Practicing in balance

Photo by Jordan Steranka on Unsplash

There’s an unfortunate tendency these days to see mindfulness as being the only quality we need to develop in meditation, and that everything else follows automatically. But that’s not how practice works, or how it’s traditionally been taught.

Just the other week I had a conversation with someone who seemed rather proud that the only form of meditation practice he did was mindfulness of breathing. He saw this as being a complete and sufficient practice unto itself.

The problem was that his personality seemed very lopsided. He was very austere and emotionally dry. In our conversation there was no emotional give and take, and when I talked about a personal matter that was troubling me his responses totally missed the mark. It was like we were talking two different languages that, rather confusingly, used the same words to mean very different things. It was very perplexing. Although I think he wanted to be able to respond empathetically, he didn’t seem to be able to actually do so.

What was lacking was the balancing factor of kindness and compassion. There is a whole set of meditation practices to do with things like kindness, compassion, appreciation, and reverence. And those practices are important; they are not optional extras but part of Buddhism’s core curriculum.

Now some people are naturally warmer and more emotional than others. They may have very well-developed connections of love and affection in their lives. There may be a lack of balance in their practice, but it doesn’t become a big problem like it does with the person I just talked about. They may not even notice the lack of balance, in fact. But they’re not tapping into their full potential.

Now, mindfulness meditation can be taught with an emphasis on warmth and kindness. I do this myself, and call kindness plus mindfulness “kindfulness.” It’s possible for us to bring quite a bit of kindness into our experience this way. But even if we do, there is still an imbalance. We’re still not developing our full potential as compassionate human beings.

Mindfulness is wonderful. It allows us to see how the mind functions. So it lets us see how anger manifests, for example. And it gives us an opportunity to change the way the mind works. So when we observe that anger is making life unpleasant, we can choose to let go of angry thoughts. We might also realize that we have reserves of kindness and compassion available that we can tap into. And so, when we’re mindful, we may find that we’re also, quite spontaneously, a bit kinder and more compassionate.

But traditionally, kindness and compassion are not just faculties we can tap into, but faculties we can develop, strengthen, and deepen.

In the past we might have just thought of kindness and compassion as rather mysterious “things” inside us. But now we can see that they actually involve specific parts of the brain. Those parts of the brain, like any others, actually grow as we exercise them, in the same way as muscles grow when we use them. And the parts of the brain that are active when we’re compassionate are not the same parts that are active when we’re simply being mindful, so they aren’t exercised automatically as we practice mindfulness.

And this is why there are specific meditation practices to help us cultivate kindness and compassion. They use very specific mental muscles.

If we never did any leg exercises at the gym but only worked on our arms, we’d probably find that our legs did get a bit fitter. After all, if you’re standing and you’re holding weights in your hands your legs are doing some work. But that’s not the same as doing a leg workout. If you only worked out your arms, your legs would end up underdeveloped. This is what can happen with our emotions.

This is why in my own teaching, and in the teaching tradition I was trained in, both mindfulness of breathing and lovingkindness practices were stressed equally. I was always encouraged to alternate these practices and to give them equal weight. In fact, as one of those people who was not naturally very emotional and with a tendency to negativity, I was encouraged at times to put more emphasis on lovingkindness practice. I needed to restore a balance that was missing.

And so that’s how I still teach. When I introduce people to meditation I introduce both mindfulness and lovingkindness practices. And I encourage my meditation students to, where possible, alternate these two approaches to meditation. Mindfulness and lovingkindness practices need equal attention so that we can become not just exceptionally mindful and aware individuals, but exceptionally empathetic and compassionate as well.

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How firmly should you pursue your intentions?

Man surfing

How firmly do you pursue your intentions? Neither too tight nor too loose a rein.

As with the balance of the capital city and the provinces, it’s worth considering what your tendencies are and if there is an imbalance. For example, some of us hold onto our goals to a fault (myself, ahem) going down with the ship – pull up! It’s a trap!! – while others give up way too soon or don’t take their own needs and wants seriously enough.

From the Buddhist perspective, the path that leads to the greatest well-being and goodness for oneself and others steers clear of over-striving on the one hand – clinging is, after all, the primary engine of suffering – yet is also guided by Right Intention and other wholesome aims.

Also see:

The importance of this side of the balance – of perseverance guided by goodness – is seen in one of my favorite phrases of the Buddha. Appearing in many places in the Pali Canon, indicating its importance, it describes worthy practitioners as “ardent, resolute, diligent, and mindful.” All these speak to a real dedication.

In my experience, more people err on the side of being flabby or fearful in their resolutions, and not enough of an ally to themselves, than err on the side of being obsessively driven toward important goals. And of course, within the same person, there may be goals that he or she is too lax about as well as goals that he or she is too obsessive about.

You could reflect on how you might come to better balance for yourself with regard to your strength of resolution. Consider both the goals you could be too driven about . . . . and the goals you could be too lax about.

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Kindfulness of breathing (Day 12)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Do you find it a bit much doing lovingkindness practice every day? Do you feel the need to stay in balance by doing other practices, like mindfulness of breathing? I don’t blame you!

In our last special project, which was to meditate for 100 days (the 100 Day Meditation Challenge) we got about a week into it and then I realized I’d become a bit clearer about the intention behind the challenge. It’s happened again!

Someone wrote in our Google+ Community (a place where people are sharing their experiences of participating in 100 Days of Lovingkindness and giving each other support and encouragement) saying that she was getting a bit bored by doing only one practice, and losing her focus and awareness.

And this reminded me that when I’m teaching people meditation I always encourage them to alternate the mindfulness of breathing and development of lovingkindness practices. The two practices are complimentary: mindfulness of breathing brings clarity, calmness, and a better perception of what’s going on within us. Lovingkindness practice helps us to be more patient and forgiving with ourselves as we do this, and to be kinder toward whatever experiences we find. It’s like having a left and a right leg; you can make good progress by hopping on one leg, but it gets rather tiring after a while.

Lotus, isolated on whiteIn presenting this opportunity to focus on lovingkindness practice for 100 days, I didn’t have in mind either that people would do nothing but lovingkindness meditations, or that they would be able to sustain doing two full-length sits every day. So the suggestion was that in order to honor our commitment to daily lovingkindness practice we’d do a minimum of five minutes of seated practice. Now this could be five minutes of lovingkindness before doing mindfulness of breathing or (and this will make more sense for many people) do five minutes after.

But why limit yourself? You could do three minutes at the start and two at the end. Or you could (if you’re doing the four stage version) do a minute of lovingkindness at the start of each stage and one at the end. Or you could simply blend the two practices, by cultivating a loving gaze, and observing your breathing throughout the practice in that kindly way. I’m inventing the terms “Breathingkindness” and “Kindfulness of Breathing” to describe this approach to meditation.

It’s certainly not helpful, and completely contrary to the spirit of metta, to be rigid with ourselves. Although some kind of commitment to practice is vital, the attitude with which we do that practice is vital. It has to be kind, patient, and forgiving.

[Read the previous 100 Days of Lovingkindness post]
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The compassionate art of taking breaks

At the weekend I read a great article by Tony Schwartz in the New York Times. It was exactly what I needed at that moment to address the problem of being overly busy. The article was about the importance of taking breaks in order to maintain productivity, and it started like this:

Think for a moment about your typical workday. Do you wake up tired? Check your e-mail before you get out of bed? Skip breakfast or grab something on the run that’s not particularly nutritious? Rarely get away from your desk for lunch? Run from meeting to meeting with no time in between? Find it nearly impossible to keep up with the volume of e-mail you receive? Leave work later than you’d like, and still feel compelled to check e-mail in the evenings?

With the exception of the thing about breakfast — I always eat breakfast — this is my life. I’m a bit ashamed to admit it, but checking my email first thing in the morning is what I do. Often there are 30 — sometimes 50 — that have arrived overnight, and I’ve got into the habit of doing triage on my emails as soon as I wake up. I grab my iPad, and I’m off.

I have another bad iPad habit as well, which is of reading on it at night after I go to bed. Because of this I almost always go to sleep later than I should, and then the kids often wake me during the night, or wake up very early in the morning.

And during the day I work more or less continually, usually eating my lunch at my desk. If I’m lucky, my lunch break lasts 10 to 15 minutes. I do of course meditate every day, so at least that counts as a substantial break, but otherwise I’m busy throughout the work day. Sometimes — and you may recognize this in yourself — I get to the point when I just can’t take in one more word. I hit the wall. My brain grinds to a halt and I’m forced to back away from the computer screen. I more or less collapse back in my office chair and wait until my brain has untangled itself from the knot it’s got itself into.

It’s not very mindful or compassionate!

Because this article resonated with me so strongly, I took it very seriously. On Sunday, after my wife had headed out with the kids, I lay down and took a nap. I slept for an hour. And I decided I’d make changes to my work day, too.

Schwartz claims that the brain works on 90 minute cycles. These cycles were identified as operating at night back in the 1950s, and it’s become recognized (he says — I haven’t checked out the science) that these cycles operate throughout the day. That “wall” that I hit is presumably when I’ve pushed past the 90 minutes of one cycle and, failing to take a rest, am now running on empty.

So I’ve been more conscious the last couple of days of the need to take breaks. I’ve been keeping better track of the time, and making sure I program in breaks. I also try to be more mindful of tiredness, so that I’m taking breaks when I need them, and not when the clock says I should have them.

For my breaks I’ve been getting up and walking around, doing the dishes, making and drinking some coffee, going outdoors for a few minutes in order to get a change of scenery and air, and meditating. I plan to add exercising and stretching to my breaks as well.

I’ve still felt a sense of strain in the work day. I think I really go at it when I’m working. But I would have felt much worse had I not taken those breaks.

But all those emails are still going to be flooding my in-box, right? That’s true, but I suspect that I’m just clearer and more productive when I’m better rested, and can therefore deal with them more quickly, efficiently, and effectively. Some of the email I need to deal with is correspondence about meditation practice, and for that kind of conversation you really need to be in a creative space — and that just doesn’t happen when you’re exhausted.

Another change I’ve made is not taking my iPad into the bedroom. This takes away the temptation to read articles or browse social media, and not only do I get to sleep earlier, but I’m probably getting a better quality of sleep because the light from electronic devices is believed to upset our circadian rhythms.

So it’s early days, but I feel like I’m getting more of a handle on my activities, so that I can be more mindful and compassionate toward myself. And that’s going to help not just me, but everyone I’m in contact with.

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“Pocket Peace: Practices for Enlightened Living,” by Allan Lokos

Pocket Peace, by Allan Lokos

In Pocket Peace, Allan Lokos, founder and guiding teacher of the Community Meditation Center located on New York City’s upper west side, offers some practical advice for those of us who are seeking to create more balance in our lives.

It’s no newsflash that living in modern times can be a challenge to the development of our spiritual selves. The truth of the matter, however, is that there have always been daunting challenges to developing a strong spiritual practice. Early Buddhists recognized this by creating the “Paramis,” or “Perfection Practices.” In this book, Lokos re-investigates the Buddhist “Paramis” and builds on them by offering effective “pocket practices” that we can use to better ourselves and have a greater understanding of the world around us.

Title: Pocket Peace: Practices for Enlightened Living
Author: Allan Lokos
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-1585-42781-9
Available from: and

I began reading this book during a transitional moment in my life and found it to be a welcome source of wisdom and re-assurance. When the book arrived in the mail, I was in the process of moving into a different apartment, had just gone through a difficult break-up, and was transitioning from seven months of joblessness into a full-time kitchen job. I found Lokos’ third chapter, entitled, “Relinquishing” to be timely medicine as I began a new life in a new home.

In Chapter 1, “Generosity,” Lokos reminds us that the Buddha placed generosity at the top of a list of six “virtuous practice that lead the way to Enlightenment.” Here is Lokos’ suggested practice for cultivating generosity in our daily lives: “For one week carry at least five dollar bills with you wherever you go and do not walk past anyone who is asking for help.” I liked this chapter because Lokos encourages the reader to develop their own idea about what generosity is, and in particular, leads us to re-examine our notions of morality, and whether the culturally-accepted version of morality is in alignment with our own experiences.

Lokos gently reminds us that “We need never be bound by the limitations of our previous or current thinking, nor are we ever locked into being the person that we used to be, or think we are” (p. 60). An existing understanding of Buddhism and Buddhist practice is not a prerequisite for the enjoyment of this book. For the uninitiated, it can be a fascinating glimpse of Buddhism in practice in modern day NYC, and offer some practical suggestions for being a better person without “taking vows.” For those whom already practice Buddhism in their everyday lives, this book can be a pleasant re-introduction to the “Paramis.”

In Lokos’ own words, “these practices are intended to help us become more aware of our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and motivations, and to see things as they really are, not as they appear to be” (foreword, p. 22). This is a well-written book by an experienced practitioner, teacher, and author. It does not talk down to the reader, rather, encourages them to walk a little taller; to think a little clearer.

Sprinkled with haiku and encapsulated by delightful cover art, and a faux antique-style book-binding, this text should make a welcome addition to any bibliophile’s collection. It even comes with a little pocket-sized card with some of the practices from the book which the reader can carry with them and refer to throughout the day.

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Vajradaka: A fine balance

In a series of articles exploring the art of meditation, Vajradaka shines light on the fine art of balancing activity and receptivity within our practice.

While teaching meditation or when discussing it with friends, I always try to keep basic principles in mind. Sometimes I refer to them overtly, but they are mostly in the background, providing the context within which the details of practicing meditation are explored. One such principle is the relationship between receptivity and activity. These are pillars upon which much of what happens in meditation practice rests.

Receptivity consists in the ability to notice and be aware in a relaxed manner. It enables us to absorb and integrate the different impressions that arise as we meditate. It is like a fertile ground in which our positive mental states can grow and blossom. Receptivity can include strong aspirations — what we might call faith, and even insight. If we are receptive in the face of hindrances to meditation, we can sometimes gain access to a strong intuitive response, as if a well of deeper wisdom makes itself felt. And this guides us away from what is unhelpful.

Activity refers to our endeavor and application. It is what we do in our practice, including the application of particular meditation practices and methods for stimulating positive states of mind, and overcoming hindrances. When we strengthen our positive states of mind — by using a phrase, or bringing to mind an appropriate image — we, are being active. When we consciously check for hindrances and adjust accordingly, we are being active. With practice, our ability to be active becomes intuitive rather than considered or premeditated.

We need both receptivity and activity in our meditation practice and it is sometimes useful to assess the relationship between them to see how much of each is present. However, they are often intermingled, and they are always interrelated. Even so, most people have a bias towards either activity or receptivity. When the relationship between the two becomes attenuated, our meditation will suffer. Over-emphasis on activity can make our practice dry and shallow. A disproportionate emphasis on receptivity can lead to stagnation.

It is important to find ways to ensure that these two qualities operate together. One approach can be described in terms of “noticing” and “looking.” Noticing refers to what happens when we are receptive, and we notice the appearance and disappearance of mental states. Their arising evokes an immediate response within us, which we also notice. We may then choose to be active, in order to strengthen a positive quality or undermine a hindrance.

Looking involves watching for, or searching out, particular mental states that may have been incipient but of which we were not previously conscious. We may ask: what is happening in my experience? or what is missing? or is there a hindrance present? These questions direct our awareness to areas that we might have overlooked. Of course, as well as being active in asking the question, we also need receptivity and sensitivity to what emerges.

The Buddhist tradition suggests various antidotes to hindrances in meditation. Some of these are quite active – for example, the technique of cultivating the opposite quality to what is obstructing meditation. So if one experiences ill-will or hatred in meditation, a suggested remedy is to cultivate loving-kindness (metta). In applying such a remedy, however, we also need receptivity because when the positive quality of loving-kindness actually arises, we need sensitivity and openness in order to include it into the practice.

Another traditional antidote draws more on the qualities of receptivity. This is the “sky-like attitude.” Here we are aware of the hindrance, but neither act to remove it, nor add to what is there. We feel that the mind is like the sky — huge and boundless — and that the hindrance is like a cloud, which we allow to drift away in its own time.

Balancing these qualities is quite an art. As we consciously exercise our skills of receptivity and activity in meditation, they will gradually become second-nature, and will interact harmoniously.

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