change

New Year aspirations (rather than resolutions)

When I was younger I used to think that New Year’s Day resolutions would almost automatically bring about change. It was as if thinking that you wanted to change was enough to make it actually happen. I guess I thought this was possible thanks to the “magic” involved in moving from one year to the next.

Of course I’ve learned a lot since then about how slowly inner change happens. And now I see New Year’s resolutions differently, if I even make them. Now they’re an opportunity to think about the direction that I’d like to see the slow change move in. They’re more “aspirations” than resolutions.

There is one thing that’s happening, though, which is both practical and symbolic. It might almost seem like a silly thing, but my bookkeeper is going to be closing our old QuickBooks Online account and opening a new one. The old one has been with me for years. It’s like an old house that you can still live in. But it’s been repaired and altered so many times — often by people who weren’t very sure what they’re doing — that it’s an ugly mess.

For example, in the past Wildmind used to have an online store where we sold meditation supplies. This was supposed to help cover the costs of teaching meditation. We stopped doing that altogether two years ago, and last year I donated several thousand dollars worth of inventory to my local Dharma center so that they can sell it in their little book shop. While it was a relief to get rid of that inventory, there are still all these categories, products, vendor records, and so on in our accounts. It’s a mess. So we’re starting off with new books — clean, light, and set up to reflect what I’m currently doing on Wildmind. It just feels good. And that is almost magical.

But my personal aspiration is to work at being more balanced in my life — especially balancing self-care and self-nourishment, on the one hand, with being creative, productive, and helpful on the other.

  • I think better, create better, and meditate better when I go for regular walks (which my dogs also love, naturally).
  • I’m happier when I take care of my aging body’s need to stretch. When I do that I can be free from pain and have more energy.
  • And my practice has more life and inspiration when I get off on retreat. That’s something I haven’t been able to do in the last couple of years.

So I’m bearing those sorts of things in mind as I enter 2022. They’re not, as I said, examples of “magical thinking.” Change doesn’t happen just because you want it to. I still have to maintain those aspirations in mind (which is work in itself), to be mindful of opportunities to bring more balance to my life, and to be mindful of when things are getting out of balance. So I still have to do the work. But those are the kinds of things I aspire to focus on in order to bring more balance into my life. If I manage that, then 2022 should be both joyful and creative, and hopefully my life will benefit both me and others.

Happy New Year!

Read More

Dealing with the pain of change

leaves changing

The other day one of my meditation students wrote, asking for some advice. She was having to downsize and move into a smaller apartment. And this meant that she couldn’t hold on to some of her family heirlooms, like her mother’s wedding china. It also meant that her teenage son wouldn’t be able to continue living with her. That last part was particularly painful.

So I wrote the following in response:

Dear X.

It is hard to let go of things, and to have relationships change, so I can appreciate why you’re suffering.

The changes you’re going through are unique to you, even if others have been through similar experiences, so I offer the following only as things you might take as a starting point for your own reflections.

Is there anything you’re looking forward to about the move? It might be that you can focus on things like creating more of a sense of simplicity in your life, or creating a new space around you that supports aspirations you may have. If there are things you can look forward to, then focusing on those might help shift your perspective about the move.

Ironically, I find myself with too much “stuff” at the moment. When Teresa and I moved in together, we ended up with duplicate furniture. Some we got rid of, but we ended up with two dining tables and no room for either of them, and so they’re in storage in our basement. I look in the basement and see all of this clutter, and I sometimes think that if it all disappeared one day I probably wouldn’t notice for weeks, since I hardly ever have a reason to go down there, and that if I did happen to walk into an empty basement I’d feel free! So really we should get rid of all that stuff, but unless we were moving again there’s really no motivation to do so.

Anyway, I do like to think of the freedom and lightness that comes from not being burdened by things I have but don’t use. I don’t know if that’s something that you could also embrace.

I sometimes also think about the fact that one day I’m going to die, and that, as they say, you can’t take it with you. Who would have your mother’s wedding china once you’ve passed away? If there’s no one obvious who would take it, then you might think about what the difference is between giving it away now and it being given away once you’re dead. Advantages to passing it on now (even to strangers) would be that you’d know someone else was enjoying it, that you’d given them this gift, and that you’d be in control of where it goes. Once you die, none of those things would be possible.

With regard to your son, I wonder if you could think of sending him out into the world as a man? Is there some way you could build up to ritually or ceremonially marking and celebrating this transition in his life? I can imagine, for example, that it would be lovely to create a book of wisdom teachings (maybe accompanied by photographs of the two of you) that could guide him as he goes into the world and remain as a tangible record of his transition. Something like that might give you a positive focus that mitigates the suffering of the change.

As I said, I’m just throwing some ideas out there. I’d be really fascinated to hear what you come up with yourself.

What has helped you get through painful periods of change? Why not share in the comments below.

Read More

This one small shift can help you be more at peace

Photo by Wyron A on Unsplash

Often when we see change we act like it’s a big surprise that the universe has been hiding from us. “Who’s that old person looking at me from the mirror?” we ask. We see new gray hairs or wrinkles and treat this like it’s a personal failing. It’s as if we think we could have stopped this natural process of change if only we’d tried harder.

Blind to change

Sometimes we don’t even see change. Psychologists have been studying the phenomenon of “change blindness” for many years. In one of my favorite experiments, people who volunteered for a psychological study were asked to report to a certain office. As they checked in at the reception area, the receptionist said he needed to give them an information packet. He’d then duck down behind the counter, stand up, and hand it to them.

What the overwhelming majority of participants failed to notice was that the person who stood up was not the same person they had been talking to just a moment before. An accomplice had been hiding behind the counter, and immediately after the first receptionist had ducked down, a second person would stand up. The two people had different heights, different facial features, and were dressed differently. Yet very few study participants noticed the these changes. Our minds simply aren’t good at noticing change, even when that change is, you would think, obvious.

We also tend to see others as fixed and unchanging, and yet appreciating their impermanence can help us be more patient with and forgiving toward them. The following exercise might help you to experience this directly.

The Three Ages

Think about someone you tend to get into conflict with. This may even be someone you’re intimate with. Perhaps they have some habit that irritates you or hurts your feelings. (Right now I’m thinking of a colleague who sometimes sighs and rolls her eyes when I express my opinions, as if she thinks I’m naive, unintelligent, or tiresome in some way. I don’t enjoy being treated in this way, and just remembering these things is painful.) Visualize the person who upsets you, and whatever it is they do that upsets you. Notice what feelings arise in the body, and observe them as mindfully as you can.

Now, imagine that on one side of this person you see them as a baby, maybe just under a year old. The baby is able to sit up but not to walk or even to talk, beyond cute babbling. And on the other side you see them as an extremely old person, perhaps in their late 90s. They’re frail, and barely clinging to life. Now you have three images of this person you get annoyed by. You see them as a baby, as they are now, and in extreme old age. And with that image in mind, call to mind once again that annoying thing they do that bothers you. Now see how you feel.

What this does

Most often as people who do this exercise experience either greater compassion for the other person, or a sense of sadness. They find that that annoying habit just isn’t that annoying, once they see it in the context of an entire human life. These responses of sadness or compassion arise because we’re appreciating the fleeting nature of human life.

This awareness of impermanence can help us let go of resentment and other forms of reactivity. We see that in the context of our short time together on this planet it’s simply not important.

Applying this in my life…

I’ve found this approach useful in my daily life with my children. Sometimes, like all children, they are difficult to deal with. When they were young they went through tantrums, and now, as they’re approaching their teens, their behavior is sometimes challenging in different ways. In the midst of a difficult interaction with them I try to see them not just as they are now, but as they were when they were adorable babies, and as I imagine they will be as mature, confident, and well-rounded adults.

When I see them in this way I see that their current selves and current behaviors are nothing more than a passing phase. My role as their father then becomes being compassionately present with them as they move toward adulthood. The more I  bear this in mind, the more relaxed and kind I am with my children.

…and in yours

You might want to try this way of seeing people you have difficulty with. Try playing with this at times you’re not actively in conflict with them. This practice makes it more likely you’ll relate to them compassionately when difficulties do happen to flare up.

This simple shift in perception brings us calm, peace, and compassion.

Read More

None of us is broken

shocked woman

There are so many ways to freak out in response to life’s challenges, disappointments, and frustrations.

We can become anxious, and worried, and imagine catastrophic things happening — worst-case scenarios that make our hearts pound.

We can lose our tempers, yell, storm off, or simmer in resentment.

We can find someone else to blame, however indirectly they may have been involved in whatever it is that’s bothering us.

We can find ways to avoid the difficult feelings around the problem, by drinking, or binge-watching Netflix, or immersing ourselves in work, or comfort-eating.

We can make sure we don’t cross paths with someone we have problems with, or try to ignore mail that may contain bad news, or put off calling the doctor about some symptom we have in case we learn something unpleasant.

We can shut down and retreat into depression, blaming ourselves, telling ourselves how we’re useless and how things always go wrong and how nobody likes us.

We can go numb, and cut off from our feelings.

There are all these ways we can freak out in response to difficulties (and there are probably more) but they all have two things in common:

First, they create more difficulties for us. The mind can act as an amplifier system for problems. Often our reactions create greater difficulties than the original problem that gave rise to them.

Second, they’re all unnecessary. We don’t have to do these things. It may be hard to change, or scary to think about changing, but it’s possible to do so.

We all have the ability to become mindfully aware of how our minds act and the ways in which they can cause us suffering. We all have the capacity to let go of the thoughts and actions that constitute freaking out. We all have the potential to courageously turn toward the difficult feelings that arise in life. We are all capable of meeting challenges with a mind that’s calm and creative — a mind in which we spontaneously respond to difficulties in a wise and balanced way.

We all have that potential.

None of us is broken, in the sense of being unable to move to a way of being that’s more balanced and creates less suffering. All that’s happened in our lives is that we’ve learned and practiced habits that take problems and multiply them. Those habits have been inherited as part of the way our minds work, or have been picked up from our family, friends, or culture. And we can learn new habits.

Accepting this gets much easier when we recognize that habits depend on circuits in the brain, and when we recognize that the brain’s circuitry is not fixed, but is in a constant state of flux. Yes, if we keep exercising habits of freaking out, we’ll keep reinforcing those pathways in the brain. But if we learn to activate parts of the brain associated with habits such as keeping things in a wider perspective, regulating our emotional responses, maintaining positive emotion, etc., then those positive habits will get stronger, and the underlying circuitry for them will become etched more and more deeply in the brain.

With every thought that passes through our mind, every word we speak, every action we take, we are literally rewiring our brains.

This can end up with us becoming radically different — and happier — people than we once were. We just have to take the first step, and accept that we create who we are.

Read More

Attachment in intimate relationships

Unhappy woman sitting while her husband working with laptop

For as long as I’ve been practicing Buddhism, people have been talking about attachment in intimate relationships in a particular way; they’ve talked about the problem as being attachment to the other person.

To be sure, attachment to another person can be a source of pain. When you’re first in love with someone you may find that you make yourself miserable wanting to be with the other person. When they’re unavailable or you’re not sure they’re attracted to you, then this can be agonizing.

In an established relationship, when there’s insecurity along with your attachment you might be jealous of them spending time with others, or fearful that they don’t love you as much as you love them. Those things are painful as well.

Attachment to another person can be such that we fear them changing, because we sense that they’re turning into a different person, and that’s perceived as a threat to our relationship.

And you might just miss the other person when they’re away, although I think most couples appreciate having some time apart.

Those forms of attachment to another person are talked about often, and for many years that limited the way I looked at attachment in intimate relationships. Recently, though, I’ve come to think that a far more important problem with attachment is that which we have to our own habits. Self-clinging is the principal problem we face.

For example, if you’re constantly criticizing a partner because they don’t do things the way you want them to be done, what’s really going on is that you’re attached to having certain things happen in a certain way — and you’re attached to criticism as a communication style. If that’s ongoing and outweighs the positive aspects of the relationship, then you’re going to cause suffering. So the question comes up, are you prepared to be flexible in your own habits? It’s not just a question of putting up with socks on the bedroom floor, or hairs in the shower drain, but of learning new ways of communicating about such things. Can you learn to be more playful, for example, or to use praise and affection as a way of encouraging your partner to change — or are you attached to using criticism?

Wanting to be right all the time is another form of attachment. When this happens we’re attached to a particular kind of “status” (being “the one who is right”), assuming that it’ll bring us happiness. The trouble is that if you’re attached to being right all the time, you’re going to be rigid and unempathetic, and be in an unhappy relationship. Humility and empathy are qualities that are much more likely to lead to a harmonious relationship. So can you let go of your attachment to winning arguments and being right? Can you embrace the need to admit your faults? Can you embrace vulnerability? Vulnerability is an open space in which growth can take place.

Avoiding conflict is another deadly problem in relationships that we can be attached to. We assume that if we ignore a problem it’ll go away. Well, any one particular problem might go away, but it’ll be replaced by a dozen more. Courage requires letting go of the habit of conflict-avoidance.

Grudges are another thing we can get attached to. We get attached to being the victim. This kind of attachment has been described as like grasping a red-hot coal with the intention of throwing it at the other person. Who gets hurt most in that scenario? Forgiveness is a form of letting go of this particular attachment.

These are just a few examples of how being attached to habits can cause suffering in relationships. But any relationship problem I can think of involves attachment of this nature: being attached to drama, being dishonest, ignoring your partner because you’re focused on work or recreation, letting your sexual desire (or the lack of it) conflict with your partner’s wellbeing—and thus the wellbeing of your relationship. These all involve self-clinging.

The measure of how deep our self-clinging can be is how painful and how difficult it is to become aware of, never mind change, our habits. It’s painful to admit when we’re at fault, to communicate honestly and courageously, and to forgive. We can put a lot of energy into resisting doing these things, and when we do face up to our habits we can feel raw, exposed, and humiliated.

While attachment to our partners can be a very real thing, it’s attachment to ourselves and our habits that I see as the most destructive force in intimate relationships.

If you’re interested in this post, you may also be interested in our online event, The Conscious Couple: Bringing the Dharma into Intimate Relationships, which runs from Sep 1–28. Click here for more details.

Read More

The bud dreaming the flower

fotolia_63983416Last weekend I taught meditation on a workshop along with another teacher who talked about the importance of goals as part of one’s spiritual path. This is something I often talked about in the past, although it hasn’t been a prominent part of my teaching recently. I think the last time I wrote about it was in my 2010 book, Living as a River.

My own presentation at the weekend was on mindfulness, appreciation, and gratitude: being in and valuing the present moment.

These two themes might seem contradictory, and it was interesting to explore how they’re actually not, but are (or can be) complementary.

One exercise I’ve done myself and which I recommend others to do is this: Imagine it’s 10 or 15 years in the future. You walk into a large room, and to your surprise it’s full of friends, relatives, colleagues, and members of your spiritual community. They’re all there for you. One by one people stand up and talk about you. They talk about the positive influence you’ve had on their lives. They rejoice in the qualities they admire in you. They celebrate your accomplishments.

I suggest to students that, having done this reflective exercise, they write down the main points of what they’ve heard.

What’s happening when you do this exercise is that you’re getting in touch with your deeper values and aspirations. It’s easier to do this than when you simply sit down and ask the question, “What are my values and aspirations,” because when you do that you’re speaking in your own voice—the voice of your everyday ego, riddled through with doubt, pride, and fear. In hearing others’ voices you bypass the ego and hear a more direct and unfiltered account of what you most value. In fact, what you hear from these “others” is often surprising!

I call this “The bud dreaming the flower.” The bud looks deeply into its nature and sees its own potential. This is the resolution of the apparent paradox of having goals and ideals (which inevitably involve the future) while being completely in the moment. When you do an exercise like the one I’ve suggested, you’re seeing yourself more truly than when you’re simply mindful of who you are right now. This is because “who you are right now” is not something static. It’s a process.

There is no being, only becoming.

You’re always changing. Who you currently are is only a snapshot of an ever-unfolding and ever-changing process. You’re an arrow in flight, completing the long arc from birth to death. Being aware of what’s arising for you right now is like taking a still photograph of one moment from the long curve of your life.

It seems as if a bud need do nothing in order to transform into the flower, but that’s because we don’t see the immense effort that goes into its growth. The bud’s growth is not conscious, however.

Our own growth will often not take place unless we consciously become aware of our potential, unless we consciously work at overcoming the fears and doubts that hold us back, and unless we consciously apply ourselves in our lives. This deeper form of mindfulness is called sampajañña, or “mindfulness of purpose.”

The bud, dreaming the flower, comes to know itself more fully. It comes to see itself not as a static “thing” but as an ever-unfolding process. It comes to see itself in terms of its potential. Having seen this potential, its life becomes more conscious. When decisions are made—whether large or small—they become tools for steering oneself toward our potential future self. Every action becomes, potentially at least, a small step toward the full flower of our potential.

This awareness of our potential is an important practice in Buddhism. It’s why Buddhists commonly chant the refuges and precepts before a period of practice, paying homage to our potential and to the practices that enable us to manifest it. It’s why Buddhists visualize Buddhas and bodhisattvas (this is called “Buddhanusati”), and chant mantras—these are ways, once again, to dream the flower, seeing our own potential enlightened selves.

Read More

Living with change

Everything changes all the time: our bodies, other people and the world around us. In fact, change and impermanence are the fundamental realities of our lives. Change is often painful, so typically we resist it, and that can cause all sorts of problems.

Mindfulness practice helps each of us to see how we respond to life’s uncertainty. We are more able to explore how our reactions can lead us into difficult states on mind such as stress, anxiety and depression. Mindfulness also helps us to accept impermanence and even embrace it.

Here are some exercises that explore change and how it affects us. These are quite potent and you if you think you will find them distressing then just think them over rather than meditating deeply on them. The basis for all reflections like this is self-acceptance or what the Buddhist tradition calls metta

1. Noticing Resistance

A list of all the ways we find to resist change (denial, distraction, blame, resentment etc. etc.) would be a catalogue of our frailty as human beings. These all come from an underlying sense or distress at losing things we love or bring us a sense of security. Mindfulness can allow us to feel that distress directly, and explore how we might let go a little.

It’s important to remember that impermanence isn’t just a negative force. The fact that things are always changing means that we can change in our turn; and that difficulties will pass.

Try this:

Sit quietly, settle down and pay attention to your breathing. Bring to mind something that is going badly for you at the moment. Now reflect that this came about for particular reasons and it won’t stay the same forever. Notice the reactions in your body, feelings and thoughts, staying with those feelings and breathing …

Now bring to mind something that is going well in your life. Reflect that this came about for particular reasons and that it can change as well. Notice the reactions in your body, feelings and thoughts, staying with those feelings and breathing …

2. Letting go of Identities

Perhaps the fundamental way in which we manage life in a changing universe is by having a sense of who we are. We have roles (wife, father, doctor, carpenter etc); and we have identities (e.g. “I’m a winner/loser”; “I’m popular”, I’m an idealist”, “I’m different from other people”). These identities make up the story we tell ourselves and others about our lives

We need a healthy sense of self in order to be happy and healthy, but if we hold that too tightly we will be thrown when the world challenges this idea of who we are. What might it be like to let go of those identities, even just a little?

Try this:

Take eight pieces of paper and on each one write a role or identity that’s important in how you think about your life. These may be positive or negative. Put them in a pile with the most important at the top and the least important at the bottom and turn the pile over. Take the top piece, turn it over and reflect on the role or identity that’s described there, feeling how it is to be that person. Now imagine that this role has vanished from your life and ask yourself the question, “Without that, who am I?”

Go through all the cards in the same way, taking a few minutes to connect with each, imagining it has gone and asking yourself “Without that, who am I?” until you come to the role or identity that is most important to your sense of who you are. Let that go as well and rest in the open space that is left asking, “Who am I, if I let go of all the ways I define myself? What is it like just to be me, without any labels?”

3. Facing Mortality

Our lives, themselves, are impermanent. We all know that we will die, but somehow we manage to keep this knowledge at the back of our minds. People in many cultures have found ways to remind themselves that they are mortal and our time is limited. What would help you do that and make the most of your precious and unique life?

Try this:

Imagine you are on your deathbed and looking back on your life. What is the one thing you wish you had done differently? Now ask what could you start doing that right now to make that possible?

Quotes on change and impermanence

“He who bends to himself a Joy,
Doth the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the Joy as it flies,
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.”
William Blake

“Many people do not realize that we are all heading for death. Those who do realise it will compose their quarrels.” The Buddha (Dhammapada)

“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a
king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.” Hamlet

Read More

New beginnings

Green seedlingThere’s a 50/50 chance that you made some New Year resolutions a couple of months ago; there’s an even better chance that you’ve already abandoned them. Or perhaps you’re one of the people who never makes New Year resolutions because you’ve learned through experience that they’re forgotten almost as soon as they’re created.

Whether we make resolutions or not, we see each new year as an opportunity for new beginnings: not just new years, but new months, new weeks, and new days. Our lives are full of new beginnings. But the most significant new beginnings take place at a much finer scale.

When we meditate, for example, we’re forever catching the mind having gone off and become distracted. We find, for example, that we’ve been mulling over some old hurt, or worrying about some upcoming event, or telling ourselves stories about how we think other people feel about us.

Those moments in which we’ve realized that the mind has become distracted are important new beginnings. Each time we notice that we’ve been caught up in a spiritually unprofitable train of thought, we have a crucial opportunity to let go of it, to reconnect with our present moment experience, to start over.

Sometimes there are so many of these new beginnings that it seems like we’re making little progress. But each time we let go of an unskillful train of thought, returning mindfully and compassionately to our present moment experience, we’re changing who we are. We’re changing our habits, weakening unskillful patterns and strengthening skillful ones. We’re even, at a cellular level, rewiring the brain. Each new beginning may not change us very much, but, as the Buddha said, “Drop by drop, a water pot fills.”

An ongoing commitment to moment to moment change such as this is more powerful than any number of New Year resolutions, precisely because they involve such small steps. We can’t climb a mountain in one bound — thousands of small steps over time are what’s needed.

Sometimes we might feel that our practice is repetitive. You realize you’re distracted, let go and return to the breathing, realize you’re distracted and return to the breathing. You breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, repeat. But in fact each experience we have is a new beginning. No two breaths are the same.

Try noticing your next in-breath. See how it comes into existence, is present in your experience, and then comes to an end. Try that again with the next out-breath. Now follow each in-breath and out-breathe with an awareness that you’ll meet this breath only once in your entire existence. Follow the whole cycle of your breathing: beginnings and endings, endings and beginnings. See how precious each breath, each moment, is?

Now as you observe your in-breaths and out-breaths coming into existence and passing away, notice how each breath is composed of a series of moments. There’s this moment then this moment then this moment — no two the same, and none ever returning. There’s just this endless series of new beginnings and new endings, intersecting in time, each one precious and deserving of our full attention.

Read More

Please don’t start meditating (unless you’re willing to change)

Lodro Rinzler, Huffington Post: A Buddhist teacher I respect a great deal once proclaimed a warning about meditation: Don’t do it unless you’re willing to change. If you’re one of the two gazillion people aiming to launch a meditation practice in this new year, please heed that warning. But here is the good news about that warning: You will change for the better.

It’s that time of year when self-reflection is at an all-time high, so I shouldn’t be surprised at my wall. It’s covered in all the various activity …

Read the original article »

Read More

The teaching of the zombie Buddha

By day I’m a peace-loving Buddhist; by night a fearless zombie slayer.

That second part isn’t entirely true. Last night I didn’t actually slay any zombies, and I certainly wasn’t fearless. In fact I was terrified as I cowered inside my car as a ravening undead creature tried to force its head through the half-open window, growling and gnashing with its foul, gaping maw. I tried to stab at it with a pointed stick, but never quite made contact. (Pointed sticks are for vampires, I know, but you have to use the tools available to you, and that’s what I had at hand.)

As it happens, this was just one of the very realistic zombie adventures that wove themselves into my dreams last night. You might think that I’d wake up feeling disturbed after all these encounters with the living dead, but this morning I actually felt elated, because I understand these dreams and have learned to recognize them as a good sign.

I’ve had many similar nightmares in which I’ve been pursued by dangerous fiends, although these were my first confrontations with zombies. Curiously, whatever form these threatening figures take, they never actually harm me. They are also immune to my attempts to harm them. In these dreams it is they who are terrifying, but it is I who am violent. I hope that strikes you as curious.

What I’ve realized is that we don’t always dream from the viewpoint of our conscious daytime selves. Often our dreams give us an insight into what it’s like to be part of our subconscious.

Call to mind a unhelpful habit that you have—perhaps a tendency to binge-eat, or to get hooked on Facebook, or a tendency to be bad-tempered. Personifying those habits for a moment—which is quite reasonable since they are in fact quite major parts of a person—think of how meditation must appear when seen from their point of view. They don’t want to change, and certainly doesn’t want to cease existing, and yet that’s what meditation is going to do to them. From the point of view of those habits, meditation is a threatening—even terrifying—force. This is true not just for meditation, but for all Dharma practice, which gently destroys who we are in order to birth a new us.

In traditional Buddhist iconography, enlightened figures have both peaceful and wrathful aspects. The peaceful forms are as you would expect: figures meditating quietly, sometimes dressed in simple monastic robes, or sometimes adorned with jewelry, arrayed as princes or princesses. The wrathful forms, by contrast, are wildly dancing, often wreathed in flames. They’re clad in flayed skins, decorated with garlands of skulls, or draped with the corpses of humans or animals. These wrathful forms represent enlightenment seen from the viewpoint of our resistance. They are the zombies I’ve fought in my dreams.

My zombie dreams are encounters with awakening, which is why I’m happy that the undead came close to gnawing on my flesh last night. Something within me is in active pursuit of unskillful patterns of thought and action, and wants to transform them. Something inside me is trying to destroy the recalcitrant habits that cause me suffering. This pursuit is only terrifying in my dreams because I’m experiencing things from the point of view of my habits. Those habits don’t want to change, and so they flee and try to fight back. The forces of compassion and wisdom, on the other hand, may be perceived as threatening but never do any harm.

Last night’s dreams confront me with the fact that although of late I’ve been meditating daily, I haven’t been throwing myself into my practice in a way that’s going to lead to deep transformation. I haven’t been putting in enough hours, or practicing with sufficient diligence. And so I feel a joyful urge to cast myself into the midst of the zombie horde, and to be devoured. In other words I feel enthusiastic about meditating longer, going deeper, and surrendering myself to change.

When I’ve turned to face a threatening figure in my dreams, it’s been revealed as beautiful, wise, and compassionate. And I have confidence that when I meditate deep and long, sitting with any fear that arises, some creative part of me will bring about unexpected and unimaginable transformations in my being.

When we turn to face our fears, everything changes.

Read More
Menu