acceptance

The Dhammapada: “one of the greatest psychological works ever written”

The Dhammapada, translated by Gil Fronsdal. Available from Amazon.

Jonathan Haidt, who studies morality and emotion at the NYU-Stern School of Business, discusses the Buddhist classic, The Dhammapada, on Five Books:

Haidt: The Dhammapada is one of the greatest psychological works ever written, and certainly one of the greatest before 1900. It is masterful in its understanding of the nature of consciousness, and in particular the way we are always striving and never satisfied. You can turn to it – and people have turned to it throughout the ages – at times of trouble, at times of disappointment, at times of loss, and it takes you out of yourself. It shows you that your problems, your feelings, are just timeless manifestations of the human condition. It also gives specific recommendations for how to deal with those problems, which is to let go, to accept, and to work on yourself. So I think this is a kind of tonic that we ambitious Westerners often need to hear.

Is there a specific saying that you particularly like?

Haidt: There are two big ideas that I found especially useful when I wrote The Happiness Hypothesis. One is an idea common to most great intellectual traditions. The quote is: ‘All that we are arises with our thoughts, with our thoughts we make the world.’ It’s not unique to Buddha, but it is one of the earliest statements of that idea, that we need to focus on changing our thoughts, rather than making the world conform to our wishes.

The other big idea is that the mind is like a rider on an elephant. Buddha uses this metaphor: ‘My own mind used to wander wherever pleasure or desire or lust led it, but now I have it tamed, I guide it, as the keeper guides the wild elephant.’ That’s the most important idea in The Happiness Hypothesis – I just adapted the metaphor slightly. What modern psychology shows us is that our minds are like a small rider on the back of an elephant: the rider doesn’t have that much control even though he thinks that he does.

And once you accept that you are much closer to understanding happiness?

Haidt: Exactly, because it helps explain why you can’t just resolve to be happy. You can’t just resolve to quit drinking, you can’t resolve to stop and smell the flowers – because the rider does the resolving but it’s the elephant that does the behaving. Once you understand the limitations of your psychology and how hard it is to change yourself, you become much more tolerant of others, because you realise how difficult it is to change anyone…

jonathan haidt

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What is higher power?

ray of light shining down from behind a cloud, onto a lake

Often people who are in recovery can wrestle with the twelve-steps in the various programs of recovery. So before I outline the steps in Buddhism that my co-author and I have coined for my book Eight Step Recovery: Using the Buddha’s Teachings to Overcome Addiction, published in 2014. I want to reflect over the next few months how many of the concepts in the twelve steps tradition can be of great use in our lives.

Step Two. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Many people struggle with this step, because they are looking for some God, some divine external rescuer that will deal with all their issues. And some people just do not want to have anything with religion; and so if that is the case what can they do about higher power? Others deal with this by using nature, or even the 12 step group as their higher power, which is creative and helpful. But higher power does not have to be some almighty thing. If we stop and pause higher power will be with us everywhere we go, if we allow ourselves to be with our direct experience, if we allow ourselves to fully experience all feelings whether pleasant or unpleasant.

One of my teachers says: ‘Any feeling fully felt is blissful.’ just imagine that!

The writer Joan Tollifson says “being aware” or “being here Now,” fully present, paying attention, waking up from the entrancement in thought-stories and being awake to the bare actuality of Here / Now.” I believe this is all we need to do if we want to connect to higher power in our lives. Huh! Simple but not easy. Simply, it is higher power in action, restoring us to sanity in a Buddhist frame work by moving from a place of confusion and discontent to a place of calm, content and simplicity.

So higher power is simply being with all our feelings. When we begin to pay kind attention to ourselves – we naturally soften, open up and change. We become calmer, more relaxed and happier. And meditation is one of the ways to begin to be with all of our experience.

When we come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity we begin to recognize the changes in our lives. For example if we have had a regular meditation practice for a year it is likely the practices of mindfulness and loving kindness have brought about some calm, peace and positive emotion in our lives.

Reflect on the next two questions

  • Remember what your mental states were like before you began meditating?
  • What was your life like before meditation came into your life?

It is important to mark the changes in our lives, otherwise your life today may just seem normal. And perhaps it is? But was it always this way? So by recognizing change, we see how the higher power of impermanence can also restore our life to sanity. We let go of the old stories of who we are, and recognize how we have changed.

We may well have had a lot of change on our road to recovery, and are quite happy with how our life is. Higher Power may be doing wonderful things in our lives.

  • Do we want to settle for what we have now?
  • Or do we want to take our practice of change with us until we meet our demise?
  • Are we clinging on to what we have?
  • Attached to our new way of life?

Becoming attached to our new life is of course inevitable, especially if we are someone who has had an addiction that has overwhelmed us, and now that we are on the road of recovery, Higher Power is working more in our life. Our life going well is not the issue, or indeed having pleasurable experience is not the issue. In fact we need to fully embrace and lean into pleasurable experience. The issue is when we begin to cling on to our good life, when we begin to fear losing what we have, when we begin to push away the difficult things that arise in our life. When this happens, higher power is no longer working in our lives. We will be floundering in confusion and insanity.

Here is a short exercise to begin sitting with direct experience.

  • What is it like when we pay attention to our breath?
  • Is it rough, smooth, pleasant, unpleasant?
  • What’s your feeling response?

Can you just sit and enjoy the experience that is happening right now?

And once the experience has passed away can you sit contentedly with the new experience?

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Learning to see with the eyes of wholeness (Day 8)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

A sticking point some people have with lovingkindness practice is what it means to wish someone “well.” This came up the other day with someone who has health difficulties that just aren’t going to go away. What does it mean for him to wish himself well? He’s not ever going to be completely healthy, so wellness is never going to be attained. What’s the point of wishing yourself something you can’t have? Isn’t that just a source of suffering. Yikes!

And the same applies to others. If you have a friend who’s, say, dying of cancer, what does it mean to wish them well?

There’s a nice little dialog that the Buddha has where he does some self-commentary — basically going over a teaching he’d previously passed on, and saying what he’d really meant. And it’s rather fascinating, because when you read the original verse you think you know what the Buddha meant, but you’re wrong:

Health is the most precious gain
and contentment the greatest wealth.
A trustworthy person is the best kinsman,
Nibbana the highest bliss.

That’s from the Dhammapada, and it’s verse 204. It’s hard to imagine anything more straightforward than the first line, which basically is equivalent to the old saying, “if you have your health you have everything.”

But in a discussion with a healthy man (who says he’s therefore happy), the Buddha says that’s not what he meant at all.

The body is “a calamity and an affliction” even when it’s healthy, he points out. You might say that a healthy body is an unhealthy body waiting to happen. The “health” that the Buddha’s talking about is freedom from mental suffering, which ultimately is enlightenment. Now even the enlightened get physically sick and experience physical pain and discomfort, but they don’t have the secondary suffering that comes with having aversion to sickness, and for craving for things to be otherwise. Think about the self-pity we commonly experience when we’re sick. That resistance to sickness, that “poor me” attitude, is far more painful than the actual illness itself. So this is all dropped when we’re enlightened, and there’s no more aversion or craving. Now we don’t have to be enlightened to experience this freedom (although you have to be enlightened to permanently experience it).

When we say “may I (or you) be well” we’re wishing ourselves or others freedom from the secondary suffering of aversion and craving with regard to the sickness. We’re wishing that the discomfort of illness be borne mindfully. We’re wishing that we, or the other person, be at peace with whatever is happening with the body.

Jon Kabat-Zinn puts this very nicely:

Healing does not mean curing, although the two words are often used interchangeably, While it may not be possible for us to cure ourselves or to find someone who can, it is always possible for us to heal ourselves. Healing implies the possibility for us to relate differently to illness, disability, even death, as we learn to see with eyes of wholeness. Healing is coming to terms with things as they are.

Of course if there’s a cure, that’s great. You can wish someone well in the sense that you hope they’ll be back to health. But in the long term we’re all headed for sickness and death, and true peace and happiness is going to come from patient acceptance of those things we cannot change. We “learn to see with eyes of wholeness” and accept, without resistance or aversion, even the most painful experiences.

[See the previous 100 Days of Lovingkindness Post : See the next 100 Days of Lovingkindness Post]
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Softening the heart and sitting with anger…

wildcat snarling

One evening after my Wednesday night meditation class, Amy, a member of our D.C. meditation community, asked if we might talk for a few minutes about her mother, a woman she often referred to as “a manipulative, narcissistic human.” Amy’s mother had recently been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, and as the only local offspring, Amy had become her mother’s primary caretaker. So, there she was, spending hours a day with a person she’d been avoiding for decades. “I can’t stand myself for having such a hard heart,” Amy confessed.

Amy and I agreed to meet privately to explore how she might use her practice to find more freedom in relating to her mother. At our first session, she told me difficult early childhood memories had recently been emerging. In the most potent of these, Amy was three years old. Her mom yelled upstairs that she’d prepared a bath for her and that she should get in the tub. But when Amy went into the bathroom, what she found was a couple of inches of lukewarm water. What had flashed through her three-year-old mind then was: “This is all I’m going to get. No one is taking care of me.”

Amy’s mom had always been preoccupied with her own dramas, perpetually reacting to perceived slights from friends, struggling against weight gain, and berating her husband for his shortcomings. Little attention was paid to the physical or emotional needs of Amy or her siblings. “She doesn’t care about anyone except herself,” Amy told me. “She’s a self-centered bitch … it really pisses me off. I got gypped out of having a mother, and now I’m here catering to her.” As she was speaking I asked her to pause, and investigate what she was most aware of in the moment. After a long silence, Amy said “There’s so much rage, I can barely contain it.”

Part of the process of softening our hearts includes learning to recognize and allow whatever we’re feeling—even intense rage. But this isn’t always simple, or easy. When I asked Amy if she could allow the rage to be here, she shook her head. “I’m afraid if I really make space for this rage, it will destroy every relationship I have. I’ve already hurt people I love.”

When anger is buried, like Amy’s was, the energy gets converted and expressed in many different ways. Yet, anger is a natural survival energy that wants our attention, that needs to be allowed to be felt. However, “allowing” doesn’t mean we let ourselves be possessed by our anger. Rather, we allow when we acknowledge the stories of blame without believing them, and when we let the sensations of anger arise, without either acting them out or resisting them.

I encouraged Amy to check in with her fear. Was it willing to let this rage be here? Could the fear step aside enough so that she could be present with this rage? Amy nodded. Now, she could begin to investigate the emotional energy beneath the blame. I knew that for her to do this, she’d first need to step outside of the seductive sway of her resentful stories. We’d talked about the stories, respecting them as windows into her pain. But the anger also lived deeper in her body—in a place beyond thought. The next step was for Amy to widen and deepen her attention so she could fully contact these embodied energies.

I asked Amy to notice what she was feeling in her body, and she closed her eyes and paused. “It’s like a hot pressured cauldron in my chest,” she said. What would happen, I asked, if she said yes to this feeling, and allowed the heat and pressure to be as intense as it wanted. “It wants to explode,” Amy said. Again, I encouraged her to let be, to allow her experience just as it was.

Amy was absolutely still for some moments. “The rage feels like it is bursting flames, like a windstorm spreading in all directions,” she said. “It’s blasting through the windows of this office.” In a low voice, she went on: “It’s spreading through the East Coast. Now it’s destroying all life forms, ripping through the continent, oceans, earth.” She continued, telling me about the rage’s fury, how it was spreading through space. Then she became very quiet. Speaking in a soft voice, she finally said, “It’s losing steam,” before sitting back on the couch and letting out a tired sigh. “Now there’s just emptiness. No one is left in the world. I’m utterly alone, lonely.” In a barely audible whisper, she said, “There’s no one who loves me, no one that I love.”

Amy began weeping. Inside the rage, she’d found an empty place, a place that felt loveless. Now what was revealing itself was grief: grief for the loss of love in her life. When I asked what the grieving part of her most needed, she knew right away: “To know that I care about this pain, that I accept and love this grieving place.” I guided her to gently place her hand on her heart, and offer inwardly the message her wounded self most needed. She began repeating the phrase, “I’m sorry, I love you.” This wasn’t an apology. Rather, it was a simple expression of sorrow for her own hurt.

As Amy whispered the phrase over and over, she began rocking side to side. “I’m seeing the little girl in the bath,” she said, “and feeling how uncared for she feels, how alone. I’m holding her now, telling her ‘I’m sorry, I love you.’” Then, after a few minutes, Amy sat upright and looked at me with a fresh openness and brightness. “I think I understand,” she said. “I’ve been angry for so long that I abandoned her—the inner part of me—just like my mom abandoned that three-year-old.” She paused,then continued. “I just have to remember that this part of me needs love. I want to love her.”

Offering a compassionate and clear attention to her vulnerability had connected Amy with a vastness of being that could include her pain. This natural awareness is the fruition of an intimate attention. When we’re resting in this presence, we’re inhabiting the refuge of our own awakened heart and mind.

Some weeks later, Amy read me her morning’s journal entry: “There is more room in my heart.” The night before, after her mother had complained for the third time that her soup still wasn’t salty enough, Amy felt the familiar rising tide of irritation and resentment. She sent the message “I’m sorry, I love you” inwardly to herself, giving permission to the annoyance, to the edginess in her own heart. She felt a softening, a relaxing of tension. Looking up, she was struck by her mother’s grim, dissatisfied expression. Then, just as she’d learned to inquire about herself, the thought came:“What is my mom feeling right now?” Almost immediately, she could sense her mother’s insecurity and loneliness. Imagining her mother inside her heart, Amy again began offering caring messages. “I’m sorry,” she whispered silently, “I love you.”

She found herself feeling genuine warmth toward her mother, and the evening was surprisingly pleasant for both of them. They joked about her mom doing a “mono diet” of potato chips, went online and ordered a bathrobe, and had fun watching The Daily Show together.

At our last meeting Amy told me how, several days earlier, her mother had woken up in the morning hot and sweaty. Amy took a cool cloth to her mother’s forehead and cheeks, arms and feet. “Nobody’s ever washed me,” her mom had said with a wistful smile. Amy immediately remembered the little girl in the bathtub, and felt tears in her eyes. She and her mom had both gone through much of life feeling neglected, as if they didn’t matter. And right now, each in her own way was tasting the intimacy of care. They looked at each other and had a moment of uncomplicated love. It was the first such moment Amy could remember, one she knew she’d cherish long after her mom was gone.

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Letting life live through us

Many years ago, after several years of experiencing a long chronic illness, I attended a six-week Vipassana meditation retreat. Given my struggles with sickness, I looked forward to this time entirely dedicated to sitting and walking meditation.

I was out of my body and into my mind: “Whoa … I still really feel sick.” The first few days went smoothly. Yet, towards the end of the week, I started having stomach aches and felt so exhausted I could barely motivate myself to walk to the meditation hall. At this point it was a matter of making peace with discomfort. “Okay,” I figured a bit grudgingly, “I’m here to work with … unpleasant sensations.”

For the next twenty-four hours I noted the heat and cramping in my stomach, the leaden feeling in my limbs, and tried with some success to experience them with an accepting attention. But in the days that followed, when the symptoms didn’t go away, I found myself caught in habitual stories and sinking into a funk of fear, shame and depression. “Something’s wrong with me … with the way I’m living my life. I’ll never get better.” And under that, the deep fear: “I’ll never be happy.” The familiar trance threatened to take over, and I took that as a signal to deepen my attention.

On a clear and brisk afternoon at the beginning of the second week of retreat, I took off into the woods and walked until I found a patch of sun. Wrapping myself in a warm blanket, I sat down and propped myself against a tree. The ground, covered with leaves, offered a firm, gentle cushion. I suddenly felt at home in the simplicity of earth, trees, wind, sky, and was resolved to attend to my own nature—to the changing stream of sensations living through my body.

After taking some moments to release any obvious tension, I did a quick body scan, and noticed aches and soreness, a sinking feeling of tiredness. In an instant again I watched my mind contract with the idea that something really was wrong.

Taking a deep breath, I let go of these thoughts about sickness and just experienced the sheer grip of fear, which felt like thick hard braids of rope, tightening around my throat and chest. I decided that no matter what experience arose, I was going to meet it with the attitude of “this too.” I was going to accept everything.

As the minutes passed, I found I was feeling sensations without wishing them away. I was simply feeling the weight pressing on my throat and chest, feeling the tight ache in my stomach. The discomfort didn’t disappear, but something gradually began to shift. My mind no longer felt tight or dull but clearer, focused and absolutely open. As my attention deepened, I began to perceive the sensations throughout my body as moving energy—tingling, pulsing, vibrations. Pleasant or not, it was all the same energy playing through me.

As I noticed feelings and thoughts appear and disappear, it became increasingly clear that they were just coming and going on their own. Sensations were appearing out of nowhere and vanishing back into the void. There was no sense of a self owning them: no “me” feeling the vibrating, pulsing, tingling; no “me” being oppressed by unpleasant sensations; no “me” generating thoughts or trying to meditate. Life was just happening, a magical display of appearances.

As every passing experience was accepted with the openness of “this too,” any sense of boundary or solidity in my body and mind dissolved. Like the weather, sensations, emotions and thoughts were just moving through the open, empty sky of awareness.

When I opened my eyes I was stunned by the beauty of the New England fall, the trees rising tall out of the earth, yellows and reds set against a bright blue sky. The colors felt like a vibrant sensational part of the life playing through my body. The sound of the wind appeared and vanished, leaves fluttered towards the ground, a bird took flight from a nearby branch. The whole world was moving—like the life within me, nothing was fixed, solid, confined. I knew without a doubt that I was part of the world.

When I next felt a cramping in my stomach, I could recognize it as simply another part of the natural world. As I continued paying attention I could feel the arising and passing aches and pressures inside me as no different from the firmness of earth, the falling leaves. There was just pain … and it was the earth’s pain.

Each moment we wakefully “let be,” we are home. When we meet life through our bodies with Radical Acceptance, we are the Buddha—the awakened one—beholding the changing steam of sensations, feelings, and thoughts. Everything is alive, the whole world lives inside us. As we let life live through us, we experience the boundless openness of our true nature.

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Help, I can’t stop thinking!

Vishvapani

Many of us feel that our thoughts are out of our control. We think about work long after we have left, we worry about the future and keep going over things that have gone wrong in the past. Meanwhile, life seems to be slipping by.

Modern psychology also recognises that compulsive thinking can lead us into stress, anxiety and depression. Worrying about our problems seems important, but it leaves us feeling worse and believing we have less power to change things.

Mindfulness helps by giving us the mental space to stand back, recognise what’s happening and explore alternatives. Here are some helpful approaches associated with mindfulness and meditation.

1. Learning to let go of thoughts

Even a short period of meditation shows that focusing the mind on the body and the breath leaves you feeling calmer and more settled. Everyone finds that thoughts arise in their minds and the practice involves gently guiding our attention back to the breath. In doing this again and again we are learning to let go of thoughts and regain control of what our minds are doing.

2. Noticing that thoughts are just thoughts, not facts

Troubling thoughts reinforce a powerful belief about our situation: I must keep going; only I can do this; if this fails it will be a disaster. Thoughts like this are associated with stress. There is something wrong with me; it has all gone wrong; here I go again. Thoughts like this tend to foster depression.

When we think like this, we believe that the thought is telling us the truth: I really must keep going; there really is something wrong with me. The practice of letting go of thoughts allows us to stand back from them. Then we see that they are just thoughts and we can explore them without necessarily believing them. For many people this is a revelation. It’s liberating to see that thoughts are not facts, just things that happen in the mind. Seeing thoughts in this way makes them less powerful. Then you can explore them, asking if they are true and discovering what you really believe.

See also:

3. Accepting difficult thoughts

Often we know it’s unhelpful to keep thinking in certain ways and tell ourselves I wish I could switch off, or I must stop worrying. But we end up like the person who tries not to think about pink elephants. The more we try to control our thoughts by force, the stronger they grow. Our whole life can seem like a fight and battling with thoughts is part of this.

Mindfulness training encourages us to accept that troubling thoughts are a part of our experience, rather than fighting them. We learn to notice these thoughts when they come up without pursuing them or believing that they are true. We can even befriend them.

People with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) experience this especially strongly and mindfulness can be very helpful in working with these conditions. It also helps in avoiding slipping back into depression, which is why medical practitioners recommend Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy to avoid relapsing into depression.

4. Thinking Clearly and Creatively

Of course, thinking isn’t always unhelpful. Reflection, analysis and clarity are all very important. Mindfulness can help us to think more clearly because we are less prone to distractions and more able to notice when feelings are colouring our thoughts. It also fosters creativity because it opens up the connections between thinking, feeling and intuition.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: ‘A man should learn to detect and watch the glimmer of light that flashes across his mind from within.’ Those glimmers are there in all of us: messages from the part of us that truly understands and sees connections and possibilities. That is the basis of creativity. The faculty that lets us detect and watch those glimmers is mindfulness.

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Rejecting the wanting self

adam-and-eve

“We have been raised to fear … our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for…many facets of our own oppression.” – Audre Lourde

In the myth of Eden, God created the garden and dropped the tree of knowledge, with its delicious and dangerous fruits, right smack dab in the middle. He then deposited some humans close by and forbade these curious, fruit-loving creatures from taking a taste. It was a set up. Eve naturally grasped at the fruit and then was shamed and punished for having done so.

We experience this situation daily inside our own psyche. We are encouraged by our culture to keep ourselves comfortable, to be right, to possess things, to be better than others, to look good, to be admired. We are also told that we should feel ashamed of our selfishness, that we are flawed for being so self-centered, sinful when we are indulgent.

Most mainstream religions — Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Confucian — teach that our wanting, passion, and greed cause suffering. While this certainly can be true, their blanket teachings about the dangers of desire often deepen self-hatred. We are counseled to transcend, overcome or somehow manage the hungers of our physical and emotional being. We are taught to mistrust the wildness and intensity of our natural passions, to fear being out of control.

Equating spiritual purity with elimination of desire is a common misunderstanding I also see in students on the Buddhist path. This is not just a contemporary issue. The struggle to understand the relationship between awakening and desire in the context of the Buddhist teachings has gone on since the time of the Buddha himself.

A classical Chinese Zen tale brings this to light: An old woman had supported a monk for twenty years, letting him live in a hut on her land. After all this time she figured the monk, now a man in the prime of life, must have attained some degree of enlightenment. So she decided to test him.

Rather than taking his daily meal to him herself, she asked a beautiful young girl to deliver it. She instructed the girl to embrace the monk warmly — and then to report back to her how he responded. When the girl returned, she said that the monk had simply stood stock still, as if frozen.

The old woman then headed for the monk’s hut. What was it like, she asked him, when he felt the girl’s warm body against his? With some bitterness he answered, “Like a withering tree on a rock in winter, utterly without warmth.” Furious, the old woman threw him out and burned down his hut, exclaiming, “How could I have wasted all these years on such a fraud.”

To some the monk’s response might seem virtuous. After all, he resisted temptation, he even seemed to have pulled desire out by the roots. Still the old woman considered him a fraud. Is his way of experiencing the young girl — “like a withering tree on a rock in winter” — the point of spiritual practice? Instead of appreciating the girl’s youth and loveliness, instead of noting the arising of a natural sexual response and its passing away without acting on it, the monk shut down. This is not enlightenment.

I have worked with many meditation students who have gotten the message that experiencing desire is a sign of being spiritually undeveloped. While it is true that withdrawing attention from certain impulses can diminish their strength, the continued desire for simple pleasures — delicious foods, play, entertainment or sexual gratification — need not be embarrassing evidence of being trapped in lower impulses.

Those same students also assume that “spiritual people” are supposed to call on inner resources as their only refuge, and so they rarely ask for comfort or help from their friends and teachers. I’ve talked with some who have been practicing spiritual disciplines for years, yet have never let themselves acknowledge that they are lonely and long for intimacy.

As the monk in the Zen tale shows, if we push away desire, we disconnect from our tenderness and we harden against life. We become like a “rock in winter.” When we reject desire, we reject the very source of our love and aliveness.

Adapted from my book Radical Acceptance (2003)

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On practicing mindfulness of hunger

apple being held in someone's hand

We all know about mindful eating: Don’t do anything else, like reading or watching TV. Take your time, really experience the sensations of lifting food to your mouth, putting it inside, chewing, swallowing. Notice the thoughts and feelings you have.

I have to confess I don’t do it very often. Last week I only really ate mindfully twice, and that’s because we undertook to eat mindfully at least twice as part of a meditation class. And it was actually quite hard to restrain myself from reading while eating. It’s quite a powerful habit!

But an interesting thing I’ve been doing over the last couple of weeks is being mindful of hunger.

I’ve noticed some things.

I find it easier to practice mindfulness of hunger than mindfulness of eating — perhaps because mindfulness of hunger is a new thing?

Also see:

Sometimes when I think I’m hungry, I’m not. It’s just craving.

Television is a trigger for fake hunger. (I don’t actually have a TV, but I watch shows on Netflix on my laptop.) In particular, the theme tunes of TV programs induce craving — that desire to rush to the fridge to see if there’s something I can snack on.

If I simply pay attention to this craving, it’s manageable, and I can resist eating unnecessarily.

When it’s real hunger, I can mindfully pay attention to the sensations in the body.

When I’m mindful of my hunger, the sensations change. It’s less localized in the stomach and becomes a more general sensation throughout the abdomen.

When I feel real hunger, I tell myself, “This is how my body feels when it’s losing weight.” This also helps change the feeling-tone of the hunger. It ceases to be an unpleasant sensation. It’s just a sensation, like any other. If I tell myself, “This is the sensation of my body burning off fat,” I feel happy, because my brain now interprets the hunger as a good thing.

When I’m mindful of hunger, I don’t feel that I have to jump up immediately and eat something. It stops being a signal that something is “wrong” and needs immediate attention. It’s a bit more like the fuel gauge on a car pointing to 1/4 full — it’s a sign that I’m going to have to find fuel soon, but not necessarily right now.

Without mindfulness, my brain treats even mild hunger as if it were an emergency: “You have to eat right now!” It’s more like the scary feeling you get when the low fuel light comes on in your car, indicating that you should head straight to a gas station or you’re going to end up stranded by the roadside.

When I’m mindful of hunger, I can comfortably be with the hunger for an hour or so. Sometimes it even goes away for a period of time. When I’m unmindful, I want to get rid of the unpleasant sensations right away.

I’ve lost about 4 pounds (1.8 kg) in the last couple of weeks.

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Beyond the “defended self”

During the years right after college, I was the director of a yoga studio at the ashram where I was living near Boston. One day, at a time when we were behind in promoting our major event of the year, which featured a number of well-known teachers, the head of our local community arrived late to our weekly staff meeting, visibly upset. I asked him what was wrong.

In a barely controlled voice, he thrust in front of me a flyer I’d created for the event. “Just take a look at this.” Immediately, I saw the typo in bold print—it was the wrong date. My heart sank: we’d just printed three thousand of them; I’d screwed up big time.

Although my mind scrambled to solve the problem, the weight of failure sat like a big stone in my chest. At the end of our meeting I began an apology: “This was my responsibility,” I said in a low monotone, “and I’m really sorry for messing up . . .” Then as I felt the others’ eyes on me, I felt a flash of anger and the words tumbled out: “But, you know, this has been a huge amount of work and I’ve been totally on my own.” I could feel my eyes burning, but I blinked back the tears. “It would have been nice if someone had been available to proofread . . . maybe this kind of thing wouldn’t have happened.”

For the rest of the week I was trapped in self-disgust. Hour after hour my mind replayed every recent incident that highlighted my flaws: I’d lied to get out of a social obligation, exaggerated the size of my yoga classes to another teacher, gossiped to feel more like an insider. Instead of generosity and selfless service, my focus was on my own spiritual progress. Once again I found myself facing what I most disliked about myself: insecurity and self-centeredness. I felt disconnected from everyone around me, stuck inside a self I didn’t want to be.

Because my self-doubts seemed so “unspiritual,” I didn’t talk about them with anyone. At work I was all business. I withdrew from the casual banter and playfulness at group meals, and when I did try to be sociable, I felt like an imposter. Several weeks later, the women in our ashram decided to form a sensitivity group where we could talk about personal challenges. I wondered whether this might be an opportunity for me to get more real.

At our opening meeting, as the other women talked about their stress at work, about children and health problems, I felt my anxiety build. Finally, when there was a pause in the conversation, my confession came pouring out. “I know I do a lot of yoga and teach a lot of classes, that it looks like I’m a helpful, caring person … That may be true in some ways, but it’s also a front. What I’m covering up, what I don’t want anyone to see, is how self-centered I am, how selfish and judgmental.” After pausing and glancing around at the solemn faces, I took the real plunge. “This is hard to say, but … I don’t trust that I’m a good person, and that makes it hard to really feel close with anyone.”

Directly after the meeting, I retreated quickly to my room, curled up in fetal position on my futon and cried. By naming my experience out loud, I had stripped away a layer of the small self’s protection. Feeling raw and exposed, I started mentally berating myself for having said anything. I told myself I should get up right that moment and do some yoga. Instead, I began trying to figure out what really had gone wrong, what was making me feel so bad about myself.

Suddenly I realized that this inner processing was yet more of the same. I was still trying to control things by figuring them out, by trying more practice, by trying to manage how others might see me. Recognizing these false refuges stopped me in my tracks—I didn’t want to stay stuck. An inner voice asked, “What would happen if, in this moment, I didn’t try to do anything, to make anything different?” I immediately felt the visceral grip of fear and then a familiar sinking hole of shame—the very feelings I had been trying to avoid for as long as I could remember. Then the same inner voice whispered very quietly, a familiar refrain: “Just let it be.”

I stretched out on my back, took a few full breaths, and felt the weight of my body supported by the futon. Again and again my mind tried to escape into reviewing what I’d said hours earlier, or rehearsing what else I could say to explain myself. Again and again the intention to “let it be” brought me back to the fear and shame I was experiencing. Sometime during the night, lying there alone in the darkness, these emotions gave way to grief. I was struck by how much of my life—my aliveness and loving—was lost when I was caught in feelings of unworthiness. I let myself open to that fully too, sobbing deeply, until the grief gradually subsided.

I got up, sat on my cushion in front of my small meditation altar, and continued to pay attention. My mind quieted naturally and I became increasingly aware of my own inner experience—a silent presence suffused with tenderness. This presence was a space of being that included everything—waves of sadness, the feeling of my drying tears, the sounds of crickets, the humid summer night.

In this open space thoughts again bubbled up —the memory of being defensive at the staff meeting and my subsequent attempts to offer a real apology; then a flash forward to me teaching the yoga class I’d scheduled for the following morning, trying to project a positive, confident energy. This time, as these scenes came into view, I felt like I was witnessing a character in a play. The character was continually trying to protect herself, but in the process, she was disconnecting more and more from herself, from authenticity, from the potential sustenance of feeling connected to others. And in each scene, I saw her perpetually “doing” in order to feel better about herself, “doing” in order to avoid pain, “doing” in order to avoid failure.

As I sat there watching this play, I had, for the first time, a compelling sense that this character wasn’t really “me.” Her feelings and reactions were certainly familiar, but they were just ripples on the surface of what I really was. In the same way, everything happening at that moment—the thoughts, the sensations of sitting cross-legged, the tenderness, the tiredness—were part of my being but could not define me. My heart opened. How sad to have been living in such a confined world; how sad to have felt so driven and so alone!

That night by my altar, an old sense of self was falling away. Who was I, then? In those moments I sensed that the truth of what I was couldn’t be contained in any idea or image of self. Rather, it was the space of presence itself—the silence, the wakeful openness—that felt like home. A feeling of gratitude and reverence filled me that has never entirely left.

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Drop the “shoulds”

One time I watched a three-year-old at her birthday party. Her friends were there from preschool, and she received lots of presents. The cake came out, she admired the pink frosting rose at its center, and everyone sang. One of the moms cut pieces and without thinking sliced right through the rose – a disaster for this little girl. “I shoulda had the rose!” she yelled. “I shoulda shoulda SHOULDA had the rose!” Nothing could calm her down, not even pushing the two pieces of cake together to look like a whole rose. Nothing else mattered, not the friends, not the presents, not the day as a whole: she was insistent, something MUST happen. She had, just HAD to get the whole rose.

It’s natural to move toward what feels good and away from what doesn’t, natural as well to have values, principles, and morals. But when these healthy inclinations become internal rules – “shoulds,” “musts,” and “gottas” – then there is a big problem. We feel driven, righteous, or like a failure. And we create issues for others – even a whole birthday party.

At bottom, “shoulds” are not about events. They’re about what you want to experience (especially emotions and sensations) if your demands on reality are met, or what you fear you’ll experience if they’re not.

Whether your “shoulds” are shaped by neural programs laid down when dinosaurs ruled the earth, or when you were in grade school, they often operate unconsciously or barely semi-consciously – all the more powerfully for lurking in the shadows.

Plus, in a deep sense, your “shoulds” control you. (I’m not talking here about healthy principles and desires, which you’re more able to reflect about and influence.)

Imagine what it would be like to drop your “shoulds” in an upsetting situation or relationship.

What’s this feel like? Probably relaxing, easing, and freeing.

You can and will continue to pursue wholesome aims in wholesome ways. But this time no longer chained to “shoulds.”

How?

As you explore the suggestions below, keep in mind that you can still behave ethically and assert yourself appropriately. Not one word in this JOT is about harming yourself or others, or being a doormat.

Bring to mind some situation or relationship that’s bothering you. Find a central “should” in your reactions to it, like “that can’t happen,” or “this must happen,” or “they can’t treat me this way,” or “I couldn’t stand ____ ,” or “you must ____ .” Notice that the “should” is a statement about reality, the way it is.

Then, facing this “should,” ask yourself a question: “Is it really true?” Let the answer reverberate inside you.

You could find that in fact the “should” is not true. Good things we “must” have – even a pink rose made of sugar and butter – often fail to arrive. And bad things that “must” not happen often do.

I don’t mean that we ought to let others off the moral hook or give up on making the world better. I mean that when we face reality in all its messy streaming complexity, we see that it exists independent of our rules, always wiggling free of the abstractions we try to impose upon it. This recognition of truth pulls you out of conceptualizing into direct experiencing, into being with “the thing-in-itself.” Which feels clear, peaceful, and free.

Consider again the situation or relationship that bothers you, and this time try to find an even deeper “should” that’s related to an experience you “must” have or avoid, such as “I’ll be so embarrassed if I have to give a talk,” or “I can’t stand to be alone,” or “I must feel successful.” Then, facing this “should,” ask yourself a question: “Is it really true?”

You’ll probably find that you could indeed bear the worst possible experience that would come if your “should” were violated. I’m not trying to minimize or dismiss how awful it might feel. But the adamancy, the insistence, built into a “should” is usually not true: you would live through the experience and get to the other side – and eventually other, better experiences would come to you. Most of us are so much more resilient, so much more capable, so much more surrounded by good things to draw upon, so much more contributing and loving than we think we are!

Also, consider the situation or relationship through the eyes of the others involved. Ask yourself if the things you think are imperatives, mandates, rules, necessities, etc. are like that for others. Probably not. And flip it around: what “shoulds” are alive in the minds of others . . . that you are violating. Yikes! When I think about this applied to situations I get cranky about, it’s very humbling.

A final thought: dropping the “shoulds” exposes you to a sense of vulnerability to life and the difficult feelings that come with it – and that can be hard. We use “shoulds” to try to hold at bay the pain and loss we all do or will inevitably face in full measure (some of course more than others). Yet the pain and loss that do come will come regardless of our “musts” and “can’ts” – which only delude us into thinking that this tissue of rules will somehow hold back life’s tide.

Paradoxically, by opening to this tide as it runs in your life – a deeper truer reality than can ever be contained by the nets of thought – you both reduce the uncomfortable friction imposed by “shoulds” upon those currents and increase your sense of opening out into and being lifted and carried by life’s beautiful stream.

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