on practice – Wildmind Buddhist Meditation https://www.wildmind.org Explore Meditation Online Tue, 12 Dec 2017 22:40:01 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://static.wildmind.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/cropped-favicon-32x32.jpg on practice – Wildmind Buddhist Meditation https://www.wildmind.org 32 32 A taste of mindfulness https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/a-taste-of-mindfulness https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/a-taste-of-mindfulness#comments Fri, 08 Dec 2017 17:53:40 +0000 https://www.wildmind.org/?p=37460

Vidyamala’s online course, Mindfulness for Women: Declutter Your Mind, Simplify Your Life, Find Time to ‘Be’, starts Jan 1. Click here now to enroll!

Get yourself into a comfortable posture. You can be sitting or lying down, it’s up to you. Relax for a moment to allow yourself to settle. Now, notice how your body feels. What physical sensations are you experiencing at this moment? Maybe you feel pressure between your bottom and the chair you’re sitting on or the floor beneath you. What does this feel like? For a few moments, just be open to any sensations in your body, experiencing them with an attitude of kindly curiosity.

Now take a moment to listen

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Vidyamala’s online course, Mindfulness for Women: Declutter Your Mind, Simplify Your Life, Find Time to ‘Be’, starts Jan 1. Click here now to enroll!

Get yourself into a comfortable posture. You can be sitting or lying down, it’s up to you. Relax for a moment to allow yourself to settle. Now, notice how your body feels. What physical sensations are you experiencing at this moment? Maybe you feel pressure between your bottom and the chair you’re sitting on or the floor beneath you. What does this feel like? For a few moments, just be open to any sensations in your body, experiencing them with an attitude of kindly curiosity.

Now take a moment to listen to any sounds you can hear. Observe their quality, register and volume, and how you instinctively respond to them. You may feel an urge to try to identify where they are coming from, but try to park that for a moment and instead simply notice the sounds as sounds.

Your mind might also ‘fly out the window’ towards the sounds. See if you can let the sounds come towards you instead, keeping your awareness inside your body as the sounds flow in through your hearing sense. If you’re in a very quiet environment, then notice the silence.

Now notice your breath. What does it feel like? What parts of your body move as you breathe and how many different movements can you feel? See if you can rest your awareness ‘inside’ the movement and sensations of breathing, rather than observing them as an onlooker. Is it pleasant or unpleasant to inhabit your breathing in this way?

Now allow your awareness to focus on your emotions. How would you describe how you are feeling overall? Are you happy, content, sad, irritated or calm – or is it hard to be entirely sure what you are feeling? Take note of any thoughts that pass through your mind. Ask yourself, what am I thinking? Rest your attention on your thoughts for a few moments: see if you can look ‘at’ your thoughts as they flow through your mind rather than ‘from’ them.

Now spend a few moments resting quietly as you allow your awareness to rest inside the sensations and movements of the breath in your body; and any thoughts, sounds and feelings as they come and go. There’s no need to look for a special experience. Simply notice what is actually happening, moment by moment.

OK, so this may not have been the most extraordinary of experiences, but, if you have engaged with this exercise to any level, congratulations – you have just had your first experience of mindfulness, and have started your journey towards enhancing your awareness of life. The implications of this are immense. It means you can move from ‘autopilot’ – being driven by habits as you drift from one thing to the next – to experiencing life as a stream of creative possibilities and choice.

Vidyamala’s online course, Mindfulness for Women: Declutter Your Mind, Simplify Your Life, Find Time to ‘Be’, starts Jan 1. Click here now to enroll!

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Let the breathing observe you https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/letting-the-breathing-observe-you-in-meditation https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/letting-the-breathing-observe-you-in-meditation#comments Tue, 05 Dec 2017 13:10:51 +0000 https://www.wildmind.org/?p=37490

Photo by paul morris on Unsplash

I’d like to suggest a very different way of meditating.

Normally in meditation we think about observing the breathing. Actually a lot of people think about and practice observing the breath — air flowing in and out of the body’s airways — but I point out that it’s far more useful to observe the breathing, which is a much richer experience. When we’re observing the breathing we’re potentially observing the entire body, and how it participates in and responds to the process of air flowing in and out of our passageways.

In taking this approach of observing the breathing it’s useful first of all to relax the muscles around the yes. This brings about

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Photo by paul morris on Unsplash

I’d like to suggest a very different way of meditating.

Normally in meditation we think about observing the breathing. Actually a lot of people think about and practice observing the breath — air flowing in and out of the body’s airways — but I point out that it’s far more useful to observe the breathing, which is a much richer experience. When we’re observing the breathing we’re potentially observing the entire body, and how it participates in and responds to the process of air flowing in and out of our passageways.

In taking this approach of observing the breathing it’s useful first of all to relax the muscles around the yes. This brings about a change in the way we observe internally, so that we can be aware simultaneously of a wide range of sensation in different parts of the body. With the muscles around the eyes in their default, activated state, we can only observe one small part of the body. I’ve described this as being like switching from a flashlight, which can only illuminate a small area, to a lamp, which sheds light in all directions.

Once you’ve become aware of sensations from all over the body, it’s possible to simply rest there, with thoughts still arising but no longer capturing your attention. Less effort is required, and so there’s less of a sense that you’re doing anything in meditation. Your meditation practice is just there.

While you’re here, why not download Bodhi Mind, our FREE meditation iPhone app?

You can let go even further, though, by allowing yourself to sense that you are being observed by the breathing just as much as you are observing it. You can be aware of the body as a living, breathing, animal presence — a presence that has its own intelligence and awareness.

And just as you are aware of the body, the body is aware of you. Allow yourself to be seen.

Perhaps at first it may be a little uncomfortable to do this. After all, being observed can be uncomfortable. But think of this observation not so much as visual and more as felt, as sensory. And think of your body as a warm, loving presence that enfolds you intimately in its embrace.

This gives us an opportunity to surrender even further, and to sense our meditation practice from a place of deeper receptivity. There’s now nothing to do. We don’t even have to be present for the body, since the body is always present for us. When we come back to mindful awareness after a period of distraction we find that the body is still there, sensing us, and we can realize that it’s never stopped doing that.

This may sound fanciful, or even absurd. I just suggest that you give it a go, and see what happens. It may change your meditation practice, and perhaps even your life.

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Loving and supporting whatever is difficult within you https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/loving-and-supporting-whatever-is-difficult-within-you https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/loving-and-supporting-whatever-is-difficult-within-you#comments Thu, 30 Nov 2017 14:33:01 +0000 https://www.wildmind.org/?p=37493

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash.

Someone wrote to me yesterday, saying that as she was getting into her spiritual practice, anger was starting to arise:

I have very recently started my journey towards freedom of suffering at the hands of myself or others. It would seem as though it has turned into an anger issue with me. So I am looking forward to any suggestions that may help me get to my centered, grounded, healing, happy place.

This can happen. As we’re leaving our comfort zone, fear can be triggered. We can also become more sensitive to the body as we practice meditation, and so we feel our feelings more strongly.

My own experience is that anger is a response

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Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash.

Someone wrote to me yesterday, saying that as she was getting into her spiritual practice, anger was starting to arise:

I have very recently started my journey towards freedom of suffering at the hands of myself or others. It would seem as though it has turned into an anger issue with me. So I am looking forward to any suggestions that may help me get to my centered, grounded, healing, happy place.

This can happen. As we’re leaving our comfort zone, fear can be triggered. We can also become more sensitive to the body as we practice meditation, and so we feel our feelings more strongly.

My own experience is that anger is a response to painful feelings that we haven’t yet learned to tolerate. The good news is that we can learn to accept those feelings so that anger no longer needs to arise. We have built up an expectation that they’re threatening and terrifying — like the monsters I used to imaging lurking at the foot of my bed when I was a child. But just as there wasn’t in reality anything there for me to be terrified of then, there’s nothing really there to be scared of now.

It’s not that the feelings don’t exist, it’s that when we do manage to bring ourselves to accept them, we realize there’s no big deal, and never was. They’re just feelings. They’re patterns of sensation in the body caused by ancient parts of the brain; part of an internal communication system that evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. Once you accept them, they often just evaporate, just like the darkness at the foot of the bed vanishes when you put the light on.

Of course there is a part of us that’s terrified of these feelings, and we shouldn’t pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s going to be there all the time we’re persuading ourselves to turn and look at whatever feelings it is that we’ve been trying to avoid.

While you’re here, why not download Bodhi Mind, our FREE meditation iPhone app?

Maybe those feelings are hurt, or fear, or confusion. When you find you’re angry, drop down into the body and look to see what’s happening around the heart and the gut. Notice what’s there. As best you can, accept it. Tell yourself, “It’s OK to feel this. Let me feel this.” Realize that there’s nothing wrong with having these feelings. It’s not a failure. It’s just a part of you that’s evolved a certain habit in order to try to protect you.

Treat the part of you that’s creating these feelings with kindness. It’s hurt, confused, afraid. It’s not evil. It needs your compassion, not your condemnation.

Practice giving it compassion. Touch it tenderly, laying a hand on the part of the body where those feelings arise most strongly. Tell it you love it. Tell it you care. Tell it you’re there for it and will support it.

By relating to your feelings as parts of you that need help and support, rather than as boogey-men that you’re afraid of, you’ll start to lose your fear.

And you’ll notice along the way that your anger is starting to vanish. It was trying to protect you from your hurt or pain of confusion by trying to push away whatever was triggering those feelings. But when you accept your painful feelings you don’t need to be protected against them.

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“We forget our faults easily when they are known only to ourselves.” Francois de la Rochefoucauld https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/we-forget-our-faults-easily-when-they-are-known-only-to-ourselves-francois-de-la-rochefoucauld https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/we-forget-our-faults-easily-when-they-are-known-only-to-ourselves-francois-de-la-rochefoucauld#comments Wed, 22 Nov 2017 05:14:24 +0000 https://www.wildmind.org/?p=37464

Photo by Derek Thomson on Unsplash

Just as we can’t see what we look like unless we encounter a mirror, often we don’t know what we’re like in terms of our behavior and attitude unless those things are reflected by other people.

There’s a considerable amount of evidence that other people have a clearer picture of what we’re like as individuals than we do ourselves. While we’re fairly good at assessing ourselves in terms of internal factors, knowing better than others what we feel and thinks, when it comes to factors like intelligence, attractiveness, creativity, and competence, others have a far clearer perception of us than we do ourselves.

But sometimes even internal factors are hard to assess. In my role

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Photo by Derek Thomson on Unsplash

Just as we can’t see what we look like unless we encounter a mirror, often we don’t know what we’re like in terms of our behavior and attitude unless those things are reflected by other people.

There’s a considerable amount of evidence that other people have a clearer picture of what we’re like as individuals than we do ourselves. While we’re fairly good at assessing ourselves in terms of internal factors, knowing better than others what we feel and thinks, when it comes to factors like intelligence, attractiveness, creativity, and competence, others have a far clearer perception of us than we do ourselves.

But sometimes even internal factors are hard to assess. In my role as a teacher I’ve often heard from people (usually men) who say things like “After meditating for a few weeks I don’t think I’ve changed, although people who know me say I’m much easier to be with.” To me this suggests our tendency to externalize our mental states, so that rather than see ourselves as impatient we see others as being too slow; instead of seeing ourselves as untrusting we see others as untrustworthy; instead of seeing ourselves as unkind we see others as needing a good kick up the behind, and so on. And so when we change, for example by becoming a bit more relaxed, we don’t necessarily notice that fact, and we interpret this change, perhaps in terms of other people being more cooperative, and so on.

What I’ve just described is perhaps more common when we’re first starting to get to know and to work on ourselves, but even after decades of practice I’m still learning that there are things about myself I haven’t allowed myself to acknowledge. It’s only through being mirrored by others that I come to recognize some of my faults.

While you’re here, why not download Bodhi Mind, our FREE meditation iPhone app?

And those faults are the ones I find hardest to see, because I’ve spent longer learning how not to acknowledge them, and trying to hide them from others. For example, I have habits of dishonesty that I haven’t been very aware of. I can tend to rationalize and whitewash my actions, so that I do things for one (not very noble) reason and then, when called on this, claim that my motivations were much more noble than they actually were. Or I’ll say something, have it pointed out that I was incorrect, and then claim I meant something different from what I actually said. Sometimes I’ll speculate about something, and then try to convince others that I’m more certain in my knowledge than I actually am. Sometimes I’ll feel or think one thing (usually critical) but present another thing to others.

I wouldn’t be aware of those habits if it wasn’t for one friend who has a finely-tuned bullshit detector, and in fact experiences acute distress when people around her are being inauthentic. As a result, she’s particularly demanding when it comes to dishonesty. In the past I’d probably have found her scary and made sure I avoided her. Actually, I do find her a little intimidating, but I really value how she’s pressuring me to be more honest and authentic. I’m finding that I like myself better when I live that way. So on the whole I really value our connection. It’s liberating to be called on my bullshit.

Looking back, I see a pattern in my life. I have to be with someone who’s kinder than I am in order to learn to see my own unkindness. I have to be with someone clearer than I am in order to see my own unclarity. I have to be with someone more honest than me in order to become more authentic and to see the ways in which I’m dishonest.

This is work that I could never have done on my own. We all need others as mirrors so that we can learn to see ourselves more accurately. It’s a scary process to have mirrored those aspects of ourselves that we least admire, but it’s necessary and rewarding work.

Just one other thing: often I hear perfectly lovely people express the belief that they’re actually horrible and unlovable individuals. Sometimes I have my good qualities reflected back to me and am surprised. De la Rochefoucauld was a cynic, and so less inclined to see that just as we forget our faults when they’re known only to ourselves, we also forget our virtues when they are known only to others. A true mirror reflects, impartially, both the good and the bad that is within us.

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Mindfulness: freedom from, freedom to https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/mindfulness-freedom-from-freedom-to https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/mindfulness-freedom-from-freedom-to#respond Tue, 21 Nov 2017 19:00:29 +0000 https://www.wildmind.org/?p=37448

Photo by Justin Luebke on Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/BkkVcWUgwEk

Mindfulness is everywhere these days, but it’s often poorly defined. To me its central and defining characteristic is self-observation. When we’re unmindful, there’s no self-observation going on. The lights are on, but nobody’s home.

Thoughts, feelings, speech, and actions are all functioning, but there’s no inner observer, and so there’s no evaluation going on. Without evaluation there’s no mechanism for recognizing that certain thoughts etc. are causing us or others suffering. And so we’re really nothing more than a complex bundle of instincts and habits. Those instincts and habits can do amazing things, like drive a car (ever “woken up” to find you’ve driven somewhere and have no recollection of the journey?) or read a

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Photo by Justin Luebke on Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/BkkVcWUgwEk

Mindfulness is everywhere these days, but it’s often poorly defined. To me its central and defining characteristic is self-observation. When we’re unmindful, there’s no self-observation going on. The lights are on, but nobody’s home.

Thoughts, feelings, speech, and actions are all functioning, but there’s no inner observer, and so there’s no evaluation going on. Without evaluation there’s no mechanism for recognizing that certain thoughts etc. are causing us or others suffering. And so we’re really nothing more than a complex bundle of instincts and habits. Those instincts and habits can do amazing things, like drive a car (ever “woken up” to find you’ve driven somewhere and have no recollection of the journey?) or read a book (I often would find that I’d read several pages of a bedtime story to my kids and not paid attention to a single word I’d said.

Bodhi Mind iPhone app
While you’re here, why not download Bodhi Mind, our FREE meditation iPhone app?
The key thing is our suffering. Or, to put it another way, the quality of our experience. With no observation, there’s nothing to stop us from making ourselves anything from mildly disgruntled to extremely unhappy.

When self-observation is taking place, we notice the effects of particular thoughts, words, actions, and so on. And so we’re able to make adjustments. We might notice that a certain train of thought is causing us to feel anxious or depressed or angry. We might realize that the train of thought isn’t even true. And we might decide to let go of it.

Mindfulness gives us two kinds of freedom. It gives us freedom from, and freedom to.

By “freedom from” I mean freeing ourselves from the tyranny of habit and instinct, and therefore a cultivating a growing freedom from the suffering that these unmindful behaviors cause. When we’re mindful, these habits and instincts are still there, of course. They don’t magically vanish. But when we’re mindful they’re less likely to control our minds, and instead are just thoughts and desires that we observe and that we may decide not to act on.

That’s radical in itself, because it profoundly changes the course of our being. But we also discover that we have not just freedom from unmindful ways of being, but the freedom to bring about different ways of being. We have the freedom to choose. We can choose to be kinder, for example. If we just remember that being kind is a possibility, we’re more likely to be kind. If we remember what it’s like to feel and act in a kind way, then those qualities are more likely to arise. If we’re free from angry thoughts we are also free to think in ways that are more empathetic and loving.

And what is true for being kinder is true for being patient, curious, courageous, accepting, appreciative, reflective, and for practicing other skillful qualities. With mindfulness we’re free to choose to be different.

Mindfulness gives us the freedom to stop causing ourselves and others suffering through unmindful habits, and to instead cultivate skillful habits that help to improve the quality of our own lives and that also impact other people in positive ways. It’s both freedom from and freedom to.

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Finding meditation’s intrinsic rewards https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/finding-meditations-intrinsic-rewards https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/finding-meditations-intrinsic-rewards#comments Mon, 30 Oct 2017 16:59:17 +0000 https://www.wildmind.org/?p=37396

The mind is pulled in two different directions in meditation.

Peace, calm, and joy are the intrinsic rewards that meditation offers, and in theory that reward system should help keep you anchored in your direct, moment-by-moment experience. That can happen, and in fact that’s a good description of the experience of jhana (dhyana in Sanskrit). Jhana is a state of “flow” in which meditation becomes effortless because the rewards of joy, pleasure, and calmness keep you immersed in your present-moment experience. The rewards of meditation can pull you into your practice. That’s the first pull.

But it’s not always easy to experience those rewards. There’s another pull, which we’re all too familiar with: the pull

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The mind is pulled in two different directions in meditation.

Peace, calm, and joy are the intrinsic rewards that meditation offers, and in theory that reward system should help keep you anchored in your direct, moment-by-moment experience. That can happen, and in fact that’s a good description of the experience of jhana (dhyana in Sanskrit). Jhana is a state of “flow” in which meditation becomes effortless because the rewards of joy, pleasure, and calmness keep you immersed in your present-moment experience. The rewards of meditation can pull you into your practice. That’s the first pull.

But it’s not always easy to experience those rewards. There’s another pull, which we’re all too familiar with: the pull of our distractions. This pull is much stronger. We’ve evolved to have minds that are constantly searching around looking for things that are wrong. Our ancestors’ survival (and thus our present-day existence) depended on a heightened awareness of anything that might threaten our chances of continuing to exist. And although our lives are pretty safe compared to the days when you had perhaps a one in three chance of dying violently, those circuits are still active.

Bodhi Mind iPhone app
Download my FREE guided meditation iPhone app!
So your ability to become absorbed in calmness and joy is hampered by the mind obsessing about some future event you’re anxious about, or a careless word from a friend that hurt your feelings, or some pleasant experience you hope will happen.

The parts of your brain that are responsible for those patterns of thought have been around for a long time and have had a lot of practice in getting your attention. They’re deeply wired into the rest of the brain and have the ability to hijack the brain’s “higher” centers, which are more recently evolved.

And so the powers of distraction are strong. You can let go of a distracted train of thought and return to your sensory awareness of your moment-by-moment experience, only to find you’ve become distracted again, long before you had a chance to get to the “rewards” of peace, calmness, of joy.

Two approaches I’ve found are useful for helping break out of this dynamic are these:

1. Really appreciate the experience of the breathing.

There is a shift in the quality of your experience when you disengage from a distraction. The shift may be slight, but it happens. It’s there. There’s just a little more calm, a little less tension.

Practice noticing those shifts. Really appreciate them. Allow yourself to feel that you’re coming home as you return to the breathing. You can even say words like “Yes,” or “Thank you,” or “Coming home again.”

Doing this will help to enhance your experience of the intrinsic rewards of meditation, so that they become stronger, easier to notice, and more compelling.

2. Disengage from distractions respectfully and empathetically

Treating your distractions as the enemy is a mistake. They’ve evolved to keep up safe and alive. Those are important tasks, and we should appreciate that they are what our distractions are trying to do. They’re not trying to mess up our meditation practice. They’re not trying to make us tense, stressed, upset, or depressed — even if that’s what they end up doing. From their point of view, they are crucial to our survival, and our happiness doesn’t even register to them.

So first, stop reacting to your distractions. This is common advice, of course, but accept that distraction simply happens. It’s no big deal. You can just let go and return to the breathing.

But before you do, say “Thank you.” Say “Thanks. I’ll deal with that at a more appropriate time,” or “Thanks. It can wait, though,” or “Thank you. Later.” Maybe you can come up with phrases that are better than mine.

If you’re signaling to those parts of the brain that their input is valued and will be attended to at the right time, they’re more likely to stop bugging you. Otherwise, they’ll think that their crucial role in keeping you safe is being ignored, which means they think you’re endangering yourself, which means they have to try even harder to get your attention.

This two-fold approach, of valuing but politely disengaging from distraction, while also savoring any increase in calmness, can help make our distractions less insistent and our moment-by-moment sensory experience more compelling. It can help us get more quickly to the rewards that meditation offers.

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“The painting paints itself” https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/the-painting-paints-itself https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/the-painting-paints-itself#comments Thu, 26 Oct 2017 04:05:12 +0000 https://www.wildmind.org/?p=37188

The maker of a brief documentary sent me a link to this video. It’s worth setting aside the six minutes or so that it takes to watch it.

It shows Gert Johan Manschot — a Dutch artist who meditates — in action, creating beautiful Zen calligraphy–inspired paintings. Manschot lives in Texas, which I wish had been mentioned earlier in the video since at first I was baffled at his otherwise out-of-context references to longhorn cattle and cowboys.

Anyway … Monschot discusses his creative process, which involves waiting until the painting paints itself. This is a beautiful way of describing how the creative process involves an absence of clinging to self. This certainly matches my experience

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The maker of a brief documentary sent me a link to this video. It’s worth setting aside the six minutes or so that it takes to watch it.

It shows Gert Johan Manschot — a Dutch artist who meditates — in action, creating beautiful Zen calligraphy–inspired paintings. Manschot lives in Texas, which I wish had been mentioned earlier in the video since at first I was baffled at his otherwise out-of-context references to longhorn cattle and cowboys.

Anyway … Monschot discusses his creative process, which involves waiting until the painting paints itself. This is a beautiful way of describing how the creative process involves an absence of clinging to self. This certainly matches my experience that the less there’s a sense of “I” involved in creation, the more effortlessly the creative process flows.

Art of the Moment from Travis Lee Ratcliff.

This is a painter I’d love to know more about, and I hope that a longer documentary gets made about him.

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Stepping into an “enemy’s” shoes https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/stepping-into-an-enemys-shoes https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/stepping-into-an-enemys-shoes#comments Sun, 22 Oct 2017 22:00:19 +0000 https://www.wildmind.org/?p=37280

Photo by Peter Hershey on Unsplash

We all experience problems of coming into conflict with others, even if sometimes the conflicts take place purely inside our heads in the form of resentment and irritation.

Finding ways to lessen those conflicts has the potential to dramatically improve the quality of our lives, especially since these conflicts are with people who are close to us.

(I’ve used the traditional term “enemy” above to cover all people we come into conflict with, even though in ordinary parlance we wouldn’t normally use that word for someone we have a generally positive relationship with, even if we do sometimes get into disputes with them.)

One way of letting go of our resentments and of practicing forgiveness

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Photo by Peter Hershey on Unsplash

We all experience problems of coming into conflict with others, even if sometimes the conflicts take place purely inside our heads in the form of resentment and irritation.

Finding ways to lessen those conflicts has the potential to dramatically improve the quality of our lives, especially since these conflicts are with people who are close to us.

(I’ve used the traditional term “enemy” above to cover all people we come into conflict with, even though in ordinary parlance we wouldn’t normally use that word for someone we have a generally positive relationship with, even if we do sometimes get into disputes with them.)

One way of letting go of our resentments and of practicing forgiveness is to recognize that the other person’s thoughts, speech, and actions are the result of causes and conditions. This might sound rather abstract, but please bear with me.

We’re all born with genetic and epigenetic predispositions toward certain kinds of behavioral traits. Most of us know that our genes predispose us to be more confident, aggressive or fearful; gregarious, clingy or aloof, and so on. Fewer people are aware that experiences our parents and grandparents have had (and even the food they’ve eaten) can affect the way our genes express themselves right now.

And then we are all subject to conditioning early in childhood. The presence or absence of nurturing, and the kinds of behavioral modeling we’re exposed to, profoundly shape the very structure of our brains, and thus the way we feel, think, and act.

And we’re all subject to cultural conditioning that shapes the way we see the world.

These forms of conditioning affect the kinds of choices we make, and thus what happens to us in life. Some of what happens to us in life may change us in positive ways, but sometimes the effects are to reinforce our early conditioning. So someone who’s afraid of intimacy because of childhood betrayals may inadvertently choose to be with people who don’t care about their feelings or wellbeing. An aggressive person will tend to seek out conflict.

It’s being aware of all this that I mean when I talk about stepping into the shoes of an “enemy.”

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Take anyone you get into conflict with for any reason. It might be a colleague at work who routinely dismisses your suggestions, or a spouse who is often so absorbed in something else that they forget to greet you when you come home, or a child who picks fights with their siblings and drives you crazy.

Now consider that this person has been conditioned since before birth to behave in certain ways, that their brains have been profoundly shaped by early childhood experiences as well as events later in life. That their beliefs and values have similarly been shaped by genetics and life experiences. That it may be very difficult, even impossible, for them to do things you might want them to do, like be more trusting, be less aggressive, cooperate more, be more logical or more emotionally expressive, and so on.

The contemporary teacher Eckhart Tolle wrote, “If her past were your past, her pain your pain, her level of consciousness your level of consciousness, you would think and act exactly as she does.”

So imagine you had been born with the brain and genes of the person you’re having difficult with. Imagine you’d had the same (inevitably faulty) parenting, early childhood experiences, cultural conditioning, education, and life experiences. In all likelihood you’d act exactly as they do.

Tolle points out that this realization that a person is a bundle of conditions, and that if you were subject to the same conditions you’d think and act as they do, leads to forgiveness, compassion, and peace. And he’s right. It’s also true that recognizing our own conditioning leads to self-forgiveness, self-compassion, and peace.

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Insight is not enough https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/insight-is-not-enough-2 https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/insight-is-not-enough-2#comments Thu, 12 Oct 2017 17:32:09 +0000 https://www.wildmind.org/?p=37299

These days there’s an increasing interest in gaining insight — accepting the loaded word “gaining” for now.

On the whole this is a good thing. For a long time many in the West have been doubtful about whether awakening is a realistic goal. “Maybe we’re too messed up,” and “Maybe the modern world isn’t conducive to awakening,” were common doubts. As the years have gone by, however, more and more practitioners have had insight experiences, and this has been very encouraging for others. More people now think not just that awakening is possible, but that they personally are capable of it. This is great! How can there be a downside to this?

One thing I’ve

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These days there’s an increasing interest in gaining insight — accepting the loaded word “gaining” for now.

On the whole this is a good thing. For a long time many in the West have been doubtful about whether awakening is a realistic goal. “Maybe we’re too messed up,” and “Maybe the modern world isn’t conducive to awakening,” were common doubts. As the years have gone by, however, more and more practitioners have had insight experiences, and this has been very encouraging for others. More people now think not just that awakening is possible, but that they personally are capable of it. This is great! How can there be a downside to this?

One thing I’ve been concerned about recently is the narrowness of the goal we set ourselves. The ultimate aim of practice is often seen purely in terms of having insights into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self. And while those things are crucial to attaining the goal, simply having those insights doesn’t turn you into the kind of person that the Buddha suggested we should take as our ideal. The Buddha’s concept of the ideal individual is someone who not only has insight, but who is an all-round excellent human being.

In one conversation about the ideal person, the Buddha outlines qualities such as: having calmness; being free from craving; being free of attachment to preferences, being free from fear, anger, and pride; being restrained in speech; having no longings about the future and no regrets about the past; having honesty and transparency; being free from envy; having no disdain for others; refraining from insults; and not thinking in terms of being superior, inferior, or even equal to others.

Elsewhere the Buddha talks of this ideal individual very much in terms of gentleness, kindness, and compassion. He encourages us to be the kind of person who doesn’t act in ways that cause harm to others in any way, not even indirectly, if that can at all be avoided. He also encouraged us to be good friends to each other — see the Culagosinga Sutta, for example. And part of the Buddha’s conception of spiritual friendship was a heart-connection with the wise — a sense of devotion and reverence that opens the heart to being influenced by the good that lies in others.

Over and over again, the Buddha encouraged us to develop jhana — a pleasurable state of focused awareness and of joyful absorption in the present moment. Jhana is deeply nourishing, and is also an excellent preparation for insight — not just because it trains the mind in focused attention, but because it helps us to see our experience in terms of intangible qualities of energy and joy, and in so doing gives us more of a sense of the insubstantiality of ourselves.

These are the kinds of things that we should be thinking of as the purpose of our practice.

Inherent in the Buddha’s view of the goal is that it’s not just about losing the delusion of self, or even of “gaining” insight. It’s also about cultivating ethical, skillful qualities—especially positive emotions. This is why the Buddhist path is usually taught as starting with training in ethics, then in meditation (including the active cultivation of kindness and compassion), and only then, finally, culminating in the development of insight.

For a small number of people, insight experiences are upsetting or even devastating, leading to a loss of meaning, a sense of despair, and a depressing and anxious state of depersonalization. It’s clear that joy and compassion don’t inevitably follow on the heels of insight arising.

Cases where serious suffering arises as a consequence of insight are rare. I don’t personally know anyone for whom this has been more than a passing disorientation, after which the positive aspects of insight have revealed themselves. But in the cases I’ve heard of where some kind of insight experience has lead to long-term problems, it seems to me that there has typically been a narrow focus on mindfulness and insight, and a lack of emphasis on lovingkindness and compassion meditation, and usually no emphasis on jhana. Whether there’s also been a lack of emphasis on spiritual friendship, spiritual community, and ethics is something I don’t know. But I suspect that in some cases these things are lacking as well.

One of the benefits of modern neuroscience is that we now know that as we learn a new skill, the brain physically changes. Areas associated with that skill become larger, just as a muscle grows with exercise. The goal of practice doesn’t just involve a cognitive insight into impermanence or non-self, but requires that we strengthen our “muscles” of kindness and compassion. I’d encourage you, then, to develop these qualities on the cushion and in daily life. If we do that, then insight, when it arrives, is more likely to be an astonishing, liberating, and joyful surprise, and less likely to be a disorienting, upsetting, and painful shock to the system.

(You can explore the path to insight in my forthcoming online course, Waking Up: Stepping From Delusion to Freedom in This Very Life.)

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Four cast-iron benefits of mindfulness https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/four-cast-iron-benefits-of-mindfulness https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/four-cast-iron-benefits-of-mindfulness#comments Wed, 11 Oct 2017 14:57:14 +0000 https://www.wildmind.org/?p=37283

Many thousands of studies demonstrating the benefits of mindfulness have now been published, to the point where mindfulness can almost seem like a miracle cure. The problem is that not all of these studies were conducted well enough to be taken seriously.

Daniel Goleman (author of “Emotional Intelligence”) and University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson combed through thousands of studies and found that only one percent of them match the current gold standards for medical research. While we could rightly despair at the poor methodology of the 99 percent, we could instead focus on the four strongly confirmed findings that Goleman and Davidson have identified in the studies conducted using the soundest protocols.

In an

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Many thousands of studies demonstrating the benefits of mindfulness have now been published, to the point where mindfulness can almost seem like a miracle cure. The problem is that not all of these studies were conducted well enough to be taken seriously.

Daniel Goleman (author of “Emotional Intelligence”) and University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson combed through thousands of studies and found that only one percent of them match the current gold standards for medical research. While we could rightly despair at the poor methodology of the 99 percent, we could instead focus on the four strongly confirmed findings that Goleman and Davidson have identified in the studies conducted using the soundest protocols.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review Goleman outlined those four confirmed benefits, which are: stronger focus, staying calmer under stress, better memory, and kindness. No doubt because he was writing for HBR, Goleman wrote about mindfulness mainly in terms of a tool for creating better workers for corporations — for example parsing kindness as “good corporate citizenship.” So I’d like to take those four benefits and write about them in a less corporate way, looking at how they can benefit us spiritually.

Stronger focus

People who practice mindfulness regularly experience less mind-wandering and distractibility.

Why is this important, and how can it benefit you? Mindfulness improves our filters. It helps us to identify when the mind is wandering in ways that are unhelpful for us, and to bring our attention back to our present-moment experience. Much of the time when the mind is wandering it’s engaged in what the Buddhist meditation tradition calls the “five hindrances” — craving, getting angry, worrying, low energy states of avoidance, and doubting. These hindrances diminish our sense of well-being and cause toxic effects in our interpersonal relationships and in our lives generally.

Reduced mind-wandering goes hand-in-hand with improved executive function, or self-control. Neurologically, what is happening is that the brain’s prefrontal cortex is learning to regulate and damp down activity in the amygdala, which triggers disruptive emotions like anger or anxiety. When we are mindful it’s easier for us to avoid things like addictive activities and needless conflict because we’re able to monitor the mind, spot the early stages of these activities beginning to kick in, and choose other ways of being.

Mindfulness, in other words, gives us greater mental freedom, which in turn brings us greater happiness and more harmony in our lives.

Staying calmer under stress

Since the prefrontal cortex regulates the amygdala more effectively when we’re mindful, mindfulness reduces stress.

This tends to make for better decision-making. When the amygdala is firing strongly it suppresses activity in the prefrontal cortex, which means that we don’t think clearly and make bad decisions. We might, for example, feel panicky about opening bills, stash them out of sight, and thereby increase the number of problems we have. Mindfulness helps us to think more clearly.

Mindfulness also improves our inter-personal relationships. When the amygdala is over-active, it’s constantly looking for potential threats, for example by worrying that someone doesn’t like us or is intending to insult us. Rather than waste energy reacting to “threats” that may not even exist we can just get on with building productive, sustaining, and nourishing connections with others.

This in turn leads to us having a better support network, so that we’re better able to deal with other stresses in our lives.

Better memory

Those who practice mindfulness show a stronger short-term memory (or working memory). For example, the graduate school entrance exams of college students who were taught to be more mindful scores showed increases of 16 percent.

The purpose of working memory is to keep relevant information in conscious awareness while it’s needed. The better our working memory, the more information can be stored there without data loss. On a very practical level, with a poor working memory it’s hard to remember a seven digit phone number long enough to dial it — intrusive thoughts or the inability to screen out other information disrupt our ability to keep the number in mind. Things like performing mental arithmetic depend highly on working memory as well, which partly explains the 16 percent boost that mindful students saw on their Graduate Record Exam scores.

But the benefits of better working memory are more profound than that. An improved working memory allows us to keep ethical principles and guidelines in mind as we go about life. Often the problem with being mindful or kind is that we just forget. So we might have an intention to be less reactive with our spouse, children, or colleagues, but find that this intention fades from the mind in the midst of our interactions. This is a failure of memory, and comes about because we’re not able to consciously keep our long-term goals in mind (such as “be more kind”) while attending to short-term ones, such as responding to what someone just said.

When we’re working on becoming better people — kinder, more compassionate, more honest, more courageous — we need to be able to keep those long-term aims in mind. This is what Buddhist psychology calls “sampajañña” — or continuity of purpose. Long-term change is difficult without this quality.

Kindness

Goleman presents this in terms of mindful people making “good corporate citizens,” which is an angle that I find rather jarring — as if the point of mindfulness practice is to fit in so that we can make more money for corporations.

He does also point out that mindfulness practice leads to “more activity in brain circuits for caring, increased generosity, and a greater likelihood of helping someone in need.”

In other words, mindfulness makes us kinder and more compassionate. This has benefits that go well beyond making more money for businesses. It creates more harmonious families and communities, and helps people who are struggling. In short, mindfulness can help us create a better world — something that’s desperately needed in these challenging times.

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