appreciation

When you feel like you’re “not enough”

Girls hands holding ripe blueberriesOne slice of the pie of life feels relaxed and contented. And then there is that other slice, in which we feel driven and stressed. Trying to get pleasures, avoid pains, pile up accomplishments and recognitions, be loved by more people. Lose more weight, try to fill the hole in the heart. Slake the thirst, satisfy the hunger. Strive, strain, press.

This other slice is the conventional strategy for happiness. We pursue it for four reasons.

  1. The brain evolved through its reptilian, mammalian, and primate/human stages to meet three needs: avoid harms, approach rewards, and attach to others. In terms of these three needs, animals that were nervous, driven, and clinging were more likely to survive and pass on their genes – which are woven into our DNA today. Try to feel not one bit uneasy, discontented, or disconnected for more than a few seconds, let alone a few minutes.
  2. You’re bombarded by thousands of messages each day that tell you to want more stuff. Even if you turn off the TV, worth in our culture is based greatly on accomplishments, wealth, and appearance; you have to keep improving, and the bar keeps rising.
  3. Past experiences, especially young ones, leave traces that are negatively biased due to the Velcro-for-pain but Teflon-for-pleasure default setting of the brain. So there’s a background sense of anxiety, resentment, loss, hurt, or inadequacy, guilt, or shame that makes us over-react today.
  4. To have any particular perception, emotion, memory, or desire, the brain must impose order on chaos, signals on noise. In a mouthful of a term, this is “cognitive essentializing.” The brain must turn verbs – dynamic streams of neural activity – into nouns: momentarily stable sights, sounds, tastes, touches, smells, and thoughts. Naturally, we try to hold onto the ones we like. But since neural processing continually changes, all experiences are fleeting. They slip through your fingers as you reach for them, an unreliable basis for deep and lasting happiness. Yet so close, so tantalizing . . . and so we keep reaching.

For these reasons, deep down there is a sense of disturbance, not-enoughness, unease. Feeling threatened and unsafe, disappointed and thwarted, insufficiently valued and loved. Driven to get ahead, to fix oneself, to capture an experience before it evaporates. So we crave and cling, suffer and harm. As if life were a cup – with a hole in the bottom – that we keep trying to fill. A strategy that is both fruitless and stressful.

All the world’s wisdom traditions point out this truth: that the conventional strategy for happiness is both doomed and actually makes us unhappier. The theistic traditions (e.g., Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity) describe this truth as the inherently unsatisfying nature of a life that is separated from an underlying Divine reality. The agnostic traditions (e.g., Buddhism) describe it as the inherent suffering in grasping or aversion toward innately ephemeral experiences.

Call this the truth of futility. Recognizing it has been both uncomfortable and enormously helpful for me, since you gradually realize that it is pointless to “crave” – to stress and strain over fleeting experiences. But there is another truth, also taught in the wisdom traditions, though perhaps not as forthrightly. This is the truth that there is always already an underlying fullness.

When this truth sinks in emotionally, into your belly and bones, you feel already peaceful, happy, and loved. There is no need for craving, broadly defined, no need to engage an unhappy strategy for happiness. And you have more to offer others now that your cup is truly full.

How?

Recognize the lies built into the conventional strategy for happiness to wake up from their spells. Mother Nature whispers: You should feel threatened, frustrated, lonely. Culture and commerce say: You need more clothes, thinner thighs, better beer; consume more and be like the pretty people on TV. The residues of past experiences, especially young ones, mutter in the background: You’re not that smart, attractive, worthy; you need to do more and be more; if you just have X, you’ll get the life you want. The essentializing nature of cognition implies: Crave more, cling more, it will work the next time, really.

As you see through these lies, recognize the truth of fullness. In terms of your core needs to avoid harms, approach rewards, and attach to others, observe: that you are basically alright right now; that this moment of experience has an almost overwhelming abundance of stimulation, and you probably live better than the kings and queens of old; and that you are always intimately connected with all life, and almost certainly loved. Regarding our consumerist and status-seeking culture, consider what really matters to you – for example, if you were told you had one year to live – and notice that you already have most if not all of what matters most. In terms of the messages from previous experiences, look inside to see the facts of your own natural goodness, talents, and spirit. And about the impermanent nature of experience, notice what happens when you let go of this moment: another one emerges, the vanishing Now is endlessly renewed.

Abiding in fullness doesn’t mean you sit on your thumbs. It’s normal and fine to wish for more pleasure and less pain, to aspire and create, to lean into life with passion and purpose, to pursue justice and peace. But we don’t have to want for more, fight with more, drive for more, clutch at more. While the truth of futility is that it is hopeless to crave, the truth of fullness is that it’s unnecessary.

Finding this fullness, let it sink in. For survival purposes, the brain is good at learning from the bad, but bad at learning from the good. So help it by enriching an experience through making it last a 10-20 seconds or longer, fill your body and mind, and become more intense. Also absorb it by intending and sensing that it is sinking into you as you sink into it. Do this half a dozen times a day, maybe half a minute at a time. It’s less than five minutes a day. But you’ll be gradually weaving a profound sense of being already fundamentally peaceful, happy, loved, and loving into the fabric of your brain and your life.

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Mindfulness of good intentions

Goodwill sign

Hustling through an airport, I stopped to buy some water. At the shop’s refrigerator, a man was bent over, loading bottles into it. I reached past him and pulled out one he’d put in. He looked up, stopped working, got a bottle from another shelf, and held it out to me, saying “This one is cold.” I said thanks and took the one he offered.

He didn’t know me and would never see me again. His job was stocking, not customer service. He was busy and looked tired. But he took the time to register that I’d gotten a warm bottle, and he cared enough to shift gears and get me a cold one. He wished me well.

I can see his friendly eyes as I write now, a week later. It was just a bottle of water. But I feel warmed by his kindness and buoyed by his good intentions.

Also see

Recognizing the positive intentions in others, we feel safer, more supported, and happier. And when others feel that you get their good intentions, they feel seen, appreciated, and more inclined to treat you well.

But it can be hard to recognize the good will in others. We’re busy and distracted and stressed. Positive aims are often buried beneath negative behaviors. The brain’s innate negativity bias is continually scanning for bad news, bad intentions. The brain also reacts to novelty, so it tends to ignore the many positive intentions that pervade most daily life while spotlighting the occasional negative ones.

So you have to actively look for good intentions. Then you’ll find them all around you – a window into the deep goodness in every being, no matter how obscured.

How?

Take a minute to recognize the many good intentions – aims, purposes, desires – that you have in a typical day. Good intentions don’t need to be saintly. Wanting to enjoy a cup of coffee, to eat a decent breakfast, to lock the door behind you, to get to work on time, to be conscientious, to feel safe, to care for a family, to be a decent person, to avoid trouble, to hurt less, to enjoy something sweet, to not quarrel, to live to see the sunrise . . . these are all good intentions.

Most good intentions will be small. But they still matter. Just imagine the disasters if you replaced your good intentions with bad ones! Sure, some intentions aren’t so good, such as desires to dominate, act out addictive cravings, or dump negative feelings on others. But for almost everyone, the great majority of intentions are good ones. Let it become a feeling, a strong sense in your body, that you are someone with good intentions.

Talking with a friend, be aware of his or her positive intentions. How does it feel to see them? Try this routinely with people you care about. I find that doing this helps me understand others better plus opens my heart. As appropriate, tell the other person what you’ve learned; hearing a recognition of one’s good intentions can be a powerful experience.

Try seeing good intentions in strangers walking down the street – or an airport. You’ll see lots of courtesies, efforts to do a good job, desires to understand or be understood, loyalty to friends and causes, fair play, and kindnesses. This practice makes me happy, and gives me a stronger sense of our common humanity.

Also try this with people who are difficult for you. This is not to excuse them. But seeing good intentions amidst bad behaviors can, ironically, help you feel less affected – less stressed, irritated, or worried – by other people. You could also ask others to recognize the good intentions in you.

There’s an ember of sanctity in each one of us, including the one looking back in the mirror. Recognizing good intentions blows on that ember, adds fuel to it, and helps it grow into a warm and beautiful flame.

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Seek out the good news

“Tell the truth.” It’s the foundation of science, ethics, and relationships.

But we have a brain that evolved to tell lies to help us survive. As I’ve written before, over several hundred million years our ancestors:

  • Had to avoid two kinds of mistakes: thinking there’s a tiger in the bushes but actually all is well, and thinking all is well but actually there is a tiger about to pounce. The cost of the first mistake is needless worry while the cost of the second one is no more gene copies. Mother Nature designed us to make the first mistake a thousand times to avoid making the second mistake even once.
  • Had to get “carrots” and avoid “sticks.” If you don’t get a carrot today you’ll have another chance tomorrow, but if you don’t avoid that stick you’ll die and get no carrots forever. Consequently, negative experiences are fast-tracked into memory – “once burned, twice shy” – while most positive experiences slip through the brain like water through a sieve; in effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.

As a result, we routinely overestimate threats while underestimating opportunities and resources. Yes, many people have an “optimism bias” in what they say – but in their actions, they work harder to avoid pain than to get pleasure, they remember failures and rejections more than successes and kindness from others, they need at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions for a healthy relationship, and they muzzle themselves and play smaller in life to avoid a list of dreaded experiences.

It’s as if we live in a subtle nightmare in which the shadows and threats are exaggerated while our allies and inner resources seem distant and ineffectual. We think the dream is real so there’s no point in trying to wake up from it. Our beliefs in the dream trap us like the bars of an invisible cage.

The root cause of suffering and harm is ignorance, illusion, not seeing things as they actually are. But when we wake up and see the facts and live in the light, we feel so much freer, at ease, unthreatened, confident, overflowing, loved, and loving.

Remember some time in your past when you realized that things were not as bad as you thought, or that others were more caring, or that you were more capable. How did it feel in this instance to wake up from your own bad dream?

For instance, I recognized in my twenties that while growing up I’d been a nerd, not a wimp – a relief! Other examples from people I know: A woman realized she could be strong and people would still like her. People in recovery learn they can have a great time without being buzzed. Kids come to see that there’s no bogeyman in the closet. A girl gradually understands that she can let in her dad’s love even though he’s annoying. Another young woman lets it sink in that plenty of guys like her even though some are clustered around a “hot” classmate. A man in his 50’s realizes that no one cares whether he loses some hair. A woman finds out she can turn her art program into a publishable book.

Yes, sometimes when we wake up it’s to bad news: perhaps there’s a ceiling in your career, or you’ve been too cranky with your kids, or a partner is just not trustworthy in an important way. Living in the truth means seeing both good and bad clearly.

But because of the brain’s evolved negativity bias, most of the time when we wake up, it’s to truly good news.

How?

The good news that there’s no tiger – or that you can deal with it just fine
Consider your fears. Especially the everyday ones, such as: if I say how I really feel, people won’t like it; if I don’t lose these ten pounds, no guy worth having will want me; if I ask for a raise I’ll get criticized; if I start a little business, it will flop; if I take on some school loans it will be hard to pay them back.

How many are really true? What are the odds of them happening? If they indeed happened, how bad would it really be? And if the unlikely event did happen and if it felt really bad, how would you cope?

How does any anxiety in your temperament bias you to feel more threatened, more uneasy, more cautious than you reasonably need to be?

Think about the many things that protect and support you, from locks to laws, friends to credit cards. Think about the inner strengths you’ve used for tough times in the past, that you could draw upon to deal with challenges today.

The good news that you are full of good qualities, and that the world is full of opportunities you could likely fulfill with reasonable effort
Consider other abilities you have, like smarts, grit, talents, determination, integrity, passion, patience, sincerity, goodheartedness . . . to name a few.

What have you always wanted to do – but told yourself is out of reach?

Ask yourself what would happen if you invested just 20 minutes a day in meditation, or in exercise, or in supportive conversation with a friend or partner – or what would happen if you invested just an hour a day in all three.

What would happen if you spent half an hour a day or even a couple hours on some project, such as writing a book, laying the groundwork for changing careers, building a boat, learning a musical instrument, or making art – and could these hours add up over a single year?

The good news that you are liked, loved, and valued
Consider some of the many ways you have been seen, included, appreciated, liked, and loved. Think about the people who have seen the real you – and still cared about you. Can you see some of the many qualities you have that another person would recognize, respect, value, be drawn to, like to have on his or her team, be interested in, feel warmly toward, even cherish?

Consider the relationships you could readily have, the friends you could make, the love you could find if you drew on your courage to extend yourself, open up, stand up for what you need, and ask for what you want.

How about seeing the good in yourself, your own compassion, kindness, decency, good intentions, integrity, and loving heart.

If you trusted in the good news of your own goodness, how far and wide would you play in this life?

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Relax, you’ve arrived

We spend so much of our time trying to get somewhere.

Part of this comes from our biological nature. To survive, animals – including us – have to be goal-directed, leaning into the future.

It’s certainly healthy to pursue wholesome aims, like paying the rent on time, raising children well, healing old pain, or improving education.

But it’s also important to see how this focus on the future – on endless striving, on getting the next task done, on climbing the next mountain – can get confused and stressful.

It’s confused because the brain:

  • Overestimates both the pleasure of future gains and the pain of future losses. (This evolved to motivate our ancient ancestors to chase carrots hard and really dodge sticks.)
  • Makes the future seem like a real thing when in fact it doesn’t actually exist and never will. There is only now, forever and always.
  • Overlooks or minimizes the alrightness of this moment – including the many things already resolved or accomplished – in order to keep you looking for the next threat or opportunity. (For more on how the brain makes us stressed and fearful, see Buddha’s Brain.)

Further, this pursuit of the next thing is confused because the mind tends to transfer unfulfilled needs from childhood into the present, such as to be safe, worthy, attractive, successful, or loved. These longings often take on a life of their own – even after the original issues have been largely or even wholly resolved. Then we’re like the proverbial donkey trying to get a carrot held out in front of it on a pole: no matter how long we chase it, it’s always still ahead, never attained. For example, for years I pursued achievement due to underlying feelings of inadequacy; how many accomplishments does a person need to feel like a worthwhile person?

Besides being confused and confusing, striving is stressful. You’ve got to fire up, activating the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system and its related stress hormones. There’s a sense of pressure, of worry about a future that’s inherently uncertain, of entrapment on a neverending treadmill. There’s a lack of soothing and balance that would come from recognizing the truth of things:

You’ve actually already arrived.

How?

Recognize the simple fact that you got here, in this place, and now, in this moment. It may not be perfect. But think of the many things you have certainly done to come here. At a minimum, you survived high school! You’ve taken many steps, solved many problems, put many tasks and challenges behind you.

The word, “arrive,” comes from roots that mean “to reach the shore.” Once you land, of course, life is not over, since the next moment will be a new arrival. But sinking into the sense of having arrived, of having crossed the finish line of this moment, is calming, happy, and deserved. And knowing you’ve arrived, you now are more able to turn your attention toward being of true service to others.

To deepen the sense of arrival, help yourself relax into this moment. From time to time, you could softly say in your mind: arriving . . . arrived . . . arriving . . .

Draw on your body to strengthen this experience. Let each breath land in your awareness: arriving . . . arrived . . . arriving . . . Be aware of the bite landing in the mouth, the meal consumed, the body fed. As you walk, notice that, with each step, you have reached another place. Know that your hand has reached a cup, that the eye has received a sunset, that the smile of a friend has landed in your heart.

Consider old longings, old drives, that truly may be fulfilled, at least to a reasonable extent. (And if not fulfilled, maybe it’s time to let something go and move on.) Can you lighten up about these? Or can you accept that you have arrived at a place this moment that contains unfulfilled goals and unmet needs? It’s still an arrival. Plus it’s a “shore” that probably has many good things about it no matter what’s still undone.

In the deepest sense, reflect on the fact that each moment arrives complete in itself. Each wave lands on the shore of Now – complete in its own right.

Arriving . . . arrived . . . arriving . . . Arrived.

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How to move forward by being here now

Man walking along a road, photographed in dramatic perspective

We all come to meditation with some kind of wish for self-improvement. Less anxiety, more peace of mind, better focus – these are among the more common goals I hear. But somewhere along the way, most of us get stuck in a trap. When mindfulness helps us see ourselves more clearly, our goal can start looking very far indeed. We’re STILL too distracted. We STILL can’t seem to stop beating ourselves up. We STILL do and say things we regret.

Hence disappointment and self-criticism arise. A poverty mentally sets in. Clearly where I am now isn’t good enough, and I look instead to a far horizon when things will be better. Some day…

That’s the trap. Haven’t we just put ourselves into the exact opposite of the peaceful, content mindset we had aspired to in the first place?

Ironically, I think the best way to move forward toward goals like these is to be present, here and now. One way to do this is to reframe our concept of what “working toward goals” looks like. Rather than striving toward something off in the future, how about right now, in this moment, BEING more the kind of person that you aspire to be?

We can practice whatever skills or behaviors we understand of it now. And I mean literally right now. It means we make a choice in this moment to act in a different way then we habitually have in the past. Not succumbing to an anxious, poverty-stricken mindset might be one place to start. Even if it’s only one percent different than before, that’s a step in a forward direction. Put together a hundred steps like that, and over time we will have made great strides.

See also:

It also helps to hold our goals and aspirations more lightly. It’s like going on a hike up a scenic mountain. Sure, the goal is to reach the summit, but if we’re hyperfocused on that goal, we could miss the whole point of hiking, which is to enjoy the climb itself. So instead, we keep pointing ourselves mindfully in the direction of the summit, but also stay fully present and open to whatever surprises might arise on the way. There are always unexpected scenic vistas or dangerous crossings to watch for. We might even decide part way up that a side road looks more interesting, and change plans. If we make that choice explicitly, what’s wrong with that?

With personal development goals, we often can’t know in advance what the summit looks like. And chances are we don’t have a clear sense of how to get there either. All we can do is show up, right now, and take one step from here. Isn’t that the only realistic option?

So next time you hear yourself bemoaning how you STILL get distracted in meditation, or STILL whatever, stop and ask yourself – am I falling into the poverty mentality trap here? Is it helping me to see things this way? What is something more positive I can do – even if it’s simply to forgive myself for my mistakes? That’s a perfectly good step in a forward direction. In fact, sometimes that’s best and only thing we can think of to do.

Take what small steps you can, and don’t forget to celebrate your small victories, too.

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“As a parent raises a child with deep love, care for water and rice as though they were your own children.” Dogen

Dōgen

So I was walking to the office the other day, when something rather lovely happened.

Before I say what that was, I have to explain that walking to the office is a new thing for me — or the rediscovery of an old thing. Now before I entered a spell of working from home, I often used to make my morning “walking commute” into a walking meditation. Then, for several years, I did almost all of my work out of the house, and my daily walking meditation died away. But a couple of months ago I rented an office in town, only a 15 minute walk away, and I’m getting back into the habit of making my trip to the office into a meditation practice. I confess that it’s been taking a bit of time for the habit to kick in again.

So I sallied forth from the house after my ritual farewell to the family (it really is a ritual — I have to give everyone a hug, a kiss, and a high five before I’m allowed to leave), and of course my mind immediately went onto a journey of its own, as I recalled recent events, thought about my schedule, planned projects I’m working on, and for good measure worried a little about finances. Not very mindful!

And then, I remembered that I was missing an opportunity to pay attention to my physical and mental experience. I was missing an opportunity to be mindful, to make walking to work into a meditation practice rather than the practice of allowing an endless proliferation of thoughts.

So I brought my awareness into the sensations of my body, and that’s when the funny thing happened. It’s something that’s happened before, but every time it does happen it’s wonderful. Suddenly, my walking meditation practice “clicked.” And I found myself looking into my experience with pure, unconditional love. And then I realized that everything I needed in order to be completely fulfilled was contained within that present moment, and all I had to do was notice and appreciate it. Any thinking that I did was going to take me away from perfection, and why would I want to do that? And so my thinking pretty much ground to a halt. The odd thought would pop up, but I’d immediately realize that thinking compared to “just being” in the same way that eating chalk compares to eating cheesecake. One is rich and delightful, the other is dry and unsatisfying. So I just didn’t have any desire to get caught up in thinking, and just stayed with the experience of observing sensations, feelings, emotions, and thoughts coming into being.

Until the “click” took place, I’d been observing my experience all right, but I’d been eating “chalk” rather than “cheesecake.” My mindfulness had been a bit dry, a bit cold. Now was gazing with warmth into my experience. My gaze was appreciative, and it was responded to with a physical sense of delight. My body responded to this loving gaze by relaxing, and by releasing pleasant, tingling energy. And my heart responded with delight. It was as if, as I loved my experience, my experience loved me back.

I recognized this gaze. It’s the way I look at my kids (on a good day). Both my children are still quite young. My daughter’s five, and my son’s three. And they’re both very interesting characters, and very sweet (well, most of the time). I frequently find that when I look at them it’s with a sense of warm, appreciative, unconditional love — and with wonder, too.

But I forget to do that with myself. I tend to be too task-oriented. I tend to be too concerned about what needs to be done. And I forget to love myself.

So this experience was a lovely reminder of the well-being that can come from giving myself loving attention. It was a welcome reminder that true wellbeing lies in valuing and surrendering to the present moment.

Dogen’s saying is pointing to the same experience. His words come from advice written for monastery cooks, for whom working with rice and water was a mindfulness practice (“the mind which finds the Way actualizes itself through working with rolled up sleeves”). Being mindful of working with rice and water doesn’t mean simply noticing your experience as you fill pots and stir ingredients. It means, Dogen says, imbuing every moment with a love as powerful as that of a parent for a child.

Right now I’m typing on a laptop, and gazing into my experience (my body, the screen in front of me, the keyboard) with love. And the present moment is complete, and fulfilling. That’s my rice, my water. What’s yours?

Postscript

The “quote” above is actually an adaptation of Eihei Dōgen zenji’s words in Tenzo kyokun: Instructions for the Tenzo, translated by Yasuda Joshu Dainen Roshi and Anzan Hoshin Roshi, published in “Cooking Zen” (Great Matter Publications 1996).

A “motherly heart” is a heart which maintains the Three Jewels as a parent cares for a child. A parent raises a child with deep love, regardless of poverty or difficulties. Their hearts cannot be understood by another; only a parent can understand it. A parent protects their child from heat or cold before worrying about whether they themselves are hot or cold. This kind of care can only be understood by those who have given rise to it and realized only by those who practice it. This, brought to its fullest, is how you must care for water and rice, as though they were your own children.

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How to appreciate and receive life’s gifts

Life gives to each one of us in so many ways.

For starters, there’s the bounty of the senses – including chocolate chip cookies, jasmine, sunsets, wind singing through pine trees, and just getting your back scratched.

What does life give you?

Consider the kindness of friends and family, made more tangible during a holiday season, but of course continuing throughout the year.

Or the giving of the people whose hard work is bound up in a single cup of coffee. Or all those people in days past who figured out how to make a stone ax – or a fire, edible grain, loom, vaccine, or computer. Or wrote plays and novels, made art or music. Developed mathematics and science, paths of psychological growth, and profound spiritual practices. A few people whose names you know, and tens of thousands – millions, really – whom you will never know: each day their contributions feed, clothe, transport, entertain, inspire, and heal us.

Consider the giving of the natural world, the sound of rain, sweep of sky and stars, and majesty of mountains. How does nature feed you?

How about your DNA? The moment of your conception presented you with the build-out instructions for becoming a human being, the hard-won fruits of 3.5 billion years of evolution.

You don’t earn these things. You can’t. They are just given.

The best you can do is to receive them. That helps fill your own cup, which is good for both you and others. It keeps the circle of giving going; when someone deflects or resists one of your own gifts, how inclined are you to give again? It draws you into deep sense of connection with life.

And if nothing else, it’s simply polite!

How can we learn to be receptive to life’s bounty?

  • Start with something a friend has recently given to you, such as a smile, an encouraging word, or simply some attention. Then open to feeling given to. Notice any reluctance here, such as thoughts of unworthiness, or a background fear of dependence, or the idea that if you receive then you will owe the other person something. Try to open past that reluctance to accepting what’s offered, to taking it in – and enjoy the pleasures of this. Let it sink in that receiving generosity is good.
  • Next pick something from nature. For example, open to the giving folded into an ordinary apple, including the cleverness and persistence it took, across hundreds of generations, to gradually breed something delicious from its sour and bitter wild precursors. See if you can taste their work in its rich sweetness. Open even more broadly to the nurturing benevolence in the whole web of life.
  • Then try something unliving, perhaps something with no apparent value, like a bit of sand. Yet in that single grain are echoes of the Big Bang – the gift that there is something at all rather than nothing. Who knows what deeper, perhaps transcendental gifts underlie the blazing bubbling emergence of our universe?
  • Take a breath, and enjoy receiving trillions of atoms of oxygen – most of them the gifts of an exploding star.
  • Consider some of the intangibles flowing toward you from others, including good will, fondness, respect, and love. See if you can drink deeply from the stream coming from one person; as you recognize something positive being offered to you, try to experience it in a felt way in your body and emotions. Then see if you can do the same with other people. If you can, include your parents and other family members, friends, and key acquaintances.
  • Try to stretch yourself further. Recall a recent interaction that was a mixed bag for you, some good in it but also some bad. Focus on whatever was accurate or useful in what the other person communicated, and try to receive that as a valuable offering. Open your mind to the good that is implicit or down deep in the other person, even if you don’t like the way it has come out.
  • Keep listening, touching, tasting, smelling, and looking for other overflowing generosity coming your way.

So many gifts.

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Five ways to increase your joy

Joy (sukha in Pali) should be our natural state of being. Unfortunately, though, we’ve been brought up in a society that emphasizes wanting things and having things as the primary path to happiness. Wanting things actually destroys joy, while having things brings only a short-term burst of pleasure that fades quickly.

In fact, thinking that joy depends on things outside of ourselves is a trap. It makes it harder for us to experience real happiness. True happiness comes from our attitude toward things, not from things themselves.

Despite its seeming elusiveness, it’s possible for us to spend much of our time in a state of joy, and here are a few suggestions for moving in that direction:

1. Smile

Remembering to smile has a potent effect on how we feel. It sparks off a whole chain of mental and physical events, and promotes a sense of happiness. We can even smile in the face of pain and fear. This reminds us that basically things are OK, right now. Yes, things are not “perfect,” but we can deal with it.

Rick Hanson, the author of The Buddha’s Brain, reminds us that the mind has a built-in negativity bias. We’re more likely to pay attention to potential threats than to benefits — even benefits that presently exist. As he puts it, the mind “is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” Smiling implicitly connects us with the positive.

2. Appreciate

Along the same lines, appreciation supports the arising of joy. This is true both in meditation and in our ordinary lives. When people were asked to write a letter of appreciation to someone who had benefitted them, they were measurably happier for weeks afterward. Explicit appreciation is the most effective. When we say words of thanks to ourselves, even in our own heads, it makes the appreciation more real — probably because it involves more of the brain.

So in meditation I have a practice I sometimes do of saying “thanks” for all the things that are going right. I notice that the climate is livable (even if it doesn’t fit my narrow conception of “ideal”) and say “thank you.” I notice the room around me, appreciate that it’s sheltering me from the elements, and say “thank you.” I notice that the electricity, gas, internet connection are functioning, and say “thank you” (I’ll do these separately, but I’m abbreviating the process here for the sake of brevity). I’ll say thank you in this way for:

  • Living in a country where there’s law and order,
  • The presence of other people around me, some of whom I have loving relationships with,
  • The presence of furnishings (this is unimaginable luxury for many people in the world),
  • Individual body parts that function, day in, day out,
  • Functioning senses,
  • Functioning utilities — internet, water, electricity, etc.,
  • A world round about me that’s filled with beauty.

This practice can be very detailed. In fact it’s best that it’s very, very detailed, so where I’ve said “individual body parts” above, you can in fact do a detailed body scan, identifying each part of the body in turn and saying “thank you” to each. Even where there’s pain, you can note that the body part is still struggling to function for you, and trying to heal. (This, incidentally, can free us from the tendency to blame the body for being sick or in pain.)

3. Imbue your experience with a sense of lovingkindness

To be loving is one of our deepest needs. The experience of loving is deeply beneficial to us, and helps bring about a sense of wellbeing and joy.

Jan Chozen Bays, in her book, How to Train a Wild Elephant, writes very beautifully about the practices of “loving gaze” and “loving touch.” You can simply evoke the experience of looking with love (for example, remembering looking at a sleeping child) or of touching with love (for example, placing a hand on someone who is in pain). By recalling those ways of interacting, we can bring a sense of love into our experience right now.

As you become aware of your body in meditation, for example, you don’t have to do that in a cold and clinical way. You can “gaze” (not literally, but in terms of being aware) inwardly in a loving way, and fill your entire body with a sense of love.

4. Feel loved

It can also be very helpful to feel loved. In one traditional form of the lovingkindness meditation, we begin by recalling someone (“the benefactor”) who has shown us kindness. By doing so we can recapture the feeling of being loved, which again is an important support for a sense of “everything being all right.”

If it’s hard to recapture that feeling, you can imagine being a baby in your mother’s arms, warm and loved and cared-for.

Sometimes I’ve found it useful just to imagine that there’s a source of light and love in the world, that I can tap into. I’ll imagine that I’m at the receiving end of a shaft of light, and that this light touches me in a loving way, flooding my being with lovingkindness.

I’ve also sometimes imagined that I’m meditating with the Buddha, not in an idealized and iconic form like you see in Tibetan paintings, but just as an ordinary man sitting beside me. And I’ll drop into my mind the phrase “feel the love of the Buddha.” What then happens is that I’ll feel a sense that the Buddha is radiating love, like an aura, and that I’m on the receiving end of his blessings.

5. Savor the positive

Notice and appreciate any positive experiences that rise, however ordinary they may be. It could be the simple feeling of a coffee cup warming your hands, or seeing the sunlight shining through a window. Or it could be a pleasant feeling that arises when you think of a friend. In meditation, this could be a pleasant sensation of energy in one part of the body, or the simple rhythm of the breath, or a sense that the body is relaxing, or moments of calmness beginning to appear in the mind, or a sense of light, or any spontaneous and pleasing imagery that may appear in the mind

Your attention may want to slide quickly onto something else, but this is just an instance of the mind’s tendency to take the positive for granted and to go looking for something to be troubled with. So notice anything positive in your experience.

Don’t grasp after such experiences though, and don’t cling to them. All experiences pass. In fact experiences are passing as we have them. So let them go, and don’t mourn their passing. Just appreciate them as best you can.

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Don’t beat yourself up

Most people know their less than wonderful qualities, such as too much ambition (or too little), a weakness for wine or cookies, something of a temper, or an annoying tendency to rattle on about pet interests. We usually know when we make mistakes, get the facts wrong, could be more skillful, or deserve to feel remorseful.

Some people err on the side of denying or defending these faults ( a word I use broadly here). But most people go to the other extreme, repeatedly criticizing themselves in the foreground of awareness, or having a background sense of guilt, unworthiness, and low confidence.

It’s one thing to call yourself to task for a fault, try to understand what caused it, resolve to correct it, act accordingly, and move on. This is psychologically healthy and morally accountable. It’s another matter entirely to grind on yourself, to lambaste your own character, to fasten on the negative and ignore the good in you, to find yourself wanting – in other words, to beat up yourself. This excessive inner criticism tears you down instead of building your strengths; it’s stressful and thus wears on your mood, health, and longevity.

Nor does beating up yourself help others. Most of the time, they don’t even know you’re doing it, and if they do, they usually wish you’d stop it. Harsh self-criticism can also be a way to avoid feeling genuine remorse, taking responsibility, making amends for the past, and doing the hard work of preventing the fault in the future.

Further, the charges and scorn we throw at ourselves are often based on nasty scoldings, shamings, rejections, and humiliations experienced as a child: bad enough that they did this to you back then, and even worse that you’re doing it to yourself today.

How?

Pick a small fault – such as being a few minutes late, interrupting, or having too much dessert – and then try on two approaches about it. First, talk to yourself about it like a supportive but no-nonsense friend, coach, teacher, or therapist. Notice what this feels like, and what the results are for you. Let’s call this the encouraging approach. Second, talk to yourself about it like an alarmed and intense critic – maybe like your dad, big sister, or a minister or teacher talked to you. What’s this approach feel like, and what are its results?

Let the differences between approaches sink in. How do you feel inside when you’re “listening” to each one? What’s your sense of the influences in your life that have created each approach? What are the distortions or fixations on the negative in the critical approach?

Let a real conviction form as to which approach is better for you – and a real resolve to truly use the one that’s best for you.

Then, when you find a fault in yourself – no need to go looking, they appear on their own! – really try to use the encouraging approach. Name the fault to yourself and admit the facts of it unreservedly. Open to any appropriate remorse. Commit to skillful corrections for the future.

And then take a big breath and very deliberately name to yourself three strengths or virtues you have. Let the sense of them, and of your natural goodness, sink in.

And then take another big breath and move on.

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Fill the hole in your heart

heart-shaped hole in wood

As we grow up and then move through adulthood, we all have normal needs for safety, fulfillment, and love.

For example, children need to feel secure, adolescents need a growing sense of autonomy, and young adults need to feel attractive and worthy of romantic love. When these needs are met by various “supplies” — such as the caring of a parent, the trust of a teacher, the love of a mate-the positive experiences that result then sink in to implicit memory to become resources for well-being, self-regulation, resilience, self-worth, and skillful action. This is how healthy psychological development is supposed to work.

But it doesn’t always go this way, does it? In the lives of most people (me included) – even without any kind of significant mistreatment, trauma, or abuse — the incoming stream of supplies has sometimes been a thin soup: perhaps your parents were busy caring for a sick sibling or preoccupied with their own needs and conflicts, or you moved a lot as a kid and had a hard time connecting with peers, or high school was more than the usual social nightmare, or potential lovers were uninterested, or jobs have been frustrating and dispiriting, or . . . in other words, a typical life.

EXCERPTED FROM:

Just One Thing
by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

book cover

Publisher: New Harbinger
ISBN: 978-1-60882-031-3
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

The shortages in a thin soup leave lacks, deficits, in key internal resources. For example, I was a year or two younger than my classmates, which led to a shortage of inclusion and valuing from them, which in turn led to a lack of confidence and sense of worth in groups that persisted into adulthood. The absence of good things naturally has consequences.

And so does the presence of bad ones. When blows land — when there is loss, mistreatment, rejection, abandonment, misfortune, or trauma — they leave wounds. Sometimes these heal fully, usually due to a rich soup of supplies. But often they don’t, leaving pockets of unresolved emotional pain like pus beneath a scab, while also affecting a person’s functioning like a lifelong limp from a broken ankle that never fully mended.

A lack or a wound will leave “a hole in your heart” — which gets even deeper when the two exacerbate each other. For example, I vividly recall the time a popular girl in high school really put me down; it was a minor blow in its own right, but my years of social isolation had left me with no shields or shock absorbers to buffer its impact, which was to make me feel awful about myself for a long time afterward.

So what can you do about your own lacks and wounds? You’ve got them; we all do. Life alone can be healing: time passes, you put more distance each year between yourself and the train wreck of your early childhood, seventh grade, first great love, last job, last marriage, or whatever, and you move on to a better place. But this essentially passive process of being carried by life is often not enough for a real healing: it’s too slow, or it doesn’t reach down deep enough, or key ingredients are missing.

Then you need to actively fill the hole in your heart.

How do we do this?

It’s fundamentally simple: you take in good experiences that are specifically aimed at your own lacks and wounds. It’s like being a sailor with scurvy: you need vitamin C — not vitamin E — for what ails you. For example, I felt both protected and independent as a child, so experiences of safety and autonomy as an adult — while valuable in their own right — did not address my issue: I needed the particular healing balm of experiences of inclusion and respect in groups.

Consequently, it’s important to know what your own vitamin C is (and sometimes a person needs more than one kind). Perhaps you already know, but if not, here are some questions to help you find out: When your lacks or wounds developed, what would have made all the difference in the world? What do you long for today? What conditions help you feel truly happy – and bring out the best in you? What sort of experiences feed and soothe a deep hunger inside?

More specifically, here’s a summary of some healing experiences – “vitamins” – targeted for particular lacks and wounds, organized in terms of the three motivational systems in your brain:

Lack or woundVitamin
Avoiding harmsWeakness, helplessnessStrength. efficacy
Alarm, anxietySafety, security
Resentment, angerCompassion for oneself and others
Approaching RewardsFrustration, disappointmentSatisfaction, fulfillment
Sadness, discontentment, “blues”Gladness, gratitude
Attaching to “Us”Not seen, rejected, left outAttunement, inclusion
Inadequacy, shameRecognition, acknowledgement
Abandonment, feeling unlovedFriendship, love

Once you have some clarity about the psychological vitamins you need, the rest is straightforward:

  • Look for these vitamins in your life; also do what you can to create or increase them. For example, I keep my eyes open for opportunities to feel liked and appreciated in groups, plus I prod myself to join groups to create those opportunities.
  • The vitamin you need is an experience, not an event. The point of situations in which you are protected, successful, or appreciated is to feel safe, fulfilled, and worthy. This is hopeful, because it gives you many ways to evoke key experiences. For example, if feeling that you matter to others is what will fill the hole in your heart, you could: look for signs that others wish you well, whether it’s the smile of someone making you a sandwich in a deli, the encouragement of a coworker, or a lover’s hug; think about the many people in your life today or in your past who like and appreciate you; ask your partner to be affectionate (and be open to hearing what would help him or her to do this); try to develop more relationships with people who are by nature warm and supportive.
  • Be willing to get a slice of the pie if the alternative is no pie at all. For instance, if you finish a tough project at work, focus on the sense of accomplishment for everything you got done rather than on a few loose ends; if a friend is warm and loyal, open to feeling cared about even if what you really want is romantic love.
  • Then, using the second and third steps of taking in the good, really savor the positive experience for ten or more seconds in a row while sensing that it is sinking down into you, giving you what you’ve always needed.
  • Have confidence that every time you do this, you’ll be wiring resources into your brain. When I started this practice myself, in my early twenties, the hole in my heart looked like the construction site for a skyscraper. But I just kept tossing a few bricks — a few experiences of feeling included — into that hole every day. One brick alone will make little difference, but brick after brick, day after day, year after year, you really can fill even a very big hole in your heart!
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