Posts by Sunada Takagi

Dharma lessons I learned from my cat

I lost my beloved orange cat Rusty last June. There’s something about a relationship with a pet that’s so different from any with humans. Apart from his sister, Bella, I was Rusty’s entire world. He wanted nothing more than just to be with me. It’s like he took it on as his total life’s purpose to love me.

And he always looked so indescribably SAD whenever I had to close a door between us.

Meditating together

Very early in our time together, he figured out that the ring of my meditation timer bell meant a lap was available. Soon after the “bong”, I’d hear the gentle padding of paws approaching. Then I’d feel him hop up onto my lap. He’d circle a few times before settling in, but he always found the perfect position to melt his entire warm furry body onto mine. He showed me what complete and utter trust looked like. I dedicated a special yellow towel to put on my lap to make sure there was no gap for him to fall through.

Before long, we developed a daily routine of sharing a silent space together, just the two of us. It was our favorite time of day.

It’s now nearly a year since his passing, and I still put the yellow towel on my lap to meditate. I so miss him.

Dealing with pain and grief

I’ve read somewhere that the depth of one’s grief is equal to the depth of one’s love. Rusty really did touch into me in a way no human ever could. He broke my heart wide open – to his deep unconditional love, and now, the equally deep pain of his loss.

One of the Buddha’s fundamental teachings is to avoid clinging to the things of this world. Not because it’s bad or wrong. Using grief as an example, it’s because it’s too easy to let a natural and unavoidable pain balloon into self-created stories that worsen our suffering.

Worldly and unworldly pain

The Buddha also distinguished between “worldly” and “unworldly” pain. On the one hand, I could allow this hurting heart to pull me down into pining, sluggishness, loneliness, etc. This is “worldly” pain because it keeps me tied down to a limited (i.e. “worldly”) view of my feelings and thoughts.

But I could also use this pain as a doorway to a bigger “unworldly” perspective. The day after he died, I cleaned and packed away his food dish and litter box. I shampooed the rug he had vomited and pooped on during his long illness. I discarded his meds at the prescription drug disposal. By doing all these things, I slowly let it sink in that he was gone, never to return. He, like all things, is impermanent.

I also see in retrospect how he approached his dying process with such dignity. I’m pretty certain he knew he was dying. And he seemed so matter of fact about it. He was in a lot of pain, but he kept up his “job” of loving me for as long as he could muster. I knew it was time to take him to the vet for the last time when his attention seemed to shift to some faraway place. He seemed ready to go. No fear, no fighting, no clinging. Just total acceptance.

What Rusty taught me

When I adopted Rusty years ago, I had no idea that he would be such a great dharma teacher to me. Not only did he teach me what love looked like, he also showed me how to live gracefully with the truth of impermanence. And that the way to peace is through letting go of what we cannot control. He taught me how to be with painful things, and transform them from worldly pain to unworldly insight.

I am still grieving, and suspect I will for a long, long time. On the other hand, his sister Bella is still with me. And I think one big thing I can do to honor Rusty is to love his sister the way he loved me. But he also showed me what it looks like to simply be a loving presence for others. And that’s a gift that continues to unfold for me.

Rest in peace, Rusty. I’ll be forever grateful for everything you gave me.

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Why we love to worry, and what to do about it

worryJanet, a woman in one of my mindfulness classes, was feeling nervous. She was afraid of speaking up in class. It was a fairly large group – 20 people – and she felt self-conscious about the prospect of so many eyes on her. But she also worried that by staying silent, she wasn’t taking part enough in the supportive community that was forming. And thinking these thoughts made her worry all the more.

I reassured her that there was no requirement to speak up. Everyone was free to talk or not, to the extent they felt comfortable. Just listening in was perfectly OK. Her presence alone was what mattered. But she couldn’t stop fretting about it.

I think we all have a bit of Janet inside us. We start with a little uneasiness about something, and before we realize it, it grows bigger and bigger. Even when we know it’s irrational, we feel pulled in by it.

What’s going on here?

It was a huge relief to me when I first learned of the phenomenon called negativity bias. In short, our brains are wired to focus more on our bad feelings than the good. It’s a survival instinct that comes from our caveman days. It was far riskier to miss noticing a potentially dangerous situation – like a predator – than a pleasant one – like a beautiful sunny day. So we’re biologically programmed to zero in on anything that seems “not quite right”.

In our modern day, we rarely encounter predators or other threats to life and limb. But our bodies still respond in the same way. We sense something’s wrong, and we zoom right in to hyper-focus on it. But it’s important to realize that we’re not to blame for it.

And thankfully, we don’t have to be victims of our biological natures. If you have a tendency to worry too much, there are ways to tame that beast.

Those of you who practice mindfulness will recognize the method of dealing with these thoughts in the moment they arise. Take a breath, acknowledge the thought, maybe label it, and let it go as best you can. Even a tiny sliver of space between you and the thought can help to take some of the edge off of it.

But I’d like to address a different point today. What do you do when the thoughts keep coming, no matter how much you practice this way? When it seems we make no headway over the long haul against this worry beast?

Because our brains give disproportionately high prominence to negative thoughts, it turns out we need a lot more positive ones to counterbalance them. Research suggests that we need five times more positive thoughts than negative ones in order to reach an emotional equilibrium back at neutral. Five times!

So for example, research found that married couples stay happy together when they have five times more loving interactions than say, snapping at each other.

This magic five-to-one ratio seems to hold true in other areas of life as well (here’s an example). It’s not so much about having huge, heart-soaring joyful moments. It’s about noting many simple, little pleasant ones – like stopping to appreciate a beautiful autumn day – that make a difference.

This makes sense to me. If you take a glass-is-half-empty view on life, having a few big happy occasions – even winning the lottery – doesn’t really turn things around. (And remember, that’s not your fault!) But by being mindful of the many small pleasurable moments in life, we’re gradually training our minds to take on the habit of seeing the positive. Just like with any other mindful change, it’s establishing a new habit that counts.

I, for one, definitely used to be more of a glass-is-half-empty person. To some extent, I think it was trained into me with my previous profession. I was a corporate project manager, and it was my job to worry about all the things that could go wrong so I could plan contingencies for them. Suffering from chronic depression didn’t help. Lots of negative habits had built up there.

So one way to reverse a habit like this is to practice appreciating the good. I admit that for the longest time, I resisted the idea of a “gratitude practice” – i.e. explicitly noting (even writing down) what you appreciate and are grateful for. It sounded too superficial and Pollyanna-ish. (Sure sounds like a glass-is-half-empty viewpoint, doesn’t it?)

But I’ve really come to see the value of doing it. What makes this practice work is to stop and feel deep in my bones why I appreciate something. Not just making happy lists, but reconnecting with a genuine felt sense of appreciation, pleasure, contentment, and the like. I think it’s when we lose touch with that side of us that we’re more susceptible to sliding down the slippery slope of worry. I’m training my mind to see that there’s actually another way to see things that’s not about things going wrong all the time.

So if you’re a worrier, please take heart. I hope you see that it’s just a habit, and habits can be changed. What we focus our attention on, grows — including the positive. Yes, it takes some concerted effort to overcome the weightiness of old habits. But the truth is, they can be overcome.

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Meditation as an act of love

Four seasons. Art heart shape for your design“Don’t meditate to fix yourself, to heal yourself, to improve yourself, to redeem yourself; rather, do it as an act of love, of deep warm friendship to yourself. In this way there is no longer any need for the subtle aggression of self-improvement, for the endless guilt of not doing enough. It offers the possibility of an end to the ceaseless round of trying so hard that wraps so many people’s lives in a knot. Instead there is now meditation as an act of love. How endlessly delightful and encouraging.”

– Bob Sharples, from Meditation: Calming the Mind

If you’re participating in the 100 Days of Lovingkindness, it’s because you want to become a nicer person, right? I’m right there with you.

Here’s the thing, though. Anytime we take on a practice with a goal in mind, we can get subtly sidetracked. We sit on our cushion and try to feel more warm-hearted. We try to think kinder thoughts. We try putting ourselves in our difficult person’s shoes. All that trying can make us a little tight, maybe even anxious. We’re striving to reach some imagined wondrous state that isn’t where we are now. And that probably doesn’t feel all that good. Or kind.

Hmmm…. what’s wrong with this picture?

What if you dropped all that self-prodding and just loved yourself, as you are? Rather than trying to make yourself into something else, how about just being loving, right now? When we stop reaching for that something else (which is a subtle form of self-flagellation), we can touch down into that “endlessly delightful and encouraging” place. And there you are. There’s the lovingkindness you were seeking.

Meditation isn’t a tool we whip out to help us achieve some goal off in the future. It’s a way of being that draws out our inherent nature – which is aware, warm, open, kind. Can we embody those qualities, right now?

OK, that’s easy for you to say, you might be thinking. What if I’m depressed or don’t like myself? What if I really don’t want to be where I am now?

Well, no matter how bad things are, we all have some sense of what feeling good inside is like, don’t we? What if just for one moment, you set aside all those yammering unhappy thoughts – maybe imagine putting them in a box off to the side – and giving yourself a break from them for even just three seconds. Doesn’t it feel good to stop beating your head against the wall? What if you took a deep breath, and felt what it’s like to relax those tight, wound-up muscles in your body? If you have a dog, go pet him and note how it feels when you get those adoring eyes back at you.

See what I’m getting at? No matter how depressed or unhappy you are, there’s something inside you that knows what it’s like to feel good. Why not go visit that place in your mind and body? What can you do, in this moment, that would be a simple and kind thing for yourself?

And what if those nasty self-critical or cynical thoughts keep intruding? First, you can forgive yourself that they arose. Blame doesn’t belong here at all. But from this moment forward you could choose not to buy into those thoughts so much. How about labeling them as just another thought, and loosening your grip on them a little? Old habits take a long time to unwind. You can be patient. They’ll subside eventually, as long as you don’t indulge them. But remember, NO beating yourself up!

What if you’re ill, in pain, or grieving the loss of a loved one? And you can’t find any way to feel comfortable in your own skin? Then you could imagine how you’d respond if a friend showed up at your doorstep in your current state. What would you do for her? Wouldn’t you want to give her a hug, sit her down, and show her how much you care? How about doing the same for yourself? Can you sit yourself down and give yourself a metaphorical hug? Maybe even have a good cry if that feels good in its own way?

What if you’re bored with your practice? Well, you could ask yourself, what’s the kindest thing I could do for myself right now? Am I falling prey to a habitual tendency to seek distractions? Do I want to recommit to my longer-term intentions? Can I turn my attention in a kind way to something I know feels pleasurable and interesting (as described above)? Or would I prefer to give myself a break today, as an act of kindness, and keep my sit shorter than usual?

So those are some examples of ways to BE kindness, instead of seeking it out. The real challenge of this practice is to find a genuine connection to an experience of gentleness, forgiveness, warmth, caring, and nurturing, — right now, no matter what state you’re in. And the emphasis is on “genuine connection,” as opposed to “find.” True, it might take some exploring and experimenting to figure out what’s most helpful for you. But if you do it with an attitude of warm, open curiosity, that in itself becomes an act of kindness.

When we respond to everything with this sort of soft touch, lovingkindness gets rooted more deeply into our being. It becomes more and more the way we just are. And that’s how we get there without trying.

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How to get out of your own way

Can You Break Through Question on Barricade RoadblockI used to write regularly for this blog. Pretty much every month, for years. But then last summer I went through a major house move that totally disrupted my life and brought my writing to a halt.

But that’s really just an excuse. I’ll admit it’s inertia and my inner critic that’s getting in my way now. Despite my wanting to do it, I’ve always found it hard to write. And when I fell off my routine, and weeks and months passed, it just got harder and harder to get restarted.

I’m wondering if this sounds familiar to any of you out there. When it feels like YOU are the main thing getting in your way?

I wish I could say there’s a surefire way out of this, but of course there isn’t. As I slowly nudge myself back, I thought I’d share some of the strategies I’m pursuing.

My main approach is to think in terms of planting small seeds of change. The forces of inertia and my inner critic are too overwhelmingly powerful to confront directly. They’re way bigger than me. It’s futile to struggle against them.

But I can mindfully step back, take a breath – and in each moment of awareness, choose to do one very small thing differently than I have before.

So, when my inner critic tells me that last sentence is awful, I don’t have to delete or rewrite it immediately. A friend of mine says she responds to her critic by saying, “Thank you for sharing!” At the very least, I don’t have to fall hook, line, and sinker for the babble my mind is coming up with. Even if I still think that sentence isn’t very good, I can leave it there and at least allow for the possibility that it’s useful in some way. That’s one step in a new direction.

Another strategy is to respect and work with the natural processes of the brain – specifically, its capacity for productivity and willpower. A recent New York Times article cited research that the brain is productive for about 90 minutes at a time. And to sustain productivity, it’s best to rest – take a nap, take a break, or go meditate. So I’ve stopped making myself sit for hours trying to produce something. I now get up, and at least stretch and walk around every hour and a half.

I think this is the same basic idea that Daniel Goleman writes about in an article about building willpower. He says we each have a fixed budget of willpower. If we keep pushing hard on one thing, we’ll have nothing left to face whatever comes next. And that leaves a perfect opening for my inertia and inner critic to step in and mess me up again.

On the flip side, Goleman says that being disciplined in small doses on a regular basis does help to strengthen the willpower muscle. It gets easier to do that thing as time goes on. So I take heart in the knowledge that writing in small doses regularly will help me get back into a routine.

I know it will take some time before things feel like I’m back on track. And I suspect there will be a few stumbles and backward steps along the way. Above all else, I’m being careful always to stay kind to myself. No beating myself up, no unrealistic expectations.

I’m just going to point myself forward and know that I’m doing the best I can. And I’ll keep the faith that over time, many small seeds of change can grow into a forest.

What about you? What are your strategies for getting out of your own way? I’d like to hear from you.

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Practice when life gets tough

Sometimes life comes at us full force and overwhelms us. That’s what happened to me the last few months. Things happened that were so overpowering that all my usual routines went out the window just so I could get through each day. My work, my social life – and yes, my sitting practice – pretty much dropped off my plate.

At times like this, people often say, “Life got in my way.” But that’s so not true. This IS my life. Just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s standing in my way. Actually, I think it’s exactly the opposite. It’s showing me exactly where I need to go to push beyond my comfort zone. It’s like a custom designed life lesson created just for me.

So what happened? My husband and I had been thinking about moving. He has a disability that’s making it increasingly difficult to live in our three-level townhouse. So our plan was to slowly fix up the house over the next year or so in preparation for selling, while casually looking for a new place.

But life rarely goes according to plan.

Our casual looking turned up the ideal place for us – all on one floor, fully wheelchair accessible, in the city, near public transportation (which we need), that we could afford. A rare find. But we couldn’t buy it outright. We had to sell our place first to pay for it. Could we do it? Could we commit to buying this place and then get our current house fixed up and sold in time to pay for it? A major part of our life savings is tied up in our house, so taking big risks wasn’t something we were keen to do.

To make a long story short, we decided to jump. After agonizing about it for a day, we committed to a) buying that property, and b) doing 22 years worth of fixing, cleaning, and clearing out of stuff, under a very tight deadline, to pay for it. And because my husband has that disability, it was pretty much up to yours truly to manage the whole thing.

During the worst of it, it went something like this. I’d wake up, having slept on the couch because the bed had been taken apart and cleared out for the carpet cleaners. I’d go to turn on the light in the bathroom, but the fixture had been ripped out. The microwave, which I needed to make breakfast, was on the floor in the living room. And I had to move the vacuum cleaner and boxes of stuff aside to open the door. Every plate and spoon I used had to be washed and put away immediately after use because the kitchen counter was being sanded and refinished. Workmen were around the house, banging and clanging. Meanwhile, every delay and setback — and there were several — meant that unmovable deadline loomed closer and closer.

As the weeks dragged on, I grew exhausted and irritable. I snapped at my husband. I got into arguments with our broker. I felt grouchy and miserable, but I was too stressed out to do much better. And no surprise, my meditation practice was in tatters. If I could sit at all, my mind was racing around all the things I was worrying and feeling anxious about.

But even though my daily sits were a mess, I tried to stay close to my practice — my informal practice, that is. I noted all the ways I screwed up, flew off the handle, and didn’t live up to my expectations. I also saw when I handled things gracefully, resolved a dispute, and calmed myself down. It wasn’t about beating myself up over my mistakes, or congratulating myself for doing well. It was simply to see myself more clearly, and learn from it.

These are some of the ways I practiced during this period.

  1. Don’t fight it. My mind was all over the place – both when I sat and otherwise. This was expected. There was no point in getting upset about it. Why not just observe that mile-a-minute mind? Sure, I didn’t like it, but that’s never relevant. Why make things worse by getting all wound up about something I can’t change? Some forces of nature are bigger than me, so I need to step aside and let them play themselves out. They will pass, given time. This was my practice of acceptance.
  2. Do what I can. As far as my formal practice, I did what I could, which meant some days it didn’t happen at all. No regrets, no beating myself up. I knew this was just a rough phase, and it too would change. I could try again the next day. This was my practice of patience and non-judgment.
  3. Return to my breath. When my worries and anxieties got overwhelming, I kept coming back to my body and my breath. What’s really going on here? This was my practice of staying in the present moment.
  4. Be aware that I’m in a negative state of mind. When feeling stressed, I’m likely to take things personally or see things in the worst possible light. I often stopped and took a breath. What’s really important here? Often I did this only well AFTER I snapped at someone. So be it. That’s better than not noticing. This was my practice of keeping a bigger perspective.
  5. Take ownership of my mistakes. When I said or did things to another person that I later regretted, I went back to apologize as soon as possible. This was my practice of taking responsibility for my actions.
  6. Don’t forget to take care of myself. With all my health issues, eating right and getting enough sleep are essential. I never cut corners on those. But I admit my yoga and exercise routine fell apart. Since I was being somewhat physically active, I allowed myself to slip on those. I felt reasonably sure I could get myself back on track once it was all over. I was doing the best I could. This was my practice of self-compassion.
  7. Stay committed to my aspirations. Even at my worst, I kept connected to my longer term aspiration to be a better person, to live up to my highest ideals. I didn’t always succeed, obviously. But I didn’t give up on them. This was my practice of keeping my intentions.
  8. Let go, and trust that things will work out. One of my weaknesses is that I’m a control freak. It’s incredibly hard for me to let go of doing everything myself, my own way. But even though things don’t go as I think they should, they always end up at what I need. I was constantly reminded that the universe is working the way it should – and I am held in its wise and compassionate embrace.

Practice isn’t just about what we do when conditions are perfect, when we succeed at being mindful and kind. Those times when we’re out of control, feeling crummy, and stressed out – they’re also a great time to observe ourselves and learn how we are in the world. After all, don’t we take up meditation so we could learn how to navigate life’s difficulties more gracefully? Life gave me a perfect opportunity to practice exactly that.

By the way, we sold our house last week. We move to our new place in mid-September. All is well, and hopefully life will return to normal soon.

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How to move forward by being here now

We all come to meditation with some kind of wish for self-improvement. Less anxiety, more peace of mind, better focus – these are among the more common goals I hear. But somewhere along the way, most of us get stuck in a trap. When mindfulness helps us see ourselves more clearly, our goal can start looking very far indeed. We’re STILL too distracted. We STILL can’t seem to stop beating ourselves up. We STILL do and say things we regret.

Hence disappointment and self-criticism arise. A poverty mentally sets in. Clearly where I am now isn’t good enough, and I look instead to a far horizon when things will be better. Some day…

That’s the trap. Haven’t we just put ourselves into the exact opposite of the peaceful, content mindset we had aspired to in the first place?

Ironically, I think the best way to move forward toward goals like these is to be present, here and now. One way to do this is to reframe our concept of what “working toward goals” looks like. Rather than striving toward something off in the future, how about right now, in this moment, BEING more the kind of person that you aspire to be?

We can practice whatever skills or behaviors we understand of it now. And I mean literally right now. It means we make a choice in this moment to act in a different way then we habitually have in the past. Not succumbing to an anxious, poverty-stricken mindset might be one place to start. Even if it’s only 1% different than before, that’s a step in a forward direction. Put together a hundred steps like that, and over time we will have made great strides.

It also helps to hold our goals and aspirations more lightly. It’s like going on a hike up a scenic mountain. Sure, the goal is to reach the summit, but if we’re hyperfocused on that goal, we could miss the whole point of hiking, which is to enjoy the climb itself. So instead, we keep pointing ourselves mindfully in the direction of the summit, but also stay fully present and open to whatever surprises might arise on the way. There are always unexpected scenic vistas or dangerous crossings to watch for. We might even decide part way up that a side road looks more interesting, and change plans. If we make that choice explicitly, what’s wrong with that?

With personal development goals, we often can’t know in advance what the summit looks like. And chances are we don’t have a clear sense of how to get there either. All we can do is show up, right now, and take one step from here. Isn’t that the only realistic option?

So next time you hear yourself bemoaning how you STILL get distracted in meditation, or STILL whatever, stop and ask yourself – am I falling into the poverty mentality trap here? Is it helping me to see things this way? What is something more positive I can do – even if it’s simply to forgive myself for my mistakes? That’s a perfectly good step in a forward direction. In fact, sometimes that’s best and only thing we can think of to do.

Take what small steps you can, and don’t forget to celebrate your small victories, too.

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The dance of allowing

There is no controlling life.
Try corralling a lightning bolt, containing a tornado.
Dam a stream and it will create a new channel.
Resist, and the tide will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry you to higher ground….

I recently discovered this wonderful poem by Danna Faulds (which is an excerpt — the full poem is here.) It has really struck me because the themes of letting go and allowing have been coming up everywhere for me.

My unconventional life, where I’m earning a living as a dharma practitioner and teacher, is full of uncertainty. There are no clear paths for me to follow, and the ups and downs can be pretty wild. Teaching and coaching also demand a constant dropping of my facades of self-protection. That’s because the more open and vulnerable I am, the better I’m able to connect, heart to heart, with another person. And I’ve written in this blog before about my health issues – my chronic fatigue, depression, and injured wrists. They constantly demand that I change plans, do things differently, and shift expectations. These are just a sampling of the ways I feel surrounded by constant demands to let go, let go, let go.

When I mentioned in a recent personal newsletter about my health issues, I received many emails of sympathy and support. And believe me, I really appreciated them! But I also wanted to express that living this way doesn’t mean I’m just stoically enduring my suffering. It’s becoming something different – quite positive really — and I’ve been grasping for words and metaphors to describe it.

When a certain pattern persists, over and over again, it’s clear to me there’s a message behind it. I need to get closer to it to hear what it has to say. I know it’s a sign that I’ve gotten into the mistaken habit of going against the grain of the world, and it’s my resistance that’s causing the friction. I can also tell there’s freedom on the other side. I can smell it.

An image that came to me recently is of dancing. Dancing with an unpredictable partner in a 100% committed, full-bodied embrace. My life, with all its demands to let go, is my dance partner – a very powerful, lifelong partner who is pointing me in the direction of freedom.

His presence feels to me like a stream, a force, a current — something that carries me along. I’m learning to lean into him, so close that our movements and energies are completely merged as one. When I’m that close, I know immediately and intuitively when he’s going to move or turn, so we move together as one. And I can’t predict very far in advance what he’ll do – it’s only a moment-to-moment thing, communicated through the touch of the present. He leads, and I move along with him. When I find my way to flow and add my energies to his, our combined creative power moves in amazing ways.

There are also times when that current takes me to some scary and difficult places. But I know it’s where I need to go, so I try not to resist or hold back. It demands a lot of courage to allow the current to flow just as freely, regardless of how I feel about it.

And let me be clear that I’ve NOT become a totally passive follower. I still have to take responsibility for myself, do my own part. I have to make sure I stay healthy, rested and alert, so I am able to dance, for example. I also need to keep my conventional life as a member of American society intact – for example, maintain a home and financial means to stay alive and present in this body, functioning in this world. My dance partner won’t just give those to me on a platter. That’s what I mean by doing my part.

And there are times when he gives me the space to dance alone. Sometimes he steps back and waits for me to make my own choice, move in a new direction, take a leap. He doesn’t encourage me in any particular direction, because it’s a true fork in the road. It really is up to me to decide what to do. And then once I make a choice, he comes over and rejoins me wherever I happen to be at the moment I decide. We create a new flow from that point forward.

I also know that he would never, ever harm me. And I know there are no “wrong” turns. No, I don’t mean that I’ll never make mistakes, get hurt or feel pain. They’re too much a part of the fabric of life. I understand that if I try to wall myself off from those unpleasant things, I’m also walling off all the good things. And I can’t learn without making mistakes. I can’t selectively shut out the parts of life I don’t want. It’s a short-sighted strategy that really doesn’t work. No, that’s not what I want.

When I say my partner would never harm me, I mean that he is always pointing me, guiding me, to higher ground. And it’s only by letting go and allowing him to show me that I can find my way there, to real freedom. He is the most challenging, no-nonsense, uncompromising partner I’ve ever had. But without question, he is also the best teacher I’ve ever had.

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A back tip for meditators, or how to sit with more ease

Can’t seem to find a comfortable way to sit in meditation? Here’s something really simple to try. It’s actually a mindfulness practice in itself. It’s a way to balance your natural ability to relax with the forces of gravity to find a well-aligned posture that’s effortless and free. I do this myself at the beginning of every sit, and find it really helpful.

For a visual cue, imagine your body as like a bunch of children’s wooden blocks, stacked one on top of another. It can rise up pretty high, as long as you place each block squarely on the one below. Gravity exerts a pull straight down the middle of the stack that keeps it well-balanced.

Doing this in effect also creates an upward flow of energy that allows you to stack the blocks up high – certainly higher than if you piled them crooked. So even though we think of gravity as a force that pulls downward, when it’s used well you can think of it as creating a natural upward lift as well.

We can do the same thing with our bodies. If we stack our spine so that each “block” is squarely placed on the one below, we can sit upright with ease, without having to use a lot of muscular effort to hold us up. Gravity keeps each part of the body rooted on the one below, and we find an effortless way to rise up sitting.

If you normally slump, you might think that slumping is more comfortable. And for longer periods of sitting, it probably is better than trying to hold yourself up straight. But that kind of holding is a perfect invitation for back tension and pain. And it’s NOT what I’m talking about here.

Here’s how to do it. Think of your body as like that stack of blocks. It’s actually four blocks as follows:

  • Hips
  • Mid-torso/waist area
  • Upper back/chest
  • Head

So let’s start by aligning the hips. First we need to find our sit bones. If you’re not sure where they are, try sitting on your hands. You’ll immediately feel a bony protrusion from each hip digging into your hands. Those are your sit bones.

Now try this experiment. Start by tilting too far forward on those sit bones. I mean to the point where you feel way off balance. Notice the muscles in the back of your pelvic area engage to try to hold you up. Obviously you won’t want to sit like this for long. Now let’s try going too far in the other direction – too far back. And notice how your abdominals engage. Again, it’s not how you’d want to sit for long.

Now try rocking back and forth, from too far forward to too far back, in smaller and smaller increments. Each time you pass through the middle, you’ll probably feel a spot where all your muscular effort lets go, and everything feels free and easy. Try rocking around that center point a bit until you find it by feel. Don’t try to analyze or think this through. It needs to be felt. That point is the most effortless, upright position for your hips – for YOUR body.

Now let’s work on the mid-torso/waist area, doing the same thing. Try bending forward at the waist, compressing the front of your stomach and rounding out your back. You’ll be slouched forward – and it’s probably won’t be comfortable for long. Now try arching your back in the other direction, opening up your belly area and arching your back. Again, it’ll probably feel like too much. Now try swinging back and forth between those two extremes in gradually smaller increments, passing through the middle point where it feels easy. That middle is where your mid-torso is stacked most optimally on your hips.

We can do the same for the upper back/chest area. Try alternating between having your shoulders slumped forward vs. pushed back. Find that easy spot in the middle that’s just right.

Then the head. Alternate between your chin being dropped forward and tilted back (please be careful not to tilt too far back – you don’t want to injure it!) For each, we’re looking for that spot in the middle that feels easy but also firmly placed on the “block” below.

Now check how your body feels overall. Does it feel light and at ease? Does your spine seem to float and lift upward without effort? Don’t try to check in a mirror to see whether you look straight. This isn’t about how straight you LOOK, but more how it FEELS. We’re aiming for the balance point between a felt sense of ease on the one hand and lift on the other.

Keep in mind that the balance point isn’t something you find once and for all. Your body is a dynamic organism, constantly shifting and changing. What you’re sitting on, or even your mood can affect what feels best in the moment. So you’ll want to stay alert to these shifts, and adjust as needed to ever changing conditions. If your comfortable posture seems slumped, don’t worry about it. If you keep working in this way, your posture will likely straighten gradually over time.

If you approach your sitting practice in this way, you might find yourself mindfully interacting with your body and surrounding conditions in a sort of dance with your present experience. It’s your reality, as experienced through your body. And as it turns out, that’s THE most direct way possible to experience the present moment – through one of your senses.

I invite you to try it. It has woken me up to a whole new world of experience. Maybe it will for you too.

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How “letting go” helps us get things done

Joe, a student in my online class, was worried that meditation would hurt his career. He works in a very competitive business where everyone is single-mindedly pushing and driving hard all the time. The whole idea of “letting go” seemed absurd in that context. But at the same time his stress and anxiety levels were sky high. He knew this wasn’t a sustainable way to live.

Yes it’s true that in meditation, we’re told to drop everything and let go. But that doesn’t mean becoming passive and ineffectual. There’s more to this instruction than meets the eye.

There’s an image that comes to mind for me to illustrate what letting go is like. Imagine we’re kayaking down a river. One way we could do it is to paddle like hell, trying to force our way around, fighting the currents, insisting that the kayak go exactly where I want it to go. And doing it how I want to do it.

Or, we could survey the terrain and current before jumping in. Then we ride the current and let it take us most of the way to where we want to go. We steer to make sure we don’t get dashed against rocks or end up heading down the wrong side of the river. We could also use a calmer bend in the river to stop and look ahead to plan our next stretch. We can steer our course without using nearly as much effort this way, adjusting our path as we go along.

Life can be the same way. We don’t have make all the effort ourselves to make things happen from beginning to end. If we expand our view beyond our self-absorbed need to reach our goal, there’s a whole universe of structures and currents out there that can help us.

At work for example, if we find people who have common goals and interests as we do, our combined energies can often accomplish more than the sum of us individually could. Involving our boss in our plans sometimes results in him clearing a path in front of us, getting us resourses, additional help, budgets, etc. Tagging onto existing workflows and procedures means we don’t have to create everything ourselves.

Letting go can help us in our inner world, too. Have you noticed how creative ideas often pop up when you’re taking a shower or walking the dog? In other words, when you’re not really trying? Recent neuroscientific research1 suggests that making less effort is what helps. When we become effortful in problem solving, it generally means we’re pushing our way through our old, familiar ways of doing things. And often, those are exactly the ways that haven’t worked, but we keep pounding at them anyway. When we keep repeating the same thing over and over, we become blind to other possibilities. So to be “not effortful” means to inhibit the thoughts that don’t work in order to leave room for something else to emerge.

Not being effortful also means your mind is quieter and more conducive to new ideas. A creative thought is one that brings up a long-forgotten memory or combines some of them in a new way. Neurologically speaking, they involve connections between far fewer neurons than your front-of-mind thoughts. So the signals they emit are much weaker, and generally get drowned out by your much louder, effortful thoughts. To give those quieter thoughts a fighting chance to be noticed, it helps to have a quiet mind. One that has “let go” of jangly discursive thinking.

So letting go doesn’t mean letting go of everything — just the stuff that gets in our way. In this context, it means letting go of our obsessive focus on results, and our inflexible views of how to get there. It doesn’t mean dropping all thoughts about the future, but finding a more open and flexible relationship with them.

The larger perspective of the teaching on “letting go” is an acknowledgment that I am a part of a highly interconnected world. Every time I get hyper-focused on my own little view of the world, I am being blind to the way things really are. To think that I can do things exclusively my way is to be foolish and ignorant. And it’s bound to get me into trouble, or at least cause me a lot of stress.

But at the same time, I’m not a helpless victim either. I am the agent of my own free will, and can use it to steer my path through life. With mindfulness, we can skillfully navigate our way through all these forces to get to a better outcome. And it’s not just me that benefits — because everything I do ultimately benefits everyone.


1. See How to have more insights by David Rock, Psychology Today, Sept 5, 2010.

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Sampajañña: unraveling lifelong habits with mindfulness

It’s discouraging, isn’t it, to watch ourselves fall repeatedly into our same old habitual traps. We try to practice mindfulness, but it can be frustrating. Do you ever have days where you’re so caught up that you realize only at night, despite your best intentions, that you weren’t mindful for even one moment?

And it’s especially hard when we’re face to face with lifelong tendencies that resist change in a big way.

But don’t lose heart. It doesn’t mean you’re no good at this. After all, you NOTICED that you weren’t being mindful. That noticing is a positive event. Even though it happened after the fact, you observed something you probably weren’t aware of before. This is a good thing! This is progress. And it’s this emerging awareness that’s going to pull you through.

There’s an aspect of mindfulness from the traditional scriptures that applies here. It’s sampajañña, which is Pali for something like mindfulness of purpose. Sampajañña means always keeping our sights on where we want to go, our intentions. It introduces the dimension of time to mindfulness.

Mindfulness isn’t only about seeing what’s happening now. It’s also about seeing cause and effect. Like seeing how something we did in the past created the situation we’re in now. We see the results of our mistakes, and make a resolve to start doing things differently. We also see our successes, and think of how we might build on them. It’s about seeing in a clear-headed way the results of our choices. And also seeing that we HAVE choices, and starting to take responsibility for ourselves.

We look at these things not as a way to beat ourselves up, but to keep our sights on where we want to go. We all have some image of how we’d like to be – whether it’s more confident, peaceful, kind, whatever. Maybe today, right now, we didn’t do things the way we would have liked. When we see how we don’t measure up, applying sampajañña means not giving up on ourselves. We may have fallen short today, but we still have our intentions. We still keep our eyes on the prize. We keep moving ahead.

And what if we feel stuck and clueless about what to do? For starters, we could stop taking our self-doubting thoughts so seriously. They are just thoughts, after all. They’re not doing anything to help us move forward, are they?

We could also try doing SOMETHING, and see what happens — as an experiment. It’s more fodder for cause-and-effect learning. Sometimes when we’re lost, it helps just to walk around the bend to get a different view – maybe it leads to a clearing that helps us to see further ahead.

Or we might simply stay still for while, not thrash about so much – mentally, emotionally, or actively. It’s analogous to when you’re in water over your head. Thrashing about can make you sink, but if you lie still you’ll float easily on the surface. It’s a similar idea here. Sometimes it’s our own overreacting that creates problems for ourselves. Can we let go of our anxiety and fears, and just be? And allow some clarity to settle in on its own?

So mindfulness isn’t something to achieve. It’s not about “getting it right” and reaching for some ideal state of mental clarity. I think for most of us, that’s a near impossible standard. I think mindfulness, especially in the context of sampajañña, simply means being there for ourselves over the long haul, and never giving up on ourselves. It’s an attitude or an approach to life, not an endpoint.

What ultimately help us unravel our lifelong habits is doing the best we can, wherever we are now. And accepting that the pace of change is often beyond our control. The time and circumstances might not be ripe yet. But we can trust that everything we’re doing now is laying the groundwork for the future. We can still be an active participant in our lives. We can still show up for ourselves. And isn’t that really what’s going to get us through?

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