equanimity

Equanimity is love — even-minded love (Day 78)

100 Days of LovingkindnessIt’s easy to forget that upekkha, or equanimity, is love. The word “equanimity” doesn’t sound very loving. It’s coldly Latinate, lofty, and remote, and doesn’t roll off the tongue easily. Few of us are likely to use the word in everyday conversation. The adjective, equanimous, is even worse! Even the Anglo-Saxon equivalents, “even-minded” and “even-mindedness,” don’t convey any sense of love, or kindness, either. But upekkha is a form of love.

The word in Pali or Sanskrit is from a root īkś, which means “to look upon,” along with a prefix upa-, which can mean many things, but which almost always connotes a sense of closeness, as in upaṭṭhāna (attending) and upakiṇṇa (covered over). So although upekkha is usually taken to have a distant quality, it’s actually quite intimate. It means “looking over” but in the sense of being close up. Perhaps we should render upekkha as something more like “equanimous love” or “even-minded love.”

Upatissa, the author of the first century meditation manual I’ve been sharing with you as we explore the “immeasurable” meditations of loving-kindness, compassion, joyful appreciation, and now even-minded love, describes upekkha like this:

As parents are neither too attentive nor yet inattentive towards any one of their children, but regard them equally and maintain an even mind towards them, so through equanimity one maintains an even mind towards all beings. Thus should equanimity be known.

The fact that Upatissa talks about parenting reminds us of the warm, intimate nature of upekkha. It’s warm, intimate, and wise, not cold and distant.

Any parent who has more than one child is familiar with the scenario he describes! The other day my daughter asked me: “Who do you love more, daddy? Me or my brother.” And then she cleverly added, “It’s OK if it’s not me.” I think she assumed that her addition would pave the way for me to tell her the “truth” that she wanted to hear (or feared hearing) — although the truth is that of course it’s simply not possible for me to quantify and compare the love I have for each of my children.

My kids are in full on dispute with each other at the moment. My four-year-old son is going in for a tonsillectomy tomorrow. He’s terrified of the prospect, naturally, and this is leading to him acting out in various ways, like having temper tantrums and meltdowns, and this has led to him doing things like hitting his six-year-old sister. This in turn has led her to “punishing” him by trying to exacerbate his anxiety — reminding him of his operation at every available opportunity, and sometimes going into graphic detail about how sore his throat will be afterwards, asking what kind of knife the surgeon will use, etc. And that leads him to get revenge by breaking her stuff. It’s a classic tale of spiraling vengeance!

So in the midst of any particular situation of conflict — he’s just broken her special bracelet, or she’s slyly reminded him of his operation by “helpfully” reminding him that he’ll get to have ice cream afterward — there’s no possibility of taking sides. I realize that both are suffering, and I want both to be happy. My son hurts his sister and I realize that both are having a hard time. Yes, he needs to be told that he can’t act this way, but fundamentally he also needs sympathy and to be helped in dealing with his anxiety. My daughter torments her brother and again she has to be encouraged to act less like a tiny torturer and more like a helpful big sister, but she also needs support because she’s suffering from having to cope with his anxiety and the behavior that springs from it.

So I can’t take sides. I don’t mean that I “shouldn’t” take sides. I’m incapable of taking sides. I can’t say “this child deserves happiness more than the other.” That just makes no sense.

So if you really, deeply, recognize that all beings want to be happy, and that they want to be free from suffering — when you realize that each being’s happiness and suffering is as real to them as it is for you and for any other being — there can be no sense of welcoming one person being happy at another’s expense. There is sympathy for all.

The thought may have crossed your mind — and it certainly crossed mine — OK, so Bodhipaksa says he can do this with his children, but his children are still his children, and is it even possible to have this kind of even-minded love for strangers, or for people we’re not related to, like other people’s children? Don’t we have an inbuilt bias, because after all we have a great history of affection and of relatedness with those we’re close to — friends, family — that we don’t share with strangers? It’s a good question. But when one of my kids is involved in an altercation with a child from another family — and this happens almost on a daily basis — I don’t see my own children’s happiness as being any different from, or important than, any other child’s. So in sorting out any dispute I try to maintain an awareness that the kids on both sides are suffering and want happiness. Sure, I’m going to put effort into protecting, feeding, and clothing my own children and not with the neighbors’ kids — but that’s a separate issue. That’s to do with the nature of the relationship we have, and the resources available to me. It doesn’t mean that I think my children’s happiness is more important to them than the neighbors’ kids’ happiness is to them.

This quality of even-minded love is inherent in all the other practices. It’s very similar to the final stage of the lovingkindness, compassion, and joyful appreciation practices, where we cease focusing on individual relationships and simply imbue the mind with those loving qualities, so that any being the mind touches, whether it’s because we encounter them in our lives or because we meet them in our thoughts, is touched by a loving quality. In the final stage of these practices there is a quality of even-mindedness, where we let go of our likes and dislikes. Happiness is desired by all, and suffering is something that all wish to avoid. Our likes and dislikes, our social connectedness or lack thereof, can obscure this truth, but it’s a truth nonetheless. And so the practice of equanimity is to see past these obscurations in order to recognize this truth.

So upekkha is love. It’s even-minded love, where we maintain an even mind towards all beings as we wish them well. It’s not a cold or distant state. It’s simply where we drop our biases and value all beings’ happiness and wellbeing.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness Posts here.

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Guided Upekkha Bhavana (Cultivating Evenmindedness) (Day 77)

This is one of the guided meditations that I led recently in a Google+ Hangout.

This particular one is a guide to developing the quality of equanimity (upekkha), or even-mindedness. There’s an introductory talk in which I outline four different uses of the term equanimity, and then I guided the class through an approach to meditation in which we lose our sense of separateness, so that there’s an element of anatta (not-self) brought into the practice before we begin to cultivate lovingkindness.

The practice also brings together mental stillness and non-reactivity, and metta, or lovingkindness. It’s important to remember that “even-mindedness” (or equanimity) is actually “even-minded love” or “equanimous love” and isn’t a state of uncaring.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Cultivating equanimity or evenmindedness (upekkha) (Day 76)

100 Days of LovingkindnessI see equanimity as love accompanied by insight.

The fourth of the series of practices we’ve been exploring in this 100 Days of Lovingkindness is evenmindedness, which is more often translated as equanimity. The Pali word for this is upekkha, and in Sanskrit (Pali’s big sister, so to speak) this is upeksha.

The word upekkha actually covers a number of distinct but related qualities, with the common factor being non-reactivity. Here are three ways the Buddha talked about equanimity — and that’s before we talk about the practice of equanimity as a brahmavihara (the brahmaviharas, or divine abidings, beingthe four practices we’re exploring over this 100 days).

  • The word upekkha can point to a quality of not being thrown mentally off balance by our experience. Usually we have a tendency to react with aversion when something unpleasant happens. “Who used the last of the coffee!” And we can get rather giddy when something enjoyable happens, which may seem nice at the time, but it’s very unpleasant when the giddiness ends; witness how you feel when the new iPhone you’re so excited about gets its first scratch. So in developing everyday evenmindedness, we’re more mindful. We notice pleasant and unpleasant experiences arising, and we have a certain attitude of standing back, observing, and not getting too emotionally caught up. We can simply remember that it’s better for us to have equanimity than it is to get worked up, and, as the Buddha put it instead of a fixation on the agreeable, disagreeable, or neutral experience, “equanimity takes its stance.”
  • Upekkha can refer to a factor of jhana, meaning a deep meditative state of stillness and absorption. Equanimity arises as a factor in the third level of jhana. In the first jhana we’re more or less absorbed in the meditation practice, although there’s still some thinking going on. In the second level of jhana our attention is more stabilized in the body, the thinking stops, and we more strongly experience pleasurable bodily feelings that are called rapture. In the third jhana we move our focus to the emotion of joy, which is very stable, and equanimity arises: “Then there is the case where a monk, with the fading of rapture, he remains equanimous, mindful, and alert, and senses joy [sukha] with the body. He enters and remains in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, ‘Equanimous and mindful, he has a joyful [again, sukha] abiding.'” So this is a deep stillness of mind, in which there is no thought, and joy is firmly established. And then in the fourth jhana, we cease paying attention to the experience of joy, and our equanimity becomes “purified” and even more intensely still. This is a state of deep peace, which is even more satisfying than the joy that was previously experienced.
  • Then there’s upekkha as a synonym for the awakened state. This is where non-reactivity is permanently established (more or less).

These three are covered in one of the Buddha’s teachings, the Niramisa Sutta:

“Now, O monks, what is worldly equanimity? There are these five cords of sensual desire … [things] that are wished for and desired, agreeable and endearing, associated with sense desire and alluring. It is the equanimity that arises with regard to these five cords of sense desire which is called ‘worldly equanimity.’

“Now, what is unworldy equanimity? With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous disappearance of gladness and sadness, a monk enters upon and abides in the fourth meditative absorption, which has neither pain-nor-pleasure and has purity of mindfulness due to equanimity. This is called ‘unworldly equanimity.’

“And what is the still greater unworldly equanimity? When a taint-free monk looks upon his mind that is freed of greed, freed of hatred and freed of delusion, then there arises equanimity. This is called a ‘still greater unworldly equanimity.’

But strangely, that list of three types of equanimity doesn’t include any mention of the Brahmavihara.

  • So fourthly, there’s equanimity or evenmindnedness as the fourth brahmavihara.

Evenmindedness as a brahmavihara shares the quality of non-reactivity that the other three senses of upekkha have. But it’s a brahmavihara, so it’s also a loving state. The equanimity of not-reacting to pleasant or unpleasant experiences may or may not be loving. The equanimity of jhana is joyful, but may or may not be loving. Equanimity as a brahmavihara is both non-reactive and is, by definition, loving. The equanimity of enlightenment I can’t speak about from experience, but the later Mahayana tradition emphasized compassion — an obviously loving quality — as an aspect of the enlightened experience, along with wisdom. In the earlier tradition it seems that the emphasis was more on equanimity, but unfortunately that term doesn’t sound very loving, even though it is an aspect of love!

There is an element of insight involved in the brahmavihara of upekkha. This can be love plus an awareness of impermanence, or love plus an awareness of non-self, or love along with an awareness of the intrinsically unsatisfactory nature of our experiences. And it’s this combination of love and insight that I see as characterizing evenmindnedness as a brahmavihara. Equanimity is love plus insight.

So the way I see it is that equanimity as the brahmavihara and equanimity as awakening are really the same thing, it’s just that the insight has sunk in to different degrees. In the brahmavihara we’re letting insight sink in, and in awakening it’s sunk in all the way, so that insight has fully transformed us.

  • We love beings (including ourselves) while understanding that they and every experience they have is impermanent.
  • We love beings (including ourselves) while understanding that our love is not our love and that there is really no separation between “ourselves” and “the world,”
  • And we love beings (including ourselves) while understanding that
    letting go ever more deeply into love and compassion is the way to peace, not clinging to craving and aversion.

So we work with these understandings in the brahmavihara of equanimity, and eventually they cause a deep change within us, and those understandings become permanent. At that point we’re experiencing upekkha — equanimity, evenmindedness — not as a practice but as an ongoing part of the way we are. At that point we’re awakened.

So we’ll be exploring there various aspects of equanimity — not just upekkha as a brahmavihara but also evenmindnedness as a positive quality in everyday life — over the remainder of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness.

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Learning to see with the eyes of wholeness (Day 8)

Lotus, isolated on whiteA sticking point some people have with lovingkindness practice is what it means to wish someone “well.” This came up the other day with someone who has health difficulties that just aren’t going to go away. What does it mean for him to wish himself well? He’s not ever going to be completely healthy, so wellness is never going to be attained. What’s the point of wishing yourself something you can’t have? Isn’t that just a source of suffering. Yikes!

And the same applies to others. If you have a friend who’s, say, dying of cancer, what does it mean to wish them well?

There’s a nice little dialog that the Buddha has where he does some self-commentary — basically going over a teaching he’d previously passed on, and saying what he’d really meant. And it’s rather fascinating, because when you read the original verse you think you know what the Buddha meant, but you’re wrong:

Health is the most precious gain
and contentment the greatest wealth.
A trustworthy person is the best kinsman,
Nibbana the highest bliss.

That’s from the Dhammapada, and it’s verse 204. It’s hard to imagine anything more straightforward than the first line, which basically is equivalent to the old saying, “if you have your health you have everything.”

But in a discussion with a healthy man (who says he’s therefore happy), the Buddha says that’s not what he meant at all.

The body is “a calamity and an affliction” even when it’s healthy, he points out. You might say that a healthy body is an unhealthy body waiting to happen. The “health” that the Buddha’s talking about is freedom from mental suffering, which ultimately is enlightenment. Now even the enlightened get physically sick and experience physical pain and discomfort, but they don’t have the secondary suffering that comes with having aversion to sickness, and for craving for things to be otherwise. Think about the self-pity we commonly experience when we’re sick. That resistance to sickness, that “poor me” attitude, is far more painful than the actual illness itself. So this is all dropped when we’re enlightened, and there’s no more aversion or craving. Now we don’t have to be enlightened to experience this freedom (although you have to be enlightened to permanently experience it).

When we say “may I (or you) be well” we’re wishing ourselves or others freedom from the secondary suffering of aversion and craving with regard to the sickness. We’re wishing that the discomfort of illness be borne mindfully. We’re wishing that we, or the other person, be at peace with whatever is happening with the body.

Jon Kabat-Zinn puts this very nicely:

Healing does not mean curing, although the two words are often used interchangeably, While it may not be possible for us to cure ourselves or to find someone who can, it is always possible for us to heal ourselves. Healing implies the possibility for us to relate differently to illness, disability, even death, as we learn to see with eyes of wholeness. Healing is coming to terms with things as they are.

Of course if there’s a cure, that’s great. You can wish someone well in the sense that you hope they’ll be back to health. But in the long term we’re all headed for sickness and death, and true peace and happiness is going to come from patient acceptance of those things we cannot change. We “learn to see with eyes of wholeness” and accept, without resistance or aversion, even the most painful experiences.

[See the previous 100 Days of Lovingkindness Post : See the next 100 Days of Lovingkindness Post]

PS Feel free to join our Google+ 100 Day Community, where people are reporting-in on their practice, and giving each other support and encouragement.

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Falling through suffering

featherRecently someone wrote to me and said that although he’d been making great progress in his meditation and had been experiencing at times profound peace and intense clarity, his meditation recently had become very turbulent. There can be many reasons for this, of course, but one that came to mind was when we need to shift gear in our meditation practice.

This turbulence may well have been a call to go deeper. We can get used to having a generally more positive experience, and get used to a certain ease in our practice. The mind is generally calmer, and we’re more joyful and experience more kindness. But we can become unused to experiencing difficulties, and when they come up we are profoundly disturbed. We become like the princess on the pile of mattresses: the one small pea in our experience is enough to destroy our comfort. And we become addicted to “fixing things” — trying to get our experience to be just so.

When we experience something uncomfortable in our experience and we try hard to “fix it” we end up just disturbing the mind even more. Our “fixing” activity itself becomes a source of disturbance. A good analogy for this is catching a feather on a fan; the more effort you make the more the feather flies away from the fan.

So when the mind is disturbed like this, we can work on developing more equanimity. Let go of aversion. It’s OK not to feel good. Let go of any craving for peace and joy. We can find a complete acceptance of the fact that things don’t feel good.

100 day meditation challenge 080And the ironic thing is, when we completely accept not feeling good, then amazing things happen. We can rest with our discomfort, just letting it be there. As we stop resisting it, stop thinking that things should be otherwise, stop thinking that it’s a bad thing that we’re experiencing discomfort, our suffering starts to thin out.

We find that we start to “fall through” our suffering and come out into a place of joy and calm. The discomfort may vanish. Or there may still be discomfort present, but we’re fine with that.

It might be tempting to see this as just a sly way to “fix” things, but I don’t think it is. It’s a completely different paradigm.

Now I’m not saying that we should never try to fix things, or never try to change our experience. Often we need to do that. You’re anxious? Take a few deep breaths to calm down. You’re angry? Cultivate lovingkindness. You’re craving something? Think about the drawbacks and deficiencies of the thing you’re craving. This is all “fixing.” But you may, at some point, find that your fixing activities themselves are as much a source of disturbance as the problems you’re trying fix. And at that point, just stop trying to fix, and just be with your suffering. And then fall through it, and find peace on the other side.

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Softening the heart and sitting with anger…

wildcat snarling

One evening after my Wednesday night meditation class, Amy, a member of our D.C. meditation community, asked if we might talk for a few minutes about her mother, a woman she often referred to as “a manipulative, narcissistic human.” Amy’s mother had recently been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, and as the only local offspring, Amy had become her mother’s primary caretaker. So, there she was, spending hours a day with a person she’d been avoiding for decades. “I can’t stand myself for having such a hard heart,” Amy confessed.

Amy and I agreed to meet privately to explore how she might use her practice to find more freedom in relating to her mother. At our first session, she told me difficult early childhood memories had recently been emerging. In the most potent of these, Amy was three years old. Her mom yelled upstairs that she’d prepared a bath for her and that she should get in the tub. But when Amy went into the bathroom, what she found was a couple of inches of lukewarm water. What had flashed through her three-year-old mind then was: “This is all I’m going to get. No one is taking care of me.”

Amy’s mom had always been preoccupied with her own dramas, perpetually reacting to perceived slights from friends, struggling against weight gain, and berating her husband for his shortcomings. Little attention was paid to the physical or emotional needs of Amy or her siblings. “She doesn’t care about anyone except herself,” Amy told me. “She’s a self-centered bitch … it really pisses me off. I got gypped out of having a mother, and now I’m here catering to her.” As she was speaking I asked her to pause, and investigate what she was most aware of in the moment. After a long silence, Amy said “There’s so much rage, I can barely contain it.”

Part of the process of softening our hearts includes learning to recognize and allow whatever we’re feeling—even intense rage. But this isn’t always simple, or easy. When I asked Amy if she could allow the rage to be here, she shook her head. “I’m afraid if I really make space for this rage, it will destroy every relationship I have. I’ve already hurt people I love.”

When anger is buried, like Amy’s was, the energy gets converted and expressed in many different ways. Yet, anger is a natural survival energy that wants our attention, that needs to be allowed to be felt. However, “allowing” doesn’t mean we let ourselves be possessed by our anger. Rather, we allow when we acknowledge the stories of blame without believing them, and when we let the sensations of anger arise, without either acting them out or resisting them.

I encouraged Amy to check in with her fear. Was it willing to let this rage be here? Could the fear step aside enough so that she could be present with this rage? Amy nodded. Now, she could begin to investigate the emotional energy beneath the blame. I knew that for her to do this, she’d first need to step outside of the seductive sway of her resentful stories. We’d talked about the stories, respecting them as windows into her pain. But the anger also lived deeper in her body—in a place beyond thought. The next step was for Amy to widen and deepen her attention so she could fully contact these embodied energies.

I asked Amy to notice what she was feeling in her body, and she closed her eyes and paused. “It’s like a hot pressured cauldron in my chest,” she said. What would happen, I asked, if she said yes to this feeling, and allowed the heat and pressure to be as intense as it wanted. “It wants to explode,” Amy said. Again, I encouraged her to let be, to allow her experience just as it was.

Amy was absolutely still for some moments. “The rage feels like it is bursting flames, like a windstorm spreading in all directions,” she said. “It’s blasting through the windows of this office.” In a low voice, she went on: “It’s spreading through the East Coast. Now it’s destroying all life forms, ripping through the continent, oceans, earth.” She continued, telling me about the rage’s fury, how it was spreading through space. Then she became very quiet. Speaking in a soft voice, she finally said, “It’s losing steam,” before sitting back on the couch and letting out a tired sigh. “Now there’s just emptiness. No one is left in the world. I’m utterly alone, lonely.” In a barely audible whisper, she said, “There’s no one who loves me, no one that I love.”

Amy began weeping. Inside the rage, she’d found an empty place, a place that felt loveless. Now what was revealing itself was grief: grief for the loss of love in her life. When I asked what the grieving part of her most needed, she knew right away: “To know that I care about this pain, that I accept and love this grieving place.” I guided her to gently place her hand on her heart, and offer inwardly the message her wounded self most needed. She began repeating the phrase, “I’m sorry, I love you.” This wasn’t an apology. Rather, it was a simple expression of sorrow for her own hurt.

As Amy whispered the phrase over and over, she began rocking side to side. “I’m seeing the little girl in the bath,” she said, “and feeling how uncared for she feels, how alone. I’m holding her now, telling her ‘I’m sorry, I love you.’” Then, after a few minutes, Amy sat upright and looked at me with a fresh openness and brightness. “I think I understand,” she said. “I’ve been angry for so long that I abandoned her—the inner part of me—just like my mom abandoned that three-year-old.” She paused,then continued. “I just have to remember that this part of me needs love. I want to love her.”

Offering a compassionate and clear attention to her vulnerability had connected Amy with a vastness of being that could include her pain. This natural awareness is the fruition of an intimate attention. When we’re resting in this presence, we’re inhabiting the refuge of our own awakened heart and mind.

Some weeks later, Amy read me her morning’s journal entry: “There is more room in my heart.” The night before, after her mother had complained for the third time that her soup still wasn’t salty enough, Amy felt the familiar rising tide of irritation and resentment. She sent the message “I’m sorry, I love you” inwardly to herself, giving permission to the annoyance, to the edginess in her own heart. She felt a softening, a relaxing of tension. Looking up, she was struck by her mother’s grim, dissatisfied expression. Then, just as she’d learned to inquire about herself, the thought came:“What is my mom feeling right now?” Almost immediately, she could sense her mother’s insecurity and loneliness. Imagining her mother inside her heart, Amy again began offering caring messages. “I’m sorry,” she whispered silently, “I love you.”

She found herself feeling genuine warmth toward her mother, and the evening was surprisingly pleasant for both of them. They joked about her mom doing a “mono diet” of potato chips, went online and ordered a bathrobe, and had fun watching The Daily Show together.

At our last meeting Amy told me how, several days earlier, her mother had woken up in the morning hot and sweaty. Amy took a cool cloth to her mother’s forehead and cheeks, arms and feet. “Nobody’s ever washed me,” her mom had said with a wistful smile. Amy immediately remembered the little girl in the bathtub, and felt tears in her eyes. She and her mom had both gone through much of life feeling neglected, as if they didn’t matter. And right now, each in her own way was tasting the intimacy of care. They looked at each other and had a moment of uncomplicated love. It was the first such moment Amy could remember, one she knew she’d cherish long after her mom was gone.

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From drama to Dharma

I come from a long line of drama queens. My family could create drama out of going to the supermarket. They also drank a lot which enhanced this tendency.

Let’s face it, many of us who have staggered about in the realm of addictive or blow-your-mind substances, have a predisposition towards catastrophizing. Something in us enjoys creating volcanic eruptions out of molehills. Even many of us who have heroically extricated ourselves from substance misuse or abuse have failed to let go the accompanying tendency to see the world in terms of flash crashes, trench warfare, bubonic plague, and other extreme events.

Even though we may be consciously inclined towards the Middle Path and serenity, our unconscious minds hurtle us relentlessly into series upon series of melodramas.

Melodrama, a theatrical term, derives from the Greek word melo, which means music. In theatre, emotions are exaggerated and the storyline is full of exciting events. Many of us would secretly delight in a sound-track to accompany our life performances.

Drama addicts tend to exaggerate, embroider and amplify events in order to draw attention to themselves and/or their world. Sometimes there is a desire to shock, whether by acting out or in telling the story of someone else’s drama.

In the grip of a melodrama the breath becomes shallow, adrenalin kicks in, and the drama addict feels energized and alive. So it can be a challenge for many addicts to stick with meditation. The lurking core belief is that without drama, life would be boring; without telling stories of dramatic events, you would be boring.

Rollercoaster emotions may initially feel energizing but eventually they deplete us. Too much adrenaline and cortisol flooding the system eventually creates a worn out, flat and bored organism.

If we are able to actually identify that we are addicted to drama, meditating regularly may be able to help us move away from our own TV soap opera.

A good strategy in addressing addiction to drama is to reduce our expectations. Conscious and sub-conscious expectations can and do create a world of hurt. When I wait for the bus, I expect it to appear. When it does not appear, a melodramatic reaction arises. Behaving in an overdramatic manner each time an expectation is thwarted adds nothing constructive. Eliminating the expectation and relaxing into what actually is can liberate us from the tyranny of self.

When we behave as fixed entities complete with desires that must be satiated right here, right now, we see the world in terms of what we can extract from it physically, mentally and emotionally. When we crave less and demand less, we find we can love more and accept more. We move from the realm of frustrated hungry ghosts to the realm of equanimity. Appreciating what we have instead of clamouring for what we want, we can abide in plenty, well-being, kindness and beauty.

When we have fewer expectations, melodramas are less frequent. We find we are more able to allow things to be the way they are without needing to adjust or control outcomes.

Meditation sharpens our sense of interconnectedness and process. It helps us move from chipped mug half-empty to exquisite goblet half-full – a necessary step if we are to survive as a species.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote:

In fact the whole antithesis between self and the rest of the world, which is implied in the doctrine of self-denial, disappears as soon as we have any genuine interest in persons or things outside ourselves. Through such interests a man comes to feel himself part of the stream of life, not a hard separate entity like a billiard-ball, which can have no relation with other such entities except that of collocation. All unhappiness depends upon some kind of disintegration or lack or integration; there is disintegration within the self through lack of co-ordination between the conscious and the unconscious mind; there is lack of integration between the self and society where the two are not knit together by the force of objective interests and affections. The happy man is the man who does not suffer from either of these failures of unity, whose personality is neither divided against itself nor pitted against the world. Such a man feels himself a citizen of the universe, enjoying freely the spectacle that it offers and the joys that it affords, untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not really separate from those who will come after him. It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found.

Meditation helps to bring the drama addict into the generally drama-free reality of the present moment. Reality reflects back to us that despite our out-of-control emotions and thoughts we are, in that very moment, clothed, fed, and sheltered and not at risk of war, famine or any other impending apocalypse.

When we sit with our present experience, whatever that may be, without judgment or commentary, and become aware on the level of sensation just what is going on emotionally, we may find that, maybe for the first time ever, we are actually capable of resting in great, natural peace. If we are able to stop our incessant, blind attraction to danger and chaos, even for a moment, we may experience, from the depths of our being, pure, unadulterated relief.

We may lurch back into old autopilot habits of over-dramatizing, but we have briefly experienced another way, which is not boring or grey after all, but deeply restful and nourishing. All we need to do is make a new habit, one of commitment, to going back to that place on a daily basis.

We may not feel like doing this. We may be tired, angry, distracted, hungry, lonely or stressed. But we don’t have to believe every emotion or thought that we have. As with NA/AA meetings, we just show up. As we sit, day in and day out, steadfast as the rising and the setting sun, we gradually develop discriminating wisdom which helps us to decide which emotions and thoughts are in our own best interest and which are not. Mastery of the mind entails rejecting those thoughts not in alignment with our values. We can also identify emotions and thoughts that help in strengthening our purpose.

Serenity is the opposite of melodrama, and the dualistic nature of our universe whispers to us that the kernel of the one lies dormant in the other. All we need to do is incubate serenity by carefully laying it under our meditation cushion before we sit and trusting that our minds will gradually incline towards peace.

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Tone down the negative, enhance the positive

Painful experiences range from subtle discomfort to extreme anguish – and there is a place for them. Sorrow can open the heart, anger can highlight injustices, fear can alert you to real threats, and remorse can help you take the high road next time.

But is there really any shortage of suffering in this world? Look at the faces of others – including mine – or your own in the mirror, and see the marks of weariness, irritation, stress, disappointment, longing, and worry. There’s plenty of challenge in life already – including unavoidable illness, loss of loved ones, old age, and death – without needing a bias in your brain to give you an extra dose of pain each day.

Your brain evolved exactly such a “negativity bias” in order to help your ancestors pass on their genes – a bias that produces lots of collateral damage today.

Painful experiences are more than passing discomforts. They produce lasting harms to your physical and mental health. When you’re feeling frazzled, pressured, down, hard on yourself, or simply frustrated, that:

  • Weakens your immune system
  • Impairs nutrient absorption in your gastrointestinal system
  • Increases vulnerabilities in your cardiovascular system
  • Decreases your reproductive hormones; exacerbates PMS
  • Disturbs your nervous system

Consider the famous saying: “Neurons that wire together, fire together.” This means that repeated painful experiences – even mild ones – tend to:

  • Increase pessimism, anxiety, and irritability
  • Lower your mood
  • Reduce ambition and positive risk-taking

In couples, upsetting experiences foster mistrust, heightened sensitivity to relatively small issues, distance, and vicious cycles. At much larger scales – between groups or nations – they do much the same.

So don’t take painful experiences lightly, neither the ones you get nor, honestly, the ones you give. Prevent them when you can, and help them pass through when you can’t.

How?

This week, take a stand for yourself, for feeling as good as you reasonably can. A stand for bearing painful experiences when they walk through the door – and a stand for encouraging them to keep on walking, all the way out of your mind.

This is not being at war with discomfort or distress, which would just add negativity, like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. Instead, it is being kind to yourself, wise and realistic about the toxic effects of painful experiences.

In effect, you’re simply saying to yourself something you’d say to a dear friend in pain: I want you to feel better, and I’m going to help you. Try saying that to yourself in your mind right now. How does it feel?

When emotional pain does come, even softly, try to hold it in a large space of awareness. In a traditional metaphor, imagine stirring a big spoon of salt into a cup of water and then drinking it: yuck. But then imagine stirring that spoonful into a clean bucket of water and then drinking a cup: it’s the same amount of salt – the same amount of worry or frustration, feeling inadequate or blue – but held in a larger context. Notice that awareness is without any edges, boundless like the sky, with thoughts and feelings passing through.

In your mind, watch out for how negative information, events, or experiences can seem to overpower positive ones. For example, researchers have found that people typically will work harder or put up with more crud to avoid losing something than to gain the same thing. And they feel more contaminated by one fault than they feel cleansed or elevated by several virtues. Try to switch this around; for instance, pick some of your good qualities and keep seeing how they show up in your life this week.

Be careful whenever you feel stymied, frustrated, or disappointed. Humans (and other mammals) are very vulnerable to what’s called “learned helplessness” – developing a sense of futility, immobilization, and passivity. Focus on where you can make a difference, where you do have power; it may only be inside your own mind, but that’s better than nothing at all.

In your relationships, be mindful of reacting more strongly to one negative event than to a bunch of positive ones. For example, studies have shown that it typically takes several positive interactions to make up for a single negative encounter. Pick an important relationship, and then really pay attention to what’s working in it; let yourself feel good about these things. Deal with the problems in this relationship, sure, but keep them in perspective.

Overall, whenever you remember, deliberately tilt toward the positive in your mind. That’s not looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. Given the negativity bias in the brain, you’re only leveling the playing field.

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The sacred pause

In our lives we often find ourselves in situations we can’t control, circumstances in which none of our strategies work. Helpless and distraught, we frantically try to manage what is happening. Our child takes a downward turn in academics and we issue one threat after another to get him in line. Someone says something hurtful to us and we strike back quickly or retreat. We make a mistake at work and we scramble to cover it up or go out of our way to make up for it. We head into emotionally charged confrontations nervously rehearsing and strategizing.

The more we fear failure the more frenetically our bodies and minds work. We fill our days with continual movement: mental planning and worrying, habitual talking, fixing, scratching, adjusting, phoning, snacking, discarding, buying, looking in the mirror.

What would it be like if, right in the midst of this busyness, we were to consciously take our hands off the controls? What if we were to intentionally stop our mental computations and our rushing around and, for a minute or two, simply pause and notice our inner experience?

Learning to pause is the first step in the practice of Radical Acceptance. A pause is a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving towards any goal. The pause can occur in the midst of almost any activity and can last for an instant, for hours or for seasons of our life.

We may take a pause from our ongoing responsibilities by sitting down to meditate. We may pause in the midst of meditation to let go of thoughts and reawaken our attention to the breath. We may pause by stepping out of daily life to go on a retreat or to spend time in nature or to take a sabbatical. We may pause in a conversation, letting go of what we’re about to say, in order to genuinely listen and be with the other person. We may pause when we feel suddenly moved or delighted or saddened, allowing the feelings to play through our heart. In a pause we simply discontinue whatever we are doing—thinking, talking, walking, writing, planning, worrying, eating—and become wholeheartedly present, attentive and, often, physically still.

A pause is, by nature, time limited. We resume our activities, but we do so with increased presence and more ability to make choices. In the pause before sinking our teeth into a chocolate bar, for instance, we might recognize the excited tingle of anticipation, and perhaps a background cloud of guilt and self-judgment. We may then choose to eat the chocolate, fully savoring the taste sensations, or we might decide to skip the chocolate and instead go out for a run. When we pause, we don’t know what will happen next. But by disrupting our habitual behaviors, we open to the possibility of new and creative ways of responding to our wants and fears.

Of course there are times when it is not appropriate to pause. If our child is running towards a busy street, we don’t pause. If someone is about to strike us, we don’t just stand there, resting in the moment—rather, we quickly find a way to defend ourselves. If we are about to miss a flight, we race toward the gate. But much of our driven pace and habitual controlling in daily life does not serve surviving, and certainly not thriving. It arises from a free-floating anxiety about something being wrong or not enough. Even when our fear arises in the face of actual failure, loss or even death, our instinctive tensing and striving are often ineffectual and unwise.

Taking our hands off the controls and pausing is an opportunity to clearly see the wants and fears that are driving us. During the moments of a pause, we become conscious of how the feeling that something is missing or wrong keeps us leaning into the future, on our way somewhere else. This gives us a fundamental choice in how we respond: We can continue our futile attempts at managing our experience, or we can meet our vulnerability with the wisdom of Radical Acceptance.

Often the moment when we most need to pause is exactly when it feels most intolerable to do so. Pausing in a fit of anger, or when overwhelmed by sorrow or filled with desire, may be the last thing we want to do. Pausing can feel like falling helplessly through space—we have no idea of what will happen. We fear we might be engulfed by the rawness of our rage or grief or desire. Yet without opening to the actual experience of the moment, Radical Acceptance is not possible.

Through the sacred art of pausing, we develop the capacity to stop hiding, to stop running away from our experience. We begin to trust in our natural intelligence, in our naturally wise heart, in our capacity to open to whatever arises. Like awakening from a dream, in the moment of pausing our trance recedes and Radical Acceptance becomes possible.

From Radical Acceptance (2003)

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My happiness does not depend on this: old teaching, new words

“My happiness does not depend on this.” The thought crossed my mind as I sat one day in a traffic jam under a grey sky, on my way to bring a computer for repair. What I did not realise at the time was that my mind had taken the old Buddhist idea of non-attachment and non-clinging and presented it to me in language I understood.

I did realise, though, that this thought could be very rewarding indeed in my daily life. I had been worrying about the response I would get from the repair people when I brought my computer back because their previous repair had caused the new problem – but once I realised that whatever their response, my happiness level a week later would probably be the same as it was today, the tension evaporated. I brought the computer back anyway and they fixed it.

After that I began to play with the concept. Now I remind myself every day that at least 95% of the time “my happiness does not depend on this” whatever “this” might happen to be. A stolen iPhone, snow in April, a new tax, a series of challenges to be met over the next week (and, of course, the week after and the week and the week after) – all demand attention and effort; some will bring satisfaction and some frustration but whatever happens my happiness does not depend on the outcome. Knowing this seems to free me up to get on with doing what needs to be done, accepting that it won’t be the end of the world if I don’t get precisely what I want.

I have tended to live my life making the assumption that each thing I do is essential to my happiness and that it will be very bad indeed if I don’t succeed in doing it. I don’t know where this assumption came from and most of the time it has operated outside my conscious awareness. But bringing it into awareness has helped me to realise, in practice, the sheer silliness of this way of looking at things.

It was only after using my “new” concept for a while that I came to realise that this phrase was my mind’s translation of so much I had read about non-clinging, non-attachment, non-grasping and so on.

This has been of help not only to me but also to my mindfulness students to whom I like to emphasise that mindfulness is not simply a set of techniques but that the practice supports a philosophy of living, an attitudinal approach to the world and to ourselves in the world.

But surely my happiness depends on something? Of course. One important aspect of the attitude that “my happiness does not depend on this” is that it allows recognition of those things on which my happiness does, indeed, depend – usually close relationships. Would a hard-core Buddhist argue that my happiness should not depend even on close relationships? Perhaps, but then I am not a hard-core Buddhist – I’m a person who finds Buddhist philosophy valuable in helping me to approach my life in the world: so I am quite willing to have those relatively few things on which my happiness does depend getting their full place at centre stage while life’s smaller desires and inconveniences are sent to the wings.

When I wrote in my Irish Times column about the idea that “my happiness does not depend on this” I got one of the best responses ever to a column in many years. Readers all the way from full-time mums to company directors emailed to say what a difference this idea had made to them.

What fascinates me about this is that these readers were encountering an old Buddhist idea and found it immediately valuable. They took to it, as we say in Ireland, “like ducks to water.” And I am tickled by the fact that a 2,600 year old or so precept can come like a revelation in an era when we have had decades of being bombarded with advice on psychology and on how to live our lives.

Padraig O’Morain is the author of Light Mind – Mindfulness in Daily Living and teaches mindfulness in ireland. His website is www.padraigomorain.com

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