How to free your mind from worries

Egg with a worried expression drawn on in marker pen

It is difficult to let go of worries. The very nature of worrying seems to keep the mind busy, thinking of the concern over and over again. The more we think about the concern, the more anxious we feel, but there is a way to free the mind from worries.

I live in New England and my sons, who visited for Christmas last December, were traveling during a blizzard. I worried about them. Would they be warm enough? Would they make their travel accommodations on time? Would the transport be safe?

I have worried before and have found that the worrying is not a good use of energy – after all, it does not help a situation.

One way to free your mind from worries is to be in the present moment. Whatever you are doing, pay full attention to the task.

If you are arranging your CDs, focus on putting them in alphabetical order. If you are cleaning, pay full attention to the cleaning. If you are working, focus on the work. If you are driving, focus on the driving.

When we are attentive to what we are doing we enjoy many benefits:

1. improved concentration

2. higher quality communication and relationships

3. heightened clarity

4. improved efficiency

5. increased sense of flow

6. less stress

7. keener insight and intuition

8. authenticity

9. increased resilience to change

10. strengthened self-confidence as well as

11. a mind that is free from worry and anxiety – peace of mind.

So the next time you find yourself worrying, remember to pay full attention to what you are doing and your mind will be free from worries.

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How to get into jhāna (or dhyāna, if you prefer Sanskrit)

Circle of sky seen through a round skylight. The skylight is surrounded by radiating wooden beams.

I’d like to offer you a simple, four-step approach to cultivating jhāna. With a little practice and refinement, this approach makes it much easier to access first jhāna. And since the way to the remaining three jhānas is through the first one, it’ll help you access jhāna more generally, although I have to say that most people need to have a fair amount of one level of absorption because they can go any deeper.

But hang on! I haven’t explained what jhāna is!

What Is Jhāna? (Or What Is Dhyāna, If You Prefer Sanskrit)

Sometimes in meditation we find ourselves effortlessly absorbed in our direct experience — that is, not in thinking (which is always thinking about experience), but in the reality of observing our sensory experience itself. There’s a definite shift into a stable and more enjoyable state of being.

When this state of absorption arises, our distracted thoughts are nowhere to be seen. The mind is calm. We feel alive and vital. We’re deeply happy. And this is a stable experience, not a momentary one. We stay like that, effortlessly, for quite some time. It might be that we feel that the meditation session isn’t long enough. We want to continue!

This experience is jhāna (Sanskrit: dhyāna). It’s a word that just means “meditation” or “absorption,” and it arises when the five hindrances of ill will, sense desire, restlessness and anxiety, sloth and torpor, and doubt have been dispelled. The turbulent emotions and random thoughts that normally fill our consciousness are gone, and we find that the mind is naturally joyful and focused.

There are four levels of jhāna, each one deeper, quieter, and more fulfilling than the one preceding it. Collectively they constitute sammā samādhi, or right concentration in the eightfold path.

Some Buddhist schools place little emphasis on the jhānas. Some teachers dismiss them altogether as non-Buddhist. Some teachers have even said that they’re dangerous distractions from the spiritual path, because we’ll supposedly get “attached” to the pleasure they bring. But any objective look at the earliest Buddhist teachings shows that in the early Buddhist tradition they were regarded as tremendously important, and as indispensable for enlightenment. The Buddha’s enlightenment happened immediately after he realized that jhāna was the path to liberation, and that he shouldn’t be afraid of the joy and pleasure it brought.

If we’re serious about freeing ourselves and others from suffering, we should become serious about deepening our experience of jhāna.

Distraction is common, real absorption is rare

A lot of the time in meditation we set off to follow the sensations of the breathing, but after some time we come to realize that we haven’t been paying attention to the breath at all. We realize that we’ve been caught up in some inner drama, or that we’ve been turning over thoughts in the mind. What were we thinking about, exactly? Often it’s hard to say. Our distractions are not only relentless, but they’re dream-like, and as we “awaken” into a more mindful state they often slip away from us, as our do dreams when we wake in the morning. We commit ourselves once more to mindfully observing our experience, but we get distracted again. The cycle continues.

But once in a while there comes, as I’ve described, that definite shift in the quality of our experience. There’s a change of gear.  Like a blessing, a natural joy and ease arrive.  A lot of people only ever experience this on a meditation retreat, doing a lot of practice. Even then, it can seem like a random visitation. For some it’ll happen off of retreat as well, but again it seems to strike randomly.

There are some people who have an aptitude for jhāna. They find that it arises easily. But often they can’t explain how it happens, or their explanations might not be helpful. Sometimes the best person to explain something to you is someone who has struggled to learn it, rather than someone who never had any difficulties and who therefore doesn’t know how to address them.

Jhāna Can Be Cultivated Systematically

I suggest that the main reason jhāna is so rare and seems to strike at random is that very few people are taught anything specific about how to set up the conditions for absorption to arise. Most people are not taught that jhāna arises from a set of skills and attitudes. And they’re not taught in a systematic way what those skills and attitudes are. All they’re taught is to meditate, and to a lot of it.

So (with some honorable exceptions) teachings around jhāna are often not very practical. They don’t give you a step-by-step guide. Most times when you encounter teachings on jhāna, they basically just repeat information from a sixth century practice manual by a monk called Buddhaghosa, who was a scholar and who probably never actually meditated himself. They often simply enumerate the “jhāna factors.” I call this form of teaching “warmed-over Buddhaghosa.” (It doesn’t help that Buddhaghosa doesn’t even get the jhāna factors right.)

So how can we be systematic about cultivating these deeper, stable states of meditative absorption? How can we move beyond having jhāna as an experience we sometimes stumble into accidentally, and make it more of a regular occurrence in our meditation?

Four Progressive Stages

Getting into jhāna is easier than you might think. I’m going to outline an approach that I’ve found to be useful in cultivating jhāna. I’m going to explain it in four progressive stages, and tell you about the skills involved in each of the stages.

The four progressive stages are:

  1. Calming the mind (cultivating calmness)
  2. Opening to the body’s aliveness (cultivating pīti)
  3. Enjoying present-moment awareness (cultivating joy)
  4. Bringing it all together (allowing calmness, aliveness, and joy to form a self-sustaining feedback loop)

Before we begin, I’m assuming that outside of your meditation practice you have trained yourself to be reasonably ethical. After all, you meditate with the same mind that you carry around in the rest of your life. If you’re running around all day being critical and angry, for example, then you’re unlikely to experience much joy in your meditation. So sort that out first.

My approach is based on an adaptation of the traditional list of jhāna factors that’s found in the suttas (early Buddhist scriptures). This is different from the list that Buddhaghosa describes.

Buddhaghosa described five jhana factors, but in the suttas (the Buddha’s discourses) we find that there are just four.

The Four Jhāna Factors

Quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful (mental) states, one enters and remains in the first jhāna, with 1) aliveness (pīti) and 2) happiness (sukha) born of seclusion, accompanied by 3) initial and 4) sustained thinking. This is the first jhāna.

Again, in the discourses there are four factors enumerated for first jhāna. A thousand years later, Buddhaghosa lists five, the extra one being one-pointedness. That’s not in the original teachings, and it turns out that Buddhaghosa’s view is unhelpful.

Here’s an explanation of the four factors.

First, there’s pīti, which is often translated as “rapture,” but which is better thought of as physical pleasure and energy. Pīti can manifest as a feeling of ease, warmth, and relaxation, as localized tingling, or as currents of energy flowing in the body. In everyday life, pīti is experienced when we’re startled, or when we listen to arousing music, or when we’re relaxing (e.g. when we’re having a massage). I call this aliveness.

The second factor is sukha. This is joy. While pīti is physical, sukha is emotional. It’s the emotion that arises when we’re free from the distractions and turbulence of the hindrances, and when the mind is undisturbed by the world around us. Joy is something we’ve all experienced outside of meditation, and probably in it as well..

The third and fourth jhāna factors are vitakka and vicāra, which are both forms of thought. In the first of the four jhānas, there is still some thinking going on. This is not “monkey-mind,” with our attention leaping from one thought to another on a whim, like a monkey swinging from branch to branch. You can’t experience both forms of thinking at the same time, so really there’s just one factor: thinking. But it’s not just any old thinking that goes on in jhāna. It’s different from the normal inner talk that we do so much of the time.

Thinking That Helps; Thinking That Doesn’t

Most of our thinking, including in meditation, is monkey-mind thinking. Monkey-mind thinking takes us away from our direct experience of the body, feelings, and mind. It inhibits us from becoming absorbed.

But we can also have thoughts in meditation that are helpful. At the very least they don’t take us away from our direct experience, but often they help us stay with our experience, and can even enhance our connection with our direct experience.

Vitakka is “initial thought,” and it’s when a thought simply pops — or is dropped — into the mind but doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t start off a train of random thoughts. Initial thoughts may pop into the mind, as when we think “Gosh, this meditation is going well” and we simply leave the thought there without pursuing it. Or we may introduce an initial thought into meditation, as when we drop in the words “May all beings be well” and simply notice what happens.

Vicāra is “sustained thought.” It is a mindful, connected train of thoughts. If we count our breaths in the mindfulness of breathing practice, this is a form of sustained thought — a series of connected thoughts.

One important thing to note about initial and sustained thought is first, that they’re the kind of thinking we can only do when the mind is calm. Otherwise monkey mind steps in.

Another important thing is that they are often forms of thinking that direct our attention toward our experience. To give you an example, let’s say you connect with your breathing, and with the out-breathing in particular. And then on every out-breath, or every other out-breath, you drop in the words, “Releasing, resting, revealing” — one word on an out-breath. And you keep on doing this for a while.

If you do this attentively, then the word “releasing” directs your attention toward the sensations of relaxation and letting go that take place as you exhale. “Resting” directs your attention toward the fact that the body is coming to rest as you breathe out, and that the mind too is calming and coming to rest. And “revealing” helps you appreciate whatever is arising, including pleasant sensations of energy and aliveness that arise as the body relaxes and the mind calms.

Do you see how this kind of self-talk can help you connect more deeply with your experience, as opposed to the normal monkey-mind drivel that hijacks our attention? This is thought, consciously applied as a tool to direct your attention toward your experience, and to help it stay there.

Anyway, those are the four jhāna factors that the Buddha taught. They’re the factors of first jhāna, which is the start of deeper absorption. Let’s just take first jhāna as our goal.

My method involves taking the four traditional jhāna factors not just as signs that we’ve arrived, but as things to be cultivated. There’s just one slight twist, which involves the thinking factors — vitakka and vicāra. First, we lump them together. Second, we’re not so much cultivating thinking (although we can certain do that by employing useful, helpful thinking). It’s more that we cultivate calmness. The two jhāna factors that are forms of thought only happen when the mind is calm.

So here’s the practical stuff.

1. First, Calm the Mind

In my approach to cultivating jhāna, I start with developing the calmness that supports initial and sustained thought. So the first thing we have to do is to calm the mind.

“Wait,” you might be thinking. “Calming the mind is hard!”

Actually, it’s not as hard as you might think.

There are many ways to radically calm the mind. Two key principles are “soft eyes” and “using thought to quiet thought.”

Soft Eyes

The most important thing to begin with is to let the eyes be soft, which means relaxing the muscles around the eyes, and letting the focus within the eyes be soft, so that the eyes are slightly unfocused. With the eyes slightly unfocused, you’ll notice that you can be aware of your entire visual field, effortlessly. You no longer focus narrowly. Your attention is more relaxed, open, and receptive.

Having soft eyes helps us with two things. First, it instantly calms the mind, so that the amount of thinking we do is drastically reduced. Second, it triggers a more open mode of inner attention. Often in meditation, people use their inner attention like a flashlight, narrowly focusing their attention. on just a few sensations With the eyes soft, our attention becomes more like a candle or an oil lamp. It’s less directional. It’s more open. You find you can effortlessly observe sensations arising all over the body, so that you are aware of the breathing in the entire body.

This is nothing like the idea of “one-pointedness” that we pick up from Buddhaghosa. Remember, he says that that’s a jhāna factor, although it isn’t.

Being aware of the whole body is very different from what most people do in their meditation. Typically, with their flashlight of inner attention, most meditators focus on one small part of the breathing, where there are just a few sensations. The mind gets bored with this very quickly, because it seems that not much is going on. Actually, a lot is going on, but you’re excluding it.

It’s much more effective instead to observe the breathing in the entire body. When we’re aware of the whole body breathing, there’s a lot for us to pay attention to. Our experience is rich, and this allows the mind to be fascinated. And that fascination and the mind being full of an awareness sensations leads to yet more calmness to arise.

You can read more about the practice of soft eyes in the flashlight and the candle.

Using Thought to Quiet Thought

We can even use initial and sustained thought (vittaka and vicāra) to help calm the mind. We introduce thinking that quiets thinking. I gave an example above when I talked about, “Releasing, resting, revealing.” We can also say (on different breaths), “Soft eyes, kind eyes, open field of attention, meeting everything with kindness.” In each case the words direct us toward our immediate experience, guiding us toward calmness, to the point where we can drop the words.

As the mind quiets, our thoughts can even act as mindfulness bells, calling us back to a more open and calm state of awareness.

2. Second, Connect With the Aliveness of the Body

As the mind calms, so do our emotions. Because we’re thinking less, we are stirring up less anxiety, aversion, self-doubt, and so on. Since those emotions cause physical tension, their disappearance leads to a sense of relaxation. In this way, as we become calmer and more at peace with ourselves the body begins to relax more deeply.

Moreover, we are observing the breathing in the entire body. We’re observing not just “the breath,” but “the breathing. The breath is the sensation of contact that air makes with the body as it flows through our airways. The breathing is much more than this. It is any and all sensation connected, however indirectly, with the process that causes air to flow in and out of the body. The breathing includes the breath, but it also includes sensations in the arms and hands, the legs and feet, in our hips and buttocks, in the shoulders, on the skin, amongst other things. The breathing involves the whole body.

Moreover, as we observe the breathing in the whole body we see that it takes the form of soft waves of movement and sensation sweeping through every joint, muscle, tissue, and organ in the body. We can sense a soft wave of letting go on the out-breathing. We can sense a soft wave of energizing on the in-breathing. We can sense the soft wave of the in-breathing turning into the soft wave of the out-breathing, and vice verse, in a constant process of change, moment by moment.

The aliveness of the body really begins to reveal itself if we’re observing not with a cold, clinical gaze, but with a warm, appreciative one. I call this combination of kindness and mindfulness, “kindfulness.” I often think of a technique that psychologists use to induce stress, which involves participants talking to an interview panel who show no approval or recognition, but who maintain strictly neutral facial expressions. This neutrality is perceived as hostile. I believe our bodies react in the same way. If we regard them neutrally, they are slow to relax. If we regard them with kindness, they respond positively. Love yourself, and your self will love you back. Observe the soft waves of the breathing with a kindly gaze, and you’ll start to feel all kinds of pleasurable tingling and energy.

This tingling energy may be located in certain sensitive parts of the body, like the hands, or it may flow with the breathing, or it may pervade the entire body. This “aliveness” is pīti, which some translators render as “rapture” or “joy.” I think “aliveness” is a much more down-to-earth and accurate term.

The fact that the body is giving rise to these fascinating and enjoyable sensations means that our attention is more likely to remain rooted in our present-moment experience. After all, it’s so rich, fascinating, and pleasant, why would be want to think about anything else? Well, we might at first get very excited by what’s going on, and start wondering if enlightenment is about to happen, and so on. But you get over that. On the whole, your mind is much more interested in the body than in thinking, and so the calmness you developed is consolidated further,

3.  Third, Develop Joy (Sukha) By Enjoying Your Experience

A certain kind of joy, pāmojja, often arises as the hindrances die away and the mind settles. Pāmojja is delight; joy; happiness. The way I understand pāmojja is that it’s the pleasurable relief we experience when something unpleasant ends. Think of when you get home from work, get into comfy clothes, and look forward to a restful evening. Ah! So nice!

Realizing that the hindrances have gone is a pleasant relief. We feel happy. Also nice! But this kind of joy is very conditional. It depends on something unpleasant having ended. That experience naturally fades away, and you can’t just repeat it over and over again. So we need to give rise to a different kind of joy: sukha.

  • Enjoy the aliveness of the body. Sukha (stable joy) can be encouraged simply by paying attention to the pleasurable aliveness of in the body, and by enjoying it. To en-joy means to give rise to joy. And we give rise to joy by recognizing what’s wholesome and by appreciating it.
  • Smile. We can also encourage the arising of joy by something as simple as smiling. Your mind takes smiling as a sign that all is well. Smiling creates joy. Smiling offers reassurance to your being, allowing it to relax.
  • Have kind eyes. Joy also arises from  lovingkindness. I talked earlier about having a kindly gaze. That attitude of self-kindness not only helps the body relax, but it helps gladden the mind.
  • Appreciate impermanence. Appreciating the present moment as something miraculous and unrepeatable is another factor that gives rise to joy. (There’s nothing like taking our experience for granted for killing joy). Appreciate that this moment you’re having will never return. You only have one shot at appreciating it, and then it’s gone. Adopt that attitude, and each moment becomes something precious and wonderful. And knowing that makes us happy.

The more we have the habits in our everyday lives of being kind and of being appreciative, the easier it is to bring those qualities in to our meditation.

In summary, to be joyful: appreciate aliveness and anything else that’s wholesome; smile; be kind; be appreciative; and recognize that your experience is a miracle.

One more thing that gives rise to joy: don’t try to give rise to joy. This sounds paradoxical, and in a way it is. If you try to be joyful, grasping often arises. So just focus on appreciating the present moment lovingly, and let joy take care of itself.

With a calm mind, pleasure and energy in the body, and a mind imbued with joy, jhāna begins to flow naturally. At this point we’re not simply observing the sensations of the breath, but noticing the breath accompanied by the experience of aliveness and joy.

Our awareness senses the whole body breathing. And our awareness if permeated by aliveness and joy, and so aliveness and joy permeate the entire body.

4. Fourth, Bringing It All Together

I call calmness, aliveness, and joy the “jhāna foundations” to distinguish them from the scriptural “jhāna factors.”

We’re in jhāna when calmness, aliveness, and joy are well-established. That is, the mind is stable enough that we’re able to stay with our meditation practice quite effortlessly, our experience of the body is pleasurable, and we’re happy. But this is only jhāna when it’s a stable experience.

Sometimes it’s not. It’s possible to have very brief experiences of the three foundations coming together. We might think jhāna has arrived, but a minute later it’s “de-cohered.” One of two of the jhāna foundations are still present, but the three aren’t all working together in a sustained way.

At any point in your meditation you can assess the balance of calmness, aliveness, and joy. (You can even give each factor a score out of ten.) If one or more of these factors is less developed than the others, you have a clear sense of what you need to be working on in order to bring jhāna about. Just look at the steps I recommend above under the headings for developing calmness, aliveness, and joy. Those are what you need to focus on in order to balance up the three jhāna foundations.

But what can really  help the three foundations of calmness, aliveness, and joy settle into a stable experience is finding a lightly held focal point that ties everything together. What I usually go for is the sensation at the rims of the nostrils.

Note that this isn’t one-pointed awareness. You’re not trying to focus exclusively on the nostrils. Instead, it’s a lightly held focal point in the midst of a wider context of a whole-body awareness of the breathing, including calm, aliveness, and joy.

Imagine you’re looking at the sun setting over the ocean. The sun is your lightly held focal point. But the lovely thing about the experience is how the light of the setting sun affects the sky, the ocean, and the other elements of the wider landscape. You’re not trying to focus exclusively on the sun. The sun ties everything together.

Similarly, the lightly held focal point of the rims of the nostrils — clear and vivid — ties together the experience of calm, aliveness, and joy as you observe the whole body breathing.

At this point, jhāna is more likely to become stable. The three foundations feed into and support each other. Calmness helps you to access the body. Your awareness of the body’s aliveness helps you to stay calm, because it absorbs the mind. Calmness is enjoyable — it releases joy. Joy helps the mind to stay calm, because the mind is happy and doesn’t have any need to go elsewhere. The body’s aliveness is enjoyable — it releases joy. Joy helps the body to relax, and so the body remains fully alive.

We have a series of interacting positive feedback loops, which is why this experience of calmness, aliveness, and joy becomes stable enough to last for twenty, forty minutes, or more. This is jhāna.

With this systematic approach, jhāna ceases to be an accident and becomes the natural consequence of your practice.

One More Thing

We’re back to paradox here.

At all times, let go of the idea of “attaining” jhāna. The idea of attaining it easily becomes grasping, and grasping destabilizes the mind and kills jhāna.

So we simply notice and enjoy each moment, and let it take us where it will. Do notice whether or not you seem to be moving in the direction of greater calmness, aliveness, and joy, but without having an “are we there yet attitude.” Yes, you are “there.” You’re in the only there that matters: the present moment as it unfolds beautifully to reveal what it contains. Just be present with the unfolding.

Take care of the present moment, and the present moment will take care of you.

The most direct route to jhāna is not to try to get into jhāna.

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Meditation and mental bandwidth

Neurons in the brain. Dr Jonathan Clarke

The mind has a limited ability to pay attention — as any meditator knows. But we can use the mind’s limited capacity to enter, quickly and easily, states of calmness, concentration, and contentment.

One thing that science has revealed to us with startling clarity is that the brain has a limited capacity for consciously processing information. On one end of the cognitive process our brains do have a very high storage capacity. And on the other end our senses are broadband — able to present to us several megabytes of information every second. But in between the brain’s ability to memorize vast quantities of words, skills, and names, and the senses’ ability to input large amounts of visual, auditory, and tactile information, there is an information bottleneck.

Just ask yourself how long a telephone number can you comfortably store in your short-term memory by repeating it over and over again — you know, between someone telling you the number and you dialing it. You probably have no difficulty in repeating a seven digit number. It’s considerably more difficult to remember a ten digit number (unless the area code is already familiar to you). At 12 or 15 digit telephone number? You can pretty much forget about it. For visual information, most people can only keep something like 3 to 5 pieces of information in short-term memory at one time. Which is why the following kind of scenario can take place:

We tend to look upon deficiencies of perception as being a weakness.

You’ve been asked to participate in a psychology experiment, the details of which are a little vague. It’s something about memory. But it will only take 10 minutes and you’re going to get paid. All you have to do is to present yourself at a reception desk in the psychology department and follow some simple instructions. You dutifully turn up at the appointed time and a young man behind the reception desk takes a look at your letter of invitation. He tells you that he just has to give you an information packet, and then you can go down the hall to another room where the experiments will take place. The young man ducks behind a desk, stands up, hands you the packet, and you go on your way. What about 80% percent of people fail to notice is that the person who ducked down behind the desk is not the same person who stood up and handed them the information packet. The two men are about the same age, but they had different colored hair, are dressed in different colored clothes, and have no facial resemblance to each other.

Why is it that so many people fail to notice that the person they were talking to has changed, mid-conversation, into someone else? It seems to be related to the difficulty we have in consciously processing the vast amount of incoming data that our senses present to us. There is a richly detailed world surrounding us, and while we think we notice much of this detail it seems that, actually, we don’t really take much of it in. To cope with the vast amount of data around us, it’s as if the brain simply labels “the young man behind the desk” as “the young man behind the desk.” Thereafter, as long as “the young man behind the desk” remains “the young man behind the desk,” and doesn’t change, say, into “the young woman behind the desk” or “the middle-aged man behind the desk,” we don’t notice the switch. Having labeled, we no longer have to pay conscious attention.

How can we fill the mind’s bandwidth with the object of concentration so that we can experience a respite from distracted thinking?

Now, we tend to look upon these deficiencies of perception as being a weakness. Those of us who aspire to mindfulness are astonished at these lapses and hope that, as practitioners of meditation, we would be among the 20% who did actually notice the switch. Well, maybe we would and maybe we wouldn’t. But I think there’s a more important point to be drawn from this, which is that we can use the brain’s limited ability to consciously pay attention to help us still the mind and bring about a state of greater calmness, well-being, and mindfulness. So how do we do that?

First, we have to bear in mind that being distracted requires bandwidth. Having dreamy, or angry, or depressed, or anxious thoughts and images pass through the mind takes up some of the mind’s available bandwidth. When you’re meditating — or perhaps “meditating,” by which I mean that you’re kind of paying attention to the breath but there’s also a constant stream of thought that you’re also paying attention to — your bandwidth is being shared between what you consciously intent to be doing (the meditation) and what’s happening automatically (the distracted thinking).

In theory, what we should be doing is filling the mind’s bandwidth with the object of concentration. That’s what one-pointed concentration is. Our conscious attention should be fully taken up by the breath, say, so that there’s no bandwidth available for distraction. When that actually works, it’s great. Because our distracted thinking doesn’t have a channel through which to express itself, that kind of thinking temporarily ceases. We feel calmer. Since distracted thoughts are generally mixed up with negative emotion, which cause stress and suffering, the absence of those thoughts is experienced as a positive relief — a sense of peace and happiness. But most of the time we are distracted, and we don’t manage to get fully involved with the breath, and our distractions stop us from getting more involved with the breath.

So, how can we fill the mind’s bandwidth with the object of concentration so that we can experience a respite from distracted thinking (and the negative emotion that accompanies it)? I’d like to suggest a few “tricks” that will help overwhelm your mind’s limited bandwidth, and give you easier access to states of calmness and happiness.

1. “Eye-max”

One thing I often encourage people to do as the settle into meditation is to go into peripheral vision. By this I mean that I encourage people to start off with their eyes open, and to become consciously aware not just of the narrow spot in front of them that they normally pay attention to. Instead, they pay attention to their entire field of vision, right up to what they’re seeing out of the corner of their eyes. This act of paying attention to the entire field of vision overwhelms the brain’s bandwidth and brings about an immediate reduction in inner chatter. The exercise works even better when other sensory modalities (listening, our spatial senses) are involved. You can read more about the peripheral vision exercise and listen to a guided exercise elsewhere on this site.

2. The stretch

Another way to overwhelm your mind’s bandwidth is to pay attention to two different sensations at the same time. For example, you know you can pay attention to the breath and pay attention to distracted thinking at the same time. But what if you’re paying attention to the breath and also paying attention to the sensations in the hands? And if you’re noticing how the rising and falling of the breath changes your awareness of the hands? Then, it’s much harder to be distracted. The bandwidth available for thinking has been taken up with the meditation practice.

3. Outside the box

A third way to overwhelm your mind’s bandwidth is to look for the boundaries of the breath. In meditation we say we’re paying attention to the breath, but what do we actually mean by “the breath”? Inevitably we’re only paying attention to a small set of the sensations connected with the breathing. We may be paying attention, say, just to a certain collection of sensations connected to the rise and fall of the breath in the belly. But what’s immediately outside those sensations? Can you feel the movements of the breath in the upper legs, for example? Well, the legs are connected to the torso, so, yeah, maybe you can notice some sensations there, you find. How about the lower legs? Noticing those sensations is a bit harder, but the every act of trying to notice those sensations floods our mental bandwidth and reduces our ability to engage with distracting thoughts.

These three techniques are all quick ways to calm the mind. Once we’ve stilled the mind, it becomes much easier to remain in a state of calm concentration. Without the constant chatter of anxiety, anger, desire, etc., the mind becomes happier. A positive feedback loop can develop where we enjoy, more and more, being free from distracting thought, and where we enjoy, more and more, paying attention to the simple sensations of the body.

We may think that the brain’s limited bandwidth is a drawback, and in fact in some ways it is. Our brain’s narrow bandwidth makes is harder for us to notice change in the outside world — as with the psychology experiment above — and probably in our inner world as well. But once we understand the mind’s limited bandwidth, we can make use of it to enter, quickly and easily, states of calmness, concentration, and contentment.

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Meditation helps folks disengage, see clearly, release stress, improve health (Go Memphis, Tennessee)

B. Blair Dedrick, SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE: “You can’t see anything in a cascading river,” said the Memphis, Tenn., teacher of insight meditation. “But when the water gets to a lake, you can see the sky clearly.”

To see clearly is the point of meditation. It can be a path to better health or spiritual enlightenment, or simply a way to stay attentive to the present.

“When you are thinking, you are always in the past or the future, never in the moment,” Greer said. “When you slow down your mind, you return to where life is most real — where you are living.”

Insight meditation is not a clearing of the mind as much as the ability to have thoughts, acknowledge them and let them go, said Greer, a retired University of Memphis professor.

Mark Muesse decided to try meditation almost 20 years ago to help ease stress. The Rhodes College professor of religion stayed with it because it was successful.

“I’m one of those people who likes to control things.” Muesse said. “Meditation teaches you the more you try to control, the more you suffer. The more you relinquish control, the happier you will be.”

For Daniel Lamontagne and his students, the issue is health.

Lamontagne is the head of Healing Meditation, a business in Memphis that teaches meditation designed to help with everything from improving cholesterol and blood pressure levels to ending alcohol and drug use.

“Good health is a combination of mind, body and spirit,” Lamontagne said. “Meditation is just another aspect of good health.”

Various scientific studies have found that meditation lowers blood pressure, chemical levels associated with stress and the risk for heart disease.

“It’s like a preventative.” Lamontagne said. “Eating well helps, exercise helps and alleviating stress and fear helps.”

When Candia Ludy and her husband were sent on a three-year tour to the African nation of Tanzania in 1981 by Catholic Relief Services, the country was suffering from a severe food and water shortage, its factories were closing, its roads were in disrepair.

“It was a stressful time,” Ludy said. “Probably the worst time in Tanzanian history.”

She took along two books by Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and another by a Zen teacher, used them, and has been meditating ever since.

“I’m sure not stopping.” she said. “It’s my life.”

Buddhism teaches that there are many paths to the same end. Ludy said, “You have to find out what works for you.”
Ludy likens this type of meditation to a gentle form of therapy.

“If you put attention, loving attention, on a problem, it will start to melt away,” she said. “Meditation is a very organic, very natural way to make life sweeter.”

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Daily moments of mindfulness (Financial Express, New Delhi, India)

SIMRAN BHARGAVA, Financial Express – New Delhi, India: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” The Irish poet WB Yeats wrote these evocative lines a hundred years ago, and although written in a different context, they are resonant of what life feels like much of the time today. Things fall apart with frightening regularity under the pressure of time shortages, money woes, broken relationships. The unstable centre cannot hold. The result is frustration and despair.

But what, if on the other hand, you were to build a strong centre? One that could withstand the regular breaking down of the world which, of course, will regularly break down. A centre that stays calm even though chaos reigns all around. Then you’d worry less about the storms that come your way because you’d be sailing in a stronger ship.

One way to build this calm centre is through the regular practice of meditation. Another is through the Buddhist way of mindfulness. Meditation is emptying your mind to an inner silence. Mindfulness is living fully in the present. Both bring about the same effect of inner stillness.

Simple as these practices seem, their cumulative effect can be profound. A friend who is an investment banker and a meditation devotee, says not a day passes when he doesn’t meditate, even though he is constantly travelling around the world. He says it keeps him centred against the many fluctuations of his life. His guru first introduced him to the practice in this way: “You start with an illiterate village. Each time you meditate, you bring literacy to one villager. Next time you do it, another villager becomes literate. Bit by bit, the entire village gains literacy. Living in a high-literacy village is very different to living in an illiterate village.” Gradually an inner stillness begins to replace an inner agitation.

Over time these practices really do change the texture of your life. I do them irregularly but even so, I now find it easier and easier to be completely still for longer and longer periods of time. In the beginning this seemed almost impossible to achieve because the rebellious mind was always butting in: “How long have I been sitting? Can’t believe I’m doing this, it doesn’t work. What a waste of time when I have a report to write/ phonecalls to make/errands to do. The phone just rang, wonder who it is. Ouch, my little toe is itching. Someone tell me what the time is. This is dumb, dumb, dumb.”

That inner chattering monkey is more or less gone.

Once you begin to experience stillness, you get addicted to it. It drapes you like cashmere. When you’re still, the muddy waters settle and you can see things that you just couldn’t see when you were all agitated inside. When you’re still, people around you mysteriously calm down as well, as if in synchronistic response. When you’re still, all your senses open up and you discover a world you didn’t even notice before: the slant of the evening sun, the lines on your mother’s hand, the full taste of a ripe orange.

It’s a qualitatively different life.

Anyone can achieve a greater measure of stillness by following some simple ways of being (as against doing). Let me share two that I stumbled upon and found particularly helpful.

The first is from the dearly-loved Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. He was in Delhi a few years ago to spend a day of mindfulness and anyone was free to join. We spent most of the day with him, just sitting, eating and walking.

You could change your life by watching this man walk. I haven’t seen anyone else walk like he does. He walked with full presence, his feet kissing the earth, almost as if he were savouring each step. Nothing else mattered at that moment expect doing what he was doing.

That day of mindfulness got me deeply interested in his work and I subsequently read all his books. In one, he describes how at age four, his mother used to bring him a cookie each time she went to the market. Delighted, he would take his cookie to the front yard, sit down and eat it leisurely, sometime taking half-an-hour to do so. He says: “I would take a small bite and look up at the sky. Then I would touch the dog with my feet and take another small bite. I enjoyed being there, with the sky, the earth, the bamboo thickets…I did not think of the future, I did not regret the past. I was entirely in the present moment.”

Mindfulness is simply doing whatever you’re doing. When you’re eating, eat. When you’re with your kids, be with your kids. When you’re working, work. Be in the moment fully. If you are fully with your “cookie” then you are also likely to be fully with your kids or spouse or co-workers. The way we live one part of our lives is also frequently how we live other parts of our life.

Who would have guessed that a four-year-old eating a cookie in his front yard was already practising one of the most profound principles of Buddhism?

The second “technique” (if you can call it that) is from another well-known teacher called Jon Kabat-Zinn. He is founder and director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre and has trained judges, priests, Olympic athletes and even prison inmates to help bring down their aggression levels.

In one of his meditations called ‘The Mountain Meditation’, he suggests that a good way to centre yourself while meditating is to embody the qualities of a mountain. Mountains are sacred, majestic, symbols of abiding presence and stillness. The sun moves, the seasons change, light and colours on the mountain keep shifting moment by moment. Through it all the mountain just sits. Calmness abiding all change.

Kabat-Zinn suggests you hold these qualities of “mountainness” in your mind’s eye. Imagine yourself as one with the mountain as you sit cross-legged and unmoving. He says: “Invite yourself to become a breathing mountain, unwavering in your stillness. A centred, rooted, unmoving presence.” As we sit holding this image in our mind, we can embody the same unwavering stillness and rootedness in the face of everything that changes in our own lives. Like a central mountain axis that stays still through thick and thin.

The mountain is. You are.

When you practise some of these ways of non-doing you may find that the chaos around you continues but you begin to respond to it differently.

Nothing changes. And yet everything does.

Original article no longer available…

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I sentence you to: tea (The Times, London)

Sharon Krum, The Times: Forget community service, a US judge packs offenders off to a course in Eastern spirituality

Standing in the Santa Fe Municipal Court listening to the judge hand down her sentence, Megan Rodriguez thought that she must be on Candid Camera. After pleading guilty to one charge of domestic abuse (hurling a lamp at her boyfriend), Rodriguez, 19, was sentenced to a Japanese tea ceremony, t’ai chi classes, acupuncture and 12 weeks of meditation.

“When I got the sentence, I kept thinking, what is the judge saying? Medi-what? A meditation sentence? I asked the court clerk if this was for real. I was sure I would get community service and pick up garbage like everyone else.”

But in a move that is causing sniggers in some quarters and applause in others, depending on what side of the New Age fence you stand on, the city of Santa Fe, in the American state of New Mexico, is pioneering an alternative sentencing programme that has offenders taking deep breaths instead of cleaning their local city square. And no, it is not a joke.

“The idea is to show these offenders, most of whom are convicted of domestic abuse, that using certain techniques, you can learn to control the impulse to be violent,” says Mark De Francis, a psychologist at the New Mexico Corrections Department, a doctor of oriental medicine and brains behind the new programme.

“T’ai chi (slow, dance-like martial arts movements), in particular, teaches that what you thought was simply a reflexive, uncontrollable movement is entirely within your control.”

It was late last year when the Santa Fe Municipal Court Judge Frances Gallegos approached De Francis looking for an alternative to the standard “community service” and “anger management training” sentencing options. “She said that they weren’t working well enough, the recidivism rate was still too high.”

De Francis suggested that the judge adopt an Eastern approach to the problem, given that the Western solution was failing. In fact, scientific studies have shown that meditation reduces stress levels, while a 2001 study reported in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that t’ai chi could increase immunity and reduce stress.

With the judge’s imprimatur, De Francis set about designing a programme that would teach offenders how to manage their emotions, all based on the principles of Eastern spirituality. Today the 12-week course, held twice a week, begins with t’ai chi, followed by a tea ceremony, open discussion, then ends with a 20-minute meditation and acupuncture.

“T’ai chi teaches them to slow down their physical bodies,” De Francis says of his multi-faceted approach. “The tea ceremony teaches respect for and interaction with others. Meditation, through visualisation and breathing, shows them that they can calm their minds. This is a new concept for them, but very empowering.” In fact during the meditation, De Francis insists that offenders wear a sleeping mask to block all visual stimuli, then floods the room with aromatherapy. Once they are sufficiently relaxed, he places an acupuncture needle between their eyes to generate emotional balance.

Unsurprisingly, new arrivals to the class often resist their court mandated “touchy feely” classes, not to mention the acupuncture needle, which De Francis says takes some coaxing. “In the beginning some clearly don’t want to be there,” he says. “They have never encountered Eastern practices and don’t understand what’s going to happen. Some joke, disrupt or refuse to participate.” But he adds, with a note of triumph: “Over time they start to respond to the classes. The men really like t’ai chi, particularly the idea that you can still be a warrior without hurting anyone. The females I find are better at meditation. I think once women become mothers, they learn patience faster.”

This was the case with Rodriguez, whose first impression of the class was: “This is too weird. I couldn’t believe my sentence didn’t involve any type of punishment, that all I was supposed to do was learn about being calm.” But Rodriguez, who works in an animal shelter, says she was intrigued enough to participate in all the disciplines and believes that she has benefited. “The t’ai chi and the meditation taught me that you might get angry in a moment but that things pass, and just to breathe and count it down.”

Tetros Ortiz, a 36-year-old manager charged with resisting arrest, told friends that his sentence was to show up at a meditation class, and their jaws dropped. But he is now a giddy convert. After completing the programme, he’s sure he will never set foot in a courthouse again. “I got a lot out of t’ai chi. It taught me to control my strength, and relaxed me.”

He also credits the tea ceremony with teaching him to communicate gently with others, particularly at work. “My co-workers have really noticed a difference.” He says that meditation showed him “that if you think you can’t calm your mind down, you’re wrong. You can. When I get angry now, I think about what I’m going to say; before, I’d just start yelling.”

All of this is music to Mark De Francis’s ears (he concedes that there are some offenders who don’t derive any benefit because of their continued resistance to the programme), but whether this kind of alternative punishment will reduce recidivism remains to be seen.

De Francis says that anecdotal evidence is promising. “When I run into graduates of the programme, they tell me the benefits have been ongoing. I hope that statistics will prove the importance of incorporating mind-body-spirit programmes into alternative sentencing everywhere. I believe the solution in life is finding your inner, rather than outer, opponent to do battle with.”

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The fine art of doing nothing

Simran Bhargava, Financial Express, India: Sit back, close your eyes and relax. Allow any thoughts that surface to pass through your mind like clouds floating in the sky. Simply watch them come and go, without getting hooked into them.

This simple act of doing — well, nothing at all — is one of the most potent tools yet discovered to banish stress from your life. Doing a little bit of “nothing” every day can, over time, change the texture of your life. It can also significantly bring down blood pressure and according to some doctors, reverse cardiac disease.

Meditation is such a humble little technique that for years no one took it seriously at all. Much too flaky, hardcore medical practitioners said, leave it to the yogi types.

Since then, meditation has come a long way. After politely refusing to study the impact of Transcendental Meditation on blood pressure in 1968, the Harvard Medical School, as well as dozens of other medical schools, now include alternative medicine — also known as integrative medicine — in their curricula.

More recently, Dr Dean Ornish’s landmark research found that diet and lifestyle changes-including daily meditation-could actually reverse heart disease. So significant was this study that for the first time US insurance companies agreed to cover costs of patients learning these lifestyle strategies: this was good business because a high percentage of patients who were candidates for angioplasty and bypass surgeries were actually able to avoid it.

And last month, Time magazine’s annual issue on the latest advances in health and science put “How your mind can heal your body” on its cover. It quotes well-known US cardiologist Dr Mehmet Oz who, although trained in western scientific techniques, now also relies heavily on the ancient eastern technique of meditation to help steer patients toward recovery. Why? “Because it works,” he says.

And so something 2,500 years old is new again. Signed and delivered with a seal of approval from some of the highest medical authorities on the planet.

How did meditation become mainstream? Perhaps our suffering — rampant heart disease, hypertension, strokes — caught our attention, with every man over 35 now carrying around with him the very real fear that such an event could happen to him at any time. Perhaps it was just too many people facing too much stress. Perhaps it was the growing voices of meditation converts all around that couldn’t be ignored any longer. And so, many people, including doctors who wouldn’t have earlier given it a second look, said: “Okay, let’s give it a try.”

And what do you know, it works.

Meditation is simply a route to stillness, a way to create a calm centre in a chaotic universe. It is an antidote to the feeling of being overloaded. If mental stress can lead to irritability, anxiety, heart trouble, hypertension, then holding the reverse feeling in the system — mental calm — would lead to wellness. Makes sense doesn’t it?

Too much stress floods the body with the stress hormone cortisol which, unrelieved, can turn toxic — and dangerous. The old ways of dealing with stress didn’t seem to work because the mental noises followed everywhere. To work, to a party, even into sleep. You could take a vacation to get away from chronic stress — only to find that wherever you go, there you are. Alongwith all the excess baggage in your head.

Meditation is a way to regularly defuse the steam. There are many ways to meditate: from Buddha’s 2,500 year old Vipassana to Mahesh Yogi’s TM to Osho’s active meditations to the Mindfulness practices of Thich Naht Hanh to the whirling of the Sufi dervishes which symbolise a still centre in a turning universe.

It doesn’t matter which vehicle you board to reach a stillpoint. All work on the same principle of emptying the mind of its overload: the noises within become a blur — and slowly fall away, leaving a feeling of inner quiet.

According to the Harvard doctor and hypertension expert Herbert Benson triggering the relaxation response in the body is remarkably simple. All it requires is four factors: One, a quiet environment. Two, a short word or mantra which you repeat over and over to row you back to centre when your mind wanders. Three, a passive attitude, which is the most critical element for meditation. And four, a comfortable position. Start with a few minutes and build up to about 20 minutes a day. That’s it.

Several people find sitting still difficult and practitioners say that the mistake they make is trying too hard to shut out the mental chatter. The key is to accept it — to let all thoughts simply pass through the mind. It means also reversing the old programming of “Don’t just sit there, do something” to the new one of “Don’t just do something, sit there.”

Meditation isn’t a quick fix. Its effects are long-term. If you do it regularly, you may begin to notice subtle changes. Earlier an inner restlessness went with you everywhere, now perhaps an inner calm does. Maybe you react with less annoyance at what other people do. Perhaps you sleep better. Perhaps you have sudden clarity on a problem that had you befuddled before. Perhaps there is a lot to be done and you do it — calmly.

And perhaps the doctor straps a blood pressure monitor on your arm and says: “Surprise, normal.”

That’s pretty life-changing.

The spiritual recovery programmes like Alcoholics Anonymous — which have helped millions — suggest regular time for both, prayer and meditation. They say prayer is asking whatever higher power you believe in for help. And meditation is listening quietly for the answers. You may be surprised at some of the answers you get while meditating.

Others say you should ideally meditate for half an hour everyday. And when you can’t find the time to do it, you should do it for an hour. That’s usually a signal that you are overloaded and need to de-stress.

Chances are that, by now, pretty much everyone is convinced of the benefits of meditation. The more important question is: How many actually do it ? Knowing counts for nothing, doing for everything.

The most important words I ever heard on the subject were from a meditation teacher who said that this simple practice is so powerful, that done regularly, it can change your life. You close your eyes and sit still and nothing seems to have changed. But each time you meditate, it’s like putting a drop of blue into a glass of clear water. You don’t even notice it in the beginning.

And then one day the water turns blue.

Simran Bhargava has been a writer and editor for several years. She writes a weekly column on the business of life.

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