feelings

Love isn’t what you look for; it’s how you look

In one of my early experiences of lovingkindness meditation (metta bhavana), a teacher told me to look for feelings of love in my heart, and then to spread that love to other people. I duly searched my heart, seeking feelings of love. But I couldn’t find any! There was nothing there. Zilch. Nada!

This experience was very distressing. Since I couldn’t find love in my heart, I wasn’t able to do the rest of the practice. After all, how can you share something with other people if you don’t have it to give?

And because I couldn’t do the practice, I had plenty of time to reflect on what it meant that I couldn’t find any love in my heart. Presumably, since this was how the practice was done, there was something wrong with me. I must be defective. This thought was very unpleasant. I found it rather upsetting, in fact.

The Downward Spiral

Now I had some strongly unpleasant feelings to be aware of during this practice that (apparently) I couldn’t do. I took those feelings as confirmation that there was something wrong with me, and began to sink into despair and depression.

Fortunately the teacher eventually rang the bell. I started to feel better once the meditation was over.

I thought it was just me who had had this experience, but a few months later a friend was talking about the problems of doing lovingkindness meditation, and he described exactly the same thing that I’ve just talked about — a downward spiral of negativity triggered by the suggestion that he look for love in his heart.

Even by the time my friend shared his own experience, I’d figured out that what worked best for me was to observe my heart, accept whatever was there, whether it was pleasant or unpleasant, or even if there were no feelings there at all, and then to wish myself (and then others) well.

Love Is Not a Feeling

Later still I realized that the practice was simply about kindness. It’s about being kind to ourselves, and then extending that kindness to others. And kindness is not a feeling. Kindness is an intention. It starts with empathetically recognizing that we are feeling beings who desire happiness, peace, and wellbeing. Having seen that truth, kindness wishes that those beings be well.

Just think about that right now. Consider that you yourself are a feeling being, and recognize that your feelings are important to you. You’d rather be happy than suffer. You’d rather be at peace than troubled. You’d rather have a sense of wellbeing than be sick or sad.

And then call one other person to mind — someone you know. They, too, feel.  Their feelings are as real and vivid to them as yours are to you. They, just like you, feel happy. Just like you they suffer. and, just like you, they prefer happiness over suffering.

When you consider the reality of someone’s feelings in that way, you probably don’t want to do anything that would harm them. You probably want to support their wellbeing and act in ways that make them feel valued. In other words you want to be kind to them.

So that’s what kindness is: a desire to actively support someone’s wellbeing.

Now there may be feelings associated with your kindness. Sometimes you’ll experience a sense of warmth, openness, or tenderness in the heart, for example. But those feelings just accompany your kindness. They aren’t themselves kindness.

Love Is in How You Look…

Some years back I picked up a practice from the American Zen teacher teacher Jan Chozen Bays. She called it “Loving Eyes.”

She reminds us that we all know how to look with love. It’s easy to recall or imagine looking lovingly at a cute kitten or puppy, a beloved child, or even a romantic partner. When we do this an attitude of care, openness, tenderness, and love easily arises. Kindness arises. And accompanying those attitudes there are usually feelings as well. We find that we can turn our attention to the world or to ourselves, and continue to experience that kindness in relation to the new object.

So we’re looking with love or kindness, whether that’s a literal looking involving the eyes, or a metaphorical looking in involving our inner gaze as we bring our kindly attention toward our own being or to people we think about.

This act of looking is, as I’ve mentioned, accompanied by feelings — the pleasant feelings of kindness. It happens quite naturally and easily, and just in case you find it doesn’t work for you, don’t worry, for it gets easier with practice.

…Not What You’re Looking For

So it seems that for me and for most people, lovingkindness practice works best if we don’t look for feelings down in the heart, but if we look with kindness. Whatever feelings may be present in the heart, we can regard them kindly. If we’re feeling sad, we can regard the sadness with kindness and love. If we’re feeling neutral, we can regard the blankness with love. It really doesn’t matter what’s in the heart.

So I’d like to leave you with this simple suggestion: Love isn’t what you look for; it’s how you look.

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Becoming more mindful of our feelings

The “first foundation” of mindfulness is the body, which involves being aware of the physical sensations of the body, the body’s posture, how we move, and so on. The second foundation is “feelings.” Feelings are internally generated pleasant and unpleasant sensations that arise in the body. This isn’t so much sensations like the physical pain that comes from an aching back (although that’s included). More important are the the pleasant or unpleasant sensations that arise, mainly around the heart and gut, which are produced by the brain, through the action of hormones and the vagus nerve. These pleasant and unpleasant sensations tell us whether we like or dislike something, or whether some experience is a potential threat or benefit.

They’re important because much of what goes on in the third foundation of mindfulness—the mind itself—results as a result of reactions to our feelings. Since what the mind does either creates more suffering, or relieves us of suffering, it’s crucial for us to learn to be more mindful and accepting of feelings.

Many of us, myself included, started off our practice being rather vague about what feelings actually are, or how we might go about observing them. I don’t recall ever having been given much guidance in that regard, and when I first tried to be mindful of my feelings often found myself confused about what exactly I was looking for. But feelings are very ordinary. They’re arising in our experience all the time.

So help you practice being mindful of your feelings, I’d like to offer a “Look and Feel Exercise,” which might take you five to ten minutes:

Look and Feel Exercise

Wherever you are now, just let yourself relax. Let the eyes soften a little. Spend a minute or so becoming more aware of sensations arising in the body, including the sensations of the breathing.

Now, begin to let your gaze slowly roam around, alighting on various objects. As you do this, notice any sensations that arise in the body, and especially in the heart or solar plexus. At the most basic level there will be certain things that you don’t like to see and that are unpleasant, some that you find pleasant, and some that your attention skips right over because you have no feelings about them.

Some things your gaze settles on may give rise to unpleasant feelings. You might be aware of a pile of unpaid bills, or a cobweb, or something that’s in need of repair. Where does unpleasantness manifest itself? Perhaps some of it takes the form of tension in certain muscles. Often it’s experienced as a tightening or twisting sensation in the gut, a sense of tension or tingling around the diaphragm, or as a sinking feeling around the heart. Notice those feelings as objects of attention. Stand back and observe them with interest.

Some things your gaze settles on may evoke pleasant feelings. If you’re outdoors this might be a tree, flowers, or a dog playing. If you’re indoors this might be a painting, photograph, or furnishings. How do you know you find these things pleasant? Where are those pleasant feelings? What are they like? Do they feel like softness, or warmth, or openness? Again, notice them with curiosity and interest.

Now, was there anything your gaze skipped over? Perhaps a bare patch of wall or floor, or a door? Probably your attention wasn’t drawn to those things because no feelings were evoked as they entered your gaze. Return to them now, and see whether they remain neutral, or whether feelings do in fact arise as you attend to them.

Lastly, bring your attention to the colors of things. Certain colors may evoke pleasurable or unpleasurable responses, but each color produces a different response: a red cushion produces a different effect from a blue one, although it’s hard to describe the difference.

Patterns and textures also evoke feelings. A patterned rug leads to different feelings compared to a wooden floor or plain carpet, even when both are experienced as pleasant.

Try this “Look and Feel” exercise several times, in different environments: at home, at work, outdoors, while walking or driving. Aim to notice feelings coming into being and passing away as your attention moves from one thing to another. As best you can, observe these feelings without reacting to them, just allowing them to be present. When we’re observing mindfully in this way, the mind doesn’t react to our feelings, and we experience a greater sense of peace.

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The third arrow

The weekend that my wife told me she wanted a divorce, she took our kids away so that she could spend a few days with a friend. The children, who were four and six years old at the time, had been at school all day and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to them. My wife thought this was no big deal, but to me it was a hard blow at a difficult time, and it set me up for a lonely weekend in an empty home. As with many people, my first instinct was to stuff myself with unhealthy, fatty foods, and to open a bottle of wine.

I imagine that evolutionary biology would say that we’ve evolved the instinct to eat high calorie foods at times of crisis, to help us weather whatever trials are ahead of us. Experientially, fatty, salty, carb-laden food like burgers and fries just feel comforting in the short term. But they often leave us uncomfortable, bloated, sluggish, and unhealthy. I felt this urge, but since I’d been working on being self-compassionate, I decided that a Thai curry, full of fresh vegetables, would be healthier and more pleasurable in the long term. I also avoided the temptation to drink, since I knew that was likely to make me feel depressed and self-pitying. I touched base with a few friends in order to let them know what was going on, and to get some emotional support. I went for a walk. I meditated.

None of this made the emotional pain I was going through vanish. Nor could I expect it to. But I wasn’t hiding from my pain, and I wasn’t doing anything that was going to negatively affect my wellbeing in the long-term. In fact I was doing many things—from exercising to bonding with friends—that would make me more resilient in the future.

The Buddha gave a very well-known teaching on the “two arrows,” which pointed out that the mind reacts to pain with resistance, which then causes more pain. Our initial pain is like being shot by an arrow. The pain that comes from our reactions is like being shot by a second arrow. But there’s a third arrow as well! This third arrow is in the same teaching, but for some reason the Buddha didn’t offer an image to go with it. Here’s how it’s described:

Touched by that painful feeling, he delights in sensual pleasure. Why is that? Because the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person does not discern any escape from painful feeling aside from sensual pleasure.

It’s not so much pleasure that becomes our escape from pain, but its pursuit. Pursuing pleasure can distract us from pain, even if we never actually experience any pleasure. Emotional eating, trying to drink our sorrows away, compulsive Netflix binges, and so on — if they’re enjoyable at all, they usually end up making us feel worse in some way.

So what kind of arrow is the third arrow? Perhaps we could think of it as an arrow that’s been dipped in a narcotic drug. It numbs us for a while, but it leaves us with an emotional hangover.

The healthy alternative to the third arrow is practicing wise self-care. Wise self-care is any course of action that contributes to our long-term happiness and wellbeing and that helps us to cope better with our painful feelings.

Wise self-care is the opposite of the third arrow. Third arrow activity involves pursuing pleasure in an attempt to escape painful feelings; wise self-care starts with accepting those feelings. Third arrow actions have short-term pleasure as their aim; wise self-care takes into account our long-term happiness and wellbeing

Third arrow actions are reactive and unwise; wise self-care, as the name suggests, comes from a deeper, more mature perspective. Third arrow actions result in more suffering being created; wise self-care reduces our suffering, and in fact liberate us from suffering. Third arrow actions prevent us from growing and learning; wise self-care leads to growth. The third arrow is blind and habitual; wise self-care is aware and consciously chosen.

Wise self-care isn’t necessarily all about dealing with crises, though. It can be an ongoing effort to deal with the minor difficulties we experience in life.

If you keep trying to push away the jarring effect of being in messy surroundings, wise self-care might mean decluttering the house. If you worry about money and find looking at your bank balance to be stressful, it might mean creating a household budget. If you have low energy, wise self-care might mean getting eight hours of sleep, or taking a walk on your lunch break. It might involve making sure you see the doctor annually and the dentist twice a year, or taking a day off when you’re sick. It might mean setting up a daily meditation practice, or reading a book instead of watching TV. These are things that help us, and that also help us to help others. If we take care of and nourish ourselves, then we have more energy to help support others. In the long run, we need to take care of ourselves if we’re to be of service to others.

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Seeing experience as a movie

Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

In my last post I said I’d been teaching meditations based on a Buddhist discourse called the Honeyball or Honeycake Sutta. This teaching is about relaxing our sense of being separate from the world.

On one level it’s about simply being with our experience rather than reacting to it. That’s the approach to this teaching that most people adopt. On another, deeper, level it’s about not identifying with any of our experience being me or mine. We don’t think “this is my experience” or “this is me here, having an experience.” This when there is experiencing going on, without any sense of there being an experience or something that is experienced. It’s a radically simple practice once you find a way in to it (and helping people find that way in is what I try to do).

As often happens, my meditation practice went off in an unexpected direction as I taught these meditations based on the Honeycake Sutta. My meditation practice often isn’t something I do, but something that happens within me. It has a life of its own. And it’s always interesting seeing where we end up.

Toward the end of the series I found myself regarding my experience as being like a movie. This opened up some interesting perspectives, but before I share that I’d like to say something about another teaching from the Buddha that cross-pollenated, so to speak, with the Honeycake. This is a discourse called the Phena-Pindupama Sutta. Phena means “foam.” Pindupama means “lump.” So this is the “Discourse on the Lump of Foam.”

In the Phena-Pindupama Sutta the Buddha is on the banks of the Ganges river, talking to the monks about the way in which our experience is, in a sense, illusory in nature. Being beside a river, he starts off by using water metaphors. The physical forms we see, he says, including our own physical form, are like a lump of foam drifting downriver: just as someone with discernment could examine that foam and find that there’s no substance to it — that it’s “empty, void, without substance” — so, as we examine form, we find it’s exactly the same.

What does this mean? Isn’t it obvious that our bodies are solid and substantial? Well, when in meditation we take our attention deeply into the body, what do we find? Do we actually experience any solidity or substance? All that we can ever know are sensations. We have sensations that the mind translates into concepts like “substance” and “solid” but those are still just sensations. The sensations that we think of as representing contact with something solid are nothing more than sensations of resistance. And when we look very closely at those or any other sensations they’re anything but solid. They’re nothing more than pinpoints of perception. They’re not stable, but wink in and out of existence, moment by moment. This is something that any of us can verify, although it does take some investment of time in developing the relevant observational skills.

Feelings, the Buddha tells the monks, are like bubbles appearing and disappearing rapidly as a heavy raindrop slams into the river’s surface. Here too, we can train ourselves to look closely at the nature of feelings. We may think of feelings as persisting over time, but if we look closely we see that they are simply internal sensations. During a rainstorm there are always splashes on the surface of water. But each splash lasts for just an instant. Feelings, examined closely, are like that too: pinpoints of sensation, suspended in space, winking in and out of existence with incredible rapidity. “What substance could there be in feeling?” the Buddha asks.

From this point on the Buddha seems to have run out of river metaphors: thoughts and concepts are like a mirage shimmering over hot ground; emotional impulses are like the pith of a banana tree, which, onion-like, has layers and layers that can be removed, leaving nothing, since this kind of tree has no heartwood; consciousness is like an magic trick—an illusion created by a conjurer. All of these things lack substance. And this can be confirmed in our experience as well. What substance is there in the sounds and images that we experience in memory and imagination? What substance is there in anger or desire? In consciousness itself?

The metaphors that the Buddha chose were apt for his times, and are still useful for us. But in my own life, the most appropriate, simple, and helpful analogy is borrowed from the illusion that we call “cinema.” My physical, emotional, and mental experience is like a movie. My body fabricates sensations. My brain fabricates feelings in the body. My mind fabricates sounds and images and conceptual categories within itself. And all of these things are insubstantial. And they are things that I can observe, like a movie.

And, like a movie, our experience can be profoundly absorbing. When my feelings are hurt, I think of the hurt as a real thing. Anger appears, and I think that’s real too. I believe all the stories I tell myself about how the person who hurt me is selfish, or bad, or clueless.

But what if I realize that I’m watching a movie. What then?

Once I start to accept that my body and mind are fabricating a movie for me, I take it all less seriously. Watching the movie of my experience, I can experience pleasure and discomfort in the body, and it’s all something to be appreciated, the same way I appreciate the tender and the tense moments in a film. I can experience my feelings, and whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant I find I can enjoy them just the same. Impulses arise, and if they are unloving or unhelpful can I let them dissolve like the unreal things they are: I don’t need to take them seriously. I recognize that my thoughts, my memories, and my imaginings of the future are simply movies that run in the mind.

It’s all a movie. To see things this way is simple. It’s effective. And it’s new to me, so it’s work in progress. Please excuse if my explanation lacks coherence in any way.

And I know, from messages I receive from damaged people, that there’s a possibility that some will mistake what I say to mean that nothing matters. But that’s not true. What matters is to love everything—especially the parts of us and of others that take the movie to be real. For those parts need our love and compassion. This gives life meaning. Love and meaning are part of the movie too, but they are ultimately what the movie is about. We don’t have to believe this: it’s simply how things are and our task is simply to see it. This is what we are to see: our true nature is connectedness and compassion.

So if we don’t have a sense of meaning, purpose, and love in our lives, it would be unwise to embrace this this perspective of seeing our experience as being like a movie created for us. When there’s a healthy sense of love and meaning in our lives, disillusionment is a positive experience. Without those things it can be devastating. But once we do have a basis of love, appreciation, and purpose, then to see life as a movie is a way of deepening those skillful qualities even further. It’s a way of liberating ourselves from investment in the beliefs and clinging that obscure the reality of connectedness and compassion, which is what we truly are.

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Peace is right here, right now

Photo by Samuel Austin on Unsplash

For the past month I’ve been recording a series of daily guided meditations, taking as my basis the teachings in a Buddhist discourse called the Honeyball Sutta. This teaching (also sometimes called the “Honeycake Sutta” outlines a feedback loop whereby we end up causing ourselves suffering.

It describes how the basic situation is that consciousness, through sense organs, perceives objects (which can be internal, like thoughts, or external, like the words you’re reading now). This is called “contact.” The word “contact” contains the assumption that there is a self “contacting” a world that is separate from it. The Buddha is not saying this is how things actually are — just that that’s how we assume things are.

Within this field of contact we then have feeling responses to certain perceptions. The sutta doesn’t spell this out, but when the mind detects something as a potential threat it generates unpleasant sensations (feelings) in the body. When it detects a potential benefit it generates pleasant feelings. When something appears to have no bearing on our wellbeing no feeling (a “neutral feeling”) is produced.

What we have pleasant or unpleasant feelings about, we turn our attention to.

What we turn our attention to, we think about.

What we think about we (sometimes) obsess about.

What we obsess about assails us (i.e. causes us suffering) and reinforces our sense of having (or being) a separate self.

So we have a vicious circle, starting with the assumption of a separate self, and reinforcing that sense of separateness. Assuming we are separate, and feeling assailed, we continue to search among those things we have pleasant and unpleasant feelings about, trying to find peace by obsessing about them. This goes on and on and on.

A friend of mine recently gave a talk about this sutta, and he did the usual thing of talking about how mindfulness helps us to damp down the reactivity of this vicious cycle. If we find ourselves thinking obsessively then we can let go of them. With practice we can find ourselves experiencing our feelings and not have that turn into “storytelling” at all. This is of course perfectly valid as an explanation—but it’s also incomplete, because the discourse goes much further than this.

The sutta points out that were there is “no eye (or other sense organs), nothing seen (or perceived through the other senses) and no consciousness, then there is no feeling, no turning of our attention, no thinking, no obsessing, no being assailed, and no construction of a sense of self.

Now this might sound very odd, and might come off as nihilistic. What does it mean that there’s no eye (etc), nothing sensed, and no consciousness? Is it pointing to some state of blankness? To non-existence?

No, it’s simply talking, in very stripped-down language, about how we can drop the notions of a consciousness that is “me, mine, or myself” and a world out there that is “not me, not mine, not myself.” The alternative to this is just being. We just drop the whole process of reactivity all at once: not just letting go of our reactive thoughts, but coming to rest in an awareness of “self-and-world” without conceptualizing in terms of there being a self and a world. (We don’t even conceptualize that self and world are one, because that’s still a conceptualization in terms of self and world.)

Of course this isn’t something we can do in a “one and done” fashion. It’s something we need to do repeatedly, so that as we practice “just being” this starts to become the way we operate. But it is something you can do right now. It’s probably best to stop reading these words for a while and then spend a few minutes doing the following:

  • Just settle into an awareness of “self-and-world” (not taking those terms too literally).
  • Be aware of perceptions of sight and sound, perceptions arising in the body, and so on.
  • Be aware of any thinking that’s arising.
  • If there are any thoughts or impulses that have the character of trying to grasp or push away any aspect of your experience, let them go.
  • Notice how you are happier when you’re just resting with your experience, rather than trying to resist or grasp.
  • More thinking (resisting, grasping) will arise. Over and over again, let go of it.

Now that isn’t difficult. Sure, lots of thinking probably came up. And maybe you saw that as a threat to your wellbeing, and if felt unpleasant, and you had the desire to push that away, to make it stop. And that was you back into reactivity again. But you can notice that, and let it go. It’s natural that resistance and craving arise. You’ve spent a lifetime practicing those!

But for moments, perhaps quite a few moments, there is no conception of our having (or being) a self that perceives a separate world through our sense organs. Consciousness is not perceived as self, and that which is perceived by consciousness is not perceived as other. The whole self/other thing is simply set aside. And we don’t see our feelings as being threats to our wellbeing; instead they just are, and there is simply an awareness of them. And so (in those moments of pure being) the mind doesn’t obsess, and we’re not assailed, and we’re at peace.

This is something, as I’ve said, that we can practice. Now sometimes when people hear that word “practice” they think “Oh, that means there are lots and lots of things I have to do and then I can experience a sense of peace and calm. But practice doesn’t just mean “doing preparation” (like practicing scales on a piano so that you can play Bach). It also has to mean “getting better by actually doing something.” Letting go of your sense of having or being a separate self is something that you can do right now. The peace, contentment, and wellbeing that come from letting go is something that you can experience right now.

Peace is available right here, right now. Don’t try to grasp it. Don’t resist anything you think might be keeping it from you. Just be peace.

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Your happiness does not depend on how you feel

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Recently I’ve been feeling, on and off, kind of crappy. A lot of the time I’m fine, but then heavy, despondent feelings arrive. Mostly this is to do with chronically “scraping by” financially, and the extra stress that causes: having to calculate how little gas I can get away with putting in the car, trying to juggle spending less in the supermarket with eating a diet that will keep me healthy, and so on.

I’m not complaining: at least I have a car, and I’m not going to go hungry. I often count my blessings. And mostly I’m optimistic and that keeps me going. But in the long term it gets a bit wearing.

When this happens I try to practice what I teach, and one of the things I teach is mindful acceptance.

Some years ago my friend Padraig O’Morain contributed an article here in which he shared how he uses the mantra “My happiness does not depend on this.” So he’ll be stuck in a traffic jam, for example, and he’ll remind himself, “My happiness does not depend on this.”

And this is a brilliant phrase to use, because often we do assume that our happiness does in fact depend on not being stuck in a traffic jam. And those assumptions become self-fulfilling prophecies: we fume in the traffic jam. Undo that assumption, and we have an opportunity to experience peace, balance, and calmness in the face of things not going the way we want.

The principle that Padraig illustrates here applies to feelings as well. So when I find myself experiencing despondency, I remind myself, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel.”

This might seem counter-intuitive, because we so often assume that happiness depends on feelings, and that in fact happiness is a feeling. But that assumption, it turns out, is as false as assuming that you can’t be happy in a traffic jam.

Our experience is layered. We have feelings, and we also have responses to our feelings. Often we resist painful feelings. And when we resist painful feelings, we make them stronger. Resistance is such an automatic response that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. And so we just assume that the unpleasant feelings that result from resisting primary unpleasant feelings are just part of the primary unpleasant feelings.

Acceptance is another response to our feelings. It’s one we practice much less often. Most people, I’d say, don’t really know how to accept painful feelings. And so it takes practice. we can practice by treating a feeling not as something that we are inside, but as something we’re observing. So we can observe where the feeling is. We can name it. We can observe its size and position, and how it changes. We can remind ourselves, “This is not me. This is not mine. This is not who I am.” We can even remind ourselves, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel.”

The more we accept an initial unpleasant feeling, the more our secondary unpleasant feelings dissolve. And we’re left just with that initial feeling. We can recognize that there’s nothing wrong with that unpleasant feeling. We don’t need to get rid of it. In fact wanting to get rid of it brings us back to having resistance, and so we kick of another wave of secondary suffering. When you’re trying to accept a painful feeling and you get the thought, “This isn’t working!” this is just unacknowledged resistance. Just keep going. Let the unpleasant feeling be.

And it’s perfectly possible to be happy while having an unpleasant feeling present. This happiness isn’t in the form of a pleasant feeling. Happiness can take that form, but it can also be a deeper sense of calm, peace, and wellbeing. That deeper level of happiness can coexist with an unpleasant feeling, and it arises from acceptance.

This saying, “My happiness does not depend on how I feel,” or even, more specifically, “My happiness does not depend on this feeling,” is a tool I’m finding very useful in finding peace alongside feelings of crappiness.

Just one more word: acceptance doesn’t mean not changing things in our lives. So I’m not advocating that you accept circumstances that aren’t conducive to your wellbeing. I have things I’m working on changing so that I don’t have to deal with the extra stresses I mentioned above. But in the meantime, I can keep coming back to an experience of peace.

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A “feeling crap” meditation

Photo by Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash

I’m sure that sometimes you feel crap.

The other week I was feeling particularly crappy. I have an idea what was causing me to feel that way, but that’s not particularly important. The thing is that I was feeling crap, by which I mean I felt sad, tired, and sometimes despairing.

The last thing I wanted to do, really, was to sit in meditation and experience how crap I was feeling. But I know from past experience that that’s the most helpful thing I can do. And so I sat on my meditation bench so that I could find a better way to relate to feeling crap.

I settled in to meditate, I noticed the dark, heavy feeling around my heart. I noticed that there was an attitude of resistance around this feeling, since I didn’t particularly want to experience it. But it’s best if these things are allowed into experience. So I let go of the resistance as much as possible, and turned to face the darkness.

My meditation practice kind of has a life of its own. Sometimes I really have no idea what’s going to happen. I just have to see what my subconscious comes up with. This particular day, as I let go of my resistance and turned my attention toward the discomfort, a mantra of sorts appeared.

“It’s OK. This is just how you’re feeling right now.”

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

“It’s OK. This is just how you’re feeling right now.”

And so on.

As these words appeared, I recognized what they were doing.

“It’s OK”

This is offering reassurance. It’s as if these words encode the message, “It’s OK to feel this way. It’s OK to turn toward the feeling. You’re on the right track. You got this. Deep down there’s really nothing to fear. Keep going.”

“This is just how you’re feeling”

This is saying that in a way, feelings are sensations like any other. If you touch something warm, you’ll feel warmth. If you touch the point of a thorn, you’ll feel pain. If you’ve wanted something and you didn’t get it you’ll feel disappointed and sad. If you’ve been criticized you’ll feel hurt. It’s just how things are. You’re not failing for feeling these things.

This is also a reminder that resistance, as they say, is futile. Resisting your pain—that sense of wanting desperately to not be experiencing it—doesn’t help. In fact it’s worse than unhelpful. It actually creates more pain. Resisting pain is like responding to having a stone in your shoe by pounding your foot with a hammer.

Sometimes you find that 50% of your pain is coming from the resistance, and sometimes you discover it’s more like 95%. The way to find out is to let go of the resistance.

So in saying “this is just how you’re feeling,” you’re facing how you feel as a fact, rather than as something to be resisted. And so you can start to drop the resistance and experience whatever discomfort remains, which becomes more bearable the more you are able to face it without trying to run away from it or make it go away.

“Right now”

Feelings change. Everything changes. Remember that time many years ago when you felt awful because you got dumped? And that time you were really worried about money? Those feelings are gone now. Even if they’ve been replaced by similar feelings, those new feelings won’t last. “No feeling is final,” as Rilke said.

So that was my meditation the other day. I sat with “feeling crap,” and as I repeated the mantra the feeling lifted. It didn’t go away entirely, but that was OK. I’d realized that it was all manageable. I didn’t need to resist anything. I could experience it fully, without being overwhelmed.

And then just yesterday I guided a couple of friends through this same meditation, because one of them was feeling really crap.

And we went a bit further.

We put our hands on our hearts, where the crap feeling was strongest, and we talked to our suffering: “I just want you to know I care about you, and I’m here for you. I love you and I want you to be happy. It’s OK. We’ll get through this. You’re doing OK. I know you’re feeling bad, but I’m going to take care of you.”

My friend who was feeling crap said she felt less crap after doing this. And that made me feel happier. The other friend suggested I should call this my “feeling crap meditation,” and so here we are…

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Don’t believe everything you think

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So a typical pattern might be like this:

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

Notice that the thought creates unpleasant feelings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The key to a happier life is learning how to suffer better

Photo by Dawid Zawi?a on Unsplash

One of the Buddha’s key teachings — arguably the key teaching — is the four noble truths, which tell us 1) that suffering happens, 2) that it happens for a reason, which is that we cling, 3) that it’s possible for us to reach a state where we don’t suffer (nirvana), and 4) that there are practices that help us to attain that state.

Although these four truths, or facts, might suggest that we can somehow learn to avoid suffering, what’s really required is that we learn to deal better with life’s sufferings, because they are inevitable. In other words, we need to learn to get better at suffering. It’s not that we should seek suffering, but that when it comes we can learn to respond to it in a way that doesn’t cause us further suffering.

So I have a few suggestions here to help you suffer better.

1. Accept that suffering is just a part of life

If we think that we can somehow go through life on a blissful cloud, we’re going to end up disappointed. And disappointment is just another form of suffering. Thinking we can avoid suffering makes us think we’re failing when suffering inevitably happens.

2. Know that suffering is not a personal failure

It’s very easy for us to form the impression that other people are a lot happier than we are. Social media doesn’t help here, since a lot of people present only the highlights of their lives online. And there are messages like “happiness is a choice” which make us think that if we’re unhappy we must be failing somehow. After all, if we could just choose to be happy we wouldn’t experience a lot of suffering, would we? But suffering is a universal. It’s something we are all going to experience — not just once in a while but every day. It’s not a sign of personal failure when we’re unhappy, but just a sign we’re alive.

3. Recognize when you are suffering

When people hear about suffering they often think of major things like cancer, bereavement, or starvation. Those are weighty forms of suffering, but fortunately they’re relatively rare in our lives. Most of our suffering is on a smaller scale: frustration, worry, anger, disappointment, loneliness, desire, and so on. These kinds of suffering are woven into the fabric of our days. Overlooking that these experiences are painful allows our suffering to run on unchecked. So when you’re frustrated, worried, etc., acknowledge that suffering is present.

4. Turn toward suffering so that you can learn from it

It’s natural to want to turn away from suffering, and to try to replace it with a more pleasant experience. Sometimes this even seems to work, but in the long term it builds up an unhelpful habit of aversion which itself creates more suffering. Ultimately the way out of suffering is through suffering. This means that we have to courageously turn to face painful experiences so that we can observe them with mindfulness and equanimity. Only that way can we learn the deeper lessons of suffering, such as, you are not your suffering.

5. Recognize that you are not your suffering

We often experience suffering “conjoined” with it, as the Buddha put it. We identify with our suffering, as if it’s ourselves. But experiences of suffering are like the reflections of clouds in a lake; they’re just passing through, and aren’t part of the lake itself. When we experience suffering mindfully, we step back from it and observe it as a separate phenomenon. We recognize that it’s not us. And so the suffering feels lighter and more bearable.

6. Take the drama out of your suffering

Painful experiences evolved as a means to motivate us to avoid potential threats, and so they usually catch our attention very effectively. But often our assessment is overblown and we react as if a situation is life-threatening even when there’s no real danger. For example if we were abandoned or ignored a lot in our childhood we may react strongly to the merest hint of someone not responding to us. I’ve found it helps to remember that feelings are simply a warning mechanism, and that it’s ultimately just the firing of neurons in the nervous system. An unpleasant feeling is not the end of the world; it’s just information that you can choose to act on or not.

7. See how your thinking affects your feelings

A lot of the time we just think, think, think, think, think — and the whole time we’re making ourselves miserable. We get so caught up in our stories, and are so convinced that our stories are true and helpful, that we don’t recognize that we’re making ourselves suffer. Once you start noticing how your thoughts affect how you feel, you start finding yourself going, “Whoa! What am I doing to myself right now?” And you have an opportunity to relate in a different way to whatever’s troubling you.

8. See how your feelings affect your thinking

Not only do our thoughts affect how we feel, but our feelings affect how we think. For example, when we’re anxious, we look for things to worry about. When we find we’re in a mood we can choose to observe our unpleasant feelings rather than let them dominate the mind. The mind actively observes, rather than being passively pushed around.

9. Learn to reframe

When we practice mindfulness of our suffering — those messages produced by the mind in order to motivate us to avoid potential threats — we start to see how we construct those messages in the first place. We have internal “rules” about what constitutes a threat. For example, we can have a rule that says “My partner forgetting something I’ve asked them to remember means that they don’t care about me.” When the partner forgets, we feel hurt or afraid, and then perhaps angry or resentful. Realizing we have such rules allows us to rewrite them, and to reframe situations in our lives. For example we can counter the rule above by recognizing that it takes time to learn new habits (the partner remembering that thing) and that people are often preoccupied and distracted, and forget things. The new rules we create should attempt to be realistic and compassionate, otherwise they too will end up causing us to suffer.

10. Relate compassionately to your pain

When a friend’s unhappy you probably treat them with empathy, support, kindness, and compassion, because these are the most appropriate response to pain. Your suffering is just a part of you that’s in pain. Relate to it the same way. Talk to it kindly. Look at it compassionately. Touch it (or the place where it’s manifesting most strongly in the body) with reassurance.

11. Observe the impermanence of your suffering

Think about something in the past that caused you suffering but which now doesn’t bother you. I can think, for example, of a time in my 20s when I got into a small amount of debt and got rally anxious about it. Now, however, I can think about it without feeling the slightest bit bothered. The panic I experienced at that time has just gone. One of our fears about feelings is that we’ll get stuck in them, that we’ll feel depressed or anxious or whatever forever. But our feelings never last. As we observe that fact over and over again it starts to sink in, and we learn to take our feelings less seriously and not overreact to them: OK, I’m feeling sad today. Tomorrow I’ll feel different.

12. Observe the transparency of your feelings

I’ve said that feelings are internally generated sensations arising in the body, and that they act as signals, warning us of potential threats. We tend to respond to painful feelings as if they were actual threats, and so we overreact. It’s as if every time the smoke detector went off while you were cooking you ran out into the street in a panic, rather than looking at the situation and realizing that it was your sizzling veggieburger that was triggering the alarm. If we train ourselves to look very closely at feelings of suffering, we can notice something astonishing; there’s nothing real there. There are just twinkling pinpoints of sensation suspended in space. They’re like holographic projections. It’s a trick of the mind that makes them seem real, and observing the trick closely allows us to see through it.

I believe that when the Buddha talks about ending suffering, he’s not talking about arranging life so that nothing bad happens to us, or even of learning to relate to our experience so skillfully that suffering doesn’t arise. I think he’s talking about the fact that suffering fundamentally doesn’t exist, and that it’s an illusion created by the mind. The mind creates suffering. The mind believes it. But the mind also wants to be free from it. And it can be, if we just look at our experience closely enough, with compassion and with an awareness of impermanence.

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Loving and supporting whatever is difficult within you

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash.

Someone wrote to me yesterday, saying that as she was getting into her spiritual practice, anger was starting to arise:

I have very recently started my journey towards freedom of suffering at the hands of myself or others. It would seem as though it has turned into an anger issue with me. So I am looking forward to any suggestions that may help me get to my centered, grounded, healing, happy place.

This can happen. As we’re leaving our comfort zone, fear can be triggered. We can also become more sensitive to the body as we practice meditation, and so we feel our feelings more strongly.

My own experience is that anger is a response to painful feelings that we haven’t yet learned to tolerate. The good news is that we can learn to accept those feelings so that anger no longer needs to arise. We have built up an expectation that they’re threatening and terrifying — like the monsters I used to imaging lurking at the foot of my bed when I was a child. But just as there wasn’t in reality anything there for me to be terrified of then, there’s nothing really there to be scared of now.

It’s not that the feelings don’t exist, it’s that when we do manage to bring ourselves to accept them, we realize there’s no big deal, and never was. They’re just feelings. They’re patterns of sensation in the body caused by ancient parts of the brain; part of an internal communication system that evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. Once you accept them, they often just evaporate, just like the darkness at the foot of the bed vanishes when you put the light on.

Of course there is a part of us that’s terrified of these feelings, and we shouldn’t pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s going to be there all the time we’re persuading ourselves to turn and look at whatever feelings it is that we’ve been trying to avoid.

Maybe those feelings are hurt, or fear, or confusion. When you find you’re angry, drop down into the body and look to see what’s happening around the heart and the gut. Notice what’s there. As best you can, accept it. Tell yourself, “It’s OK to feel this. Let me feel this.” Realize that there’s nothing wrong with having these feelings. It’s not a failure. It’s just a part of you that’s evolved a certain habit in order to try to protect you.

Treat the part of you that’s creating these feelings with kindness. It’s hurt, confused, afraid. It’s not evil. It needs your compassion, not your condemnation.

Practice giving it compassion. Touch it tenderly, laying a hand on the part of the body where those feelings arise most strongly. Tell it you love it. Tell it you care. Tell it you’re there for it and will support it.

By relating to your feelings as parts of you that need help and support, rather than as boogey-men that you’re afraid of, you’ll start to lose your fear.

And you’ll notice along the way that your anger is starting to vanish. It was trying to protect you from your hurt or pain of confusion by trying to push away whatever was triggering those feelings. But when you accept your painful feelings you don’t need to be protected against them.

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