Posts by Vishvapani

Living with change

Everything changes all the time: our bodies, other people and the world around us. In fact, change and impermanence are the fundamental realities of our lives. Change is often painful, so typically we resist it, and that can cause all sorts of problems.

Mindfulness practice helps each of us to see how we respond to life’s uncertainty. We are more able to explore how our reactions can lead us into difficult states on mind such as stress, anxiety and depression. Mindfulness also helps us to accept impermanence and even embrace it.

Here are some exercises that explore change and how it affects us. These are quite potent and you if you think you will find them distressing then just think them over rather than meditating deeply on them. The basis for all reflections like this is self-acceptance or what the Buddhist tradition calls metta

1. Noticing Resistance

A list of all the ways we find to resist change (denial, distraction, blame, resentment etc. etc.) would be a catalogue of our frailty as human beings. These all come from an underlying sense or distress at losing things we love or bring us a sense of security. Mindfulness can allow us to feel that distress directly, and explore how we might let go a little.

It’s important to remember that impermanence isn’t just a negative force. The fact that things are always changing means that we can change in our turn; and that difficulties will pass.

Try this:

Sit quietly, settle down and pay attention to your breathing. Bring to mind something that is going badly for you at the moment. Now reflect that this came about for particular reasons and it won’t stay the same forever. Notice the reactions in your body, feelings and thoughts, staying with those feelings and breathing …

Now bring to mind something that is going well in your life. Reflect that this came about for particular reasons and that it can change as well. Notice the reactions in your body, feelings and thoughts, staying with those feelings and breathing …

2. Letting go of Identities

Perhaps the fundamental way in which we manage life in a changing universe is by having a sense of who we are. We have roles (wife, father, doctor, carpenter etc); and we have identities (e.g. “I’m a winner/loser”; “I’m popular”, I’m an idealist”, “I’m different from other people”). These identities make up the story we tell ourselves and others about our lives

We need a healthy sense of self in order to be happy and healthy, but if we hold that too tightly we will be thrown when the world challenges this idea of who we are. What might it be like to let go of those identities, even just a little?

Try this:

Take eight pieces of paper and on each one write a role or identity that’s important in how you think about your life. These may be positive or negative. Put them in a pile with the most important at the top and the least important at the bottom and turn the pile over. Take the top piece, turn it over and reflect on the role or identity that’s described there, feeling how it is to be that person. Now imagine that this role has vanished from your life and ask yourself the question, “Without that, who am I?”

Go through all the cards in the same way, taking a few minutes to connect with each, imagining it has gone and asking yourself “Without that, who am I?” until you come to the role or identity that is most important to your sense of who you are. Let that go as well and rest in the open space that is left asking, “Who am I, if I let go of all the ways I define myself? What is it like just to be me, without any labels?”

3. Facing Mortality

Our lives, themselves, are impermanent. We all know that we will die, but somehow we manage to keep this knowledge at the back of our minds. People in many cultures have found ways to remind themselves that they are mortal and our time is limited. What would help you do that and make the most of your precious and unique life?

Try this:

Imagine you are on your deathbed and looking back on your life. What is the one thing you wish you had done differently? Now ask what could you start doing that right now to make that possible?

Quotes on change and impermanence

“He who bends to himself a Joy,
Doth the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the Joy as it flies,
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.”
William Blake

“Many people do not realize that we are all heading for death. Those who do realise it will compose their quarrels.” The Buddha (Dhammapada)

“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a
king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.” Hamlet

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A Mindful Christmas Survival Guide

Sad_SantaSad to say, for many of us, the season of peace and goodwill has become a time of stress and indulgence. Here’s a mindful survival kit

Pace Yourself

Christmas starts with battling through the seasonal crowds and keeps going to the New Year hangover. We need to pace ourselves. When you go shopping, take breaks. Sit in a café and follow your breath, regardless of what’s going on around you.

Check Your Expectations

So much stress comes from the idea that everyone should be happy and get on well. But things are as they are: children can get hyper and temperamental; family tensions can come out; old patterns can resurface. Allowing ourselves to experience any feelings of disappointment and frustrations when they arise, can help us find a more creative response.

Look After Yourself

For some people Christmas is a lonely time, and it can bring back painful memories of people you’ve lost. If that’s your experience, make it a time to take care of yourself. Give yourself the space and kindness you need.

Enjoy Yourself – in Moderation

It’s easy to do too much of everything at Christmas: eating, drinking and being entertained. The downside is feeling tired and bloated, regretting the weight you’re gaining, and spending too much money. So take a mindful breath, appreciate the simple things and stop when you need to.

Take Time Out

At family gatherings and celebrations things like meditation are easily pushed out, especially when children are around. So try to maintain your practice and take breathing spaces. Reflect that staying in a better state helps you to respond better to others. You could even try them to join in.

Enjoy the Christianity … and the paganism

If you’re a Christian, the festival’s spiritual meaning is the best antidote to indulgence and materialism. Although I’m not one, I still love the atmosphere of Christmas carols and nativity plays. The Christmas story is universal: celebrating the birth of a child who brings hope; and it’s a pagan festival, filled with the imagery of rebirth and new life.

Go on Retreat

If you value meditation and mindfulness, an alternative to a conventional Christmas is going on retreat. You can experience a different way of being and take meditation practice much deeper.

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Settling the Mind: You Have Allies

8670796_sMeditation means settling the mind, but if you try it you’ll quickly find that this is easier said than done. Our minds are often busy and like to keep thinking about the things that stimulate and interest them. So what are our allies in settling the mind?

 Preparation

Settling is a process. You can’t sit down after you have been rushing around and expect to be calm and quiet straight away. So, if it’s possible for you, take time to prepare for meditation. Make sure the place you are sitting is tidy and beautiful. Light a candle, perhaps. Then spend time carefully setting up your meditation posture. Notice how it feels to be making this transition.

The Present Moment

Many of the thoughts that distract us are connected with the past (things that we have been doing, memories, regrets), or the future (plans, worries, fantasies). Settling the mind means focusing our attention on things that are happening right now, in the present moment. This simply means noticing the sense experiences that are arising right now: your feet on the floor, your bottom on the seat. It can also mean noticing the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing right now without being carried away by them.

Checking In

Give yourself the space to recognise, as sensitively as you can, how you are feeling and what is going on in your experience. What thoughts are present? What is your overall state of mind? That helps us see what we need to do next in the practice.

 The Body

Meditation doesn’t mean thinking about our experience; it isn’t something that happens in our heads. Awareness of the body is direct and it’s a way to become aware of our emotions and our energy, which are often wrapped up in the body. That’s why it’s a key to meditation.

Finding a Focus

We settle the mind by paying attention to something in particular: the meditation ‘object’. In principle, you can use anything, but in mindfulness meditation we usually use the breath, which is always with us and usually has a calming influence. To start with, it’s a good idea to make the object as clear and specific as possible, noticing, in detail, a particular area of the body that is affected by the breath. Your attention, awareness and energy can gather around that.

The Breath

The breath is a powerful object of meditation because it’s naturally soothing and refreshing (unless you have breathing difficulties). We all know that taking a deep breath helps you calm down. The breath connects us to the body, the environment and to the most basic elements of being alive, so it’s a key ally when we want to settle our minds.

Letting Go

Becoming quiet and settled means letting go of the busy ‘doing mode’. Even when we sit quietly, our thoughts keep going because we are still in the same mode and our minds are drawn to the stimulation and urgency these thoughts bring. Letting them go means gradually disengaging from these thoughts and feelings and finding a way to settle into our experience without trying to change it.

Interest

Our minds usually find it easy to engage with plans, activities and worries. Engaging with meditation is subtler. We need to become interested in the process of settling the mind. That might mean noticing the detail in our experience of the breath and body and it might mean including our feelings and emotions.

Finding Your Key

As you become more experienced in meditation, you will get to know the things that help you become more calm, whole and settled. That might mean the breath or the sensations of the body, as I have suggested. Or it might be something that is quite personal to you: a word or a phrase; an image; a certain kind of breathing. Some people like to count the breaths, others contact a sense of kindness. So explore what will help you connect each time you sit down to meditate.

Patience

Because settling is a process, it requires patience. When the sea is full of waves, you need to wait for the wind to die down before it will become calm. Gently, kindly, just keep bringing the mind back, again and again.

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Bringing mindfulness to habits

Many of our ways of coping with the challenges of daily life seem like a good idea, but they turn out to be unhelpful. What happens when mindfulness meets multitasking, rushing, tensing, keeping up and keeping going?

1. Multi-tasking

Time is precious, so it makes sense to do as many things as you can at the same time … right? That’s an attitude our culture encourages, but if our attention is spread across several things, how fully can we take in any of them? And what effect does multi-tasking have on our state of mind? Research suggests that you don’t actually get more done by multi-tasking. It’s more efficient, as well as more satisfying, to give your full attention to whatever your doing so you can do it properly.

A mindful alternative: doing one thing at a time (at least when that’s possible).

2. Tensing Up

Perhaps your experience sometimes goes like this. You know it’s going to be a difficult conversation. You turn it over in your head beforehand. You think you’ve worked out what to say, but when it comes to it, you’re feeling tense. The other person responds badly and you tense up even more. You snap at them. This isn’t going well …

A mindful alternative: staying open to what’s happening. This means noticing tension whenever it arises and finding the space to be open to what the other person is saying, even if you don’t like it. Mindfulness practices can help.

3. Keeping Going When You Really Need to Stop

It’s late afternoon and you notice strain creeping into your work, but you’re on a roll so you just keep going. That evening you’re shattered and realize that the strain was actually much greater than you felt at the time.

A mindful alternative: pacing yourself. Pacing means slowing down or stopping before you want to. That can be a challenge, but the experience of running long distances or managing pain shows that if you pace yourself you can achieve much more.

4. Rushing

Rushing happens when we’re so focused on a deadline that we prioritize speed over everything else. It can go like this: It’s morning and you’re trying to get yourself and the kids out of the house. You clean your teeth faster, eat your breakfast faster, talk faster. By the time you’re all on the road, you’ve had a couple of arguments and you’re rushing to work … and the day hasn’t really started yet.

A mindful alternative: getting off ‘autopilot’. It’s true that some things need to be done quickly, but bringing awareness to what’s happening interrupts the tendency to rush. We need cues to remind ourselves to get off autopilot and take things steadily.

5. Trying to keep up with what’s happening

So much of the information that comes at us through the mainstream and social media carries a hidden message: ‘It’s important that you keep up and stay in touch, otherwise you’ll be left behind.’ So we keep cramming more stimulation into our limited minds, squeezing out the space in which we might feel calm and spacious.

A mindful alternative: paying attention to what we take in through the senses and reducing input. Our attention is a precious commodity, we need to guard it carefully.

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What mindfulness isn’t … and what it is

woman_eating_thoughtfullyMindfulness is all the rage, but there are many misconceptions. It isn’t a form of relaxation, a technique, or even a meditation practice. It isn’t about doing things slowly or emptying your mind; it isn’t Buddhist, and it isn’t scientific. It isn’t easy … but, then again, it isn’t difficult. And it isn’t a fad. So what is it?

1.     It’s not about relaxing
A Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course is about reducing stress, and that means trying to relax, right? Well, not exactly. Mindfulness just means noticing what’s happening, including the things we find difficult. It doesn’t involve listening to panpipes to escape your worries.

2.     It isn’t a meditation practice
On a mindfulness course you’ll learn meditation, but mindfulness is a practice for the whole of life. It means finding a different way to respond to experience throughout the day.

 3.     It isn’t a technique
Mindfulness isn’t something you do. It’s a way of being. You could say it’s a faculty, or a quality of mind that we all have to some extent and can develop further through practice.

4.     It isn’t a way to fix your problems
Mindfulness can help you address stress, anxiety, depression or chronic pain, but not by fixing them. Mindfulness really means living with appreciation and curiousity. Then we can relate in a new way to the things that trouble us, rather than trying to make them go away. 

 5.     It isn’t about doing things slowly
Mindfulness courses include things like eating a raisin very slowly. That helps you notice details that you otherwise miss, and shows up our tendency to rush or do one thing while thinking about something else. But that doesn’t mean that you should do everything slowly. Sometimes slower is worse – like when you’re driving. And some people, who have to do things really fast, like racing drivers and tennis players, are exceptionally mindful. With mindfulness, things can feel slower, even when you’re moving quickly.

6.     It isn’t about emptying your mind
Meditation doesn’t mean emptying your mind of thoughts, like a bucket. Minds produce thoughts – it’s what they’re built for – and keep producing them even when you’re meditating. But you can still become calm and settled by learning to let thoughts go. And exploring your thoughts lets you see what’s bugging you, and even how your mind really works.

7.     It Isn’t Buddhist
The mindfulness practices used in MBSR and MBCT are drawn from Buddhism, but no one owns mindfulness: it’s simply a capacity of the mind. That’s why mindfulness is being re-expressed in secular forms. However, Buddhism embeds mindfulness within its own, distinctive set of values and a wider path to liberation and if that’s what you’re looking for it’s worth finding out more.

8.     It isn’t scientific
Research into the effects of mindfulness and its impact on the brain is impressive. It’s a big part of what’s bringing mindfulness into the mainstream. But although you can measure what mindfulness does, you can’t measure what it is. That’s requires feeling, intuition and sensitivity. Measuring mindfulness is a science; practising it is an art.

9.     It isn’t difficult … or easy
Mindfulness is simple, but life is often complicated. So how does it work? The mindful approach is that you don’t have to work out everything all at once. You just have to be aware and manage what’s happening in this moment. So it isn’t difficult … but it also isn’t easy. What’s happening in this moment might be scary, so mindfulness requires patience and resolve as well as openness and gentleness.

10.  And it isn’t a fad
Mindfulness is certainly popular, but isn’t a fad? Mindfulness is a quality of the mind that has always been there and we’re now learning to harness. And mindfulness is more and more relevant because it counters the speed, distraction, superficiality and general mindlessness of so much modern culture and is causing an epidemic of mental strain and illness. Mindfulness is here to stay.

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Mindfulness means keeping things simple

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Most of us have no end of things to keep up with and sort out. In fact, life sometimes feels bitty, complicated and confusing, and we don’t know how to manage all the demands. Past a certain point we experience stress, feeling that we’ve lost the initiative. Here are some tips on finding an alternative with the help of mindfulness

1.     Come back to present moment experience

Mindfulness means coming back to our experience in this moment, starting with simple, observable sensations. That means letting go, for now, of thoughts about the past and the future that can easily feel confusing. Instead, we ask, what’s happening right now in my body, my thoughts and my feelings? What’s happening around me? Usually, that leaves us feeling clearer and more whole, even if what we experience is uncomfortable.

2.     Find your key

It helps to have a personal key that will help us settle our awareness in the present moment. For many people becoming aware of the body offers a way to do this, noticing the contact of our feet with floor and the support of the chair. For others, the key is becoming aware of the breathing and perhaps taking a slightly deeper breath. It’s good to experiment to find what works for you, and meditation is an excellent opportunity to do that.

3.     Reduce input

We’re getting better and better at increasing the input we receive from the media, social networking, entertainment and the general busyness of our lives. However, psychologists have learned that human attention is a limited resource, so if we want to attend fully to one thing, we may have to let go of others. This goes against the grain of our culture, which sometimes seems to be devoted to distraction!

4.     Leave gaps

Notice the tendency to fill the gaps in the day with some kind of stimulation. Gaps are important. That’s when we can settle down and absorb what’s happening. And it’s interesting to see what we notice in those gaps about our feelings and the world around us. A period of meditation is a kind of a gap in which we give ourselves time and space to simply experience; and the Breathing Space, which we teach on mindfulness courses, is a way of doing this throughout the day.

5.     Pay attention to transitions

Leaving gaps between activities is one way of making a steady transition between the things we do: finishing one thing properly, and then starting the next thing with full awareness. This is important in starting and finishing meditation, and it’s throughout the rest of the day as well. Making conscious transitions helps you feel to stay fresh and have a greater sense of satisfaction.

6.     Manage multi-tasking

Multi-tasking can be stimulating and energizing (for a while) and for many of us juggling social media with other activities has become a part of how we live. But research shows that multi-tasking actually reduces our effectiveness and productivity. So far as we can, it’s probably helpful to reduce the amount of multi-tasking we do. In practice, though, we often have to respond to multiple demands, and mindfulness practice may mean exploring how we can maintain our sense of balance and wholeness while we are multi-tasking.

7.     Remember that things change

The feeling that life is complicated is connected to an underlying truth: everything changes. People, our bodies, situations, our thoughts and our feelings are all changing all the time, whether we want them to or not. Coming back to our present moment experience lets us acknowledge change and let go of our unconscious resistance to it. Conversely, change and impermanence also apply to seemingly intractable difficulties: they, too, will pass.

8.     Let understanding emerge

Sometimes complexity isn’t an illusion: it’s just the way things are. We can’t always simplify the situation we are in, but we can find clarity by coming back to the present moment and what is clear right now. Sometimes, all we know is that things are baffling and difficult; but at least we can know that. Then, a deeper understanding may slowly emerge.

 

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Help, I can’t stop thinking!

rb-calm-woman-eyes-closed-0809-mdnMany of us feel that our thoughts are out of our control. We think about work long after we have left, we worry about the future and keep going over things that have gone wrong in the past. Meanwhile, life seems to be slipping by.

Modern psychology also recognises that compulsive thinking can lead us into stress, anxiety and depression. Worrying about our problems seems important, but it leaves us feeling worse and believing we have less power to change things.

Mindfulness helps by giving us the mental space to stand back, recognise what’s happening and explore alternatives. Here are some helpful approaches associated with mindfulness and meditation.

1. Learning to let go of thoughts

Even a short period of meditation shows that focusing the mind on the body and the breath leaves you feeling calmer and more settled. Everyone finds that thoughts arise in their minds and the practice involves gently guiding our attention back to the breath. In doing this again and again we are learning to let go of thoughts and regain control of what our minds are doing.

2. Noticing that thoughts are just thoughts, not facts

Troubling thoughts reinforce a powerful belief about our situation: I must keep going; only I can do this; if this fails it will be a disaster. Thoughts like this are associated with stress. There is something wrong with me; it has all gone wrong; here I go again. Thoughts like this tend to foster depression.

When we think like this, we believe that the thought is telling us the truth: I really must keep going; there really is something wrong with me. The practice of letting go of thoughts allows us to stand back from them. Then we see that they are just thoughts and we can explore them without necessarily believing them. For many people this is a revelation. It’s liberating to see that thoughts are not facts, just things that happen in the mind. Seeing thoughts in this way makes them less powerful. Then you can explore them, asking if they are true and discovering what you really believe.

3. Accepting difficult thoughts

Often we know it’s unhelpful to keep thinking in certain ways and tell ourselves I wish I could switch off, or I must stop worrying. But we end up like the person who tries not to think about pink elephants. The more we try to control our thoughts by force, the stronger they grow. Our whole life can seem like a fight and battling with thoughts is part of this.

Mindfulness training encourages us to accept that troubling thoughts are a part of our experience, rather than fighting them. We learn to notice these thoughts when they come up without pursuing them or believing that they are true. We can even befriend them.

People with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) experience this especially strongly and mindfulness can be very helpful in working with these conditions. It also helps in avoiding slipping back into depression, which is why medical practitioners recommend Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy to avoid relapsing into depression.

4. Thinking Clearly and Creatively

Of course, thinking isn’t always unhelpful. Reflection, analysis and clarity are all very important. Mindfulness can help us to think more clearly because we are less prone to distractions and more able to notice when feelings are colouring our thoughts. It also fosters creativity because it opens up the connections between thinking, feeling and intuition.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: ‘A man should learn to detect and watch the glimmer of light that flashes across his mind from within.’ Those glimmers are there in all of us: messages from the part of us that truly understands and sees connections and possibilities. That is the basis of creativity. The faculty that lets us detect and watch those glimmers is mindfulness.

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Ten Tips for Skilful Communication

Communication is a huge part of our lives. All our relationships depend on it, but it often seems to go wrong and we can react or lose patience, even with people we’re close to. Here are some suggestions for developing our communication with the help of mindfulness

1.     Notice your habits
Habits probably play a big part in how we communicate, so we need to reflect on how we communicate, and particularly what difficulties arise. Notice if you tend to focus on what others do when things go wrong: change comes when we identify what we contribute ourselves.

2.     Use meditation
When we meditate arguments and unresolved difficulties often rise up into awareness. We can use that time to notice the elements of our experience: the thoughts that go with what happened; the feeling; and how the body feels. These are all clues to what’s going on underneath our interpretations. Notice a tendency to judge ourselves harshly when difficulties arise and encourage a kindly response to ourselves and others.

3.     Identify what’s really important in what you are saying
Communication is most effective when we are able to say, simply and clearly, what’s important and why. If you can share that, others are more likely to understand and sympathise with what you’re trying to say. But it takes some reflection, especially if we have to untangle what’s important from resentments and reactions.

4.     Connect with the other person
Empathy is the real key to communication and mindfulness can  help us listen more fully to what others are say. Use your imagination to connect with them and try to sense what is really important to them, even if it isn’t quite what they are saying.

5.     Be truthful
It’s interesting to notice the small ways in which we can avoid telling the truth: exaggerating, flattering or wriggling out of awkward communication. There’s no easy answer to what we should say when someone asks ‘does this dress look good on me’? But little evasions add up and get in the way of straightforward connection.

6.     Express kindness
Make a point of expressing gratitude and appreciation of others, and look for opportunities to encourage them.

7.     Find the right time
Being truthful can sometimes seem at odds with being kind and the art of skilful communication involves finding the right balance. Sometimes that means finding the right time to speak a difficult truth

8.     Steer clear of gossip
Often conversations in workplaces and social situations involve lots of  moaning, gossiping and criticising. Notice the effect these have on you and explore not getting drawn in

9.     Reduce input
More and more of our time seems to be filled with emails, texts, social media and entertainment. Mindfulness needs mental space, so experiment with chatting less and reducing input. Periods of silence help, especially when you spend time alone or go on retreat

10.  Enjoy language
Love words, read poetry, speak well (and reduce swearing!) The best communicators understand that words are precious and have many meanings and connotations. Read authors who also love and understand language, and bring mindfulness to whatever you write: even emails!

 

These suggestions for skillful communication draw on the Buddha’s teaching on ‘right speech’ and insights from Non-Violent Communication (NVC). If you’re interested in learning more you can follow the online retreat I am leading through October on Tricycle.com on this theme. (The first talk is available to all, the others are for Tricycle subscribers).

 

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Meditation or Drugs: The Downside of Cannabis

New research shows that teenage cannabis use causes lasting damage. As well as the physiological damage, Buddhism suggests that drugs are  about avoiding experience rather than engaging with mindfully with it 

Some of the parents I know with teenage children who use cannabis are fairly relaxed about what’s happening. ‘It isn’t doing any harm’, one tells me. ‘Alcohol’s much worse.’ Others would really like their children to stop but are at their wits end. It’s OK, they say, but not in the house, not on weekdays, or only after you’ve done your homework.

I don’t envy them and no doubt the scientific study reported this week will fuel their worries. It finds that, true to the stoner stereotype, cannabis users have problems with memory, attention and processing information. Most worryingly, the IQs of people who start using cannabis before eighteen drop by an average eight percent, and the damage persists even if they later stop.

The cannabis users I know usually want to chill out, escape stress and access a state of mellow relaxation. Some say it’s natural: a herb, not a drug and an alternative to harried modern living. In fact, some believe, it’s rather like meditation. However, Buddhism has five main ethical precepts and the last is ‘abstaining from intoxicants’. This isn’t a rigorous prohibition, and Buddhists aren’t always strictly teetotal or drug-free. It’s a ‘principle of training’, as we say, that encourages people to avoid drink and drugs because they ‘cloud the mind’ and cause ‘heedlessness’.

The positive counterpart of the precept is the practice of mindfulness: the capacity to be fully present and attentive to whatever’s happening in our experience. In other words, Buddhism posits a choice in our mental lives between avoiding what’s happening if it’s difficult or troubling; and acknowledging or even accepting it.

People who use drugs to circumvent serious emotional difficulties are choosing avoidance, and the work of therapists is helping them to find alternatives to escaping their problems. But the Buddhist perspective is also relevant to those for whom smoking cannabis is just an enjoyable way to relax and be with friends.

This has become increasingly acceptable because it seems harmless. However, the new research suggests that, in the case of teenage cannabis use, that’s far from the truth. If the research withstands scrutiny, laissez faire attitudes will have to change. But alongside the physiological dangers are the emotional and psychological effects of drug use. The fundamental choice we all face is whether to inhabit a haze filled by dope smoke or some other form of sedative, intoxicant, entertainment or distraction; or to engage with our lives wholeheartedly, with all their frustrations and all their beauty.

This was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day slot on  29/08/2012. UK readers can listen to the audio here

 

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Kindly Awareness

If your life feels like a struggle with the world, it may be that your real struggle is with yourself. But if we turn towards our experience with kindly awareness we can find the deepest kind of peace and happiness that comes from within

Mindfulness means paying attention. Simply paying more attention to our surroundings brings many benefits, but something interesting also happens when we also pay attention to the thoughts in our heads and the feelings that go with them.

Many people notice how hard we on ourselves we can be. There’s a constant commentary on everything we do, often including self-criticism, harsh judgments, chivvying and berating. That has an effect and those thoughts turn out to be closely related to stress, anxiety and depression. It’s hard to relax if you feel that what you do isn’t good enough.

That’s where kindness comes in. Noticing our thoughts helps us let unhelpful ones go rather than dwelling on them and that’s a way of being kind to ourselves. But feelings are important as well, and it’s very helpful to find techniques that help us respond to our experience with a sense of kindness.

The Kindly Breath

One way to do this is through using the breath. As we breath in we can imagine that the breath expresses a sense of kindness that enters and fills the body. Words or phrases can encourage that, so we can quietly repeat to ourselves ‘May I be well; may I be happy’, letting the words express a heartfelt wish.

In this way, kindness can be a part of a breathing meditation and it can help us to face whatever difficult situations, thoughts, feelings or sensations (like pain) may confront us.

Compassion for Others

Kindness for ourselves can open into kindness or compassion for others. Our own suffering can cut us off from others, and experiences like stress, pain or depression can make us preoccupied with our difficulties. Connecting with others can be a way out of that, and the kindness we develop for ourselves can grow into kindness or compassion for others.

In fact, one of the most popular Buddhist meditation, taught by the Buddha himself, practices is called ‘development or loving-kindness’ or mettabhavana. In this practice you develop feelings of kindness for yourself, a good friend, someone to whom you feel neutral, and someone you find difficult. Then you spread the kindly feelings to everyone in the world.

if you are interested in learning more about this practice, you can use this guide.

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