Posts by Bodhipaksa

“Let these three expressions: I do not have, I do not understand, I do not know, be repeated over and over again.” — Padmasambhava

One time, when I was rereading a massive Tibetan Buddhist text called the Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, I was struck once again by the spiritual power of one particular quote: “Let these three expressions: I do not have, I do not understand, I do not know, be repeated over and over again. That is the heart of my advice.”

I quoted these words to a friend, and she was completely puzzled. “Isn’t your spiritual path all about knowing and understanding things?”

In a way it is. In a way it isn’t. I’ll say more about that in a minute. But first some background.

Padmasambhava was an Indian teacher who travelled to Tibet at the invitation of King Trisong Detsen. His name means “Born from a lotus” and is shortened just to “Padma.” That’s how I’ll refer to him from now on. The king wanted to convert his nation to Buddhism, and in fact had previously invited a noted scholar-monk, Shantarakshita, for that very reason. (Shantarakshita means “Protected by peace.”)

Shantarakshita had been the abbot of a major monastery in India, and his approach to practice emphasized the study of philosophy. This was how one tamed the mind. In the support of this, he had large bodies of Buddhist texts—sutras and commentaries—translated into Tibetan. But this approach failed to resonate with the fiercely devotional and pagan Tibetan people, and definitely not with the king’s ministers, who followed a form of paganism and were fiercely opposed to Buddhism. In a symbolic representation of this mismatch, it’s said that as fast as the walls of Shantarakshita’s monastery could be built up during the day, the demons of Tibet would dismantle them at night. Hence Padma’s invitation.

Padma was a different kind of teacher. He was steeped in the teaching of Tantra, where the aim was not to eliminate potentially destructive energies such as craving and ill-will, but to harness and redirect them toward positive ends. He was a sort of shamanic teacher, who tackled the demons of Tibet, battling with them until they promised loyalty to the teachings.

Shantarakshita and Padma both taught meditation, but they had different approaches. If craving and hatred are mental poisons, then Shantarakshita’s approach was to use antidotes to eliminate those poisons. Padma’s was to see how these poisons could be used medicinally.

Padma’s instructions for meditation often deal with “allowing the mind to rest in its natural state.” The mind, resting in awareness, is naturally clear, blissful, and wise. Ultimately we don’t “effort” our way to enlightenment. It’s already there.We let ourselves settle into it. We let go into it.

To make some sense of that, let’s turn to a simile, or series of similes, that the Buddha used. He talked about various disturbances of the mind being like water whipped up by the wind (worry and restlessness), water that’s stagnant (laziness), boiling water (ill will), water that’s been dyed (craving), and water that’s had mud stirred into it (doubt). In all these similes, something pure, clear, and natural has been altered in ways that make it unwholesome or dangerous. In all of these similes, if the water is allowed to be at rest, it returns to a pure state. Boiling water, left alone, cools. Water that isn’t stirred up by the wind becomes still. When it’s still, it reflects clearly, and we can also see into its depths. Mud stirred into water settles, and the water becomes pure. And so on.

How do the expressions, I do not have, I do not understand, and I do not know fit in with this? How can they be spiritually useful?

The idea that we “have” something, whether we’re talking about a physical possession or the belief that we possess some kind of truth, leads to disturbance in the mind. When a possession is threatened we get anxious, or depressed, or angry. Think about how you feel when a physical possession is lost, or broken, or is compared to something “better.”

And our understandings and what we think we “know” are just other ways of having or owning. What I think Padma is referring to here is when we cling to particular ways of seeing things. We do this in order to feel secure. Pretty much all of us say “But I don’t do that! I’m open-minded!” And yet it usually bothers us if someone actively challenges our views on things like politics and religion. It even bothers us even if we just learn that someone has different views!

Having, understanding, and knowing disturb the mind. They also limit it. They stop us from being open and curious. They’re forms of holding on, that prevent us from letting go, which is what we need to learn to do.

So back to that question, “Isn’t your spiritual path all about knowing and understanding things?” I said earlier that the answer was both no and yes. It’s no in that it’s not, ultimately, about developing an encyclopedic understanding of the Buddha’s teachings or of later teachings. It’s not about mastering the map. It’s about traveling the territory that the map is describing. The kind of understanding and knowing that comes from studying maps is fundamentally different from the kind we get from traveling the territory.

The Buddha talked about this, when he was asked whether what we taught was something he had memorized. He said,

When clever aristocrats, brahmins, householders, or ascetics come to see me with a question already planned, the answer just appears to me on the spot. Why is that? Because the Realized One has clearly comprehended the principle of the teachings, so that the answer just appears to him on the spot.

Just before saying this he gave the example of knowing how a chariot is built and how it works. When you understand this from experience, when you’re asked about the topic you don’t have a bunch of pre-prepared, memorized statements to make. You just speak spontaneously.

I think what Padma is getting at is that we maintain an attitude of skepticism about our having, our understanding, and our knowing. That we hold all these things provisionally and lightly. That we be open to learning. That we be curious about what we might learn. That we don’t confuse what we have heard with what we know from experience. And that when we talk to others we distinguish between whether we’re talking about our knowledge of the map, or our knowledge of the territory.

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.

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At times I thought I was crazy…

It’s Bodhipaksa here, and I want to tell you (more) about…

My Big Idea!

A few months ago, realizing that offering our online meditation courses by donation was no longer viable, I came up with the idea of turning Wildmind into a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative.

The idea was that we’d have 1,500 shares available for sponsorship. When people like you sponsored these shares, for just $6 a month, they’d get access to the body of online meditation courses that I’d created over the years, along with some other perks. This would also give me the financial stability to continue to teach meditation. It’s a win/win proposition!

The Big Question: Would It Work?

I have to say that early on, I wondered if I was insane. I really started to doubt whether there were enough people who would step up and take advantage of this initiative. Fortunately it turns out that I wasn’t crazy after all!

We’ve had incredibly steady growth. I’d feared that we might have some initial rapid growth, followed by a plateau, but so far, three months in, that hasn’t happened.

How You Benefit

We’re now approaching 600 sponsors, because the benefits are so great! More about those in a moment.

On average each subscriber is sponsoring two shares, even though they’d get the same benefits for sponsoring just one, at $6 a month. Why are they doing that? Because they appreciate what’s going on here, and want to support it. So there’s the benefit of knowing you’re supporting something that changes lives.

But there are, of course, other benefits as well.

As a sponsor, you’ll receive a monthly community newsletter. In that newsletter is a link to an exclusive article. There’s also a link to a free guided meditation download.

Here’s the biggest benefit: In each newsletter there’s a link to at least one meditation course that you can enroll in at no extra charge. These are the same courses that we used to offer in the range of $40 to $120. Plus I’m adding new courses. In fact the next new course starts later this month. More about that in a second.

And of course there’s an online community you can join, where you can discuss your practice and, if you’re participating in one of the online courses, chat with me and other participants about how it’s going, and have your questions answered.

Sitting With Bodhi Course: Launches July 15

Soon I’m launching a brand new meditation course. It offers meditation guidance in the form of 28 guided meditations that you can work your way through at your own pace. The meditations, which you can stream or download, are delivered by email.

The only way to participate in this course is to become a sponsor.

Now Is the Time

At the time of writing, over 70% of the shares have already been sponsored.

Once the other shares have been taken up, this opportunity may not again come for a while, and we’ll certainly be increasing the cost of shares—perhaps quite soon.

This really is an amazing opportunity, and I hope you want to join us. If you want to find out more, please use the form below!

Love,
Bodhipaksa

Click here to subscribe to the meditation initiative.

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Sitting With Bodhi: Appreciating Change

Sitting With Bodhi is a unique form of meditation course where you have the opportunity to receive guidance from Bodhipaksa—daily, if you want.

Often change and impermanence are things we think we should reflect on. But Bodhipaksa has recorded 28 meditation sessions that will point you toward a specific aspect of change that you can observe in your direct experience. This helps to liberate us from that all-too-common sense we can have that there is something “fixed” or even “stuck” about us. It also helps us to notice the richness and fascination of ordinary experiences.

The emails begin to go out on July 15. You can enroll anytime between now and August 11. How long the course takes is up to you, since you control the pace of the emails.

How Sitting With Bodhi Works

You’ll be sent 28 emails, each of which contains a link to a new guided meditation, especially recorded for this event.

Each meditation provides a 10-minute lead-in to a particular way of approaching our experience. This series will focus on meditations that allow us to develop radical calmness, peace, and tranquillity.

  • Set a timer and for as long as you want to sit — for example 15, 20, or 30 minutes (12 minutes minimum is recommended).
  • Start playing the meditation on your computer or mobile device.
  • At the end of the recording you are invited to continue with the practice until the end of your chosen time period.
  • The next email won’t be sent out to you until you’ve clicked a special link in the current one. So if you have a busy day and aren’t able to listen to the guided meditation, or if you want to stick with one meditation for a while, there’s no pressure! The next email will only arrive when you are ready for it!

Questions I’ve Been Asked

Q. Am I able to return and revisit a meditation after I complete it?
A. Yes. You can download the meditations and listen to them as often as you want. The Youtube versions will probably be left up forever as well.

Q. Do the meditations have to be completed within the course dates?
A. No. It doesn’t matter how long you take to complete the series. You really can go at your own pace.

Q. Do I have to do previous series of Sitting With Bodhi before I do later ones?
A. No. Like the previous series of Sitting with Bodhi, this is a stand-alone series and there are no prerequisites.

How to Enroll

To enroll in this course, you have to be a sponsor of our community-based meditation initiative. This means sponsoring at least one Community Share. Each community share costs only $6 a month, and membership of the community offers many benefits. We’re sure that you’ll want to keep sponsoring Community Shares long beyond the end of this course.

Membership of the community gives you:

  • Access to all Bodhipaksa’s meditation courses (at no extra charge!)
  • Membership of an online community
  • A special newsletter with monthly meditation downloads (again, no extra charge)
  • Exclusive articles that are only for sponsors.
  • None of these promotional emails!

With almost 500 sponsors so far, we’re making fantastic progress toward turning Wildmind into a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative.

Click here to subscribe to the meditation initiative.

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The self-compassionate way to get things done

A parent shaming us by comparing us unflatteringly with a sibling; a boss humiliating us in front of colleagues when a task isn’t up to their expectations; a partner repeatedly complaining about some household task we haven’t done yet: these are all attempts to “light a fire under our ass” in order to get us to achieve more. Most of us have had this ploy used against us so many times over the course of our lives that we’ve internalized this motivational strategy.

Our inner critic punishes us verbally when it thinks we’ve under-performed. It castigates us for being lazy when we haven’t gotten around to starting some task. Yet despite all this internal criticism, most of us still have a hard time motivating ourselves to do things. When self-criticism fails, the answer is usually more self-criticism. “How,” we might wonder, “would I get anything done if I didn’t give myself a hard time?”

Self-Compassion = Less Procrastination

Yet many studies have shown self-compassionate individuals to be more effective than people who are self-critical. They are also less prone to procrastination. Psychologists at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, compared college students who preferred to begin their assignments early to those who tended to leave them to the last minute. By now you may not be surprised to learn that those with high levels of self-compassion had much less of a tendency to procrastinate.

Procrastination is, in fact, not really a problem of time management but a problem of emotional management. Think about what it’s like just to contemplate a challenging task. Often we’ll find that feelings of anxiety, restlessness, or dread arise. When we’re unable to handle those feelings we try to avoid them by avoiding the task itself. Learning to support and encourage ourselves in the face of discomfort allows us to face challenging tasks rather than avoid them.

Developing Self-Compassion for Your Future Self

One fascinating way that self-compassion helps us to be more motivated is when we develop compassion for our future self, treating it as a friend. I stumbled across this practice while trying to motivate myself to deal with household tasks. Often I would be about to head to bed when I would realize that there were still dirty dishes on the kitchen counter. I was simply too tired to deal with them, so I’d shrug and leave them until the morning. But it was very unpleasant to wake up to the mess I’d left myself.

Faced with my resistance to do late-night cleaning, I started thinking about how Morning Bodhi (I gave him a name to make him more real to me) would feel about waking up to this messy kitchen. From past experience I knew he’d find the mess dispiriting. I also knew that Morning Bodhi would feel happy and grateful waking up to a clean kitchen. So I would wash the dishes, feeling good knowing I was helping Morning Bodhi. Morning Bodhi, of course, was grateful to Evening Bodhi. Having empathy for our future self makes self-discipline easier, turning it into an act of self-care.

No Self-Empathy, No Self-Control

This compassionate approach to self-control is supported by neuroscience. When Alexander Soutschek of the University of Zurich in Switzerland used magnetic fields to shut down a part of the brain long known to be involved in empathy—the rear part of the right temporoparietal junction—he found that he’d also disrupted his subjects’ ability to exert self-control. Impulsiveness, or lack of self-discipline, arises when we’re unable to relate compassionately to our future self.

Self-Compassion Looks At What Benefits You Long-Term

Self-compassion involves considering whether or not your actions will contribute to your long-term happiness and well-being.

Short-term thinking leads to us letting ourselves off the hook and giving up easily; this feels unpleasant now, so I’ll stop doing it. Self-compassion, on the other hand, is about what will benefit you in the long term: this feels unpleasant now, but how will I feel later?

It’s a myth that self-compassion reduces our motivation. In fact the opposite is the case. Self-compassion is one of the most effective ways to motivate ourselves.

Wildmind is a community-supported meditation initiative. Hundreds of meditators chip in monthly to cover our running costs, and in return receive access to amazing resources that support their sitting practice. Click here to find out more.

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We’re building something amazing, and we’d love to have you on board

I’m Bodhipaksa, the founder of Wildmind, and I want to share news of a very special meditation project we’ve launched.

Wildmind is transforming into a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative.

Here’s what that means for you. By sponsoring Community Shares that start at only $6 a month, you’ll become a member of our community. As a community member you’ll get:

  • Access to all of my existing meditation courses (of which there are more than 30).
  • Access to any new courses I run through Wildmind.
  • Membership of an international online community where you can discuss your practice and receive personal support.
  • A monthly newsletter with meditation downloads, and articles that are exclusively for sponsors.

Membership of this community is now the ONLY way to participate in new courses I develop. Once the remaining shares in our initiative have been sponsored, this opportunity may not come again for a while, so I’d suggest acting now.

Love,
Bodhipaksa

Click here to subscribe to the meditation initiative.

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Overcoming resistance to meditation (a self-compassionate guide)

There can be lots of reasons for why we avoid meditating. We might not want to experience particular feelings. We might have built up a sense of failure around our meditation practice. We might worry that doing something for ourselves is selfish. We might be concerned that if we meditate we won’t get things done. Or we might be afraid of change.

And so we find excuses not to meditate. We know it’s good for us. We’ve read news article about it. We know that we’re happier when we meditate. We intend to meditate. But we find that we avoid it. We get busy. We just can’t bring ourselves to go sit on that meditation cushion.

I used to think it would help to understand why I resisted meditation. But that rarely achieved anything.

Ultimately, I found that the most important thing was not to analyze my resistance or to get into a debate with it, but to turn toward and embrace it. This is an important practice in mindful self-compassion.

See also:

So when resistance to meditation arises, try becoming mindful of the feelings that accompany this experience. Where are they situated in the body? What shape do they form? What “texture” do they have? What kinds of thoughts do they give rise to? Notice those things, and just be with the resistance. Let the resistance be an object of mindfulness. Resistance is a state of conflict, and may also include fear. These are forms of pain. Notice this pain and regard it kindly. Offer it some reassuring words: “It’s OK. You’re going to be OK. I’ll take good care of you.”

Now here’s the thing: as soon as you become mindful of your resistance, you’re already meditating. Your resistance is no longer a hindrance to developing mindfulness but an opportunity to do so. And so, wherever you are, you can just let your eyes close. Breathing in, experience the resistance. Breathing out, experience the resistance. Now you’re doing mindful breathing meditation!

Continue to talk to the fearful part of you, perhaps saying things like: “Hi there. I accept you as part of my experience. I care about you and I want you to be at ease. You’re free to stay for as long as you like, and you’re welcome to meditate with me.” Do this for as long as necessary, until you feel settled in your practice.

In this approach the specific content of your resistance isn’t important, because you’re not meeting your rationalizations on their own level. And that’s a good thing, because your resistance is sly.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, your doubt can run circles around you, and arguing with it makes things worse. Your doubt knows exactly what you’re going to say and knows how to make you feel small and incapable. It’s had lots of practice doing this. The one thing your doubt doesn’t understand is how to resist being seen and accepted.

So instead of arguing with your resistance, outsmart it. Surround it with mindful awareness and with kindness.

If you find that the resistance goes on day after day, then set yourself a low bar for what counts as “a day in which you meditate.” Five minutes is fine. That may not sound like much, but regularity is ultimately far more important than the number of minutes you do each day. If you sit for just five minutes a day, you’re meditating regularly. You’ve outwitted your resistance.

One more tip: The only “bad meditation” is the one you don’t do. All the others are fine. So don’t worry about the quality. Just do the practice.

Wildmind is a community-supported meditation initiative. Hundreds of people chip in monthly to cover our running costs, and in return receive access to amazing resources. Click here to find out more.

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Waking up together (Six benefits of spiritual community)

I want to talk about community. Community, or Sangha, plays a very important role in Buddhism. It’s regarded, along with the Buddha, who represents the goal of awakening, and the Dharma, or the teachings that lead to awakening, as being one of three objects of reverence that are collectively known as the “three jewels.” They’re called this because they’re precious. They could also be called the “three treasures,” though, which I think might be a more helpful translation. Sangha is something that is treasured.

Sangha literally means just “a bringing together.” It’s a bringing together of people around a common purpose, which we could say is spiritual development or even spiritual awakening. We come together in order to practice together, so that we may wake up together.

And here we are, having connected through Wildmind, which is a community-supported meditation initiative, or sangha-supported meditation initiative. Here we are, creating a community. So the question arises, how can this community help us to wake up, spiritually?

I’m going to describe seven ways that coming together as a community can help us wake up, but before then I want to say that sangha is not just a question of membership. It’s not that you pay your dues, or whatever, and then by some magical process we’ll experience all kinds of benefits. Sangha is something we have to do and to participate in if we want to benefit from it. We benefit by doing.

So I’d encourage you to make use of the online community that’s open to all sponsors. (If you haven’t figured out how to access that, then shoot me an email — you can do that just by replying to any of the community newsletters.)

1. Community Encourages Us When We’re Down

We all struggle sometimes. We get depressed or despondent. We doubt ourselves, don’t believe in ourselves, and lose touch with a sense of our own worth. And at those times we need others. We may have lost confidence in ourselves, but others still believe in us. And they can remind us or our own value. They can encourage us. And that word “encourage” is rather beautiful. It has “courage” embedded in it. When we lack confidence in ourselves, other people can give us courage. There’s something magical about that!

2. Community Strengthens Our Practice

I remember noticing, quite early on, that it was much easier to meditate when I was sitting with other people. Sitting on my own, 20 minutes of meditation might seem like a struggle, but sitting with others it was easy to sit for 30 minutes or more. Most people have the same experience. When we’re on our own we might feel a bit restless and shaky. Our practice doesn’t feel very strong. But when other meditators surround us, we feel rock-solid. Even with online community, where we’re not physically present with each other, just knowing that others are practicing with us can help us to commit to meditating.

3. Community Offers Us Connection

This is perhaps the most obvious benefit of community. We’re social animals, and even those of us who are introverts need a sense of being meaningfully connected to others. We have a deep-seated need to feel that we are part of something that is larger than ourselves. We have deep-seated needs to see others, and to be seen by them. We can share what’s going on with us, and we can learn what’s going on with others. These connections aren’t just of the mind, but are of the heart. We can care for others, and be cared for by them. This is a particularly meaningful — and perhaps the most meaningful — form of connection.

Sangha lets us see we’re not alone. Sometimes we struggle, and we might think that we’re inadequate — worse than others. And then we see that others have the same kinds of struggles as ourselves, and feel feel less alone, and judge ourselves less.

4. Community Challenges Us

It’s great connecting with other people, but it’s also difficult. That’s why Sartre said that “Hell is other people.” Sometimes people don’t behave well,  or they react to or point out a fault in something we’ve said, or maybe they just express something we don’t like. Recently I found it very hard to deal with the fact that another member of my Order was a climate-change skeptic. I had to deal with quite a bit of reactivity around that. But in the end that’s good. I have an opportunity to learn more about myself, and to work through and rise above my reactivity.

The question arises, “How can I relate respectfully and kindly to someone whose views I disagree with? How can I disagree in a way that doesn’t fall into belittling or name-calling?” Reactivity is a centrifugal force that pushes us apart. We see that in social networks when we block or mute people in order to keep life comfortable. Being committed to a community provides a centripetal force that counteracts this and helps us to grow through our discomfort.

5. Community Helps Us See Our Own Worth

We tend to discount our own positive qualities, but other people can be better at seeing us than we are at seeing ourselves and help to teach us our own worth. As part of my training to join the Triratna Buddhist Order I used to go on special retreats, in which we’d often participate in small discussion or study groups. At the end of the retreat the group would “rejoice in the merits” of each person in turn. Everyone in the group would talk about something they’d admired in that person. There can be a certain amount of discomfort when we’re on the receiving end of this kind of rejoicing, but it helps us to see ourselves more accurately and more positively.

On a related note, one of the things that stops people from contributing in an online community is that sense that they have nothing to offer. But it’s simply not possible for us to know what we have to offer until we offer it. At the very least, putting yourself out there when you think you have nothing to say is modeling the act of putting yourself out there. The simple act of saying something gives others permission and encouragement to come forward themselves.

6. Commmunity Inspires Us

Seeing other people act kindly, compassionately, and with wisdom challenges us in a very positive and even inspiring way. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen members of the Wildmind community (when, in a previous incarnation, it flourished on the Google Plus platform) show great kindness to each other. Often they would respond to each others’ struggles in ways that would never have occurred to me. I’ve learned a lot about kindness in this way. Seeing other people having insights is inspiring. Seeing people develop friendships is inspiring. Community enlarges our sense of what it is to be human.

Let’s come back to that question, “How can this community help us to wake up, spiritually?” In order for it to help us we have to be prepared to be a part of it. Community isn’t a given. It’s something that arises out of people reaching out to each other and making connections. We create it by being part of it. Together we forge community by innumerable acts of bravery, kindness, and communication.

Community is a treasure. It’s invaluable. In fact the Buddha said that acts of spiritual friendship were not half, but the whole of the spiritual life. Awakening isn’t possible without community. So let’s do it. Let’s make this community happen.

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“By means of mutual kindness”

There’s a lovely Pali word, sampiyena, which could be translated as “by means of mutual kindness.”

A beautiful expression of mutual kindness is taking place at Wildmind and transforming what we do here.

For a long time we’ve sustained ourselves by offering online courses by donation. Since there were always good months and bad months, that turned out to be a precarious way to keep the site going. As a result, a lot of energy has been diverted into figuring out how to survive, rather than just getting on with the job of teaching meditation.

So we’re moving to a different model. We’re becoming a community-supported meditation initiative, where people who feel moved to support us give a small sum each month, and we provide spiritual support in return.

Our supporters get access to:

  • All of Wildmind’s existing meditation courses (of which there are around 30).
  • Access to all of my new meditation courses that are run through Wildmind (there’s a new one in the works).
  • An online community where we can discuss our practice
  • A monthly newsletter with meditation downloads, and articles that are only for sponsors.

This is a beautiful example of sampiyena because it exemplifies mutual care — supporters taking care of the needs of a Dharma teacher, who is then able to offer guidance to those supporters and others.

Right now, thanks to 400 sponsors, we’re 55% of the way to our goal of being 100% community-supported.

I’d love you to join us! The benefits above are considerable. It’s amazing that for just $6 a month (although you can contribute more if you like) you’ll have ongoing access to all of that meditation teaching and be part of an international community of hundreds of people. But this is what can happen when many people contribute small amounts to a common end.

In the future, membership of the community will be the ONLY way to participate in new courses I develop. Once the remaining shares in our initiative have been sponsored this opportunity may not come again for a while, so I’d suggest acting now.

You can choose any number of shares to sponsor. The average person sponsors two shares. There are no extra benefits (besides good karma) for sponsoring more shares, but that’s an option open to you if you want to show extra appreciation and if you can afford it. I’d certainly be very grateful if you sponsor more than one share.

Love,
Bodhipaksa


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Seven meditative techniques to help you fall asleep

I used to have great difficulty getting to sleep at night. Sometimes my mind would be racing, usually about something that was troubling me. Sometimes there was nothing much going on in my mind at all, but sleep would simply refuse to arrive. The worst times were when I craved sleep, but as I began to drift and dream imagery started to arise, I’d get excited and wake up again.

But that was then. Nowadays I’m usually asleep within minutes—even seconds—of my head hitting the pillow.

Along the way I built up a toolkit of techniques to help me disengage from the kind of mental activity that gets in the way of sleep and that causes insomnia.

1. Mindfulness of the body

Mindfulness reduces mind-wandering. It helps us spot when our thoughts are unhelpful, so that we can disengage from them. That includes things like recognizing that anxious thinking is stirring up our emotions and keeping us awake. So we recognize unhelpful thinking and let go of it. But the mind has to be engaged with something else instead, so we turn our attention to the body.

Being mindful of the body has a calming effect. Because the mind is engaged with being attentive to the physical sensations arising in the body, it has less bandwidth available for engaging in the kind of anxious thinking that keeps us awake. And the rhythms of the breathing can help soothe us.

So we can scan the entire body, right down to the toes, simply being aware of all the sensations arising there.

Even if there are unpleasant sensations in the body, such as a twisting knot of anxiety in the gut, mindfulness helps us learn to accept them without reacting. Without mindfulness what normally happens is that the unpleasant symptoms of anxiety cause the mind to go into overdrive, which perpetuates our anxiety. Mindfulness of the body helps to break that cycle, allowing us to come back to a state of rest and relaxation, which promotes sleep.

2. Mindfulness of the breathing

The breathing is of course part of the body, but I single it out here because another approach to mindfulness is to be aware of the sensations of the breathing in particular.

Anxiety tends to bring our attention up into our heads, and to the thoughts we’re having there. Often when we’re anxious we almost forget that we have bodies! Anxiety also tends to cause our breathing to be rapid and shallow, and to take place more in the chest than in the belly.

So it’s particularly helpful for us to take our attention to the rise and fall of the belly. As well as taking our attention further away from the head, and from our thoughts, this has a soothing effect. It promotes activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, which again brings us back to rest and balance—and therefore to sleep.

3. Mindfulness of weight

Particularly if you have physical restlessness, it can be very helpful to pay attention to the weight of your body pressing down into your mattress. I’ve found that it’s particularly helpful to imagine that my body is becoming heavier and heavier, as if gravity is gradually increasing up to perhaps two G, at which point it’s as if I’m pinned to the bed..

This sense of weightedness promotes a sense of surrender, which helps with letting go into sleep. It promotes physical stillness, which also helps. And it’s a form of body awareness, which itself helps with going to sleep.

4. Imagery

Sometimes when we’re sleepless we have a lot of stimulating mental imagery running through our minds, and a useful way to divert attention from that is to visualize something soothing and even a little boring. I often imagine that I’m watching rain pattering on woodland leaves on an overcast day. This has the advantage of involving nature, which is soothing. The emphasis is on the color green, which is one of the most calming colors there is. The imagery is beautiful, so it holds my attention, but it’s not stimulating in any way.

This is one of the quickest ways I know to get to sleep. Usually when I fall asleep, what happens is that nonsensical dream imagery arises, and my attention switches to that. That’s the point at which sleep happens. If I’m paying attention to the body, then sometimes the arising of dream imagery jolts me back to awakeness. However, if I’m already immersed in the world of imagery, then what happens is that the forest scene is seamlessly replaced by my dreams, and sleep happens very easily.

5. Slow down your inner chatter

Sometimes when I was unable to sleep, my mind would be chattering away to itself. Sometimes this would be because of anxiety and sometimes it would be because I was excited about something.

I found that if I slowed the pace of my inner speech, and also deepened it, then sleep would happen much more quickly. My own self-talk developed a soothing, droning quality. I’d literally bore myself to sleep!

6. Relax the eyes

One thing I’ve discovered is that there’s a correspondence between our physiological states and how we relate to our eyes. Think about the experience of daydreaming, when your mind is gently and aimlessly drifting in a relaxed way. Usually you’re staring into space, and not focusing on anything in particular, right?

When the eyes are narrowly focused, and the muscles around them tense, then we tend to be in a state of alertness, and even anxiety. On the other hand, when we allow our focus to be soft, and the muscles around the eyes to be relaxed, this promotes relaxation.

It’s very easy to do this. With the eyes closed, just let the eyes be at rest, so that you become aware of everything in your visual field. You’ll probably notice that your breathing very quickly begins to slow and deepen.

7. To unwind, be kind

Lastly, general negativity can keep us awake, whether that’s worrying, judging, irritability, blaming, craving, despondency, or whatever.

And this can become cyclical, so that we start to worry or judge ourselves for still being awake. If we become more emotionally at ease with ourselves, then we break this cycle and it becomes easier to fall asleep.

One of the simplest things to become more at ease is to remember what it feels like when we are kind. In particular, recall an experience of looking with kindness and affection. It can be a memory of looking at a baby or a pet. It doesn’t much matter. Just notice the emotional qualities of caring, kindness, appreciation, and so on, that arise as you recall a memory of this sort. And particularly notice how those qualities permeate the way you are looking.

Next, turn your inner gaze upon yourself, bringing those same qualities to bear upon yourself. Be kind. Be patient. Be forgiving. If you’re sleepless because there’s someone you’re upset with, then regard them with the same kindness.

***

You can of course combine two or more of these techniques together. For example you might adopt a loving gaze while also being aware of the body, and imagining that gravity has increased. Or you might relax the eyes as you pay attention to the breathing in the belly. Play around and see what works best for you at any given time.

Also, do persist when it comes to experimenting with these approaches. At first there may be times they may not appear to do much, but I’ve found that if you persist with them you train the mind to fall asleep quickly.

If you enjoyed this post, and would like to support Wildmind—a Community-Supported Meditation Project—check out the benefits of becoming a sponsor for as little as $6 a month.

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Keep on keeping on!

You might have heard of community-supported agriculture, where people buy a share of the farm’s output, which is delivered to them as the crops become ready.

Wildmind is doing something similar, and is in the process of becoming a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative.

By supporting us, which you can do for as little as $8 a month, you’ll have access to:

  • All of my existing meditation courses at no extra charge
  • Access to all new meditation courses that I run through Wildmind.
  • An online community
  • A monthly newsletter with meditation downloads, and articles that are only for sponsors.

This will give Wildmind the financial stability to be able to focus on teaching meditation, rather than on trying to stay afloat. Already this has made a big difference. Much of the anxiety of the last few years—will there be enough in the bank to cover our bills?—is beginning to evaporate.

In the future, membership of the community will be the ONLY way to participate in new courses I develop. Once the remaining shares in our initiative have been sponsored this opportunity may not come again for a while, so I’d suggest acting now.

You can choose any number of shares to sponsor. The average person has sponsored a little over two shares. There are no extra benefits (besides good karma) for sponsoring more shares, but that’s an option open to you if you want to show extra appreciation and if you can afford it. I’d certainly be very grateful if you sponsor more than one share.

Love,
Bodhipaksa

Click here to subscribe to the meditation initiative.

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