acceptance

Mindfulness and wise discrimination

man standing at a fork in the path

You can’t read much about the important quality of mindfulness without learning that it involves being nonjudgmental – that it involves setting aside discrimination and simply accepting our experience.

For example, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s informal definition of mindfulness (from Wherever You Go, There You Are) reads: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

I use that kind of language myself sometimes, but I also notice that it’s subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, misleading.

Certainly, mindfulness has a quality of equanimity about it. Equanimity is a quality of calmness and composure. To give a negative example, I was recently leading a retreat, and in one meditation session two people ended up sitting just outside the window of the meditation room, having a conversation. I found it very hard not to get annoyed, and to imagine having words with the talkers. So, initially there was something that was unpleasant (noise when I expected quiet) but I reacted to that noise and ended up adding even more pain. The pain I caused myself by brooding over the incident as it happened, ended up causing me far more pain.

I also, fortunately, had more successful meditations where I could sit with physical discomfort, and even the sound of a garbage truck arriving and emptying a dumpster, with not a ripple of reaction crossing my mind. The physical pain, or the sound of the truck, were simply things to notice. Equanimity, which is an important component of mindfulness, is a spacious quality that allows our sense of discomfort to exist without repressing or denying it. It also prevents us from adding to that hurt.

Acceptance is a perfectly good word for describing this quality of equanimity.

But I can’t help feeling that it’s going too far to say that mindfulness doesn’t involve judgment. Certainly, in the spirit of equanimity, we don’t look at our experience and give ourselves a hard time over it. So when we get distracted in meditation are not meant to be mentally beating ourselves up and telling ourselves what a bad meditator we are.

But mindfulness, when it’s fully developed, includes an element of wise discrimination. Accompanying mindfulness is a sense of whether a particular experience we are having is one that we want to put more energy into, or one we want to stand back from and allow to fade away.

In one of the early teachings of the Buddhist tradition we read:

One tries to abandon wrong view & to enter into right view: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong view & to enter & remain in right view: This is one’s right mindfulness.

Implicit in this is that we recognize when a view (loosely speaking, an idea, a viewpoint, or a thought) is valid or not valid, helpful or not helpful, true or untrue, conducing to pain or to freedom from pain.

Again, this doesn’t mean that we beat ourselves up when we recognize that our thinking is distorted. Beating ourselves up is one of those things we can recognize as unwise, because it leads to suffering.

Mindfulness has a kind of critical edge to it. It’s discriminating. It recognizes the quality of any given experience that we’re having.

Mindfulness recognizes patterns. It can recognize that this particular kind of thinking (angry thinking, “woe is me” thinking) causes suffering, and that that particular mental state (kindness, patience, equanimity) leads to our feeling greater peace and well-being. And so we wisely choose where to put our energy.

Mindfulness is therefore also not entirely about “being in the moment.” Mindfulness is certainly paying attention to what’s going on right now, but it’s also recognizing how “right now” has arisen from “just a moment ago,” and how “right now” is going to affect “just a minute from now.” Mindfulness includes an awareness of process.

So it’s not a question of mindfulness being undiscriminating and non-judgmental in a straightforward way. It’s a question of mindfulness making wise and kind discriminations. Mindfulness makes wise discriminations because it intelligently senses what makes us unhappy and what brings us peace. It makes kind discriminations because in a state of mindfulness we refrain from responding to our experience with anger and frustration.

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“Abiding in Ease, Here and Now”: An invitation to listen in on Bodhipaksa’s teaching

This is an invitation to download some free MP3s of my teaching.

This week I’m doing a lot of meditation teaching at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in New Hampshire, and I’ve been recording the meditation sessions and uploading them to a Dropbox account.

Most of the recordings are from 30 to 50 minutes long. I’ve been introducing the Mindfulness of Breathing, Development of Lovingkindness, and Walking Meditation practices. The overall theme is a phrase from the Pali canon, “Abiding in Ease, Here and Now,” and the meditations encourage a sense of spacious relaxation into the moment, with the emphasis on acceptance and equanimity.

If you’d like to download these, just post a comment below, and I’ll add you to the dropbox account. The MP3s are free (and for personal use only) and it doesn’t cost anything to join Dropbox.

NEW
A problem I hadn’t anticipated with Dropbox is that I keep subscribing people to the folder and they keep deleting the MP3 files, which means they’re gone for everyone. Replacing them every 30 minutes is getting to be tedious. So here’s the deal. You don’t have to post a comment below — just click on this link! Then right click (Control click on a Mac) and download the files. Check back every day, since I’ll be adding new files as they’re recorded. I don’t think you even have to join Dropbox now.

The meditation are not professionally recorded, and there is some background noise.

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At Vermont meditation center, there is no ‘me’

Channing Gray, Providence Journal: I arrive early that first overcast day, so I can pitch my tent before dark. Then it’s off to a quick orientation session the night before the start of a weeklong meditation retreat.

I have come to Karmê Chöling, a 700-acre Buddhist meditation center in northern Vermont, about 10 miles south of St. Johnsbury. Many of the 50 or so retreat participants (two are from Amsterdam, one is from Italy) are here for a month, but time and money have held me to seven days, just enough for some serious letting go, I hope.

There are few diversions here at Karmê Chöling. The library has DVDs, but we are discouraged from checking them out. This is a time for contemplation and study. Computers are scarce, and restricted to the dining room. My cell phone is useless in this remote spot.

Days begin at 7 a.m. with morning chants and the taking of precepts, or vows not to take life, lie, steal, engage in sex or take drugs and alcohol for that day. Long stretches of meditation fill our days, which end around 8:30 at night with more chanting.

Most of our time is spent on red-and-yellow meditation cushions in a spacious shrine room with sparkling lights dotting a deep blue ceiling. Even meals are taken sitting on cushions in the shrine room, in the highly ritualized practice known as oryoki, or “just enough,” from the Zen monastic tradition. We eat in silence, engaging in an array of elegant bows and hand gestures to indicate thanks or more food. At night, people sleep on the shrine room floor, on foam mattresses stored in a loft, although rooms are available. Tenting at Karmê Chöling is popular in the summer, but now in that first week of November I am the only one braving the elements.

I am tired that first full day of sitting. The excitement of being here and wind rustling my tent made for fitful sleep. But during a walk before breakfast, snowflakes melting on my nose wake me up to the stillness of the woods and a small river rushing in the distance.

The idea is to pay attention to what I am doing, to be mindful no matter what I’m up to. If suddenly in my head I am whisked back to the newspaper, I become aware of that and return to the shuffle of my feet on the dirt lane and the sight of clouds enveloping the hilltops.

The whole week, in fact, is an exercise in mindfulness. In formal meditation, we follow the breath and try to stay present. When thoughts arise, we notice them, say “thinking” to ourselves and return to the breath. And we don’t judge or analyze thoughts. Even the most pious insights are just “thinking.”

I make a game of this, of just trying to stay in the room, and not get swept up in fantasy. As I breathe in, I am aware of my posture, erect but relaxed. As I breathe out, I dissolve into space. I watch sunlight dance on the shrine room floor, take in the colors of the cushions, then find myself worrying about work and have to return to the room. As I continue this process, thoughts begin to lose their sense of concreteness.

I am relaxed, yet alert, and feel that I am making progress, until I meet with my meditation instructor, Allan Novick, a retired psychologist who spent his life in the New York City schools. I tell Novick that my mind seems stable, and that I am experiencing an “acceptable” amount of discursive thought, to which he replies that all thoughts are acceptable. He reminds me of a line from the morning chants: “Whatever arises is fresh, the essence of realization.”

But I want to do a good job, I say. I want progress and I want it now, I tell Novick. “Patience,” is his advice. And drop any opinions about whether my meditation is going well or not.

Later, I see a quote from the late Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan meditation master who founded Karmê Chöling 40 years ago, tacked to a corkboard. It seems to sum up what Novick is saying. The trick, said Trungpa, is to “develop complete acceptance and openness to all situations and emotions and to all people, experiencing everything totally without mental reservations and blockages so that one never withdraws or centralizes into oneself.”

The goal of meditation, if there is one, is to see how the mind works and to accept that. It is not to become blissed out, but as Novick says to “see the truth.” In fact, getting high from sitting is just another addiction, just another trap. But the Karmê Chöling staff makes sure we don’t get too blissful. Just when you think you’re making headway, someone taps you on the shoulder and reminds you you’ve got kitchen duty, or that it’s time for stretching exercises or a talk, all chances to take what we’ve learned on the cushion and apply it to everyday tasks. It’s a chance to look at your mind even when you’re scrubbing pots.

Nowhere was that more evident than during the third day, when we observe total silence. We have been bound to “functional” silence so far, but now we are asked not to speak at all, leaving us only to listen to our thoughts rattling around in our heads. “Noble Silence,” as the practice is called, is like holding a mirror to yourself, watching as you react to people you don’t even know and can’t feel out with polite chitchat. I have only my empty projections and opinions to deal with, from which I learn just how judgmental, how emotionally closed-down I can be.

After a couple of days of drizzle and intermittent snow showers, the skies clear and I wake to a glistening skin of frost on the inside of my tent. I trudge down the wooded path to the main building and get ready for another day on the cushion. I realize that what is supposed to be a relaxing retreat is actually hard work.

By afternoon, my mind has slowed to a crawl. Now there are just stretches where there is nothing but the breath, no mental chatter, just naked awareness. It is at this point that adept meditators see that our interior lives are nothing more than momentary bursts of consciousness that arise uninvited and melt away just as mysteriously. They see that there is nothing behind this stream of thought, no I, no me, no mine. The notion of an inherent self is considered by Buddhists to be just an illusion that results from our strong attachment to the mind-body process.

But what about that “truth” we are all seeking? Even that must go, said retreat director John Rockwell, one of the senior teachers in the Shambhala Buddhist community. Let go of the truth, he said, or “you’ll kill it.”

On the evening of the final day, we gather in the dining room for a festive Western-style meal of salmon, rice and salad. There are toasts and songs, and bottles of wine. We are told that morning that anyone planning to drink should not take the fifth precept, which deals with abstaining from alcohol. So few people took that precept, the room was nearly silent.

After the shindig, I trudge up the hill in the rain for my final night in my tent. I am exhausted as I slip into my sleeping bag, as I prepare for reentry into the world, when I trade clarity for the path of confusion. I pray that I not forget what I’ve learned.

Karmê Chöling, which holds regular retreats and programs, is in Barnet, Vt., or visit www.karmecholing.org.

The cost for a weeklong retreat is $440 to sleep on the shrine room floor, and more for a private or semi-private room. Although many people in the retreat are Buddhists, you don’t have to be one to attend.

Original article no longer available

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Being mindful of pain, and the paradox of mindfulness

Candle flame

Meditation offers us a powerful paradox: that becoming more mindful of our pain reduces the amount of pain we experience.

The use of meditation techniques to treat chronic pain is becoming increasingly common, largely as a result of the pioneering work in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction started by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s scientifically validated work has touched the lives of tens of thousands of people and helped to establish meditation as a highly respected tool in the treatment of chronic pain, stress, and depression.

Some people initially find the idea of using meditation to deal with pain incongruous. After all, isn’t meditation about developing greater awareness? And wouldn’t that mean becoming more aware of the pain itself in an almost masochistic kind of way and therefore experiencing greater suffering? For others, who think about meditation as a technique for “tuning out” and turning attention away from the body, meditative techniques can be seen as a welcome, if almost unattainable, form of escapism.

See also

In fact, meditation is neither masochistic nor escapist. In meditation we do in fact become more aware of ourselves, but what is most important is that we become aware of and change the way that we relate to our pain. It is that change in relationship that makes meditation a potent tool in pain management.

So what is this change in the way that we relate to pain, and how does it have the effect of helping us to deal more effectively with it, or even to reduce the level of pain we experience? The quality we cultivate through meditation practice is mindfulness. Mindfulness is much more than simply being aware. We can be aware of pain without being at all mindful of it. Mindfulness is a particular kind of awareness, which is purposeful, focused, curious, and rooted in our moment-by-moment experience.

With mindfulness we purposefully observe our experience as it takes place, including any pain that may be present. The mind naturally tends to see pain as being a “thing,” and to give it a degree of solidity, permanence, and coherence that it doesn’t in fact have. In mindfulness meditation we train ourselves to see the many different sensations that we collectively label as “pain.” We may even gently make mental notes of the most prominent sensations that we notice. For example we may note the presence of “tingling,” “pulsing,” “throbbing,” “heat,” “cold,” “aching,” “tightness,” etc. When we let go of the rather crude label “pain” in this way and instead note what is actually present, we can find that each individual sensation is easier to bear. Sometimes we notice that there is no pain present, or that the sensations that we’re experiencing are neutral or even pleasurable.

Additionally, in exercising curiosity about our pain we are also gaining another important benefit in the form of the quality of acceptance. The mind, quite understandably, tends to see pain as something that is undesirable and therefore to be pushed away. This pushing away shows in the body as physical tension in and around the area of pain, causing additional discomfort and even intensifying the original pain. It’s as if, having accidentally touched a hot stove, we were to react by trying to push the stove away. In doing so we would of course simply intensify our pain. So, in mindfulness meditation an attitude of curiosity allows us to let go of our resistance and to see the pain for what it is: an ever-changing variety of interwoven sensations. Much of our resistance to pain is mental rather than physical. When we experience pain the mind can, like the body, try to push it away. We experience desire for the pain just to go away. We crave its absence. Unfortunately, as we all know, wishing that something were so does not make it so, and our frustrated desires do nothing but add mental suffering to our physical distress.

In mindfulness meditation we observe more than just any pain that may happen to be present. We become aware of the whole physical body, emotions, and thoughts, and of how each of these interacts with the others. One thing we can then begin to see is that although pain is present in our experience it isn’t the whole of our experience. Mindfulness gives us a sense of the physical and mental “landscape” within which our pain is experienced, and which helps to give a sense of perspective to our experience of it. At times of stress it may seem as if pain is the only thing that we experience, but this comes about because we have a kind of mental “zoom lens” that is closely focused on the pain. Change that zoom lens for a wide-angle lens and the pain seems much smaller and therefore more manageable.

Without mindfulness, our experiences tend to proliferate in an unhelpful way. We may experience physical pain, and this leads to thoughts such as “This is never going to end,” “This is just going to get worse,” “I can’t bear this,” or “I must be a bad person to deserve all this pain.” In turn, these thoughts lead to anxiety, despondency or anger, because we tend to believe the stories we think when we are unmindful, and this adds further to our suffering. The practice of mindfulness includes becoming aware of our thoughts and seeing that our thoughts are indeed just thoughts and are not facts.

Thoughts are not facts. This can be a revolutionary discovery, and also a liberating one. When we learn to see thoughts as just another experience coming and going against the background of our overall physical and mental experience, we free ourselves from the kind of runaway thinking that is so characteristic of stress. We can see thoughts like “I can’t stand this” coming into being, realize that they are thoughts rather than facts, and instead of indulging in them and encouraging them we simply note them and let go of them.

Finally, mindfulness can help by reminding us that pain is not “the enemy.” Pain is the body’s naturally evolved way of letting us know that something needs attention, and can play a vital role in maintaining physical well-being. It’s easy to see how important pain is when we consider what life would be without it. There are medical conditions in which people can’t experience pain, and those people find that life is very hard indeed. Imagine, for example, trying to warm yourself at a fire without being able to tell when your skin was overheating: serious burns would be a distinct possibility. So we can see that pain is an essential part of being human. Of course when pain goes on for a long time, or when it’s particularly intense, it can be hard to remember that it evolved as a helpful function, and it’s easy to see it as an enemy. The meditative approaches outlined above help us to develop acceptance of our pain, but an even more powerful aspect of mindfulness that allows us to accept our pain is the quality of lovingkindness.

Mindfulness has a quality of appreciation and welcoming that can radically transform our relationship to difficult experiences. Buddhist meditation techniques can be used, for example, to cultivate an attitude of lovingkindness towards those people that we find difficult and towards whom we experience aversion, anger, and even hatred. Millions of practitioners over thousands of years have found that the cultivation of lovingkindness leads to the lessening of conflicts and the growth of love and appreciation for those who were previously enemies. Lovingkindness transforms our relationships.

The development of lovingkindness can also be used internally, by cultivating lovingkindness for painful experiences (or self-compassion) so that we can accept them as a part of life. Wishing our pain well can be a powerfully healing experience in which we let go of inner tensions and barriers on a deep level and come to see that our pain is a part of us, and a part of us moreover that is greatly in need of cherishing and love.

But do these approaches actually have medical benefits? Do they reduce pain, or do they simply allow us to handle our pain better? Clinical studies are unequivocal in demonstrating that the practice of mindfulness meditation both increases the ability to deal with the effects of pain and reduces pain overall. A study published in General Hospital Psychiatry followed 51 chronic pain patients who had not improved with traditional medical care. The dominant pain categories were low back, neck and shoulder, headache, facial pain, angina pectoris, noncoronary chest pain, and GI pain. After a 10-week program of meditation, 65% of the patients showed a reduction in pain of greater than 33%, and half of the patients showed a reduction in pain levels of more than 50%. It should be remembered that these were patients whose pain had shown no improvement with traditional medical care. In other words people with the most difficult cases of chronic pain still showed dramatic improvements in their condition.

A more recent study, at the University of Montreal, shows that Zen meditators were better able to detect painful stimuli than non-meditators, but that the sensations weren’t processed by the brain as “pain.”

The practice of mindfulness is particularly effective because it “decouples” the physical sensations of pain from mental and emotional processes that heighten suffering. Pain comes to be seen as “just another sensation” and the fear of pain is significantly reduced. The development of mindfulness, as Buddhists have known for 2,500 years, brings about mental and emotional freedom and a decrease in suffering.

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When practice goes backwards

U-bend in road

I’ve not been feeling very well the last couple months. I feel tired and achy a lot of the time. When I meditate, I catch myself dozing off before too long. My concentration is off. I’m finding it especially difficult to write. I can’t put it into words, but something is just not right.

A couple weeks ago, my preceptor (the woman who ordained me) came to visit for several days. She had some helpful and encouraging words to say about this, and I thought I’d pass them on.

Sometimes when we have particularly deep and intense experiences, as I did on my retreat last July, we need some time afterward to assimilate. Sure, it’s only natural for the wonderful positivity of a peak experience to fade away. But she said it’s also not unusual for some part of us to resist afterwards. Or maybe just feel unsteady from all the inner rearranging that’s taken place. And it can feel like a step or two backwards, a regression.

That feels right to me. I have an image of me as a big elastic band. I stretched beyond my usual way of being, and now I’ve sprung back some. And to mix metaphors, it’s like my body and mind are working really hard to find their footing on this new ground they find themselves on.

Something inside me said “yes!” when she said that. There was relief in seeing this as a perfectly natural process. That given time, things will find their balance again.

I’ve long since given up on grieving over peak experiences. They were the result of a particular set of conducive conditions that will never be again. I can’t recreate them, and it’s pointless to wish for it. And I don’t begrudge the inevitable doldrums that come afterwards. What I’m going through now is also a result of the conditions that are in place. I’ve learned to trust in this natural flow of things.

And really, I don’t think my practice is going backwards at all, despite what I titled this post. This IS my practice. Learning how to move forward through unknown territory. Getting to know when to push ahead and when to rest. (And it seems now is a time for me to rest!) Finding out how to navigate similar roadblocks when they appear again next time. To be honest, I can’t imagine anything I go through is ever lost. Something stays with me and comes to fruition later, in some unpredictable way.

This is how I’ve gotten to where I am now. And I’m just going to keep moving forward. Because really, there’s no such thing as moving backwards.

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Henri Matisse: “When we speak of nature it is wrong to forget that we are ourselves a part of nature.”

Matisse, La dance, 1909

If science is about the study of cause and effect in the physical world, meditation is, Bodhipaksa argues, a form of inner science that helps us to understand how to avoid creating pain for ourselves and others.

Matisse said: “When we speak of nature it is wrong to forget that we are ourselves a part of nature. We ought to view ourselves with the same curiosity and openness with which we study a tree, the sky or a thought, because we too are linked to the entire universe.”

Although Matisse was an artist rather than a scientist, he has a lot to say to those of us who are interested in the inner science of meditation and of living mindfully.

I can’t hear the suggestion to “view ourselves with … curiosity and openness” without thinking of mindfulness, in fact. Mindfulness involves not just seeing our experience, but activity investigating it. When we’re not open to our experience — where we assume for example that we already know what’s going on — we’re unable to learn much about ourselves. Openness implies suspending judgment. Openness implies that we don’t accept or reject our experience prematurely, that we’re prepared to look below the surface. Curiosity is where we actually dive in to our experience, trying without fixed preconceptions to see how our experience actually ticks.

Hana, woman I don’t really know except online, recently wrote to me to say that she been helped by my response to a critical comment that someone had left on Wildmind.

Openness implies that we don’t accept or reject our experience prematurely, that we’re prepared to look below the surface.

Here’s the story. A man, “Matt,” whose grandfather had been murdered took great exception to some of the work I do teaching meditation and Buddhism to inmates in the New Hampshire State Prison. As it happened, his grandfather’s murderer was incarcerated in the same prison I visit each week. Matt accused me of “bullshit,” of not being a real Buddhist, said that the only people who would put up with my company are prisoners, and accused me of a lack of empathy of the victims of crime. Hana had recently been on the receiving end of some hate mail as well, and she said that the way I’d responded to Matt’s criticisms had helped her to see a way out of the pain and anger she was experiencing. She now had an idea how to respond to her own attacker.

I was pleased to hear that. In case it was helpful I wrote to Hana and explained the process I’d gone through to arrive and what I hoped was a compassionate response to Matt.

First, I was hurt and angry. I wanted revenge. I don’t like being accused of BS-ing, not being a real Buddhist, of lacking empathy, etc. Lots of defenses and counter-attacks readily leaped to mind — I’m actually quite good at being defensive! I’ve had a lot of practice at it, in fact. My mental picture of Matt was of someone who was out to be hurtful, who was emotionally volatile, and who may even have been drunk.

But rather than blasting off a withering response I decided to try practicing openness and curiosity. The kind of over-the-top attack that Matt had made was either the result of someone “trolling” for a response (some people online get their kicks from trying to find people’s emotional weak-spots), or it came out of a great deal of pain. Ah, now pain! There’s something I’ve experienced, and in my past I’ve sometimes made outrageous attacks on other people because I’ve felt hurt. So I now felt a bit more curious and open to Matt’s experience, although the anger and defensiveness were still there.

I say to my pain, I know you’re there. I know you’re hurting. I’m here and I understand.

So what next? It wasn’t enough to try to be empathetic with Matt’s pain, I had to be empathetic towards my own pain. That’s not always easy to do. I’ve noticed that sometimes I move so quickly from feeling hurt to feeling angry that I don’t even really take on board that I’ve felt hurt. And not having taken that on board I’m not able to empathize with myself.

Also I’ve noticed that I can sometimes see feelings of hurt as being a sign of “weakness” (Real Buddhists are above feeling hurt) and therefore don’t want to acknowledge them. But an attitude of curiosity and openness revealed that my hurt was in fact fully present and functional.

So I embraced my feelings of hurt in an attitude of compassion, using techniques I’ve learned in the development of lovingkindness meditation. This is quite different from wallowing in pain: this is simply saying to my pain, I know you’re there. I know you’re hurting. I’m here and I understand. And what happens then is quite amazing: the pain doesn’t go away, but it ceases to give rise to anger, resentment, and defensiveness. Wallowing in pain involves being immersed in it, giving ourselves up to it, and feeling self-pity. And that doesn’t help anyone.

Suddenly, I no longer needed to defend myself. I could now sense Matt’s pain and respond to it without needing to feel that I had to justify myself, or to make him feel bad, or to punish him. I could simple acknowledge the pain he was experience, know that it was natural for such pain to lead to anger (well, hadn’t I just seen that for myself?) and respond in what I hoped was a kindly and factually-based way to Matt’s pain and anger.

I’m not boasting about being terribly compassionate or having been helpful. In fact I don’t have a great deal of confidence in my ability to be able to handle my hurt and anger, which are things that have troubled me a great deal in my life. But I do know that I’ve made progress over the years in my ability to empathize with myself and others, and so I was pleased that Hana (and a few others) wrote to say they appreciated my response.

The point I’m making is quite simple: without mindfulness and its attendant qualities of openness and curiosity, I wouldn’t have been able to respond positively to Matt’s comment. I might have just deleted the comment. Or I might have responded by attacking. Or by defending myself. And I wouldn’t have learned anything about the dynamics of hurt and anger, and how we can avoid causing ourselves unnecessary pain. And maybe (I hope) help others in the process.

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What Rikers Island taught me about meditation

Prison can be a tough environment for those who work there as well as for inmates. Psychotherapist Steve Bell reflects on a few tough months spent in Rikers Island and realizes how much he learned.

I find myself on Rikers Island

For four months last year I worked with women detainees on Rikers Island in the Intense Treatment Unit, or ITU. Those four months were an adventure, but I won’t easily forget the trauma and abuse the women reported, and eventually the need to live a simpler life led me to give up working there.

The idea of the ITU was to try and apply the work of Marsha Linehan — who created Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) for people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) — to an incarcerated population. One of the core skill areas was mindfulness, and we began every skill group with a short meditation.

Some of the women were waiting for trial: there because they couldn’t pay the $500 bail before their trial for possession of drugs. A few were doing their sentences there or were detoxing before going upstate. If you’re sentenced to less than a year, you stay in Rikers instead of going upstate.

Most of the detainees on the intense treatment unit (ITU) did not initially buy into meditation and mindfulness. At times the women would mutter in frustration during meditation sessions as they tried to stay focuses in the face of the noises outside our group room. A few, more mentally disorganized, gave up, jiggled and sat there during the short meditation, not participating. Many initially thought meditation was weird but after a while took to it and could see the benefit.

Lovingkindness and mindfulness are one

I was there to teach mindfulness, but I learned a lot about mindfulness as well. The first thing I realized in teaching meditation was how important it is to bring metta, or loving-kindness, into the mindfulness of breathing practice. Usually I regard the practices as separate, and alternate them, but I came to see them as two sides of the same coin. When I made a suggestion like, “Kindly and gently bring yourself back to the breath,” I realized that lovingkindness had become integrated into my practice of the mindfulness of breathing meditation. One woman took this idea and used it to the maximum, seeing care and gentleness towards herself as an essential skill she’d never been taught. Kindness towards herself, at a very basic level, unlocked something within her. She came in to the program very upset, detoxing off drugs, and could not talk without crying. She left with more self-possession, more in control, more aware of herself, and with a new tool to fight her addictions.

Mindfulness and acceptance

Mindfulness isn’t “clearing thought” or “stopping distractions” but merely being aware what is going on, with whatever arises. If you’re patient and diligent, things settle and there will be more space, and you can become less distracted, more concentrated, and have more continuity of purpose; that is more long-term goal, the fruit of the practice.

The immediate goal in meditating is to just observe what arises as you try to follow the breath or connect with your metta. Afterwards you may feel more concentrated and mindful, but while meditating you might not. You might realize how distracted you are, and almost feel like meditation is making you more distracted. It’s not the meditation, though; that’s how you really are and you’re just not aware of it.

You may hope “distractions” go away when they are present, but that’s not always helpful. I worked to develop a curiosity about the contents of my mind, not being judgmental about what was going on in my experience. Seeing others’ frustration helped me to identify my own impatience and frustration.

Start where you are

When we watch our mind in meditation we can perhaps notice layers of judgment, impatience, and frustration about what is happening when we tune into ourselves. We can be mindful of that too. We have to know what is present before we look to change it. I heard someone say the essence of Pema Chödrön’s teaching is, “start where you really are,” and that expresses what I’m trying to describe. Only after we accept ourselves can we can begin to explore what tools we have for transforming ourselves, evaluate what works, and experiment with new ways of working with what is really going on. Learning that balance of acceptance and of exerting effort is a very important skill, not just in meditation.

If you see an express train coming, get out of the way

Another thing I had the privilege of learning while teaching female detainees is that it’s mettaful not to attempt the impossible in meditation. Sometimes I have thoughts that are like an express train; they have so much momentum that focusing on the breath isn’t even an option for a time. What’s the best thing you can do when an express train is coming through? Make sure you’re not standing on the tracks. Get out of the way. Let it go by. Don’t try to stop it. Watch it pass.

Meditation becomes less exhausting when I don’t try too hard, don’t try stop express trains, stop trying to do the impossible. There is a quality of metta in dropping the impossible project, accepting what you find, and opening up to new more subtle ways of working with your mind than unmindful and crude brute force.

You can even learn from your “distractions” – “Why am I having this daydream?” It’s important to not get too caught up in the investigation, but it’s also helpful to employ a sense of kindly curiosity.

“Metabolizing” distractions

Instead of doing something to get rid of difficult feelings, I observe them, honor and validate them, face and “metabolize” them. I met someone who thought doing that was masochistic, but I think distracting oneself, tuning out from your experience, can be masochistic because it’s more harmful in the long-term not to deal with difficult mental states.

The thing about accepting whatever arises is that often I’m not going to like what I find when I tune in. I might find a closet full of unwanted bric-a-brac: unwanted memories, racing thoughts, unpleasant emotions and memories, unresolved nagging questions I have avoided, etc. I stay with my experience, and watch how it evolves. Have you ever noticed that if you look at a cloud long enough it will subtly change shape?

I tune out for a reason. It’s a fundamental axiom of Dharma, and I think human nature, that we push away the unpleasant and pull towards us the pleasant. That includes the contents of our mind. There is a cost for denying our experience, a kind of violence towards ourselves.

In teaching meditation, I saw my own maneuvers to avoid my painful feeling reflected in what others were doing, and this helped me be aware of my own habitual tendencies. I worked to try and draw people out and put words to their experience, and listening to others’ accounts of meditation was fascinating and an opportunity to learn. I also saw the importance of articulating to others my experience.

Marsha Linehan points out that those who face their suffering mindfully learn from it. Being abused isn’t a predictor of how good a parent someone will be — it’s whether they have faced their traumas. Those who don’t look at the whole of their lives, even the unpleasant bits, do not learn from it. Meditation can be a way of facing our suffering and metabolizing it, making use of it. That’s the best thing you can do in a bad situation.

Suffering becomes a trigger for mindfulness

We can even make suffering into a trigger for mindfulness. Milarepa says a dog chases sticks that are thrown. The tiger turns and faces the stick thrower. I sometimes feel like that is what therapy and meditation have in common: Facing the stick thrower.

When people expressed what was really going on I saw the most spontaneous and genuine outpourings of support and empathy from others in the group — and these were tough women not prone to flights of spontaneous empathy. I found myself saying often, “I’d probably be dead if that happened to me,” when they recounted their traumas.

There’s something about talking simply and directly about the content of our minds that makes for a connection. It’s a model of communication, more accurate, less blaming, pure. Simply saying “I feel this way,” has the power of connection. When you say, “you did this,” someone can debate that. But our descriptions of our feelings isn’t really something to debate about.

And so by teaching meditation to these woman who were damaged and suffering, I saw more clearly how I try to avoid my experience, how I could work to start where I really am. I closed the distance between us, could see the circumstances that swept them into a more negative life, see myself not as so separate and not so different from them. By teaching others, I learned about myself; we learned together. I was proud to work to metabolize their suffering for a short time.

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Ask Auntie Suvanna: Connection before correction

Poster for Tod Browning's 1932 movie, Freaks

I am a Buddhist working in rehab, which is a very Christian environment, so I was happy to discover a co-worker sporting Buddhist memorabilia at her work site. I wanted to have a friendship with this woman because I believed we might have a lot in common, at least spiritually. However, all my attempts to get to know more about her have been thwarted.

When I ask her about herself she changes the subject or says let’s talk about that sometime… then we never do. She never reveals anything. Most of my co-workers don’t like her and the patients complain about her. They say she doesn’t listen and is not empathetic. One day she misinterpreted an innocent comment I made about her being new and inexperienced. She mentioned it to a coworker, completely distorting what I said. When I confronted her she wouldn’t answer me and just stopped talking. I’m starting to think she’s a bit of a freak and I don’t know if I should pursue this. Have any ideas?

Desperately Seeking Sanity

Dear Desperately,

 …rather than being concerned with being right (or with showing how wrong the other person is) we shift the priority to finding a deeper understanding of the situation

In order firstly to determine whether or not this woman is a freak, I watched the definitive 1932 film “Freaks,” in which a gorgeous trapeze artist called Cleopatra becomes the lover of the strongman Hercules, but pretends to love the rich German midget Hans, who is in love with her. When The Living Torso, The Pinhead, and another German midget ask Cleopatra to spare Hans from the deception, the fact that Hans is an heir of a great fortune is leaked… But I won’t reveal any more. Apparently the bearded lady hated the film and ended up regretting her participation. I regret that the lady lived long before the appearance of my column on body hair. At any rate it’s clear at this point that your ersatz Buddhist friend at work is not a freak.

Still, you could rethink your approach. Consider the fact that almost all of us want to be seen as competent and can find it painful when we feel we are not. Many people will react badly to being referred to as new and inexperienced even if — perhaps especially if — they are. One of the slogans I like from Nonviolent Communication is “Connection before Correction.” This means that rather than being concerned with being right (or with showing how wrong the other person is) we shift the priority to finding a deeper understanding of the situation. Specifically, trying to see what is behind the words. Certainly she was upset by your comment. So rather than confronting her, you could see that she was upset and respond to that, or just tell her what you meant.

But that particular situation has already passed. At the end of the day she may not want to be your friend; you may not want her as a friend. But you can try being kind and see what happens.

Love,
Auntie Suvanna

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Ask Auntie Suvanna: the Buddhist approach to excess body hair

Lon Chaney in The Werewolf

Honey, we’re out of dog food again.

Ever despair at how to cultivate lovingkindness for Dick Cheney, or ponder the effect of anti-depressants on Buddha Nature? If so, check out Auntie Suvanna, who applies her unique wisdom and wit to your queries about life, meditation, Dharma, family and relationship issues, or anything else that comes up. Why not write to her and tell her your troubles?

Dear Auntie,
I can’t stand my boyfriend’s ear hair anymore. He has little pointy gray hairs growing out of the tops of his ears. He isn’t concerned about it, he says he’s had it since he was in his 20’s. I wonder if one day he will look like a werewolf. Or maybe one day the hair will cover not only the top of his ears but the back and bottom as well and they will grow into convenient but gross natural ear muffs. Should I try to get used to the pointy hairs? Should I make him trim it? Should I seek a bald-eared partner? He doesn’t even know it bothers me. Am I petty? This is serious.
Sincerely Grossed Out

Dear Grossed Out,

American culture is engaged in an ongoing skirmish with body hair.

Dictionary.com defines petty as “of little or no importance or consequence.” In spite of her good manners, Auntie has to say she is finding it hard to envisage ear hair as important and consequential. On the other hand, irritation is at least consequential, so let’s see if we can tackle that. Otherwise you might get more and more pent up, until one day you will blow like Krakatoa, spewing burning rubble all over your boyfriend’s unsuspecting and relatively innocent hairy ears.

American culture is engaged in an ongoing skirmish with body hair. Women, especially, shave, wax, pluck, trim, or laser almost every patch of visible hair on the body. Perhaps deep down we are all Creationists worried about looking like apes… At any rate for overcoming this collective aversion, Auntie suggests doing various kinds of research. Get your facts! I know you would prefer to forget all about ear hair, but you can’t. It’s part of life. It’s part of your life. It arose in dependence on conditions, the conditions of the human form. Fact is, as men age, their hair seems to move more and more from their head to their ears and nose. That’s just the way it is. As the great Buddhist sage Shantideva said, it’s like getting angry at the sky because there is a cloud in it.

You must face — we all must face — right now, the inescapable truth of ear hair.

Though your boyfriend’s visible ear hair is dead, like all hair it is still very much a part of his body. Made up of long chains of amino acids (proteins), it (or at least the root) contains all his genetic information. His ethnic origin, what he has smoked, and what he has eaten – all this information resides in just one shaft of his ear hair. It is but one ground force unit within the battalion of hair that covers his entire body, with the exception of soles of his feet, the palms of his hands, and his lips. It grows at the same rate as other hair, about 1 cm per month, and lasts at least three years. You must face — we all must face — right now, the inescapable truth of ear hair. And as always, however things are, they can always be worse.

Another more drastic and probably more effective type of research would be to spend a great deal of time contemplating in detail the nature of your own body, part by part. Investigate it. See what’s what. Divide it into categories such as solid and liquid, and reflect on each component. In addition to ubiquitous hair you will discover nails, skin, flesh, teeth, veins, nerves, tendons, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, spleen, lungs, stomach, intestines, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, saliva, mucus, and urine. You will find what everyone’s body is composed of, and you will deeply understand ear hair. (Warning: This contemplation may cause nausea, loss of libido, and understated fashions such as coveralls.)

Finally, on a practical note, if it still bugs, kindly ask your boyfriend if he would allow you to trim it. If he agrees, invest in some clippers and have at it. Using scissors around ears is more dangerous than werewolves!

Love,
Auntie Suvanna

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