on practice

Why it matters if you can feel your heartbeat

If you close your eyes and become aware of your body, can you detect your heartbeat — without touching your chest or checking your pulse?

Now, can you do it with your eyes open?

This is a quick measure of your ability to practice “interoception.”

What Is Interoception?

Interoception is the ability to sense your internal states — sensations arising from your inner organs, muscles, and so on. This includes an awareness of the heart.

Many people find it hard to detect their heartbeat at all, or can only do it with difficulty. Their interoceptive powers aren’t well developed. For others, detecting the heartbeat is easy. They have a higher level of interoceptive ability.

Interoception is a word that not a lot of people know. I’ve used the word a lot in my teaching since I first encountered it a few years ago, and there’s almost always someone in the class who hasn’t come across it before.

You’re probably going to hear it a lot more in the future, because it’s become obvious that there are drawbacks to having poor interoception.

Not being able to sense the body’s inner states leads to poor emotional regulation. Imagine you were driving a car with no fuel gauge. You’d probably keep running out of fuel, because vital information about the state of your vehicle wasn’t available to you.

Similarly, if you can’t detect the signals your body is giving you until they’re very strong, you can’t regulate your emotions very well. By the time you’re aware that you’re anxious, for example, you’re already really anxious. Being able to detect those signals sooner means you’re able to decide earlier to do something to help stay calm.

Interoception and Depression

Low interoceptive ability is related to depression. In a study, women who suffered from depression (but not anxiety), showed lower ability on the heartbeat test than a control group did.

Also, the worse their ability to detect the heart, the less positive feelings they reported experiencing in their lives.

Interoception and Poor Decision-Making

And this had an interesting knock-on effect. Low interoceptive awareness is also correlated with difficulty in making decisions. The reason for this is that decision-making is not a purely logical process. Logic can tell us that two slices of chocolate cake is more than one slice of chocolate cake, but not whether we prefer one or two slices. We make decisions largely on the basis of how we feel about things. If we can’t detect our feelings, then we can’t easily make decisions. In fact if we can’t feel our feelings, then we might well be more prone to making bad decisions — e.g. trusting someone who’s untrustworthy, or choosing a job that’s likely to make us unhappy.

Interoception and Anxiety

My partner is prone to anxiety, and when I asked her to do the heartbeat detection test, she wasn’t sure if she could feel her heart at all. I don’t know if there’s research supporting this, but I suspect that certain people can only feel their heartbeat when they’re already anxious, and because they’re not used to being able to detect the heart under normal circumstances, feeling their heart beat in an exaggerated way is taken as a sign that something is really, really wrong — which precipitates yet more anxiety.

She may be atypical, though: people who suffer from anxiety disorder typically are more aware than average of interoceptive signals from the body. What may be going wrong is that those signals (increased rate and strength of the heartbeat, intestinal queasiness, and so on) are misread, and taken as a sign (again) that something abnormal is happening. It’s possible, in fact, to become anxious about being anxious.

Meditators are Better at Interoception

Meditation, in the Buddhist tradition at least, emphasizes awareness of the body, which means paying attention to the body’s sensations. Many meditators, myself included, will report that training in meditation has helped to sensitize them to the body.

For myself, this has been like going from a black-and-white line drawing of the body to a full-color image. Any time I bring my attention to the body now I experience currents of energy, tingling, and pleasure—which is called pīti in Pāli and prīti in Sanskrit. That’s very different from how my body used to be experienced. But that’s anecdotal evidence.

Dancers Versus Meditators

In one study I’ve long found fascinating, in a study in 2010, published in Emotion, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, explained how they showed short, emotive, film clips to experienced meditators (their average time practicing was seven years), professional dancers, and a control group. They measured the physiological responses of all these people, and also asked the study participants to indicate their ongoing feeling state (from very negative, through neutral, to very positive) using a dial.

The aim of the study was to assess to what degree the self-reported experience of the members of each of the three groups matched (or was “coherent” with) their physiological states.

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Click here to find out about the many benefits of being a sponsor.

It turned out that the meditators had the highest degree of coherence (that is, their self-reported feelings matched what was going on in their bodies), with the dancers being intermediate, and the control group having the lowest coherence.

Additionally, when it came to self-reported visceral awareness (how well they could feel their feelings), the meditators reported the highest levels, the dancers were intermediary, and the controls reported the lowest levels.

So it does seem that meditation training does improve internal awareness, which is what you might expect. Of course it could be that people with greater visceral awareness are more likely to be drawn to meditation for some reason, so the researchers looked to see if there was a correlation between length of practice and body awareness. They didn’t find any significant correlation, but then the sample size was too small for them to draw any definite conclusions.

Interoception Can Be Learned

More recently (2021), in a study published in The Lancet, researchers explained the effects of giving six sessions of interoception training to autistic adults with persistent anxiety symptoms. People with autism tend not to be good at interoceptive tasks. For example they’re not good at counting their heartbeats. At the same time they tend to over-emphasize the internal sensations they do experience. In other words, they’re over-reacting to signals from the body.

The researchers hoped that their training would help people with autism to perform better on heartbeat detection tasks, and that this would in turn help increase their ability to interpret and regulate interoceptive signals.

Amazingly, three months after the intervention, 31 percent of the participants no longer had an anxiety disorder.

So not only can interoception be learned, but doing so can have profound effects on people’s well-being.

Meditation for Interoception

Many approaches to mindfulness of breathing meditation tend to focus narrowly on the breath – that is, the sensations of air touching the passages as it moves in and out of the body. This helps with learning interoception in only a very limited way.

My own approach has been increasingly to encourage an awareness of the movements and sensations of the breathing in the whole body.

The meditation practice below, which accompanies my book, “This Difficult Thing of Being Human,” helps you to sense the entire body breathing — including subtler sensations you might habitually ignore. Please try it, and see how you get on.

Read More

Forgiveness and the myth of time

We all have a tendency to beat ourselves up over things we did wrong in the past, or that we think that we did wrong. And so we all need to forgive ourselves.

When we don’t forgive ourselves we often wish we could change the past. We replay past events over and over again, sometimes reliving events as they actually happened and blaming ourselves, and sometimes imagining that things went a different way. Then we end up regretting that this alternative reality didn’t actually happen.

And I think there’s a kind of myth about time that’s worth examining.

The Idea, “I Should Have Done Better”

I want to approach this myth from a direction that might seem a bit unusual. I’m going to start with talking about golf. Don’t worry if you’re not a sports fan. I’m not a sports fan! I don’t even play golf. So, no golf experience is necessary. But I think we can all imagine playing golf or practicing some other skill.

For now,  just imagine that you’re a pretty good golf player. You’ve lined yourself up to take a short putt — something you’ve done many times before. You almost always get the ball in the hole with such shots because you’re a good golfer. But on this particular occasion, for whatever reason, the ball does not go in the hole. Perhaps you get close. But, as they say, no cigar.

Now, in sinking a putt we’re dealing with an enormous number of variables. Every time you make the same movement with your body it’s slightly different. However much you practice, there’s an unavoidable imprecision in your body movements and therefore in the movement of your putter. There are other conditions that you can’t control — deformations of the putting green, how wet or dry the grass is , how hard or soft the ground is, changing wind conditions, how focused you are, whether you’re feeling stressed, for example. Those are just some of the variables involved in making a putt.

So you missed the putt for whatever reason. Maybe you would sink it 99 percent of the time, but this is one of the one percent times. And you can say to yourself, “Damn, I should have got that putt!” and you might feel really angry with yourself. You might get really down on yourself and be very critical about yourself, but the thing is you missed the putt.

And you keep thinking, “If I could do it again, I’d do it differently.” The thought obsesses you.

Could You Have Acted Differently?

Now, you don’t have the ability to go back in time and step back into the exactly same circumstances and conditions. In fact if you literally did go back in time and were in exactly the same place, and exactly the same situation, under exactly the same conditions, what would happen? You would miss the putt again, because the conditions that existed at that time were the conditions that existed at that time!

Now you might think, “Yes, but if I could go back in time I’d have the knowledge that I was about to miss the putt, and I’d do things differently.” But then you’re not in exactly the same conditions. You’re in a different set of conditions. And that, in a world where we are unable to project our present-moment consciousness back into the past, is a set of conditions that can never have existed.

So the the idea that you you should have sunk the putt is an abstraction. it’s referring to a different kind of world than the world that we actually live in.

Applying This to Non-Sports Things

So let’s apply this reflection to other things in our lives.

Let’s say you lost your temper with someone, and you said some things that were unpleasant. And afterwards you regret that, which is fine by the way, since regret is perfectly natural and ethical thing to do. We can regret something without beating ourselves us. It’s beating ourselves up that is the problem.

But the thing is, if you look back at that particular event, if you could see all of the conditions that were pertaining at that particular time—your expectations, and your stress levels, and all the different things that you were juggling in your mind at that particular point, and your physiological states, depending on how tired you were what your blood sugar level was, and so on—if you could see all of those conditions you would realize that it was inevitable in that moment that you were going to lose your temper.

You were doing the best you could with the resources that were available to you.  In fact, you did the only thing that you could with the resources available to you. Now, you can say, “Well, if I’d had a bit more mindfulness then I could have acted better.” But in that moment you didn’t have more mindfulness! You had as much mindfulness as you had! The idea that you could have done something differently is again a kind of an abstraction. It assumes that our present-moment state of mind can somehow affect our past state of mind, which is of course not possible.

Solutions Are In the Present, Not the Past

The myth about time that we need to see through is that the solution to painful regrets lies in the past. It doesn’t. The solution to our suffering lies right here, in the present.

The important thing is now. The regret you have about past unskillful actions is happening now. The learning you’re having, drawn from the lessons of the past., is happening now. The intention to act differently in the future is happening now.

And those things are happening now. So, in the present moment:

  • Let the past be the past.
  • Regret what you did wrong, which is just another way of saying “realize that what you did wrong was wrong.”
  • Accept that you did the best you could with the resources available.
  • Learn from your past mistakes.
  • Intend to act differently in the future.

You can of course opt to use the present moment for beating yourself up, but self-punishment, calling yourself names, telling yourself you’re a bad person, and so on are all unskillful, unhelpful, and painful ways of acting. They’re a waste of this precious moment we have in the present to act in ways that promote our long-term happiness and well-being.

This Isn’t Determinism

Now, it might sound like I’m being deterministic—that we have no choice and therefore no responsibility. That’s not what I’m saying, as I’ll explain

The ability to choose courses of action, including the choice not to do something that hurts us and other people, is always potentially available to us, but practically speaking it often isn’t, because we frequently lack mindfulness. Without mindfulness, it’s as if our lives are predetermined by conditions. When we have mindfulness, life becomes more creative. We begin to be able to make choices that prevent suffering happen to ourselves or others.

Normally we’re not very mindful. I remember reading about a study once that showed that what we do and say is something like 80 percent predictable. Normally our habits simply roll on, without much mindful intervention.

An Analogy for Mindfulness, and Its Lack

Imagine a heavy ball rolling down a slope toward something precious, like a kitten. The ball is going to hit the kitten (which is, for the sake of argument, too young to move out of the way). That’s life without mindfulness. Our habitual impulses roll on, like heavy balls on a slope. Sometimes bad things happen as a result.

Now, imagine there’s someone observing the ball rolling down the slope. They see what’s about to happen, and with the touch of their hand the ball is diverted on a different course and the kitten remains untouched. That’s life with mindfulness (or with sufficient mindfulness to take action, which is the important thing).

It’s just an analogy. Don’t overthink it!

In any given moment of life, you either have enough mindfulness to act skillfully, or you don’t. When there’s no mindfulness present, it’s like there’s no one there to nudge the heavy ball.

And any moment in the past when you acted badly was a moment when you didn’t have sufficient mindfulness or wisdom to do otherwise.

Mindfulness = Wiggle Room

Mindfulness gives us wiggle-room. And if we want to live happier lives, and to have fewer regrets, then we should make it a goal to develop more mindfulness. Because more mindfulness gives us more wiggle-room.

With the little bit of mindfulness we have at present, we recognize that life has more potential for happiness when we’re mindful. So we set up conditions so that we can develop even more mindfulness. We meditate, for example. Or we commit ourselves to living according to ethical principles, like Buddhism’s five precepts. Or we join a community of other people who also intend to cultivate mindfulness. Or we go on a retreat where we can intensively train in mindfulness. Or we study by reading books and listening to talks on mindfulness so that we understand better what it is we’re trying to achieve. Or we create mindfulness triggers for ourselves. Or, all of the above.

See Also:

And right now, in the present moment, as we look back on things that we regret doing (or not doing) we recognize that self-blame is a painful waste of time. We recognize the value of accepting that we did what we did, and we did the best we could with the resources available to us at that time, and we in fact couldn’t have done otherwise. And in this present moment we can ask how we might act differently in the future.

The key to forgiveness is seeing that the solution to our present suffering is not in the past. It’s here, now. You can’t go back and change the past. But you can bring about change right now. And that’s going to benefit you—and other people—in the future.

Read More

10+ Genuine Buddha quotes on friendship

Photo by dominiqueb on Flickr.

Recently I did a search on Google for “Buddha quotes on friendship,” and was shocked to find that the top result was a page where 100% of the quotes were fabricated. They are either quotes by other people that have been misattributed to the Buddha, or someone has sat down and composed a bunch of Hallmark-sounding quotes, and put them on a website, stamped onto images of the Buddha.

I’m not even going to link to the site in question, but here’s a sample of the BS they’re trying to pass off as being from the Buddhist scriptures:


(I’ve had to present these in the form of an image, because guess what text Google decided to display in the search results? Yes, the fake quotes!)

None of these, and none of the other five quotes on the site, is genuine. None of them is from the Buddha. They’re all fake.

Presumably this act of deception was done in order to make money through advertising, although I can’t rule out the possibility that the creator of the quotes also took malicious pleasure out of fooling people.

One of the most startling things about this is the failure of Google’s quality filters. They boast of bringing high quality information to internet users, and they largely do, but here they’re offering up complete garbage, ranking this site in first place. They rank it above a number of excellent articles on friendship in the Buddhist tradition (including one by by Norman Fisher and another, on this site, by Justin Whitaker) ,and also above Wikipedia’s article on kalyāṇa mittatā, which is the Pāli word for spiritual friendship.

With that introduction out of the way, here are some genuine quotes from the early Buddhist texts on friendship, with a little context thrown in.

1. “Good friends, companions, and associates are the whole of the spiritual life.”

This is from a passage in the Upaḍḍhasutta (SN 45.2) where the Buddha’s cousin and attendant, Ānanda, comes to him to express his realization of how important friendship (kalyāṇa mittatā) is in the spiritual life:

On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling among the Sakyans where there was a town of the Sakyans [the Buddha’s tribe] named Nagaraka [“Little Town”]. Then the Venerable Ānanda approached the Blessed One. Having approached, he paid homage to the Blessed One, sat down to one side, and said to him:

“Venerable sir, this is half of the holy life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.”

“Not so, Ānanda! Not so, Ānanda! This is the entire holy life, Ānanda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. When a bhikkhu [monk] has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path.

Ānanda’s realization was important, but from the Buddha’s point of view it didn’t go far enough. The Buddha recognized that without the support of other people, we won’t make much spiritual progress. In fact, the support of others is indispensable.

bodhi mind meditation app

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

Sometimes people think that the Buddha got enlightened all on his own. In a sense he did, but you can’t take his moment of enlightenment out of the context of his entire life, where he no doubt received spiritual instruction at home, and then after his “going forth” he had two teachers, Āḷāra of the Kālāma tribe and Uddaka Rāmaputta (son of Rāma). After that, he had five companions with whom he practiced until shortly before his enlightenment. He may even have clarified his understanding of spiritual practice through the act of teaching. Any of us that teaches knows that the act of teaching helps us to become clearer about what we know.

2. “By relying upon me as a good friend … beings are freed from sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair.”

Later in the same conversation, the Buddha points out how he himself is a spiritual friend to the entire world.

By relying upon me as a good friend, Ānanda, beings subject to birth are freed from birth; beings subject to aging are freed from aging; beings subject to death are freed from death; beings subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair are freed from sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair. By this method it may be understood how the entire holy life is good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.

3. “A true friend is one who stands by you in need.”

Actually this one does sound a bit like something from a Hallmark card! It’s from a section in the Sigālovāda Sutta, where the Buddha summarizes, in poetic verse, some teachings he’s just given to a householder called Sigālaka, on how to avoid bad deeds and bad influences. The verse that contains this line says: “Some are just drinking buddies, some call you their dear, dear friend, but a true friend is one who stands by you in need.” Another translation renders this as “Some are drinking buddies, some say, ‘Dear friend! Dear friend!’ but whoever in hardship stands close by, that one truly is a friend.” A strong emphasis in this section of the discourse is avoiding friends who would be bad influences.

This not the only thing that the Buddha has to say to Sigālaka about the value of friendship. There’s a section on fake friends, and another on “good-hearted friends” (suhada-mitta).

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Click here to discover the many benefits of being a sponsor.

4.  “A friend gives what is hard to give, and does what’s hard to do. They put up with your harsh words, and with things hard to endure.”

There’s a lovely little teaching called the “Mitta Sutta” (the “Discourse on Friends”) where the Buddha tells a bunch of monks about seven qualities they should look for in a friend. The seven are:

  1. They give what is hard to give.
  2. They do what is hard to do.
  3. They endure what is hard to endure.
  4. They reveal their secrets to you.
  5. They keep your secrets.
  6. They don’t abandon you in times of trouble.
  7. They don’t look down on you in times of loss.

“The person in whom these things are found is your friend,” the Buddha says, as he sums up his teaching in a verse that includes the headline quote above.

As Justin Whitaker points out in another article on friendship we’ve published on this site, it’s notable that the Buddha doesn’t say that your friend should be wise, or a great meditator. This is good, basic stuff to do with integrity and mutual respect.

5. “Recognize these four good-hearted friends: the helper, the friend in good times and bad, the counselor, and the one who’s compassionate.”

The Buddha has warned Sigālaka how to recognize those who are only after your money or who want to lead you into drinking and gambling, but he also encourages the young man to appreciate good friends. He not only lists four types of good-hearted friend, but gives Sigālaka tips on how to recognize each type:

  • The Helper: “They guard you when you’re negligent. They guard your property when you’re negligent. They keep you safe in times of danger. When something needs doing, they supply you with twice the money you need.”
  • The Friend in Good Times and Bad: “They tell you secrets. They keep your secrets. They don’t abandon you in times of trouble. They’d even give their life for your welfare.”
  • The Counselor: “They keep you from doing bad. They support you in doing good. They teach you what you do not know. They explain the path to heaven.”
  • The Compassionate Friend: “They don’t delight in your misfortune. They delight in your good fortune. They keep others from criticizing you. They encourage praise of you.”

The Buddha rounds out this advice once again in poetic verse: “An astute person understands, these four friends for what they are and carefully looks after them, like a mother the child at her breast.”

6. “Emulating consummate conviction … consummate virtue … consummate generosity … and consummate discernment. This is called admirable friendship.”

Here the Buddha is giving advice to another householder, Dīghajāṇu the Koliyan, who has asked for some general advice on what would contribute to his and others’ “welfare and happiness in this life and in future lives.”

The Buddha offers advice under the four categories of ethical livelihood, protection, good friendship, and balanced finances. The condensed quote above obviously comes from the advice on admirable or good friendship (kalyāṇa mittatā).

In full, that advice reads as follows:

“And what is meant by admirable friendship? There is the case where a lay person, in whatever town or village he may dwell, spends time with householders or householders’ sons, young or old, who are advanced in virtue. He talks with them, engages them in discussions. He emulates consummate conviction in those who are consummate in conviction, consummate virtue in those who are consummate in virtue, consummate generosity in those who are consummate in generosity, and consummate discernment in those who are consummate in discernment. This is called admirable friendship.”

7. “One who has spiritual friends abandons what is unwholesome and develops what is wholesome.”

I’ve changed “bhikkhu” (monk) to “one” in this quote from the Itivuttika because although the Buddha was talking to monks when he made this statement, it’s obviously true for everyone. Anyone can benefit from having a spiritual friend (kalyāṇa mitta).

In the full passage I’ve quoted from, the Buddha says in fact that spiritual friendship is the most important external factor in a spiritual practitioner’s life:  “I do not perceive another single factor so helpful as spiritual friendship for a monk who is a learner, who has not attained perfection but lives aspiring for the supreme security from bondage.”

8. “You should train like this:  ‘I will have good friends, companions, and associates.’”

This is something that the Buddha said to his friend, King Pasenadi of Kosala, after the ruler had made a statement praising the importance of spiritual friends. The Buddha went on to say, “When you have spiritual friends [kalyāṇa mittas], spiritual companions, and spiritual associates, you live supported by one thing—diligence in skillful qualities.”

9. “As the dawn is the forerunner of the sunrise, so spiritual friendship is the forerunner of the arising of the factors of enlightenment.”

There are a number of discourses where the Buddha emphasizes the importance of spiritual friendship as a support for following the eightfold path. Here he switches things up and refers to another version of the path — the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. He also adds the nice simile of the dawn’s first light heralding the arrival of the sun.

The Buddha talked elsewhere about friendship being one of the factors that prevents a spiritual practitioner from slipping away from their practice: “One with good friends, easy to admonish, reverential and respectful, can’t decline, and has drawn near to nirvāṇa.”

10. “Regard one who sees your faults as a guide to a hidden treasure. Stay close to one so wise and astute who corrects you when you need it.”

This advice doesn’t mean you should hang out with negative, overcritical so-and-so’s. It assumes that the person is wise, and is able to point out faults in a spiritually beneficial manner. In fact the Buddha offered five considerations we should apply to ourselves is we consider offering criticism: “I will speak at the right time, not at the wrong time. I will speak truthfully, not falsely. I will speak gently, not harshly. I will speak beneficially, not harmfully. I will speak lovingly, not from secret hate.”

The quote in the heading is from the Dhammapada, where verses 76 to 78 are about the benefits of spiritual friendship, as contrasted with “low” friends who lead you astray.

  1. Regard one who sees your faults as a guide to a hidden treasure. Stay close to one so wise and astute who corrects you when you need it. Sticking close to such an impartial person, things get better, not worse.
  2. Advise and instruct; curb wickedness: for you shall be loved by the good, and disliked by the bad.
  3. Don’t mix with bad friends, nor with the worst of men. Mix with spiritual friends, and with the best of men.

11. “A spiritual practitioner with good friends, companions, and associates can expect to be wise.”

One of the main teachings about the value of friendship to be found in the scriptures recounts an incident where the Buddha’s attendant, Meghiya, abandons him to go off meditating in the shade of a lovely mango grove he’d spotted. (For obvious reasons Meghiya was not the Buddha’s attendant for long!)

In the quote above I’ve rendered “bhikkhu” as “spiritual practitioner” instead of monk, because the point the Buddha’s making isn’t valid only for males who have a certain ecclesiastical status, but to all of us.

Back to Meghiya: He apparently expects he’s going to have great meditations in his beautiful mango grove, but instead he’s assailed by distractions. When he comes back to the Buddha with his tail between his legs, the Buddha gives him an extensive teaching on the ways that friendship is a support in the spiritual life.

He says that monks “with good friends, companions, and associates” can expect:

  • To be ethical, restrained in the monastic code, conducting themselves well and seeking alms in suitable places. Seeing danger in the slightest fault, they keep the rules they’ve undertaken.
  • To take part in talk about self-effacement that helps open the heart, when they want, without trouble or difficulty. That is, talk about fewness of wishes, contentment, seclusion, aloofness, arousing energy, ethics, immersion, wisdom, freedom, and the knowledge and vision of freedom.
  • To have their energy roused up for giving up unskillful qualities and embracing skillful qualities.
  • To be wise. They have the wisdom of arising and passing away which is noble, penetrative, and leads to the complete ending of suffering.

When the heart’s release is not mature, these five things together (the four in the list, plus friendship itself) help it mature. In other words, friendship helps support us all the way to enlightenment.

Meghiya himself, in abandoning the Buddha, has not been a good friend. He’s also turned down an opportunity to be on the receiving end of the Buddha’s friendship and companionship. His ego got in the way of his friendships, and thus of his spiritual growth.

So there you have ten Buddha quotes from the scriptures on the topic of friendship.

If the author of the site I started off talking about had good friends in the sense that the Buddha used that term — people who exemplify ethical qualities and restrain us from doing bad things — then they wouldn’t be aiming to make money by lying to people.

And if you have a chance to hang out with genuine quotes from the Buddhist scriptures, maybe we shouldn’t be like Meghiya and head off for the flashier, feel-good, but fake versions.

Read More

What the death of an animal can teach us about the power of ritual

a ceremony to help children process a death

I am fascinated and touched and inspired by the deep love many children have for wild animals. It’s a love that seems natural, and sometimes more immediate than what many adults (including me) have to offer, at least on the surface.

Yesterday, my nine year old saw from the front porch that a raccoon had been killed by a car on our street. It was a terrible sight. She called her siblings out to see. The littler one, who is six, was very sad: “I just feel so bad for the raccoon.”

I felt bad too, and tried not to let the experience become a symbol for all the sadness I have about these sorts of things.

I suggested we light a candle for the raccoon. It occurred to me that the driver who hit the raccoon probably felt awful about it, so I shared that too and wished that person well.

And then, though that was all I had at the moment, my kids took it from there.

They gathered a wreath, the nine year old making the label “raccoon,” and the 6 year old making the picture above, which includes an assortment of vehicles with a big X through them.

“Why can’t everyone just ride bikes?” he asked (although in the picture I think the bike got an X too.)

This whole thing happened and the candle burned for the next couple hours and they told dad about it later … and all of this helped them work through their feelings. Me too.

It was a sad situation, but I felt comfort witnessing their feelings of love and connection, their care for another living being and for one another, AND the seeming effectiveness of this ritual.

It taught me about what I can do to manage my own sadnesses. It taught me that these rituals and gestures can be effective and meaningful. And it taught me about the loving kindness that lives inside us and is right there to tap into.

Read More

Dealing with the pain of change

leaves changing

The other day one of my meditation students wrote, asking for some advice. She was having to downsize and move into a smaller apartment. And this meant that she couldn’t hold on to some of her family heirlooms, like her mother’s wedding china. It also meant that her teenage son wouldn’t be able to continue living with her. That last part was particularly painful.

So I wrote the following in response:

Dear X.

It is hard to let go of things, and to have relationships change, so I can appreciate why you’re suffering.

The changes you’re going through are unique to you, even if others have been through similar experiences, so I offer the following only as things you might take as a starting point for your own reflections.

Is there anything you’re looking forward to about the move? It might be that you can focus on things like creating more of a sense of simplicity in your life, or creating a new space around you that supports aspirations you may have. If there are things you can look forward to, then focusing on those might help shift your perspective about the move.

Ironically, I find myself with too much “stuff” at the moment. When Teresa and I moved in together, we ended up with duplicate furniture. Some we got rid of, but we ended up with two dining tables and no room for either of them, and so they’re in storage in our basement. I look in the basement and see all of this clutter, and I sometimes think that if it all disappeared one day I probably wouldn’t notice for weeks, since I hardly ever have a reason to go down there, and that if I did happen to walk into an empty basement I’d feel free! So really we should get rid of all that stuff, but unless we were moving again there’s really no motivation to do so.

Anyway, I do like to think of the freedom and lightness that comes from not being burdened by things I have but don’t use. I don’t know if that’s something that you could also embrace.

I sometimes also think about the fact that one day I’m going to die, and that, as they say, you can’t take it with you. Who would have your mother’s wedding china once you’ve passed away? If there’s no one obvious who would take it, then you might think about what the difference is between giving it away now and it being given away once you’re dead. Advantages to passing it on now (even to strangers) would be that you’d know someone else was enjoying it, that you’d given them this gift, and that you’d be in control of where it goes. Once you die, none of those things would be possible.

With regard to your son, I wonder if you could think of sending him out into the world as a man? Is there some way you could build up to ritually or ceremonially marking and celebrating this transition in his life? I can imagine, for example, that it would be lovely to create a book of wisdom teachings (maybe accompanied by photographs of the two of you) that could guide him as he goes into the world and remain as a tangible record of his transition. Something like that might give you a positive focus that mitigates the suffering of the change.

As I said, I’m just throwing some ideas out there. I’d be really fascinated to hear what you come up with yourself.

What has helped you get through painful periods of change? Why not share in the comments below.

Read More

Tips for raising spiritual children

Three tips from psychology professor Mark Holder

Helping your children receive the mood-boosting benefits of spirituality can involve adopting some very simple approaches to life. Psychology professor Mark Holder recommends three ways you can help your children get started:

  1. Encourage them to volunteer for a cause that matters to them.
  2. Plan acts of kindness, which adds to personal and communal meaning.
  3. Encourage them to increase their awe and appreciation of beauty. One way is to help them create a photo album of things they find special or beautiful.

Six tips from Dr. Sonja Lyumbomirsky

Dr. Sonja Lyumbomirsky, author of “The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want,” suggests encouraging your children to:

  • Count their blessings: Either on paper or out load, making lists of things they’re grateful for helps children get the big picture.
  • Cultivate optimism: Practise finding one positive aspect in each negative circumstance, no matter how small.
  • Practise acts of kindness: Studies show there is an instant and lasting good feeling to be gained from helping others.
  • Replay and savour life’s joys: Pay close attention, take delight. and go over life’s momentary pleasures and wonders – through thinking, writing, drawing, or sharing with another.
  • Learn to forgive: Ask your child to choose one person who they believe has wronged them and work toward finding a way to let go of the anger and hurt.
  • Create regular rituals that remind your child that there is a higher purpose to life and about the things they share with every being on Earth

This information was originally published in an article in the Ottawa Citizen in 2010. Unfortunately that article is no longer available online, but I thought that the advice was worth sharing. See also, The Tao of Happy Kids.

Read More

The thing you may sometimes confuse with true kindness

Someone recently wrote to me sharing his reservations about the use of the word “love” to translate metta. Metta is a Buddhist word that is most often translated as “lovingkindness.”

I confess I used to translate metta as love, and did so a lot in the guide to the metta bhavana meditation practice that you’ll find on the Wildmind website. (This is something I’ll be addressing in an upcoming revision of the site.)

Nowadays I prefer to translate metta as kindness, which is much more accurate and less ambiguous. There are so many different forms of love, aren’t there?

What my correspondent had to say was as follows:

I don’t want to try to cultivate lovingkindness on top of habitual hostility. Sugary frosting to cover over the unpalatable.

It can seem like it is positive, but it leaves a trap underneath which can be triggered. If someone does something averse towards me, no matter how ‘lovingly friendly’ I have been, the trap will trigger into aversion, which sudden switch is very unpleasant and leads to attacking behaviors.

I appreciated this comment about the “sugary frosting” and the aversion that can so easily be triggered toward someone who does something we don’t like. It’s a common phenomenon. You hold open a door for someone and they don’t say thank you, and how do you feel? Many times annoyance arises. You offer someone advice and they dismiss it. Again, this can be annoying. One trigger I’ve noticed in my own life is that if I’m holding something out for a person to take, and they don’t reach out in response, I get pissed off, as if they’re rejecting or insulting me.

I think that a lot of the time when we think they’re being loving and compassionate, we’re actually “being nice.” The primary motivation for being nice is to be liked, which brings pleasant feelings. Being nice is transactional. We’re buying pleasant feelings by getting another person to appreciate us.

But when we get the opposite of pleasant feelings (for example it feels unpleasant when someone doesn’t say thank you or doesn’t accept what we’ve offered them) our instinct is to react with aversion. The person is no longer responding to our “being nice” in the way we want. They longer deserve our niceness. In fact they deserve our displeasure. We need to make them feel bad; they deserve it.

Our previous “niceness” was the “sugary frosting” my correspondent talked about. Our ill will is the “unpalatable, habitual hostility” underlying this.

I believe that this “being nice” is what the Buddha referred to, in Pali, as pema. The Pali-English dictionary translates pema as “love” or “affection.”

The important thing to note about pema is that it’s conditional. The Buddha gave an example of how this can work:

And how is love (pema) born of love (pema)? It’s when someone likes, loves, and cares for a person. Others treat that person with liking, love, and care. They think: ‘These others like the person I like.’ And so love for them [i.e. those others] springs up.

Here our love (pema) toward others is conditional upon them liking someone we like. If those others hated the person we love, the Buddha, said later in the same teaching, we’d generally end up hating them.

This is the “trap” my correspondent was aware of.

The Buddha talked about what happens when one “likes, loves, and cares for a person.” But that person can be us. We can think we’re a person that others should admire, like, and appreciate. And we might do what we can to show that we’re worth of that (including holding open doors, giving advice, and all manner of thing). And when others don’t seem to respond in a way that makes us feel good, we turn against them.

None of this has anything to do with kindness, or metta.

Actual kindness is based on an empathetic understanding that another person’s happiness and unhappiness are as real to them as ours are to us. When we relate to another in this way, we naturally don’t want to act in a way that causes them to suffer. We naturally want to act in ways that support their well-being. We’ll think about what would benefit them. We’ll talk to them in ways that show we care about their well-being and that make them feel affirmed. If we offer criticism, it’s not with a desire to hurt them but to help them feel happier in the long term.

And so if they act in a way that’s averse to us, and that doesn’t make us feel pleasure, and perhaps even makes us experience unpleasant feelings, we don’t seek to “punish” them. We still have their well-being at heart.

True kindness is unconditional. It only depends on our being aware that others are, just like us, feeling beings. It depends on our recognizing that they prefer, just like us, to be happy and not to suffer.

People say, “I’m very good at loving other people, but I hate myself.” And I think that a lot of the time the “love” they feel for other people is pema. They feel a lack of love for themselves, and so they try to be “nice” toward others in the hope that those others will show them appreciation.

Of course you can hate yourself in every waking hour of your day. But there’s only so much affirmation you can get from others. And even if others did show us affection all the time it wouldn’t make up for the lack of love you have for yourself. So you can never feel at ease with yourself by being nice to others, hoping to be appreciated in return.

When others aren’t sufficiently appreciative of you, you might be annoyed with them. But you’ll probably on some level hate yourself even more. Surely the lack of love you’re getting from others is a sign there must be something deficient about you?

My own experience was that it wasn’t until I started to empathize with myself — recognizing that I was a feeling being, and that my own happiness and unhappiness were important to me — that I found I could begin to empathize with others. The difference was quite noticeable: here was I, a feeling being; there was another person who was also a feeling being. My feelings were real and vivid to me; so were theirs to them. Here was I, preferring happiness to suffering; there was another person who also preferred happiness to suffering. Knowing these things, how could I act in a way that disregarded their well-being and happiness?

And it was then that I realized how much of my own “kindness” and “compassion” weren’t actually true kindness and compassion, based on empathy. Instead they were attempts to be nice, and to be liked, based on a lack of self-kindness.

I’m not saying it’s like this for everyone, but it might be the case for you too.

Read More

Dharma lessons I learned from my cat

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

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

Meditating together

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

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

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

Dealing with pain and grief

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

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

Worldly and unworldly pain

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

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

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

What Rusty taught me

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

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

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

Read More

Staging a Coup Against Social Media Addiction (The Social Media Sutra, Part 5)

In a series of six posts (here are links to the Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4) I explain, using teachings from the early Buddhist scriptures, how we can free ourselves from our addiction to social media. These teachings are found in the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, which outlines five strategies for overcoming compelling trains of thought and the urges that accompany them.

“Vitakkasanthana Sutta” literally means “the Discourse on Quieting Thinking,” but I’m going to call it “the Social Media Sutra.” I do this mainly because it’s a more convenient and catchy monicker than a literal translation is, but also because it reminds us that these teachings can be directly applied in this important aspect of our lives.

So now for the fifth and final tool. This one may surprise you.

The last resort tool that the Buddha offers us is sheer willpower.

With teeth clenched and tongue pressed against the roof of the mouth, the practitioner should squeeze, squash, and torture mind with mind. As they do so, those bad thoughts are given up and come to an end.

That all sounds kind of harsh. And the image is rather violent as well.

It’s like a strong man,” the discourse says, “who grabs a weaker man by the head or throat or shoulder and squeezes, squashes, and tortures them.

Using Willpower

You might be surprised at the Buddha teaching such a forceful method, but sometimes we need to be strict with ourselves.

It’s made very clear, though, that using willpower is a last resort, to be employed only when other methods have failed.

Sometimes I’ve found this useful. I can find myself, late at night, surfing the internet. It’s all good stuff — articles about science and psychology and Dharma — but it’s depriving me of sleep. And I’ll suddenly find myself experiencing a kind of disgust with what I’m doing and almost slam down the lid of my laptop. That sudden surge of a kind of healthy distaste overpowers my craving, which then loses all of its power over me.

But the whole concept of willpower is suspect. When I’m suddenly overcome with disgust and close my laptop, that’s not really something that happens because of willpower. It just happens. I’m surfing away (un)happily, and then suddenly I’m disgusted and the period of compulsive surfing is over.

There are, fortunately, much better ways to overcome your urges.

Sneakier Ways to Use Willpower

You might even call them sneakier ways. The sneaky aspect is that you use your willpower when you’re not actively caught up in craving. That’s when using force, for want of a better mind, is most effective. What we do is to make decisions that limit the ability of our active tendencies to control us.

Delete Social Media Apps

For example, if you delete your social media apps from your phone, that’s pretty forceful. It becomes much harder to access those services. Sure, you could use your phone’s internet browser instead, but that’s a bit clunkier.

Block Social Media Sites

And if you want to go a bit further, then you can use your phone’s parental safety settings to designate Twitter, or Facebook, or any other social media site you’re addicted to as an adult site and block it entirely. That way you can’t access those sites even in a browser.

Or on a computer there are browser plugins you can use that limit the amount of time you can spend on social media.

Delete Social Media Accounts

Going a bit further, you can delete your social media accounts altogether! That’s a very effective use of “force”. It actually does take a lot of willpower to do this. Very few people can do this.

I did this, though, with my Instagram account. Instagram is one of the more benign social media sites, but I found myself feeling disappointed when I shared an image and didn’t get many likes or comments. I craved validation, and wasn’t getting it. I didn’t like being that way, so I just deleted my account.

I also deleted my Facebook account. I have to say I loathed Facebook. Yes, it was a way I could keep up with my far-flung tribe of relatives. But it turned out that some of those relatives weren’t much fun to follow. And even on the Buddhist Facebook groups I followed, the conversations tended to degenerate into arguments. Plus there’s the whole thing about Facebook and privacy, the thing about Facebook being a conduit for political propaganda, and so on.

So I no longer have a personal Facebook account.

Research shows that quitting social media makes us happier. Why don’t more of us do that? It’s because of addiction, and the ways our minds lie to us. Your addiction will find ways to talk you out of deleting your accounts, telling you how essential social media are to your happiness. It’s all lies, of course. These things didn’t even used to exist, and somehow we all got by.

So I had deleted my Facebook and my Instagram accounts, and then the only social media service I had was Twitter.

I spent less time on Twitter than I had on the other services, but it still became a bit of a problem. For one thing, Twitter is a bit of an outrage factory. It’s full of people who like to get attention by showing how outraged they are about various things. And they enjoy getting other people outraged as well.

Now that had a bad effect on my sense of well-being, either because I’d get outraged or because I’d find myself exhausted just witnessing it.

For another thing, Twitter was very time-consuming. Sometimes I’d check Twitter on my phone first thing in the morning, and be sucked in for forty minutes or an hour. You can of course scroll endlessly on Twitter (that’s one of the features designed to keep us addicted) and there were always links to articles and videos, some of them very interesting.

So there is one final “willpower” trick that I’d like to offer you. This is the one that got me off of Twitter, made me happier by keeping me away from sources of outrage, and also freed up enormous amounts of time. I’m pleased to say that as a result of this one trick, I have no problem staying away from Twitter.

Here it is.

Get Locked Out of Your Account

This is a more forceful version of the third tool, “ignoring and forgetting” social media by putting it out of site and out of mind — for example by not having your phone by the side of your bed when you sleep. The third tool is, in effect, reducing temptation.

This is similar, but what you’re doing is creating a barrier that makes it hard for you to get into your account. You’re not deleting your account, which has advantages (for example you still have all your history there, no one can “name squat” by taking your name, and you can access your account in an emergency).

The barrier works like this:

  1. You log into your account
  2. You go to the “change password” setting
  3. You enter an impossible-to-remember password (certain browsers can create one for you, or your password manager, if you use one, can create one for you, or can you can use an online tool). Next comes the really important part.
  4. You don’t let your browser or password manager remember your new password. And you don’t make a note of it.
  5. Finally, you log out.

Now you’re locked out of your social media account. It still exists, so no one can name squat it.

Now, you can, in theory, get back into your account. There’s a “forgot password” link that you can use to send yourself a link to get back in again. But it’s an extra barrier. And for me, at least, that’s enough to have kept me out of my Twitter account for months.

So my current social media status is:

  1. Instagram: account deleted.
  2. Facebook: account deleted.
  3. Twitter: account dormant, because I’m locked out.

My current emotional status is:

  1. Happy not to be in the competitive, argumentative world of social media.
  2. Happy to have more time on my hands.
  3. Happy to feel I’m more in control of my life.

So it’s this final tool that worked for me in quitting my last connection with social media. Locking myself out of my account is like the strong man grabbing the weaker one and restraining him.

Actually, and this is important, it’s more like the weaker man waiting until the strong man has walked into a room, and then locking the door so that he’s trapped inside.

The sneaky part of the sneaky willpower approach is that you’re not confronting your addictive urges when they’re active. When you’re in the throes of addictively using social media or the internet, it’s very hard to do anything about it. Those urges are STRONG. So at some other time you take control. You stage a coup. You delete your apps, you block social media sites on your phone or computer, you lock yourself out.

None of these things is foolproof, but you’re creating strong barriers to acting out on your addictive urges, and those barriers can be enough. They have been for me.

Summary

To summarize this series, what we’ve been doing is exploring the five tools that the Vitakkasanthana Sutta offers us to help us free our minds from obsessive thinking and compulsive urges.

  • We’ve seen how we can replace addictive urges with skillful behavior by trusting that we are enough, that this moment is enough, by trusting in the power of love over anger, and by trusting in the Dharma.
  • We’ve seen how we can overcome social media addiction both by looking at its drawbacks, and also by creating a positive appreciation of the skillful things in our lives — what creates joy, peace, and meaning.
  • We’ve explored how we can look at how addictive thinking and actions arise when we’re not mindful of our feelings, and how we can create a mindful and self-compassionate pause in which wiser and healthier actions can arise.
  • And we’ve explored how, as a last resort, we can use willpower to disengage from addictive activities on the internet, and how we can most effectively use our willpower at times we’re not actively caught up in craving. For example we can make it harder for ourselves to connect to social media sites, or even delete our accounts.

Thank you for joining me in this series on using the Dharma to overcome social media addiction. There’s truly nothing I enjoy more than exploring and sharing the Dharma, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore our practice together. I’m grateful also to Tricycle magazine for asking me to record the videos that led to this series of articles.

May we all continue to make progress in overcoming the obstacles that hold us back from living with mindfulness, compassion, and joy.

Read More

Turn Toward Your Pain (The Social Media Sutra, Part 4)

In a series of six posts (here’s a link to the Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 5) I’m explaining, using teachings from the early Buddhist scriptures, how we can free ourselves from our addiction to social media. These teachings are found in the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, which outlines five strategies for overcoming compelling urges.

Introduction

“Vitakkasanthana Sutta” literally means “The Discourse on Quieting Thinking,” but I’m calling it “the Social Media Sutra.”

“Thinking” here means not just our inner verbalization or self-talk, but the emotional urges that accompany those. So the urge to compulsively use social media or to surf the internet is, in this context, a form of thinking.

The first tool is turning our attention to something that’s skillful in our experience. The second is looking at the drawbacks of our unskillful activities. The third is learning how to reduce temptation.

So let’s now look at the fourth tool from the Vitakkasanthana Sutta and see how it can help us deal with social media addiction.

Stopping the Formation of Thoughts

This fourth tool is what’s called “stopping the formation of thoughts.” That sounds great if you can do it. I think we’d all love to be able to find an off-switch for our thinking, or at least to have access to a dial so that we could turn it down a bit.

So what does the discourse actually say about this tool? It tells us that if none of the other methods have quieted our unskillful thoughts and urges, and

…unskillful thoughts connected with desire, hate, and delusion keep coming up. The practitioner should focus on stopping the formation of thoughts. As they do so, those bad thoughts are given up and come to an end. Their mind becomes stilled internally; it settles, unifies, and becomes immersed in mindful absorption.

So that’s maybe not too helpful.

The Image

But as always there’s an image, and this can give us a better feel for what the Buddha’s talking about:

Suppose there was a person walking quickly. They’d think: ‘Why am I walking so quickly? Why don’t I slow down?’ So they’d slow down. They’d think: ‘Why am I walking slowly? Why don’t I stand still?’ So they’d stand still. They’d think: ‘Why am I standing still? Why don’t I sit down?’ So they’d sit down. They’d think: ‘Why am I sitting? Why don’t I lie down?’ So they’d lie down. And so that person would reject successively coarser postures and adopt more subtle ones.

Understanding What’s Driving Us

The important thing to note here is that we find ourselves bombing along at high speed, and then we realize that there are mechanisms at work causing this to happen: something is propelling us. And by becoming more aware of what’s driving us, we can let go of it and thereby slow down and come to rest.

Similarly, when the mind is giving rise to thoughts and urges that prompt us to get involved — or to stay involved — in compulsive online activity, there is a mechanism that’s driving this. As we begin to look at the causes and conditions that are driving our actions, we can choose to let the mind come back to rest.

So if we’re literally surfing the web rather unmindfully, then we might realize that there’s a sense of anxiety driving us. This feeling feeling might be like a tight prickly ball of unpleasant sensations in the gut. One part of the brain is producing this sensation in the body because it thinks that being bored or missing out is a threat to our well-being. And it’s using this unpleasant sensation as a way of alerting us to this threat.

And other parts of the brain, reacting to the unpleasant feeling, create the impulses that cause us to move from web page to web page, from social media post to social media post. Those impulses might be accompanied by verbal thoughts, such as “Just one more article. OK, maybe two.” Both the urge to surf and the inner speech accompanying that urge are the “thought” that we’re trying to slow down.

Everything Converges on Feelings

Feelings are crucial in Buddhist practice. The Buddha said that “everything converges on feeling,” because of the pivotal role that feelings play in our experience.

It’s the unpleasant feeling that’s central to our experience in the example I’ve just given. It’s what’s driving our behavior.

As we become mindful of the feeling that’s driving us — that the mind has been reacting to — we realize that we don’t have to react to it and be driven by it. Instead, we can simply observe it, and recognize that it represents a part of us that is suffering, and perhaps have compassion for that part of us.

And this attitude of mindful self-compassion toward our feelings creates a kind of gap, or sacred pause, in which we’re able to find a kinder, wiser way way of acting.

In the case of internet addiction, there’s always an unpleasant feeling driving us. So what is that feeling? Well, that’s going to vary. There might be a sense of boredom, or hollowness, or dread, or maybe anxiety.

But whatever the feeling is, we can train ourselves to turn toward our discomfort and to accept it. We can train ourselves to respond to our pain with kindness and compassion. And this helps us to pivot from reactivity to responding in a more creative, mindful, and wise way.

Responding to Feelings With Or Without Mindfulness

Very often when I find myself glued to my computer, obsessed by reading articles online, I’ll use the approach I’ve just described. I’ll realize that I’m suffering and then turn my attention mindfully to the feelings that are present. Usually there’s a sense of something unpleasant in the gut.

When I’m not mindful, I take those unpleasant feelings as a signal that there’s something wrong. I need to fix something. I need to escape some threat, like loneliness or boredom. And the way to do that is to go online to find a fix.

Of course these reactions aren’t thought out or planned. They’re very instinctual.

When I’m being mindful, I recognize that the unpleasant feeling is just a sensation in the body. It’s simply a sensation created by some part of the brain that thinks that my well-being is threatened. And I don’t need to act on it. I can simply observe it. And perhaps I can compassionately recognize that a part of me is suffering and offer it some kindness and compassion. Touching my belly, or wherever the unpleasant feeling is most prominent, I can say: “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at peace.”

In acting out social media or internet addiction, we’re driven by a desire to escape emotional pain. There is no way to free ourselves from this kind of addictive urge until we learn to turn out attention toward our pain and embrace it with mindfulness and compassion.

Cutting the Cord of Attachment

When we crave something, it’s like there’s an invisible cord running between us and it — a cord through which our emotion flows. But when we turn our attention mindfully to the painful feelings that underlie our cravings, it’s as if that cord has been cut.

So when I do this — when I become mindful of my painful feelings — it’s as if my emotional connection with the internet, and with social media, weakens, or is broken. And I can simply put down my phone or close the lid of my laptop, and do something more wholesome than mindlessly scrolling through other people’s social media posts.

So that’s the fourth tool, or at least it’s part or it. This is the approach of focusing on stopping the formation of unskillful urges. We see what feelings are driving our thoughts and urges, and we find a more wholesome way of responding to those feelings, so that we no longer act in a reactive way. And this helps free us from the compulsion to be engaged with social media.

Summary

So what have we learned today?

  • We’ve seen that if we catch ourselves in a moment of addiction, we’ll see that we’re being driven by some underlying painful feeling.
  • Our compulsive activities are an attempt to escape this feeling, but only cause us more pain.
  • We can attend to these painful feelings with mindfulness and compassion.
  • Mindfully and compassionately attending to painful feelings creates a “gap” in which we can choose to let go of compulsive activities.

To read Part 5 of The Social Media Sutra, click here: Staging a Coup Against Social Media Addiction.

Read More
Menu