five hindrances

“This is where peace is found”

Anyone who has meditated knows that over and over again we turn the mind toward the sensations of the breathing, to building kindness, or to some other object of meditation, and over and over again we find ourselves distracted by some random train of thought.

Distractions are seductive, but make us unhappy

Our thoughts are strangely seductive. And yet they rarely make us happy. In fact research shows that distracted thinking is a source of suffering. We’re much happier when we are mindfully attentive to our experience.

The Buddha in fact classified our distracted thoughts into five categories: longing for pleasant experiences, ill will, worrying, avoidance, and doubting ourselves. All five of these hindrances, as they’re called cause unhappiness.

So why do we keep getting drawn towards doing something that makes us unhappy?

Why are we so drawn to distractedness?

Early Buddhist teachings talk about a number of “cognitive distortions” (vipallasas), one of which is seeing things that cause suffering as sources of happiness. And that’s what’s going on here. The mind assumes that if we long for pleasure, pleasure will happen, that if we hate what we don’t like, it’ll go away, that if we worry about things, this will fix them, that if we avoid things we don’t like, they’ll go away, and that if we doubt ourselves and make ourselves miserable, someone will come and tell us everything’s OK.

So on a certain, very deep, level, we’re convinced that distractedness is where happiness is found. Even though it isn’t.

Being mindful of the body is the way to happiness

Where happiness does lie is in mindful attention — mindfully attending to the physical sensations of the body, to feelings, to thoughts, and to how all of these things affect each other in ways that either contribute or detract from our wellbeing.

Simply observing the breathing and other sensations in the body, patiently returning to it over and over when we get distracted, brings peace. This is the basis of meditation.

It’s in the body that peace lies. That’s where we find happiness.

A practice for retraining the mind

So as a practice, I suggest the following.

First, let the eyes be soft. Let the muscles around the eyes be relaxed. Let the eyes be focused softly.

Then, begin to connect with the sensations of the body, feeling the movements of the breathing as soft waves sweeping through the body.

As distractions arise, and you begin to extract yourself from them, see if you can have a sense of distracting thoughts being in one direction, and the body in another direction.

On each out-breath, remind yourself that the sensations of the body are where you want your attention to be by saying something like the following:

  • This [the body] is where happiness is found.
  • This is where peace is found.
  • This is where patience is found.
  • This is where joy is found.
  • This is where calm is found.
  • This is where ease is found.
  • This is where security is found.
  • This is where confidence is found.
  • This is where contentment is found.
  • This is where love is found.
  • This is where awakening is found.

As each breath sweeps downward through, say one of the phrases above, or something like them. You can make up your own phrases. You can repeat phrases, but see if you can mix them up a bit in order that the practice doesn’t become mechanical.

How this works

Essentially all positive qualities are supported by mindfulness rooted in the body, so you can just let various qualities come to mind and remind yourself that it’s through awareness of the body that they will arise.

Let the words accompany the breathing, strengthening your intention to notice and appreciate the body mindfully.

In the short term, the repeated reminders to observe the body will help to keep your mind on track. There’s less opportunity for distraction to arise and take over your mind.

In the long term, you might find that you start to realize that the body — rather than distractions — is home. It’s where growth happens. It’s where you want to keep turning your attention. It’s where you want to be. And your attention will naturally gravitate there.

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Overcoming resistance to meditation (a self-compassionate guide)

There can be lots of reasons for why we avoid meditating. We might not want to experience particular feelings. We might have built up a sense of failure around our meditation practice. We might worry that doing something for ourselves is selfish. We might be concerned that if we meditate we won’t get things done. Or we might be afraid of change.

And so we find excuses not to meditate. We know it’s good for us. We’ve read news article about it. We know that we’re happier when we meditate. We intend to meditate. But we find that we avoid it. We get busy. We just can’t bring ourselves to go sit on that meditation cushion.

I used to think it would help to understand why I resisted meditation. But that rarely achieved anything.

Ultimately, I found that the most important thing was not to analyze my resistance or to get into a debate with it, but to turn toward and embrace it. This is an important practice in mindful self-compassion.

So when resistance to meditation arises, try becoming mindful of the feelings that accompany this experience. Where are they situated in the body? What shape do they form? What “texture” do they have? What kinds of thoughts do they give rise to? Notice those things, and just be with the resistance. Let the resistance be an object of mindfulness. Resistance is a state of conflict, and may also include fear. These are forms of pain. Notice this pain and regard it kindly. Offer it some reassuring words: “It’s OK. You’re going to be OK. I’ll take good care of you.”

Now here’s the thing: as soon as you become mindful of your resistance, you’re already meditating. Your resistance is no longer a hindrance to developing mindfulness but an opportunity to do so. And so, wherever you are, you can just let your eyes close. Breathing in, experience the resistance. Breathing out, experience the resistance. Now you’re doing mindful breathing meditation!

Continue to talk to the fearful part of you, perhaps saying things like: “Hi there. I accept you as part of my experience. I care about you and I want you to be at ease. You’re free to stay for as long as you like, and you’re welcome to meditate with me.” Do this for as long as necessary, until you feel settled in your practice.

In this approach the specific content of your resistance isn’t important, because you’re not meeting your rationalizations on their own level. And that’s a good thing, because your resistance is sly.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, your doubt can run circles around you, and arguing with it makes things worse. Your doubt knows exactly what you’re going to say and knows how to make you feel small and incapable. It’s had lots of practice doing this. The one thing your doubt doesn’t understand is how to resist being seen and accepted.

So instead of arguing with your resistance, outsmart it. Surround it with mindful awareness and with kindness.

If you find that the resistance goes on day after day, then set yourself a low bar for what counts as “a day in which you meditate.” Five minutes is fine. That may not sound like much, but regularity is ultimately far more important than the number of minutes you do each day. If you sit for just five minutes a day, you’re meditating regularly. You’ve outwitted your resistance.

One more tip: The only “bad meditation” is the one you don’t do. All the others are fine. So don’t worry about the quality. Just do the practice.

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The most important thing right now, is right now

tree blossoms

The problem with distractions is that they’re compelling. They make us think that they’re important. They draw us into their stories. It’s as if they’re saying, “This is what you need to be thinking about right now.”

And so, over and over, we end up immersed in stories driven by anxiety, anger, desire, and self-doubt.

These distractions come from relatively primitive parts of our programming, which evolved as protective mechanisms. As mammals who suffered from predation, we needed to be anxious and alert for potential physical threats to our wellbeing. When such threats became actual—a stranger approaching our camp, for example—we might respond with displays of anger in order to invoke respect or fear in the other party. Living in an environment where resources were scarce, our sensory desires motivated us to seek and hold on to food and other essentials. Self-doubt promoted caution, so that we didn’t recklessly put ourselves in danger, and also helped us fit into a hierarchical social group where not everyone could be the leader.

Although we still do face threats, uncertainties, scarcity, and so on, for the most part the kinds of mental states I’ve been describing don’t really help us in modern life. In fact they hinder us in many ways, and rather than protect us they mostly cause us to suffer. The circuitry in our brains connected with these states is still there and keeps looking for things to get anxious, angry, greedy, or doubtful about. Sometimes that circuitry gets out of control and has a destructive effect on our lives, as with stress, social anxiety, and depression.

Even outside of pathological conditions, though, these mental states diminish our wellbeing. We’re always happier when we’re mindfully attentive to whatever we’re doing, even if it’s just our breathing, than when the mind is off wandering.

The thing, then, is how do we convince ourselves that our distractions are not actually important for our happiness, and that mindfulness is what’s truly important?

The Buddhist tradition offers lots of ways to do this, including reflecting on the drawbacks of our distractions (“Anxiety doesn’t solve my problems, it just makes it harder to tackle them”). But one of my favorite approaches is to drop in a gentle reminder that it’s valuable to disengage from distracted thinking—that it’s important to be mindful.

In the past I’ve used the phrase “But right now … right now.” I’ve also used “It can wait.” I’ve found them both to be very useful.

My current phrase is, “The most important thing right now, is right now.” This is a simple reminder of priorities. In a sense there’s nothing “wrong” with anxiety, doubt, and so on. Having those things show up isn’t a sign of failure. It’s not a weakness. It’s not a sign that you’re a bad person. They’re simply part of your old programming, and tend not to make you happy or bring you a sense of contentment. Instead, they stir us up emotionally and create worlds of pain. What is a higher priority, what is important for us to do, is to be mindful of our present-moment experience.

The second “right now” in “The most important thing right now, is right now” is pointing to everything that’s arising in our direct sensory experience. Sounds, light, the body, our feelings are all arising right now. Paying attention to those in a mindful way allows the mind to calm, our body to let go of tensions, and our emotions to come to rest in a sense of contentment, or even joy.

This “mantra” suggests exploration. What is “right now?” That’s for us to find out, through mindful exploration.

So as you find yourself coming out of a period of distracted thinking in your meditation, and re-emerging in a more mindful state, try dropping in the phrase “The most important thing right now, is right now,” and let it direct your attention to what’s truly important, which is your immediate sensory reality.

One student, Zia, wrote to me to let me know how the words had changed as she practiced with them:

Over several days, the reminder “The most important thing right now, is right now” has morphed in my mind into “All that matters right now is right now”. At some times, it further morphs into “ALL that matters right now is right now”. The capital “ALL” brings more of a sense of the vastness, the divinity, that is contained in the present moment and that becomes more accessible through attention.

This is a beautiful reminder that we can treat phrases like these as living things that you’re inviting to share your life, rather than objects that you keep around. Let them adapt, grow, and evolve.

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Letting happiness happen

50572155 - white flower growing on crack stone wall soft focus, blank text

The one emotion that we most commonly repress is joy.

We don’t intend to do this. Instead, it happens through inattention. Few if any of us would sense joy arising and make a conscious decision to destroy it or push it out of awareness. Few of us would refuse happiness if it were to appear. And still we repress joy all the time.

One of the principles of meditation is that it allows joy to flourish. The process of meditating is that you start paying attention to some immediate sensory experience, such as the breathing. Then, after a while, you realize you’ve stopped doing that, and have instead been caught up in some train of thought. And so you bring your attention back to the breathing again. You do this over and over again.

What happens is that you get happier, and the reason for this is that you’ve stopped repressing your joy. Most of the distracted thoughts we have create suffering for us, because in those distracted trains of thought we create dissatisfaction, worry, or self-doubt. All of these kinds of thinking hinder our happiness and make us suffer. Let go of them, and calmness, peace, and joy naturally arise.

All we have to do is stop repressing our joy, and happiness happens.

Both the repression of joy and letting happiness happen take place in our daily activities as well. These aren’t just things that take place on the meditation cushion. All day long we’re slipping into distraction and diminishing our happiness. Daily life is not just an ideal opportunity to let happiness happen — it’s where most of our practice must inevitably take place.

We often think that it’s the things we do day-to-day, or that happen to us, that make us happy or unhappy. However it’s not so much the things we do that condition our mental states, but how we respond to them. We might be mildly anxious about leaving the house a little bit late. Every day. Or there’s the person at work we find annoying. Every day. There’s the gossip that we tend to join in with. Every day. There’s the routine task that we resent. Every day. It’s those kinds of habitual responses to the world around us that condition our mind and emotions. Moment by moment, they mount up.

It may seem like these mental acts are small things, but when it comes to happiness there are no small things. Every response we make to the events in our lives either represses us or unleashes happiness. The sum total of our wellbeing depends on how these repeated and seemingly insignificant acts mount up.

Happiness is not created. It’s allowed. Its there, in potential, all the time. It’s just that in our unawareness we are constantly doing things that make it impossible for us to be happy. Inattention destroys our happiness. Attentiveness allows happiness to happen.

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Stepping out of compulsive thoughts, and into freedom

Gold Fish Jumping to Empty Bowl

The moment when we realize that we’ve been caught up in a distracted train of thought is a valuable opportunity to bring skillful qualities into the mind, and to cultivate insight.

This is something that’s very familiar to anyone who’s meditated. We’ll start by following the breathing, or some other object of attention, but then without our making any conscious choice to shift our focus we slip into a dream-like state in which we’re rehashing a dispute, or fantasizing about something pleasant, or worrying about some situation in our lives.

These periods of distraction can be so intense that they are like hypnotic states. They’re like dreams. They’re like mental bubbles of an internal virtual reality drama in which we’re mindlessly immersed. When we’re distracted in this way we’re in an altered state of consciousness, in which we lack self-awareness: we’re not aware we’re distracted, we’re not aware we’re fantasizing, and we’re participating in the drama of our experience but we’re no longer monitoring or observing our experience.

Especially for those who are relatively new to meditation, there can be a tendency to be disappointed, annoyed, or self-critical when we emerge from these hypnotic bubbles. But with practice we can learn to cultivate patience and kindness as we accept that the mind wanders, appreciation as we value our return to mindfulness, and persistence as we bring the mind gently back to the breathing. People who’ve been meditating for a long time can get pretty good at relating to distractions in that way. They maybe are (sometimes) a little less distracted, but they’re a lot less bothered by the distractions they do have.

But there’s one other thing that I’ve recently been bringing in to my meditation at the point where I realize that I’ve just emerged from a dream-like period of distraction. What I’ve been doing is I note the fact that the train of thought I was immersed in seemed compelling when I was, so to speak, inside it, and yet now that I’m viewing it from the outside it appears undesirable and unsatisfying.

When we’re inside these hypnotic, dream-like states, they entirely capture our attention. They hold us spellbound. They’re irresistibly compelling. And yet, when the bubble eventually bursts, I find them to be rather lame! Noticing this lameness helps me to stay more disengaged from them. Of course other distractions will come up, and I’ll get lost in those too, but noticing the unsatisfactoriness of my distractions immediately after they’re over helps my mindfulness to have more momentum. I feel clearer. Sharper. More empowered. More content.

And just as my distractions appear more unsatisfactory, so the simple richness of my present-moment experience seems even more satisfying by contrast. I realize that this is where I want to stay. The calmness seems calmer. The body feels more alive. Yes, this is home.

Observing the unsatisfactoriness of our distractions also works with the less compelling thoughts that flit through the mind without causing us to lose our mindfulness altogether. We can watch them go by and realize that they have nothing to offer us but disappointment and frustration.

This practice is one of “noting” the characteristic (lakkhana) of dukkha (which can mean unsatisfactoriness, suffering, or even pain.) It seems to fit rather neatly with verse 278 of the Dhammapada: “All fabricated states of mind [sankharas] are unsatisfactory [dukkha]. When one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering [dukkha].”

The word dukkha is used in two senses here. First, our distractions (sankharas, or “fabricated states of mind”) are seen as unsatisfactory. Second, seeing the unsatisfactoriness of our distracted states of mind — craving, irritation, anxiety, avoidance, doubt — helps us to turn away from the dukkha (suffering) that these kinds of thoughts give rise to. For all of these distractions have the effect of reducing our levels of well-being.

And so, seeing that our distractions are unsatisfying—indeed are incapable of providing real satisfaction—we turn away from the suffering they bring. Noting the unsatisfactoriness of our distractions is, in fact, an insight practice. It takes us closer to awakening.

I’ve suggest trying this practice for yourself. Very simply, just notice, as you emerge from each distraction, how the train of thought appears to you now. Does it seem alluring? Does it seem unpleasant? Is it something in between?

Do note that there may be some part of your mind that is still drawn to the distraction. This isn’t surprising, since moments before you’d been entirely absorbed and seduced. But on the whole you may find yourself turning away from the distraction, seeing it as it really is — unsatisfying. And you may find yourself, unexpectedly, with a fuller appreciation of the present moment.

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Dealing with creative distractions

creative distractions in meditation: man surrounded by star trails

Someone recently asked me about how to deal with useful distractions:

As a creative writer, I think I get some of my best ideas while in a meditative state such as when showering or shaving. My question is what I should do when a ‘useful’ or ‘epiphany moment’ happens while meditating. My instinct is to get up and write my idea down and my fear is that if I go back to my breathing I will lose this idea which has bubbled up from my subconscious. I don’t really see my wandering mind as a thing to avoid but a thing to embrace – which confuses me regarding the practice of meditation.

Mind-wandering is partly a problem because it disturbs us emotionally. Research has shown that we’re distracted—i.e. thinking about something unrelated to what we’re doing—almost half the time. It also shows that these distractions make us unhappy.

Traditional Buddhist teachings agree, and point to five different types of distractions that we get caught up in. We crave pleasant experiences, we think about things that annoy or anger us, we worry, we slip into dream-like states (or even into sleep), and we engage with doubts, telling ourselves stories about our own incompetence or unlovability. All of these states are painful, lead to pain, or are unsuccessful attempts to deal with (usually unacknowledged) pain.

But these “five hindrances,” as they are known, come in varying degrees of intensity. Ill will, for example, may manifest as hateful thoughts about another person, or as mild irritability, or even as an aversion to some experience that we resist experiencing.

It’s the hindrance of craving, or “sense desire,” as it’s termed, that can lead us into the kind of pleasant, creative rumination that my correspondent asked about. In a relaxed state, especially when we’re doing something familiar and repetitive, such as showering, the mind my look for a pleasing distraction in the form of putting together ideas in new and creative ways.

There’s nothing wrong with this, by the way. There’s nothing actually wrong with any of the hindrances, in fact. It’s just that they tend to cause us suffering. In their milder forms, though, that’s generally not the case. Creative thinking in fact can be very enjoyable. One problem is what in economics they call the “opportunity cost.” If you’re creatively daydreaming, you can’t also be mindfully aware of your present moment experience, which is a gateway to a more deeply satisfying level of experience. In meditation, for example, we can end up spending most of our time letting the mind drift in this way. And once it starts drifting, it can be hard to stop it. The mind may well end up straying from pleasant and creative forms of thought to more overtly pain-inducing types of thinking, such as ill will or doubt.

Creative thinking is going to happen, though! Sometimes when I have a creative thought in meditation I’ll cross my fingers. I soon habituate and forget my fingers are crossed, but when the meditation ends I notice that they are in an unusual position and I remember the thought I’d had.

I think it’s also OK to keep a notebook handy and to jot the thought down, in order to get it out of your head. It’s probably less disruptive to the meditation session than it is to worry about losing the good idea!

If creative thoughts keep coming to you in meditation, then usually this is a sign that you’re not giving yourself opportunities to do this in your daily life. If you’re constantly on the go, always doing something, then it’s natural that when you close your eyes to meditate you’ll find that the mind starts digesting all the information you’ve been exposing yourself to, making sense of it, and coming up with creative insights. If you take breaks between tasks, though, and even schedule time for reflection, then it’s less likely that your meditation will be dominated by “good ideas.”

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Facing the demon of self-doubt

Someone wrote to me the other day, asking for advice:

I just started regularly meditating about a month ago. I’m scared to continue now though. I had a sudden feeling of self resentment and I felt it so deeply. I remembered the bad choices I have made in my life and felt so unworthy of love and compassion. I felt unworthy of the meditation itself. I felt like I was the most selfish person in the world. I can’t even begin to describe how painful it was.

What she’d described is what we call the “hindrance of doubt.” There are five of these hindrances, which are mental patterns that stop us from being at ease with ourselves. They are (1) craving, (2) ill will, (3) anxiety, (4) lethargy, and (5) doubt, which is the sneakiest of them all.

Doubt tells us stories that sap our confidence. This woman’s thoughts of unworthiness and of being “the most selfish person in the world” are doubt’s modus operandi. Sometimes the doubts are about our practice, but more commonly they’re about ourselves.

Doubt is the hardest of the hindrances to recognize, because the stories we’re telling ourselves “hit below the belt” emotionally and leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed. We totally believe the stories we’re telling ourselves, and have difficulty questioning their validity.

It’s very important to learn to recognize the patterns through which doubt expresses itself, and to remind yourself that this is just doubt—that it’s not reality you’re describing to yourself. It’s just a story.

When you do that, you’re less inclined to believe what you’ve been telling yourself. Having a thought like “I am unworthy of love” isn’t actually much of a problem if you don’t believe it, and if you recognize that this is just some frightened part of yourself trying to “protect” you from positive change.

And I do think that the function of doubt is to “protect us.” It may be a fear-based response to some difficulty. By telling ourselves we’re not capable of meeting this challenge, we take away the possibility of failing. It may also arise from a fear of positive change, however. Habits we have that are going to be eliminated act like sub-personalities and try to prevent change from happening. My guess is that this is what was going on with this woman: after a month of meditation, parts of her were fearful of change.

Don’t be afraid of doubt. Recognize that it’s just a story, and don’t take it seriously.

There are huge benefits to doing this. Often when we’ve recognized doubt and chosen not to believe it, there’s an immediate upwelling of energy and confidence in ourselves and our practice. On the other side of doubt lies faith.

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Being mindful of the effects of your thinking

100 day meditation challenge 034Some kinds of thinking are helpful in terms of what we’re trying to achieve in the meditation, and some kinds aren’t.

So in mindfulness of breathing the counting (which is a form of thought) is helpful. In lovingkindness practice the phrases that we say (“may you be well,” etc.) are also helpful. And less “programmatic’ thoughts can also be helpful in bringing about greater attentiveness, relaxation, calmness, or other qualities. You can recognize these by their effects.

But generally, most of the thinking we do is concerned with worrying, doubting, arguing, criticizing, yearning, etc., and most of that thinking perceptibly stirs up suffering of one sort or another.

I’d simply suggest looking at what your thoughts are doing, and notice whether they’re contributing to your wellbeing or otherwise. And in the same vein you can look at what periods of mental stillness and non-thought do.

The distinction I am making isn’t between preplanned (or as I called them earlier, “programmatic”) thoughts and spontaneous thoughts, but between thoughts that cause disturbance or confusion and those that lead us into deeper stillness. And the way to tell the difference is to notice not just the thought, but what effect the thought has. This, it must be said, can be a challenging practice at first, and especially if the mind is still quite unruly.

Given this challenge, it’s absolutely fine to treat all throughs the same way, just noticing and letting go of them. Once the mind begins to still even just a little, it’ll become easier to notice what effects your thoughts are having.

And actually it can be even easier than this to distinguish the two kinds of thought. We can perceive a qualitative difference between them, in an esthetic sort of a way, much as we don’t have do do any analysis whatsoever to tell the difference between a good singer and a bad singer. You just feel, in the moment of hearing, that this singer has a good voice and that that one doesn’t, or that this thought is just noise, and this one has a quality of clarity and wisdom to it.

Of course in meditation we sometimes have great ideas. In the relative stillness and openness of meditation, creativity can emerge. You might solve a problem that’s been bugging you for ages, or come up with an excellent idea for something you hadn’t even realized was a problem. Those ideas again are qualitatively different from the usual “junk thinking” we often do, but still have the effect of taking us away from our meditation practice, and although they’re a subtler form of distraction than having an argument with a colleague in your head, they’re still distractions. What I often do in such circumstances (I do not want to lose those good ideas) is to cross my fingers. When I come out of meditation I am aware that my fingers are crossed and I remember what the idea was.

So there are actually several kinds of thinking that you might identify:

  • “Junk” thinking (worrying, arguing, craving, etc.).
  • “Preplanned” or “programmatic thinking (the numbers, the metta phrases).
  • “Creative” thinking that’s unrelated to the meditation practice.
  • “Creative” thinking that is related to the meditation practice.

It’s worth being aware of these distinctions, and seeing a move to the last two as a sign of progress. (Are there other kinds of thinking that you’ve noticed?) Also, of course, there are gaps between our thoughts, and those become longer and more pronounced as the mind settles down. We often overlook these because we become a bit too focused on the “problem” of excessive thinking and forget to appreciate the good (calm, clarity, love) that’s beginning to emerge. Remember to appreciate the stillness that arises in your mind, even if it’s only momentary.

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The opportunity of “the magic quarter-second”

In her book My Stroke of Insight, brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor explains that the natural life span of an emotion—the average time it takes for it to move through the nervous system and body—is only a minute and a half, a mere ninety seconds. After that, we need thoughts to keep the emotion rolling. So, if we wonder why we lock into painful emotional states like anxiety, depression, or rage, we need look no further than our own endless stream of inner dialogue.

Modern neuroscience has discovered a fundamental truth: Neurons that fire together, wire together. When we rehearse a looping set of thoughts and emotions, we create deeply grooved patterns of emotional reactivity. This means that the more you think and rethink about certain experiences, the stronger the memory and the more easily activated the related feelings become.

For example, if a young girl asks her father for help and he either ignores her or reacts with irritation, the emotional pain of rejection may become linked with any number of thoughts or beliefs: “I’m not loved,” “I’m not worth helping,” “I’m weak for wanting help,” “It’s dangerous to ask for help,” “He’s bad. I hate him.”

The more the child gets this response from either parent—or even imagines getting this response—the more the impulse to ask for help becomes paired with the belief that she will be refused and the accompanying feelings (fear or hurt, anger or shame). Years later, she may hesitate to ask for help at all. Or, if she does ask, and the other person so much as pauses or looks distracted, the old feelings instantly take over: She downplays her needs, apologizes, or becomes enraged.

Unless we learn to recognize and interrupt our compulsive thinking, these ingrained emotional and behavioral patterns continue to strengthen over time. Fortunately, it’s possible to break out of this patterning.

Researcher Benjamin Libet discovered that the part of the brain responsible for movement activates a quarter-second before we become aware of our intention to move. There is then another quarter-second before the movement begins. What does this mean? First, it casts an interesting light on what we call “free will”—before we make a conscious decision, our brain has already set the gears in motion! But secondly, it offers us an opportunity.

Say you’ve been obsessing about having a cigarette. During the space between impulse (“I need to smoke a cigarette”) and action (reaching for the pack), there is room for choice. Author Tara Bennett-Goleman named this space “the magic quarter-second.” Mindfulness enables us to take advantage of it. 

By catching our thoughts in the magic quarter-second, we’re able to act from a wiser place, interrupting the circling of compulsive thinking that fuels anxiety and other painful emotions. For instance, if our child asks us to play a game and we automatically think “I’m too busy,” we might pause and choose to spend some time with her. If we’ve been caught up in composing an angry e-mail, we might pause and decide not to press the send button.

The Buddha taught that to be free—not identified with or possessed by thoughts or feelings—we need to investigate each and every part of our experience with an intimate and mindful attention. The first step is pausing, making use of the magic quarter second, and the second, choosing to be present with our moment –to- moment experience.  We need to recognize the fear-based thoughts and the tension in our bodies with an accepting, curious and kind attention. The fruit of this presence is a capacity to release habitual reactivity, respond to our life circumstances with a wise heart and step out of the grip of oppressive emotions.

Adapted from True Refuge.

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Doctor Jekyll and Mister Amygdala

A friend just wrote to me with a troubling story. He’s had a few upheavals in his life recently, including a divorce, but then he made a dreadful ethical slip and got involved with a former patient of his. Of course that’s a huge ethical no-no in the caring professions, and it may have life-long consequences for his career.

But in responding to my friend’s letter I was reminded of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Most of you know this story from cheesy horror movies, but the book is actually an astute spiritual parable that sprang directly from Stevenson’s subconscious in the form of a nightmare. The story stands up psychologically to the point where you can translate the characters into the terms of modern neuropsychology as represented by the work of author Wildmind contributor Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Dramatis Personae

  • Dr. Jekyll, who is the neocortex and mammalian brain, responsible for self-monitoring, planning, advanced cognition, empathy, and compassion.
  • Mr. Hyde, who is the “reptilian” part of the brain, concerned with fight, flight, and fulfilling appetites.

The Story

Henry Jekyll is a good doctor who helps many people through his work. He has a well-developed mammalian brain in which empathy and compassion are important. He is, however, deeply troubled by his amygdala-driven unexpressed bad-boy tendencies within. He is ashamed of them and afraid of them.

We all have “hindrances” — potentially destructive tendencies toward craving, hatred, and fear. Those tendencies manifest in our thoughts and our actions.

One thing all meditation teachers have to do is to let people know that it’s OK to have these hindrances. When people start self-monitoring (a neocortical activity), as they do when cultivating mindfulness, they start noticing distracted, craving, hateful thoughts. And their reaction is often to get upset about these. But that’s unhelpful, because that’s a case of responding to a hindrance with yet another hindrance. Yes, ultimately we want to get rid of the hindrances, but you can’t deal with them on their own terms, by getting angry about getting angry, or craving a lack of craving, or being afraid of being afraid, or getting despondent about noticing despondency.

These hindrances are not “bad.” They are actually mental behaviors that have evolved over millions of years in order to protect us. Someone threatens you, you get angry, they run away (hopefully). A big carnivore jumps out in front of you, you get scared, you run away. You see something you want, you grab it. And so forth. But these tendencies, while they work well in wolf-packs and worked well when we lived in caves, are maladapted for life in the modern world. Being angry with your computer when it’s working too slowly doesn’t change the computer, and just makes you unhappy and even ill. Bingeing on food because you want it can make us ill in different ways. Negative emotions undermine our relationships with others, so there’s a social cost. And even when they don’t have social or health drawbacks, our hindrances make us unhappy. Our sense of well-being is sub-optimal when we’re frustrated, or craving, or anxious.

The hindrances are not bad, they’re just strategies for finding security and wellbeing that happen not to work very well.

Dr. Jekyll is the man who sees these potentially destructive activities going on, but who is afraid of them. He’s the neocortex observing the amygdala. He identifies with his goodness, and psychologically disowns his hindrances. And he represses them. But in doing so, he’s acting out — internally — a form of violence driven by fear. The neocortex has been silently hijacked by the amygdala, since this fear actually stems from primitive, reptilian parts of the brain.

So Jekyll creates a drug that will anesthetize the bad boy within. He’s trying to anesthetize the amygdala, so that his neocortex no longer has to keep his “baser” instincts in check. But what he hasn’t realized is that over the years of repression, the bad boy has become much stronger. The repression Jekyll has done over the years is a form of inner violence, and thus has been feeding Hyde. And when Jekyll takes the potion it’s his good side (the neocortex, in modern terms) that goes offline, and the inner bad-boy (the reptile brain, the amygdala) that dominates. Mr. Edward Hyde is released. And it ain’t a pretty sight.

Once Hyde — a destructive monster who delights in violence and in indulging his unseemly appetites — is released, it’s impossible to keep him restrained. He becomes stronger with each outing. And indeed, when parts of the brain are exercised, the wiring in them becomes stronger. That part of the brain actually grows.

Of course the story doesn’t end well, and Jekyll is destroyed, but it’s a cautionary tale that we’re meant to learn from. So what should be learn?

What Jekyll should have done is to strengthen the neocortex by developing more mindfulness and compassion, so that the amygdala-driven Hyde would be known, contained without being repressed, and simply fade away through atrophy.

Easy to say! Let’s break that down a little.

When we stop reacting to the hindrances, and either simply accept them without acting on them, or cultivate their opposites — qualities of love, confidence, etc. — the neocortex actually grows. That part of the brain becomes thicker. The number of connections running back to the amygdala increases, so that the reassuring signals reaching it (“It’s OK. There’s no need to panic and get violent. I have this covered”) are stronger. And the amygdala actually shrinks. The brain is a real energy-hog, and takes a lot of work to maintain. If our fight-or-flight mechanisms are not needed, then the body somehow knows that it’s time to remove some of the brain circuitry necessary for those mechanisms.

So Dr. Jekyll is not conquered through fear and repression. He’s conquered through mindfulness and compassion.

It’s worth mentioning that this process of dealing skillfully with hindrances can be short-circuited by “spiritualizing” them. All those spiritual teachers who turn out to have been living double lives, giving inspiring teachings while sleeping with their students? Usually they’ve been telling themselves, and their partners, stories about how the relationships are “sacred” or an expression of non-duality. This is just another example of the amygdala hijacking the neocortex. The old way was, you want, you take. In a spiritual context you want. You make up a half-way convincing story. You take.

This reminds us that Mr. Hyde is sneaky. We need to give the neocortical Dr. Jekyll a lot of exercise, through practicing mindfulness and compassion. And we also need other people to give us feedback and to call us on our bullshit. We need sanghas. Getting enlightened is a team sport.

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