equanimity

Mindfulness and wise discrimination

You can’t read much about the important quality of mindfulness without learning that it involves being nonjudgmental – that it involves setting aside discriminations and simply accepting our experience.

For example, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s informal definition of mindfulness (from Wherever You Go, There You Are) reads: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

I use that kind of language myself sometimes, but I also notice that it’s subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, misleading.

Certainly, mindfulness has a quality of equanimity about it. Equanimity is a quality of calmness and composure. To give a negative example, I was recently leading a retreat, and in one meditation session two people ended up sitting just outside the window of the meditation room, having a conversation. I found it very hard not to get annoyed, and to imagine having words with the talkers. So initially there was something that was unpleasant (noise when I expected quiet) but I reacted to that noise and ended up adding even more pain. The pain I caused myself by brooding over the incident as it happened, ended up causing me far more pain. I also, fortunately, had more successful meditations where I could sit with physical discomfort, and even the sound of a garbage truck arriving and emptying a dumpster, with not a ripple of reaction crossing my mind. The physical pain, or the sound of the truck, were simply things to notice. Equanimity, which is an important component of mindfulness, is a spacious quality that allows our sense of discomfort to exist without repressing or denying it. It also prevents us from adding to that hurt.

Acceptance is a perfectly good word for describing this quality of equanimity.

But I can’t help feeling that it’s going too far to say that mindfulness doesn’t involve judgment. Certainly, in the spirit of equanimity, we don’t look at our experience and give ourselves a hard time over it. So when we get distracted in meditation are not meant to be mentally beating ourselves up and telling ourselves what a bad meditator we are.

But mindfulness, when it’s fully developed, includes an element of wise discrimination. Accompanying mindfulness is a sense of whether a particular experience we are having is one that we want to put more energy into, or one we want to stand back from and allow to fade away.

In one of the early teachings of the Buddhist tradition we read:

“One tries to abandon wrong view & to enter into right view: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong view & to enter & remain in right view: This is one’s right mindfulness.

Implicit in this is that we recognize when a view (loosely speaking, an idea, a viewpoint, or a thought) is valid or not valid, helpful or not helpful, true or untrue, conducing to pain or to freedom from pain.

Again, this doesn’t mean that we beat ourselves up when we recognize that our thinking is distorted.

Mindfulness has a kind of critical edge to it. It’s discriminating. It recognizes the quality of any given experience that we’re having.

Mindfulness recognizes patterns. It can recognize that this particular kind of thinking (angry thinking, “woe is me” thinking) causes suffering, and that that particular mental state (kindness, patience, equanimity) leads to our feeling greater peace and well-being. And so we wisely choose where to put our energy.

Mindfulness is therefore also not entirely about “being in the moment.” Mindfulness is certainly paying attention to what’s going on right now, but it’s also recognizing how “right now” has arisen from “just a moment ago,” and how “right now” is going to affect “just a minute from now.” Mindfulness includes an awareness of process.

So it’s not a question of mindfulness being undiscriminating and non-judgmental in a straightforward way. It’s a question of mindfulness making wise and kind discriminations. Mindfulness makes wise discriminations because it intelligently senses what makes us unhappy and what brings us peace. It makes kind discriminations because in a state of mindfulness we refrain from responding to our experience with anger and frustration.

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“Abiding in Ease, Here and Now”: An invitation to listen in on Bodhipaksa’s teaching

This is an invitation to download some free MP3s of my teaching.

This week I’m doing a lot of meditation teaching at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in New Hampshire, and I’ve been recording the meditation sessions and uploading them to a Dropbox account.

Most of the recordings are from 30 to 50 minutes long. I’ve been introducing the Mindfulness of Breathing, Development of Lovingkindness, and Walking Meditation practices. The overall theme is a phrase from the Pali canon, “Abiding in Ease, Here and Now,” and the meditations encourage a sense of spacious relaxation into the moment, with the emphasis on acceptance and equanimity.

If you’d like to download these, just post a comment below, and I’ll add you to the dropbox account. The MP3s are free (and for personal use only) and it doesn’t cost anything to join Dropbox.

NEW
A problem I hadn’t anticipated with Dropbox is that I keep subscribing people to the folder and they keep deleting the MP3 files, which means they’re gone for everyone. Replacing them every 30 minutes is getting to be tedious. So here’s the deal. You don’t have to post a comment below — just click on this link! Then right click (Control click on a Mac) and download the files. Check back every day, since I’ll be adding new files as they’re recorded. I don’t think you even have to join Dropbox now.

The meditation are not professionally recorded, and there is some background noise.

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Mindfulness over market matters

The next time the stock market takes a sickening plunge, perhaps you should take time out to meditate.

That would be the recommendation of certified financial planner Graham Byron and meditation coach Maria Gonzalez. The pair recently published a book called The Mindful Investor. The book’s subtitle makes an impressive claim: By maintaining a calm mind, you can obtain both inner peace and financial security.

Gonzalez, president of Toronto-based Argonauta Strategic Alliances Consulting Inc., says the book was conceived after Byron noticed how practising “mindfulness” and “equanimity” helped his clients when the market crashed.

Mindfulness meditation involves cultivating the simple awareness of whatever is arising in the moment. “It enabled him to work with clients more effectively, listen to them more deeply and help him in ways he didn’t think of before he learned about mindfulness.”

Or, as they write in the second chapter, mindfulness meditation is “simply noticing the way things are.” The ability to accept what is, without resistance, is called equanimity. That means accepting things you can’t control, such as stock prices or interest rates.

That doesn’t mean the authors recommend a passive indifference to investment portfolios. It means, simply, “don’t fight with yourself.”

Failure to keep a calm mind when financial markets are plunging may lead to…

Read the rest of this article…

making wrong decisions, like selling at the bottom, crystallizing what might otherwise have been only temporary paper losses.

After a 30-year career as a successful businesswoman, including stints at several Canadian banks, Gonzalez had as much exposure to the market as many investors did when the crash of 2008 occurred. How did she react to it?

“Honestly, it wasn’t that stressful. It was shocking, absolutely, but not stressful in the sense you can’t control the outcome. The only thing I could control was my response, which was to become calm.”

Stock crashes will happen again, “so it’s really a matter of maintaining a calm centre. It’s a very trainable skill.”

Byron, a vice-president and associate portfolio manager with CIBC Wood Gundy, doesn’t ask clients to meditate but says they get the benefits of his own half-hour sessions, which he performs immediately on waking in the morning. But the focus on mindfulness also pays off when he’s talking to them.

“It’s all about focus, tuning out the noise, and concentration,” he says. “Mindful listening is one of the best things about meditation.”

In a long investment career that began with Winnipeg-based Investors Group, Byron has experienced seven major market corrections. The 2008 crash was the worst of them, but he didn’t stop meditating when it occurred. He says he didn’t have the same “visceral reaction” earlier crashes caused.

“I felt in control and that I could communicate with clients clearly and with focus.”

As a fee-based advisor, Byron doesn’t trade often, preferring clients use the money managers he recommends.

How many other advisors meditate? “I’ve not run into too many,” Byron admits. “The other way to be calm and stay focused is to have experience. Experienced advisors are pretty much all good at this stuff. Once you have a few years under your belt, you can really stay calmer automatically.” But he still believes meditation gives him an edge over advisors who don’t practise it.

The authors say another way of staying calm about money is to reorder your priorities, keeping money in perspective. The authors suggest your priorities should be: 1. spiritual and mental health; 2. physical health; 3. time; 4. helping others; 5. money

“We talk a lot about risk and the possible downside, but money is a tool,” Byron says. “You should use it for good things you enjoy, like giving to charity. At the end of the day, a good financial plan will help you relax and enjoy your money. Most people are better off than they think they are.”

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Engagement and anxiety

flowersA Wildmind visitor called Cory asked:

I want to keep watch on world events so that I’m not naive with regard to politics, yet remain unburdened by worry, fear, and attachment of those events which I cannot conceivably control. My question to you is, what is the way to endure when a shadow of worry or fear pervades your heart? Loving Kindness has helped, but the worry returns again and again, as does foreboding of what the future will bring.

This is an issue I struggle with myself, and not always successfully. I’ve sometimes found myself addicted to the news, especially on the web. I’ve sometimes found myself endlessly browsing news stories. When I say I was addicted I don’t mean to imply that this was destroying my life or anything, but I would spend more time than was needed just to keep up with the news.

One thing I tried doing was having a “news fast” for a couple of weeks, where all I allowed myself to do was to read the headlines and lede of news stories. So I’d look at the first page of the New York Times’ website, for example, but not go any further. That definitely helped me break out of the cycle of news-addiction that I’d been experiencing, and at the end of the fast there was much less of a sense of compulsion and anxiety about my news reading.

I found over that time that I could basically get all I really needed from just the headline and lede (the one or two sentence summing-up of a news story that accompanies the headline). The rest is really just too much detail.

 People’s stress after 9/11 was proportional to how many times they watched the towers falling on TV  

You might want to think about your sources of news. The images on television news are designed to have an emotional impact. And the TV news will repeat images over and over again in order to heighten that emotional impact. They want you to be afraid and horrified and anxious so that you’ll keep tuning in to find out what’s happening next. It’s been shown that people’s levels of stress after 9/11 were directly proportional to how many times they watched the towers falling on TV. I don’t watch TV, so I didn’t actually see the towers falling until a long time after the event. It was horrifying, and I wouldn’t want to watch it a second time. Some people saw it hundreds of times. Newspapers, on the other hand, are much less sensationalistic. The images are static. They can’t repeat as much as TV does because you’d get bored and go away. A TV news program could show you the towers falling ten times in one show and you’d watch it. A newspaper isn’t going to tell you 20 times in one story that the towers fell, and even if it did the emotional impact would be much less. Public radio news (speaking about the US here) is also much more considered and less dramatic than TV.

There’s a notion out there that you’re avoiding engagement if you’re not subjecting yourself to all this violent imagery on television; you’re “avoiding reality.” But television takes us beyond merely knowing about what’s going on and into the realm of being a victim of what’s going on. We can become traumatized and stressed by being a participant in the world’s disasters. How does that help us? I don’t think it does. I think it disempowers us.

Another meditative method I’ve found useful in disengaging when I’ve found myself overly-caught up in news-surfing is to become aware of the craving as an object of mindfulness. So I’ll be sitting there surfing the net, becoming aware that I’m in craving mode where there’s a sense of compulsion beginning to mount. And I’ll turn my attention inwards, away from the news itself and towards the feelings I have about the news. In the pit of my stomach there is a sense of anxiety and longing, and I become mindful of that feeling. I surround it with a compassionate and gentle awareness that doesn’t judge but simply holds those feelings in my attention. At that point I can feel the emotional link with the news dissolve away, and I find it’s completely painless to close my laptop. No willpower required!

When we become addicted to the news we’re being overwhelmed by it and we’re attached to it. There’s a lack of balance in our relationship with the news. We’ve lost our equanimity.

 It’s easy to watch the news and forget to be actively compassionate to all involved.  

But I think Cory’s question was perhaps less about the phenomenon of being attached to the sensory input of news than to the actual content of the news itself, “attachment of those events which (he) cannot conceivably control.”

I have a few suggestions here. The first is compassion. It’s easy to watch the news and forget to be actively compassionate to all involved. Instead we get sucked into anger, or pity, or anxiety. All of these emotional responses are painful and unhelpful, and rooted in ego. When we cultivate genuine compassion for those involved in the news, not taking sides — not seeing good guys and bad guys — but simply seeing the human beings involved as human beings, there’s less ego involved. This isn’t easy for me to do. I tend to take sides. I tend to see political figures whose policies I’m opposed to as being either stupid or evil. I have to remind myself that in their own eyes their actions make perfect sense.

Having compassion where there are victims and perpetrators involved can be hard too, but it’s important to remember that everyone suffers, both those causing harm and those being harmed. It’s easy to demonize wrong-doers, but we’ve all thought of doing stupid things, and it might be wise for us to remember that when we see someone who has let thoughts turn into reality.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that there are various conditions — often hereditary — which make it harder for some people to empathize, to imagine the consequences of their actions, and to exercise self-restraint. If someone has such a condition and hurts others, their actions are reprehensible and we need to protect ourselves against them, but perhaps we could bear in mind that there’s an involuntary component to their actions. If we don’t blame a diabetic for having a faulty pancreas, perhaps we should also refrain from blaming a person with Antisocial Personality Disorder, which involves a defect in the way the brain processes information about relationships. We still have to hold people accountable for their actions — that’s not in question — but we can refrain from wishing them harm.

When we exercise compassion, we still suffer (suffering is inevitable in life) but we suffer in a healthier way. The sense of connectedness we have when we’re compassionate has an “immunizing” effect whereby suffering is in our system but can’t harm us. The pain hurts but doesn’t harm.

This reminds me that we also need to have compassion for ourselves. When we watch or read or hear the news we’re inevitably going to experience pain, and it’s important to acknowledge that. Often we can have a sense that we’ve failed if we experience pain, and we can try to push ourselves onwards, trying to ignore it. But if we’re suffering we’re suffering. And we need to respond to our own suffering in the same way we would if we were responding to the suffering of a child or a dear friend. Rather than brushing our suffering aside we need to hold it compassionately in our awareness and send it our love. In this way we can deal with our suffering in a kindly way. It’s like when you get a cut; you’d clean the wound, take care of it, and cover it in order to prevent infection. You wouldn’t just pretend it didn’t happen or see it as a sign of failure. Similarly, with our mental pain we need to take care of it. This doesn’t mean retreating to our bedroom for a week and sulking — it’s just a question of noticing our pain and being compassionate with ourselves. We can even do this while engaged in other activities.

 …we also need to have compassion for ourselves  

My second suggestion is that we practice rejoicing. In the Brahmaviharas meditations we start by cultivating love, then compassion, and then “empathetic joy.” And the balance of those qualities provides the basis for experiencing equanimity, which is what’s at the heart of Cory’s question. So if you hear bad news about, say, a famine in some far-off country, we can at least rejoice that there are people bringing this to our attention. Our focus can be completely on the negative — there’s something bad going on in the world — and this can lead to us thinking that there’s nothing but bad going on in the world. The very fact that someone cares enough to report on bad news is a good thing in itself. Then there are the people who are trying to help — aid workers, emergency responders, etc. And then there are all the other people out there who care; you may not be in touch with them but you can be certain they exist. Rejoicing and compassion complement each other, and as I’ve mentioned they lead to a more balanced state of mind that we can equanimity.

Thirdly, there are indeed many things that we can’t change, so it’s maybe worth thinking about getting engaged in those things that we can change. That could be volunteering one night a week, or giving a donation to Amnesty International, or writing letters to politicians. But if we do one thing where we feel we’re making a difference, we’ll feel less alone, and we’ll feel a sense of empowerment. We may not be able to do much individually, but no individual can sort out life’s problems. However many individuals doing a small amount can do a lot of good.


BodhipaksaBodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.

As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com. You can follow Bodhipaksa’s Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/bodhipaksa.

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Parenting and practice

Steve BellHow do we maintain an active practice while being immersed in the world of parenting and work? Are children a hindrance to spiritual practice? Or can parenting also be a path? Steve Bell, Buddhist practitioner and social worker, speaks from his experience of meditating while parenting two young boys.

I tell prospective parents to make a list of all the things they enjoy doing in their spare time. What are your hobbies? Do you like to go to the movies? I ask them to list the obscure little things they would miss. Do you like timely haircuts? Do you like to luxuriate in the bathroom, on the toilet, in the shower, and grooming? Then I ask them to cross off half the things on their list — those that are least important. Then cross out half of the remainder. Keep whittling the list down, until there is just one last thing, the thing you couldn’t give up.

The last thing on my own list was meditation. I’d give up everything but that. I love meditation and what it gives me. And I wouldn’t have known all that if I didn’t have children. The narrowing of possibilities as a parent has focused me onto what’s most important in my life and helped me to see what’s most important to me.

Parenting is a kind of crisis that makes it more important for me to meditate, because meditating is a survival strategy for me. I underestimated the amount of work it would take to raise children. The pressure of having no sleep and caring for children has challenged me maybe more than living in a hermit’s cave would. I’ve done the “mindfulness of my exhaustion and sleeplessness” meditation more than I care to. At times, when I’m tired and stressed, I feel moved to act in a way towards my children that I know is wrong. Somehow I’m primitively drawn forward, like there’s some archaic script that must be followed, some intergenerational trauma that must somehow be passed on. Meditation helps me to step aside from that, to act in my own best interest and in my children’s best interest.

The age of the children, the number of children you have, their disposition, how much support, and other circumstances, determine the constraints that you practice under. Here are the factors that affect me: My children are aged two and three. My wife works. My sons are not good sleepers. They’re very loud, active boys who like climbing, jumping, shouting and exploring. It’s been a challenge to get them into their beds, and to have them sleep through the night in their own beds. I wake up in the morning and they are in bed with us. They sneaked in while we slept.

All these conditions effect whether I get to meditate uninterrupted. My wife leaves for work during the time I meditate, and if the boys wake up I need to stop what I’m doing. There will no doubt come a time when I can ask them to let me finish meditating, or when they will just know to leave me alone until I’m finished. But for now I have to cultivate patience. To help with this I’ve taken to reading the chapter on patience in Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara after I meditate, if there’s time. Rarely is there time.

My boys challenge me in unexpected ways and constantly catch me out. They are my gurus, pointing out the aspect of my practice I need to be focused on: patience. Nobody can unravel me and find my weak spots more easily than they do.

When I complain about not being able to meditate, my friends say, “Just be mindful in your day-to-day life.” I get irritated at that because on the one hand it is actually the answer. On the other hand, I feel that meditation is an essential way for me to increase and even just to maintain my mindfulness. The challenge for me is finding the right balance between the depth of sitting practice and cultivating mindfulness in everyday life.

When I don’t meditate I feel less capable, less positive, less open, and less flexible. I am more easily overwhelmed and unbalanced, more small-minded and selfish. When I meditate I can relax into the challenges of parenting. I am grounded in my body, and I’m not as reactive. I have more objectivity.

When I don’t meditate, I resist my circumstances more. One of my core understandings of the Dharma is that we hurt ourselves when we resist our circumstances. The struggle to accept my situation as a father, and in particular being interrupted when I meditate, is one of my key spiritual challenges.

The Satipatthana Sutta says that you should cultivate mindfulness when your mind is “restricted, scattered, unconcentrated.” I have more of a restricted, scattered, unconcentrated mind when my children wake up early and I don’t get a chance to meditate. Meditation is my main method for increasing mindfulness.

So how do you develop the mindfulness to parent well when parenting prevents you from meditating? How do you get inspiration in the very situation that seems to be drying it up? I can’t find the answer in the life of the Buddha. He left his family to pursue a spiritual journey that resulted in enlightenment. He never went back, though his wife sent his son to live with him at age seven, and he took him on as a disciple. Later his wife even joined the Sangha. But that’s not a reunification of the family unit — they joined his spiritual movement.

With my literal mind, in moments of weakness, I sometimes wonder if I have to leave my family to seek more spiritual depth and challenge. But of course I couldn’t leave my children. My father left me, and it was deeply painful. His leaving was perhaps the central event in my life. Because of my childhood experiences and my commitment not to harm others I could never do the same thing to my own children. So I need to find a more metaphorical kind of going forth that will benefit me and my family and that takes into account my circumstances and commitments.

Meditation is essential to me. I’ve practiced meditation daily for the past six years, and my sitting practice has been the biggest catalyst for positive change in my life. Some people are amazed that I meditate for 40 minutes most days despite having two small boys. For me, it’s vital, necessary, and not negotiable.

Retreats are very important to me. I want to squeeze the most out of the few retreats that I get to go on. On retreats it’s easier to meditate and we meditate more than I do normally, but my hunger for meditation is such that I never feel there is enough. I have an urgency I would not have developed if I was able to go on retreat more.

And I’d love to get on retreat more, but it wouldn’t be fair to leave my wife alone with the children. She’s not a Buddhist, though she is very kind, and because she doesn’t go on retreat we can’t have a straightforward quid pro quo arrangement. I won’t go on retreat against her wishes, so the retreat negotiation is yet another struggle on the spiritual path, attempting to get my needs met while also taking my wife’s needs into account.

You parent well by giving attention: by giving a particular kind and quality of attention. I don’t usually see that as mindfulness, but in a way it is. I have the challenge of trying to remain calm when flummoxed, to remain kind when my conditioning tells me to crack the whip in an unskillful way by imposing my will rather than relating empathetically. I have to watch for being so tired that I just want to let some of my children’s undesirable behavior slide by unaddressed.

Although my practice is important to me I worry about pushing Buddhism onto my children. I dislike the coercive indoctrination of religion on children. Yet my practice and my parenting are inseparable. There are many ways my boys learn about my Dharma practice. I chant to them to help them fall asleep. They see me meditate. They have met my Buddhist friends. They have gone to a Buddhist naming ceremony. They had naming ceremonies themselves, although they were too young at the time to be able to remember. They can identify the Buddha on the cover of books I read. My practice subtly diffuses out of my pores, and they pick up on it, without my proselytizing or forcing anything on them. Most of the time they appreciate my kindness and my mindfulness. So in a way I have done what my friends suggest, and infused my parenting with my spiritual practice.

I wish I could say I act gracefully all the time, that I go around in a state of equanimity, that I’m always a “good Buddhist.” The fact is though, that my boys have exposed some of my fragility and inflexibility of mind. They show me that I have lots of work to do. They are my gurus, and they humble me because they help me to see more clearly who I am and who I want to be. Pema Chodron talks about “the big squeeze”: when we realize the pressure of our ideals and how far we are from them. I have learned to clarify and use ideals, like the ten precepts, in a positive way, and not to turn them against myself in the pressure cooker of parenting.

My teacher, Sangharakshita, tells a story. There was a fellow who meditated on lovingkindness every morning. Every day, his servant boy would quietly bring some tea into the meditation room so that his master could have tea after meditating. One day, during meditation, the servant boy spilled the tea. The man roared at the boy for interrupting his meditation, “Can’t you see I’m radiating universal loving kindness throughout the world!”

So when my son comes up to me while I’m meditating, and says, “Do you want to play?” my heart melts, and I get up from my cushion — even if I’ve only been sitting for four minutes — and go play with him. That is how I express my metta.

Parenting is a challenge, but it also brings direct spiritual rewards. Kevin Griffin points out in One Breath at a Time:

Sometimes we are focused on developing concentration or investigation or some other quality. New parents have to work hard at cultivating and maintaining a lot of spiritual qualities: patience, generosity, renunciation (as they give up so much of their freedom and time). But the gift that they receive is love, as well as what’s called mudita, or appreciative joy. There’s no work involved, no effort in developing metta and mudita for our children, they just blossom. Appreciating that this is happening for us can help us to be easier on ourselves when other aspects of our practice seem to be crumbling.

I love my sons. They are utterly precious to me, even if they sometimes stop me from meditating. My love for my boys is as at least as powerful as my feelings of frustration about not being able to meditate. I sometimes catch myself speeding home from work: I am rushing to get back to them, to see them, urgently, passionately.

This is not the spirituality of being on retreat, of meditation, dharma study, and sangha. I contrast my life with a retired friend’s simple life of meditation and reflection, his walks in nature, his artistic and social activity, with no television or internet. His children have grown up and he no longer needs to work. Is that the only way to be spiritual, with free time, with no pull of responsibility? Do you have to be a monastic to move towards enlightenment? Can I be spiritual while immersed in my parenting and working life?

My spiritual practice is about staying with my experience, and not running away internally in order to cope with difficult experiences. It’s the same as with an itch on my nose in meditation — I don’t have to react, I can just experience it. I must stay with the challenging experience of parenting, not do the violence of wishing I was elsewhere, taking myself out of the here and now. It’s in this way, staying with and accepting my experience, that I become less scattered and restricted.
I wouldn’t have known all these things if I didn’t have children. Maybe I would have learned different lessons — I can’t say, and there’s no point in trying to second-guess myself. The challenge of losing my free time, of being needed so much, has taught me something vital: My children are my gurus. They help me blossom.


Steve Bell is a 40 year old father of two small children, who’s been meditating for five years. He lives in New York City and works as a psychotherapist at an agency for people with HIV/Aids. Steve is currently studying at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy. His wife of 10 years is a middle school teacher.

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Opening Up to Happiness (Psychology Today Magazine)

Mark Epstein, Psychology Today: Why happiness is unattainable for some people and why it’s a mistake to wipe out sources of displeasure.

“I’m sick of this,” a patient of mine remarked the other morning. “I can’t stand myself anymore. When am I going to be happy?” It’s not an uncommon question in therapy, yet aspirations for happiness can sound naive or even trivial. “How could she be asking for happiness?” I thought to myself. “Didn’t Freud say that the best that one could expect of therapy was a return to ‘common unhappiness?'” Yet, my patient’s yearning was heartfelt. How could I possibly address it without being misleading?

I approached her dilemma not just as a psychotherapist, but as a longtime Buddhist. Buddhism holds the promise of more than just common unhappiness in life; it sees the pursuit of happiness as our life goal and teaches techniques of mental development to achieve it. To the Dalai Lama, “the purpose of life is to be happy.” He wrote those very words in the foreword to my new book, Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy From a Buddhist Perspective (Basic Books, 1995).

“On its own,” he goes on to say, “no amount of technological development can lead to lasting happiness. What is almost always missing is a corresponding inner development.” By inner development, the Dalai Lama means something other than mastering the latest version of Microsoft Word. He is talking about cleaning up our mental environment so that real happiness can be both uncovered and sustained…

Americans have a peculiar relationship to happiness. On the one hand, we consider happiness a right, and we are eager for it—as the advertising world knows. We do everything in our power to try to possess it, most particularly in materialistic form.

On the other hand, we tend to denigrate the pursuit of happiness as something shallow or superficial, akin to taking up woodcarving or scuba diving. But, as the Dalai Lama always emphasizes, happiness is not a hobby, nor is it a trivial pursuit. It is a fundamental drive as basic as those of sex or aggression, but not often as legitimized in our cynical, postmodern culture. In fact, Americans are waking up to the Dalai Lama’s point: Materialistic comforts by themselves have not led to lasting happiness. Having reached that conclusion, however, we do not often see another way, and retreat into our comforts—barricading ourselves from what appears to be a hostile and threatening world. Acquiring and protecting, we continue to crave a happiness that seems both deserved and out of reach.

My experience as a psychiatrist trained in Western medicine and in the philosophy and practice of Buddhism has given me a unique perspective. I have come to see that our problem is that we don’t know what happiness is. We confuse it with a life uncluttered by feelings of anxiety, rage, doubt, and sadness. But happiness is something entirely different. It’s the ability to receive the pleasant without grasping and the unpleasant without condemning.

All the Wrong Places

Buddhism and psychoanalysis teach us that the very ways we seek happiness actually block us from finding it. Our first mistake is in trying to wipe out all sources of displeasure and search for a perennial state of well-being that, for most of us in our deepest fantasies, resembles nothing so much as a prolonged erotic reverie. One of my patients said it best with his adolescent fantasies of romantic love. He described his perfect woman as someone who would faithfully leave him with an erection every time she exited the house.
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This approach to happiness is instinctual, deriving from our earliest experiences, when intense emotional states of pleasure and gratification inevitably are interrupted by absence and frustration, evoking equally intense states of rage or anxiety. Anyone’s first response would be to try to preserve the pleasurable states and eliminate the unpleasurable ones. Even as adults we rarely come to terms with the fact that good and bad are two sides of the same coin, that those who make pleasures possible are also the source of our misery. In Western society, with its extended family structure and rabid pursuit of individualism, people often find themselves with nowhere to turn for support in dealing with these feelings. In more traditional Eastern societies, there is a much greater social and familial support system that helps people contain their anguish.

However much we as adults think we have come to terms with the fact that no one can be all good or all bad, we are still intolerant of frustrations to our own pleasure. We continue to grasp at the very objects that have previously disappointed us. A wealthy patient of mine exemplifies this predicament. After a gourmet meal, he craves a cognac. After the cognac, a cigarette; after the cigarette he will want to make love; after making love, another cigarette. Soon, he begins to crave sleep, preferably without any disturbing dreams. His search for happiness through pleasures of the senses seemed to never have an end, and he was not happy. We think only of manipulating the external world; we never stop to examine ourselves.

Our search for perpetual gratification often plays out in intimate relationships. Take my friend who was very much in love with his new wife, but plagued by rage and bitterness over her sexual unavailability when she became pregnant. He could not help taking it personally. His happiness in her pregnancy was overwhelmed by his inability to tolerate his own sexual frustration, and he could not get past the feeling that if she really loved him she would be as interested in sex with him as he was with her. He was restricted by his tunnel vision; his own pleasure or displeasure was his only reference point.

We identify with the feelings of violation, rejection, or injury and we long for a happiness in which no such feelings could arise. Yet as Freud pointed out, even intense erotic pleasures are tinged with unhappiness since they all must come to an end, in the form of a relaxation of tension. Post-orgasmic depression is a well-known phenomenon. We long for this not to be so, but it is physiologically impossible.
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The Buddha’s point about happiness is very similar. As long as we continue trying to eliminate all displeasure and preserve only pleasure for a prolonged sense of well-being, no lasting happiness is possible. Rage, envy, and the desire for revenge will always interfere. Real life and its complications inevitably trickle in. There is a well-known story in the Buddhist tradition, that of Kisagotami, that illustrates how important it is to give up that approach to happiness.

Kisagotami was a young woman whose first child died suddenly somewhere around his first birthday. Desperate in her love for the child, Kisagotami went from house to house in her village, clasping the dead child to her breast and asking for medicine to revive her son. Most of her neighbors shrank from the sight of her and called her mad, but one man, seeing her inability to accept the reality of her son’s death, directed her to the Buddha by promising her that only he had the medicine she sought. Kisagotami went to the Buddha and pleaded with him for medicine. “I know of some,” he promised. “But I will need a handful of mustard seed from a house where no child, husband, parent, or servant has died.”

Slowly, Kisagotami came to see that hers was not a unique predicament. She put the body of her child down in the forest and returned to the Buddha. “I have not brought the mustard seed,” she told him. “The people of the village told me, ‘The living are few, but the dead are many.”‘ The Buddha replied, “You thought that you alone had lost a son; the law of death is that among all living creatures there is no permanence.”

Kisagotami’s story resonates, not just because of our sympathy for the horror of losing a child or because of our fear of a world in which such tragedy is possible, but because we all, like her, feel that our situation is unique and that our emotional pain requires relief. In the privacy of our own minds, we are aggrieved and single-mindedly self-centered. We still seek absolute gratification that is intolerant of frustration.

But the most difficult part of Kisagotami’s story for me comes when she lays her child down in the forest. Even though he has been dead for a long time, I still feel slightly aghast at the idea of her leaving him there. Yet this is precisely what the Buddha is asking us to do. He did not teach a method of recovering primal emotions or embracing some sort of injured child that lies buried within. The Buddha helped Kisagotami find happiness not by bringing her dead child back to life, but by changing her view of herself. The inner development he alludes to is a development beyond the private childish perspective of “me first” that we all secretly harbor.
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Happiness a la Buddha

The root cause of our unhappiness is our inability to observe ourselves properly. We are caught in our own perspective, unable to appreciate the many perspectives of those around us. And we are unaware of how insistently this way of perceiving drives us. Only through the uprooting of our own self-centeredness can we find the key to happiness. Buddhist meditation practice is one way to catch hold of this “me-first” perspective and begin to examine it. But it can happen in incidental ways. A teacher of mine, for example, remembers standing in line for food at a silent meditation retreat when someone suddenly spilled the large serving bowl of soup. “It wasn’t me,” he remembers himself thinking spontaneously. “It’s not my fault.”

Immersed in the quiet of the meditation retreat, he was all too aware that his reaction was patently absurd. Yet this is the kind of response we all have much of the time without being aware of it. Buddhist meditation is a way of coaxing the mind to deal with frustration in a new way, experiencing it as an interested observer instead of an aggrieved victim. Rather than responding to the inevitable frustrations of life with “Why me?,” the successful practitioner of meditation can begin to see how conditioned our everyday sense of self has been by the insulted response to disappointment.

Our True Nature

The first step to inner development is to find and hold the sense of a single, one-point perspective. This is the feeling that we all have that we are really the most important person in the room at any given moment, that no matter what happens the crucial thing is how it will impact me. You know the feeling; it’s the same one you have when you are cut off suddenly in traffic or are standing in line at the cash machine while the person in front of you makes one transaction after another. The visceral response is always, “Why are you doing that to me?” Similarly, when someone comes to therapy because they have been spurned by a would-be lover, there is always the feeling of “what is wrong with me?” In Buddhist meditation we seek out that feeling; we bring it into self-awareness rather than let it run our lives. When a person is able to do that successfully, there is often a sense of freedom.

A patient of mine, for example, recounted to me how he picked his girlfriend up at the airport recently and reached out to carry her bag for her after retrieving it from the baggage claim. She took the bag from him and carried it herself. Rather than take her action as a sign of self-sufficiency, he felt immediately rejected, as if she were not glad to see him. Once he learned to make that knee-jerk reaction of his the object of his meditative self-observation, he was freed from his obsessive scrutiny of his girlfriend’s mood. He then became more self-reliant, she felt more supported, and both were happier with each other.
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As the tendency to view the world self-referentially loses its hold, we begin to appreciate the Einsteinian world in which all realities are relative and all points of view subjective. Then, a happiness that has more to do with acceptance than gratification becomes available to us.

One particular meditation technique prepares the mind for a new, broadened perspective, that of naked–or bare–attention. The technique requires you to attend only to the bare facts, an exact registering, allowing things to speak for themselves as if seen for the very first time and distinguishing emotional reactions from the core event. So instead of experiencing a spouse’s suggestion as criticism or their withdrawal as abandonment, as so often happens within couples, one would be able to simply bear the experience in and of itself, recognizing any concomitant feelings of rejection as separate and of one’s own making.

As bare attention is practiced, many of the self concepts or feelings of self we harbor are revealed to be reactions that, on closer inspection, lose their solidity. My patient who overreacted at the airport was astonished at what he discovered upon closely examining his core sense of self. “This is it?” he asked. “This little feeling is determining so many of my actions? Am I really so narcissistic as that?” The answer, for most of us, is a resounding yes. Our sense of self, we soon find, is a house of cards.

A common misbelief people hold about meditation is that, in attacking reactive emotional tendencies, it encourages a stoic acceptance of unhappiness. Yet stoicism is not the goal. The point is not to become impervious but open, able to savor the good with the bad.

We cannot have pleasure without displeasure, and trying to split them off from each other only mires us more deeply in our own dissatisfaction. A recent incident involving an old friend of mine may illustrate the point. After breaking up his 10-year marriage, he sought psychotherapy at a local mental health clinic. His only wish, he told his new therapist in their first meeting, was to feel good again. He implored her to rid him of his unwanted emotions.

His therapist, however, had just left a three-year stint in a Zen community. When my friend approached her with his pain, she urged him to stay with his feelings, no matter how unpleasant. When he complained of anxiety or loneliness she encouraged him only to feel them more intensely. While my friend didn’t feel any better, he was intrigued and began to practice meditation.

He describes one pivotal moment. Terribly uncomfortable with the burnings, pressures, and pains of meditation, he remembers watching an itch develop, crest, and disappear without scratching it. In so doing, he says, he realized what his therapist had meant when she counseled him to stay with his emotional state, and from that moment on his depression began to lift.

His feelings began to change only when he dropped the desire to change them. This is a major revelation that is often brought on through the physical pain of meditation, which requires stillness within a demanding posture. My friend’s discovery is similar to the sensation cancer patients feel after taking morphine for chronic pain. They say the pain is still there, but it no longer hurts. So the sensation remains, but without the oppressive quality. Likewise, my friend learned to recognize his emotional pain, but was not oppressed by it.

Well-Being

Like many others, my friend was looking for that pervasive feeling of well-being and hoped that meditation (or love, money, success, alcohol, or therapy) would provide it. But well-being, which is not sustainable, is not the same as happiness. Happiness is the ability to take all of the insults of life as a vehicle for awakening—to enter into what the pioneer of stress-reduction, Jon Kabat-Zinn, has called the “full catastrophe” of our lives with an open mind and heart.

In pursuing a study of Buddhism and psychotherapy, I am convinced that a method of mental development exists that enables a person to hold feelings of injury without reacting destructively. Rather than immediately responding with rage or anxiety, a person can use feelings of injury to focus on the core sense of self that will prove illusive, nonexistent. If there is no self to protect, there is no need to react in rage or angst. Pleasure and displeasure can then be appreciated for the ways in which they are inextricably linked. Well-being becomes understood as an inseparable part of a larger whole that also encompasses catastrophe.

Happiness, then, is the confidence that pain and disappointment can be tolerated, that love will prove stronger than aggression. It is release from the attachment to pleasant feelings, and faith in the capacity of awareness to guide us through the inevitable insults to our own narcissism. It is the realization that we do not have to be so self-obsessed, that within our own minds lies the capacity for a kind of acceptance we had only dreamed of. This happiness rarely comes without effort to train mind.

To accomplish this we must first discover just how narrow our vision usually is. This is the function of meditation. Go ahead, close your eyes for five minutes and observe how self-obsessed your thoughts are. “When can I stop doing this?” you may think. None of us is very far from the eight-year-old child who can think only about who got the biggest piece of cake.

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Meditation Has a Place in Helping Patients Improve Health, Doctors Say

Good housekeeping: In the middle of the night, Dale Lechtman wakes up, all kinds of thoughts crowding sleep out of her mind. But Lechtman uses meditation to handle insomnia. Lying in bed, she focuses on breathing. She takes in air deeply. Then, she expels it through her nose and mouth slowly, as though she were trying to make a feather float on her breath.

In the middle of the night, Dale Lechtman wakes up, all kinds of thoughts crowding sleep out of her mind. But Lechtman uses meditation to handle insomnia.

Lying in bed, she focuses on breathing. She takes in air deeply. Then, she expels it through her nose and mouth slowly, as though she were trying to make a feather float on her breath.

Thoughts relentlessly pound at her mind’s door, but in time, they are no match for Lechtman’s skills. They disintegrate harmlessly into darkness, and finally, the 62-year old nurse from Westminster, Calif., is relaxed enough to resume sleeping.

Lechtman has found that secular meditation – the deliberate quieting and focusing of the mind and body – can be beneficial to her health.

As patients and doctors seek answers other than medications to treat illnesses, some are finding that meditation can be strong medicine.

More doctors have opened their minds to the idea of meditation as complementary therapy as more studies emerge linking better health and meditation, said Dr. Roger Walsh, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Irvine. Walsh has published research on meditation and teaches the practice as an elective to medical students.

Among the latest findings:

-A pilot study led by Walsh suggested that meditation is useful in understanding the effects of anti-depressants and might be useful as maintenance therapy for depression.

Researchers found that meditation – like anti-depressants – fostered a state of equanimity.

This is the ability to tolerate and not be disturbed by potentially provocative or stimulating thoughts, events, encounters or experiences. The study appeared recently in the Journal of Mental and Nervous Disorders.

-A study presented at a recent American Heart Association meeting found that transcendental meditation, or TM, reduced the severity of risk factors in metabolic syndrome.

This syndrome is a collection of conditions that lead to heart disease, such as high blood pressure and increased blood-sugar levels.

People who practiced TM significantly decreased their levels of blood pressure, blood sugar and insulin, said Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, study author and medical director of the Preventive and Rehabilitative Cardiac Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Merz continues to study the effect of meditation on heart disease.

-Preliminary results of a study on meditation and binge-eating disorder showed that meditation can help people “reconnect” with their mind and body to understand when to eat and when to stop.

Mindfulness meditation can help those with the disorder gain control over their eating habits, said Jean Kristeller, professor of psychology and director of the Center for the Study of Health, Religion and Spirituality at Indiana State University in Terra Haute, Ind.

This research joins an increasing body of knowledge based on science rather than on religious beliefs, whether rooted in Buddhism or Christianity. Religious elements can be present in meditation, but it’s also possible to practice meditation without them.

Some meditators in hospital settings say the turning point for meditation in medical practice came after 1975, when Harvard University researcher Dr. Herbert Benson first wrote about the value of meditation in treating illnesses in the book “The Relaxation Response.”

Meditation already is an essential part of the Dr. Dean Ornish program for reversing heart disease, which impressed Lechtman and her husband, Max.

This year, the Lechtmans took weekly beginner meditation classes taught by Martha Jensen at UCI Medical Center in Orange. In these classes, Jensen teaches a range of meditation techniques in sets of four weekly sessions.

Meditation practitioner Cheryl Medicine Song-Procaccini also introduces participants to various meditation techniques in monthly classes at the Cordelia Knott Center for Wellness in Orange, which is affiliated with the oncology and breast centers of St. Joseph Hospital.

At Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, Calif., meditation is part of a stress-management program offered by the hospital’s cardiac rehab services.

People with medical conditions such as cancer or heart diseases take the classes, as well as those who want to deal with stress, according to Jensen and Procaccini.

“Everything we learn in the meditation chair we can use in everyday life,” Procaccini said. “As we strengthen our concentration, we become less reactive to what’s happening to everything outside of ourselves.”

It’s important for beginners to be exposed to different types of meditation to find one that’s right for them, Jensen said.

One person may find walking meditation effective, while another may prefer to use a mandala, a symbol upon which one concentrates. Some choose to chant a mantra or repeat a prayer or word, such as peace or calm.

A common mistake some novices make is to try a type of meditation and not like it, then give up without experimenting with other ways.

Not surprisingly, time – not motivation – is the biggest obstacle to maintaining the practice of meditation, said Dr. Wadie Najm, associate professor of family medicine at UCI. Longtime practitioners recommend meditating twice a day for 20 minutes each time. “It’s not as quick as taking medication,” said Najm, who has recommended meditation to some patients. It requires a time commitment, much as exercise does.

Sometimes, meditation helps the body and mind so much that patients can reduce their dosage of medications, such as drugs to reduce blood pressure or stress and anxiety, Najm said. In a few cases, meditation has proved so effective that it picks up where medication leaves off.

To maintain the state of equanimity that sometimes results from meditation, meditators have to “Meditation is not about getting rid of difficult experiences or feelings. It’s about learning to cope continue practicing throughout life. Even longtime meditators are never completely rid of intrusive thoughts and distractions, but with practice, are better able to deal with them, Walsh said.

“The biggest myth is that if one learns to meditate, one will never feel upset,” Procaccini said. with them. We learn to develop a more accepting outlook, with less resistance to life.”

HOW TO MEDITATE

There are many ways to meditate. Here is one to try. If you are unable to complete this for 20 minutes, do not worry. Relax and do as much as you can:

Choose a quiet place.

Sit, as if on a throne, with dignity and stability. Allow breath to move gently through your body. Let each breath be like a sigh, bringing calmness and relaxation.

Be aware of what feels closed and constricted in your body, mind and heart. With each breath, let space open up those closed-in feelings. Let your mind expand into space. Open your mind, emotions and senses. Note whatever feelings, images, sensations and emotions come to you.

Each time a thought carries you away, return to your sense of connection with the Earth. Feel as if you were sitting on a throne in the heart of your world. Appreciate moments of stability and peace. Reflect on how emotions, feelings and stories appear and disappear. Focus on your body and rest for a moment in the equanimity and peace.

Sit this way for 10 minutes.

Slowly stand up and take a few steps, walking with the same awareness as when you were sitting.

-Source: “The Meditation Year,” by Jane Hope (Storey Books)

LEARN MORE

“Meditation for Optimum Health,” by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Dr. Andrew Weil (Sounds True): This two-CD set is a first-timer’s guide to the principles and practice of meditation. Call (800) 333-9185

“The Relaxation Response,” by Dr. Herbert Benson (Quill): The classic primer on the link between meditation and health. Not a guide on how to meditate.

“The Meditation Year,” by Jane Hope (Storey Books): A beautifully rendered seasonal guide that describes various ways to meditate.

[Original article no longer available.]
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