Posts by Sunada Takagi

STOP and be mindful

People often come to my meditation courses because they want to learn how to slow down their crazy busy lives.

So you start sitting for 10, 20, or maybe even 30 minutes a day. But after some weeks of this, you still feel like things are crazy busy and all over the place. So your meditation isn’t working, you say to me.

Here’s my first thought. I’m wondering if you’re thinking of meditation as something you can drop into your life for say, 30 minutes a day, and have it counterbalance the other 15 or so hours that your mind is on full tilt. (I’m assuming you spend 8 or so hours sleeping or resting). Certainly, meditating 30 minutes a day is better than not doing it at all. But looking at it from a common sense perspective, is it reasonable to expect a 30 minute sit to cancel out the effect of 15 hours of frenetic activity?

Hmmmm…. so how do we slow down? Obviously we can’t quit and go live in monasteries.

I think a shift of perspective is in order here. There’s a much bigger context that we need to take into account.

Meditation isn’t like an anti-anxiety pill that will slow things down just by dropping it in. It’s really more a way to begin training ourselves to BE a different way. The point isn’t just to relax and recharge – and then go right back to what we were doing before. We practice BEING more calm and measured in the laboratory environment of a sitting practice so we can learn to BE that same way in the rest our lives when we’re NOT meditating. Even in the midst of a frenetic day. We’re training ourselves to stop feeding that busy energy into our body and mind, so that over time, a measured steadiness flows out of us naturally. All the time. Not just when we’re on the cushion.

And it’s not the 30 minutes of sitting alone that does the trick. It’s the thread of mindfulness that we carry throughout our day that brings the sanity back into our lives.

But that’s HARD, you say. Yes, it is. But it’s doable.

Here’s one tool to help you get started. This simple acronym — STOP — reminds us to be mindful during the day. It stands for

  • Stop: Mentally step back from whatever you’re doing, even for a second or two.
  • Take a breath: Literally, bring your attention back to your breath.
  • Observe: Take stock of what’s happening right now, especially in your body and mind.
  • Proceed: Resume ONLY after you’ve really paused to assess where you are.

This doesn’t take any extra time out of your day. It’s not something additional you have to do. It’s a simple but powerful way to insert a sliver of mindfulness in your day. It’s also a way of taking what you’re practicing on your cushion out into your life.

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We need both a formal sitting practice AND an informal mindfulness practice. The analogy is like learning to play an instrument. The formal practice helps us to gain our “chops” in a quiet, comfortable place at home. But then we also need to practice how to perform on stage, in riskier situations and with other people in the mix. To be a true musician, and a true mindfulness practitioner, both are absolutely essential.

At first, you might feel lucky to remember to STOP only once a day, and maybe only just before you go to bed. That’s OK. That’s a good start. Do it whenever you remember. Over time, it’ll come more often and more easily. Give it time.

Yes, it’s a slow process to train ourselves this way. It’s not a quick fix. But it’s a way to create change at the core of our being. And isn’t that really what we’re after?

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When metta doesn’t mean “love”

I remember feeling very frustrated – and frankly a little baffled – when I was first learning the metta bhavana practice. Especially around the fourth stage, the difficult person. How was I supposed to feel warmth and affection for somebody I admitted not getting along with?

It was a tall order, and the whole idea left me feeling inadequate. I often sat there wondering what the heck metta was supposed to feel like, because I just didn’t get it. I figured there must be something wrong with me. I’m wondering if you’ve ever found yourself in a similar place.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with me or you. One of the problems stems from the typical translation of “metta” as “lovingkindness.” While that’s not incorrect, it’s a little misleading, especially in the case of the difficult person. I think many of us have such strong images of what “love” means that it limits our perspective.

I recently came across a story that beautifully illustrates what metta for a difficult person REALLY is. A Thai monk by the name of Ajaan Fuang tells of his encounter with a snake while on retreat. It had come into his room and taken up residence behind one of the cabinets. So the two of them lived together uneasily for a few days, avoiding each other as best they could. The snake didn’t seem to want to leave, even though Fuang left the front door wide open.

Finally on the third day, Fuang quietly addressed the snake in meditation. He said, “Look, it’s not that I don’t like you. I don’t have any bad feelings for you. But our minds work in different ways. It’d be very easy for there to be a misunderstanding between us. Now, there are lots of places out in the woods where you can live without the uneasiness of living with me.”

And as he said those words, the snake quietly slipped out the door and left.

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So this is metta for a difficult person. For some people (like that snake), it wouldn’t be appropriate to approach them with love and affection. They don’t want it from us. They don’t trust us, and we don’t really trust them either. We see the world in very different ways. In fact, if we try to hug a snake, it would probably bite us back! Obviously, that would not be wise.

But we can still wholeheartedly wish for their happiness and well-being — on their terms, not ours. Sometimes the best way for two people to be happy is to part ways. So in this case metta is more like respect and goodwill, as opposed to love and affection.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the Buddha was a very pragmatic man, and that his teachings reflect that. If I find myself struggling over my practice, then it probably means I’m barking up the wrong tree. There is no need for struggle.

Sometimes, the best thing I can do is to accept my own limits. I don’t have the heart of a Buddha, and I’m not able to love all beings genuinely. Not yet at least. And that’s OK. I still have my aspirations and intentions. And they will bear fruit in time. But for now, to struggle and beat myself up over my inadequacies does no good whatsoever. Best to let it go and move on.

And that moving on in itself is a practice of metta. Metta for myself, that is. I’m learning how to face everything in life with gentleness and acceptance. Including my own failings and foibles.

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Motivating myself to start a healthy new habit

I’ve been working on getting a daily yoga practice going. I thought it might improve my overall energy levels, and help with the chronic tension in my back and shoulders. But it’s been a “two steps forward, one step backward” sort of path. It’s especially on those days when I’m feeling pretty good that I tend to slack off. I think what the heck, I don’t really need it today. But then one day becomes two, then three… And I find myself feeling sluggish and tight again. Ugh.

So I’m re-experiencing firsthand what it’s like to try and get a healthy new habit going. It sure isn’t easy. How do we keep ourselves motivated?

We all take up these practices for a reason. We know they’ll be good for us. We think they’ll help deal with (fill in your pet problem here). And it’s perfectly natural and human to focus on results. After all, why else are we doing this?

But I’m seeing that it’s a trap. Sure, there’s plenty of research showing that yoga and meditation improve your health in all kinds of specific ways. But the thing is, it’s not a predictable mechanistic process. There is no guarantee that taking up meditation will solve insomnia in X weeks. Or that yoga will calm anxiety in Y months. In fact, it’s very possible there are other influences fueling your particular insomnia or anxiety. In that case, these practices might have little effect. Expecting results is always a questionable thing to do.

The Buddha taught meditation as a path to end human suffering. Not as a fix-it treatment for specific ailments. The reason it helps our ailments is because it transforms us at the root cause of our suffering – i.e. cuts down on our neurotic way of chasing after every single thing we think will make us feel better. When we stop bouncing around like a yo-yo, the resulting calm creates a healthy foundation for the entire body. But when we chase after yoga or meditation with our same old neurotic wanting mind, we’re still trapped in the cycles of our own suffering.

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I, for one, have dropped my expectations. Things ARE improving, slowly. But I’m not looking for specific things anymore. I’m putting my attention on something much bigger. I’m working on learning a healthier way of being, and yoga happens to be the instrument through which I’m working. I know it’s the HABIT and how I engage with it that will change me. It’s not something to achieve. It’s an ongoing practice. And it’s how I show up for myself that will work the magic.

So what’s my motivation? Well, to use the Buddha’s terminology, it’s to end my suffering. And to learn to do it HIS way. Not my deluded ways, which I’ve tried often enough to see that they don’t work so well. So what this means specifically for me is:

  • Don’t judge whether my practice went well today or not. It’s really not relevant. As long as the long term trend is forward (including the backslides), that’s all that matters.

  • Take responsibility for my choices and their consequences. There will be days when I just don’t feel like practicing. Without beating myself up, I’ll note the consequences of skipping a day. Maybe nothing happens. But it’s one less day that I didn’t make it a habit. Am I okay with that? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I take each incident on its own terms.

  • Question my whims, moods, and cravings before acting on them. For example, if I’m procrastinating, there’s something going on worth investigating.

  • Stop measuring and comparing myself against others. My yoga class meets in a room with a full wall mirror. Need I say more? Really, all I need to do is start where I am and point myself forward. It doesn’t matter what others are doing.

  • Learn how to motivate myself. In other words, observe what works best for getting myself through challenges. Sometimes I need a kick in the pants. Sometimes I need to cut myself some slack. It’s good to know which is which.

  • Face my limits and work very mindfully with them, but watch that I don’t cross over into “too much” territory. Especially when working with old injuries, weak areas, and new scary poses.

  • Stay in the moment and savor it. After all, it’s the only time when practice happens. If I decide that it’s worth spending the time to practice, it’s worth engaging myself in it fully. Especially on the days when I think I’m too busy to practice.

  • Always be kind to myself. In other words, do what I think is in my best interest. Even if it’s not necessarily what I want. And never, ever beat myself up.

You’ve probably noticed that this list has nothing specific to yoga. Because it’s not about yoga. It’s about life. I can’t say for sure that yoga has become a real habit yet, but I’m giving it plenty of time and space to develop it its own, organic way. And I’m learning a lot about myself in the process. And isn’t that really what matters?

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Mindfully navigating out of depression

I have a long history of depression. And though it’s thankfully not a constant companion anymore, it still drops by for a visit now and then. This past week was one of them. Being in it again gave me another opportunity for practice. But it also showed me how far I’ve come. I have the confidence that there’s a way out.

When these moods come lately, they go up and down, and usually pass away after a week or two. (Thank goodness! It didn’t used to be that way.) And all the things that seem so hopeless and overwhelming when I’m down suddenly turn manageable when the mood passes. Interesting, isn’t it? It’s not like my situation changes. The only thing that changes is the state of my body and mind. When the heaviness lifts, my world is completely different.

This stark contrast has shown me – very directly – how distorted my views can get when I’m down. And how unreal all those thoughts are. I feel fortunate to have been given this gift. It’s a really helpful perspective into the workings of my mind.

Because of this, I’ve now come to treat my depressive episodes as physiological events, not emotional ones. You know how when we get sick, we feel really crappy and miserable? And how we feel a strong pull toward thinking and behaving accordingly – i.e. badly? Well, I now see my depression as the same sort of thing. It’s the same as having a bad cold.

And when I’m like that, I try not to take my thoughts too seriously. And I don’t let them string me along. If I start thinking I’m hopeless and nobody cares about me, well … I can remind myself it’s my depression talking, not the real me. These moods are like thick masks that are temporarily covering my face and eyes. Even though everything I see looks bleak, I know the “me” underlying it is just fine.

See also:

The thing that’s been most helpful to me is learning how to separate out what’s happening physically vs. emotionally. When I very mindfully note how I’m feeling physically, there’s the heaviness, the fogginess in my head, the sleepiness. I don’t try to run away from them. There’s no way to escape from them anyway. It’s far more helpful to face them directly, get closer to them. When I really get to know them well, I can use that knowledge to make better choices in the moment.

But my emotions and thoughts are a different matter entirely. I don’t need to buy into those. It’s much better to investigate and question them. Am I really so tired that I can’t exercise today? Or is it because of my mood? Can I pick myself up and just do it? Or would I feel better by being kind to myself and giving myself a break?

And whatever I decide, there’s no second-guessing. There’s no going back and wondering if I made the right choice. I just make a choice, and move on. Deal with whatever happens as it comes. I stay mindfully with myself every step along the way.

And above all, I always make sure to be completely kind to myself. Feeling bad is never an excuse to beat myself up. Never ever.

I really, really hate being depressed. It’s a terrible, painful place to be. But you know what? I’ve found out how much better it is to stop fighting against it, and just relax into it. When I stop the struggle, I find a gentle, nurturing place inside all the mess that keeps me sane. And I can stay there and ride out the storm with equanimity.

As I’ve practice like this over the years, those terrible thoughts have slowly loosened their grip on me. Some have gone away completely. And as for the ones that are still hanging around – over time they seem to have less and less power over me.

For those of you out there who suffer from depression, I offer my experience as a bit of hope. There is a way out. It doesn’t have to involve drugs. I’m finding my way out, and have the faith that you can too.

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Meditating on anxiety

One of my clients — I’ll call him Mark — took up meditation to help with his lifelong anxiety. He was all too aware of his tendency to over-analyze and worry about everything. He’d been meditating on and off for two years, gone on retreats, read tons of dharma books, done everything he could think of.

But he felt like there was no progress at all. He told me that every sit still featured that same old frenzied monkey mind swinging from tree to tree. It was nothing but frustration.

I have to say, I empathize. I bet you’ve been in a similar place, too. We all take up meditation with some kind of goal in mind. And we really do put in our best efforts. But what do we do when it doesn’t work?

We’ve all been told since childhood that if we want something to happen, we have to MAKE it happen. This is true, up to a point.

But for Mark, this was creating the exact opposite of what he wanted. The harder he tried, the more it stirred up his mind. The more it emphasized how far he was from where he wanted to be. Which brought on more anxiety and self-criticism. The more he pushed himself, the more another part of him rebelled. He’d get into battles with himself.

Ugh! Stop!

For one, I thought his mindfulness practice was doing just fine. It was going so well that he was seeing himself – and his overactive mind – face to face, as it really was. Congratulations, I told him. Your meditation IS working for you. Just because you don’t like what you see doesn’t make it wrong.

When we’re dealing with lifelong habits and tendencies, taking up meditation won’t make them just go away. It’s not like a pill we take to get rid of the parts of ourselves that we don’t like. It’s more like a very accurate mirror. It reflects us back in great intimate detail, so we can see clearly and start working with ourselves better. This is when things can really start happening.

See also:

Sure it sounds unpleasant. But which would you prefer — to stick with the same old familiar habits that aren’t working, or venture into new territory that points to freedom from those habits?

And so how do we point toward freedom?

I think the answer is to give up. I’m serious.

I don’t mean give up meditation. I mean give up the fight. I suggested to Mark that he stop all the effort and obsessing. Just sit and be with what is. Everything changes in every moment. Just observe the organic ebb and flow.

What? How does that help?

Obviously we can’t change what’s already happened. Anxiety, frustration, worry – whatever is there is there, for better or worse. It does no good to get upset about it. All we can do is change the way we RESPOND to what’s there.

So rather than meeting it with more judgment and frenzy, we meet it with acceptance, calm, and kindness. We’re practicing being the sort of person we want to be, RIGHT NOW. We stop perpetuating the same old cycle. If we can’t muster a calm and kind response, even just taking a breath and acknowledging what’s happening is a change in the right direction. ANY tiny step in the direction of less frenzy is great. That’s all it takes.

Mark wondered how he’d know if he’s making any progress. It feels so … well … passive.

I suggested that he drop worrying about that as well. Really, we can’t know what “progress” will look like. We’ll know it when we see it, but we can’t predict what it’ll be in advance — in the same way that we can’t predict what a particular oak tree will look like when holding it in acorn form.

But we DO know that acorns grow upward toward the sun. If we keep our intentions pointed upward in the same way (not grasping or worrying, but just facing upward and keeping a open, positive attitude), progress is inevitable.

As the Buddha said,

“If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never departs.”

Note he said “happiness follows.” Not “we make happiness happen.”

With each small moment of awareness, it’s like we’re watering and fertilizing the seeds of peace in the soil of our consciousness. We can’t MAKE them sprout and bloom. But if we do our part, we can surrender the rest to a natural process that will always come through for us.

I’ve really grown to trust that this is the way things are.

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This precious human birth

When one of Sunada’s best friends from college lost her brother recently, it served as a wake up call for her. It was a reminder that life is short, and there really is no time to lose.

My friend Cecily recently lost her brother to illness. He had just turned 50 the week before he died. She is devastated.

Cecily is one of my best friends from college. We’ve known each other for 32 years. It’s that rare kind of friendship where even if months pass without connecting, we still pick right up where we left off. We’ve never lived anywhere near each other since graduation, but we’ve stayed in touch through all our ups and downs. It’s a friendship I treasure.

When she came to visit after her loss, there was something very poignant about it. It turned into something of a wake up call for me.

I’ve written here many times about my busy-holic tendencies. It turns out I’m in one of my legitimately busiest periods in years. I recently took on a new part-time job, on top of working to build my coaching practice, and teach meditation and dharma. This week, I start attending a training program one day a week. My husband wants to start some home renovations to prepare our townhouse for sale. And I’m keeping up with my singing engagements and voice lessons. I’ve said this many times and I’ll say it again. Everything I’m doing is very important to me. I have a hard time seeing what to cut.

But sometimes I take things too seriously. I get so driven and sucked into my vision of where I want to go that I forget to live my life right now. And Cecily’s visit reminded me of that.

At my sangha group this week, it was timely that we discussed the traditional Buddhist teaching on the Four Reminders. Here’s one presentation of them, in verse form:

This human birth is precious,
our opportunity to awaken.
The body is impermanent,
and time of death is uncertain.
The cause and effect of karma
shapes the course of our lives.
Life has inevitable difficulties,
no one can control it all.

This life we must know
As the tiny splash of a raindrop.
A thing of beauty that disappears
Even as it comes into being.

Therefore I recall
My inspiration and aspiration
And resolve to make use
Of every day and night to realize it.

– Compiled by Viveka Chen, based on verses by Tsongkhapa (14th century Tibetan master)

What this teaching says to me is this. Of all the millions of different circumstances that I might have been born into, I was given this fortunate human birth. I have everything I need, and the freedom to choose how to live. How foolish it is to spend my life like a hungry ghost — constantly grasping after some elusive future.

Right Now is a good time to appreciate what precious gifts I’ve been given. And make the best use of them, both for my own benefit and for everyone else’s. When else could I do that? Besides, I don’t know how long my good fortune will last. Things could change tomorrow. I don’t know. And the opportunity might not come again.

For now, I’m not in a position to change my overloaded schedule. But I can change my mindset. For one, I realize how precious Cecily’s friendship is to me. Even though we’ve been friends for 32 years, there have been big chunks of time when we weren’t connecting. Now that we’re both in our 50s, I’m seeing more clearly how the time ahead of us is finite.

Seeing her and reflecting on the Four Reminders have given me my wake up call. There really is no time to lose.

The image above is the Holstee Manifesto Poster, available for sale here.

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Birthing our butterflies


One of my clients – I’ll call her Kathryn – came to me because she was feeling overwhelmed. Her relationship of five years is fraying. Her career has stagnated. She has money concerns. She feels trapped in the small town she lives in. And she has a little two-year-old daughter to care for through all this. What to do? Where to start?

We live in such a quick-fix, instant gratification culture. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking we need to DO something about this. Right away.

But is that really the most constructive thing to do?

When the ground underneath us falls away like this, we’ve got an open invitation to break out into something new. But creating a new life is an organic process. It has its own natural stages and pace. We can’t rush it.

And Kathryn has been working with that process beautifully. More than anything else, she’s understood that she needs to take time for herself. And get to know herself better. She’s recommitted to her daily meditation practice. And her daily writing practice. And gardening. All these things make her feel grounded and whole. For the first time, she’s allowing herself to quietly savor what comes naturally to her, without guilt.

It’s true this isn’t doing much about solving her big dilemmas. Not yet at least. But that’s OK. More than OK. It’s a great place to start.

If you’re thinking she’s just avoiding her problems – that’s not the case at all. While gardening or meditating, all sorts of fears come up. Could she make it on her own? Will she be poor forever? Will she be stuck in this small town? The big questions swirl around in her head. And she sits, mindfully, being present with it all. She’s deliberately NOT taking any steps to change things yet. She’s just sitting with herself, and taking in all her hopes, fears, disappointments, and sadness. It’s hard, she says. But it’s stretching her in a healthy way. And it feels so honest to be facing her reality in this way.

We can’t hurry through something like this. Every birth of a new life form needs a gestation period. We can’t skip it because it’s uncomfortable. Because skipping means skipping out of the process altogether. Without clinging to the past, or grasping toward the future, we sit and let the shaky, formless, icky stuff take shape on its own. We have to trust that the answers will come out from this mess. Because they always do, if we’re willing to wait and watch.

I’m reminded of the story of the boy who watched a butterfly struggling to be born. Out of a wish to help, he took his scissors and cut away the outer shell of the chrysalis, hoping to help the butterfly break free. But to his horror, it came out as a shriveled thing. It never opened its wings, and died. What he didn’t know is that the struggle serves a purpose. By squeezing through the tiny opening, the fluid from the emerging butterfly’s body gets pushed out into the wings, giving them the moisture they need to open. In his impatience, he had killed the butterfly.

So often we kill our own butterflies with our impatience. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we really want to transform, there are times when the best thing to do is just sit still.

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Finding comfort in my own skin

After tossing and turning through some sleepless nights, Sunada discovered a few things about the discomfort at the root of her insomnia. Realizing that it’s always there on some level, it’s given her something real to work with, day and night.

I turn to look at my bedside clock. 3:18 am. Here I am again, wide awake, staring at the ceiling. Darn it.

This has been happening a lot lately. So I thought, how about trying something different? Why not use that time to meditate? You know, lie in bed, completely present with my body and mind, and being with how it all just IS? You’d think this would be ideal conditions. No distractions. The phone won’t ring. The computer’s turned off. It’s warm and comfy. There’s nothing I have to do. Just rest quietly.

Funny thing though. My mind doesn’t think so. Watching it, it’s so clear. The real problem isn’t that I’m awake in the middle of the night. It’s that I don’t want to be here, and I keep fighting it. I seem to think that somehow — maybe that NEXT shift of position, whatever it is, will be the perfect one that lulls me off to sleep. And of course it isn’t. I’m doing everything it can to avoid facing the fact that I’m awake. The bottom line, really, is that in this quiet comfy place, I’m uncomfortable being in my own skin.

As I lay there, I remembered a story about the Buddha. A king asked the Buddha which one of the two of them was happier. The king had magnificent palaces, a powerful army, beautiful women … everything he could possibly want. Surely he was the happier of the two. Then the Buddha asked him, “Could you sit perfectly still for an hour and be completely happy?” The king thought he could. Then the Buddha asked, “Could you sit for a whole day and be happy? Or seven days? The king had to admit he’d find that difficult. The Buddha then said, ‘Now, I — without moving my body, without uttering a word — can dwell sensitive to unalloyed pleasure for seven days and nights. So what do you think: That being the case, who dwells in greater pleasure: the King or me?’”

The kind of happiness the Buddha was speaking of doesn’t depend on having perfect conditions or feeling pleasure. And here I was, with great conditions and physical comfort, and STILL I was yammering to myself. Pretty pitiful, I thought.

I’m realizing now that this state of being “uncomfortable in my own skin” is something that’s there pretty much all the time. It’s what leads me to distract myself – run around being “busy”, surf the internet mindlessly, putter and waste time. When meditating, it’s that monkey mind that’s so fascinated by the next shiny thing over there. I resist going more deeply into being present, I think, because I don’t want to feel this underlying discomfort. I suppose I could call it anxiety, restlessness, craving for sense experience. Maybe it’s the existential fear that I’m told we all have – fear that if I stop doing things, I’ll somehow disappear. It’s a fear of death. In any case, there’s a real discomfort I feel — a very subtle but real bodily sensation. Especially on those quiet sleepless nights.

The Buddha’s remedy for any craving or aversion is, of course, mindfulness. So I’ve been shining the light of my awareness on this as much as I can.

When lying awake at night, I turn inward, and bring my awareness to that discomfort itself. I give it my loving attention. Like holding a child having a tantrum. It takes some effort, yes. I try to release my grip on it.

First, relax my body. I do a body scan and consciously let go of all the places I’m holding – a leg, a hip, a shoulder. I imagine sinking deeper into the mattress, giving my body weight over to it completely. I notice how entire areas of my body, like my hips and back, had been holding on tight. It feels good to let them go. I also do the same with my mind. Relaxing places where I feel it gripping tightly to a thought, an idea. Open up, soften, let go, surrender.

And as I do this, there are times when I slowly pass through that wall of discomfort and settle into something different. Where I sort of become my awareness itself. It’s like I’m at a deeper core of myself where I float, separate from my unhappiness and watch it from a distance. When I’m there I feel more anchored by my sensibilities, self-respect, and natural intelligence. I can watch those restless feelings pass through my experience as fleeting bursts of energy. And not take their bait so much. For brief moments, I feel more spacious, expansive, and at ease. Bigger than those tantrums that I was caught up in just a few moments earlier.

Being there doesn’t necessarily get to me sleep right away – I’ve had nights where I’d lie awake like this for two hours or more. But I’m at least keeping myself from indulging so much in the fretting and fighting with myself. And yes, eventually, I do fall asleep. And often the next day, I find I don’t feel so sleep-deprived because I actually rested, even though I didn’t sleep through the night.

I’m grateful for my insomnia for showing me this “uncomfortable in my skin” feeling. It’s given me something real to work with. I see it clearly. It’s sharpened my awareness of how it’s there all the time, throughout the day. It’s given me opportunities to practice staying mindful of it, while waiting in line at the grocery store, eating, driving, just about any time. And not letting it rule me. Working with it, I keep aspiring toward the kind of presence that could sit perfectly content through it all, maybe even for seven days and nights, just like the Buddha.

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Getting your meditation practice back on track

You committed to yourself that you’ll meditate. And you do, for a few days or weeks. But then something happens. You miss one day. Then another. And before you know it, you’ve stopped entirely. Hmmmm…. What happened?

As a meditation teacher, I’ve been involved in many conversations on this subject. So I thought I’d look at what leads us to choose not to meditate, and how we might work with that choice more skillfully.

Less than ideal conditions

A very common scenario is putting off meditation on a day when we’re just not feeling up to it. Maybe we’re feeling lousy or distracted. Or the rest of the household is too noisy. Or we only have ten minutes – not enough time, we say. We find all kinds of reasons, big or small, why this is not a good time to meditate.

But let’s think a moment. What are the reasons you took up meditation in the first place? Wasn’t one of them that you wanted to be less a victim of your moods, whims, and circumstances? Sure, a perfect 20-minute sit where you can create a lovely inner oasis would be ideal. But isn’t avoiding meditation altogether when conditions aren’t so ideal a way of falling into your same old traps?

So how strong is your resolve to overcome your habitual tendencies? If we’re serious about changing, then here’s a perfect opportunity right in front of us. We can start by examining our own self-talk that convinces us to slink away from our commitments. And those distractions – are they really as insurmountable as we think they are? What happens when we try sitting anyway, just as we are, just as things are, and let go of our childish desire to have things be exactly the way we want?

Resistance to discipline

Does the thought of meditation bring out your rebellious side? Maybe your attempts at discipline bring up associations of growing up in strict family or school. Or feeling forced to attend religious services that had no meaning for you. Or maybe the idea of sitting still just makes you want to do the exact the opposite.

When we meet our own resistance, I think it’s a good idea to listen to it. I don’t mean to give in to it, but to hear out what it’s really saying deep down inside.

I think people with a rebellious nature tend to be questioners – those that want fully to understand something before accepting it. And the Buddha encouraged this kind of questioning as a necessary skill in our spiritual work. So why not take advantage of this valuable skill that you already seem to have in spades? Why not engage the questioning skeptic, and let her find her own way in?

For example, what if you dropped all the formal structures of meditation, and just let the rebellious side of you enjoy herself? What if you sat in your favorite comfortable chair and did nothing for a while? Don’t even think about getting into a meditation posture. Forget about counting breaths. Instead, you could let waves of relaxation flow through your body along with each exhale. Explore bodily sensations and indulge your curiosity like a child with a new toy. Try approaching meditation in the spirit of what it’s meant to be – an open inquiry into the nature of your experience – as opposed to forcing yourself to follow the form.

I’d suggest that you eventually go back to a formal practice, but there’s no hurry. You can wait until your rebellious side is happy and engaged enough to begin working with you rather than against you.

Frustration over lack of “results”

We all take up meditation with an expectation that it will change us for the better. On the other hand, getting frustrated that it’s not happening as we thought isn’t a good place to be. I often hear meditators say they’re not able to get to a calm and peaceful state. And that leads to a lot of discouragement, self-doubt, and reasons to skip out.

But rather than facing down our discouragement head-on, let’s look at why it comes up. What happens when we get caught up in our ideas of what we think meditation is supposed to be? We try to force our experience to match our ideas — like trying to be calm and peaceful when our mind is nothing like that. We end up sitting and thinking ABOUT meditation – what we want or don’t want – and fighting our experience rather than being with what actually IS. And that does nothing but get us more agitated.

Meditation is about being with whatever is going on, whether it’s distraction, discomfort, unhappiness, even frustration. Whatever it is, there’s nothing “wrong” with it. There’s no such thing as a “bad” meditation experience, as long as you’re mindfully present with it. Because it’s the mindful presence that’s important, not whatever else is going on. There’s a feeling of wholeness and integrity that comes with being with myself and my situation as it is. And paradoxically, it’s when we stop fighting with ourselves that the calm and peacefulness arise naturally, without having to strive for it.

Pushing boundaries more skillfully

There’s a common thread running through all these scenarios, and it’s this: to view our difficulties as the raw material of our practice. They aren’t problems that we need to get rid of. They’re great reasons to get us ON our cushion, not to avoid it. Because they are our path of practice. They’re there to help us learn how to stretch, to grow, to learn to push our boundaries. And isn’t that what we took up meditation for?

There are two key things I always keep in mind when I navigate my way through my practice. One is to be really honest with myself, and take responsibility for my choices. If I choose not to sit one day, that will have consequences. That doesn’t mean that I’m a bad girl, or that I’ve done something wrong. There’s no moral judgment here. I simply mean that not sitting sets in motion a habit of not meditating that will make things a little harder next time. The focus is on my actions and choices, not judgments of my goodness or badness.

At the same time, it’s really important to be compassionate to myself. There are some days when it really IS difficult to get to the cushion. And that’s OK. There’s no blame, no shame. While I stay mindful of the consequences of my choices, I let the whole thing go. Sometimes the best choice is to not meditate on a given day. And I accept that.

When we can see everything we encounter as part of our practice, that’s when our practice starts really to take hold.

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Enlightenment in a myriad of beautiful ways

I found a beautiful article by Jack Kornfield recently, which begins with the question, “Is enlightenment just a myth?” There are so many different descriptions of what enlightenment is like, we might begin to wonder whether it’s all made up.

I’m certainly not enlightened, and so I don’t know the answer. But here’s what I do know. Over the years, I’ve watched as my friends and I have changed. And I mean radically. Some of us bear little resemblance to the people we were ten or fifteen years ago. And this is the interesting part. Though I can see that we’ve all become kinder and more confident people, we’ve all changed in very different directions. I think I’ve softened and opened up a lot. Some of us have become natural leaders and community-builders, though with different stripes. Still others have blossomed in their quieter lifestyles — as artists, healers, and the like.

My point is this. I’m seeing living evidence of the many potential colors that enlightenment could come in as each of us continues to grow. We’re all dedicated to the dharma, and yet expressing our commitment in so many different ways. As Jack Kornfield says,

When you actually experience consciousness free of identification with changing conditions, liberated from greed and hate, you find it multifaceted, like a mandala or a jewel, a crystal with many sides. Through one facet, the enlightened heart shines as luminous clarity, through another as perfect peace, through another as boundless compassion. Consciousness is timeless, ever-present, completely empty and full of all things. … Like the particle-and-wave nature of light, enlightenment consciousness is experienced in a myriad of beautiful ways.

Here’s a link to Jack Kornfield’s full article. I found it inspirational.

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