were “bonus” problems—for example when I’d get involved in online disputes. Those would not only give rise to anger, but would sometimes leave me feeling quite anxious, so that my heart would pound when I was logging in to my social media accounts. Or I’d find that I would crave attention. I found myself logging in, anxious about whether my posts had been “liked” or shared. All of these are, of course, forms of suffering.

Using the Buddha’s teachings to overcome addiction

I don’t much like suffering, so the question naturally arose for me, “How can my Buddhist practice help me with addiction to online activities?”

I’m going to share some of the tools I’ve found useful, in case you have similar patterns of getting hooked online.

At the time I wrote these six articles, I had mostly got the better of my addictions, although I struggled sometimes with spending too much time on Twitter, which had a bad effect on my mental states. I’m happy to say that as I continued to practice the techniques you’ll learn about here, I managed to disengage from Twitter as well.

What Is Social Media Addiction?

First, though, what do I mean by social media addiction? I don’t mean simply enjoying using social media. I mean addiction in the sense of the compulsive use of social media despite it having harmful consequences for ourselves and others. Compulsion means that we feel out of control: have great difficulty stopping ourselves. Compulsion means that the thought of quitting may lead to powerfully unpleasant feelings. Usually compulsion leads to shame, and we become dishonest about just how addicted we are.

I’m going to use the term “social media” in a rather broad way. I don’t just mean social media sites like Facebook or Twitter. What I say may well have relevance for those who find themselves hooked on online games, or even who find themselves compulsively checking the news.

About the Social Media Sutra

The Buddha of course didn’t say anything about the internet or social media. But he did have a lot to say about dealing with and overcoming compelling patterns of thought and behavior. There’s one discourse, or sutta, in particular that I think gives a good overview of the richness of the tools that he offered us. It’s the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, which I would translate as the “Discourse on Quieting Thinking.”

Vitakka means “thinking” and santhana literally means a resting place, and by extension means “end, stopping, cessation.”

“Thinking” here doesn’t mean just the inner sound of us talking to ourselves, or even imagined imagery. Thinking includes the urges that are entangled with those thoughts. In fact, sometimes you’ll act on an urge without having any verbal thought at all. You just find yourself picking up your phone and opening a social media app. There isn’t necessarily any inner talk accompanying those actions. But the urge that makes you pick up your phone is, in Buddhist terms, a “thought.”

So, fundamentally, this discourse is about letting go of unhelpful urges, or unhelpful habits.

Most people understand the Vitakkasanthana to be talking about quieting unhelpful urges in the context of meditation, but the discourse itself doesn’t mention meditation, and the principles it outlines can be used in any context in our lives, including when we’re on social media. In a way you could think of the Vitakkasanthana Sutta as the Social Media Sutra.

Five Tools

The discourse offers five tools. The sutta itself suggests that you start with the first one. If that doesn’t work you give the next one a try, and so on.

To give you an overview of the five tools:

  1. We switch our attention from unskillful or unhelpful patterns or activity to more skillful or helpful patterns.
  2. We examine the drawbacks of our unhealthy urges, especially as contrasted with healthier ones.
  3. We simply ignore or turning away from our unskillful urges. We don’t make any effort to get rid of them, but also we don’t act on them or allow our attention to be drawn into them. I’ve framed this mostly in terms of keeping the triggers for our addictions out of site and out of mind.
  4. We become aware of the causes and conditions that are bringing our unhelpful urges into being, so that we can prevent them arising in the first place.
  5. We use sheer willpower to overcome our addictive urges. This can actually be much more subtle than it sounds! The best use of willpower is when it doesn’t feel like we’re using willpower.

For each tool there’s an illustration. Some of those are engaging and instructive, although some others aren’t so immediately helpful.

Summary

The five approaches above provide us with an impressive collection of tools for overcoming addictive behaviors, as well as the anger, anxiety, and so on that accompany them. I’ll be going through each in turn, telling you what the Buddha said (including the illustrations he gave), and making the tools practical.

That’s it for today. I hope you’ll enjoy this series of blog posts.

Click here to read about the first tool, Pivoting Toward the Skillful.

Exercise

Notice any addictive patterns of behavior around your social media use. What suffering does it lead to? In what ways does your compulsion manifest?  Is giving up social media something you can experiment with, even for a day or two? If you can’t do that, notice what’s preventing you. What is your experience like if you do give up social media for a short period? Do you experience joy? Relief? Craving? Anxiety?

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Anchor your attention in the good

Recently I’ve been finding my life to be overly complex, and sometimes overwhelming. Moving house took weeks of preparation and packing, followed by the intense work of unpacking and arranging everything. My partner and I moved in together, and so there are a whole load of adjustments to work through as the nature of our relationship changes. My kids are now attending two separate schools that are two towns over, so that I sometimes spend more than two hours a day driving back and forth. I agreed to give four video talks for Tricycle magazine that involved an insane amount of work. And soon after moving we decided to adopt an abandoned puppy, which adds a whole level of complexity, from runs to the vet to having to replace the phone and laptop cables she’s chewed her way through.

Because of all this my mind is very stirred up. There’s a kind of background anxiety about whether I’m forgetting something, such as whether it’s my turn to take the kids to school today, and how I’m going to fit things like writing articles, recording meditations, and helping online course participants with their tech-support problems into my schedule. There’s always some new complication cropping up.

In the face of these challenges, my meditation practice is a relief. It’s not that there’s some kind of magic happens where all my problems, or my reactions to them, suddenly vanish. Of course what’s going on in my head and in my body outside of meditation get brought into my meditation practice. That’s kind of the point, actually. Meditation is an opportunity to work with that stuff.

Thoughts about work or about family schedules or communication difficulties come up. I notice those, and I let go of them, returning my attention to the body, and to the breathing that takes place within it. And then there’s the experience of not-thinking. It may be a brief experience, but it happens, if just for two or three breaths.

I become more aware that my body is tense. I have an opportunity to soften the body and to allow it to relax, even if just a little.

I notice sensations of anxiety. They’re unpleasant, but I allow myself to be present with them, not reacting but allowing there to be a sense of space around them.

So there are thoughts that I let go of, feelings I accept, and tensions in the body that I notice and allow to relax. Doing these things helps.

I find it’s important to notice how the texture of my experience changes as I let go of thoughts, accept uncomfortable feelings, and soften the body. This texture moves from feeling bumpy and tight to feeling more harmonious and easeful. The shift isn’t always major, but it’s real. There’s movement away from suffering and toward more of a sense of well-being.

I’m stressing the word “texture” here. The experience of having a lot of thinking going on, of feeling stressed, of being tense, have a texture of sorts. And that texture is unpleasant. The experience of calmness, the experience of accepting an unpleasant feeling, the experience of the body softening — each of these has a texture. And that texture is easeful and pleasant. As the shifts I’m talking about take place, there’s a change in the texture of my experience.

Here’s why it’s important to notice this. The thoughts that generate stress in the first place are compelling, and so we get pulled back into them over and over again. We need a counterbalancing force to keep us anchored in calmness and ease. What I’m suggesting is that an interest in, even a fascination with, the the texture of our experience as we practice mindfulness helps to keep us anchored and stop us from immediately moving back toward being distracted and stressed. So I suggest that you really notice the pleasant, spacious, and easeful nature of letting go. Really appreciate it.

If you don’t notice and appreciate these changes, then your mind will tend to move back toward mental business, conflicted feelings, and physical tension. You won’t have an anchor.

The changes I’m talking about, and that I’m encouraging you to notice and appreciate, don’t have to be huge. After you let go of one stress-filled train of thought, there might be only a few seconds of relative calm before another stress-filled thought arises to take its place. But if you look at the texture of those few seconds you’ll find that it’s more pleasant and easeful than it was while you were thinking. And that makes you want to stay there.

With a little practice you’ll also start to notice that compulsive thinking is unpleasant while you’re still caught up in it. And this helps you to let go of it. It’s natural to want to stop doing something that’s making you miserable.

Of course as you do what I’m suggesting you might find yourself grasping after pleasure. You have those few moments of calm, you notice their easeful and pleasant texture, and something in you yearns to hold on to this experience. That of course isn’t helpful. But once you get into the habit of noticing the texture of your experience you’ll start to recognize that grasping after pleasant experiences is just another unpleasant thing the mind does, and you’ll be more inclined to let go and just accept what’s going on.

Appreciation is an anchor. Remember to use it.

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“Love your enemies” as a calling

This summer I read a book by Arthur C. Brooks, who until recently was president of a conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. The book is called “Love Your Enemies,” and it calls on us to change the way we relate to one another in the field of politics. I don’t intend to write a book review but mainly want to talk about the impact the book had on me.

First of all, however, a word about Brooks. He seems like a thoughtful, reasonable person. He has a background as a classical musician, having performed professionally for something like 22 years. He then moved into economics and policy analysis. His most notable early writing was on charitable giving. He’s a friend of the Dalai Lama and the two even wrote a New York Times article together. Although he’s been a Catholic since he was 16, Brooks has been deeply influenced by the Dalai Lama’s teachings on love. He was at one time registered as a Democrat, then as a Republican. Now he’s an Independent. Although he’s a conservative, he’s in no way a Trumpian conservative.

I’d deliberately set myself the challenge of reading something by a conservative, since these days we’re very quick to dismiss those who hold views that are different from our own, and most of the political views I have are those that liberals hold, meaning that Brooks and I wouldn’t agree on much politically. I looked forward to this challenge.

And the book did challenge me, in a number of ways. Sometimes, I confess, I had to work hard to remain patient. Because he’s writing a book about loving your enemies, he tries to maintain a sense of balance. If he says something critical about Donald Trump, he has to say something critical about Hilary Clinton as well, even though to my mind those two politicians’ failings aren’t remotely comparable. And although he talks about the need for all participants in a democracy to observe “rules,” he studiously ignores the most egregious bending and breaking of those rules. So he has nothing to say about gerrymandered districts, voter purges, or the refusal to let a sitting president fill a Supreme Court seat. This is presumably because most of those abuses (currently) take place on the right, and for Brooks to mention them would require Brooks to set aside his rather strained “both sides are the same” impartiality. I found myself craving for Brooks to admit that, sometimes, one side is worse than the other. But I kept letting go of that desire, since I was suspicious that it was partly my own bias showing.

But the main challenge was a positive one: how can we love our enemies? I felt challenged to relate more lovingly, to communicate more compassionately, to practice empathy more deeply, to let go of tribalism. This will all, I’m sure, be a lifelong—and difficult—task.

The single thing that struck home most for me was Brooks dismissal of “civility” and “tolerance” as adequate goals. It’s not that we shouldn’t try to be civil or to tolerate differences, but that those goals are not enough. Imagine, Brooks asks us, if someone described their relationship with their spouse as “civil” or said that they “tolerate” each other. What would that tell you about the health of their marriage? Are either of those partners likely to be happy? Being civil to our political opponents is not enough. Being tolerant of our political opponents is not enough. We need to learn to love our enemies.

This of course is deeply challenging. Even meeting the low bars of being civil and tolerant is hard. Civility and tolerance can be beyond us at times because we feel compelled to be harsh and judgmental towards those we disagree with. And if actually loving our enemies is even harder than those things, then how can I even begin to move in that direction?

The most fundamental thing, I think, is to recognize the common humanity of people I disagree with. We all want similar things, but want to achieve those aims in different ways, or understand them differently. We all value fairness, freedom, and security, for example. Those things unite us. But the fact that we think about those things differently brings us into opposition. And when we’re in opposition we tend to clash, and to turn into enemies. We fail to think that we have anything at all in common. We hold each other in contempt. We call each other names. We distort each others’ positions.

Think for example about one person who accepts that climate change is being driven by human activities and that it may potentially bring about catastrophic disruption to the world. Motivated by a desire for security, then want to see a massive change in the way we use energy — a magnitude of change that cannot possibly be brought about by individual action alone, but which requires intense government action.

Then there’s another person who wants to feel secure. But they are perhaps afraid of some kinds of change, or are suspicious about government playing a larger role in their lives and limiting their freedom. Hearing the policies of the first person may make them dig their heels in, to the extent that they’re unwilling to accept that there’s even a problem.

These two people might well see each other as existential enemies. They may demonize each other, and call each other names. They treat each other as punching bags. They are unlikely ever to move each other’s opinions by a hair’s-width. In fact most exchanges between them are not even intended to change the other’s opinion. Instead they’re intended to demonstrate contempt, and to demonstrate their membership of the particular political group they belong to. Their communication is intended to separate.

If we look below the insults and the policies, we see two human beings who are afraid, and who want to feel secure. If we’re prepared to do that with each other, then our communication naturally changes. We treat each other with more sensitivity and respect. We perhaps can now aim to learn from each other and to persuade, rather than lecturing and insulting each other. Our aim is to bring us closer together rather than to drive a wedge between us.

Brooks offers as an example an unlikely friendship between two professors at Princeton. Cornel West is black, and a socialist. Robert George is white, and a conservative. They disagree on absolutely everything! And yet they clearly love each other as brothers. There’s no “civility” in the sense of people being artificially polite. There’s no tolerance, in the sense of people simply enduring each other. There’s love. There’s respect. There’s an openness to learning. And the corollary of this is the lesson that it’s possible to relate lovingly and to disagree and to challenge the other person’s views.

One danger is that we try being friendly to an opponent, it doesn’t work, and then we get mad. But the point isn’t that acting empathetically is something we do in order to get people to agree with us. Empathy is not a “trick” we do to get people to do what we want. Ultimately, acting out of empathy is something we do because it’s a better way to be. As Brooks says, “My point is simple: Love and warmheartedness might not change every heart and mind, but they are always worth trying, and they will always make you better off.” In trying to find our opponents’ humanity, we connect more deeply with our own.

So I’m trying to put this into practice. The first step is to move away from what Brooks called the “outrage industrial complex,” which can be found on social media and much “debate” that goes on in television studios. That’s something I’ve been working on for a while. My social media usage is much less than it used to be. I avoid following people who are popular because they are good at insulting others.

A step I’m only just learning is to see the common concerns that lie beneath our different understandings of the world, and the humanity that lies beneath our contempt.

Actually communicating in an empathetic way with people I completely disagree with? That actually scares me!

I feel I’m only just beginning with this as a life-long task. As someone who has been practicing and teaching lovingkindness meditation for a couple of decades this is humbling. But the aim of loving my enemies feels like a calling — although, by the time you actually love your enemies, you find they are not enemies, but are brothers and sisters.

“Love Your Enemies” isn’t a perfect book by any means. But I do think it’s worth reading because of its central challenge, which is to abandon the temptations of relating with contempt, and to undertake the hard, although rewarding, work of becoming a more loving human being.

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Love,
Bodhipaksa

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Poison in the sugar-bowl

Many, many years ago, when I was in my twenties, I was at the apartment of a newly divorced woman I’d just started dating when her ex dropped by unexpectedly. Awkward! Especially since she had just popped out of the house and wouldn’t be back for a few minutes!

Trying to be a good host, I offered him a cup of coffee. He accepted. I imagine he was grateful that we could diffuse this tense situation through a little social ritual.

He asked for sugar with his coffee, and I wasn’t familiar with where it was kept. But after a little searching I found a sugar-bowl and, as requested, measured out two heaped spoonfuls into his mug. He took one sip and his face contorted into a look us disgust. It turned out that the “sugar” I’d given him was actually salt! Now, having apparently tried to poison my girlfriend’s ex, I felt really awkward! I was convinced he’d think I’d done this deliberately.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that it’s possible to confuse two things in a way that has unpleasant results. And this happens with spiritual practice even more than it does with unlabelled bowls of white granular substances.

The Buddha once talked about wrongly understanding the teachings as being like grabbing a snake by the wrong end. If you need to pick up a snake, you want to take a firm hold of it just behind the head. Grab it by the tail and it’s going to loop around and bite you.

So what kinds of snake do people grab by the wrong end? (Or to put it another way, what kinds of salt are people putting in their coffee thinking it’s sugar?) Here are just four.

1. Misapplied Non-Attachment

Non-attachment means being aware of your own clinging and desires (e.g. wanting to have things your own way) and letting go of them. In our daily lives we can practice non-attachment in many ways: for example letting go of your compulsion to speak about yourself and choosing instead to listen empathetically to another person.

Non-attachment doesn’t mean “not caring,” or emotional detachment, which is how some people think about it. Equating non-attachment with not caring is usually self-serving. The environment? Well, everything’s impermanent anyway, so what does it matter if species go extinct and people’s crops are ruined by drought?

True non-attachment helps us to see our emotional avoidance strategies, and to set them aside so that we can truly care. Genuine compassion, caring about others’ suffering just as we care about out own, is a form of non-attachment.

2. Fake Patience

Maybe you stay with a partner who’s unsupportive, or you have a friend who talks nonstop and won’t let you get a word in sideways. And you never challenge them, because you’re practicing “patience.” After all, haven’t we had it drummed into us that we can’t make the world into a perfect place, and that it’s up to us to change.

But the thing is that that partner’s unsupportiveness isn’t making them happy, and neither is the friend’s logorrhea. Quite possibly neither of them wants to be asked to change (generally we don’t like change), but both of them would be more fulfilled if they did.

Sometimes you’re doing both yourself and others a favor if you’re more demanding and less “accepting” and “patient.”

3. Spurious Kindness

Lots of people are caring and compassionate when it comes to others, but are harsh and critical when it comes to themselves. And yet Buddhist teachings say that we can’t really have kindness and compassion for others unless we relate to ourselves kindly and compassionately first. What’s going on?

At one time I assumed that the Buddhist tradition was wrong on this point, but as I learned more about practicing empathy I realized that the traditional teaching fits my experience. I realized that a lot of the time when I thought I was being compassionate toward others I was either being “nice” to them because I wanted them to like me, or I was being “good” so that I could feel good about myself. And both of those things arose out of me not liking myself and not being kind to myself.

As I learned to have more self-empathy, I found that this empathy, and the compassion that arose from it, naturally flowed toward others. What do you know? The tradition seems to be right, and a lot of what I had thought to be kindness wasn’t really kindness at all.

4. Misunderstood Karma

The teaching of karma (which, incidentally, is not as large a part of the Buddha’s overall teaching as most people seem to think) was really meant as something we applied to ourselves. You want to be happy? Look at what you’re doing, since it can either create ease or suffering, peace or turmoil.

Later Buddhists were less interested in Buddhist as a form of practical psychology and more interested in Buddhism as a theory that explained everything — something that the Buddha himself would have found utterly alien.

One of the consequences of this is that Buddhists often misuse the teaching of karma in order to validate their judgements of others: People are suffering? Well, they must have done something to deserve it. And so why should I feel compassion for them? If we really understood karma in this situation we’d be looking at our own reaction to others’ suffering, would realize that judging others is something that creates pain for us, and would find instead a more compassionate way to relate.

These are just a few of the ways that we misuse Buddhist teachings in ways that cause suffering for ourselves and others. It’s important to grab a snake at the right end. It’s important to make sure that what you’re putting in your mug is really sugar.

If you would like to support Wildmind in producing articles like this, and get access to dozens of online meditation courses, please look into becoming a sponsor for as little as $6 a month.

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Just Being, Just Sitting: Getting Out of Your Own Way in Meditation

Just Sitting is the practice of radical self-acceptance. It is a practice of non-doing in which, as we sit, we allow thoughts to pass through the mind unobstructedly, and without getting caught up in their storylines. In time the mind stills, and a peaceful state of pure, effortless awareness emerges.

On this 28-session, self-paced online course, you’ll learn how to sit without judgement, to practice radical self-acceptance, and to rest in an open and expansive state of awareness. Ultimately you will learn to recognize that it is not “you” who meditates, and allow your meditation to unfold spontaneously and effortlessly toward awakening, from within.

The course is led by Bodhipaksa.

You’re free to enroll now. The emails will start going out on Sept 1.

Course benefits

In this 28-session event you’ll learn to:

  • Enter an effortless state of meditation
  • Sit without judgement
  • Practice radical self-acceptance
  • Allow thoughts and feelings to arise and pass without obstruction
  • Rest in an open and expansive state of awareness
  • Recognize that it is not “you” who meditates, and allow your meditation to unfold spontaneously, from within

This event is suitable for people of all levels of experience.

Course format

Signing up for this event gives you access to:

  • 28 emails with practice suggestions and inspiration
  • Access to nine guided meditations, from 5 to 30 minutes in length
  • Support and encouragement in a welcoming online community

You control the pace of the emails. Each email contains a trigger link. When you’re ready, click on that link and the next email in the series will arrive the next day. You can take as long as you want to complete the course.

Enrollment Form

What other participants have said

  • “It has been a great course. The emails have been both great works of philosophy as well as useful guides to practice.” Michael B.
  • “Thank you so much, Bodhipaksa, for this life-changing course. Your insights into the nature of reality breathe new life into the Dharma, bringing scientific understanding to ancient teachings. This is a wonderful course that has inspired me to return to the cushion every day. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for being such an inspirational teacher.” Claire L.
  • “Thanks, Bodhipaksa, for all the care and effort you’ve invested putting this mini-course together. I’ve found it very interesting and informative, and even if I don’t feel I’ve made much progress with the technique I have experienced occasional glimpses.”Andy R.
  • This course has been invaluable to me. I find the peace and stillness come easily. In earlier practices, I would berate myself for “failing” to do it right. Jeanie S.
  • “I’ve loved this course and it’s been a good anchor for me during a time of transition. Thank you Bodhipaksa for helping me to access that gentle place of abiding, where I can appreciate being sustained.” Kathy M.

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Soft eyes, open attention, calm mind

The main problem most people have in meditation is that their thoughts are much more vivid than their direct experience of the body. This leads to an internal battle where their attention constantly moves between the breathing and distracted thinking. Yes, it makes it easier when we learn not to freak out about getting distracted. After all, freaking out is just another form of distractedness.

The main meditation instruction we’re given — just keep coming back to the breathing — just isn’t very effective at calming the mind. We can do this for years and still have only limited success in becoming absorbed in our direct sensory experience.

There are better ways. And, it turns out, calming the mind isn’t as hard as we initially think. There are really just two things we need to do:

  1. Keep the eyes soft.
  2. Pay attention to many sensations at the same time.

I’ll say a little about each of these in turn.

Keep the Eyes Soft

What we do here is to allow the muscles around the eyes to relax, and to let our focus be gentle. This is what the eyes naturally do when we’re in a relaxed state and are staring into space. Of course when we’re staring into space we usually aren’t very mindful, but here we’re doing this quite consciously, and in doing so we’re bringing about a state of relaxation by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.

When the eyes are soft like this we can be aware of the whole of our visual field, rather than doing what we normally do, which is to focus intently on one thing or another. We’re no longer focusing on one thing in particular, but are open and receptive. We can now be aware of many things. Our visual experience is softer, but also fuller, richer, and more restful. This is true even when the eyes are closed, as they usually are in meditation.

As it happens, softening the eyes not only makes it possible for us to be aware of many things in the outside world, but also makes it possible for us to be aware of many things internally as well. There seems to be some kind of correlation between the openness and receptivity in our visual sense and the openness and receptivity in our interoception — our ability to sense our inner states.

Before, with the eyes narrowly focused, when we tried paying attention to our breathing, we did the same internally as we would do externally — we focused on one small thing.

Now, with the eyes soft, we can be aware of many sensations of the breathing.

Pay Attention to Many Sensations

When we’re paying attention to many sensations, our experience is much richer. No longer are we trying to observe one small area of our breathing. Potentially we can be aware of the breathing throughout the entire body. We can notice how various parts of the breathing process all work together. The breathing becomes an aesthetic process that we can appreciate, enjoy, and find fascinating.

And the mind is now fed. Before, it was underemployed, and in order to keep itself fed it created distracting thoughts. Now it’s fully occupied, and it has no need to generating fantasies. Our field of attention is spacious and open rather than narrow. So when thoughts do arise, they’re just one small part of our experience, and they’re less likely to catch our attention

In the Community Newsletter accompanying this article, I show how we can pay attention to three different areas of the breathing: the belly, the upper back, and the nostrils forming a triangle of sensation. But there are other approaches to paying attention to many sensations.

For example we can observe the breathing as a kind of soft wave of sensation that sweeps up and down the body as we breathe out and in. Or we can be aware of the breathing as a three-dimensional experience. We can be aware of the skin (which also has this 3D quality). We can be aware of everything that’s entering the senses and the mind — sounds, space, light, inner sensations, thoughts, feelings.

As long as we’re paying attention to many sensations, the mind will tend to calm down. The important thing is to keep the eyes soft.

When we do get distracted — which will probably happen less often, but will still happen — we can regard our thoughts as a kind of mindfulness bell, reminding us to soften the eyes. Because it’s almost inevitable that as we’ve become distracted, the eyes have become tight again.

Now our direct sensory experience is more vivid, interesting, and compelling than our thinking. And so it’s easier to have a calm mind.

Softening the eyes, in fact, has the potential to radically transform our meditation practice. It opens the way to complete, joyful absorption in our direct sensory experience.

And it’s something we can do outside of meditation as well. You can try it right now. Try it while you’re walking. Try it while you’re eating. Try it while you’re having a conversation with someone. I can pretty much guarantee that it will help bring an unprecedented level of calmness and presence into your life.

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Zen the heck out of your suffering

Photo by Ali Abdul Rahman on Unsplash
The other night, at about 4 AM, I woke up feeling very anxious. I’d been dreaming about being in a city I used to know well, and not being able to find my way around. The dream itself was only mildly unpleasant, and certainly wasn’t the kind of thing that I’d associate with the heart-pounding, dry-mouthed, squirming-in-the-solar-plexus kind of sensations I awoke to.

I lay there and tried to think if there was anything that was objectively worrying me—something that would warrant this level of alert. I couldn’t think of anything. In fact, all that seemed to be going on was that I was thirsty. I’d overheated during the night and had become dehydrated. And I think what was going on—because it’s happened before—was that my mind was using extreme anxiety to wake me up so that I could get a drink of water. If that’s what was happening, it’s effective, but it seems like a mean trick.

After downing a glass of water I lay there, waiting to get back to sleep, experiencing the anxiety, which was still strong enough to stop me from getting to sleep. These things can take a while to settle down.

Combatting Anxiety

Over the years I’ve adopted many different responses to anxiety. Early on I learned that it was helpful to take my awareness into the body, and away from my thoughts. Simply paying attention to the breathing helps. More specifically, because paying attention to the breathing in the belly has a grounding and centering effect, this calms and slows down the mind, and combats anxiety. Bringing awareness into other sensations that are low down in the body—for example your feet on the floor if you’re standing, or your buttocks on your seat if you’re sitting—has a similar effect.

These approaches are often helpful, but sometimes there’s a tendency to think of anxiety as an “enemy” that you’re trying to get rid of. It’s as if you’re attempting to “game” your physiology in order to replace it with calmer feelings. And they sometimes don’t work at all, or can even make things worse, when you’re faced with very powerful or long-term anxiety.

So when for several years my life became one long crisis—trouble with the IRS because of my tax accountant failing to submit my tax returns, divorce, debt, housing insecurity (including a few weeks of homelessness), cancer, more debt (medical bills this time), and my livelihood being threatened because of technological changes—I had to find a better approach. I had to find a more self-compassionate approach.

Befriending Anxiety

I’d learned, and had at times practiced, the art of turning toward painful feelings rather than trying to quell them. This is the more self-compassionate approach that I’ve been teaching for many years now. This is what I now practiced doing. In a more self-compassionate approach, we see our anxiety not as an enemy, but as something beloved within us that needs our support. Some primitive part of us feels threatened, and is crying for help. The sensations of anxiety that I’ve described above are that cry for help. And our task is to turn toward our painful feelings, and to offer them our support and our love.

And so we can treat our anxiety in the same way we might treat a frightened baby or pet. An insecure part of us is communicating through sensations of anxiety. A more compassionate, wise, and mature part of us communicates with it in turn. We can show empathy by letting our anxiety know that we are present for it, and that we care.  Also, we can offer soothing touch, perhaps laying a hand on our heart or belly. We talk gently and reassuringly. And we can regard it with a loving gaze.

With mild anxiety I’d say it’s fine to “combat” it, through diverting our attention toward the body. It’s even better, though, to offer it love. And this approach will help with more powerful and long-term anxieties as well. But there’s another approach that I’m turning toward more and more these days. This involves asking a simple existential question in order to release anxiety.

Releasing Anxiety

Here’s the question: Who is anxious?

What this question is doing is looking for the “Self” that is experiencing this anxiety. The question leads us to explore around the anxiety and see if there is any entity that we can find there. What I inevitably find when I do this is I find a bunch of ever-changing sensations. There’s nothing solid or stable. Everything is permeable and intangible. There’s no self to be found.

And at that point, happiness arises. A sense of freedom and joy comes into being and surrounds and permeates the anxiety. Sometimes the anxiety vanishes. Sometimes it’s still there but it simply doesn’t matter anymore.

This is a well-known practice, by the way. I didn’t invent it. Probably I first saw it used in the Zen tradition. I struggled with what to call this. I settled (provisionally) on “releasing anxiety.” But you could also call it “Zenning the heck out of your anxiety.” The name doesn’t matter.

This is the questioning that frees. Dogen was the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism in Japan in the 13th century. He said, “Great questioning, great enlightenment; little questioning, little enlightenment; no questioning, no enlightenment.”

So I offer you this question, which of course can be applied in other circumstances. Who is upset? Who is angry? Who desires? We can create a sense of freedom and joy around painful feelings and emotions by asking these very simple questions.

I’d add one caveat, though, which is that it may be unwise to seek (and fail to find) the self unless we’re already fluent in relating to ourselves compassionately. From time to time I hear from people who have taken up practices such as these and have experienced great fear, have lost any sense of meaning in their lives, or have found themselves unable to feel joy. This doesn’t happen often, and when it does it seems to happen when people have an unbalanced approach to practice that doesn’t include lovingkindness or compassion meditation, and where spiritual friendship and genuine spiritual community don’t play a role.

But as long as you have the ability to show love and kindness to yourself, I’d suggest that you take up the practice of “Zenning the heck” out of your suffering.

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