acceptance

Liking yourself is not the antidote to hating yourself

You might think that the antidote to self-hatred is liking yourself. But is that desirable, or even possible? We all contain impulses such as jealously, hatred, and greed. What would it mean to like them? Are we supposed to approve of them? To give them free rein and act upon them?

The idea of liking “ourselves” seems badly put. When I look at myself I don’t see any one thing. I see a broad range of phenomena, some that promote my wellbeing and others that sometimes compromise it. There’s no one “self” there to like.

I have plenty to work with. I have skillful impulses, of course. But I also have destructive or harmful habits such as irritability, a desire to be “right,” depressive doubts about my own worth, and so on. These cause suffering for me and also for others in my life.

But hating these things is pointless. Hating these aspects of myself would just be introducing more unskillfulness and conflict into my being.  To hate ourselves is to be at war with ourselves. And in such a war, who can be the winner? Hatred, as the Buddha observed, can never conquer hatred.

That doesn’t mean that I approve of these impulses or want to express them. If I was to give those habits free rein, I’d just end up with even more suffering in my life.

I certainly don’t like these potentially destructive habits. To like something means we have pleasant feelings associated with it, and I don’t experience pleasant feelings with regard to my irritability, self-doubts, and so on.

I can accept them, though. And I can be kind toward them.

Practicing acceptance simply means that I accept that these things are a part of me. They are part of the broad range of emotional responses that I have inherited as a mammal and as a human being. I didn’t choose to have them. It makes no sense for me to judge myself harshly for having these habits. I don’t need to hate myself simply for being human.

An audience member at a discussion between two Buddhist teachers described how she came to see that it was possible for her to have compassion for herself:

I’ve been thinking a lot about loving myself, but I felt like I would have to like everything about myself to love myself. But then I had a realization … that I could just have some compassion toward myself. I don’t necessarily have to like every part of myself.

It’s possible for us to relate with kindness and compassion to every part of ourselves, including those destructive tendencies I’ve described. I can recognize that they are born from suffering. Our unskillful habits are simply ways of trying to deal with painful feelings that have arisen. Irritability tries to keep at bay some source of distress. Jealousy wants us to have for ourselves a benefit that someone else has access to. Doubt tries to analyze what’s not going right in our lives. Every single unskillful impulse any of us has represents an attempt to find peace and happiness. The problem with them is not that they are “bad,” but that they don’t work.

One of the most radical things the Buddha said was that if letting go of unskillful habits caused pain rather than brought us peace, he wouldn’t have taught us to do it. He didn’t seem to see them as inherently bad. He’d have encouraged us to keep on going with our greed, hatred, and delusion if they actually made us happy. But they don’t.

Our task is to find better strategies. This is what developing “skillfulness” involves—finding ways of being that actually bring about peace and harmony. To lack skill means aiming to create happiness but instead bringing about suffering and conflict.

When we react to our unskillful tendencies by hating them we’re treating them as if they were enemies. They aren’t. They’re just confused friends. They’re trying to benefit us, but most of the time failing. Once we start to empathize with what these confused friends are trying to do for us, we can find more skillful ways to accomplish the same aims. Mindfulness and self-compassion are the most powerful tools we have for doing that.

Our irritability and hatred maybe trying (and failing) to keep some source of distress out of our experience. We’re trying to push the distress out of our lives. Mindful self-compassion helps us see that it’s not the unpleasant feeling that’s our real problem, but our resistance to it. It allows us to be present with painful feelings until they pass, naturally, and can open up the way for us to have fondness and appreciation for whatever it was we were irritated by.

Jealousy may want us to grasp for ourselves some benefit that another has access to (this is of course painful), but self-compassion can help soothe the pain of grasping and also help us feel a sense of abundance; there is so much kindness we can show to ourselves! And this can allow us to feel glad for the other person.

Self-doubt may be a clumsy way of trying to discover if there’s something wrong in the way we are. Mindful self-compassion can help reassure the uncertain part of us, seeing that there’s nothing going on that we can’t work with, reminding us to trust in our practice, and helping us to see our inherent goodness.

In all cases empathizing with our unskillful tendencies helps us to be happier.

Practicing self-compassion is like learning to be a kind and wise parent to ourselves. If our children act badly in some way, they do not need either our hatred. That wouldn’t be helpful for them. Neither, however, should we blindly approve of everything they do. That wouldn’t help them either. When our children act badly they need our kindness, our empathy, and wise guidance.

And this, too, is how we need to learn to relate to ourselves if we want to flourish and be happy in the long-term.

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From fear and denial to love and acceptance

Photo by Erico Marcelino on Unsplash

In the opening words to his book “The Road Less Traveled,” the late psychiatrist M. Scott Peck says:

Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

I’d put this less absolutely than Peck does: once we know, understand, and accept that life is difficult, it becomes less difficult. This difficult thing of being human is made easier when we accept the inevitability of suffering.

I’d like to offer a series of suggestions to help you see the truth of this. And so I invite you to read the following points slowly and with care, allowing yourself time to take each suggestion on board, testing them in the heart and comparing them honestly with your own lived experience.

Drop any defensiveness or desire to be seen as perfect, and allow yourself to feel your own vulnerability. Let go of any desire to see yourself as “succeeding,” and let yourself be gloriously, humanly imperfect.

I suggest you spend at least a minute on each of these thoughts, and perhaps a bit longer on the final one.

  • First, as you read these words become aware of your vulnerable human body, with its beating heart, and the constant rise and fall of the breathing. This body is aging, and prone to injury and illness, as are all human bodies. Recognize yourself as an embodied, living being who will not be on this earth for long. If this is at all uncomfortable, see if you can regard those painful feelings with kindly eyes.
  • Next, allow into your awareness that your feelings are important to you. Perhaps in this moment you’re not feeling much, but sometimes you suffer, and sometimes you are happy. Consider the reality of this, recalling moments of happiness and of unhappiness, recognizing yourself as a feeling being.
  • Consider that you want, as your deepest desire, to find some kind of wellbeing, or happiness, or peace, and to escape suffering where that’s possible. When you remember times you’ve been unhappy, was there a desire to be free from that suffering? When you remember times of peace, happiness, or wellbeing, was there a wish to remain in that state? Recognize yourself as a being who desires happiness as your deepest yearning.
  • Now, remind yourself that happiness is often elusive, and that you experience suffering far more often than you’d like, were life ideal. Recognize yourself as a struggling being—as someone who is doing a difficult thing in being human.
  • Finally, try saying the following words to yourself for a few minutes: “May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be kind to myself and others.”

The first four activities help you empathize with yourself. Through them you sense yourself as a being in need of support, worthy of support. And this empathetic awareness of yourself provides a grounding for being kind to yourself. The phrases—“May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be kind to myself and others”— are ways of showing yourself support. By the time you got to the fifth suggestion you may have felt that you actually wanted to offer yourself kindness and encouragement, and that you wanted to offer yourself support.

These reflections open us up to experiencing our own vulnerability, and this can be an uncomfortable process. It may be, for example, that heartache or sadness arose. That’s a common response. These reflections can put us in touch with yearnings that we have, perhaps out of duty or fear, long suppressed. We can spend much of our lives pretending to ourselves that we’re much happier than we actually are. We can pretend that suffering is an unfortunate accident we’re on the verge of recovering from. It can be frightening to take on board the truth that we frequently suffer, and that we’re not fully in control of our own lives.

Should painful feelings of sadness or heartache arise, it’s wise to accept them and show them kindness. If they do appear, that’s a good sign, because it shows that we’re getting more fully in touch with the reality that life is difficult. Empathizing with ourselves, and being kind toward ourselves, is essential if we’re to accept that reality, because it allows us to let go of the fear that leads to denial.

These reflections help us to more from fear and denial to love and acceptance. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable lets us see how challenging and difficult life is, but it also allows us to empathize with ourselves and to offer ourselves kindness and support as we do this difficult thing of being human.

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The miracle of being here

The main quality we’re cultivating when we meditate is mindfulness. Mindfulness is just another word for observing. To observe our experience we have to be present with it. Part of the mind has to be standing back a little from what it’s observing. So in a way, mindfulness is very simple. But it can take us a long way—to acceptance, living with self-compassion, and an appreciation that every moment of life is a miracle.

Where we start

Usually we start by paying attention to the body, observing the physical sensations that are arising there. We are not thinking about the body. We’re not visualizing the body. We’re simply observing the body’s sensations, paying attention to them in a relaxed way.

In particular we notice the sensations of the breathing. These are the most dynamic and obvious part of our experience of the body. We can notice the sensations of air flowing in and out of the body, the rise and fall of the chest and the belly, and even the ever-changing contact our skin makes with our clothing. But we may well notice other things as well—the sound of a passing truck, a breeze, our buttocks touching our seat. This is fine. We’re not trying to exclude anything.

Practicing acceptance

The mind will still create thoughts, and from time to time some of those thoughts will be compelling enough that we shift our attention fully or partly from our direct sensory experience, and back into the world of mental experience. We find ourselves planning some task, remembering and rerunning in our mind a conversation, or fretting about whether we’re doing the meditation practice properly. This is natural, and it’s not something we can stop from happening. But whenever we realize that we’ve been caught up in compelling trains of thought, we let go of them and return our attention to the body, the breathing, and anything else that presents itself to our senses.

Practicing self-compassion

Relative newcomers in particular tend to become disappointed and frustrated with the amount of thinking that’s going on. But accepting that it’s normal for us to become distracted is a self-compassionate act that helps us to be patient and accepting. We’re not failing when we get distracted; we’re just being human. Every time we realize we’ve been distracted is an opportunity to be kind to ourselves. It’s an opportunity to bring our attention gently back to the breathing again. Sometimes I suggest to meditation students that they be gentle in the way that they would if they were returning a baby kitten to its mother when it has strayed from the nest. Our distractions give us an opportunity to practice self-compassion.

In fact we have an opportunity to practice self-kindness and self-compassion just in the way we’re sitting. One way we can be unkind to ourselves is to hold the body in a tense and rigid way, or in a posture that we’re not able to sustain without discomfort arising. Often, for example, people will want to sit in a cross-legged posture even though they aren’t flexible enough to do this comfortably. But we don’t need to impress anyone, and there’s no one “perfect” posture that we have to sit in. We want to be comfortable.

At the same time we don’t want to slump, in the way we do when we’re relaxing in an arm-chair. Slumping compresses the chest in a way that makes it hard for us to breath effectively. And poor breathing causes the brain to be poorly oxygenated and makes is hard for us to be attentive. So, look for a posture that feels both relaxed and upright. One simple thing that sums this up nicely is the idea of sitting with a sense of dignity.

Lying down is another posture that makes is hard for us to be mindful. We’re likely to find that this makes the mind drowsy at best, and at worst it’ll send us to sleep. If you have some kind of injury that makes sitting upright impossible, then by all means meditate lying down. The sleepiness is something you’ll just have to learn to work with.

Seeing the miracle

As the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donahue said, “It is a strange and magical fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you. It is an immense privilege, and it is incredible that humans manage to forget the miracle of being here.”

Mindfulness helps us to appreciate the simple miracle of being here. It helps us to become a kind and compassionate presence for ourselves. And this is something we do not just in meditation, but in every area of our lives.

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Emily Dickinson: “The brain is wider than the sky…”

The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.
— Emily Dickinson

Dickinson’s poem, “The Brain is Wider Than the Sky” suggests that because the brain contains the perception of the sky (and more besides) it must in some sense be larger than the sky. This might seem like no more than an interesting thought — the kind of thing you momentarily appreciate as a quote on Facebook before forwarding it to your friends and moving on to the next cute cat video.

But this is the kind of thing that becomes very profound when you choose to sit with it in meditation. I started to experiment with a practice strikingly similar to Dickinson’s verse back in the 1990s when I lived in the city center of Glasgow, in Scotland. I lived on a busy shopping street in a tenement building that had a bar and a restaurant on the ground floor. Being four floors up did little to remove us from the noise. There was a constant roar from cars, buses, and delivery vehicles, the sounds of conversations and (especially at night as the bars came out) fights. Passing airplanes and the sounds of emergency vehicle sirens weren’t rare, either.

At first this noise used to interfere with my meditation, but gradually it became my meditation. I learned that it was fruitless to try to push these sounds away, and that instead it was best to notice them as sensations, just like any other sensation. The noise of traffic was really no different from the movements of my breathing; it was all just sensory data. The noise was only a problem when I tried to fight with it.

What I did was simply to attend to whatever sounds were around me. Instead of trying to push them away I allowed them to be there. They became, along with the breathing or the act of well-wishing, my object of attention in meditation.

The result of doing this was a sense of expansiveness. The sounds that reached my ears came from a vast expanse around me. In fact, including passing aircraft, my sphere of attention might be miles in diameter. It felt that my mind was expanding to fill the space around me. It no longer seemed that mind my was a thing inside my head, receiving signals that traveled to it along nerves, but that my awareness was a vast space in which the phenomena it detected arose. My mind (and therefore my brain) encompassed the sky.

This changed my whole meditation practice. For one thing, I did a lot less thinking than I usually did. My mind spontaneously became much quieter. For another thing, when thoughts did arise they were just one very small part of my field of attention. They were less likely to catch my attention, and simply rose and passed away, without my getting caught up in them.

This was probably the single most revolutionary development in my meditation practice — one that provided an approach I’m still working within.

Later in the poem Dickinson says “The brain is just the weight of God.” This very bold comparison provides another connection with meditation. The expansiveness that I’ve been talking about is very helpful in meditations to do with cultivating kindness and compassion. These forms of meditation are known in Buddhism as the “brahma viharas” — literally “the abode of God.” Our narrow sense of self begins to break down, and we realize that the wellbeing of others is just as important as our own. Developing a sense of spacious awareness in meditation makes it easier for an expansive sense of care and concern for all beings to arise.

So I’d suggest that you experiment with expansiveness in your own meditation practice. It’s not hard. After setting up your posture, first, just allow your eyes to relax behind your closed eyelids. Then become aware of the space — and any sounds it contains — in front, behind, to the sides, and above and below you. Let your mind rest into that sense of spacious awareness. And then see where it takes you.

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Fully embracing this present moment

It was late in the evening when my son told me he’d left his backpack in the car. That’s not a huge deal, but there were things in it that he needed for camp tomorrow, and because of where I live my car’s parked a few minutes’ walk away from my apartment. Again, not a huge deal, but I was tired and I was in the middle of getting both kids together for bed, and would have to wait until they were asleep before I went to retrieve the backpack.

So, with the kids asleep, and my energy failing, I trudged downstairs to fetch the forgotten backpack. I was grouchy and a little resentful — you know, where you have to do something you hadn’t expected to do because someone didn’t do what they’re supposed to. Grumble, grumble.

I was just exiting the building when I realized that I was making myself unhappy with this train of thought. I noticed that my state of mild resentment had eroded my wellbeing, making me feel weary and put-upon. It wasn’t a pleasant state to be in.

Fortunately a wiser part of myself stepped in. If this part of me had been verbalizing, it would have said, “You’re making yourself suffer unnecessarily. Drop the story. Look at your actual experience, and you’ll find that there’s fundamentally nothing wrong.”

So, first of all I recognized that I was making myself suffer. That’s key. A lot of the time we don’t realize we’re doing this. Maybe we think it’s life that’s making us unhappy, and so we think we don’t have any choice about it. But it’s not life that makes us suffer: it’s our reactions to the things that happen to us in life. Realizing that we’re making ourselves suffer gives us the freedom to stop doing that. It gives us the freedom to act differently.

One of the things we can do differently is to drop our stories. It’s our stories about events that make us unhappy. I had a story about how my son “should” have remembered his backpack, and how I “should” have remembered to check he had it, and how I’d “failed” in that task. And the story was also that going to the car was an unpleasant task and that I could be doing better things with my time. Those stories were making me feel mildly miserable. To drop our stories, we need simply to turn our attention to something else. In this case, “something else” is our immediate sensory experience.

When we focus on what’s arising in our present-moment sensory experience, we reduce our capacity for rumination — overthinking that creates or increases our suffering. The mind has limited bandwidth, and the more attentive you are to the body’s sensations, to perceptions from the outside world, and to feelings, the less capacity there is for the mind to carry thoughts  — thoughts that make us unhappy.

So when I turned toward my attention in this way, I was aware of the movements of my body, the rise and fall of my breathing, the coolness of the night air, the darkness outside, the smell of the river nearby, the sound of traffic on Main Street. I was aware also that unpleasant feelings were present. There was a tense, knotted ball of resentment in my chest. Now the important thing here is just to accept these unpleasant feelings. React to them or try to get rid of them, and you’ll just make things worse. So you need to find a way to remind yourself, “There’s an unpleasant feeling present, and that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with having an unpleasant feeling present.” You just allow that feeling to be there.

This is a radical thing to do. Our mental reactions are attempts to escape or fix unpleasant situations. It seems counter-intuitive to turn toward painful feelings. But turning toward our suffering reduces our suffering.

Once you’re no longer bolstering your pain with reactive thinking, you’re still left with the feeling. It may still be strong, or it may be that now all you experience is a just a kind of “echo” of the original, which quickly dissipates. But even if the suffering is strong and persistent, in the absence of obsessing about what you think is wrong, each moment now becomes bearable. (If you think your feelings are unbearable, you’re back into rumination. So drop the thinking and turn back to the feeling again.) Simply let go of thinking, observe painful feelings, and you feel more at peace.

In fact you may become aware that there are pleasant things happening too. The night is cool. the darkness is soothing. You’re getting a little more exercise than you expected. You’re alive. You’re breathing. Fundamentally, everything in this moment is OK. You’re OK. There’s just this moment, and this moment is fine.

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Enjoying the play of your inner toddler

child playing

We can experience different kinds of distracted thinking in meditation.

There are obvious, compelling, and “in your face” thoughts in which we tend to become completely immersed. These are the full-blown distractions where we completely forget that we’re meant to be meditating, and instead become submerged in our inner dramas. We dip in and out of these all the time in meditation, returning to the practice every time mindful awareness reappears.

Then there are lighter background thoughts that babble on in the background, even as we continue to pay attention to the meditation practice. So we’ll be following the breathing, for example, while random thoughts keep popping up. Perhaps these thoughts take the form of a commentary on our experience, or perhaps they are completely unrelated to the meditation practice. But they’re not usually so emotionally compelling that we get caught up in them.

I mainly want to talk a little about this second kind of thinking, and how we can relate to it.

Regard your inner chatter fondly, as if you’re listening to a toddler talking to itself while playing.

So, if you’re aware of an inner voice chattering away while you follow your breathing, you can try regarding that voice fondly, as if you were listening to a toddler talking to itself while playing. When a child talks like that it’s usually charming and funny and endearing. It’s not the kind of thing we tend to get upset about.

The way we relate to our inner talk is often more of a problem than the thoughts themselves. When we start resisting our thoughts, wishing that they would go away, the resistance itself is a painful state of mind, and it’s also likely to give rise to distractedness. Our thoughts of “I wish this would stop” throw us off-balance, and we find that suddenly we’re back into becoming seriously distracted again. Our distractions resist our resistance, and before we know it we find they’ve “tricked” us into being unmindful.

Just allowing those babbling thoughts to be present helps us to prevent this happening. It also helps us to be more kind and accepting.

Taking a tolerant and playful attitude toward random thoughts, which is what you’re doing when you regard them as being like the sounds of a young child playing, lets you simply get on with the meditation. The thoughts are still there, but they no longer bother you. In fact you not only don’t mind them, but can be amused by and feel fondness for them. This is immeasurably more enjoyable and helpful than resisting them!

Of course this doesn’t work so well with the first type of thinking I mentioned — the compelling kind. Those thoughts tend to be emotionally loaded, which is why we find ourselves repeatedly drawn into them. What helps there is to give our compelling thoughts plenty of space, and I discussed in a recent article.

When the mind is constricted our thoughts seem larger, and they’re harder to resist. It’s a bit like being trapped in a long car-ride with a child’s constant demands for attention. It drives us crazy! To quiet the inner child down, you need to give it plenty of space to play. Once you’ve done that, you’ll often find that it just quietly gets on with its own thing, and you can enjoy its babbling as you get on with doing your own thing. Eventually, perhaps, the toddler will take a nap, and you can enjoy the refreshing calm of a quiet and spacious mind.

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The core skill of meditation is showing up

bodhipaksa quote: core skill of meditationOne of the biggest myths about meditation is that it involves experiencing blissful or “spiritual” states of mind. It doesn’t. It’s about experiencing and accepting the very ordinary states that present themselves to us, and working with them, gently and kindly.

Now it is possible to experience beautiful, calm, joyful states of mind in meditation. There are delineated lists of these, complete with traditional accounts of the various factors that constitute those experiences. Those traditional lists correspond closely to the actual experience of contemporary meditators of many spiritual traditions—not just Buddhism. They’re real. They’re attainable.

But if we think that this is what meditation essentially is, then we probably won’t meditate, because most of the time those states don’t arise, even for people who’ve been meditating for a long time. And so we’ll get despondent and give up.

The chances are that when we meditate—especially when we’re first learning—we’re faced with an unruly mind that doesn’t want to experience what’s arising, because it’s unpleasant or boring. The mind assumes that happiness lies elsewhere, and so it keeps creating fantasies into which it tries to disappear. And our task is to keep turning back toward our actual experience again and again, even when that experience doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a source of peace or joy.

The core skill of meditation is showing up. Showing up is not something we do once. It’s something we do over and over again.

It’s not always easy to do this. In fact it rarely is. Many people try meditating, experience the unruliness, and think “I’m obviously not cut out for meditation. I didn’t experience anything special. All I got was frustration.”

And that’s why we need to practice coming back to our experience over and over again. In doing this, we start to develop the capacity to accept our experience, and to accept ourselves. We discover that it’s not the kinds of experiences we have that determine whether we’re happy, or at peace, or content, but the way we relate to those experiences.

So we find that the mind is restless, or that there’s something unpleasant going on in our experience, and instead of reacting to it we find we begin to accept it. The mind is less inclined to run from our core experience. It’s more likely to surround it with mindfulness, kindness, and curiosity.

And although this may not sound radical, it is. It’s radically different from the normal reactive state in which we keeping running from our experience.

And if we keep doing this, we may find that we start to experience some of the special meditative states I mentioned earlier—which are characterized by calmness, joy, and ease. But those states are not the essence of meditation. They result from showing up, over and over again. They result from our continued gentle efforts to experience and accept our ordinary unruly mind.

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This difficult thing of being human

caution sign

It’s always good to remember that life isn’t easy.

I don’t mean to say that life is always hard in the sense of it always being painful. Clearly there are times when we’re happy, when things are going well, when we feel that our life is headed in the right direction and that even greater fulfillment is just ahead of us, etc.

What I mean is that even when we have times in our life that are good, that doesn’t last. In fact, often the things we’re so excited and happy about later turn out to be things that also cause us suffering.

For example, you start a brand new relationship and you’re in love and it’s exciting and fulfilling. And then you find yourself butting heads with your partner, and you hurt each others’ feelings. Maybe you even split up. Does that sound familiar?

For example, the new job that you’re thrilled about turns out to contain stresses you hadn’t imagined. Has that ever happened?

For example, the house you’re so pleased to have bought inevitably ends up requiring maintenance. Or perhaps the house value plummets. Or perhaps your circumstances change and you find it a struggle to meet the mortgage. Maybe you’ve been lucky, or maybe you’ve been there.

Happiness has a way of evaporating. Unhappiness has a way of sneaking up on us and sucker-punching us in the gut.

On a deep level, none of really understand happiness and unhappiness. If we truly understood the dynamics of these things, we’d be happy all the time and would never be miserable. We’d be enlightened. But pre-enlightenment, we’re all stumbling in the dark, and sometimes colliding painfully with life as we do so.

This being human is not easy. We’re doing a difficult thing in living a human life.

It’s good to accept all this, because life is so much harder when we think it should be easy. When we think life should be straightforward, and that we think we have it all sorted out, then unhappiness becomes a sign that we’ve “failed.” And that makes being in pain even more painful.

We haven’t failed when we’re unhappy; we’re just being human. We’re simply experiencing the tender truth of what it is to live a human life.

So when you’re unhappy, don’t beat yourself up about it. Don’t fight it. Accept that this is how things are right now. Often when you do that, you’ll very quickly—sometimes instantly—start to feel better. By accepting our suffering, we start to move through it.

And as you look around you, realize that everyone else is doing this difficult thing of being human too. They’re all struggling. We’re all struggling. We all want happiness and find happiness elusive. We all want to avoid suffering and yet keep stumbling into it, over and over.

Many of the things that bother you about other people are their attempts to deal with this difficult existential situation, in which we desire happiness, and don’t experience as much of it as we want, and desire to be free from suffering, and yet keep becoming trapped in it. Their moods, their clinging, their anger—all of these are the results of human beings struggling to find happiness, and having trouble doing so.

If we can recognize that this human life is not easy—if we can empathize with that very basic existential fact—then perhaps we can be just a little kinder to ourselves and others. And that would help make this human life just a little easier to navigate.

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“Everyone rushes elsewhere, and into the future, for no one has reached his own self.” Montaigne

Montaigne

Montaigne’s words (it’s “Chacun court ailleurs et à  l’advenir, d’autant que nul n’est arrivé à soy” in the original French) are a striking reminder of how unsettled and restless we can be.

All too often we do things halfheartedly. The other half of our heart is leaning into the future, anticipating what we’ll be doing next. So we’ll be loading the dishwasher, wishing we were watching TV. But when we’re watching TV, we wish we were on Facebook. Even when having sex, people spend ten percent of their time thinking about something else. We’re so often leaning forward — rushing on to the next activity.

When Montaigne says that “no one has reached his own self,” he means that we’re not able to just be with ourselves. We’re not able to appreciate the simplicity of simply doing, simply experiencing. We think there’s something lacking in the things that we do, or even that there’s something lacking in us. We lack confidence that we can be complete, and that we can be at peace, without adding something. And so we lean forward all the time, rushing on into the next moment, seeking the happiness that seems missing from the present one.

We can never be happy when our attention is divided in this way. Only by wholeheartedly experiencing something can we really derive joy from it.

Even things we think of as unpleasant chores can be fulfilling if we allow ourselves to be completely present for the experience. Loading the dishwasher can be done in a spirit of care and reverence, for example.

Happiness comes not from the experiences we’re having, but from the way we relate to those experiences. Any experience has the possibility of being completely fulfilling, if we choose to pay full attention to it, and to appreciate it.

Mindfulness can often have the quality of “coming home.” We arrive back at ourselves, and accept what we find, whether it’s pleasant or not. We allow ourselves to settle in to whatever is arising. We don’t criticize it or judge it. We don’t try to make it better. We just try to be with it. We appreciate each moment of experience as the tiny miracle it is.

Settling in to our experience in this way, we lose our sense of learning forward, of rushing elsewhere and into the future. We reach our own selves, and feel whole and at peace.

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Living with change

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

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

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

1. Noticing Resistance

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

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

Try this:

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

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

2. Letting go of Identities

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

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

Try this:

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

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

3. Facing Mortality

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

Try this:

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

Quotes on change and impermanence

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

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

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

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