Buddhism

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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Ancient meditation technique sharpens cognitive skills

wildmind meditation news

Liat Clark, Wired: Different types of meditation illicit different types of physiological response, and can vastly improve cognitive skills.

A team from the National University of Singapore (NUS) explored four types of meditation practiced by Buddhists, from two main branches of the tradition, Vajrayana (Deity and Rig-pa) and Theravada (Shamatha and Vipassana). From each tradition, one style of meditation was designed to relax and another to arouse the senses.

The Singapore team points out in a paper published in PLOS ONE that prior research has focused on Theravada meditation mainly, and its ability to induce relaxation and heighten alertness. Coauthors Maria Kozhevnikov and …

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The Six Elements CD

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The Buddha taught the Six Element Practice as a way of challenging our assumptions of our own separateness and permanence. In this practice we reflect on the various “elements” that compose our being (solid matter, liquid, energy, gas, space, and consciousness itself) and see how each is a flow, rather than something static. Through this practice we come to see that every aspect of our being is in a permanent state of flux, and that we are nothing more or less than the universe become conscious of itself.

The practices on this CD will help you to:

  • let go of limited views of yourself
  • feel a greater sense of awe and wonder
  • experience a greater sense of connectedness
  • find a sense of peace and stability in an ever-changing world

Bodhipaksa, who leads these meditations, has been practicing the reflection on the Six Elements for over 20 years. His gentle guidance will help you to access deeper levels of tranquillity and calm.

This CD contains two tracks:

1. The Development of Lovingkindness (15:36)
The Six Element Practice should be entered into from a state of healthy appreciation, and it’s traditional to begin with a short period of metta bhavana, or development of lovingkindness.

2. The Six Element Practice (46:16)
In this insight meditation practice we reflect in turn on the elements Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Space, and Consciousness, noting how each is an ever-changing process flowing through us. The practice helps us to see and appreciate the reality of our interconnectedness with the universe. It liberates us from a limited view of ourselves and helps us to see that we are nothing less than the universe become conscious of itself.

Total Running Time 61:52

The 6 Elements can be purchased as an MP3 download.

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What is mindfulness?

Q: So today I had a “bad moment” – got stressed and upset about a work situation. My first thought was to let go of the negative thoughts that were running in my brain by actively taking in the good. Then I wondered if that meant I was running away from (ignoring or more importantly trying to change) the negative feelings in my mind/body, which seemed counter to mindfulness.

A: My take, take it with a bucket of salt:

  • Mindfulness is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
  • Mindfulness itself is sustained attention to something, typically with some meta-cognitive awareness of the quality of one’s attention. Mindfulness itself is morally neutral. A burglar could be very mindful. If people want, they can add other qualities to the mindfulness, such as an attitude of acceptance and friendliness toward the objects of attention, such as toward whatever may pass through the mind.
  • Mindfulness itself does not try to change the objects of attention. But mindfulness is not necessarily the only thing happening in the mind! If one likes, one could add some effort, hopefully wise, to change the objects of attention. A person could be mindful of her stress and negative thoughts for a while; then she could both be mindful and make an effort to shift what is in her mind; finally, she could be mindful of the results of her efforts.
  • As you can see, a certain set of presumptions have grown up around mindfulness in the past few decades that actually are additions to the original idea, notably the original idea promoted by the Buddha 2500 years ago. In particular, people talk as if an explicit stance against working with the contents of awareness is innate feature of mindfulness, and it is not. I recommend ready my paper, the Noble Eightfold Path for more on this.
  • Mindfulness itself is always helpful. And sometimes it is useful for a person to drop any effort to shift contents of awareness in any direction whatsoever; sometimes this kind of “choiceless awareness” alone helps negative thoughts release.
  • But often mindfulness alone is not enough. A lot of crud fills the mind, and it persists because the brain is a physical object that does not tend to change unless something changes it (in effect, Newton’s First Law). When you appreciate how embodied we are, and how much the brain is a learning organ that builds structure that it maintains unless it is actually changed, you get very interested in effective and efficient effort. Since neurons that fire together, wire together, keeping negative material in awareness can actually deepen its hold upon you.
  • In essence, there are two great elements in psychological healing, everyday well being and effectiveness, personal growth, and spiritual practice: being with and working with (in Buddhism: Right Mindfulness and Right Effort). These are the two great wings that help us fly.

Each wing has strengths. And the wings work together: mindfulness improves our efforts, and it takes skillful effort to be stably mindful.

  • Then you can make a free and wise choice, moment by moment, as to what will do the most good for oneself, or one’s client: lean toward pure mindfulness, or lean toward mindful efforts. Both are beautiful, and help us fly.
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Mindfulness is all about self-help. It does nothing to change an unjust world

wildmind meditation newsSuzanne Moore, The Guardian: Why are we trying to think less when we need to think more? The neutered, apolitical approach of mindfulness ignores the structural difficulties we live with.

Most of what is wrong in the modern world can be cured by not thinking too much. From psoriasis to depression to giving yourself a “competitive advantage” in the workplace, the answer touted everywhere right now is mindfulness. Just let go for few minutes a day, breathe, observe your thoughts as ripples across a pond, feel every sensation around you. Stop your mind whirring and, lo, miraculously, everything will improve “at a cellular …

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The machinery of upset

Unhappy little girl crying(Emotional) life is great when we feel enthusiastic, contented, peaceful, happy, interested, loving, etc. But when we’re upset, or aroused to go looking for trouble, life ain’t so great.

To address this problem, let’s turn to a strategy used widely in science (and Buddhism, interestingly): analyze things into their fundamental elements, such as the quarks and other subatomic particles that form an atom or the Five Aggregates in Buddhism of form, feeling (the “hedonic tone” of experience as pleasant-neutral-unpleasant), perception, volitional formations, and consciousness.

We’ll apply that strategy to the machinery of getting upset. Here is a summary of the eight major “gears” of that machine – somewhat based on how they unfold in time, though they actually often happen in circular or simultaneous ways, intertwining with and co-determining each other.

The point of this close analysis, this deconstruction, is not intellectual understanding or theory, but increasing your own mindfulness into your experience, and creating more points of intervention within it to reduce the suffering you cause for yourself – and other people.

This will be more real for you if you first imagine a recent upset or two, and replay it in your mind in slow motion.

Appraisals

  • What do we focus on, what do we pick out of the larger mosaic?
  • What meaning do we give the event? How do we frame it?
  • How significant do we make it? (Is it a 2 on the Ugh scale . . . Or a 10?)
  • What intentions do we attribute to others?
  • What are the embedded beliefs about other people? The world? The past? The future?
  • In sum, what views are we attached to? -> Mainly frontal lobe and language circuits of left temporal lobe.

Self-Referencing

  • Upsets arise within the perspective of “I.”
  • What is the sense of “I” that is running at the time? Strong? Weak? Mistreated?
  • Are you taking things personally?
  • How does the sense of self change over the course of the upset (often intensifying)? -> Circuits of “self” are distributed throughout the brain.

Vulnerabilities

  • We all have vulnerabilities, which challenges penetrate through and/or get amplified by (moderated by inner and outer resources).
  • Physiological: Pain, fatigue, hunger, lack of sleep, biochemical imbalances, illness.
  • Temperamental: Anxious, rigid, angry, melancholic, spirited/ADHD.
  • Psychological: Personality, culture, effects of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. -> Depending on its nature, a vulnerability can be embodied or represented in many ways.

Memory

  • Stimuli are interpreted in terms of episodic memories of similar experiences.
  • And in terms of implicit, emotional memories or other, unconscious associations. (Especially trauma)
  • These shade, distort, and amplify stimuli, packaging them with “spin” and sending them off to the rest of the brain. -> Hippocampus, with other memory circuits.

Aversion

  • The feeling tone of “unpleasant” is in full swing at this point, though present in the previous “gears” of survival reactivity.
  • In primitive organisms – and thus the primitive circuits of our own brain – the unpleasant/ aversion circuit is more primary than the pleasant/approach circuit since aversion often calls for all the animal’s resources and approaching does not.
  • Aversion can also be a temperamental tendency.
  • The Buddha paid much attention to aversion – such as to ill will – in his teachings, because it is so fundamental, and such a source of suffering. -> Involves the limbic system, especially the amygdala.

Bodily Activation

  • The body energizes to respond; getting upset activates the stress machinery just like getting chased by a lion.
  • Sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight).
  • Hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
  • All this triggers blood to the large muscles (hit or run), dilates pupils (see better in darkness), cascades cortisol and adrenaline, increases heart rate, etc.
  • These systems activate quickly, but their effects fade away slowly.
  • There is much collateral damage in the body and mind from chronically “going to war.”

Negative Emotions

  • Emotions are a fantastic evolutionary achievement for promoting grandchildren.
  • Both the prosocial bonding emotions of caring, compassion, love, sympathetic joy . . .
  • And the fight-or-flight emotions of fear, anger, sorrow, shame.
  • Emotions organize, mobilize the whole brain.
  • They also shade our perceptions and thoughts in self-reinforcing ways.

Loss of Executive Control

  • The survival machine is designed to make you identify yourself with your body and your emotional reactions. That identification is highly motivating for keeping yourself alive!
  • So, in an upset, there is typically a loss of “observing ego” detachment, and instead a kind of emotional hijacking – all facilitated by neural circuits in which amygdala-shaped information gets fast-tracked throughout the brain, ahead of slower frontal lobe interpretations.
  • With maturation (sometimes into the mid-twenties) and with experience, the frontal (especially prefrontal) cortices can comment on and direct emotional reactions more effectively.
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Intimacy and autonomy working together

Couple holding hand at sun riseIntimacy and autonomy are channels for expressing your natural goodness. For example, being kind toward someone naturally involves both an affinity with that person and a certain autonomy for the kindness to be genuine.

Besides its obvious rewards in everyday life, intimacy supports personal growth and spiritual practice through bringing you into relationship with things. Into relationship with your innermost experience and that of the people around you: the joys and sorrows, the suffering and its causes and what leads to its ending. Into compassion, kindness, and service: Love thy neighbor as thyself. Into relationship with a supportive community. And – if it’s meaningful to you – into relationship with God. Autonomy, too, supports personal growth and spiritual practice. For example, in Buddhism, you are supposed to “see for yourself” and make your own decisions about what makes sense to you. It is up to you, and no one else, to engage the path of awakening. It is you who will inherit the results of your actions, good or bad.

Intimacy and autonomy are often seen as opposite ends of the same continuum, so that as one increases the other diminishes. The classic example is, “Getting married means giving up my independence.” Less dramatically, people have understandable fears that if they express their deepest truth, others will leave them – or if they get really close emotionally, they’ll lose some of their own identity.

But intimacy need not undermine autonomy, and vice versa; in fact, they support each other. Intimacy fosters autonomy since repeated experiences of caring connection, particularly in childhood, are critical for the development of normal ego functions, personal worth, and confidence; healthy relationships provide the “secure base” from which we engage the world as an individual. Autonomy – both yours and the other person’s – nurtures intimacy in many ways, including its reassurance that you can still protect yourself when you’re wide open to another person, and by giving an extra oomph to relatedness: it makes such a difference when you know that the other person really wants to be with you.

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Is the intention a goal or already realized?

golden hourDo you express the intention as a goal or as something already realized?

This gets at a recurring question, even a debate, in Buddhism (and also in psychology and in some religions): Is it about progressing toward an enlightened state, or is it about uncovering the enlightened condition that has always been present? I can’t do justice here to the nuances of that consideration, but I can say what many wise people think is at the marrow of the matter: both are true. (Darn that middle way.)

In other words, it is powerful to focus on intention both as an aim toward a target, and as something that is already the case. The phrasing, “May ____________ “ is a nice way to accomplish this, since “May I be happy” or “May the world be at peace” both embody an aim and an actuality.

And of these two, aim and actuality, it’s usually best to emphasize the latter, the sense of the intention as already realized. For example, one thing that makes the affirmation form of verbalized intentions powerful (whether written, spoken, or thought), is that they are expressed in the present.

We are such a goal-directed culture, and there are so many associations of striving, frustration, and disappointment related to pursuing goals in the minds of so many of us, that there is often greater openness inside to intentions expressed as already true. We are already that way. Our circumstances are already that way.

This also points us to a greater recognition of, and gratitude and appreciation for, what is already good and working and wholesome and wonderful inside ourselves and outside, in our world. This feels good in its own right, which is very good for your brain! And you! And others!

And it directs us toward resources we may have missed, both inside and outside. There really is a profound wisdom and peacefulness already within us – in Buddhism, sometimes called Buddha mind, or bodhichitta. And a beautiful, wonderful harmony latent in the world.

For example, the “resting state” of the brain has a neurological coherence, a quiet hum of relaxed readiness, and a saturation with mildly positive emotion. That is what you return to when something is resolved, and that is what you return to if you start with a positive state and then jiggle it, such as with EMDR or other psychological techniques.

All this means that the universe and mother nature and spirit are all on your side. So, in a sense, a lot of what anyone of us is really trying to do is to re-access a sense of the innate nature of the brain – of our own nature as beings – and settle ever more deeply into that always already true and present condition. Kind of like settling into a cozy comforter in our bed that is home base.

Perhaps take a moment to see if you can sense into your preexisting Buddha nature, inner goodness, spark of the Divine within – in whatever way you experience or name that.

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21 ways to turn ill will to good will

wooden wall painted with slogans of kindness, such as "love and kindness are never wasted"

Here we give up angry, punishing reactions toward others, animals, plants, and things. If such attitudes arise, we resolve not to feed them, and to cut them off as fast as we can.

The Buddha placed great stress on the importance of releasing ill will. In the extreme, he said that even when we are being grossly mistreated by others, we should practice good will toward them, and wish them the best.

To be sure, that does not mean turning a blind eye toward injustice and mistreatment – of ourselves as well as others – nor does it mean turning our back on skillful actions of protection, advocacy, and betterment. It is perfectly appropriate to defend yourself, assert yourself, pursue your own interests – and to do all that on behalf of others, too – as long as all that is done in the spirit of wisdom and good will. This stance is seen pointedly and poignantly in the Dalai Lama’s reference to “ . . . my friends, the enemy Chinese.”

Of course, in daily life, practicing with ill will is often extremely difficult – especially when we feel we’ve been truly wronged. For help, please see, “21 Ways to Turn Ill Will to Good Will.” As a summary, those ways are listed here:

  1. Be mindful of the priming.
  2. Practice non-contention.
  3. Inspect the underlying trigger.
  4. Be careful about attributing intent to others.
  5. Put what happened in perspective.
  6. Cultivate lovingkindness, compassion sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
  7. Practice generosity.
  8. Investigate ill will.
  9. Regard ill will as an affliction.
  10. Settle into awareness of ill will, but don’t be identified with it.
  11. Accept the wound.
  12. Do not cling to what you want.
  13. Let go of the view that things are supposed to be a certain way.
  14. Release the sense of self.
  15. “ . . . ill will is suppressed by the first jhana based on lovingkindness and eradicated by the path of nonreturning.”
  16. Resolve to meet mistreatment with lovingkindness.
  17. Cultivate positive emotion.
  18. Communicate.
  19. Have faith that they will inherit their own karmas one day.
  20. Realize that some people will not get the lesson.
  21. Forgive.
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Intention of harmlessness

Kitten on a white backgroundThis is a broad aim of not causing pain, loss, or destruction to any living thing. At a minimum, this is a sweeping resolution to avoid any whit of harm to another human being. The implications are far-reaching, since most of us participate daily in activities whose requirements or ripples may involve harm to others (e.g., use of fossil fuels that warms the planet, purchasing goods manufactured in oppressive conditions).

Further, in American culture there is a strong tradition of rugged individualism in which as long as you are not egregiously forceful or deceitful, “let the buyer beware” on the other side of daily transactions. But if your aim is preventing any harm, then the other person’s free consent does not remove your responsibility.

Taking it a step further, to many, harmlessness means not killing bothersome insects, rodents, etc. Even as you feel the mosquito sticking its needle into your neck. And to many, harmlessness means eating a vegetarian diet (and perhaps forgoing milk products, since cows need to have calves to keep their milk production flowing, and half of those calves are male, who will eventually be slaughtered for food).

Nonetheless, we need to realize that there is no way to avoid all harms to other beings that flow inexorably through our life. If we are to eat, we must kill plants, and billions of bacteria die each day as we pass wastes out of our bodies. If we get hired for a job, that means another person will not be.
But what we can do is to have a sincere aspiration toward harmlessness, and to reduce our harms to an absolute minimum. And that makes all the difference in the world.

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