Search Results for “calmness”

Calmness as a revolutionary act

Extract from  "Reasons to Stay Alive" by Matt Haig.

I came across this extract from “Reasons to Stay Alive” by Matt Haig this morning. I thought it was worth sharing:

The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an antiaging moisturizer? You make someone worry about aging. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? By highlighting their physical flaws. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind.

To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own nonupgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.

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How to create calmness by observing thoughtspace and feelingspace

I was teaching a class the other night and after a guided meditation one woman said she’d found it hard because lots of thoughts came up, and she’d get absorbed in them. Then she had to keep letting go of the thoughts and returning to the breathing. Of course I reassured her that that’s absolutely normal. In fact, noticing that we’ve been caught up in the mind’s stories and returning to our present-moment experience (whether of the breathing or something else) is what meditation is about.

Once you accept that fact, you’re less likely to think of yourself as being a “bad meditator” or to think that your meditation practice isn’t going well just because you get distracted. In fact, under such circumstances your practice is going just as it should.

Many years ago I found it useful to watch what you might call “thoughtspace.” Thoughtspace is the physical location of your thinking. Now you might not have thought of your thinking as having a physical location, but try paying attention right now as you say something to yourself internally. I think you’ll find that your thoughts emanate from a particular place (probably inside your head). If you watch that part of your experience closely — if you monitor your thoughtspace — you’ll think less.

This helps to calm the mind. Except … I also found that there was a kind of secondary thoughtspace. Over and over I’d find that I was watching the primary thoughtspace (the one you just identified) carefully, only to become aware that there was a subtle background whispering coming from somewhere else. The thinking that came from the secondary thoughtspace seemed quieter and less obtrusive, however. The primary thoughtspace seemed to give rise to the kinds of thoughts that completely threw me off track and led into unmindful absorption in daydreams and fantasies. The secondary thoughtspace gave rise to subtler, more whispery thoughts, which co-existed with mindful attention so that I could be observing the breathing (or my primary thoughtspace) and still have a running commentary going on. However, those thoughts could shift to become the center of my attention if I wasn’t attentive enough.

You might want to try watching your thoughtspace and see if the same happens in your own experience.

Having just the whispery thoughts of the secondary thoughtspace is a lot better than having the more “in your face” thinking that normally goes on, but sometimes I like to calm and stabilize the mind even more. So one way to do that is to simultaneously observe your thoughtspace and what you could call your feelingspace.

Feelingspace, as I’m sure you’ve worked out, is a name for the area in the body where feelings arise. The point of observing the feelingspace is not to stop feeling arising! It’s just to observe what’s there. Now feelings can arise in many parts of the body, including the solar plexus and the heart. but most often they manifest in the solar plexus, just south of your sternum.

I don’t mean to imply having a narrow focus. If I were to start my meditation just by noticing the space where my thoughts arise and the solar plexus, for example, then this would feel very constricted and might even lead to a kind of “backlash” where my thinking increased. So although I may be focusing on the solar plexus I’m actually aware of most of the area in the body where feelings arise—basically most of the chest and abdomen. Within this, I’ll have a lightly-held focus on where I tend to be experiencing feelings the most at that particular time.

What I’ve found is that if I observe both the thoughtspace and the feelingspace at the same time, the mind becomes even quieter. The mind may not become completely silent all the time, but there are longer periods of calm.

Whatever you do, don’t get attached to the idea of getting rid of thoughts altogether! You can’t control the arising of thoughts, and they will tend to bubble up. If you have the idea that you’re only “succeeding” when there’s no thinking, then you’ll get frustrated. Just try doing the practice and see what happens. It may take you a while to feel your way into it, since there are a bunch of skills I’ve mentioned that you may have to work on developing — e.g. including two different parts of your experience in conscious awareness at the same time. Some people initially find this tricky since they have the habit of focusing narrowly (although not necessarily mindfully!)

The following things are all excellent outcomes:

If you’re making a gentle effort to observe both thoughtspace and feelingspace at the same time. If you’re able to do so, or getting better at doing so. If you find that you’re a bit more aware of your thinking without getting caught up in it. If you find that periods of distraction still arise but they don’t last as long. If your thinking seems lighter and less compelling than it was before. If you notice periods of time, even brief ones, where there appear to be no thoughts arising. If you’re more aware of the area of the body where feelings arise. If you notice your feelings more. If you notice the interaction between thoughts and feelings.

Basically, any increase in awareness of what’s going on inside you is good. Any movement, however slight, toward peace and freedom is welcome. But mainly what you’re doing is just being mindful of the body, of feelings, and of the mind. It’s about process, not outcomes.

You might want to give that a try and see if it works for you.

I’ve generally found that observing two physically separate parts of my experience has a profoundly calming effect (I call this “the perceptual stretch”) but the fact that feelings and thoughts interact with each other may also help this approach to be effective in calming the mind.

Just one last point, when you have a single candle in a large room, it’s not going to light up the whole space; appreciate the light you have, rather than cursing the darkness that remains. Value any moments of calmness that emerge, rather than lamenting the fact that thoughts are still arising. By valuing calmness, you encourage it to grow.

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A little calmness can go a long way

I just read a news story about an 18-year-old woman whose car went out of control and hit a dump truck. The woman and her 10-month-old son were killed. On her phone was a half-finished text message.

Now, not all multitasking is as catastrophic as that. We do it all the time, don’t we?

But why do we do it? Sometimes we say it’ll make us more efficient, but if you’re trying to type a report and keep interrupting yourself to send text messages and check Facebook, you’re not exactly being very efficient. It seems to me that what’s really going on is that we’re being anxious, and trying to find a distraction from our anxiety by looking outside of ourselves.

We’re not taking an interest in ourselves, so we hope someone out there is taking an interest in us. Maybe someone’s sent a text message, or has phoned us, or has replied to an email. Maybe we can say something funny or even annoying on Facebook, and get a response. As soon as we’ve finished checking one source of stimulus, we move on to another.

So we keep cycling through all these different things — anything to take us away from the rather boring experience of just being ourselves.

And none of this actually helps with anxiety. In fact it makes it worse.

Research by psychiatrists Edward Hallowell and John Ratey of Harvard University says that all this multitasking and overstimulation can lead to what they call Pseudo-Attention Deficit Disorder, where we’re constantly seeking out new information, but when we find it were not able to concentrate on it. So we keep surfing the web, for example, looking for really interesting stuff, but when we find it our minds just can’t get engaged, and then we’re off looking for the next thing.

So what does help? We can learn to be happy with our own experience. That’s what helps.

Meditation is a way of learning to be comfortable with ourselves. Its a way of learning to really value our experience.

And one important thing about meditating is that it’s a form of “uni-tasking.” We’re more and more just doing one thing. It’s a bit like defragging your computer’s hard drive so that it runs more efficiently.

This is one reason that we feel refreshed and calm after meditation. We have calmed the mind by just focusing on one thing, and by letting go of some of the crazy pointless maddening thinking that we do.

It’s good, at least sometimes, to take that into our daily lives as well.

So here is a practice for you — one that you can take into your daily life. It’s just one example.

Next time you’re brushing your teeth, for example, just brush your teeth. Don’t check your cell phone. Don’t read something. Don’t wander around. Just brush your teeth. Pay attention to the movements in your arm. Notice the feeling of the bristles on your teeth and gums. Notice the taste of the toothpaste. Notice your breathing. Notice thoughts arising, and let go of them. Notice how you feel. Notice if you feel bored or restless, and just allow yourself to feel that way. Don’t feel you have to run away from boredom. Be patient with whatever you find. Relax. And just brush your teeth.

You can do this with many things. Not just brushing your teeth, but walking, driving, taking a shower, cleaning the house, preparing food, eating.

Paying attention to your experience in this way will bring a little calmness into your mind, and even a little calmness can go a long way. It might even save your life.

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Why you don’t have free will (and why that doesn’t matter)

image of robot, lacking free will

Free will is “the unimpeded capacity to choose between different possible courses of action.” We tend to believe that everyone has free will all the time, except under certain exceptional conditions, such as being hypnotized, or having a mental illness. I’m going to argue, however, that we don’t have free will, and that this doesn’t matter, because free will is not a Buddhist concept.

Free will is an important concept to us. Moral philosophers, religious teachers, and politicians have pointed to it as essential for personal morality as well as the flourishing of civilization. For example, Kant said “a free will and a will under moral laws is one and the same” and that if “freedom of the will is presupposed, morality together with its principle follows from it.” And Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, that American values are “rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”

The opposite of free will is determinism, which means that we’re wholly conditioned and aren’t responsible for our actions, even if we think we are. Determinism is a bit of a scary concept.

We believe that if we don’t have free will, life is deterministic. And if that’s the case, we’re less than fully human. If life is deterministic we’re not able to take responsibility for our lives, but are living in a purely conditioned way, like robots.

Problems with the concept of free will

The problem is that the concept of free will doesn’t seem to match up with how things actually are. For example, the American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet did an experiment a long time ago. He asked people to perform a certain action, like pressing a button, at random times of their own choosing. The important thing was that they were to do this action as soon as they thought of it.

Libet used EEG to monitor subjects’ brains as they did this experiment and found that there was a burst of activity initiating the pressing of the button. This took place something like three tenths of a second before the participants had their first awareness of any conscious will to act.

So that’s a challenge for the idea of free will, because free will is the experience of choosing. But what Libet saw was that something that was not experienced consciously was pushing people to make a choice. It’s a bit like asking someone to jump into a swimming pool at a random time, but behind them some hidden person is actually pushing them in. What seems to happen is that just after the person has been pushed, they think, “OK, I’ve just decided to jump.”

As observers to this event, we can see that the person who thinks they decided to jump didn’t actually jump. They were pushed. Which means that they only thought they decided to leap. Which means that they only thought they had free will.

Another more recent experiment, using more sophisticated MRI equipment, asked people to perform an action with either their right or left hand. In this case it was possible to see activity taking place a full five to six seconds before the action was taken. This activity allowed the scientists to predict, with a high degree of accuracy, which decision would be taken. So that’s even more challenging.

You might want to imagine the decision-making process as being like a whole line of hidden people behind the person by the pool. There’s a whole chain of shoves, with someone at the back of the line creating a domino effect, until eventually the person standing at the edge falls into the pool, saying, “OK, I just decided to jump in!”

This doesn’t leave much room for the conventional understanding of free will, which involves conscious choice. And since free will is seen as crucial to morality, this is very jarring.

Why the free will concept is so cherished

I gather that the concept of free will arose as part of Christian thinking. In that model, God put us on earth, and will ultimately judge us based on what we do here. For example we’ll be judged  based on whether we accept or reject the existence of God, and on whether we follow his will.

Imagine a God demanding that we make certain decisions and punishing us (for eternity) for failing to do so. And imagine that he’d created us without free will. Such a model would be cruel and arbitrary.

Anyone believing that God wants us to make choices pretty much has to believe in free will.

Free will is not a Buddhist concept

Now, Buddhism doesn’t talk about free will.

So what does Buddhism talk about? Well, Buddhism’s certainly not deterministic. The essence of Buddhist practice is that we are able to make choices. For example, the very first chapter of the Dhammapada, a very influential Buddhist text, is called the twin verses, or “The Pairs,” because most of the verses are, as you’d expect, in pairs. Each pair presents a choice: Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy. Buddhism’s entire ethical system revolves around making choices between what is unskillful (what causes suffering), and what is skillful (what brings freedom from suffering).

Aren’t the ability to choose and free will the same thing? Well, no. The freedom to chose is not the same as “free will.”

Buddhism talks about conditionality. Everything arises in dependence upon something else. What arises is dependent on what existed just before. Choices arise dependent on what existed at the time of choosing. And so our choosing is never unconstrained. If “will” exists, it can never be entirely free.

The Buddha pointed out that it doesn’t work to say, “Let my consciousness be thus” and expect that to happen. You can certainly have that thought — for example, “I choose to be happy right now, and to stay that way for the rest of my life” — but it won’t work. Being happy forever is not an option available to you, because your mind is conditioned, and the conditions affecting your happiness can never be entirely under your control.

You might be able to make choices that affect your well-being in a positive way, but you’re always choosing from a limited menu. You can’t meaningfully decide to be happy, but you can make choices that nudge your mind in the direction of happiness. You can choose to do things that leave you feeling less unhappy, or maybe even just a little happier. You might, for example, choose to drop a hateful thought, or choose to relax your body, or you might choose to cultivate a loving thought. These things all make a difference. But the menu might not, at any given time, even include the option, “be happy.”

This clearly isn’t teaching determinism. It’s saying that although we can choose, we can only choose from a limited menu. Free will is not a Buddhist concept.

Having chosen, we change the conditions that are present for the next choices we make. That’s important, as we’ll see in a moment.

We have a limited capacity to choose

Often, it’s not just that we don’t have many options to choose from, but that sometimes it’s hard even to make a choice. We might not recognize that we’re able to drop one thought, to relax the body, or to cultivate another thought. At certain times we might lack mindfulness and not even realize that options are available. At those times we really are like automata.

To make a choice requires mindfulness. Choosing requires that we stand back from our own mind and see the choices available to us.

Mindfulness might allow us to recognize, for example, that we’re acting out of anger, and to see that the possibility of being kind or patient is also open to us. And if we see that those options exist, and that they have different outcomes — one that brings more conflict and misery, and another that brings  more peace and happiness — maybe we can make that choice.

But sometimes we’re not mindful. Our conditioning can be so strong, and our emotions so powerful, that we aren’t able to stand back. We’re just swept along by a tide of emotion. The conditions that allow us to choose just aren’t there.

Wiggle room

When we are mindful, it’s a very precious thing. It’s then that we have choice. We can choose not to do things that will make us and others unhappy in the long-term, and we can choose to do things that are for the long-term happiness and well-being of ourselves and others.

If we keep making these kinds of choices, we change the pathways in our brains, which creates long-term changes in how we act. We become kinder and less reactive, for example. This spiritual work is the real meaning of the word “karma,” which in fact simply means “work” or “action.” Karma is action that changes who we are, for better or for worse.

Mindfulness gives us some wiggle-room amongst all the constraints of conditioning that hem us in and restrict our freedom. And by exercising mindfulness and reducing our reactivity we’re loosening those constraints. We’re using our wiggle-room to create more wiggle-room.

Choosing is never conscious

Libet showed that we only think we make conscious choices. Choices are made, or they begin to be made, up to five or six seconds before we are consciously aware of them.

There’s a part of our mind that, when decisions (say, to jump in the pool) erupt into conscious awareness, immediately says, “I decided to do that.” I call this part of the mind “the plagiarist” because it’s trying to take the credit for things it didn’t do. The plagiarist’s voice is what we take to be the voice of the self. We’ve been hearing that voice our whole lives, and we automatically believe it. This is the reason we believe that decisions that are made unconsciously are actually conscious decisions. And this is why we believe we have a self that is consciously making choices.

That decisions happen unconsciously is not a problem for Buddhism. In fact it’s something that Buddhism is happy to accept. Indeed, tecognizing that the plagiarist is deluded, and that there is no “self” making decisions is a key insight in Buddhist practice.

As long as choice happens, it doesn’t matter that decisions start unconsciously, long before they erupt into conscious awareness. As I’ve said, that’s how all decisions happen.

And it doesn’t matter that our decision-making is conditioned and not entirely free. That’s just how things are. Everything is conditioned.

“The Pairs”

The important thing is that the decisions that are made take into account more and more our long-term happiness and well-being. That is, it’s important that wise decisions happen — decisions that widen the degree of wiggle-room we have for making further wise decisions.

So to come back to very ordinary experiences — we keep catching ourselves (as long as mindfulness is present) reacting with states such as anger and anxiety. We keep recognizing that those ways of being create pain. We keep letting go of angry and anxious ways of thinking and behaving, and instead seek love and calmness. And we keep recognizing that the result of doing this is that we become happier.

Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy.

And in seeing the two sets of consequences available to us — painful or pleasant — we give mindfulness an incentive to make an appearance.

Keep doing this over and over again, and we become more free, and happier.

But what’s happening isn’t the result of decisions being consciously made. Our belief that decisions are consciously made is a delusion. And what’s happening is not “a self” taking action. Not only is there no free will, but there’s no self to have free will.

Instead choices are making themselves. And if this happens with the awareness, “Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy,” then we find that, more and more, skillful actions result.

The plagiarist is very convincing, though. It’s not easy to see through its lies. And again, that doesn’t matter. At first all we want to happen is that we make choices that liberate. Let go of anger, and cultivate love, and you’ll be happier and freer to make further skillful choices in the future. If the plagiarist keeps saying, “I did that,” then that’s a separate problem we can tackle later. (In fact, right now that probably doesn’t even seem like a problem.)

For now, just keep valuing mindfulness and the freedom to choose that it affords us.

This article was originally written for supporters of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative. Supporters of Wildmind get access to more than 30 online courses I’ve developed, as well as other articles and guided meditations.

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How to recognize, respect, and love your inner demons

This is the first time I’ve posted here in a while. Virtually all of my energy is going into supporting Wildmind’s community of supporters — people who make a financial contribution every month in order to support me to explore and teach meditation and Buddhism. This article is condensed from a couple of pieces of writing I’ve done for them. If you enjoy this, and you’d like to support Wildmind, you can read about the many benefits that our sponsors get by visiting this page.

I’d like to share one of the most powerfully transformative practices I’ve evolved over the years.

Have you heard of Māra? He’s a figure from Buddhist mythology. He’s often portrayed as having conversations with the Buddha and his monks and nuns. These encounters always end with Māra being recognized, at which point he vanishes.

Sometimes Māra is portrayed in art as a demon, but in the scriptures (and in the image above) he’s a good-looking young man. He’s often royally attired, and sometimes holds a lute. We can take this to mean that Māra is a smart smooth-talking Machiavellian.

The name Māra comes from the Sanskrit root, mṛ, which indicates death and destruction. That’s also where we get our words “mortality” and “murder.” Māra is the destroyer or murderer of spiritual practice, and the murderer of peace and joy.

In the scriptures he appears to spiritual practitioners, including the Buddha himself, trying to tempt them out of practicing, or sometimes distracting them or making them afraid. As well as appearing as a young man he can also appear as a fearful animal, such as a snake or wild ox. He can do things like throw boulders down a mountainside in order to cause fear. Or he can make loud and distracting noises happen. He can also create an unpleasant physical sensation.

Māra has lots of ways of distracting people, but he never, as far as I’m aware, actually harms anyone physically. I assume by this that even the earliest Buddhists regarded him as a psychological projection.

Recognizing Māra

If you recognize Māra, he simply vanishes. One time he challenged the nun, Uppalavaṇṇā, who was meditating under a tree, and tried to make her feel afraid that she might be sexually assaulted:

“You’ve come to this sal tree all crowned with flowers,  and stand at its root all alone, O nun. Your beauty is second to none, silly girl, aren’t you afraid of rascals?”

She recognized him, though, and showed him that he was out-classed:

Even if 100,000 rascals like you were to come here,  I’d stir not a hair nor panic. I’m not scared of you, Māra, even alone.  

Māra then disappears. This represents the way in which mindfulness can dispel unskillful or unhelpful thoughts.

And this has become my own practice.

When I’m getting annoyed, or despondent, or impatient, or anxious, just saying “I see you, Māra” — simply recognizing that Māra was trying to trick me — was enough to break his spell and return me to a sense of calmness and balance.

I’d highly recommend trying this. Whenever you’re suffering, or caught up in anger, despondency, worry, and so on, observe the thought processes that are taking place. Observe the feelings arising within you. And then say, “I see you, Māra.” Recognize the forces that are at work within you, trying to throw you off balance. And refuse to let them fool you.

Appreciating Māra

But there’s another aspect of this practice that I’d like to draw out. It’s an aspect that’s very important to me: acknowledging how clever Māra’s tricks are.

As above, the experience of unhelpful emotional arousal acts as a trigger for recognizing Māra. Any of the emotions I described above, and any others that lead to a sense of suffering, are signs that Māra is at work. Even mild distraction in meditation can be a trigger.

Now, rather than just saying, “I see you, Māra,” which is what people do in the scriptures, you can say something like “Nice try, Māra!” This is a way of letting those disruptive inner forces know that I’m onto them, and that I’m refusing to be manipulated.

You can marvel at how convincing Māra’s tricks are. After all, he had you totally fooled! The story that was causing you suffering was totally believable. It seemed that you had to respond with anger, or fear, or despondency, or whatever it was. Someone criticizes you? Well, of course you have to be annoyed and defensive. Money’s tight? Well naturally you have to worry. Something hasn’t worked out as planned? Who wouldn’t be frustrated?

And then the feelings you had were so vivid. They’re like really good special effects in a Hollywood movie. The crushing weight of despondency, the jangling buzz of anxiety, the hot upwelling of annoyance. Those feelings are not just vivid, but are powerfully compelling. It’s as if you had to act on them.

So you can applaud Māra. “Great special effects, Māra! You really had me going there!” Admire the whole process of reactivity. It’s amazing!

There are a couple of reasons that I think this act of appreciation for Māra’s work is important and powerful. One is that appreciation is a skillful state of mind. Even if what you’re appreciating is Māra (who is not skillful), the appreciation itself is still skillful. (It’s not like you’re approving of what he’s doing.) Since appreciation is a skillful state of mind, this helps reinforce your new-found freedom from Māra’s (unskillful) world of delusion.

The other reason that appreciating Māra’s work is helpful is is that you’re appreciating it as a delusion.  You’re recognizing that the feelings that motivate you, and the thoughts and emotions that arise from those feelings, are all illusory.

Seeing the illusory nature of reactions while they’re actually happening is a powerful and liberating practice.

This perspective finds support in teachings like the one where the Buddha compared form (this includes forms we perceive in the world and also those we imagine in the mind), feelings, perceptions, emotions, and consciousness to various illusion-like phenomena:

Form is like a lump of foam;
feeling is like a bubble;
perception seems like a mirage;
emotions like the non-existent core of a banana tree;
and consciousness like a magic trick.

(I’ve tweaked the translation here for the sake of clarity.)

These are the famous “five skandhas (aggregates)” which constitute our experience and which we take to be our “selves.”

Feelings have no substance. Neither do thoughts or emotions. They’re like mirages, dreams, bubbles, or conjuring tricks. They arise within us only as patterns of sensation, caused by the firing of neurons. Why be scared by a bunch of neurons firing?

In talking about the skandhas in the above quote, the Buddha doesn’t mention Māra. Elsewhere, though, he says that they are Māra:

How is Māra defined? Form is Māra, feeling is Māra, perception is Māra, emotions are Māra, consciousness is Māra. Seeing this, a learned noble disciple grows disillusioned with form, feeling, perception, emotions, and consciousness.  

It’s by seeing the illusory nature of the skandhas — seeing them as tricks, designed to make us react — that we’re able to disengage from reactivity and find peace.

That’s what’s happening when I admire Māra’s tricks.

Sending Love to Māra

The other night I woke up from an anxious dream in which the US had turned into a fascist state. Once again I recognized Māra and offered him congratulations on how vivid and convincing his special effects were. It wasn’t just that the dream was realistic. It was that the feelings of anxiety in my body had convinced me that something was really wrong.

But at this point I brought another aspect into my practice, which enriched it even more

Māra isn’t literally a demon who’s out to get me. Our inner demons aren’t demons. They’re us. Marā’s a part of my mind, and he’s trying to help, within his definition of help. To this particular Māra, fascism isn’t just something I should be concerned about. He thinks I needed to panic about it. He thinks I needed to be in a state of fear. He thinks he needs to give me good dose of suffering to help me get motivated. He’s misguided in this, but he doesn’t know that. So he’s not my enemy. In fact he needs my compassion. So I regarded Māra with loving eyes, offering him kindness.

Now, even though I was watching the anxiety from a  place of calm and peace, and didn’t feel touched by it, my body was still reacting as if it was in danger. So I embraced it within my loving gaze as well.

Now I felt completely at peace. And although the anxiety that had arisen could conceivably have kept me awake for hours, I was at this point so at ease that I fell back to sleep within minutes.

So I’m going to suggest that every time you feel upset by something or know that suffering it present, recognize that Māra is at work. Don’t just recognize him, but feel some honest appreciation for how convincing his attempts are to get us to suffer. And don’t just admire him, but offer him compassion, and offer your whole being compassion.

And as the scriptures say:

And thereupon that disappointed spirit
Disappeared right on the spot.

And within two or three minutes of being woken by an intensely anxious dream, I fell sleep again, and was untroubled for the rest of the night.

Again, if you find this helpful and you’d like to benefit from more of my teaching activity, please read up on Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative.

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Twelve free meditation MP3s!

2021 is the 21st anniversary of the launch of the Wildmind website. To celebrate, we’re giving away two albums of guided meditation MP3’s.

  • One album is Guided Meditations for Calmness, Awareness, and Love, which was the first CD I ever recorded. This particular album was the best-selling meditation title on Amazon for several years running. It contains three guided meditations: mindfulness of breathing, lovingkindness, and walking meditations.
  • The other album is from our online course, Get Your Sit Together. It contains nine guided meditations.

DOWNLOAD THE FREE GUIDED MEDITATION ALBUMS HERE.

Please enjoy these meditations!

If You Like These Guided Meditations…

If you enjoy and, more importantly, benefit from these meditations, remember that we have two other options available:

Share the Love!

I’d be very appreciative if you’d share the news about these two free albums as widely as possible. Please hit up your social media friends!

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About the Meditation Police

Over the years I’ve been teaching I’ve had many people who are learning meditation ask me questions beginning something like, “Are you allowed to…?”

This reveals a curious assumption that there is some kind of enforcement mechanism for meditation techniques — perhaps some kind of “Meditation Police” who will drag you kicking and screaming from your meditation cushion if you use some kind of unauthorized technique. Of course there is no such police force and no one knows what’s going on behind your gently closed eyelids as you’re meditating.

The important thing to ask yourself is: Does it work? Does this conduce to calmness? Does this help me to feel more at ease with myself? Does this help me to be kinder towards myself and others? If the answer is “yes” then continue doing it.

If on the other hand the answer is “no” then don’t immediately dismiss that approach out of hand. It may be that there are positive results and you’re not noticing them yet, or that the temporary discomfort that can accompany learning a new technique is giving you the impression that something isn’t working for you. So you may want to persist for a while to see if an approach to meditation you’ve been told is helpful actually is helpful for you, despite your initial reservations.

In the long term though, there’s just no point in continuing to use a technique that doesn’t work for you — even if that technique is “officially approved.”

So do give any one method a good try before discarding it, and beware of restlessly moving from method to method without really giving any of them a chance to work. Sometimes we can get caught up in thinking that there’s some “ideal” method that will produce instant results, and so we keep digging lots of shallow wells, never finding any water. And sometimes we just have restless and impatient minds.

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Background on the Mindfulness of Breathing Meditation

You’re free either to read this background information before or after you’ve worked your way through the practice. Some people prefer to know something about a practice before they do it, while others would rather plunge in and then seek more clarity on what they’ve just experienced. It’s up to you.

Jump to a section:

In the mindfulness of breathing meditation practice we use the breath as an object of awareness. We pay attention the physical sensations of the breath, and the accompanying sensations in the body as the breath flows in and out of the body.

This meditation practice isn’t a breathing exercise. We allow the breath to flow naturally and are simply aware of it. So there is no control over the breathing.

One of the first things we learn when we try to do this meditation practice is how distracted our minds are! All sorts of thoughts and feelings flow into our awareness, and then we find we’ve forgotten all about the breath. This is a good thing to learn. If we don’t know this we can’t do anything about it.

Most of what comes into our minds is not very useful, and often it’s actually bad for us. For example we find ourselves worrying or getting angry, or putting ourselves down.

The simple principle behind this meditation practice is that if we keep taking our awareness back to the breath — over and over again — then our mind gradually quiets down and we feel more contentment.

Usually we do this with the eyes shut, to minimize distraction.

You’ll need to know how to sit effectively, so you can either go to the meditation posture guidelines or, if you already know how to sit, then go directly to the meditation practice.

Use the links on the left to navigate round the practice. If this is your first time practicing the Mindfulness of Breathing, then start with stage one.

History and Form of the Practice


Mindfulness of breathing meditation, in one form or another, is very widespread in the Buddhist world. The particular form taught here — in four stages — is found in two important early meditation texts. The most well-known of these is the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purity) of the great Theravadin scholar, Buddhaghosa, who lived in 5th century India and Sri Lanka.

Even earlier, though, it’s described very clearly in the Vimuttimagga (Path of Liberation), compiled by Upatissa around the first century. Upatissa says that this approach was taught by “certain predecessors,” which he refers to throughout his manual as being “the ancients.” This suggests that the practice was considered very old in the time he lives, around five hundred years after the Buddha. It may in fact have been taught at the time of the Buddha or not long after.

This form of the practice therefore has a long pedigree, even if there’s no description in the earliest Buddhist scriptures that corresponds exactly with this form of the practice.

In this form of the practice the four stages are as follows:

  1. We begin by bringing our attention to the physical sensations of the breathing, and begin (internally) counting our outbreaths, acknowledging each exhale just after it has ended. We count ten outbreaths, and then another ten, and so on. Usually we do this for a set period of time — often five to ten minutes. If we become distracted and lose our place in the counting, we begin the process of counting, starting over from one. This practice helps to calm both body and mind. (Go to the guide for the first stage of the practice.)
  2. We do exactly the same as in the previous stage, except now we count our inhalations. This time we count just before we begin to inhale. Again, we’ll usually do this for five to ten minutes. This stage of the practice helps us to bring more energy and alertness into our relaxed state of mind. (Go to the guide for the second stage of the practice.)
  3. We continue to pay attention to the breathing, but drop the counting. Now we notice that the breathing is a continuous process — a never-ending flow of sensation. This helps us to develop an unbroken stream of moments of mindfulness. (Go to the guide for the third stage of the practice.)
  4. We begin to narrow the sphere of our attention, focusing in on the the more subtle and refined sensations found around the rims of the nostrils. This final stage can potentially help us to let go into a “flow state” of absorption in which the mind is almost free of thoughts, and in which we’re joyfully attentive to the sensations of the breathing.  (Go to the guide for the fourth stage of the practice.)

If you want to get technical, this particular version of the Mindfulness of Breathing is mainly aimed to calm and focus the mind, and is therefore what is known as a samatha (Sanskrit, shamatha), or calming practice rather than a vipassana, or insight, one. The Sanskrit equivalent to the word vipassana is vipashyana and both words mean insight, or truly seeing the nature of reality.

The traditional name for this meditation practice is Anapanasati. This word simply means mindfulness (sati) of breathing (pana) in and out. This is a meditation practice where we use the breath as the object of attention to which we return every time we notice that the mind has wandered.

In a nutshell, this practice works mainly through us withdrawing our attention from distracting thoughts and redirecting our attention to the physical sensations of the breathing. By doing so, we are putting less energy into the emotional states of restlessness, anxiety, craving, ill will, etc. that drive those thoughts. Over time the mind becomes calmer and our emotional states become more balanced and positive, and our experience becomes more positive.

This meditation helps us to appreciate the contrast between being lost in thoughts and mindfully absorbed in the moment-by-moment sensory experience arising from the body. It helps to keep us “in the moment” as opposed to being distracted.

It’s important to note that the practice involves noticing that the mind has been wandering and bringing it back to the breath. Distractedness is an inevitable part of the process of meditating and not a sign of failure. Every time that we notice that the mind has been wandering is an opportunity for us to practice patience and acceptance with ourselves, rather than becoming impatient and annoyed.

The step-by-step tutorial that you’ll find here includes a number of guided meditation recordings that will help guide you through the practice. There are also readings for each stage of the practice , dealing with the most common questions and addressing the most common experiences that beginners tend to have.

Although the meditation practice as taught here takes a samatha approach it is easy to bring elements of insight into a samatha practice. Also, some degree of samatha practice is virtually indispensible as a basis for vipassana, or insight, meditation. The mind needs to be somewhat calm in order for us to be able to reflect on the impermanence of our experiences.

There are other traditional forms that are widely practiced, especially in the insight meditation traditions, but I’ve found this one to be particularly suitable for complete beginners. The first two stages especially, (those that involve counting) are very helpful in stabilizing the mind.

Each of the stages of this practice is essentially a meditation practice in its own right. More experienced practitioners can feel free to adapt the practice to their own needs, shortening or even dropping some stages, and extending others. If you want you can just do one of the stages, or skip the earlier ones.

This, along with lovingkindness meditation, is a cornerstone meditation practice. In the tradition in which I was trained, these two forms of meditation are held as co-equal, and ideally we should practice both to the same extent, perhaps alternating them on a daily basis.

Coming Back to the Breathing, Over and Over

In the mindfulness of breathing we give the breath our full attention. We use the physical sensations of the breath as an object that we focus on. We just allow the breath to happen. This is not a breathing exercise. We simply observe, and see what happens.

What we do in the Mindfulness of Breathing

So, we start off by following the breath. After a while what tends to happen is that we forget all about the breath, forget all about meditation, and get distracted by some train of thought, which is often nothing at all to do with meditation. We don’t usually make any conscious decision to think about something outside of the meditation practice. It just happens as habitual patterns of behavior come into play. In fact, not only do we not choose to get distracted, we don’t have much choice at all!

Becoming Unaware

Our habits are controlling us. It’s more like our thoughts are thinking us than we are thinking them. So one of the first things we learn in meditation is just how little control we do have — it’s quite a disconcerting realization for many of us. However, the fact that we often aren’t in control isn’t cause to become despondent — it’s the same for most of us most of the time. And we have to become aware of how distracted we are before we can do anything about it.

Question: So what do we do when we’re meant to be meditating, but aren’t?

Often we’re getting irritated, or fantasizing about things we’d rather be doing, or undermining ourselves, or dozing, or worrying about something. Most of these activities aren’t very helpful or fulfilling. They’re not things we decided to do, they’re simply the habitual things we do when we’re not aware. The things we do when we’re meant to be meditating but aren’t, are called the hindrances to meditation, and we’ll be exploring them in more detail in later classes. As well as learning about them we’ll learn a whole bunch of tools to help us deal with them.

the cycle of awareness

The difference between being mindful and not being mindful is a big one, although we’re often not very good at recognizing the difference between the two states. After all, we slip in and out of awareness all day. But there really is a big difference between being mindful and not being mindful, as we’ll learn to see.

Regaining Awareness

So we get distracted, but at some point we become aware that we haven’t been aware. In other words we regain our awareness. This is a crucial point in the meditation process. Now we’re aware again. Now we’re no longer being driven by our habits. We have freedom again. We can decide that we don’t want to re-enter the world of distractedness. We have choice. We can choose to exercise being aware rather than be dominated by our habitual distracted states of mind. We have an opportunity to cultivate awareness by maintaining our mindfulness of the breath. When we realize we’ve been distracted we can take our awareness back to the breath.

The Power of Making Choices

There’s an important opportunity available to us at the point when we regain our awareness. We can choose not only what we do (taking our awareness to the breath), but how we do it.

When we realize that we’ve been distracted there can be a strong temptation to beat ourselves up. Of course if we do that then we’re going straight back into an uncontrolled, unaware state of distractedness — we undermine ourselves or get annoyed.

A more creative response is that we bring our awareness back to the breath with as much kindness, and patience, and gentleness as we can. Instead of giving yourself a hard time about having been distracted you can even congratulate yourself on having regained your awareness. This is a very important practice; whenever you realize that you’ve been distracted, focus instead on the fact that you’ve regained your awareness and allow yourself to feel a sense of pride and joy at that fact. You can even imagine yourself punching your fist in the air in a gesture of victory.

When you’re taking your awareness back to the breath, bear in mind that your mind is a miraculous and precious thing. Carry your awareness back to the breath in the same way as you would pick up a young kitten in order to return it to its mother. Try and be that gentle and that kind. Your mind has a natural tendency to wander, just like a young, inquisitive animal. So there’s no point in being harsh with yourself.

The meditation practice we’ll be learning after we’ve practiced the Mindfulness of breathing for a few weeks is called the metta bhavana, and it’s all about bringing more of those qualities of kindness and appreciation into our lives.

Benefits of the Practice

In the mindfulness of breathing meditation no matter how many times we become distracted we come back to the breath over and over again, and that has a number of important benefits, which are detailed below. This isn’t by any means an exhaustive list of the benefits of this practice, which also include improved immune function, the development of greater amounts of brain tissue, delayed aging, etc. Here we’re talking mainly about the changes in your experience that will take place if you regularly practice this meditation.

Developing Awareness

  • The breath becomes a kind of anchor that helps us to stay in awareness.
  • We’re practicing recognizing the difference between awareness and unawareness.
  • We’re also working on developing those qualities of patience, kindness, and gentleness that are so important when we realize when we’ve been unaware — when we’ve just come out of being distracted and have regained our awareness.

And we’re also training ourselves to stay out of “the hindrances,” which are distracted states of mind that cause us to suffer. Becoming distracted is a bit like falling over when you’re a little kid. When we try to follow the breath it’s like we’ve decided to walk. But then after a few steps we stumble and get distracted. But we keep picking ourselves up by going back to the breath. The way kids learn to walk is by taking a few steps, falling over, and picking themselves up over and over again. The way we learn to be more aware is by following the breath, getting distracted, and then going back to the breath — over and over and over again.

Developing Calmness

I’ve mentioned that the hindrances are not very satisfying states of mind. Being annoyed, or fantasizing, or undermining ourselves, all involve a lot of mental disharmony. They cause turbulence in our minds, and so we find that we’re not very calm. Learning to spend less time in the hindrances means that we develop a calmer mind.

Becoming More Content

The hindrances are also not states in which we’re very happy. If we’re fantasizing, for example — either about things we’d rather be doing, or about things we’re not happy about — then there’s emotional disharmony since we’re not happy what we’re doing. Spending less time in distracted states of mind means that we become more content.

Developing Concentration

And when we’re distracted then we’re not very concentrated — our mind is jumping from one topic to another like a butterfly. This means we don’t experience anything very deeply — like when we’re talking to someone and we’re also preoccupied and realize they’ve been talking but we don’t know what they’ve said. Or when we’re eating handfuls of raisins but not really tasting them because we’re reading and the radio is on. That kind of thing doesn’t help us connect very deeply with our experience. And how can we reflect if we can’t keep up a focused train of thought? And if we can’t reflect then how do we learn? Practicing mindfulness helps us to be more concentrated so that we can live more deeply, and appreciate life more fully.

Later, we’ll also be looking more closely at calm, contentment, and concentration and looking at ways we can cultivate those qualities more directly, as part of the tool-kit of methods we’re developing to work with our mind.

What’s Next?

If you haven’t yet learned this powerful meditation practice, start here.

You can also learn more about this meditation practice in my book, Wildmind: A Step-by-Step Guide to Meditation.

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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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Abiding in Peace, Here and Now

  • When? Saturday and Sunday June 13 and 14, 9am-12pm (Pacific time) both days.
  • Where? On Zoom (link will be sent after registration).
  • How much? By donation.

In follow-up to his transformative retreat in April, Bodhipaksa will introduce further radical yet simple approaches to meditation that allow experiences of peace, joy, and calmness to unfold effortlessly within us.

These tools are accessible regardless of whether or not you attended his first retreat.

As well as new meditation skills, you’ll come away with an understanding of the significance of dhyana (meditative absorption) in the Buddha’s path to Awakening, and especially how it leads to insight. And crucially, you’ll come away with a deeper appreciation of how peace and joy can be found in every moment.

Register Online

If you would like to attend this online class, please register through the San Francisco website at the link below by Thursday June 11. You’ll receive a Zoom link by the end of Friday June 12.

REGISTER HERE

About the Teacher

Bodhipaksha has taught meditation around the world and online for many years. He is also the author of several books, most recently This Difficult Thing of Being Human: The Art of Self-Compassion, and the founder of Wildmind Meditation<.

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