Meditation hindrances and how to work with them

Buddha statue overlooking mountains in Himachal Pradesh

I remember my first weekend retreat at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in the summer of 1993. I took the weekend “off” from family and work obligations to learn how to meditate and take an Introduction to Buddhism class. My first meditation experience in the Meditation Hall at Aryaloka was blissful – even the outdoor birdsong quieted and the stillness was palpable.

During that first meditation class, I was excited to learn the list of hindrances to meditation: sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and anxiety and skeptical doubt. I could relate to that list because I experienced those hindrances off the cushion too, to varying degrees, and regularly.

Having the list of hindrances was helpful because when I mediated and watched the antics of my mind, I had a way of working in meditation to move beyond them… sometimes.

The hindrances distract our minds with mundane thoughts that can, and often do, become obsessive. If we are obsessing about mundane issues, we are distracted from our spiritual work and spiritual progress.

Let’s explore the hindrances:

1. Sensual desire (kamacchanda)

Our meditations often reveal what we desire and crave. We sit down to meditate, to still the mind and find calm and tranquility and we start thinking about a person we are attracted to, or the aroma of the bread baking in the oven in our kitchen, or the concert we have tickets for – you know what’s on your list.

When we compulsively crave sensual pleasures (sex, food etc.) we are alienated from the depth of the here and now and from those people, places, thoughts and activities that are in the present moment. So there is nothing wrong with sensual pleasure, but when it becomes compulsive we distract ourselves from being present to the moment, being present to our lives.

When we become aware of  sensual desire we can bring our awareness back to the focus of the meditation. We can look at what we desire and see through our projections and unrealistic expectations. We can look at what discomfort might be beneath the compulsive desire. For instance, when we are distracted by thinking about someone we are attracted to, we may be distracting ourselves from looking at something that is troubling us in our relationships, or disappointment in not achieving a goal, or something we are concerned about. We might ask ourselves “What am I distracting myself from?”

Guarding the doors of the senses is a way of working with sense desire. This involves recognizing what situations, images and thoughts create sensual desire and avoiding them. For instance, when on a retreat or when meditating in a group, avoiding conversations just before the meditation.

2. Ill-will (byapada)

Ill will, or aversion, like sensual desire, obstructs our ability to be mindful and free and alienates us from kindness. We feel constricted and reactive rather than open-hearted and expansive.

Ill will can be sparked by:

  • remembering what we heard a friend say about us that was hurtful
  • going over an angry interchange with a relative
  • wishing we had something that someone else has (a material possession, a relationship, confidence, teaching ability etc.).

We can work with this hindrance by questioning the ill will, noticing the effects on our bodies, how it affects our energy and what it might be covering up such as frustrated ambition, fear, embarrassment or protection from feeling disappointment.

When we are aware of ill will, being attentive to it and stopping ourselves from fanning its flames will help it to dissolve and build confidence in our ability to be present and mindful.

When working with ill will, I realized I have sometimes reacted to someone or a situation, and come to see that the ill will was centered in my own story line or way of interpreting someone’s action or comment. Working with ill will offers the opportunity to have compassion toward myself and other people.

Practicing and cultivating loving kindness, empathy, equanimity and meditating on karma are good antidotes for ill will.

3. Sloth and torpor (thina-middha)

Sloth is a lack of energy and alertness to keep interested in the focus of meditation. We feel drowsy and sleepy and it feels as though our vitality and effort are limited.

Torpor is a lack of mental energy. The mind is dull or easily drifts in thought. This hindrance may be a result of discouragement, frustration, boredom, indifference, hopelessness or resistance.

Sloth and torpor may be overcome by consciously arousing more energy by walking meditation; sitting up with a more erect, energized posture; opening the eyes; washing the face with cool water; opening a window or bringing curiosity and finding interest in the object of meditation.

Bringing curiosity to why we are feeling sloth and torpor, understanding how particular thoughts, beliefs, and evaluations feed into the hindrance can be helpful.

Being mindful of what we eat before meditation and how what we eat affects our energy in meditation, reflection on impermanence and the importance of practicing here and now, reflecting on a dharmic topic that inspires us are all ways to work with this hindrance.

4. Restlessness and worry, anxiety or remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca)

This hindrance manifests as being unable to settle and concentrate due to a physical feeling of wanting to move the body and is accompanied by memories and thoughts about things we are worried about or feel remorseful for.

We may feel agitated and restless, unsettled and uncomfortable. It takes courage, patience and discipline to stay with discomfort and explore our thoughts and actions to understand what triggers them (frustrated desire, pent-up aversion, fear and resentment, or dissatisfaction).

I have found reflection, writing in a journal and talking with spiritual friends helpful in working with this hindrance. Walking meditation, yoga and exercise are also helpful when dealing with restlessness and worry; and confession is beneficial when dealing with regret and remorse.

Remembering how it feels to be still and calm may help. Remembering to consciously breathe or focusing on the ongoing rhythm of breathing, can calm the body. The more attention that is given to breathing, the less attention is available to fuel the restlessness or worry.

Strong opinions about what is or is not supposed to be happening, judgments of what is “good and bad” seldom lead to calm. Attachment to a self-image can be agitating. It can be liberating to realize that we don’t have to believe every thought we have.

5. Skeptical doubt (vicikiccha)

This hindrance manifests as uncertainty about meditation (“Does meditation really work?”) and in one’s ability (“I’m not good at meditating.”) and culminates in a lack of confidence.

Some doubt inspires action and the impulse to understand, encourages deeper investigation and can be healthy.

Doubt that hinders meditation is a doubt in the practice, in the Dharmic teachings, in one’s teachers, and/or in oneself. When doubt involves uncertainty about the practice or the teachings, it is helpful to study and reflect on the Dharma itself.

Questioning deeply held beliefs, attending to unresolved feelings, challenging ingrained convictions about self-identity, remembering something that inspires us in the practice (such as a teaching, a person, or some experience you have had in the practice) can all help to dissipate doubt.

Working with the hindrances can help us to answer the following queries:

  • Where do I put my attention?
  • What thoughts and actions cause my mind to fixate its attention on what I want or don’t want?
  • How can I apply mindfulness rather than allowing this mental activity to continue?
  • How can I work with this impulse of preoccupation and obsessive thinking?
  • How can I bring curiosity and exploration, understanding, kindness and non-reactivity to my meditation practice?

Working with the hindrances can strengthen our faith, our firm conviction in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and remind us of why we meditate and practice ethics and how much we value our practice.

Faith gladdens the heart, clears away the hindrances and breathes life into our efforts to continue our path to freedom.

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Saying adios to doubt

In traditional Buddhist teaching, doubt is a hindrance to progress. Now the English word doubt can also mean something positive. It can refer to the kind of skeptical inquiry upon which rational thought, science, and even true spiritual practice are based. But the hindrance of doubt is not a helpful thing. While healthy skepticism is an essential part of a search for truth, the hindrance of doubt (vicikiccha) is an avoidance or even denial of the truth.

Doubt is a form of storytelling. It’s the lies we tell ourselves. So when we hit an obstacle and tell ourselves “I can’t do this” or “this is a stupid task anyway,” that’s doubt. When we tell ourselves “this always happens,” that’s doubt. When we’re feeling depressed and hopeless and think that things will never change, that’s doubt.

The root of the word vicikiccha is cikicchati, a verb meaning “reflecting, thinking over.” That sounds like a good thing, right? But then we add the prefix “vi-“ and we go from “thinking” to something more like “over-thinking,” or ruminating. That’s not so helpful. Doubt is a kind of cognitive distortion: an inability to see what’s really going on, and an inability to recognize our own potential.

When we’re in a state of doubt, we profoundly limit ourselves. We believe the stories we tell ourselves, and so we end up stuck. We lose touch with our memories and experience of change and growth and competence.

If we’re hit by doubt while writing, we say “I can’t write,” and forget about all the times that our writing has come fluently. (Writer’s block is a classic form of doubt).

When doubt hits us and we tell ourselves “nobody likes me, I’m always alone,” we don’t recognize or value the connections we have with others. We forget about all the friendships we’ve had in the past, or currently have.

We can become so invested in the doubt that we’ll concoct all kinds of stories to explain away evidence that contradicts our narrative of hopelessness. If someone says “Yes, but I love you and care for you” we might tell ourselves “they’re only saying that to make me feel better” or think that if they like us their friendship can’t be worth much. Isn’t it crazy?

So how can we deal with doubt? Here are a few tips:

1. Link unhappiness and inner enquiry

First we have to recognize that what we’re experiencing is doubt. And that’s not easy. We live inside a web of stories, and rarely question our interpretation of reality, assuming that our interpretation is reality. So here’s a suggestion: when you’re not feeling happy, take a look at what your mind is doing to cause your unhappiness. We feel down, and we check to see what thought-patterns and emotional habits are making us miserable. This healthy skepticism becomes a habit. Once this habit becomes established, it’s harder to stay in a state of doubt.

2. Don’t believe everything you think

We need then to question the thought patterns that are presenting themselves to us, and look for more creative responses. So if we find ourselves saying “This isn’t fair — life sucks” we can remind ourselves that life has ups and downs, and that just as the ups are impermanent, so are the downs. If we’re telling ourselves that we can’t write, and that everything that comes from our pen is trite, we can remind ourselves that that’s what editing’s for, or remind ourselves of past successes.

3. But don’t judge your doubt

It’s tempting to say “Oh, heck, I’m experiencing doubt. How stupid of me. I’m always doing that. I’m a terrible person.” Hey, wait a minute. Isn’t that just more doubt? Yup, unfortunately doubt has a way of hijacking the mind, so that recognizing doubt is just another excuse to experience more doubt.

So we also have to train ourselves to be nonjudgmental about our doubt. Doubt is just one of these things that happens. It’s no big deal. Just note the thoughts and let them go.

4. Give your doubt a name

Jack Kornfield suggeste that we give our inner critic a name. We can then listen to our doubts and then say, “OK, Betty. I’ll get back to you on that.”

It’s a great idea.

5. Align your spine

When we feel low, we actually physically get low, by slumping. When we slump we can’t breathe properly, and the brain runs at low efficiency, keeping us in a state of doubt.

So sit up! Upen your chest. And as we say in Britain, “Keep your pecker up.” (That always gets a smile from my American friends. Honestly, it means the same as “keep your chin up.”)

6. Connect with Awakening

Sometimes we can reach out to, and surrender to, our own potential Buddhahood. I often find the phrase, “All beings are, from the very beginning, Buddhas,” going through my head. It’s a way of reminding myself of my potential. Another way of doing the same thing is to call to mind a Buddha or Bodhisattava, like Tara or Avalokiteshvara. Surrendering ourselves to these figures (who are simply embodiments of our potential) is a way of embracing change — and change, fundamentally, is what doubt tries to deny. Doubt and an awareness of change cannot long coexist, and so calling our potential to mind is a way of saying “adios” to doubt.

7. Reflect

The traditional way to dispel doubt is to reflect on the Dharma (the path and teachings that help us reach enlightenment). I’ve always thought “Oh, yeah, right!” when it comes to the effectiveness of this kind of reflection. But a few weeks ago I was sleep-deprived and feeling low, and I found myself reflecting that all things arise from conditions (the traditional teaching of pratitya-samutpada, or conditioned co-arising) and found that within seconds, almost, my doubt was gone.

So the tips above constitute a kind of toolbox for dealing with doubt. They’ve worked for me, and I hope they work for you.

Do you have any tips of your own that you’d like to share? If so, take a moment to comment below.

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Becoming doubtful of doubt

Some recent and ongoing research sheds light on how the experience of depression arises, and also squares with the Buddhist teaching on the hindrance of doubt (vicikicchā).

Buddhist meditation traditions speak of five hindrances to meditation. No, this isn’t things like throbbing knees or the neighbor playing his stereo too loud. The hindrances are five mental states or activities that “hijack” the mind and make it hard, if not impossible, for us to stay focused in meditation. The central one of these hindrances is doubt.

In English we use the word doubt to mean many things. We can talk about doubt in terms of a willingness to question, and a desire to seek the truth without taking ideas on board too quickly. You might be skeptical, for example, that there are in fact five hindrances to meditation, and want to know more about them. You might want to test out in your experience whether this model is valid and useful. And those are very useful responses. That’s part of the meaning of the English word doubt, but in Pali, the word vicikicchā is much more specific. It refers to a lack of confidence and clarity.

Doubt as a hindrance involves, on an emotional level, a collapse in trust. We lack confidence in ourselves, or we lack confidence in the practice we’re doing, or we lack confidence in others and in whether they have anything to offer us. At its mildest doubt can simply be a form of disgruntlement, disengagement, or confusion, but at its most severe it can be a crushing burden of depression.

Doubt has a more cognitive aspect as well. Accompanying the confused, critical, and sometimes depressed emotions are various kinds of disordered thinking. For example, we may be having a hard time with a task we’re working on — whether it’s meditation or something at work — and we generalize this into statements about ourselves (“I can’t do this … I’m not getting anywhere”) or about the task (“Meditation is stupid … this is pointless”) or about the world generally (“This isn’t fair … life sucks”).

Part of the cognitive distortion is that we’re temporarily unable to remember any counter-examples — times that we succeeded and when the task went well, and times when we experienced obstacles and difficulties and overcame them. We think of ourselves as trapped, and stuck, and can’t imagine any creative way out of our situation. The hindrance of doubt hijacks the mind — both our emotions and our thoughts — and leaves us feeling trapped.

The other day I was talking to a meditation student who is writing a novel, and he talked about the difficulty of actually finishing his writing. Being on the verge of completing a project, or being on the verge of a breakthrough, can often trigger doubt. Say the book isn’t popular; how are we going to deal with that? Say it is popular; we’re then faced with the problem of adjusting to a new self-view, and the dread of having other people’s expectations of future success to live up to. Sometimes it seems best just to delay completion.

The research I mentioned earlier, which is described in a New York Times article, illuminates the connection between the emotional aspect of doubt (at its most extreme, depression) and the cognitive.

People were given words, like “rejection” or “loved” and were asked to come up with one specific memory connected with the word. The word specific here meant an event that lasted less than one day.

For “rejected,” one participant answered, “A few weeks ago, I had a meeting with my boss, and my ideas were rejected.” Another said, “My brothers are always talking about going on holiday without me.”

The second answer was wrong — it is not specific, and it refers to something that took place on several occasions.

You can see how the second response is a generalization. It’s highly unlikely that the brothers in question were literally “always” talking about going on holiday without the participant who wrote that comment. Sometimes people will take one or two examples that happened on specific occasions, and generalize them into an “always.” Sometimes counter-examples will be ignored: the time the writer was invited to go on vacation with his or her brothers but wasn’t able to go, or chose not to go for some reason. Sometimes the generalization in these cases is built on a misunderstanding: the intent wasn’t to exclude, perhaps, but the joint holiday was based on an activity that the brothers shared (like rock-climbing) and that the writer didn’t. With doubt, all the nuance gets squeezed out of the experience, and we’re left with a tight, hard statement of hopelessness expressing doubt in the brothers (“they don’t care about me”) and oneself (“I’m not likable enough to be invited”) and even the world (“Nobody likes me”).

These over-general memories seem to be connected with the arising of depression and related conditions:

Scientists at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, assessed 46 firefighters during their initial training and again four years later, when all had experienced traumatic events like seeing comrades injured or killed. Those who could not recall the past in specific detail during the first assessment were much likelier to have developed the disorder by the later one.

Interestingly, Dr. Mark Williams, who is well-known for his research into how meditation can help with depression, has

induced an overgeneral style in subjects by coaching them to recall types of events (“when I drive to work”) rather than specific occasions (“when I drove to work last Saturday”). He found they were suddenly less able to solve problems, suggesting that overgeneral memory is capable of producing one symptom of depression.

Doubt is treatable. My advice to students when doubt arises in meditation is first to deal with their posture. When we’re feeling depressed the body usually slumps and the head drops, and this posture reinforces the feelings of depression. When we straighten up the body it’s harder to feel depressed. Remembering how the body feels when we’re full of confidence can help us change our posture and empower us by bringing confidence into our present-moment experience.

The next thing I advise is to cultivate a healthy distrust of our own stories. Just because we think something doesn’t mean it’s true. If we recognize the signs of vicikicchā — in the form of over-generalized thoughts and stories that disempower us — we can step back from them and not take them so seriously. Jack Kornfield has suggested giving this inner doubter a name. When you hear the nagging voice of doubt you can say something like “Thanks for your input, Betty. I’ll get back to you on that.”

I also suggest seeking a more balanced perspective by seeking the truth. “My brothers are always planning to go on vacation without me.” Really? How often? Twice? Three times? Is that really “always.” Is it a bad thing if they don’t invite me on a climbing trip given that I don’t climb? Have I ever invited them to go away with me? We need to be doubtful of our doubt.

“Meditation just doesn’t work?” Wait, is that true? Are there counter-examples? Well, I guess there are actually lots of times I’ve been on retreat and felt amazing afterward…

I’d expect that this research on depression and over-generalizing will end up by recognizing that depression is just the extreme end of a spectrum of doubt that starts with a mild lack of confidence, and that patterns of over-general thinking are the mechanism that get us from feeling just a bit “down” to a full-blown depressive attitude.

There’s good news in the article regarding how to circumvent this slide:

Williams has found that specificity can be increased with training in mindfulness, a form of meditation increasingly popular in combating some types of depression. Subjects are taught to focus on moment-to-moment experiences and to accept their negative thoughts rather than trying to avoid them. It may help by making people more tolerant of negative memories and short-circuit the impulse to escape them, which can lead to overgenerality.

We’re also told that:

Spanish researchers have reported that aging patients showed fewer symptoms of depression and hopelessness after they practiced techniques for retrieving detailed memories.

This is good news for depression sufferers, but it also shows other people how to maintain robust mental health: be specific in your recollections so that you don’t “talk yourself” into a depressed state of mind.

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Conquering self-doubt with mindfulness-based therapies

The boss loves your work. Your spouse thinks you’re sexy. The kids—and even the cat—shower you with affection. But then there’s the Voice, the nagging presence in your head that tells you you’re a homely, heartless slacker.

Even people who appear supremely fit, highly successful and hyper-organized are sometimes riddled with debilitating doubts, fears and self-criticisms.

“Most people are struggling with difficult thoughts and feelings. But the show we put on for others says ‘I’ve got it handled,'” says Steven C. Hayes, a professor of psychology at University of Nevada-Reno. In reality, however, “there’s a big difference between what’s on the outside and what’s on the inside.”

Cognitive-behavioral therapy aims to help patients conquer their self doubts in two ways: Either by changing the behaviors that go along with it (I’m so fat—I need to get to the gym!) or by challenging the underlying thoughts, which are often distorted. (I’m 45-years old and I’m comparing myself to anorexic models. Get serious!)

Now, a third-wave of cognitive-behavioral therapy is catching on…

Read the rest of this article…

in psychology and self-help circles. It holds that simply observing your critical thoughts without judging them is a more effective way to tame them than pressuring yourself to change or denying their validity.

” ‘Tame’ is an interesting word,” says Dr. Hayes, who pioneered one approach, called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. “How would you go about taming a wild horse? You wouldn’t whip it back into a corner. You’d pat it on the nose and give it some carrots and eventually try to ride it.”

This new psychology movement centers on mindfulness—the increasing popular emphasis on paying attention to the present moment. One of its key tenets is that urging people to stop thinking negative thoughts only tightens their grip—”like struggling with quicksand,” Dr. Hayes says. But simply observing them like passing clouds can diffuse their emotional power, proponents say, and open up more options. (“Here’s that old fat feeling again. You know, this happens every time I look at fashion magazines. I am sure judging myself harshly. Do I want to go to the gym? Or I could go to a movie. Or I could stop reading magazines.”)

“Part of what mindfulness does is get to you to recognize that these critical thoughts are really stories you have created about yourself. They are not necessarily true, but they can have self-fulfilling consequences,” says Zindel V. Segal, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto who devised Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy to help depressed patients. “If you can get some distance from them, you can see that there are choices about how to respond.”

Mindfulness also involves paying attention to your breathing and other physical sensations while observing your thoughts so you have a tapestry of information to consider, says Dr. Segal. In fact, neuro-imaging studies have shown that when people consider problems mindfully, they use additional brain circuits beyond those that simply involve problem-solving.

Although some critics initially dismissed mindfulness-based therapies as vacuous and New Age-y, dozens of randomized-controlled trials in the past decade have shown that they can be effective in managing depression, panic disorders, social phobias, sleep problems and even borderline personality disorder.

A study of 160 patients with major depression, led by Dr. Segal and published in the Archives of General Psychiatry last month, found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was just as good at as antidepressants at warding off relapses of depression.

The National Institutes of Health is funding more than 50 research studies involving mindfulness treatments for psychological problems.

A growing number of therapists are also using mindfulness-based acceptance in their practices. Katherine Muller, associate director of the Center for Integrative Psychotherapy in Allentown, Pa., says she sometimes brings out a little plastic gnome to represent a patient’s negative feelings. “The idea is, ‘These feelings are going to come. What are you going to do about them?’ ” she says. “You don’t have to react to them at all. Just allowing them to exist takes away their power.”

She also finds that practicing mindfulness is more effective at easing her own fear of flying than being reminded about the safety statistics.

On one flight, she says, “all my cognitive skills were going right out the window.” Then another psychologist suggested focusing on the tray table rather than fighting her fears. “It helped me center my head and get a grip,” she says. “It gave me a chance to watch the movie and talk to the person next to me, rather than focus on how the plane might go down in a fiery ball.”

Psychologist Dennis Tirch, director of the New York Center for Mindfulness, Acceptance and Compassion-Focused Therapies, uses this formula to help even people with profound developmental disabilities take control of their emotions: “Feel your soles of your feet. Feel yourself breathe. Label your emotions and make space for your thoughts.”

Extending some compassion for yourself is also an important part of the new mindfulness therapies, Dr. Tirch says. “I can’t tell you how many clients I have who are just beating themselves up about things” says Dr. Tirch. “Give yourself a break—not so you can curl up in bed and stay home, but so you can interact better with the world.”

Kindness and accepting your thoughts nonjudgmentally doesn’t mean having to settle for the status quo, proponents say. Rather than be paralyzed by negative thoughts, you can opt to change your situation—get to the gym or work harder—but with a clearer set of options based on what really matters.

Some critics note that such advice doesn’t sound so different from standard cognitive-behavioral therapy or being kind to the “inner child” of earlier psychotherapy approaches. And some experts say that still more scientific data are needed to evaluate its effectiveness, particularly now that it’s being applied to such a wide array of disorders.

It’s also not clear yet who might benefit most from mindfully accepting their thoughts rather than reasoning with them. For example, Dr. Tirch thinks that it’s still important to convince someone with severe agoraphobia that a piano won’t fall on their head if they leave the house.

Yet Marsha Linehan, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, found that the acceptance therapy she developed in the 1990s enabled suicidal patients and those with borderline personality disorder to accept their feelings and get help while trying to challenge them would only have created more bad feelings.

“It’s the nonjudgmental part that trips most people up,” says Dr. Linehan. “Most of us think that if we are judgmental enough, things will change. But judgment makes it harder to change.” She adds: “What happens in mindfulness over the long haul is that you finally accept that you’ve seen this soap opera before and you can turn off the TV.”

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When meditation seems impossible

My partner goes for a run and comes back looking despondent. ‘I struggled all the way round,’ he says. ‘It was as if I’d never run before.’ He has run several times a week for 3 years now.

‘I know how you feel,’ I say. I’m not thinking about running, though, but meditation. I’ve been meditating for some years now, but when I sit down sometimes it feels impossible. My head itches and the items on my ‘to-do’ list compete for attention. There are odd bodily sensations that could be illnesses in the making. And if all else fails, there’s my good old tinnitus.

Outside responsibilities of work, family and friends, I tend to navigate by feelings. I do things that feel good and avoid things that don’t. This modus operandi has its drawbacks. ‘When did you last use that windsurfing board?’ friends ask. Or ‘I haven’t heard your djembe recently.’ Then there’s my Arabic dance gear languishing at the back of the wardrobe.

With all these activities, pleasure and interest waned. And because these were my motives, there was no reason to carry on. But I’m not meditating for pleasure and interest. Or am I? When I started out, I had ideas of self-improvement. But now I’m told there’s no self to improve. Perhaps I’m trying to re-create an experience I once had, where the veil between me and the world – a veil I didn’t know was there – fell away for half a day.

Who knows? When I’m swamped with difficult feelings, I certainly don’t. And I’m not used to spiritual discipline. The only precedent in my experience is kneeling on the hard, polished floorboards of the school hall to recite the Lord’s Prayer. We prayed with straight faces because Miss Borman rapped you on the knuckles with a ruler in front of the rest of the class if she caught you smirking.

So, when the going gets tough, why don’t I just get up from the cushion and make myself a cup of tea? Well, sometimes I do. But what about those times I don’t? For inspiration, I ask my partner why he finishes his runs. He says it’s because he remembers what life as a couch potato was like.

I’m not blessed by a recollection of the quality of life before meditation. But I am blessed by the anxiety that sends its sinuous tentacles into each and every meditation, reminding me how unmanageable my life can get. So I sit on in fear. I sit on in the shadow of Miss Borman, who believed in our own good even if she had a funny way of showing it. I sit on in the hope that ‘this too will pass’ even though I don’t know it will. I sit on in the hope that the practice will do the ‘me’ I persist in believing in ‘good.’ I sit on to keep myself and the world company. I sit on out of habit and in doubt, feeling like an idiot. I sit on out of gratitude and joy. I sit on to find comfort at least in discipline. I sit on without knowing why. I sit on.

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“When In Doubt, Make Belief,” by Jeff Bell

When In Doubt, Make Belief

Have you ever driven away from your house and found yourself wondering whether you’d remembered to close the garage door? Probably.

Have you ever gone back, checked to make sure that the door was closed, driven away, and then had to come back yet again to make doubly sure? And then repeated the entire exercise again? Probably not, but if you have, then you may be one of the millions of people who struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD.

Jeff Bell is a well-known author, speaker, and radio news anchor. He’s found himself checking the garage door not once, but twice, or three, or more times, on each occasion driving away with less, not more, reassurance about the security of his garage door. He lives with OCD, which is the topic of his latest book, When In Doubt, Make Belief. If at this point you’re thinking, “Well, I may have gone back to to check the garage door, but I’ve never had to do it repeatedly, so I guess this book isn’t for me,” I suggest you think again.

Title: When In Doubt, Make Belief
Author: Jeff Bell
Publisher: New World Library
ISBN: 9781577316701
Available from: (paperback), (Kindle edition),

When Jeff wrote his first book — an OCD “coming out” memoir, if you will — he was overwhelmed by the interest shown by the public and the media. At first he assumed the interest was due to the “freak factor” — people interested in his bizarre psychological condition — but he soon realized that the fascination was fueled not by the strangeness but by the familiarity of the condition. We all experience irrational doubt. We all experience obsessions and compulsions. At times, each of us has acted irrationally and against our best interests because of fear, anxiety, and other powerful habits that drive our actions. Bell has something to say to each of us.

One universal topic he explores is the tendency to see life in black-and-white terms, with everything appearing as part of a dichotomy: good or bad, right or wrong. Who has not fallen into this way of thinking? Bell introduces examples of black-and-white thinking that will resonate with every reader: e.g. someone accuses us of thoughtlessness, and then black and white thought patterns tell us that if one person thinks we are thoughtless, then that must be so, and therefore everyone must think that we are thoughtless, and therefore no one likes us, and therefore we’re going to be unpopular for the rest of our lives. Sound familiar? We may not think like that all the time, but we’ve all thought like that at some point.

Bell also discusses, in terms that are very familiar to me as a Buddhist, the difference between healthy (intellect-based) and unhealthy (fear-based) doubt. Intellect-based doubt is founded on reason, logic, and rational investigation, and leads us towards a constructive engagement with our experience, to greater awareness, and to growth and learning. Fear-based doubt is supported by irrational assumptions and black-and-white thinking. Rather than leading to clarity, it causes a spike in anxiety, catastrophic thinking (a never-ending series of “what-if” questions), and leads us to engage in actions that are neither appropriate nor helpful. Ultimately, fear-based doubt is a vicious cycle, where doubt creates and perpetuates itself.

Although some of the pathological patterns of OCD are common to us all, Bell takes pains to remind us that OCD is a specific biochemical brain disorder, and not a psychological condition that people slip into and out of.

Fortunately, Bell does much more than simply describe the pathology of doubt. He outlines four general principles — reverence, resolve, investment, and surrender — that contain 10 practical steps by which we can get out of doubt. These 10 steps are deeply grounded in spirituality. He encourages us to:

  1. Choose to see the universe as friendly
  2. Embrace the possibility in every moment
  3. Affirm our universal potential
  4. Put our commitments ahead of our comfort
  5. Keep sight of the big picture and the Greater Good
  6. Claim and exercise our freedom to choose
  7. Picture possibilities and direct our attention [away from destructive thinking and towards constructive thoughts]
  8. Act from abundance in ways that empower
  9. Accept and let go of what we cannot control
  10. Allow for bigger plans than our own to unfold.

For Bell, belief is the opposite of doubt. The 10 strategies outlines above are ways of changing our decision-making from being doubt driven to being belief-driven. It’s important for us to believe in ourselves, to learn to trust, respect, and have compassion for others, and to have faith in life itself. Belief, the way Bell uses the term, seems to encompass what Buddhists would term shraddha (an emotional attitude of confidence and trust) and samyak-drshti (accurate views regarding ourselves and the world we live in). Belief, for Bell, is a choice. It is something we can create (hence the title of the book). The very first step he outlines in “making belief” — choosing to see the universe as friendly — is a conscious choice to see the universe as supporting us to the full extent that we are willing to draw upon it. The universe, then, is seen not as endlessly trying to trip us up, but as an endless series of opportunities for pursuing our own greater good. This is an inherently spiritual outlook, and I believe that any spiritual seeker would benefit from exploring Bell’s plentiful, and hard-won, insights.

Here’s one more example of Bell’s spiritual insight: “The key to living with uncertainty is learning to embrace the discomfort of uncertainty.” When faced with doubt, many of us panic. Gripped by panic, we grasp after this short term palliatives that promise to relieve us from our doubt but simply perpetuate it. These are what Bell calls “false exits” from the vicious cycle of doubt. This perspective will be familiar to anyone who has read the work of the American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, or the existentialist-inspired Buddhist writer, and author of “The Faith to Doubt,” Stephen Batchelor.

When In Doubt, Make Belief is a clearly laid out book, full of honest introspection on the part of the author, and bringing in the lived experience of a wide variety of people (some OCD sufferers, some not) as quotations and in the form of interviews with the author. The book contains diagrams neatly summarizing the principles and practical steps that create a belief-based life. Each chapter ends with a handy summary of the main points. For a man who has been crippled by doubt for much of his life, Bell has done a marvelous job of attaining clarity.

Bell honestly acknowledges, however, that he is still working with the issues he raises, and that he is not always able to put into practice his own strategies. In fact, he discusses the kind of internal dialogues he has with his doubt — personified as Director Doubt — dialogues in which Bell is forever being accused of being a fraud for not having completely eliminated OCD from his life. In response to this inner bullying, Bell reminds himself (and us) to concentrate on progress rather than perfection. He explains how he assesses each day in terms of how he has demonstrated his passion for life, how he has demonstrated kindness to others, and how he has demonstrated “grace of self.” I can’t help feeling that all of us would benefit immensely from asking ourselves those three questions at the end of each day.

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Living with uncertainty

When in Doubt. Jeff BellJeff Bell is a nationally recognized author, speaker, and radio news anchor. His first book, Rewind, Replay, Repeat: A Memoir of OCD, was published in 2007 and quickly established Bell as a leading voice in the mental health community. In this interview he talks about his new book: When in Doubt, Make Belief.

You describe this book as “an OCD-inspired approach to living with uncertainty.” What do you mean by OCD-inspired?

As I recount in my first book (“Rewind, Replay, Repeat”), I spent years battling severe obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), learning firsthand what the extremes of uncertainty can do to one’s life — in my case, leading me to endless cycles of “checking,” washing, and other debilitating compulsions. I experienced what it’s like to be utterly consumed by doubt and fear, unable to trust even my own physical senses. Because I was fortunate enough to get treatment, I also learned what it takes to confront this so-called “doubting disease.”

Title: When in Doubt, Make Belief
Author: Jeff Bell
Publisher: New World
ISBN: 978-1-57731-670-1
Available from:

When I went public with my story in early 2007, I was amazed by just how many non-OCD sufferers could relate to my challenges; and the more I traveled the country talking about severe doubt, the more I solidified two conclusions: first, that the lessons I’ve learned from living with chronic uncertainty apply not only to battling obsessions and compulsions, but also to dealing with everyday doubts and worries; and second, that the principles of applied belief that served as guiding beacons through my own darkest years can also offer a way out of the shadows of all kinds of doubt.

So, are you suggesting that everyone has a touch of OCD?

No, not at all. OCD is biochemical brain disorder with very specific diagnostic criteria and mechanics. The challenges its intrusive and disturbing thoughts present typically far exceed those of everyday doubts and worries. That said, I have come to find that there are many critical parallels between OCD and what I call fear-based doubt, specifically when it comes to the counterproductive ways in which we tend to the address the discomfort of both. Because of these parallels, I’ve discovered that OCD offers a powerful laboratory for understanding the mechanics of applied belief. And, if those of us who are biologically predisposed to doubt can train ourselves to believe beyond the flawed processing of our cross-wired brains, I’m convinced that anyone can.

Isn’t doubt often a good thing that serves us well?

Absolutely. That’s why it’s so important to understand the differences between the two distinct forms of doubt that we all battle: doubt based on intellect, and doubt based on fear.

Intellect-based doubt is what we might call “healthy” doubt. It stems from our innate inquisitiveness, human curiosity, and natural inclination to challenge the apparent. It is based on reason, logic, and rational deduction, and it definitely serves us well. It’s this form of doubt that prompts us, for example, to avoid crossing a busy street when we’re not sure whether we can make it to the other side before the flashing “don’t walk” light changes.

Fear-based doubt, on the other hand, is uncertainty based not on reason, logic, and rational deduction, but rather on emotional, black-and-white, and catastrophic thinking. This form of doubt tends to be especially consuming, and when we’re stuck in it, we often lose perspective. We might, for example, decide that we should never cross a street (even with the light), because we once heard about a freak accident in which a pedestrian was killed while crossing a street legally, and we’ve become consumed by a “what-if” question such as What if I too am hit while crossing the street?

How can we know which kind of doubt is driving our decision-making?

Ah, that is often a very difficult question to answer, especially given that the very same fear-based doubt that can distort our thinking is also quite adept at masquerading as intellect-based doubt. Over the years, I have learned to ask five questions that, together, serve as a helpful starting point for deciding what’s driving any particular doubt:

  1. Does this doubt evoke far more anxiety than either curiosity or prudent caution?
  2. Does this doubt pose a series of increasingly distressing “what if” questions?
  3. Does this doubt rely on logic-defying and/or black-and-white assumptions?
  4. Does this doubt prompt a strong urge to act — or avoid acting — in a fashion others might perceive as excessive, in order to reduce the anxiety it creates?
  5. Would you be embarrassed or frightened to explain your “what if” questions to a police officer or work supervisor?

If you answer Yes to these five questions, chances are pretty good that your vantage point is somewhere within what I call The Shadow of Doubt.

Speaking of this Shadow of Doubt, you warn that within it there are six trapdoors. Can you explain?

I use the “Shadow of Doubt” as a metaphor for that distorted state of mind we find ourselves in when fear-based doubt begins consuming us. When we are stuck in Doubt, we often take futile actions in hopes of ridding ourselves of the discomfort of doubt. These actions are much like trapdoors, or apparent escape routes that only take us deeper into the darkness, and there are six of them:

  1. Checking: physically searching for verification that some feared consequence did not, or will not, happen.
  2. Reassurance-seeking; asking for the assurances of others that some feared consequence did not, or will not, happen.
  3. Ruminating: mentally replaying events, conversations, and other events in search of verification that some feared consequence did not, or will not, happen.
  4. Protecting: performing rituals (such as repeating patterns) and acting in unproductive ways for the sole purpose of warding off feared consequences.
  5. Fixing: performing rituals (often relating to symmetry) for the sole purpose of making things “feel” right.
  6. Avoiding: deliberately avoiding events that trigger anxiety.

While these trapdoors include many common OCD compulsions, they also cover the counter-productive actions people without OCD take in response to their fear-based doubts. Take, for example, a man who just returned from a job interview. His fear-based doubt might suggest to him that perhaps he blew a particular interview question. That doubt is uncomfortable, so he tries to get rid of it, replaying the conversation in his head (ruminating) or perhaps checking his answering machine again and again to see if the prospective employer has called. These actions might not be as potentially debilitating as OCD compulsions, but they’re certainly counter-productive.

So, if trapdoors only leave you further stuck in this Shadow, what is the way out?

In my experience, the answer is a process I call “making belief,” and I’ve come to see it as ten specific strategies for willfully choosing to believe beyond my fear-based doubts — about myself, about others, and about life, itself. Together, these strategies offer Ten Steps Out . . . When Stuck in Doubt.

And these strategies are consistent with those you learned through your OCD treatment?

Yes, I believe that they are. At the very heart of cognitive behavior treatment for OCD is the concept of learning to sit with the discomfort of uncertainty. Through a process known as exposure/response-prevention (ERP), therapists help OCD sufferers learn to confront their “what if” thoughts and willfully choose not to act on their urges to perform compulsions solely aimed at reducing the discomfort of those thoughts. In so doing, people with OCD habituate themselves to this discomfort and benefit greatly from the desensitization. Non-OCD sufferers, I have found, can do the very same thing by exercising their free will in avoiding trapdoors. This concept is hardly a new one; Buddhists, for example, have been practicing embracing uncertainty for thousands of years. And all of the great religious/spiritual traditions offer wonderful insights into this approach, as well.

If the process is so straight-forward, why do so many of us remain stuck in Doubt?

The short answer is that, despite its simplicity, this approach requires enormous motivation.

You often describe having learned that particular lesson the hard way.

Right. I learned the basics of ERP early on in my treatment process. Problem was, I wasn’t committed to doing the hard work of standing up to my doubt bully (as I call the imaginary source of my OCD and fear-based doubts). I wasn’t committed to this notion of making belief. And because of my lack of commitment, I floundered through many years of my therapy.

How did you ultimately turn things around?

Out of necessity, really, I developed a motivational tool I’ve come to call the Greater Good Perspective Shift — a means of shifting my decision making from fear-and-doubt-based to purpose-and-service-based. In shifting my perspective, I was able to stand up to my bully again and again.

Can you give us an example?

Sure. Let’s say I’m at a bookstore, about to give a talk about OCD. Because my doubt bully likes to taunt me with “what if” questions surrounding my potential to harm other people, “he” might pose the question: What if you’re unknowingly carrying some horrific virus that you might then spread to the people who have shown up for your talk? The bully tells me I should go to the restroom and scrub my hands, and suggests that this is the “good” choice because it will reduce my anxiety about harming others. By contrast, he says the “bad” choice would be to go straight to the speaking area and risk contaminating the people who are there. The bully’s motivators of fear and doubt would have me choose the so-called “good” choice, and therefore scrub my hands.

Over the years, I have learned that, when stuck in Doubt, my bully’s arguments as to why a particular choice is “good” are very compelling; after all, they offer me temporary relief! So I find that I need to leave that choice on the table, so to speak. But what if I can reframe the bully’s “bad” choice in such a way that it can literally trump his “good” choice. This newly-reframed choice — a Greater Good choice — must be bigger than the issue at hand; and to this end, I have found, it must be of service to others and/or enhance my own sense of purpose.

Returning to my bookstore example, if I reframe my bully’s “bad” choice as a Greater Good choice, I must consider the Greater Good of not washing my hands. In this case, I can make the argument that foregoing the washing will allow me to be of service to the people who have shown up for my talk (by being available to them, instead of being stuck at the sink!); and, by standing up to my bully, I can enhance my own sense of purpose as a mental health advocate. By shifting my decision-making in this fashion, I am able to fight the compulsive urge to fall through the trapdoor of “protecting” and instead go give my talk.

In my experience, these Greater Good motivators of purpose and service will trump fear and doubt every time . . . IF given the opportunity.

In the final section of this book, you offer what you call profiles of belief in action. How did you choose the people you interviewed for these profiles and what did you learn from them?

My goal from the beginning of this book project was to offer readers the most practical information and examples that I could — not just from the OCD world, but also from all walks of life. I decided to conclude the book by showcasing several individuals I’ve run across over the years who have demonstrated remarkable abilities to navigate the uncertainty in their lives. In the end, I wound up interviewing five such people, including former White House Chief of Staff (and current CIA Director) Leon Panetta and actress/advocate Patty Duke. I believe that, together, their stories offer a wonderful glimpse at the very principles of applied belief about which I write.

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Allow for bigger plans than your own to unfold

When in Doubt. Jeff BellIn When in Doubt, Make Belief, author Jeff Bell uses his personal experience living with severe OCD to offer a practical guide for the uncertainty that has become an inherent part of life in the 21st century, whether we have OCD or not. In this excerpt, he shares step number 10 from the book’s “10 Steps Out When Stuck in Doubt.”

So here we are at the edge of the Shadow, just one step shy of breaking out, one step away from the freedom we’ve been seeking. Are you ready to take this final step?

Before you answer, let’s look back at the nine steps we’ve already taken. And if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to recap my journey through these steps, mainly because I know my own footprints better than any others. By tracing them, I can suggest where these steps may or may not lead.

Title: When in Doubt, Make Belief
Author: Jeff Bell
Publisher: New World
ISBN: 978-1-57731-670-1
Available from:

Let’s rewind, then, to August 1997. I am deep inside the Shadow of Doubt, about as lost and entrenched as anyone can be in this cold, dark place. My bully, Director Doubt, is producing Oscar-winning horror films, casting me again and again as both the villain and victim. I am spending my days checking and washing, seeking reassurance, avoiding, protecting, and ruminating. Trapdoor after trapdoor lures me in. I am falling deeper and deeper.

And then, out of desperation, I make my Bargain with the Stars, as I’ve come to call my deal with the universe, at first demanding that it give me what I want before I return the favor, but then stumbling into the reality that things actually flow in the other direction. I commit to a Greater Good goal of doing something constructive with my story, going public with it in hopes that others might benefit and that I might give some meaning to all my lost years. In doing all this, I implicitly choose to see the universe as offering me the potential to achieve this goal. I have, in these early days, discovered the power of reverence, taking Steps 1, 2, and 3 in fairly rapid succession.

I begin my Crash Course in Believing and very soon find myself tested by a defiant Director Doubt, determined not to let me run him out of my life. Slowly, though, I develop my resolve, putting my commitment to my book project ahead of my comfort, again and again, and reminding myself of the Greater Good at stake. I take Steps 4 and 5 and survive my bully’s best efforts to sabotage me.

I start to make real progress in my daily battles with Director Doubt and challenge myself to find opportunities to confront him head-on. With increasing detail I picture a life for myself outside Doubt, and I train myself to start directing my attention away from my bully’s “what if” questions and toward my Greater Good goals. I come to trust that the resources I need are at my disposal. Day after day, I record my progress in my journal. Day after day, I keep walking out of the Shadow with Steps 6, 7, and 8.

As my project year passes, I become increasingly adept at the art of surrender, coming to recognize and accept just how much of what I thought I could control I really can’t. I train myself to separate pain from suffering, reminding myself again and again that suffering is optional.

Everything is going just as (I) planned.

Before I know it, it’s October 20, 1998. My index-card notations read “Day 365.” My project year is over. My Crash Course in Believing is done. It’s nearly midnight, and I am in my den, poring over my stacks of index cards, marveling over just how far I have come. I am clearly no longer entrenched in Doubt; I have found my way out.

But something is eating at me as I stare at my most recent “obsessions” and “compulsions” tracking cards. These cards are no longer crammed with items, as they were twelve months earlier. But neither are they empty, as I had pictured them. In all my planning, I have envisioned my success story ending with my conquering my OCD, in the sense of putting it behind me altogether. Clearly this is not to be the case.

I struggle with this issue over the next several months, as I begin stringing together my index cards to create a book manuscript. Maybe, I tell myself, I’m supposed to speak out as a “recovering” (and not a “recovered”) OCD sufferer.

A year later, I have finished my manuscript. I am ready to publish it, ready to go public with my story. But I can’t find an agent or publisher willing to take on the project. What’s up with this? Where’s the support of the universe when I need it? Maybe, I reluctantly tell myself, the timing is not yet right.

Another year passes, and another one after that, and yet another. A very successful literary agent takes an interest in my story but tells me my manuscript is not yet ready. She offers me advice and re-sources and puts me back to work. What’s up with this? Maybe, I tell myself, my own thoughts on how best to tell my story were not complete.

I spend another year rewriting and work with my agent to shop the book. Nothing. The rejection letters stack up, and so does my frustration. What’s up with this? Where’s the publisher to help me manifest my Greater Good? Maybe I just haven’t found the right one to read my manuscript, I tell myself.

Soon it is 2003, and the unthinkable happens: I lose my job and, with it, my radio “platform.” Gone is my greatest asset in the eyes of publishers. I don’t understand how the universe could let this happen. I am devastated, but I refuse to let go of my plans to publish my book. I’ve invested far too much in my Greater Good goals, and I know in my gut that they’re still mine to pursue.

Time marches on. Life’s twists and turns lead me in directions I couldn’t have imagined, taking me from a job I loved but lost in Sacramento to one in San Francisco that I had dreamed of holding ever since entering the business. Professionally and personally, things are good. Very good. I continue to hold the line in my battles with doubt, still motivated by the prospect of sharing my story.

And then, at long last, the offer comes in. I have a publishing deal. My book has a home.

On February 2, 2007 — nearly ten years after I’d committed to sharing my story, and nine since I’d thought I had everything in place to do so — Rewind, Replay, Repeat is published. My story is not the miraculous recovery narrative that I’d first envisioned; it is, I am told, much stronger, because it speaks to the ongoing challenge that is OCD. My book reads very differently from the first draft, which I’d thought said everything I wanted to say; it now conveys my message infinitely better. And my radio “platform” too looks very different from when I started my project; it has expanded in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

My point in sharing all this is to explain, in the best way I can, just how Step 10 works. It demands of us that we allow room in our own best plans for even better ones. It requires us to tag the following words to our own affirmations, prayers, and goals: This or something better!

Doing this isn’t easy. It’s human nature to cling to our own plans. And for those of us who’ve had to wrest control of our lives away from doubt bullies, it can be even more challenging to surrender the things we might feel we now control. But this, I’m convinced, is how the universe works. It “sees” a larger, grander plan than you and I can see. It will support each of us in our individual Greater Good pursuits at every turn, but it will also fit these pursuits into what you might call a universal Greatest Good. In making belief, we each do our part to further that possibility.

Now then, are you ready to take that final step?

Jeff Bell is the author of When in Doubt, Make Belief: An OCD-Inspired Approach to Living with Uncertainty He serves as National Spokesperson for the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation, and his story has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today, DETAILS Magazine, and The New York Times. Bell is a 20-year veteran of radio and television news and currently co-anchors the Afternoon News at KCBS Radio in San Francisco. Visit him online at

Excerpted from the book When in Doubt, Make Belief ©2009 by Jeff Bell. Printed with permission from New World Library.

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Don’t believe everything you think

Calling BS on the mind’s stories

I was talking to a friend the other day who’d found that recently he just wasn’t interested in his meditation practice. He’d found that he was watching the breath, but his mind was constantly telling him there were other, more interesting, things that he could be doing — that the breath was boring. The mind is always doing things like this: making up plausible stories that “make sense” of our experience. But the trouble is that these stories often are neither true, nor helpful.

An illustration of how arbitrary and untrue our mind’s stories are can be found in some fascinating brain studies. In treating some epileptic patients, it was once common for doctors to sever the corpus callosum, or band of tissue connecting the left and right brains. This means that the two sides of the brain, which have different functions, cannot communicate with each other, and each functions independently. It’s possible to present words or images to the left visual field, and only that side of the brain will respond: the right brain quite literally sees nothing, and vice versa.

We’re often not aware of our motivations, and so we make up stories that “explain” why we feel the way we do

In one intriguing experiment, split-brain subjects were presented with two cognitive tests simultaneously — one to each side of the brain. They were presented with a picture and asked to point to an object that went with that picture. Both sides of the brain performed perfectly: when the left hemisphere is shown a chicken foot, the right hand pointed to a chicken, and the right hemisphere, shown a snow scene, led to the left hand pointing to a shovel. The subject now has to explain — using his left hemisphere — why he made his choice. The response — “I saw a claw and I picked the chicken, and you have to clean out the chicken shed with a shovel” — makes no sense at all and is in fact a fiction, because there was no causal connection at all between the actions of the left and right brains, which were acting in an uncoordinated way.

In other experiments the word “Laugh” was flashed to the left field of vision (the right hemisphere), and the subject laughed. When asked, “Why are you laughing?”, the subject said, “Oh…you guys are really something.” The right brain laughs because it’s seen the word “laugh”. The left brain hasn’t seen the word, but knows that the subject has in fact laughed. And the left brain comes up with a plausible-sounding reason for why the laughing occurred, not knowing the real reason.

Often we don’t recognize cause and effect in our own minds. Life is very complex, and so is the mind.

This may sound a long way from our day-to-day experience, but it’s not. We’re often not aware of our motivations, and so we make up stories that “explain” why we feel the way we do, and why we act the way we do. We also make up stories about why other act the way they do since we almost never know for sure what their motivations are. Other people are to ourselves as the left and right brains are in a split-brain patient. If fact often we are to ourselves as the left and right brains are in a split-brain patient.

Often we don’t recognize cause and effect in our own minds. Life is very complex, and so is the mind. Figuring out exactly why, for example, we’re in a bad mood can be beyond us. I remember once on a long and intensive meditation retreat, wondering exactly that; I was in an uncharacteristically (for a retreat) irritable mood and couldn’t figure out why. Eventually it occurred to me that this might be the result of having fantasized the day before about eating ice cream — I was in a remote place where such things weren’t available, and I’d been on retreat so long that small things like that could have a big effect on my mind. I don’t know if that was the actual cause, although the bad mood evaporated as soon as I made the connection. But until I’d figured out a likely cause I had plenty of stories rattling around in my brain, focusing on the faults (real or imagined) of myself, other people, and the retreat center. All of those stories were nothing more than fictions, but they seemed to make sense of that particular situation.

To adopt a skeptical attitude towards the stories we tell ourselves is the single most important skill in meditation

In the case of my friend, he was hearing the story over and over that his breath was simply not interesting, and that he should go off and do something more interesting. But interest is a state of mind, and not something that’s inherent in the object we’re paying attention to. It’s not, in other words, that the breath is either interesting or uninteresting, but that we’re either interested in it at some given time or not interested. And that’s something that’s in our control. I’ve found, for example, that when I’m a bit bored in my meditation practice I can simply say to myself, “That’s interesting…” and suddenly I find something in my experience that I’m fascinated by. If he just sticks with the practice he’ll almost certainly find that he finds ways to take an interest in the breath again. If he gives in to the thoughts he’s hearing he’ll miss out on a lot of personal growth.

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Another example I saw recently was someone who was convinced that another person had shown him disrespect. The action in question was incredibly minor and could have been explained in any number of ways, but he was convinced that he knew the other person’s thought processes and motivations. Of course he couldn’t possibly know, not being equipped with psychic powers. But a lot of us do this kind of “mindreading” and we cause ourselves and others a great deal of suffering when we do.

We can stand back from our stories and realize that they are stories

The important thing is to adopt a skeptical attitude towards the stories we tell ourselves. I see this, in fact, as being the single most important skill in meditation. Instead, for example, of being caught up in thinking angrily about something, or craving something, or doubting ourselves, we can stand back from the stories and realize that they are stories. It’s not always easy to do. For example in the middle of writing this article I suddenly thought “Hey, I must check my email” and then predictably I got distracted and wasted 20 minutes surfing the internet. I hadn’t been on the ball enough to realize that this was just another story and that I didn’t have to check my email — there was no reason it couldn’t wait. It’s all too easy to believe the BS that the mind throws our way, and it’s important to keep our BS-detectors at the ready so that we don’t create unnecessary problems for ourselves.

This isn’t to say that every thought it unhelpful and misleading. That’s far from being the case. So how do we tell which thoughts are BS and which are not? It can take a lot of practice. One key guideline is to look at the kind of emotion being expressed in the thought. If the thought is fueled by doubt, ill will, craving, or anxiety, there’s a good chance it’s neither a very accurate nor a very helpful one. Thoughts that are calmer and more compassionate are more likely to be useful.

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Rethinking our New Year’s resolutions

Many of us start the year with great intentions to establish healthy new habits, only to find ourselves losing steam before too long. Sunada writes about her realization that reframing our goals can help us stay on track and raise our chances of getting to where we want to be.

It’s a new year, and a time when many of us think about fresh starts – like exercising more, meditating regularly, or getting organized. But as we know all too well, just wanting something doesn’t make it so. I’m sure we’ve all experienced times when we lose steam and get bogged down. How do we get around this?

I’m not saying it’s bad to have doubtful thoughts… But it’s when we accept these thoughts as truth that we get into trouble.

One of the Buddha’s basic messages is that we create our own worlds with our thoughts and actions. And by “thoughts,” he wasn’t just talking about our intentional, conscious ones. Those pesky unintended and subconscious ones are just as much a part of the picture. And it’s when we leave them unacknowledged that they can really get us into trouble.

Let’s look at a few examples. When I ask people why they want to meditate more, the answer I typically get is something like, “I want to calm my busy mind.” What we’re subconsciously saying here is, “I have a busy mind.” Stop for a moment and say that sentence to yourself. How does it make you feel? Does it give you positive energy and motivation to change? I doubt it. Instead, it just reinforces that you have a busy mind. Focusing on the problem directs more of our energies toward thing we don’t want. By definition, anything we put our attention to is what fills our minds –and perpetuates in our view of the world.

Other thoughts I often hear express self-doubt and self-deprecation. “My mind is too busy to be able to meditate right.” Or “I don’t know if I can, but if I MAKE myself do it maybe it’ll work this time.” I’m not saying it’s bad to have doubtful thoughts. We all have insecurities, and they will come up in one form or another for all of us. We’re only human! But it’s when we accept these thoughts as truth that we get into trouble. How much are we buying into the idea that this is the way things are? The more we are, the more we’re feeding ourselves negative energy that can only pull us backward.

We may THINK we’ve made a resolve to change. But there’s another side of us thinking subtle … thoughts that sabotage us before we even begin.

A third source of backward pull is a lack of focus, discipline, or prioritization. “I tried to go to the gym this week but other things got in the way.” “My boss made me stay late so I couldn’t do it.” It’s easy to blame other people or causes for preventing us from doing what we intended. But really, I’m the only one who can choose what I do. My boss didn’t make me stay late. It’s me that chose to do it to comply with his request. Or maybe I wasn’t focused enough to get things done sooner. Whatever we do, we need to take responsibility for our own choices. Otherwise, we perpetuate a mindset of helplessness and being a victim.

I’m sure there are other kinds of thoughts that pull us in the wrong direction, but I think you get the idea. These are the kind of subconscious thoughts that we’re allowing to shape our future – one in which we’re at odds with ourselves! We may THINK we’ve made a resolve to change. But there’s another side of us thinking subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle!) thoughts that sabotage us before we even begin. No wonder we get stuck.

Rather than looking at the problem on its own level, how about if we reframe it into a bigger picture of what we aspire toward? So if you want to exercise more, ask yourself WHY.

So what do we do? We can’t just banish negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. And they’re really hard to just “let go,” as we’re taught to do in meditation classes.

There is another way. According to the laws of physics, the only way we can move something forward is by applying more energy in that direction than what’s pulling it the other way. So then, how can we increase the energy behind our positive motivations so that they’re greater than our negative ones?

Rather than looking at the problem on its own level, how about if we reframe it into a bigger picture of what we aspire toward? So if you want to exercise more, ask yourself WHY. What is your bigger purpose behind becoming more fit? One woman I know realized that the reason she wants to be in better shape is so she can run around with her grandchildren. To her, family is really important – something she values deeply for its own sake. It’s part of her picture of herself at her best. So when she thinks about going to the gym, she thinks of how much she loves her grandchildren’s delightful laughter, and off she goes.

We can tell we’re acting with a pure mind when we’re motivated by genuine feelings of kindness and generosity, and a wise understanding of our responsibility toward both ourselves and our world.

The Buddha gave us some clues about the kind of thoughts that help move us forward. He said, “If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never departs.” What is a “pure mind”? It’s the part of us that reveals our essential goodness. We can tell we’re acting with a pure mind when we’re motivated by genuine feelings of kindness and generosity, and a wise understanding of our responsibility toward both ourselves and our world. When we act from that place, we flow more naturally and easily. And happiness flows more easily to us.

It turns out that I want to exercise and meditate more this year, too. But those things aren’t on my list of resolutions. My intention is to continue building a well-integrated life that allows me to find more of that innate goodness within myself and others, and to share it all around. This picture includes my personal Buddhist practice, life coaching, meditation teaching, and singing. All of these things build upon my natural strengths: a love of learning and growing, an ability to connect deeply with people, and an appreciation of the aesthetic and spiritual beauty in the world. By doing what I love, I tap into an inner wellspring of motivation. Going to the gym or getting on the meditation mat is less about talking myself into it, and more about pursuing things I want because they point me toward who I am at my best.

So if you’ve got some resolutions on your list, I would urge you to spend some time reflecting on what your higher aspirations might be. And be as specific as can about what it might look like to live that way. Take your time, and do it thoughtfully. It can take months to get clarity on what you really want. And know that this is an ongoing project. As we evolve and reach new places, our ideas change too. That’s all part of the process. But most important of all, enjoy the ride. In the end, that’s really how we find joy and gratification in our lives.

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