acceptance

“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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Self-compassion: lovingkindness squared

Self-compassion is the most radically transformative practice that I’ve stumbled upon in more than 30 years of exploring Buddhism. It’s helped me to cope with many difficulties I’ve faced, ranging from the mundane challenge of a child’s tantrum, to financial problems and even serious illness. It’s helped me to become kinder and more compassionate not just to myself but also to others. In fact I don’t know of any other practice that’s changed me so much. I’d describe self-compassion as “lovingkindness squared.”

Self-compassion is simply treating yourself kindly, responding to your own pain with compassion in the same way you’d respond to the pain of someone you care about. “Self-compassion” is a bit of a misnomer; we give compassion not to ourselves as a whole, but to any part of us that’s suffering.

I’d like to outline five steps that are involved in practicing self-compassion.

1. Drop the Story

The mind generates stories around our suffering. These may be stories in which we blame others, or tell ourselves that the discomfort we’re experiencing is unbearable or shouldn’t be happening. They may be stories of revenge, or stories that we are bad, or worthless, or are doomed to suffer. They may be stories about ways we can numb or escape the pain.

These stories themselves cause us further pain, and so as we notice them arising it’s wise to disentangle ourselves from them, just letting the words echo away into the mind.

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Our stories are what the Buddha called, in a famous analogy, “the second arrow.” He pointed out that we’re all subject to discomfort and pain, whether it’s having our feelings hurt or having a toothache or experiencing loss. This is the “first arrow,” which arrives unexpectedly. This kind of suffering is inevitable. But our response to being hit by this arrow is often, the Buddha said, to indulge in the kinds of thoughts I described above, which he summarized as “sorrow, grief, and lamentation.” It’s these responses—our second arrows—that cause most of our suffering. Each thought like, “This is terrible!” or, “Why is this happening to me!” is a self-inflicted stab with the second arrow.

It can take a lot of practice to become mindful enough to stop these stories from arising, or even to catch them in the early stages. For a long time it may be that the first time we notice that something is up is when we’re in the middle of a reaction, having already created a full-blown inner (or outer) drama. So the first thing we do is to recognize that through our stories we’re creating unnecessary suffering for ourselves, so that we can drop the story line and become mindfully aware of the first arrow.

2. Recognize That Pain is Present

In order to practice self-compassion we have to notice that we’re in pain. But this may not be easy, because we have unhelpful habits such as taking our own suffering for granted, or denying our pain—perhaps seeing it as a sign of weakness—or just failing to notice it because pain is so common in our lives. We also may be so quick to jump to emotional reactions and stories—attempts to protect ourselves against suffering—that we don’t really acknowledge the suffering.

But whenever we’re frustrated, or angry, or lonely, or anxious, or longing, or when our feelings are hurt, we’re suffering. Every sub-optimal state we experience is a form of suffering. It’s important that we recognize this pain, otherwise we can’t practice self-compassion.

Let’s take an example: a friend saying something that hurts our feelings. First we hear the words and interpret them as an insult, even though they may not have been intended that way. Then the brain flags up the comment as something potentially harmful to you by creating a sensation of pain in the body, probably in the solar plexus. This is the mind’s way of saying “Here’s a threat! Pay attention to it!”

Another common place for painful feelings to arise is around the heart. The heart and gut are areas of the body rich in nerve clusters, and the brain generates sensations in those places as a way of catching our attention and provoking us to action. Sometimes feelings of hurt can be so strong it’s like we’ve been punched in the gut. No wonder we react strongly.

One fascinating thing that’s recently been found is that feelings such as the ache of isolation become less intense when we take pain-killers such as Tylenol. What we think of as “emotional” pain is just a special form of physical pain, induced in the body by the mind.

The kinds of internal sensations I’ve been discussing are what Buddhism calls vedanas. Vedana is a technical term referring to the pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral sensations that are generated to accompany every perception we have.

The mental processing that leads to the arising of these feelings takes place in parts of the brain that aren’t accessible to conscious awareness. We can’t, for example, choose not to be hurt. We do, however, have some ability to chose how to respond to the perception of hurt.

3. Turn Toward the Pain

We can choose to respond to pain with acceptance. In practicing self-compassion, it’s important that we learn to accept our pain—that we allow it just to be there, without having aversion toward it. To respond skillfully to suffering we have to be prepared to turn toward it.

Taking a mindful approach to our pain means recognizing that it’s OK to experience suffering, and even to take an interest in it. It’s especially helpful to notice, as precisely as we can, where the pain is located in the body, and to observe its size and texture, and how it changes from moment to moment.

Accepting our pain in this way means that we’re no longer stabbing ourselves with the second arrow—no longer creating stories that intensify and prolong our suffering. Instead, we’re simply mindful of the first arrow. If we find that the stories start to creep in again, and that thoughts are arising, we keep letting go of them, just as we do when we’re meditating.

The Buddha pointed out that another way we turn away from pain is to pursue pleasure. Often we’ll do that through numbing ourselves with food, or alcohol, or busyness, or television. We may not actually get much pleasure from these activities—it’s the pursuit of pleasure that’s the distraction. As long as we’re leaning into the future, seeking pleasure, we’re no longer being with the pain of the present moment. So, just as we need to drop our stories, we need also to drop our avoidance. The most effective way to deal with discomfort is to turn toward it.

It can be hard to turn toward pain in this way. In evolutionary terms, pain evolved as a protective mechanism. The whole point of pain is to alert us to the fact that something is wrong, so that we can escape the painful situation. The way I think about turning toward our pain is this: imagine that a friend has turned up on your doorstep in a state of distress. What do you do? Well, hopefully you won’t respond with aversion, trying to get rid of the discomfort by slamming the door and running into the house. Ideally, you’d invite your friend in, sit them down, and take a kindly and compassionate interest in what’s going on with them.

Sometimes it can be useful to say, “It’s OK to feel this. Let me feel this,” just to remind ourselves to stay with our discomfort.

Being mindful of our feelings in this way creates what we call “the gap.” This is a pause—I think of it as a sacred pause—in which we can choose not to let our normal reactions kick in. Instead, we create an opportunity for compassion to arise.

4. Give Your Pain Compassionate Attention

Having accepted a painful feeling mindfully, the next stage is to give it your compassionate attention. This means treating your pain with the same gentleness and kindness with which you would treat a friend who is suffering. Sometimes I think of my pain as a small, wounded part of me that is in need of love and comfort—like a small animal.

To relate to your pain compassionately, regard it with love. Look at it with your inward awareness in the same way that you would look at a child that is in pain, offering it comfort, reassurance, and the knowledge that it isn’t alone. Remember that your pain is not an enemy. It’s a part of you that’s suffering, and that needs your support.

Wish your pain it well. Talk to it. Soothe it. You can use the same phrases you would use in lovingkindness or compassion meditation, saying things like, “May you be well; may you be happy; may you be free from suffering.” But sometimes those words can seem hackneyed, so I’m more likely to say something like, “I know you’re in pain, but I’m here for you,” or “I love you, and I want you to be happy.” With intense suffering I’ll sometimes resort to the deep trust expressed by St. Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

You can also lay a hand compassionately on the part of your body where your emotional pain is manifesting most strongly. This is usually the heart or gut.

5. Respond Appropriately

As you become more skilled at recognizing and accepting your pain, and with responding to it compassionately, you’ll find that it’s easier to respond in an appropriate way to situations that give rise to pain in the first place.

There are no rules for how to respond. It depends on the situation, on your skills in communication, etc. But when you’re mindful of your pain and cultivate compassion toward it, you’ll discover you have more creativity at your disposal than you’d imagined possible. You’ll probably find that having responded with empathy and compassion toward yourself, you’ll quite spontaneously behave the same way toward others.

These five steps can be worked through very quickly. I’ve run through them while driving at 65 miles per hour on a highway: Someone cuts me off, I start up with an angry storyline “Idiot! How dare you!” I realize that this is causing me to suffer, drop the story, notice the pain that (it’s usually fear, located in the solar plexus), accept it, and then send it some compassionate thoughts (“May you be well; may you be free from suffering”). And my having done that, the anger vanishes and I find that I’m not only compassionate toward myself, but to the other driver as well. This may take just a few seconds.

I’ve found it useful as well when I’m stressed. For example while I’m cooking and being bombarded with demands from my children. I’ll notice a knot of tension building up in my gut, give it a moment’s compassionate intention, and find that the desire to snap at the kids has gone. It works for sadness, depression, and anxiety. Self-compassion is the Swiss Army Knife of spiritual techniques.

One myth I’d like to dispel is that if you’re reacting to a situation, it’s too late to find the gap. The pain of the first arrow doesn’t disappear just because you’ve started reacting to it! Every time you let go of your stories and drop your awareness down into the body so that you can notice your initial feelings of hurt, fear, etc., you are bringing the gap into being, and with it the freedom to respond creatively.

It’s only through treating my pain compassionately that I’ve realized the extent to which the way we treat ourselves is related to the way we treat others. Once we are able to respond to our own pain with compassion, we find that compassion for others flows freely. It’s lovingkindness squared.

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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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Seven essentials of mindfulness practice

Dr. Frank Lipman, The Epoch Times: Nearly twenty years ago, I did a workshop with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., whose first book “Full Catastrophe Living” and overall teachings have had a lasting influence on me. This book is a classic on the topic of mindfulness and it has played a spiritual role in both bringing this practice into the Integrative Medicine World as well as in developing the method we teach our patients on how to deal with stress.

I would like to share with you the Seven …

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Make 2015 a mindful year and get more out of life

Barbara Casey, Ashland Daily Tidings: When I first learned the practice of mindfulness 18 years ago, the simplicity of it fooled me. It seems obvious that we all want to be fully engaged in our lives, that we don’t want to spend significant amounts of our time spaced out or distracted, missing the beauty and meaning of life in all its aspects.

I thought it would take about six months of concentrated effort to learn to stay in the present moment all the time. My report to you now is that the causes of …

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The spiritual power of a smile

buddha smiling while being attacked by Mara

Studies have found that smiling makes people happier. Normally of course we think of things working the other way around: being happy puts a smile on our face. But the reverse is true as well. Feelings of happiness are triggered even when we don’t realize we’re smiling—for example when we’re clenching a pencil with the teeth, which causes the face to use the same muscles that are used when we smile. So the emotional impact of smiling is obviously not just the power of association, and it seems that it’s the activation of our “smiling muscles” that triggers the happiness response. But maybe it doesn’t matter why it works, as long as it does.

So as you meditate, smile, and help joy to arise. You don’t have to have a grin on your face. A gentle, almost imperceptible smile can have a transformative effect on how you feel. Smiling is a short-cut to unleashing your repressed joy.

One of the things that smiling does is to give us a sense of reassurance. When we smile, we send ourselves a signal saying “It’s OK. We got this. We can handle this.” When we smile, even in the face of difficulties, we remind ourselves that there’s a grown-up present. There’s a part of us that can function as parent, as mentor, as wise friend. We become our own spiritual guide.

Smiling shouldn’t however become a way of avoiding our experience. We don’t smile in attempt to drive away or replace difficult experiences but in order to be a friendly presence for them. Smiling, and the confidence it can bring, should make it easier for us to be with our experience, and less likely to turn from it.

A simple smile can help us to feel more playful. Playfulness—letting our effort be light, allowing our heart to be open, not taking things personally, and appreciating the positive—allows joy to arise. On the other hand, taking things too seriously is a sure-fire way to kill joy. When we try to force or control our experience—trying to do everything “right”—our experience becomes cold, tight, and joyless. Smiling helps us to lighten up.

When we smile, we’re more confident, and we can let go of our fear-driven need to police and control our experience. We’re less likely to judge, and can be more accepting. So we might, for example, notice that many thoughts are passing through the mind, and yet find ourselves at ease. We might notice an old habit kicking in once again, and rather than blame ourselves for messing up, feel a sense of kindly benevolence.

One potent illustration of the power of a smile is the image of the Buddha being assaulted by the hordes of Mara, the personification of spiritual doubt and defeat. In this allegory, which has been depicted many times, Mara’s armies, which consist of hideous demons that symbolize craving, discontent, laziness, and fear, surround the Buddha. At the center of a tempest of demonic fury, the enlightened one sits, smiling serenely. A radiant aura extends around him, and when the weapons of his foes touch it, they fall harmlessly as flowers.

In a sense the Buddha’s aura is the radiance of his smile—the protective effect of his determined yet playful confidence. Every time we smile in meditation, we create the conditions for joy and peace to arise. Every time we smile in meditation, we connect ourselves to the Buddha’s own awakening.

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What is “Mindful Presence”?

What Is Mindful Presence?

Let’s unpack those two words, mindful presence.

Mindfulness is simply a clear, non-judgmental awareness of your inner and outer worlds. In particular, it’s an awareness of the flow of experience in your inner world – an alert observing of your thoughts, emotions, body sensations, desires, memories, images, personality dynamics, attitudes, etc.

When you are mindful of something, you are observing it, not caught up in it and not identified with it. The psychological term, “the observing ego” – considered to be essential for healthy functioning – refers to this capacity (i.e., mindfulness) to detach from the stream of consciousness and observe it. Other terms for this capacity include bare witnessing and the Fair Witness.

Mindful Presence Series

  1. What is “Mindful presence”?
  2. Why develop mindful presence?
  3. Mindful presence: A mindfulness tune-up.
  4. Mindful presence: Open space mindfulness.

Mindfulness is an everyday psychological capacity, not some kind of lofty mystical state. To quote an unidentified meditation master: “Even children, drunkards, madmen, those who are old, or those who are illiterate, can develop mindfulness.”

Presence refers to the stability of mindfulness, which means the degree to which you are grounded in awareness itself.

With practice, awareness becomes increasingly your home base, your refuge, rather than the contents of awareness. You abide more and more as the field of awareness upon which experiences arise, register, and pass away.

The sense of awareness itself starts taking up more and more space in your daily experience; you certainly still get caught up in and swept along by mental contents many times a day, but you find there is more of a feeling of background awareness even then, plus you return to the awareness position more quickly, and stay there longer.

As mindful presence increases, there is a growing sense of being as the container of your everyday life, which holds the doing and the having of daily activities. You are being being. Doing and having no longer contain little moments of being; instead, being is increasingly the ongoing space through which ripples of doing and having come and go.

This quality of abiding as awareness moves out into your life beyond time spent meditating. Simply stretching your hand for a cup of coffee or tea becomes increasingly infused with a sense of full awareness of that act. So with other physical activities.

With people, you become more settled into being fully there with them, more peacefully relaxed in awareness of them and you and what’s happening, less identified with pleasant or unpleasant reactions that arise, less caught up in the past or future or sense of needing to make something happen. We can feel it immediately when someone else is mindfully present with us; similarly, others can feel it when you are that way yourself.

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Decide on love

Jeff was convinced he’d fallen out of love with his wife, Arlene, and that nothing could salvage their twenty-six-year marriage. He wanted relief from the oppressiveness of feeling continually judged and found wanting. Arlene, for her part, was hurt and angry because she felt Jeff avoided any real communication or emotional intimacy. As a last-ditch effort, she convinced him to attend a weekend workshop for couples sponsored by their church. Much to their surprise, they both left with a glimmer of hope for their future together. The message they took away was “Love is a decision.” Their guides at the workshop had insisted that while we don’t always feel loving, love is here should we choose to awaken it.

Yet, back at home, when their old styles of attacking and defending were triggered, deciding on love seemed like an ineffectual mental maneuver. Discouraged, Jeff sought me out for a counseling session. “I don’t know how to get from point A to point B,” he declared. “Like when we were together yesterday . . . my mind told me to decide on love, but that didn’t make a difference . . . my heart was in lockdown. Arlene was blaming me for something, and all I wanted to do was get away from her!”

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“Let’s take another look at what happened yesterday,” I suggested, then invited him to close his eyes, put himself back into the situation, and let go of his notions of who was right or wrong. “Just let yourself experience what it’s like in your body to feel blamed and want to get away.” Jeff sat still, his face tightening into a grimace. “Keep allowing the feelings to be there,” I said, “and find out what unfolds.”

Gradually, his face softened. “Now I’m feeling stuck and sad,” he said. “We spend so much time caught in this. I withdraw, often without knowing it . . . that hurts her . . . she gets upset . . . then I very consciously want to get away. It’s sad to be so trapped.”

He looked up at me. I nodded with understanding. “What would it be like, Jeff, if instead of pulling away during this kind of encounter, you were able to let her know exactly what you were experiencing?” Then I added, “And if she, too, without accusing you of anything, were able to report on her feelings?”

“We’d have to know what we were feeling!” he said with a small laugh. “We’re usually too busy reacting.”

“Exactly!” I said. “You’d both have to be paying attention to what’s going on inside you. And that runs counter to our conditioning. When we’re emotionally stirred up, we’re lost in our stories about what’s happening, and caught in reflexive behaviors—like blaming the other person or finding a way to leave. That’s why we need to train ourselves to pay attention, so that we’re not at the mercy of our conditioning.”

I went on to explain how the practice of meditation cultivates our capacity for presence, for directly contacting our real, moment-to-moment experience. This gives us more inner space and creativity in responding—rather than reacting—to our circumstances. When I suggested that he and Arlene might consider coming to my weekly meditation class, he readily agreed. They were both there the following Wednesday night, and a month later, they attended a weekend meditation retreat I was leading.

Some weeks after the retreat, the three of us spoke briefly after class. Arlene said that thanks to their meditation practice, they were learning how to decide on love: “We have to choose presence with each other, over and over and over,” she told me. “We have to choose presence when we’re angry, presence when we aren’t in the mood to listen, presence when we’re alone and running the same old stories about how the other is wrong. Choosing presence is our way of opening our hearts.”

Jeff nodded his agreement. “I realized that it’s not about getting from point A to point B,” he said with a smile. “It’s about bringing a full presence to point A, to the life of this moment, no matter what’s going on. The rest unfolds from there.”

Taking refuge in presence—choosing presence—requires training. When “point A” is unpleasant, the last thing we want to do is to stay and feel our experience. Rather than entrusting ourselves to the waves of experience, we want to get away, lash out, numb ourselves, do anything but touch what’s real. Yet, as Jeff and Arlene were realizing, these types of false refuges keep us feeling small and defended.

As I explore in my upcoming course on cultivating more conscious, vibrant relationships, only by deepening our attention and letting life be just as it is can we find real intimacy with ourselves and others. In more than thirty-five years of teaching meditation, I’ve seen it help countless people to deepen their capacity for loving, because if we are able to stay present, we can decide on love, and give it the space and attention it needs to ignite fully. When you are next in a conflict with a dear one, you might inquire, “What would it mean to decide on love? Can I commit to deepening presence for the sake of love?” Just the inquiry will draw you closer to your heart.

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Always craving chocolate? Meditation could help

wildmind meditation newsEmma Innes, MailOnline: Buddhist mediation could be the key to cutting chocolate cravings, new research has revealed. A study found that achieving ‘a sense of detachment’ through mindfulness mediation can reduce cravings. The Canadian researchers say identifying and distancing oneself from certain thoughts – without judging them – weakens chocolate cravings among people with a sweet tooth.

‘There is now good evidence that mindfulness strategies generally work at managing food cravings, but we don’t yet know what aspect of mindfulness and what mechanisms are responsible for these effects. This is what motivated this research,’ said lead study author Julien Lacaille, a psychologist at McGill University. …

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It’s not what’s happening … it’s how you respond

Monkey waving

One of my favorite stories took place a number of decades ago when the English had colonized India and they wanted to set up a golf course in Calcutta. Besides the fact that the English shouldn’t have been there in the first place, the golf course was not a particularly good idea. The biggest challenge was that the area was populated with monkeys.

The monkeys apparently were interested in golf too, and their way of joining the game was to go onto the course and take the balls that the golfers were hitting and toss them around in all directions. Of course the golfers didn’t like this at all, so they tried to control the monkeys. First they built high fences around the fairway; they went to a lot of trouble to do this. Now, monkeys climb…so, they would climb over the fences and onto the course…that solution just didn’t work at all. The next thing they tried was to lure them away from the course. I don’t know how they tried to lure them—maybe waving bananas or something—but for every monkey that would go for the bananas, all their relatives would come into the golf course to join the fun. In desperation, they started trapping them and relocating them, but that didn’t work, either. The monkeys just had too many relatives who liked to play with golf balls! Finally, they established a novel rule for this particular golf course: the golfers in Calcutta had to play the ball wherever the monkey dropped it. Those golfers were onto something!

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We all want life to be a certain way. We want the conditions to be just so, and life doesn’t always cooperate. Maybe it does for a while, which makes us want to hold on tight to how things are, but then things change. So sometimes it’s like the monkeys are dropping the balls where we don’t want them, and what can we do?

Often we react by blaming…ourselves, or others or the situation. We might become aggressive. Or perhaps we feel victimized and resign. Or sometimes we soothe ourselves with extra food or drink. But clearly, none of these reactions are helpful.

If we are to find any peace, if we are to find freedom, what we need to do is learn to pause and say, “Okay. This is where the monkeys dropped the ball. I’ll play it from here, as well as I’m able.”

So how do we do that?

What if you pause right now, and take a moment to be quiet. Can you think of a place in your life where things are not cooperating with how you would like them to be? Whatever unfortunate place the monkeys have dropped a ball in your life, bring your focus to that. It could be something that happens in a relationship with another person, where you get reactive. What would it mean to “play the ball” here? If you could tap into your deepest wisdom, your true compassion, how would you like to respond to these circumstances?

One of the great teachings in spiritual life is this: It doesn’t matter what is happening. What matters is how we respond. How we respond is what determines our happiness and peace of mind.

So how might you respond with presence, when you find the monkeys have dropped the ball in a difficult spot?

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