equanimity

Don’t believe everything you think

We’re rightly concerned about “Fake News” — fabricated stories created in order to sway people’s political choices or simply to sell online advertising. But our thoughts are often “fake news,” and similarly have powerful effects on us. Much of what we think isn’t true, and that’s especially true of the thoughts that make us freak out and cause us to become anxious, panicked, or depressed.

Our minds create stories. They perform the important function of taking fragments of information and turning them into narratives. Sometimes these stories are true and helpful — for example when our ancestors learned that eating a particular berry led to painful stomach cramps. Creating a story out of those two snippets of experience could literally be life-saving.

But we often create stories that are neither true nor useful. For example, when we’re in pain or sick, depressed or anxious, we commonly assume that how we’re feeling is going to continue forever, or that it’s going to get worse. We might tell ourselves that nobody cares. Those thoughts are stories, and they take already existing pain and add on top an extra and unnecessary layer of suffering — hence the expression, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

The worst thing is that we’re like gullible news-consumers; we tend to believe every thought that passes through our minds, often not even entertaining the possibility that they might be lies.

As you practice mindfulness, however, you can learn to be more skeptical. You can learn to notice whether or not a particular thought is true and whether it is helping you. One rule of thumb is this: notice what effect your thoughts are having on your feelings.

Do your thoughts spark feelings of joy, connection, and engagement? Or do they make you feel small and powerless, or push your emotional buttons until you feel that your mind is out of control, in a spiral of anxiety, depression, or anger?

In observing the effects that your thinking has on how you feel, it’s particularly useful to observe the area around the heart and the solar plexus, since these are the primary places our feelings are experienced. And when we talk about noticing feelings, we’re talking about observing sensations in the body. Often when you ask someone how they feel, they’ll say something like “I feel like a loser.” But “like a loser” is a thought, not a feeling. The actual feeling — the pattern of sensations in the body, might be something like “despondency” or “sadness.” Name what you feel. Let go of the thoughts.

If you find yourself noticing that a thought makes you feel unhappy, this can be a prompt not just to let go of engaging with it — dropping the story — but to investigate whether the thought is actually true. Ask yourself, “Is this thought true?”

Often the mind clings to old patterns, however, and so it’ll say “Yes, it’s true! Of course it’s true!”

So ask again, but this time ask probe a little deeper: “Is this absolutely true?” Asking a second time usually prompts us to find exceptions and counter-examples to the story we’ve been telling ourselves. It helps us to let go of old patterns of thought.

And another very interesting question for us to ask ourselves is this: “What would things be like if I didn’t have this thought?” (This is a question that the spiritual teacher Byron Katie is famous for.)

So a typical pattern might be like this:

We have a thought like, Nobody likes me. I’m always going to be lonely.

Notice that the thought creates unpleasant feelings.

Ask: Is this true? “Yes!” comes the response.

Ask: Is this absolutely true? “Well, I do have friends, and there are people I get on with at work.”

OK. Now we’re less attached to our suffering-inducing thoughts.

Ask: What would it be like not to have this thought? “Well, I guess maybe I’d feel less fearful of whether people liked me or not. Maybe I’d feel more confident. Stronger.”

Now you’ve begun to step out of your normal mindset — the trap of stories that you’ve woven for yourself — and have opened up to the possibility of change.

But it’s crucial to allow the insight “Not all of my thoughts are true or helpful” into awareness. We need to seriously take this on board, and start to be more skeptical about our thinking. Only then will we start to see how often our minds exaggerate or lie to us, creating stories that cause us to freak out.

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“Turn toward the fire, and enter, confident.” Dante Alighieri

Today I’m going to talk about pain and how meditation can help you deal with it. You may not be experiencing pain today, but it’s something that happens to us all, and hopefully there will be something here that you find useful. Also what I’m going to say applies not just to physical but to emotional pain (hurt, anxiety, loneliness, etc.) so it’s relevant to everyone.

In the midst of pain there is magic. If you find this puzzling, let me tell you how I know this and how you can see it for yourself.

I started having migraines when I was perhaps 13 years old. When I first tried meditating with migraines it did not help. As soon as I took my awareness to the nausea it would become more intense. And there was no way on earth I wanted to turn toward the headaches. I just wanted them to go away.

It turned out, though, that being mindful of less extreme forms of discomfort, like an aching back, hunger, an itch, or even emotional forms of pain, such as sadness or grief was a useful way to train for more extreme pain. It became more natural to turn toward what is painful rather than to turn away. I found that much of the pain that is involved in such experiences is actually caused by my resistance. When we tense up physically or emotionally around pain, it gets more intense.

Part of the practice of investigating pain was to see that it wasn’t a unitary phenomenon. We can use the single word “pain” to refer to, say, a sore back, but that doesn’t capture the richness and complexity of the experience. When I looked closely, I found that the pain was composed of a number of interwoven sensations. There might be heat, pressure, tingling, pulsing, throbbing, stabbing, and so on. One or another of these might be the most prominent part of the pain at any given time. Each of them changed, moment by moment. Pain stopped seeming so solid. In fact even the individual interwoven sensations I’ve mentioned stopped seeming solid, and instead had the appearance of twinkling points of sensation suspended in space. Sometimes, in turning my attention toward pain, I’d find that there was no pain to be found.

I’ve noticed the same in other arenas in life. I often edit my own meditation recordings, and sometimes I’ll have to remove a click that’s in the middle of a sound, like the AH sound in the word “relaxed.” And I noticed that when I zoom in really close to a sound like AH — down at the level of fractions of a hundredth of a second — there’s no AH to be heard. This morning, at the end of my meditation, I was looking at a white candle, and I couldn’t see any white. There were infinite shades of browns and yellows, but no white. So, sometimes when you look close enough at a thing, it has a completely different appearance from when it’s viewed from further away or with less attention.

So a few days ago I woke up with a migraine. I observed that there were many sensations in the body that were unrelated to the migraine at all. When we fixate on pain we miss those. I found that my calf muscles in particular were full of pleasurable tingling energy, and the more I paid attention to everything that was not the migraine, the more intense and widespread those sensations became. And then turning toward the pain and the nausea, everything very quickly took on that now familiar sense of transparency. Around 15 minutes into the meditation my tummy started rumbling, which is always a sign that the migraine is on the way out, since my entire digestive tract shuts down during a migraine. At that point the migraine wasn’t entirely gone, but it was quite manageable and I was able to get up and go about my day.

I don’t want to give the impression that I have this sorted out. Sometimes pain sneaks up on me and I forget to be mindful of it. And there are some forms of emotional discomfort that I have most definitely not learned to embrace in awareness, and that I react to strongly. I’m still working with all this and trying to learn to do it better.

But I’d strongly suggest, if you have problems with pain (and you all will at some point) that you practice turning toward smaller discomforts as a way of training yourself to be mindful and equanimous with difficult experiences. Over time I hope you’ll find, as I have, that in the midst of pain there is magic.

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The components of self-compassion

sunflower like the sun in hands isolatedThis post is taken from one of the emails from our online course, How to Stop Beating Yourself Up: Learning the Art of Self-Compassion.

Self-compassion is treating ourselves with the kindness, respect, and gentleness that we would offer to those we most love.

There are four components of self-compassion.

There’s mindfulness, which is the ability to observe our experience rather than merely participating in it and being swept along in it. Mindfulness requires that we stand back from our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and see them as objects separate from ourselves, rather than as what we are.

There’s equanimity, which involves accepting difficult experiences rather than denying them, ignoring them, or obsessing and ruminating over them.

There’s self-kindness, where we treat ourselves with gentleness, understanding, and compassion. Self-kindness requires that we recognize that we are feeling beings and that happiness and well-being are states we desire. These states can only arise when we treat ourselves kindly.

There’s the ability to put our suffering in perspective, which is where we recognize that we, like everyone else, are doing this difficult thing of being human. We all desire happiness, and find happiness elusive. We all wish to be free from suffering and yet encounter suffering over and over again. When we lack perspective, we tend to assume that there’s something uniquely inadequate and even broken about ourselves. We see our difficulties as a sign of failure. When we have a wiser perspective, we don’t judge ourselves, and in fact we may find that we have compassion not only for ourselves, but for others too.

These four factors work together in order to produce self-compassion. They’re not entirely separate from each other, but are manifestations of each other. For example, mindfulness, equanimity, and perspective are all expressions of self-kindness. When we’re kind to ourselves, these three other qualities are how we act.

These four qualities will be woven into all of the writings and guided meditations in this course, although at different times some will be emphasized more than others. Our first meditation, the “kindfulness of breathing” from yesterday’s email, principally brings together mindfulness, equanimity, and kindness.

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Space, sound, thought

Big Ben and traffic on Westminster BridgeFor several years, around the time I first learned to meditate, I lived in an apartment above Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow—one of the city’s main shopping streets. Sometimes it was acutely noisy, with newspaper hawkers advertising their wares, workmen digging up the roads, drunks singing as they staggered home from the pub, or couples having loud—and very public—fights. But even at the best of times there was a chronic, ongoing hum from the thousands of surrounding vehicles, and the quieter babble of pedestrians’ voices. This was something I had to get used to when I was meditating.

At first I would battle to shut out the noise, and try to force myself to focus inward on my breathing or on cultivating kindness (metta). Although sometimes I’d successfully tune out these distractions, this approach was generally very frustrating. Meditation became a competition between distracting sounds and the welcome relief of inner quiet. Eventually, though, I learned a better way to approach sounds, which was to see them not as distractions, but as part of the meditation practice.

At the beginning of my meditation practice I’d consciously pay attention to the world around me. I’d be aware of the space surrounding me, and I’d pay mindful attention to the sounds filling that space. Since my apartment was near the top of a hill that ran a good mile or so down to the river Clyde, there was plenty of scope for being aware of the physical space in my environment. And I found that the sounds I was hearing helped me to be even more aware of that space. The accelerating bus roaring its engine a few streets away, the squeal of a truck’s brakes, or the sound of a jet tearing through the sky as it passed overhead, would emphasize the scope of the world surrounding me.

Paying mindful attention to the sounds around me allowed me to accept them without resistance. No longer was there any sense of a battle. I didn’t need to choose between hearing noise and being mindful—I could do both at once.

One side effect of this was that being mindful of the space around me helped to radically calm the mind. Often it seemed that my inner chatter would almost entirely shut down. It seemed that my mind itself had become spacious, filling the world around me. It was as if my consciousness were reaching out to fill the streets and even the sky. This was very different from my normal state of mind, where my awareness would often be contracted around one particular sensation or thought, with no sense of spaciousness.

Although my inner self-talk became less frequent at times, it didn’t entirely stop. But when thoughts did arise, my relationship to them was different. With the sense that my mind was now expanded and spacious, thoughts now became more like objects I noticed as they passed by, and they were less like the fully immersive movie-like experiences I was used to.

It became possible, at times, to notice thoughts arising, passing, and vanishing. They became, in fact, like the sound of a passing vehicle, appearing, arising, and then fading away. I’d still have times when I’d become absorbed in a particularly compelling thought and be truly distracted, but being able to follow thoughts as if they were the sound of a passing car gave me a new way to relate to them.

I’d recommend that you try this in meditation, and even outside of meditation (why not right now?). Become aware of the sounds around you. Let your mind fill the space in front of you, to the sides, behind you, and above you. If you’re up high, then perhaps you can feel and hear the space below you as well. Let your effort be gentle. Perhaps you’ll find that you even have a sense of your mind resting in this spacious awareness. And within this space of your consciousness are internal sensations too: from the body and from the mind. Notice all of this.

Now, invite yourself to notice whatever the next thought is that arises. If you can stay in touch with the spacious breadth of your awareness, then you may well find that you can sense your thought not as a story you are immersed in, but as an object—like the sound of a passing airplane or car. Standing back from your thoughts in this way, you may find that you feel free of their emotional drama, and that you feel calmer and more joyful as a result.

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“Not being able to govern events, I govern myself.” Montaigne

montaigneI’ve been depressed a few times in my life, but only once has it ever got so bad that I felt I had to seek medication. My doctor prescribed me something—I no longer remember what—and after taking just one tablet my depression instantly lifted. This was no miracle drug; these medicines take days or even weeks to have an effect. In fact the medication had nothing to do with my recovery, and the reason I felt better so quickly was, I think, because I admitted I was helpless.

Michel de Montaigne, the famous 16th French essayist, said that although he was not able to govern external events, he was able to govern himself. This beautiful observation embodies a truth that is old, but which we often have to be reminded of anew.

We can’t control what happens to us but we can, if not control, then at least influence how we respond to it. We often think of happiness in terms of providing ourselves with an endless stream of pleasant experiences, with no unpleasantness to mar the perfection of our paradise. And yet we can never achieve such a goal. The conditions that exist in the world are far too complex for us to be able to manage. We may want to have only pleasant experiences, but the world isn’t going to cooperate with us. We’re always going to have a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences

From the Buddhist point of view, the truest happiness comes from not allowing ourselves to be swayed either by the pleasant or unpleasant. This is what’s called “equanimity,” or upekkha. When pleasant experiences arise, we enjoy them, yes, but we don’t try to get more out of them than they’re able to give us. We don’t try to hold onto them, and recognize that they’re impermanent phenomena. When unpleasant experiences arise, we bear with them, knowing that they’re going to pass, not causing ourselves further pain by resisting the discomfort with thoughts like, “This shouldn’t be happening. This is terrible!” We allow all experiences to come and go.

This doesn’t mean that we become inactive and passive, simply putting up with things that can be changed: if the room is cold we can turn up the heat; if there’s injustice in the world we can campaign to right it. But there are always going to be things we can’t control.

My depression was one such thing. I didn’t know at the time what had cause the depression, and I’m not 100 percent sure I do now, but I suspect that what was keeping it in motion was that I thought I should be able to fix it. And the more I was unable to fix my depression, the more depressed I stayed. What might have been no more than a passing mood ended up being with me for weeks. In seeking held and telling my doctor that I had a problem I couldn’t control, I freed myself from thinking that I had to control or should be able to control the depression. Without the internal pressure that came from needing to be in control, my depression had nothing to feed on, and simply vanished.

In this case, “governing myself” didn’t mean “being in control of everything.” No government is ever in total control of its nation. A government is an organ of adaptation. Instead, governing myself meant taking the most appropriate action open to me, which in this case was relinquishing my belief that I should be able to control my experience. Sometimes the best use of our ability to control is surrendering the illusion that we have control.

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Best Dharma quote ever!

jkornfieldIf you can sit quietly after difficult news;

if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm;

if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy;

if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate;

if you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill;

if you can always find contentment just where you are:

you are probably a dog.

– Jack Kornfield

Thank you to Tim Brownson for sharing this, in a paraphrased form, on his blog.

The comes from Jack’s book, “A Lamp in the Darkness: Illuminating the Path Through Difficult Times.”

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The Third Noble Truth – the Noble Truth of the end of suffering

buddaThe Third Noble Truth comes directly from the Second one: The end of suffering comes with the end of clinging.

As Achaan Chah said, “If you let go a little, you’ll have a little happiness. If you let go a lot, you’ll have a lot of happiness. If you let go completely . . . you’ll be completely happy.”

You can do this at the macro level, in letting go regarding lights turning green, or payments arriving, or your teenage children giving you a hug. Sure, you’d like things to turn out well, and that’s fine. You take practical steps toward them turning out well, and that’s also fine. But you can simultaneously have a peaceful, accepting attitude about however it turns out.

And you can let go – practicing non-clinging – most fundamentally at the micro level, with moment to moment experience.

For example, when you observe your experience, you will see that there is always a feeling tone automatically associated with it – a tone of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. That tone – called “feeling” in the Pali Canon (distinct from emotions) – usually triggers craving, which is the seed of clinging.

But if you can simply be mindful of the feeling tone without reacting to it – then you can break the chain of suffering!

In the short-term, we can’t do much about the feeling tone. So you’re not trying to change the feeling tone itself. But you are trying to not react to it via one form of clinging or another.

The epitome of non-clinging is equanimity — which is not, according to a teacher, U Pandita, “. . . insensitivity, indifference, or apathy. It is simply nonpreferential. . . . One does not push aside the things one dislikes or grasp at the things one prefers.”

He goes on to say:

“The way to bring about equanimity is wise attention: to be continually mindful from moment to moment, without a break, based on the intention to develop equanimity. . .

In the deepest forms of insight, we see that things change so quickly that we can’t hold onto anything, and eventually the mind lets go of clinging. Letting go brings equanimity; the greater the letting go, the deeper the equanimity. . . .

Freedom comes when we begin to let go of our reactive tendencies. . . .

In Buddhist practice, we work to expand the range of life experiences in which we are free.”

When we do this, much of what we see is how we fall away from equanimity, from perfect balance, again and again. But seeing that ever more deeply and precisely . . . slowly but surely helps us tip over less often.

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Changing the machinery of upset

stones in balanceLet’s consider ways to cultivate more peace of mind – and even its consummation in profound equanimity – by working with the eight gears of the machine of suffering that we explored in this earlier post. (There are other methods, too, that are more specifically Buddhist, and you might like to explore the Access to Insight website for more information.)

This list is by no means exclusive: it just points to how many great tools are available these days for managing our emotional reactions.

Methods for Appraisals

  • Stay mindful of the whole.
  • Be mindful of the meanings, the framings, we give things.
  • Challenge the significance the mind gives something. Is it really an 8 on the 10- point Ugh scale? If it’s really a 2, why is my anger an 8?
  • Challenge the intentions we attribute to others; realize we are usually a bit player in their drama.
  • What beliefs are implicit about others, world? Try cognitive therapy methods for challenging inaccurate, negative beliefs.

Methods for Self-Referencing

  • Recognize the suffering that comes from selfing.
  • Practice mindfulness of the sense of “I”
  • What are the implicit representations of self: Strong? Weak? Mistreated? How does this underlying framing affect your experience of situations?
  • How much are we taking things personally? (“Negative grandiosity,” I’m so important that they’re deliberately hassling me.)
  • How does getting upset intensify or shade self?
  • See the interconnectedness of things in the situation, including yourself.
  • Identify legitimate rights and needs, and take care of them.

Methods for Vulnerabilities

  • Hold a frame of compassion for yourself and self-acceptance
  • Do an honest self-appraisal of physiology/health, temperament, and psychology: Weak spots? Hot buttons?
  • Protect vulnerabilities in situations: e.g., eat before talking about what upset you; ask people to slow down if you tend to be rigid; push through possible inhibitions in assertiveness due to culture, gender.
  • Shore up vulnerabilities over time: e.g., medical care, vitamins, 5-HTP, antidepressants; build up greater control over your attention; take in positive experiences that slowly fill the hole in your heart.

Methods for Memory

  • Be aware of the “pre-amp” turbo-charging of memory and sensitization.
  • Increase positive emotional memories by “taking in the good.”
  • Shift emotional memories in positive directions over time by recalling old painful experiences while simultaneously bringing positive thoughts and feelings prominently to mind.
  • With a therapist, consider other methods for painful experiences or traumas (e.g., EMDR)

Methods for Aversion

  • Understand the central place in psychology and in spiritual growth of working with aversion; use that to motivate yourself to not act aversively.
  • Meditate on the Second Foundation of Mindfulness (feeling).
  • Focus on neutral feeling tones.
  • Dwell on the conditioned, compounded, and impermanent nature of the unpleasant.
  • Find compassion for people who are aversive to you.
  • See “21 Ways to Turn Ill Will into Good Will.”

Methods for Bodily Activation

  • Understand the mechanical, animal nature of activation.
  • Regard stressful activation as an affliction (as the health consequences of chronic stress)
  • Use one of the many methods for stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system to down-regulate the SNS.
  • Get in the habit of rapidly activating a damping cascade when the body activates.
  • Regard bodily activation as just another compounded, “meaningless,” and impermanent phenomenon.

Methods for Negative Emotions

  • Practice mindfulness of how thoughts shape emotions . . . and emotions shape thoughts.
  • Explore the many practices for letting go of negative emotions (e.g., visualize them leaving the body through valves in the tips of the fingers and the toes).
  • Cultivate rapture and joy – and the dopaminergic neurological benefits of those states, including for steadying the mind.

Methods for Loss of Executive Control

  • Slow down; buy yourself time.
  • Cultivate steadiness of mind.
  • Describe your experiences in words (noting).
  • Actively enlist internal resources, e.g., the felt sense of others who love you, recollection of what happened the last time you lost your temper.
  • Enlist external resources, e.g., call a friend, do therapy, go to a meditation group.
  • Stay embodied, which helps dampen runaway emotional-visual reactions.
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Good day? Bad day? It’s OK

“By paying attention calmly, in all situations, we begin to see clearly the truth of life experience. We realise that pain and joy are both inevitable and that they are also both temporary.”
~ Sylvia Boorstein, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

After I sent this quote out to readers of my Daily Bell the other morning, I read it again, slowly, and stopped in my tracks. That second sentence, I realised, is revolutionary. That pain and joy are inevitable and temporary is an old idea from Buddhist psychology – but sometimes an old idea comes to life when you read how someone else says it.

Why am I calling this statement revolutionary? First, I want to translate “pain” and “joy” into “dissatisfaction” and “satisfaction” because those words work better for me. As I considered Sylvia Boorstein’s statement, I realised I often have a little thread of anxiety in my awareness about whether today’s events will be satisfying or dissatisfying. That little thread of anxiety can lead me by the nose. It can, paradoxically, make the day less satisfying as I worry about whether the day will, in fact, be satisfying.

But if I accept that satisfaction and dissatisfaction are both inevitable in the day and, moreover, that they are temporary, then I can let go of that particular thread of anxiety. That’s a welcome benefit.

Adopting and remembering her statement might also bring about subtle changes in what I do. For instance, I need to send somebody a bill for some work I did, and getting paid will be satisfying. But I also have to hunt down and make sense of lots of pesky little receipts to back up the bill and that (to me) is a dissatisfying way to spend time. I’ve been putting off sending the bill because, I suspect, of the dissatisfying part. But once I accept that both dissatisfaction and satisfaction are part of the deal, I am more likely to quit procrastinating and get on with what I need to do.

I can practice this in really small ways. Waiting for a one-page document to be printed, I noticed I was anxiously staring at the printer, wondering if it would come out the right way or the wrong way or not at all. I reminded myself that whatever way it came out, I would fix it: my anxiety was irrelevant, really. Then it came out the wrong way and as I watched the page coming out I spotted dissatisfaction but reminded myself that this was temporary. When I sent it through again, everything worked fine – I felt satisfaction and reminded myself that this was temporary too. For that reason, I also reminded myself to appreciate that little feeling of satisfaction while it lasted.

However, the key point for me is to remember that it’s no big deal — in fact, no deal at all — that I will experience both satisfaction and dissatisfaction today and that both are temporary anyway.

That’s liberation. And if I learn to appreciate the satisfaction, the joy, while it is there, I can improve my quality of life greatly without changing a single material thing in my world. That, to me, is a revolution in how I relate to my everyday life.

The next thing I need to do is to find a way to remember the teaching – expressed so well by Sylvia Boorstein – during my day. There’s a little coloured wheel that spins around on my computer when it’s taking a long time to do something – that will be my reminder. If you have a PC you could use that revolving egg timer that makes you grind your teeth every now and then. And it doesn’t have to be anything to do with computers – just pick something that happens often in your day and perhaps that annoys you a little.

And remember to remember that it’s all inevitable and it’s all temporary.

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Mindfulness does not lead to happiness

Tom Wootton, PsychCentral: The part of our minds that most people identify with is the part that silently talks to us with a running commentary. We listen to it all day long. Let’s call it “The Talker.”

“The Talker” prefers pleasure over pain, happiness over sadness, winning over losing, health over sickness, and any of the other judgments that help us navigate our lives. Although it plays a critical role that we cannot live without, “The Talker” is stuck in the duality that makes us judge one thing better than another. It does not allow us to experience the world without judgment.

The central…

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