feelings

“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” Rainer Maria Rilke

Rilke

A woman on the Triratna Buddhist Community’s Urban Retreat, which this year focused on the theme of cultivating lovingkindness, or metta, asked a question about how to deal with “strong emotion” — especially grief — that may arise during lovingkindness practice. For this person, grief tended to arise particularly while she was cultivating lovingkindness toward herself, and she wondered how to be honest with her experience but not dissolve into and become lost in it.

I offered her a few suggestions, which I’ll enlarge on here:

1. Stop considering grief as an emotion.

Is grief an emotion? Is “emotion” even a meaningful term, in the context of Buddhist practice?

Increasingly I find the word “emotion” to be an unruly and overly broad category. It’s not a traditional Buddhist term, and I tend to avoid it. Buddhism talks about vedana, or feelings, but these don’t overlap very well with our term “emotion.” Vedanas are a primarily a sense of whether something is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. They’re our evaluation of something we’ve perceived: look out of the window and see rain, feel your heart sink; see the sun come out from behind a cloud, feel a rush of joy. Those are things we’d often call “emotions.”

Buddhism also talks about cetana, which is volition or intention. Metta (lovingkindness) is the desire that beings be happy, and the intention to act in a way that makes them happy. Anger is the desire to hurt, or wound, or to destroy an obstacle. So we might often call cetanas “emotions” as well.

But from a Buddhist point of view, vedanas/feelings and cetanas/intentions are completely different things! We can’t directly choose what feelings arise, but we can choose what intention we’re going to put our energy into. For example, you can’t choose not to be hurt by a cutting comment, but you can choose not to express or reinforce our anger, and instead to focus on being kind. Feelings are part of out “input” (i.e. experience that arises in consciousness) while intentions are what lead to output (i.e. actions).

So our term “emotion” covers two different phenomena in an unhelpful way.

Also, some intentions may not have much feeling associated with them. We can be kind to others without actually feeling anything like love. We might even feel rather depressed, but still want to act in a way that’s helpful and considerate to others, and we wouldn’t want them to suffer. This confuses people sometimes when they’re practicing meditations in which they cultivate lovingkindness. They look for something resembling an “emotion” of love (gushing warmth in the heart, a feeling of radiance) and don’t find it. So they think they’re doing the practice wrong and don’t have any of this “thing” called lovingkindness. Actually, they have the intention for beings (including themselves) to be happy, so they have plenty of lovingkindness.

So that’s why I tend these days to avoid the word “emotion” and to stick to the traditional terms vedana and cetana, or their translations, feeling and intention.

And I suggest that the primary experience of grief is what Buddhism calls a vedana. It’s a feeling. In this case it’s an unpleasant feeling, and it usually arises when something we’ve loved or clung to has been lost. Sometimes we’re not even conscious that we have lost anything, so grief can seem to arise randomly.

2. Accept your feelings.

Since vedanas are not something we consciously do, they are ethically neutral. Ethics, in Buddhism, is about intention. Grief is therefore ethically neutral, and so it’s not something we should try to rid ourselves of. It’s not “bad” to experience grief. It’s just uncomfortable.

But what we call grief can also have a volitional, or intentional, aspect to it as well. After the primary experience of grief comes our response, which can include aversion, or thoughts about how this experience shouldn’t be happening, or how we just want it to go away, or we think that we’ve “failed” because we’re suffering, etc. Those are all volitions, and they intensify our suffering. Every time we respond to our initial experience of grief with a thought akin to “woe is me,” a new wave of unpleasant feeling is generated.

The initial grief — the first pang — that we experience is what the Buddha called the “first arrow” of suffering. Our resistance, etc., is the “second arrow,” which we fire ourselves, and which adds to our pain.

So first of all we need to accept that the grief is there, and that it’s OK to feel it, even if it’s unpleasant. You can even say to yourself, “It’s OK to feel this.” So we keep dropping all the “second arrow” volitions, thoughts, and actions, and mindfully pay attention to the grief as best we can.

3. Cultivate self-compassion.

But we can also have compassion for our own pain. This doesn’t mean wallowing (that would be the second arrow again) but simply recognizing that there is a part of us that is in pain, and giving it our kindly and loving attention. You can locate where, in the body, the grief is principally located. (It’s often the solar plexus). And you can wish your pain well, as you would to a friend in the metta bhavana practice. You can even place a hand on the place where the grief is manifesting and say something like “I love you, and I want you to be happy.”

Rilke’s statement, “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” is very apropos, but it might suggest to some people being overwhelmed by feelings. Allowing yourself to be overwhelmed is not what Rilke is suggesting, though, since he also advises us to “just keep going.” When we’re lost in our feelings we become passive and so we give up on the “going.” The feeling becomes the only thing we can know or see. When we “just keep going” we’re aware that we’re going through a process that will naturally end. The more we resist our feelings, the longer the process will take. The more we can accept them and have compassion for them, the more quickly they’ll pass.

“No feeling is final.” Every feeling we have ever had has arisen and passed away. It came from emptiness and returned to emptiness. This is true for whatever you’re feeling right now. That anxiety, that dread, that feeling of hopelessness and despair, that grief — it’ll pass. Just accept it, and give it your compassion, and help it on its way.

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Body image booster: loving-kindness meditation

Margarita Tartakovsky, PsychCentral: In her book The Need to Please: Mindfulness Skills to Gain Freedom from People Pleasing & Approval Seeking, psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher Micki Fine, MEd, LPC, explains that each of us is made of love.

And as we water the seeds of love within us, we can learn to accept ourselves precisely as we are. When you have a negative body image, this can be incredibly hard to do.

That’s when having a daily practice is important. We can start creating new ways of thinking and feeling about our bodies and ourselves.

A daily practice that can be really helpful…

Read the original article »

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When your meditation practice doesn’t seem to be going anywhere…

Buddha statue head embedded in a tree

I often hear from people who are worried because their meditation practice doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I think it’s good to be aware of the different ways that change happens when we meditate since your practice hitting a plateau may not be a problem, but just part of a natural process.

Sometimes change happens rapidly. This may happen early on, or at any point in your practice. One striking example was told to me by a friend who owns a health club. One of his employees was very prickly and hard to work with, but my friend realize that this woman had really mellowed out, almost overnight. She was now relaxed and friendly. The prickliness and aggression had just gone. He asked one of his other employees if the woman was on medication, and was told, “No, it’s meditation!” This woman had only been meditating for a couple of weeks. Sometimes that’s how it goes.

Also see:

This isn’t just a phenomenon that affects beginners, though. Sometimes you’ll have a breakthrough in your practice and change happens rapidly. At those times there can be a sense of excitement about getting on the cushion.

But people are equally likely to find that change comes slowly, or appears not to be happening at all. The meditation itself may be OK, but there’s no sense of it going anywhere. And that can be boring, or downright worrying.

So here’s what I think’s going on during those phases of fast and slow change.

First, we often have untapped resources in the mind. For example there may be pathways that allow us to regulate our emotions, but we’re not aware that they’re there, or that we can use them, or we simply forget to use them. Perhaps quite suddenly, we realize that we have choices about how we think, act, and feel. Maybe a word that we can drop into the mind, or the sensations in a particular part of the body, remind us to come back to this mindful state of awareness in which we are able to regulate ourselves and in which we feel more relaxed, spacious, calmer, kinder — whatever it is that’s changing.

But after this period of rapid change, things settle down. They might settle down in a good place, but there isn’t the excitement of rapid change.

Second, there’s the slow, gradual change of developing a habit, in which new pathways are being established in the brain, old pathways and habits are being unlearned. Some parts of the brain are developing new neurons, while other parts of the brain, because they’re being misused, are shrinking away. This is the result of regular practice — working at developing mindfulness and lovingkindness, for example. Day by day, habits becoming, on the whole, stronger.

Some people are fine with slow, gradual progress. The Buddha described this as being like a tool wearing away over time. In any given day you don’t see much change, but over a longer timescale you see transformation taking place. But some people feel frustrated, and think that there’s something wrong with them or with their practice.

So you can accept that change is sometimes slow. If you’re putting any effort at all into your meditation practice then it’s working. Change is happening, but on a slow scale. If you glance at the hour hand of a watch you don’t see it change, do you? It looks like it’s just sitting there, unmoving. You need to look away and them look back a while later if you want to see any change. So you can learn to trust the practice; trust that intelligent effort plus time equals progress.

If you think that meditation should be exciting, you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. Nothing in life is always exciting.

Slow change and fast change are not unrelated. Sometimes the slow change of laying down new pathways in the brain takes you eventually to a “tipping point.” Possibly what happens is that you realize that you’ve developed new abilities, or you have a new-found clarity about what you’re working on in your practice — and so we’re back to the fast change of realizing that we can act and feel differently. Then that’s exciting for a while, but then inevitably things settle down again, and you’re back to the slow construction project of daily meditation.

But you need to make sure that you are, in fact, making an effort. You need to make sure you are clear about what you’re doing in meditation. You need to have a purpose, or goal. And you need to be making some effort to realize that purpose or goal. Without that, you may not even be on a plateau; you might just be coasting downhill.

So the takeaway message is this: practice will have its ups and downs. It’ll also have flat, boring stretches. Don’t thing there’s something wrong because you’ve hit a boring patch, but do make sure you have a clear purpose and are actually engaging with your practice rather than just coasting. Things will change.

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Even-mindedness and the two arrows (Day 79)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Upekkha, or even-minded love, is the fourth of the series of meditations we’re looking at in our 100 Days of Lovingkindness series.

As I discussed in the first post on upekkha, this word has several different meanings, although they’re all related.

There’s:

  1. Even-mindedness where we are able to accept ups and downs (specifically, pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings) without being thrown off-balance.
  2. Even-mindedness in the deep states of meditative absorption called jhana, where the mind is very stable and focused.
  3. Even-mindedness as one of the four immeasurables (brahmaviharas), where we have even-minded love.
  4. Even-mindedness as a synonym for the awakened state, or enlightenment, where greed, hatred, and delusion have been unrooted, and so the mind is not thrown off-balance by them.

Now I don’t think these are entirely separate. I pointed out that upekkha as a synonym for the awakened experience (type 4) could be the same thing as the brahmavihara (type 3), but experienced permanently. Even-mindedness as an experience in jhana (type 2) is just ordinary even-mindedness (type 1) plus concentration. And even-mindedness as a brahmavihara (type 3) is just even-mindedness (type 1) plus love.

Since even-mindedness type 1 is the basis for all the rest, we should take a look at that.

The Buddha talked about there being “two arrows.” The first arrow is when we have an experience that is painful in some way. That’s an inevitable part of life. But then there follows a second arrow, which consists of our aversive response to pain. So we think “This shouldn’t happen to me! It’s not fair!” Or we think “It’s his fault!” Or we think, “This is horrible, this is how it’s going to be for the rest of my life!” Or we think, “This always happens to be. It must show that I’m a bad person, unworthy of being loved. My life sucks!” And all of these responses simply cause us more pain: hence, the second arrow.

And the same kind of dynamic works for pleasant feelings as well, except that the pain usually comes when the pleasant feeling has gone, and we mourn it, or when we find ourselves having been led into unwise actions in pursuit of further pleasure.

So the Buddha’s advice is simply to observe feelings as they arise and pass away, and to accept them mindfully without reacting with either craving or aversion. This acceptance of our feelings is equanimity, even-mindedness, or upekkha. We don’t ignore any pain or pleasure, and in fact we’re more conscious of it than when we’re busy reacting to it. We simply notice it as another experience. We lose the judgment. It’s not “bad” to experience pain, and it’s not “good” to experience pleasure.

And this is important in each of the brahmaviharas. At a very basic level, at the start of a period of lovingkindness, we have to become aware of how we feel, so that we know what we’re working with. Now it actually doesn’t matter whether we feel good, or feel terrible, or whether we don’t know how we feel — it’s only important that we’re aware of what our experience is. So if you’re feeling unhappy, that’s OK. To be paradoxical, it’s not “bad” to feel bad. You just feel unhappy, you accept the unhappiness, and you start cultivating lovingkindness for yourself. If you’re feeling happy, then that’s fine too. Same thing: just accept what’s there and start cultivating lovingkindness. If you’re not sure how you’re feeling, this is probably because you’re not feeling much. You’re experiencing a neutral feeling. And you accept that and start cultivating lovingkindness toward yourself. It’s all too common for people to go into a downward spiral when they feel bad or feel neutral, because they assume that something is wrong. Equanimity prevents this happening. It stabilizes the mind. We neither reject who we are, nor crave to become someone else. We simply accept what’s going on, and work patiently with it.

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And, later in each of these practices, we call to mind people who are friends, people you neither like nor dislike, and people you have a conflicted relationship with. Generally when we think of a friend we’ll experience pleasant feelings, a neutral person neutral feelings, and a difficult person unpleasant feelings. So these practices give us the opportunity to develop equanimity. We cultivate the ability to sit mindfully with the three basic “flavors” of feeling. This is a very important part of lovingkindness practice. The more we’re able to have equanimity for our painful, pleasant, and neutral feelings, the easier it is to cultivate upekkha.

In a more vipassana approach (and by that I means simply meditation that focuses on impermanence, non-self, and the unsatisfactoriness of our experiences, rather than the form of meditation taught by Goenka or other teachers as “Vipassana” or “Insight Meditation”) we can train ourselves to observe that our feelings come and go. This is something we know, of course. But in paying particular attention to this fact — by observing it in action — we take our feelings less personally. We’re not so prone to reacting when we remember the impermanence of our feelings. Also in a vipassana approach we can learn to recognize that because our feelings pass through, they’re not ultimately a part of us: “This is not me; this is not mine; I am not this” was the phrase that the Buddha taught. And lastly, in a vipassana approach to feelings, we can recognize that no feeling is capable, fundamentally, either of permanently destroying our wellbeing or of giving lasting happiness. We recognize the dukkha, or unsatisfactory nature of our experiences, and recognize that it’s not the contents of our experience that create happiness or lack of happiness, but the way we relate to the contents of our experience.

And the most powerful thing we can do to transform our relationship with the contents of our experience is to allow it to be, with equanimity.

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

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What is higher power?

ray of light shining down from behind a cloud, onto a lake

Often people who are in recovery can wrestle with the twelve-steps in the various programs of recovery. So before I outline the steps in Buddhism that my co-author and I have coined for my book Eight Step Recovery: Using the Buddha’s Teachings to Overcome Addiction, published in 2014. I want to reflect over the next few months how many of the concepts in the twelve steps tradition can be of great use in our lives.

Step Two. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Many people struggle with this step, because they are looking for some God, some divine external rescuer that will deal with all their issues. And some people just do not want to have anything with religion; and so if that is the case what can they do about higher power? Others deal with this by using nature, or even the 12 step group as their higher power, which is creative and helpful. But higher power does not have to be some almighty thing. If we stop and pause higher power will be with us everywhere we go, if we allow ourselves to be with our direct experience, if we allow ourselves to fully experience all feelings whether pleasant or unpleasant.

One of my teachers says: ‘Any feeling fully felt is blissful.’ just imagine that!

The writer Joan Tollifson says “being aware” or “being here Now,” fully present, paying attention, waking up from the entrancement in thought-stories and being awake to the bare actuality of Here / Now.” I believe this is all we need to do if we want to connect to higher power in our lives. Huh! Simple but not easy. Simply, it is higher power in action, restoring us to sanity in a Buddhist frame work by moving from a place of confusion and discontent to a place of calm, content and simplicity.

So higher power is simply being with all our feelings. When we begin to pay kind attention to ourselves – we naturally soften, open up and change. We become calmer, more relaxed and happier. And meditation is one of the ways to begin to be with all of our experience.

When we come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity we begin to recognize the changes in our lives. For example if we have had a regular meditation practice for a year it is likely the practices of mindfulness and loving kindness have brought about some calm, peace and positive emotion in our lives.

Reflect on the next two questions

  • Remember what your mental states were like before you began meditating?
  • What was your life like before meditation came into your life?

It is important to mark the changes in our lives, otherwise your life today may just seem normal. And perhaps it is? But was it always this way? So by recognizing change, we see how the higher power of impermanence can also restore our life to sanity. We let go of the old stories of who we are, and recognize how we have changed.

We may well have had a lot of change on our road to recovery, and are quite happy with how our life is. Higher Power may be doing wonderful things in our lives.

  • Do we want to settle for what we have now?
  • Or do we want to take our practice of change with us until we meet our demise?
  • Are we clinging on to what we have?
  • Attached to our new way of life?

Becoming attached to our new life is of course inevitable, especially if we are someone who has had an addiction that has overwhelmed us, and now that we are on the road of recovery, Higher Power is working more in our life. Our life going well is not the issue, or indeed having pleasurable experience is not the issue. In fact we need to fully embrace and lean into pleasurable experience. The issue is when we begin to cling on to our good life, when we begin to fear losing what we have, when we begin to push away the difficult things that arise in our life. When this happens, higher power is no longer working in our lives. We will be floundering in confusion and insanity.

Here is a short exercise to begin sitting with direct experience.

  • What is it like when we pay attention to our breath?
  • Is it rough, smooth, pleasant, unpleasant?
  • What’s your feeling response?

Can you just sit and enjoy the experience that is happening right now?

And once the experience has passed away can you sit contentedly with the new experience?

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Letting life live through us

Many years ago, after several years of experiencing a long chronic illness, I attended a six-week Vipassana meditation retreat. Given my struggles with sickness, I looked forward to this time entirely dedicated to sitting and walking meditation.

I was out of my body and into my mind: “Whoa … I still really feel sick.” The first few days went smoothly. Yet, towards the end of the week, I started having stomach aches and felt so exhausted I could barely motivate myself to walk to the meditation hall. At this point it was a matter of making peace with discomfort. “Okay,” I figured a bit grudgingly, “I’m here to work with … unpleasant sensations.”

For the next twenty-four hours I noted the heat and cramping in my stomach, the leaden feeling in my limbs, and tried with some success to experience them with an accepting attention. But in the days that followed, when the symptoms didn’t go away, I found myself caught in habitual stories and sinking into a funk of fear, shame and depression. “Something’s wrong with me … with the way I’m living my life. I’ll never get better.” And under that, the deep fear: “I’ll never be happy.” The familiar trance threatened to take over, and I took that as a signal to deepen my attention.

On a clear and brisk afternoon at the beginning of the second week of retreat, I took off into the woods and walked until I found a patch of sun. Wrapping myself in a warm blanket, I sat down and propped myself against a tree. The ground, covered with leaves, offered a firm, gentle cushion. I suddenly felt at home in the simplicity of earth, trees, wind, sky, and was resolved to attend to my own nature—to the changing stream of sensations living through my body.

After taking some moments to release any obvious tension, I did a quick body scan, and noticed aches and soreness, a sinking feeling of tiredness. In an instant again I watched my mind contract with the idea that something really was wrong.

Taking a deep breath, I let go of these thoughts about sickness and just experienced the sheer grip of fear, which felt like thick hard braids of rope, tightening around my throat and chest. I decided that no matter what experience arose, I was going to meet it with the attitude of “this too.” I was going to accept everything.

As the minutes passed, I found I was feeling sensations without wishing them away. I was simply feeling the weight pressing on my throat and chest, feeling the tight ache in my stomach. The discomfort didn’t disappear, but something gradually began to shift. My mind no longer felt tight or dull but clearer, focused and absolutely open. As my attention deepened, I began to perceive the sensations throughout my body as moving energy—tingling, pulsing, vibrations. Pleasant or not, it was all the same energy playing through me.

As I noticed feelings and thoughts appear and disappear, it became increasingly clear that they were just coming and going on their own. Sensations were appearing out of nowhere and vanishing back into the void. There was no sense of a self owning them: no “me” feeling the vibrating, pulsing, tingling; no “me” being oppressed by unpleasant sensations; no “me” generating thoughts or trying to meditate. Life was just happening, a magical display of appearances.

As every passing experience was accepted with the openness of “this too,” any sense of boundary or solidity in my body and mind dissolved. Like the weather, sensations, emotions and thoughts were just moving through the open, empty sky of awareness.

When I opened my eyes I was stunned by the beauty of the New England fall, the trees rising tall out of the earth, yellows and reds set against a bright blue sky. The colors felt like a vibrant sensational part of the life playing through my body. The sound of the wind appeared and vanished, leaves fluttered towards the ground, a bird took flight from a nearby branch. The whole world was moving—like the life within me, nothing was fixed, solid, confined. I knew without a doubt that I was part of the world.

When I next felt a cramping in my stomach, I could recognize it as simply another part of the natural world. As I continued paying attention I could feel the arising and passing aches and pressures inside me as no different from the firmness of earth, the falling leaves. There was just pain … and it was the earth’s pain.

Each moment we wakefully “let be,” we are home. When we meet life through our bodies with Radical Acceptance, we are the Buddha—the awakened one—beholding the changing steam of sensations, feelings, and thoughts. Everything is alive, the whole world lives inside us. As we let life live through us, we experience the boundless openness of our true nature.

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On practicing mindfulness of hunger

apple being held in someone's hand

We all know about mindful eating: Don’t do anything else, like reading or watching TV. Take your time, really experience the sensations of lifting food to your mouth, putting it inside, chewing, swallowing. Notice the thoughts and feelings you have.

I have to confess I don’t do it very often. Last week I only really ate mindfully twice, and that’s because we undertook to eat mindfully at least twice as part of a meditation class. And it was actually quite hard to restrain myself from reading while eating. It’s quite a powerful habit!

But an interesting thing I’ve been doing over the last couple of weeks is being mindful of hunger.

I’ve noticed some things.

I find it easier to practice mindfulness of hunger than mindfulness of eating — perhaps because mindfulness of hunger is a new thing?

Also see:

Sometimes when I think I’m hungry, I’m not. It’s just craving.

Television is a trigger for fake hunger. (I don’t actually have a TV, but I watch shows on Netflix on my laptop.) In particular, the theme tunes of TV programs induce craving — that desire to rush to the fridge to see if there’s something I can snack on.

If I simply pay attention to this craving, it’s manageable, and I can resist eating unnecessarily.

When it’s real hunger, I can mindfully pay attention to the sensations in the body.

When I’m mindful of my hunger, the sensations change. It’s less localized in the stomach and becomes a more general sensation throughout the abdomen.

When I feel real hunger, I tell myself, “This is how my body feels when it’s losing weight.” This also helps change the feeling-tone of the hunger. It ceases to be an unpleasant sensation. It’s just a sensation, like any other. If I tell myself, “This is the sensation of my body burning off fat,” I feel happy, because my brain now interprets the hunger as a good thing.

When I’m mindful of hunger, I don’t feel that I have to jump up immediately and eat something. It stops being a signal that something is “wrong” and needs immediate attention. It’s a bit more like the fuel gauge on a car pointing to 1/4 full — it’s a sign that I’m going to have to find fuel soon, but not necessarily right now.

Without mindfulness, my brain treats even mild hunger as if it were an emergency: “You have to eat right now!” It’s more like the scary feeling you get when the low fuel light comes on in your car, indicating that you should head straight to a gas station or you’re going to end up stranded by the roadside.

When I’m mindful of hunger, I can comfortably be with the hunger for an hour or so. Sometimes it even goes away for a period of time. When I’m unmindful, I want to get rid of the unpleasant sensations right away.

I’ve lost about 4 pounds (1.8 kg) in the last couple of weeks.

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Trusting your feelings leads to more accurate predictions of the future

A forthcoming article in the Journal of Consumer Research by Professor Michel Tuan Pham and Leonard Lee of Columbia Business School, and Andrew Stephen of the University of Pittsburgh, finds that a higher trust in feelings may result in more accurate predictions about a variety of future events. The research will also be featured in Columbia Business School’s Ideas at Work in late February 2012. In the research, the researchers conducted a series of eight studies in which their participants were asked to predict various future outcomes, including the 2008 U.S. Democratic presidential nominee, the box-office success of different movies, the winner of American Idol, movements of the Dow Jones Index, the winner of a college football championship game, and even the weather. Despite the range of events and prediction horizons (in terms of when the future outcome would be determined), the results across all studies consistently revealed that people with higher trust in their feelings were more likely to correctly predict the final outcome than those with lower trust in their feelings. The researchers call this phenomenon the emotional oracle effect.

Across studies, the researchers used two different methods to manipulate or measure how much individuals relied on their feelings to make their predictions. In some studies, the researchers used an increasingly standard trust-in-feelings manipulation originally developed by Tamar Avnet, PhD ’04 and Professor Michel Pham based on earlier findings by Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan and his colleagues. In other studies, the researchers simply measured how much participants typically relied on their feelings in general when making predictions. Regardless of the method used, participants who trusted their feelings in general or were induced to trust their feelings experimentally were more accurate in their predictions compared to participants with lower trust in their feelings and with participants in a control group.

In one study involving the Clinton-Obama contest in 2008, high-trust-in-feelings respondents predicted correctly for Obama about 72 percent of the time compared with low-trust respondents, who predicted for Obama about 64 percent of the time – a striking result given that major polls reflected a very tight race between Clinton and Obama at that time. For the winner of American Idol, the difference was 41 percent for high-trust-in-feelings respondents compared to 24 percent for low-trust respondents. In another study participants were even asked to predict future levels of the Dow Jones stock market index. Those who trusted their feelings were 25 percent more accurate than those who trusted their feelings less.

The researchers explain their findings through a “privileged window” hypothesis. Professor Michel Pham elaborates on the hypothesis. “When we rely on our feelings, what feels ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ summarizes all the knowledge and information that we have acquired consciously and unconsciously about the world around us. It is this cumulative knowledge, which our feelings summarize for us, that allows us make better predictions. In a sense, our feelings give us access to a privileged window of knowledge and information – a window that a more analytical form of reasoning blocks us from.”

In accordance with the privileged window hypothesis, the researchers caution that some amount of relevant knowledge appears to be required to more accurately forecast the future. For example, in one study participants were asked to predict the weather. While participants who trusted their feelings were again better able to predict the weather, they were only able to do so for the weather in their own zip codes, not for the weather in Beijing or Melbourne. Professor Leonard Lee explains this is because “…they don’t possess a knowledge base that would help them to make those predictions.” As another example, only participants who had some background knowledge about the current football season benefited from trust in feelings in predicting the winner of the national college football BCS game.

Thus, if we learn to trust our feelings and we have a proper knowledge base, the future need not be totally indecipherable.

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Be the body

As a kid, I was really out of touch with my body. I hardly noticed it most of the time, and when I did, I prodded it like a mule to do a better job of hauling “me” – the head – around.

This approach helped me soldier through some tough times. But there were costs. Many pleasures were numbed, or they flew over – actually, under – my head. I didn’t feel deeply engaged with life, like I was peering at the world through a hole in a fence. I pushed my body hard and didn’t take good care of it. When I spoke, I sounded out of touch to others, emotionally distant, even phony; my words lacked credibility, gravity, traction.

Because of these costs, I’ve worked with this issue and come to appreciate the benefits of being aware of the body, coming down into it, inhabiting it – most fundamentally, being it.

For starters, being the body is simply telling a truth. What we experience being – thoughts and feelings, memories and desires, and consciousness itself – is constrained, conditioned, and constructed by the body via its nervous system. The fabric of your mind is woven by your body.

Further, being aware of your body and its signals gives you useful information about your deeper feelings and needs. Tracking your body’s subtle reactions to others also tells you a lot about them.

Coming home to your body helps you feel grounded, and it gives you reassuring feedback that you’re alive and basically alright. It’s exhilarating to feel the vitality of the body, even sitting quietly, and to experience the pleasures of the senses.

In particular, experiencing your body as a whole – as a single, unified gestalt in awareness, with all its sensations appearing together at once – activates networks on the sides of your brain. These lateral networks pull you out of the planning, worrying, obsessing, fantasizing, and self-referential thinking – “me, myself, and I” – that’s driven by another neural network in the middle of the brain. Consequently, abiding as the whole body draws you into the present moment, reduces stress, increases mindfulness, and lowers the sense of self to help you take life less personally.

How?

First off, a caution: for some people, it’s disturbing to experience being the body. In particular, this is understandable and not uncommon for people who have chronic pain, a disability, or a history of trauma. If this applies to you, try these practices carefully, if at all.

But for most people, it feels good and brings value to be the body. And there are numerous ways to deepen the sense of this:

  • Let your attention wander through your body, like a gentle scout investigating its sensations.
  • See what it’s like to sustain awareness of your body for at least a few minutes in a row – and longer if you want. You could keep paying attention to your breathing, or to the feelings in your hands while doing dishes, or to the sensations in your feet and legs as you walk the dog.
  • While doing everyday activities, routinely bring attention back to your body. What’s it feel like to be a body: answering the phone … watching TV … driving … typing … lifting a child … sitting in a meeting … stocking shelves … loading a truck … crawling into bed … ?
  • As you speak, try to be aware of your chest … stomach … hips … arms and legs … hands and feet. How does this change your communicating, especially about things that matter to you?
  • Experiment with sensing the body as a whole. Try to be aware of all the sensations of breathing in the torso, all of them present in consciousness as a unified whole, moment by moment. Let attention widen and soften to receive the whole torso as a single percept. In the beginning, it’s natural for this sense of the whole to last for only a second or two and then crumble; simply keep trying to regenerate it, and it will become stronger with practice. Next, open to a larger whole: all of the sensations of breathing throughout the body, appearing all together in awareness breath after breath. Then, see if you can go all the way out to include all body sensations, not just those of breathing.
  • For a specified time – even just one minute – find a comfortable seat, let worries and plans fall away, and simply rest. Be aware of breathing and let everything else go. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to be. Just sitting, abiding as a body breathing.

Wherever we go, whatever we’re doing, there’s always a doorway to a deeper sense of presence and peace: being the body.

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For better sex, meditate!

Maureen Salamon: “Am I pretty enough? Am I doing this right? Should I be going to yoga?”

These kinds of anxious, self-judgmental thoughts often run through some women’s minds as they have sex, experts say.

But a new study says “mindfulness meditation” training — which teaches how to bring one’s thoughts into the present moment — can quiet the mental chatter that prevents these women from fully feeling sexual stimuli.

“Rather than feeling it, they get caught up in their heads,” said the study’s lead author, Gina Silverstein, who was a student at Brown University in Rhode Island at the time of the study …

Click to read more »

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