on practice

Meditating with pets

I have a daily Zoom meditation group as part of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative, and there are often a few pets in evidence. In fact one day someone commented that it must be “Take Your Dog to Meditation Day.”

In some ways pets are natural meditators. I’ve had a few cats in my life, and currently have a couple of dogs, and their ability to “just sit” and to be in the moment puts mine to shame.

At the same time, sometimes when we’re trying to meditate they want to get involved in ways that are distracting, and so that’s the topic I’d like to address today.

I stress I’m talking about cats and dogs here. And since I currently have two dogs and haven’t had a cat in a long time it’s almost inevitable that I’ll be talking mostly about dogs. Hopefully you’ll be able to adapt what I say here to your particular circumstances.

Preparing for Meditation

Even before I meditate, I’ll separate my dogs from each other. When they play together it’s a very noisy affair. There’s lots of running around, wrestling, and growling. I don’t want that going on when I meditate. We have baby gates in the house, so I can have one dog in the room with me, and the other one in the next room. Because the one in the next room (that’s Suki) can see through the barrier, there’s no anxiety. I’m right there.

If the dogs seem to be restless as I’m preparing to meditate, I’ll often give them something by way of a distraction. Suki is still teething, and so I’ll make sure she has a teething toy; it’s kind of distracting to realize during a meditation that your dog is destroying the kitchen cabinets. And sometimes I’ll give them each a “Kong” (a thick rubber cone) filled with frozen peanut butter. That keeps them busy for a good few minutes while I settle in to meditation, and after they’ve done with their treats they usually settle down as well.

My dogs also tend to be very quiet when they’re in their crates, so I’ve sometimes taken that approach during meditation. But not everyone has crates for their pets, and I imagine not all pets are quiet when they’re crated.

Be Empathetic

Next, if their human sitting still with their eyes closed isn’t something they’ve been exposed to before, your pet may be confused by you meditating. My experience has been that they get used to it in time, although you may have to work with them until they do. And maybe they never will.

A cat of mine called Piglit used to be very curious when I meditated. Sometimes she’d just come and sit beside me with her eyes closed, looking for all the world like she was joining in with me. Other times she’d bat at me with a paw, trying to get my attention. One of my dogs, Luna, does this as well. In fact sometimes she’ll stare at me and bark. It’s hard to ignore.

When this happens I think it’s best to be empathetic. This can be a confusing situation for your animal. Ignoring them can make them even more confused. Often they need attention.

And they’re individuals, so forcing them to do something isn’t very kind. Don’t feel that your dog “should” quietly sit as you meditate. Why should they? You need to work with them on their own terms.

Make Contact

Today, during an online sit, I opened my eyes to see one of the participants sitting cross-legged between her two Labrador retrievers. She was holding one dog’s paw, and had a hand resting on the neck of the other. In order to get her attention they’d started barking during the meditation, and this was her way of calming them down. Given this small degree of contact, both dogs were perfectly happy and relaxed, and were just lying quietly beside her.

Most pets love touch, so simply reaching a hand out to them and making contact, or let them make contact with me, if sometimes enough to calm them.

If you have to stroke your pet in order to help them settle, that’s fine. A lot of people think this would be a distraction, but you can pet your animal mindfully and with kindness, so that it becomes part of the meditation.

If I’m stroking my pet I do it in time with the breathing. Find your own (and your pet’s) pace. Let the meditating and the petting be one single experience. Be mindful of the movements of the arm and of the sensations of contact, and of how these things synchronize with the movements of the breathing.

Luna, who stays in the room with me, is small, so if she’s really persistent in trying to get my attention I’ll often pick her up (if she’ll let me) and sit her on my lap. (Suki’s too large for that.) That makes it easier to pet her and show her reassurance. She rarely stays on my lap for more than 15 minutes, and then she’ll jump back onto the floor. I’m happy to let her go. That’s what she wants to do.

Practice Lovingkindness

Often I’ll include Luna in my lovingkindness (metta) meditation. My favored way of cultivating metta — which I just think of as “kindness” — is to remember what it’s like to look with loving eyes. I’ll remember times I’ve watched my kids sleeping, for example. As soon as I do this, I feel a sense of warmth, tenderness, and softness around my eyes. And then as I turn my attention toward my own body, and Luna sitting on my lap, those same qualities are brought into the way I’m regarding the two of us.

With my eyes soft, relaxed, and kind, I’m able to embrace myself and my dog in a single field of loving awareness. There’s no question of this being a distraction. When I’d doing this I’m very concretely cultivating metta (kindness) for myself and another living being. We are, experientially, one body, not two.

When Luna is on my lap, she’s usually very happy to have her back stroked or her tummy tickled. (Until she decides she’s had enough and goes away.) Sometimes though she wants to lick my face. So I’ll just accept that as part of my meditation practice. I’m accepting kindness, which is an important practice in its own right. Usually she doesn’t do it for long.

Practice Compassionate Reassurance

Sometimes my dogs bark while I’m meditating. A neighbor might be taking their dog out, or a delivery worker might be dropping something off. And the dogs see it as their responsibility to defend the house. When Luna (my first dog) started doing this, I was a bit annoyed at first. I wanted to yell at her to get her to shut up. Then I saw her hackles were up and realized that she was physiologically and emotionally aroused. She was experiencing anger, and possibly fear as well. Her territory was under threat, and she was trying to ward off this menace and to alert me to danger.

So it became obvious that what she needed was reassurance. So when she’s barking like this (and I’m not meditating) I’ll go through to her, pet her to calm her down, and emphasize that the person or dog outside is a “friend.” (I’m training her to recognize that as a reassurance word.)

In meditation I don’t get up and pet the dogs, but —without moving — I do talk to them reassuringly. I’ll say things like, “It’s just a friend, Luna (or Suki)! Thank you for protecting the house. Good girl. It’s just a friend, though. You’re OK. You’re OK.” (“You’re OK” is another phrase I’m training the dogs to recognize as reassuring. I reckon that if they associate “You’re OK” with the experience of calming down, those words will start to be effective even without physical contact.)

Again, you might think that this is a distraction from the meditation, but I see it as part of the meditation. If I was dealing with a knot of anxiety in meditation, I’d talk to it in a similar reassuring way: “It’s OK. I’m here for you. I know this is scary, but we’re safe right now. I love you and I want you to be happy.”

It’s the same principle here, except that the knot of anxiety is in my dog’s belly rather than mine. All suffering deserves to be met with compassion. My dogs’ barking is a sign of their suffering. Therefore I respond compassionately.

Of course you have the option simply to let your dogs bark. After all, it’s an impermanent phenomenon and will therefore come and go. But I live in an apartment building and I think it would be a bit obnoxious to let my dogs disturb other people. And unrestrained barking isn’t a habit I want to encourage.

Practice Patience and Insight

Although I’ve said that sometimes your dogs need reassurance and comfort, sometimes they don’t! Or at least sometimes it’s better just to let them quiet down on their own, and maybe give them just minimal attention or no attention.

This morning while I was sitting, Suki started whining in the kitchen. I decided just to let her work through her emotions on her own. It isn’t really in my or the dogs’ long-term best interests if I jump up and attend to them every time they whine. After all, they whine every single time I leave the house, and I don’t respond by staying permanently at home. That the dogs are sometimes unhappy is something I just have to learn to tolerate. So be patient. They’ll be OK.

And bear in mind the insight that things are impermanent. “Things” here include my dogs’ feelings. They may be unhappy for a minute, but they’ll calm down and be at peace. Your feelings are impermanent too. It may be unpleasant to hear your dog crying, but it won’t go on forever.

It’s a judgement call to decide whether to intervene or not. Everyone is different, and all animals are different. I bear in mind, “Is this for our [i.e. mine and the dogs’] long-term happiness and well-being.”

So these are the kinds of situations I sometimes encounter meditating with dogs in the house, and some of the ways I respond to them.

Now bear in mind that my dog is not your dog, and that my dog is definitely not your cat or your African Grey parrot! So what works for me might not work for you.

In fact I’m sure some of you have evolved your own ways of meditating with pets. Perhaps you could share them in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

 

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Keeping the mind on track

If you’re familiar with the way I teach meditation you’ll know that for many years one of the key things I’ve emphasized is having soft eyes.

“Soft eyes” means three things: letting the muscles around the eyes be relaxed; letting the focus within the eyes be soft; and being effortlessly receptive to whatever is arising in the entire visual field.

If we do those three things then the mind tends to become much quieter than usual, the body starts to relax, and the breathing starts to slow and deepen, so that it moves more into the belly.

And when we then turn our attention inward, to what’s arising in the body, then we’ll find that we can be aware of sensations arising from all over the body. The movements and ever-changing sensations of the breathing can be experienced all over the body. And the breathing then becomes a rich experience, so that the mind becomes calmer and remains that way for much longer than usual.

So this is a very easy way for us to take our meditation practice deeper. Rather than struggling, day after day, trying to fight through our distractedness in order to find a few moments of calm and concentration, we find that we can become calmer anytime, almost instantly.

And this usually works for me.

But sometimes it doesn’t! This is especially the case when I’m chronically tired, which has been happening over the last month or two. (Short version of the story: a new puppy we’ve adopted needs to go out to pee more than once during the night, and this is eating into the time I’d normally be asleep.)

So what to do?

What I’ve found helpful is to use a few phrases to help keep my mind on track.

  • “Soft eyes.” This is my reminder to let the eyes be soft. I say it just before I exhale.
  • “Body alive.” At the start of the next out-breath I’ll say this to myself, and as I breathe out I’ll notice the movements and sensations of the breathing, and particularly the warm, tingling sensations of my muscles as they relax. After saying the phrase I might simply observe the body for two to three breaths. Then I’ll say:
  • “Kind eyes.” This is my reminder to keep a sense of kindness and tenderness in the eyes. I say it just before I breathe out again. (If this practice of loving eyes isn’t something you’ve come across before, you might want to practice recalling what it’s like to look — at a beloved child, a pet, a lover, a friend, and so on — with love. Just notice the qualities of warmth and tenderness that arise in and around the eyes.)
  • “Meeting everything with tenderness.” As I exhale, I follow the sensations and movements of the breathing through the whole body, regarding everything that arises with kindness. Again I might continue to observe the body with kindness for two or three breaths, before once more starting the cycle of the phrases once again.

Distracted thinking directs our attention away from our immediate experience of the body, and into the world of imagination. The kind of thinking I’ve described in the list above instead directs our attention away from the would of the imagination and toward our immediate experience.

The timing of the phrases is crucial, and it’s something you’ll have to work out for yourself. If you repeat a phrase before every breath you’ll probably feel stifled, and your mind will feel too busy. You need to allow time for actually connecting with your experience, which means simply observing the sensations of the breathing rippling though the body — without you saying anything to yourself. So after saying the phrases “body alive” and “meeting everything with tenderness” you’ll find it helps to just stay with your experience of the breathing for something like two to three breaths, and maybe more.

How long is a matter of practicality. If you start to get distracted again, you need to tighten up the spacing of the phrases, leaving fewer breaths between them. If you feel things are going well, and you aren’t getting distracted, you might want to space the phrases out a bit more.

If things seem to be going really well, and you’re staying with the body without getting distracted, you might want to experiment with dropping the phrases “body alive” and “meeting everything with tenderness.” Just say “eyes soft” and “eyes kind” with a few “silent” breaths in between. How many is a practical matter—what works for you?

If you fall into a pattern of just repeating the phrases regularly in a mechanical way, you’ll find that it doesn’t work for long. Anything you do mechanically, you do unmindfully, and you’ll become distracted. So changing the frequency of the phrases and seeing what effect they have will help keep you alert, focused, and calm.

As part of this process of shaking things up, you can even change the order of the phrases. Sometimes I’ll say:

  • Soft eyes
  • Kind eyes
  • Body alive
  • Meeting everything with kindness

Again, I’ll play around with the number of “silent” breaths between these phrases to see what works best in keeping the mind quiet.

This practice is something I’ve integrating into my jhana teaching and practice. (See the “Letting Go Into Joy” course if you’re not familiar with what jhana is. But briefly, it’s the experience of meditative absorption.) In the first level of jhana there can be thinking present, and this seems to be one of the forms of thinking that is compatible with first jhana — thinking that directs us toward a deeper experience of the body.

Please do play around with these tools and let me know how it works for you.

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Just turn away… (The Social Media Sutra, Part 3)

In a series of six posts I explain, using teachings from the early Buddhist scriptures, how we can free ourselves from 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.

(Here are links to the Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, and Part 5)

One thing I should point out is that the Buddha’s advice is to work through these tools in order. If redirecting the mind to what’s positive doesn’t work for us, then we try seeing the drawbacks of addiction. And if that doesn’t work, we try the next tool, which is where we simply “ignore and forget” whatever it is we’re obsessed by. That’s the tool we’re exploring today.

The Buddha’s Advice

The discourse is very brief where it comes to this tool. It just says that if, in the mind of a practitioner:

bad, unskillful thoughts connected with desire, hate, and delusion keep coming up they should ignore and forget about them.

You might well be thinking, “easier said than done”!

The Illustration

The illustration of this principle isn’t very helpful either!

Suppose there was a person with good eyesight, and some undesirable sights came into their range of vision. They’d just close their eyes or look away.

That probably sounds almost simplistic. As we look into it, however, I think you’ll see that it’s actually very practical and useful advice.

What is boils down to is reducing temptation.

Two Directions for Our Practice

We’re going to look at this in two areas. First we’ll look at the sphere of external activity. We’ll look at how we can literally ignore and look away from social media by changing our habits.

Next, when we’ll look at the sphere of internal activity — how we relate to our experience. And in this second sphere I think there are some deep implications for how we habitually use our attention.

A very simple shift in the way we notice our experience can have a powerfully transforming effect on our level of wellbeing.

The First Principle of “Ignoring”: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

So first, here’s some very practical advice for managing your attention.

Let’s say, for example, that you wanted to lose weight, but had a problem with eating potato chips. If you have a big bag of them in the house, you’re much more likely to end up pigging out. So it’s helpful if you can’t physically see the foods that you crave. To some extent it’s literally true that “out of sight is out of mind” — something this example illustrates. And when you’re in the supermarket, don’t walk down the chip aisle. Turn away when you walk by it.

Now the same principle applies to our online addictions. Our main route into these nowadays is through those magic glass rectangles that we use to watch TV shows, to get travel directions, to play games, do our banking, look for a mate, do work, text-message our friends and family — and, of course, browse social media.

These devices are so useful that we carry them with us everywhere. This means that we’re always in the presence of temptation.

You probably keep your social media apps on the main screen of your phone because you use them a lot. but you probably also use them a lot because they’re on the main screen of your phone, and they’re the first thing you see when you pick it up. Try moving those apps to the second or third screen, so that you have to do some actual work to access them.

Those little read badges that show how many comments etc are waiting for you are red for a purpose: red is an emotionally activating color. So it’s helpful to turn those off. It’s helpful to turn off any audible notifications as well. That way you aren’t letting social media apps interrupt you whenever they want your attention. You will instead discover what’s waiting for you on those apps when you choose to visit. This puts some of the power back in your hands. It allows you to focus (remember being able to focus?).

Create Space Between You and Your Phone

It’s useful to have your phone out of sight and out of mind, at least some of the time.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is not to have your phone at your bedside at night. If that’s where you charge your phone then your addiction is going to be the first thing you feed when you wake up. Your phone is going to be there first thing in the morning, or even if you wake up in the middle of the night. So try charging your phone at the other end of the house.

You might be saying, “But I need my phone beside me at night so that I know what time it is!”

If that’s the case, let me remind you of an ancient technology called the “alarm clock.” As with a phone, you can program an alarm clock to wake you up. But you can’t read Facebook on an alarm clock.

When you charge your phone in another room, you’ll wake up and not have instant access to the internet. That gives you an opportunity to start your day free from addiction. And the way we start the day often conditions how we live during the rest of the day.

One further step regarding phones is to turn them off when we charge them overnight. We’re naturally lazy! The fact that your phone takes a minute or so to boot up takes advantage of that laziness. It creates a bit of a barrier between you and the internet. And that barrier makes it easier for you to avoid addiction. Out of sight, out of mind.

Learning to Read Again

I find that when I charge my phone in the living room, I’m more likely to meditate or to read a Dharma book first thing in the morning, rather than reading the news or seeing what’s going on on Twitter. This is a great way to start the day.

I find that reading a book first thing in the morning is much healthier than going online. I think most of us have had the experience of finding it harder to read books because we’ve spent so much time reading short posts and articles online. Reading books helps train the mind to become absorbed and develop concentration. And books — physical ones, anyway — don’t have hyperlinks. I prefer to read paper books for that reason. Additionally Dharma books (or any kind of personal development book) nourish the mind in ways that rarely happens online.

Create Rituals of Internet-Free Time

You can create other opportunities to have phone — and internet — free time. When you’re having a meal with family or friends you can mute your phone or put it somewhere out of sight. I’ve heard of people putting their phones in a pile on the table in a restaurant, and if anyone touches their phone during the meal they have to pay for everyone’s food. I think that’s a great idea.

Meditation retreats are also an excellent opportunity to relearn that we don’t need to be online to be happy — and in fact that we’re happier when we’re offline, and present with our direct experience. On some retreats you have to hand in your phone for the duration. But if that doesn’t happen you can leave your phone in your car, or switched off and at the bottom of your suitcase. You could even put your phone in a sealed envelope, which creates an extra barrier in case you get tempted to switch it on. And you could write some kind of encouraging message on the outside of the envelope, like “simplicity and presence.“

So these are all very simple and practical ways we can, in the words of the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, “look away” from our phones or “have our eyes closed” to them.

So this is all to do with the outside world.

But I said that there is something we can do internally that helps us to avoid getting caught up in and driven by thoughts about our addictions — that sudden desire to pick up our phone and go online. This is a deeper level of practice, and what I’m going to tell you might even change the way you meditate.

The Inner Work of “Ignoring” Social Media

What I’d like to explain is that there are two ways that we can pay attention with the eyes. The first is where we’re aware of and concentrated on the focal point of our visual field. This is our normal way of seeing, and you’re probably doing that right now. You’re probably mainly aware of the screen in front of you, or of me, or my face, or even just part of my face. Often when we’re listening to someone we focus on the triangle made by the eyes and the mouth. This way of seeing is like a flashlight. It’s a narrow beam of attention. It focuses on what seems most vital, but it also misses a lot.

The other way of seeing is where we’re aware of the whole of our visual field. We don’t do this by moving the eyes around. We simply let the muscles around the eyes relax, and let the focus in the eyes be soft. Try doing that right now.

Once we’ve done that we find that we can be aware, in a very relaxed way, of everything that’s arising visually, from the very soft focus at the center of our visual field, right up to the corners of our eyes. This way of seeing is like a lamp. It illuminates many things. It’s less directional and more open than a flashlight.

So if you’re doing that right now, you can still be aware of the screen in front of you, letting it be a soft focal point, but you can also be aware of everything around the screen.

This is a way of seeing that encourage you to play with. You probably can’t read while seeing in this way, but try doing it while you’re walking, or having a conversation with someone.

Often when we relax the eyes in this way, we find that the body starts to relax and the mind starts to calm.

Two Ways of Observing Internally

Interestingly, the way we use the eyes affects the way we perceive internally as well.

So in meditation, when the eyes are tight and narrowly focused, then our inner field of attention is also narrow. When the eyes are tight we can only be aware of a small range of internal sensations.

Maybe we notice just one small part of the breathing, for example. And the problem is that we get bored because we’re not giving the mind much to be aware of. And then along comes a thought. Maybe it’s an emotionally loaded one. What happens? The flashlight beam of our attention shifts to the thought, and the story it contains. Now we’re completely lost in a distracted train of thought. And our meditation can go on like this for a long time. We alternate shining the flashlight of our attention on a small range of bodily sensations, and then shift to distracted thoughts. And this switch keeps happening.

But when the eyes are soft, our attention is like a gently glowing lamp. We’re able to be aware of many sensations in the body. We can be aware of the breathing in the whole body, for example. So now there’s a lot for us to be aware of, and the mind is more nourished.

And when a thought arises, it’s now just one small part of a vast, open field of attention. And because of that the thought can simply pass through the mind. We don’t resist it. We’re not drawn into it. We just don’t pay any particular attention to it.

So this brings us back to the topic of ignoring and forgetting about compelling thoughts.

Letting Urges Arise and Pass Away

We can maintain a soft gaze, an open gaze, during ordinary activities. And when a thought or an urge comes up — like “I need to check Facebook RIGHT NOW” — it’s easier just to let that thought arise and pass away without our acting on it. Or if we’re already in the throes of online activity, and we realize it’s not good for us, we can soften the eyes, and it becomes easier to let go of our compulsion to stay engaged online. It becomes easier to step away from the screen or put down our phone.

This is very similar to what some people call “urge surfing.” The idea here is that, like waves, urges build up and pass away. When an urge is building the mind often assumes that it’s going to get stronger and stronger until it overwhelms us, but that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s the assumption that we’ll inevitably capitulate to the urge that causes us to capitulate to the urge. If we simply keep observing the urge building, we’ll find that it peaks and then starts to die down again. So you might be working, and the urge to go onto social media rises, and you just watch until it passes away, and then you get absorbed in your work again. Adopting an open gaze (with the consequent open and expansive field of inner attention) will help us as we do this.

So this idea of ignoring and forgetting about unskillful thoughts and urges might seem simplistic and even a bit lame, but it’s actually very deep.

Summary

So what have we learned today? We’ve seen that we can reduce our chances of distracting ourselves with social media if we:

  • Make it harder to access our phones,
  • Make sure that they’re not right by us when we wake up,
  • Switch them off overnight so that there’s more of a barrier to accessing the internet, and
  • Evolve rituals where we eat meals or spend time with friends and family undisturbed by our technology.

In short, we can strategically create oases of addiction-free sensory reality.

And we’ve seen that a slight shift in the way we relate to our eyes can create a sense of mental space in which thoughts can arise and pass away without our getting caught up in them. We literally can simply ignore and forget about the thoughts and impulses that keep us hooked on social media. We can surf our urges, knowing that they’re impermanent, and that they arise and pass away on their own. In all these ways we can begin to let go free ourselves from addictive patterns of thought and behavior.

Click here to read Part 4 of the Social Media Sutra, Turn Toward the Pain.

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Love, grammar, and magic

I’ve just finished reading Lawrence Weinstein’s book, “Grammar for a Full Life,” which I intend to write a review of later this week. (Spoiler: I’ll be recommending the book highly.) “Grammar for a Full Life” is a book on a topic that you might consider unusual—essentially it’s on the spirituality of grammar.

You might wonder what grammar and spirituality might have to do with each other. A lot, as it happens, but I’ll say more about that in the actual review. Right now I’d like to give a flavor of that connection by providing you with an example based on the book. It’s an example that starts off in the normal territory of grammar (which we often think of, I believe, as worthy but dull). But then it leads us into the territory of magic, and to a way of thinking about what we’re doing in meditation that has the potential to make our practice more vibrant and meaningful.

(Bear in mind that I’m condensing and simplifying, although hopefully not too grossly distorting, what Weinstein says.)

First the ordinary grammar: You’re probably familiar with the distinction between the use of the “active voice” and the “passive voice” in writing. The active voice is represented in a sentence such as, “I drove the car.” The “I” in the sentence is the doer—the one that actively drives. The car is the thing that “I” drove.

A passive-voice version of the same sentence would be “The car was driven.” Here there’s no active agent. Or at least the one who’s doing the driving is left unnamed and unexplained.

Because it neglects to mention who the “doer” is, passive voice is a construction favored by those who want to avoid taking responsibility. A politician says “Mistakes were made” because that construction leaves who actually made the mistakes (often themselves) unnamed. They give the impression that “responsibility has been taken” (another passive construction) but they themselves don’t take any responsibility. Similarly, when I point to a broken vase and ask my children what happened, they’ll usually say “It broke.” Perhaps my children are destined for careers in politics.

Weinstein points out that switching from using the passive to the active voice can be empowering, reminding us that we have agency. To take one of his examples, if someone asks you why you’ve been holding a phone to your ear without saying anything for a long time, you might say, “I’m being kept on hold.” This way of speaking (and thinking) reveals and reinforces a sense of helpless passivity. If you were to say something like “I’m waiting to talk to my bank” you’re framing yourself as an active agent—someone who is choosing to wait. It’s more likely, Weinstein points out, that using more active language will give you more of a sense of freedom—the freedom to hang up and call back later, for example. Using the active voice encourages us to take responsibility and to remind ourselves that we “remain the makers of our fate,” as Weinstein puts it.

Yet the passive voice, Weinstein also says, can express a form of “creative passivity” as well. The active voice can lead to us being effortful to such an extent that we get in our own way. Weinstein gives the example of his early attempts to sing being marred by having too much tension in his vocal apparatus. A skilled teacher later helped him to let go, so that his voice could flow, effortlessly, from him.

The active voice can also feed into our ego, while the passive voice can be expressive of modesty and of an awareness of interdependence. The woman who says, “I won the Oscar for best actress,” is suggesting that her talent and hard work alone were responsible for her success, Weinstein points out. On the other hand the woman who says “I was awarded the Oscar for best actress” is admitting that other factors are involved in this success. Luck can certainly be one of those factors (some actors are discovered while waiting tables—how fortunate for the actor that the director sat in that particular restaurant or cafe and not in the one down the road!). Perhaps people on the judging panel happen to know and like them. Perhaps other, better, performances weren’t brought to the judges’ attention. She has also been trained, coached, and advised by many people, who also contributed to her performance. The passive voice—”I was awarded the Oscar…”—can help us to recognize this complexity and also help move the “self” from the center of the story.

Additionally, the passive voice very accurately expresses how creation happens. Fiction writers talk about how their characters behave in ways that are unexpected to them and experience themselves as the passive recipients of their characters’ dramas. Painters feel inspiration flowing through them, and so on. The passive voice expresses the reality of what takes place when we create. (And not just when we create: my article on non-self, The boys in the basement, the empty room, and the plagiarist, explains how the sense we have that we own our actions is in fact an illusion.)

But what of love and magic? The title of this little essay promises to say something about those topics as well.

First, grammar and magic are related. There’s an old Scots word for a magical spell: a glammer. Glammer made its way into English as “glamour,” which is the spell cast on us by beauty. Glammer was originally an alteration of “grammar,” which is from the Greek grammatikē tekhnē, meaning “the art of letters.” Magic used signs, symbols, and letters to conjure up desired results. Grammar is from the same Greek root, and it does the same thing: letters and symbols are used in certain ways to transmit a desired meaning (a pattern of thought, an understanding) from one mind to another, in a form of telepathy. Although Weinstein doesn’t say this in his book, grammar is magic.

Next, Weinstein also talks about a form of sentence that is neither passive nor active (or is both), and which brings us into the realm of the magical. And that grammatical form is one that’s commonly used in meditation.

In a chapter subtitled “Blessing,” Weinstein calls this the “active-passive hybrid.” The formula for this hybrid, which is rare in English, is the one that “begins with the auxiliary subjunctive verb may.” For example, “May your spirits lift.”

Who is the one who takes action here? The speaker is not saying “I raise your spirits” or even “I hope your spirits lift.” It is some unnamed force that will do the lifting. So this may seem like a passive construction. But at the same time the speaker is making an invocation. The form of words suggests that they have the power to invoke and direct the forces that can affect how another person feels. And so it also seems active. Perhaps it’s both, or neither.

As Weinstein says,

Insofar as I can tell, the blessing formula using may does several things at once.

  • it associates the speaker with a certain wish or vision, which she names;
  • it implicitly acknowledges that she, all by herself, doesn’t have sufficient power to bring the wished-for outcome to pass; and
  • it invites the people, forces, or divinities whose help is required for that outcome to come into play.

Now this “blessing formula,” although I’ve never called it that, and so I thank Weinstein for the term, is common in lovingkindness and compassion meditation. We might use any of the following phrases in this type of practice:

  • May I be well
  • May you be at peace
  • May we be free from suffering
  • May you be kind to yourselves and others

Those of us who do this kind of meditation are so used to that particular form of words that we don’t even think about it. But perhaps thinking about it would enrich our practice?

So I’d like you to imagine, as you’re reciting phrases of that sort—phrases of blessing—that you are becoming a channel for unknown forces that are indeed capable of bringing about wellness, peace, freedom from suffering, and an all-pervasive attitude of kindness. These unknown forces may reside in the entire universe, or in the earth beneath you, the heavens above you, or deep inside you. But consider that in saying “May you be at peace” you are inviting them to flow through you.

In passive voice terms, love is flowing through you. But there is also an active component. You are willing or inviting the forces of love to arise. You are willingly becoming a conduit. But you are not a passive conduit. You are bestowing these blessings upon the world, or upon particular individuals.

I say “imagine this,” but really I mean, “feel this.” Really I mean, “experience this.” Really I mean, “Let this happen.”

How enriching this is, not to limply and half-heartedly be reciting phrases, but to open ourselves up to love, to be a conduit for it, allowing it to affect our entire world. You have receptivity but also agency. You have power but also the humility to know that the power isn’t really yours.

The practices of lovingkindness and compassion are included in a set called the “brahma-viharas,” or the “divine abidings.” The name suggests our dwelling in a beautiful but potent, almost god-like, state of love. But it could also suggest a beautiful but potent state of love dwelling in (or flowing through) us.

So I recommend that you let yourself (another passive-active construction we often use in meditation instruction) adopt this perspective: that in lovingkindness and compassion practice you are inviting blessings to well up inside of you, and that those blessings are then, through you, bestowing themselves upon the world.

Once you’re aware of grammar as magic, of grammar as glammer, your meditation can become magic rather than a mere formal exercise in training the mind.

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. It is supported by, at present, over 600 people who donate an amount every month and who receive numerous benefits in return. Click here to learn more about the meditation initiative.

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Try gentler, not harder

There’s an old story that goes something like this: A young man who wants to learn to be an expert swordsman travels for many days to seek out a famous teacher who lives in a remote place in the mountains. After much difficulty he tracks down the sword master and begs to be accepted as a student. To his joy, the master agrees to take him on.

“How long will it take for me to become as good a swordsman as you?” the student asks.

“Perhaps fifteen years,” replies the master.

The student is dismayed at this prospect. “How long if I try really hard?” he asks.

The master scratches his chin as he ponders, and then finally says, “I suppose, if you try really hard, it might take you … twenty years.”

The point of the story is that for some things, the harder you try, the more you get in your own way. Meditation is very much like that.

“Trying hard” inevitably involves an element of grasping. But meditation is about letting go of grasping. It’s about being, accepting, and opening up. Yes, within that context there can be a sense that we’re working in our meditation practice. But it’s important to establish a sense of openness, receptivity, and acceptance before we begin working, so that that work is not imbued with grasping but is instead more of matter of paying attention gently and kindly.

For me this all starts with the eyes.

The striving, grasping mind leads to a tight, narrow gaze. I imagine this is because striving requires us to focus narrowly on a single thing that we either want to have or want to avoid. When the gaze is narrowly focused we become physically tense, and the mind goes into overdrive. It’s not a pleasant way to exist.

Letting the eyes soften — letting the focus within the eyes be gentler and letting the muscles around the eyes relax — triggers a state of relaxation. This relaxed gaze is familiar to us from when we stare into space. That’s something we do when we feel safe and relaxed, and there’s no need to be hyperaware of danger.

As soon as the eyes soften in this way the mind calms, our thoughts slow down, and the body begins to relax. The breathing slows and deepens.

This is what I always do when I start meditating.

One thing that happens when the eyes soften is that our gaze is no longer narrowly focused, and we’re able to take in the whole of our visual field. This happens quite naturally and effortlessly.

And this immediately translates to our inner field of attention being open and receptive, and able to take in the whole of the body (and other inner sensations) at once. This too happens naturally and effortlessly.

Now we can sense the movements of the breathing in the whole body, offering us a rich sensory experience that helps us remain in mindfulness.

So while we might start off thinking that to calm the mind we need to do a lot of work, we actually find that all we have to do is let the eyes soften. And then it’s a question of letting our inner field of awareness connect with the body. And then with gentleness, kindness, and curiosity, we remain mindful of the whole body breathing. Often at this point our thoughts are few and far between. Mostly they arise and pass away without distracting us. And when we do get sucked into thinking, it’s easier to let go of them; we just let the eyes soften again.

If we tried through “trying harder” to achieve this depth of mindfulness it might take many hours, and probably even then only on a retreat. Making a lot of effort in meditation creates mental turbulence, distraction, and resistance. Think about what it’s like to try to grab a slippery bar of soap you’ve dropped in the bath. If you lunge after it you push it away. It’s very similar in meditation. If we want to achieve something, we need to let it happen, not make it happen.

By doing the opposite of trying hard, we can get much further.

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The benefits of making things hard for ourselves

I find that a lot of the time, when people are cultivating kindness or compassion for a person they find difficult, they do it in a rather vague way. Usually in their meditation practice they just visualize an image of the “enemy” and repeat the appropriate phrases — “May you be well,” “May you be free from suffering,” and so on. That’s what I was taught to do, and it’s what most other people were taught as well.

Creating a challenge

So what’s the problem with this? It’s that when we have difficulties with people, what we really have difficulties with are their behaviors — what they say and do. Those are the things that provoke our own reactivity. When the person in our mind’s eye is just sitting there passively, we’re not triggering the discomfort that leads to us getting annoyed by them. We’re simply not making things hard enough for ourselves. We have to make ourselves uncomfortable in order to learn how to handle discomfort without reacting. We have to put ourselves in the position where reactivity is a real possibility before we can start to recognize the signs that we’re starting to get angry, and then choose not to feed our anger.

So I tend to teach lovingkindness and compassion meditation as opportunities to rehearse facing real difficulties. When you call a so-called “difficult person” to mind in one of these meditations, it helps if we focus very specifically on the things they say and do that tend to trigger us. If we remember or imagine those things very vividly, we’re more likely to create uncomfortable feelings, and it’s those feelings that in turn trigger our reactivity. And now, in the mindful space that meditation offers us, we have the opportunity to sit with those uncomfortable feelings and be present with them. And we have the opportunity to see our anger arising, so that we can choose not to encourage it, but instead to let go of it. We have an opportunity to remember the humanity of the person facing us, and to cultivate an attitude of kindness toward them.

Superheroes of nonviolence

I was thinking about this the other day in the context of the civil rights marches of the 1960s.
When I first heard how Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights marchers endured, without retaliation, insults, beatings, being hosed with water, and having dogs set upon them, I was astonished and humbled. How was it they could do these things, when I take offense at merely being belittled online?

Later I learned that these brave activists trained to be non-reactive in the face of violence. They rehearsed. They met in groups where they would role-play facing insults and physical assaults, in order to learn how to respond non-violently to violence. They trained in reframing encounters with the police, so that they didn’t see arrest and imprisonment as violations of their freedom but as a badge of honor, to be worn with pride.

They trained in learning that the point of nonviolent resistance was not to insult or humiliate their opponents, but to win their trust, friendship, and understanding; it was to convert the enemy to nonviolence. They trained in understanding that the enemy was the ideology of evil and oppression, and not the persons who were committing injustice.

Training to be more loving

These brave individuals didn’t make some sudden leap to practicing love in the face of hatred; they learned, step by step, to do this. It became clear to me that we can learn to do seemingly superhuman acts of nonviolence through training.

If they could practice love while being beaten with clubs and insulted in vile ways, surely we can learn to do the same with the much more minor irritations in our own lives? And so I suggest that you make your meditation practice into a form of rehearsal. Do you get irritated with the way a household member loads the dishwasher badly, or doesn’t clear up after themselves? Or when someone ignores you, or puts you down? Visualize those things very clearly in your mind’s eye; let the feeling of irritation arise, and allow it to be present, without reacting. If angry thoughts and impulses arise, let go of them. Connect with kindness as you visualize the things that annoy you. Rehearse responding lightly, humorously, kindly, with full sensitivity to the other person as a feeling, vulnerable human being.

To create compassion, evoke powerful suffering

The same applies to compassion meditation, where we train ourselves to be loving and supportive in the face of another’s suffering. It’s fine to call someone to mind and remember that they suffer, but that’s really not very challenging. The Buddhist monk, Mathieu Ricard, explained once how he imagined suffering while meditation. One example he gave was of visualizing a friend, “terribly injured in a car accident, lying in his blood by the side of a road at night, far from help.” This is a potent image, evoking powerful feelings.

In fact, Ricard suggests that we imagine “different forms of distress as realistically as possible, until they become unbearable.”

It’s not about making ourselves suffer

The point is not to make ourselves suffer. It’s to give ourselves an opportunity to develop a compassionate response that envelops, sustains, and protects the person who is suffering. In fact, compassion is heart-warming, nourishing, and loving, and this to a large extent insulates us against sinking into suffering ourselves.

At the same time, it’s best if we stretch our capacity to bear suffering gradually. If we’re not able to respond to suffering with kindness and compassion we’re likely to become overwhelmed. And that’s not going to help us or others.

In short, our meditation practices of kindness and compassion are only going to lead to very slow change if we don’t challenge ourselves. But if instead we vividly imagine situations that provoke us emotionally, we’ll give ourselves an opportunity to really grow the strength of our kindness and compassion. And as the civil rights marchers showed, we can even develop what appear to be superhuman levels of love and compassion.

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Making the most of this precious human birth

Someone asked me the other day whether there was a contradiction between the Buddha saying that “life is suffering” and the teaching that this human life is a precious thing. It was a new take on an old misunderstanding, but it led to an interesting discussion.

First of all I had to point out that “life is suffering” is not something the Buddha ever taught. All he did was remind us that there are various kinds of suffering in life.

So here’s the first noble truth — the truth of suffering — as it’s recorded in the early scriptures, supposedly in the Buddha’s own words:

Birth is suffering; old age is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering; association with the disliked is suffering; separation from the liked is suffering; not getting what you wish for is suffering. In brief, the five grasping aggregates are suffering.

So this doesn’t say that life is suffering. It doesn’t say anything about “life” as such at all. What it does is point out that there are various instances of suffering in our lives. Life contains suffering.

The Buddha constantly pointed out that there are also instances of peace, joy, and happiness in life as well. And he also pointed out that we can reduce the amount of suffering in our lives and, potentially, even eliminate it altogether. That’s what the third noble truth is about:

Now this is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering. It’s the fading away and cessation of that very same craving with nothing left over; giving it away, letting it go, releasing it, and not adhering to it.

So it’s because we have this choice — remain unaware and continue to suffer, or cultivate awareness and free yourself from suffering — that human life is precious. That choice is not available to all living things. I’ll say more about that shortly.

But first my questioner had a follow-up: is human life “precious” because it is “better to exist than the alternative (to have never been born, or to no longer exist).”

This reminded me of the more cosmological side of Buddhism that I tend not to pay much attention to. It’s not very scientific, it makes claims that can’t be tested here and now, and it’s not directly related to the task of ending suffering. But I was glad that my questioner pointed me in that direction.

In traditional Buddhist teachings the alternative to human existence is not non-existence but existence in other, less advantageous, forms. The belief was that there are so many non-human beings that the chances of being reborn as a human were — in a wonderful image — as unlikely as a one-eyed turtle in the ocean coming up once every hundred years and happening to put his head through a yoke floating on the surface.

And human existence was seen as the most likely one in which freedom from suffering through spiritual awakening (or “bodhi”) could be found. The early scriptures talk about five realms into which we can be reborn: animals, hell, and ghostly forms (collectively the three lower realms), our own human realm, and the realm of the gods. Sometimes the realm of the gods was seen as twofold: gods that were more peaceful and “chill” and those, called “asuras,” that were more war-like and competitive. The realm of the asuras was added to the list of lower rebirths, bringing them up to four in number.

The human realm offers advantages in terms of spiritual development.

  • Animals don’t have enough self-awareness.
  • Beings in hell are too caught up in their own suffering.
  • Ghosts are too caught up in painful longings.
  • Asuras are too obsessed by power.
  • And gods have so much pleasure that they have no sense of urgency and rarely practice (although some are depicted as doing so in the scriptures).

Incidentally, Gods in Buddhist cosmology are mortal. They do die; they just live for a long time. But because they aren’t bothered by impermanence they aren’t motivated to develop insight. And because they’re not used to dealing with painful feelings they tend, when they die, to plunge straight into the lower realms. (Think of a junkie experiencing a high for millennia, and then crashing badly.)

Human existence allows for self-awareness. It contains (on average) enough suffering that we’re motivated to work to improve our condition, but not so much pleasure that we become complacent. Therefore human life provides good conditions for spiritual growth. But it’s also very rare, and therefore it’s a precious opportunity.

Most contemporary practitioners see all these “realms” as symbolic of psychological realities, because it’s hard for many of us to take them literally. An animal existence becomes one in which we’re fixated on gratifying our appetites for food, sex, and sensory stimulation. We don’t think much, we don’t reflect on life, and maybe our constant self-gratification is a way of avoiding doing so. Hell is the reality of depression, anxiety, and other debilitating mental conditions. Ghosts are people caught up in addictions or helplessly longing for things they can’t have. The gods are hedonists, with pleasures that are more refined than the animal state. Asuras are obsessed by competing for power, like certain business people. We’re only truly in a human state when we’re self-aware, living a relatively ethical and emotionally healthy life, and open to learning more about how to live well. We might, as individuals, actually cycle through all of these realms during our lifetime, and might possibly visit several of them in the course of one day!

So the Buddha taught all this not as something we should believe literally, but as an encouragement to practice. The law of supply and demand says that the price of something goes up when it’s scarce, and when it’s abundant its value goes down. And so if we perceive human life as being unlimited, then it has less value. If we perceive human life as scarce, then we value it more.

Another way to achieve this sense of urgency is to reflect on the inevitability of death and the brevity of human life. Doing this can help jolt us into wondering what we’re doing with the precious time that’s available to us. We can also reflect on the uncertainty of our lives. Right now my dad is 87 years old and in good health. My maternal grandfather lived to be 95. And I find myself assuming that I’m going to live for a similar amount of time. On the other hand I’m now 17 years older than my paternal grandfather was when he died and nine years older than one of my great grandfathers was when he passed away, so I could also see myself as living on borrowed time.

And sometimes we need to remind ourselves that it’s possible for us to slip into different realms. We sometimes sink into a numbing and unthinking animal state. This might be comfortable in a way, but it’s not very satisfying. So we have to remind ourselves that there’s more to life, and that we’ll be happier if we’re curiously exploring our potential.

We can get sucked down into the hell of depression, or into the ghost-like realm of unsatisfiable longings. And in the throes of those kinds of suffering we have to remind ourselves that practice helps. It’s not an instant fix, but it does help us to find more balance in our lives.

We can find ourselves obsessed with competition and status, and this is a major distraction, because it’s satisfying in its own way. We really think we’re achieving something. But it’s fraught, because there’s always an underlying fear of loss, and we’re always aware on some level that what we’re doing is meaningful. We have to bring those contradictions into awareness.

The most unhelpful state, paradoxically, can be the realm of the gods, or devas, because the besetting sin of that condition is complacency. When we’re happy, we often think we’ve “made it.” We think we don’t need to practice, because we have the happiness that we think practice is all about. But the gods are not immortal. They all die, and when they do it often isn’t pretty. So it’s especially important that when we’re happily cruising though life we remind ourselves of the reality of old age, sickness, and death. As the Buddha said:

Whatever beings there are, or will be,
They will all go hence, leaving the body behind.
A skillful person, understanding the loss of all,
Should live the spiritual life ardently.

So really we have two tasks: to recognize that we have the capacity for self-awareness, or mindfulness, and to make use of that opportunity in order to find ways to live a meaningful life. If these become strong habits then we’ll find that when we end up in states of suffering (or of extreme joy) we’ll remain mindful of our practice. We’ll remember to be kind to ourselves and each other. We’ll remember that things change. We’ll remember that this life offers us a precious opportunity.

Life is short. Let’s make the most of this opportunity that we’ve been given.

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Try this simple technique to dispel anxiety

Being mindful of the body is powerful tool for grounding us and calming us down. Paying attention to the physical sensations and movements of the body diverts our attention away from the ruminative thoughts that cause stress. And this in turn allows our emotions to settle so that we become calmer and more at ease. An added bonus is that practicing mindfulness in this way brings about long-term changes in the brain. These changes make us less emotionally reactive so that we have less of a tendency to freak out.

But our body itself has a more direct and immediate effect on our emotions. The very way that we hold the body — the posture we adopt — changes how we feel. The effects of this are measurable. They can be seen in terms of the underlying hormones that give rise to our feelings. They can also be seen in terms of the way we act.

In a study published in 2014 by the University of Auckland, New Zealand, individuals with mild to moderate depression were assigned either to a group where they were asked to sit up straight, or where they just sat normally. The “straight sitters” were asked to straighten their backs and level their shoulders. They were also asked to stretch the tops of their heads toward the ceiling while drawing their shoulder blades down and together.

Researchers asked both groups to do a stressful task: to give a speech for five minutes, while being judged. Those who sat up straight while doing this task used more words in total than the control group, suggesting that they were more energized and had a better mood. They also used the word “I” much less than the other group, suggesting that they had become less self-focused and self-conscious.

Other research shows that when we sit up straight, we are more likely to remember positive memories or to have positive thoughts. A slumped posture, on the other hand, leads to depressive thoughts and memories arising.

In a 2010 study at Columbia and Harvard universities, researchers asked study participants either to adopt a dominant, high power stance (sitting or standing straight, expanding the body, and spreading the limbs) or a submissive posture (involving the opposite). The power posers experienced elevations in testosterone (which contributes to feelings of confidence), and decreases in cortisol (which is a stress hormone). Low-power posers exhibited the opposite pattern.

When the two groups were subsequently asked to play a low-risk gambling game, the high power group were more confident, as shown by their being more likely to take a chance on winning.

Finally, reinforcing how crucial posture is in our lives, Adam D. Galinsky and Li Huang of Northwestern University ran a series of studies on posture. These showed that posture was in fact a major predictor of whether people feel powerful or take action. It was more powerful than either putting people in positions of power or asking them to recall feeling powerful.

This is all excellent news, because our posture is something that’s easy to change. You can do it right now. In fact, I’d suggest that for the next three minutes you do a standing meditation in which you adopt a Superman or Wonder Woman pose, as illustrated below. (Knee-high boots are optional!)

You can also try sitting in a power pose. Sit erect, with your head held high, and with your limbs taking up space around you. Watch out for a tendency to slouch, since this contributes to feelings of fatigue, despondency, and powerlessness. These feelings can cause our thoughts and feelings to spiral out of control.

Keep coming back to your posture during the day. Do this while you’re sitting or standing at work or at home, when you’re driving, and when you’re walking. Think of what it’s like to sit, stand, or walk with confidence. And notice the effect that this has on how you feel. And several times a day, for at least three minutes, adopt a “power pose.”

For a few people, the experience of adopting a more confident posture can at first evoke a feeling of anxiety. It’s as if they’re thinking, “Who am I to show confidence?” If this happens to you, recognize that this is a temporary state of affairs. Remember that the physiological changes you’re creating will soon bring a sense of strength and confidence.

This article is adapted from material for Wildmind’s online course, “Stop Freaking Out.” This, like our other courses, is available free of charge to supporters of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative. You can click here to learn more about this initiative.

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“Trust in the Dharma”

At one of the online meditation sessions the other day we were talking about the powerful attraction of social media. Many people find the lure of social media to be so strong that it’s virtually an addiction. And in fact the designers of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like have invested massive amounts of money into finding ways to keep us hooked.

Research shows that social media make us unhappy and that we’re more content without them. Yet we still keep picking up our phones. Social media sucks us in because of our insatiable attraction for novelty. They suck us in because people “liking” or commenting on what we’ve shared gives us a sense of validation . And it’s hard to leave, because there’s always one more thing we can look at and interact with. The hope that this one more thing might be more interesting than what we’ve just seen is what keeps us on the hook.

And this constant manipulation of our attention has a bad effect on us. We find ourselves no longer able to abide moments when there’s nothing to do, no information to scroll through. I see people in the supermarket check-out lines and virtually every single one of them is staring at a screen. I see people waiting at a drive-through coffee shop, and virtually every one of them is glued to their phone. Even while we’re brushing our teeth or using the toilet, we feel bored and find ourselves picking up our phones. Apparently daydreaming is a lost art.

We get so accustomed to consuming information in small bursts that many people report they can no longer focus well enough to read a book. This is especially hard when we’re reading on an electronic device, where the sirens digitally calling to us are just a click or swipe of the screen away. Concentration is a lost art too.

How can we learn to say no?

I’ve pretty much quit social media now (I have a Twitter account I don’t use and I have a business Facebook account but don’t use a personal account). But back in the days when I struggled with social media addiction I found a very simple and powerful tool that helped me to put my phone down and stop Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey from manipulating my attention.

It’s just three words: “Trust the Dharma.”

Those words have resonance and meaning for me that perhaps they don’t have for you, so let me unpack this.

“Trust the Dharma”

The “Dharma” is a word that can mean “teachings” — in this case the Buddha’s teachings. It can mean “truth.” It can mean “principle.” The Buddha recognized that his own formulations were just an illustration of general principles that lead us from suffering to finding peace and fulfillment. Those general principles are Dharma. When his aunt, who was a nun, wanted a brief teaching before going off on a solitary retreat, he said to her:

When you see that certain things
lead to contentment, not to craving;
to being free, not to being fettered;
to letting go of things, not accumulating them;
to having fewer desires, not more;
to contentment, not discontent;
to seclusion, not socializing;
to energy, not laziness;
to being easy to be with, not to being hard to be with,
You can with certainty hold, ‘These things are
the Dharma, the training, and the Teacher’s instructions.’

Reminding ourselves of spiritual principles

A simple moment of mindfulness helps us move toward calmness. Paying attention to just one breath helps to calm the mind a little. A single kind thought helps us to be more at peace with ourselves and others. Observing a feeling without judgement creates a sacred pause in which wisdom can arise. These are principles that we can trust.

And so in saying to myself, “Trust the Dharma” I’m reminding myself of those principles.

I’m saying to myself:

  • “Trust yourself. You’re OK without looking at your phone.”
  • “Trust that you’re happier without Facebook right now.”
  • “Trust that this moment, if observed and accepted, holds everything you need in order to be fulfilled and at peace.”

All this, and much more, is contained in those three simple words, “Trust the Dharma.”

Evolution versus the Dharma

We need to remind ourselves of these spiritual principles because we so easily forget them. Our evolutionary history has equipped us with principles that are totally in contradiction to Dharma. Primitive parts of the brain operate on the principle that we need to constantly worry in order to be safe, that we should look after ourselves at the expense of others, and that attack is the best form of defense. Less primitive, but still ancient, parts of the brain tell us that belonging to and being accepted by a tribe is the key to happiness, even if this means joining in with their hatred for other tribes and subjugating our own individuality in order to fit in. They tell us that more is better, and that we should therefore scroll, scroll, scroll our way down those screens, until we find satisfaction.

The pressing urgency of all those genetically scripted imperatives can swamp our awareness of those Dharmic principles. So we need to keep reminding ourselves that they exist. And because Dharmic principles and the programming we’ve inherited often conflict, we have to remind ourselves to trust them. We need to keep reminding ourselves to “trust the Dharma.” Trusting the Dharma is something we have to learn, slowly, over years and decades.

Boredom is the trigger

This phrase, “Trust the Dharma” is triggered by that familiar sense that I’m restless, and afraid of being bored, and therefore want to pick up my phone. And every single time that happens I feel a sense of confidence and calm descend upon me. I trust that mindfully paying attention to my present-moment experience is going to be enough. I trust that standing in line at the supermarket checkout, without touching my phone, is going to be pleasurable. I trust that simply breathing, simply noticing what thoughts and feelings are arising, simply turning my mind to kindness will lead me to calm, joy, and kindness.

It works for me, every single time.

I wonder how it will work for you?

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The art of mindfully talking to yourself

A lot of people find it easier to practice with guided meditations than when they “fly solo.” And that’s not surprising. When we have a guide then we have a voice coming in from the outside, bringing with it skills that aren’t yet our own.

The guide’s voice also performs the useful function of interrupting our distracted trains of thought. Without those interruptions reminding us of what we’re actually meant to be doing in the meditation practice we’d remain in distracted states for much longer. A lot of our distractions involve us talking to ourselves.

Generally, then there’s a big difference between the effects of our distracting inner voices and the helpful outer voice of the teacher.

But what if we could get our inner voices to be more helpful? What if they could help us to stay on track, and to be less distracted?

Meditate Like a Train Conductor

In explaining how we can do this I’d like to share with you the Japanese art of shisa kanko, which literally means “pointing and calling.”

Shisa kanko isn’t a meditation technique. It evolved in noisy and distracting working environments where it was important not to make errors. But it does have the aim of helping people to be less distracted and more mindful — especially when they’re doing repetitive tasks that they’re very familiar with. Shisa Kanko the mindful art of talking to yourself.

Japanese railway workers have been using this tool for more than a hundred years. A train conductor pulling into a station will talk themselves through the procedures involved, pointing at things they need to check and naming them out loud. It’s a mental checklist that they’re reciting to themselves as a mindfulness aid.

It’s a remarkably effective method of performing a task mindfully. A 1994 study showed that “pointing and calling” reduced mistakes by almost 85 percent when doing a simple task. In fact, using this method, there were only 0.38 errors for every 100 times a task was done.

Reducing the “Error Rate” in Our Meditation

Now consider that meditation is a repetitive task. And it’s an internal one, without the kind of external and objective demands that a task like bringing a train into a station imposes. If a conductor were to forget to unlock the doors, the passengers would soon remind them. If you start thinking about work during your meditation, your mind can wander a long way before you remind yourself of your intended task.

We don’t talk in terms of “errors” in meditation, but if we did we’d say there was a very high error rate — maybe in the range of 40 to 80 percent for the average person who’s been meditating for a few years. If only we could get down to 0.38 distractions in meditation for every hundred breaths!

As you know, I’ve led a lot of guided meditations. And one of the things I’ve noticed many times over the years is that my meditation practice tends to be more effective while I’m leading a sit. And that’s maybe not surprising, since I’m doing, in effect, shisa kanko (minus the pointing). While I’m leading others in meditation I’m also leading myself.

How to be Your Own Meditation Guide

So sometimes when I’m meditating on my own I offer myself a few words of self-guidance. Often this is just a few words. As I’m settling in to meditate I might say to myself, “Poise … dignity … softening.” Each of those words acts as a trigger for a cascade of inner changes, both physical and emotional. The words poise and dignity trigger my body straightening, my head coming to an effortless balance on top of the spine, my chest opening as I breathe into the sternum. “Softening” triggers the release of unnecessary tension.

I have a little mantra that I drop into meditation over and over: “Soft eyes … open field of inner attention.” Saying “soft eyes” triggers a deeper relaxation response. It also calms my mind, reducing the amount of thinking that’s going on. “Open field of inner attention” leads me into an awareness of the whole body. As well as saying that phrase at the start of meditaion I’ll drop it into my mind any time I realize that my attention has begun to wander.

So this is an example of inner speech that takes me deeper into my present-moment experience rather than distracting me from it. It’s me guiding myself into (and through) a meditation session. And it has a powerful effect, especially with repetition, because of the way that the words trigger particular responses.

I’ve suggested to other people that they try doing this, and they’ve found it helpful too.

Using This Outside of Meditation

This technique is something I’ve used outside of meditation as well. Like many people right now, I’ve sometimes found myself waking up in the middle of the night with my mind racing. So I’ll keep saying to myself, “Soft eyes, senses wide open.”

This is similar to one of the phrases I use at the beginning of meditation (“Soft eyes … open field of inner attention”), but here I’m triggering openness and acceptance in all my senses, outer as well as inner, so that I’m aware of the space and sounds around me, for example. Usually this leads to me falling asleep quite quickly.

So this is something I recommend to you. Find phrases that can help you as you go into and during meditation. Maybe the phrases I’ve suggested will be helpful. Maybe you can come up with your own. Give it a go and let me know how you get on!

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