five hindrances

The first reminder: My precious birth

Newborn baby

I hope it is not too late to realize that joyful is my precious birth. If we are deep in the disease of an addiction it is impossible to realize and to take advantage of our precious birth. When we are sober, clean and free from anything that obsesses or controls the mind we have emotional and spiritual health. Only then can we begin to appreciate our precious birth.

Every human that is born has a precious birth. The difference is that some of us have the perfect conditions to realize our potential while others are born into conditions where their potential can be hindered by external factors they had no control over, like sickness, diseases, war, famine and natural disasters. Those of us living in countries without these factors can also hinder our potential by the internal factors created by the mind; greed, hatred and delusion.

The Four Reminders

I have gratitude right now in this moment because I have my physical health, energy, and more than enough food to eat. What do I have to complain about? I currently live in country that is free of war on its own territory. I can walk outside my house and not fear I may walk on a land mine. I have my freedom as a woman, and yet I still complain. If I get sick, I can go to a doctor and not worry about the cost, and know that I will be treated with decent care. Yet I still complain. How fortunate I am. And If I don’t realize this good fortune I will be wasting my life. Wasting my precious birth. I will be at risk of turning to alcohol, food, or any other false comforter to fill the void in my life.

Knowing all of this, how should I live my life? I choose to live each moment as if it were the last. ‘I do that ‘ an addict may well say. However most addicts live life as if there is no tomorrow. The addict lives life chasing yesterdays experiences and tomorrows desires. The addict lives in complete denial of seeing things as they really are. Not just the addict, but most people live their life like this. Our minds are so full of delusions, stories we tell our selves, resentments and craving that it is impossible to see things as they really are.

If I could live my life as if every moment was the first and the last my life would be different. How? I don’t know. But I do know if my mind was not attached to the past, or the future it would be different. Free of mental turmoil, without the craving for something to dull my feelings.

If tomorrow I get sick or, tomorrow I get knocked off my bicycle and lose a limb. I know that if I hold onto the past of when I was well, and had all my limbs, I will suffer even more. If I was able to be in the moment of my life, I would be able to see my precious birth despite my physical disability. I shudder at the thought of this, and I know that there are people in the world who can live with that acceptance and awareness. Not letting a physical disability take away their precious birth.

Detox Your Heart, Vimalasara

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I’ve had two cancer scares. The first was when I was 24. I remember thinking “I have to change my life”. It worked, the cancerous cells disappeared. But I didn’t change my life. I was most definitely on the path that led to more suffering. I numbed everything out with work, social life and denial. Before my next cancer scare, I was attacked. It took being almost strangled to death at age 27 for me to change my life. It was my wake up call. I wasn’t meant to die. I got away, alive. So what was I going to do with my precious birth?

Exactly this. I told myself this was not going to be another thing to pull me down. It never has. I have never been a victim of this incident. Sometimes it’s as if it never happened. I didn’t hold on to it. I let it go, and moved into the next moment. Yes it had an impact, that lasted a few months, in dreams. But the only pain that took time to go was the physical side effect in my neck.  Even that subsided. I turned to Buddhism soon after and woke up to my precious birth.

My second cancer scare was at 35. I remember walking out of the clinic and thinking I’ve had a good life, it is okay to die. I’ve lived 35 long years, yes it would be good to live some more, but you could hardly say poor thing she died so young. As soon as we are born we are old enough to die.

I could never have thought so positively if it wasn’t for my Buddhist training. It so happened my doctor was wrong. It wasn’t cancerous cysts, just fibroids.  And so I am still here. Still trying to live this precious life ethically with mindfulness and wisdom. Rather than live it mindlessly by numbing out in front of the tv, on the computer, eating food, alcohol, substance abuse, depression or anger. Life is too short for that, which is why our birth is so precious.

We have the mental factors to see things as they really are. If we were to nurture our faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom we would be moving towards the good, have awareness, focused concentration and intelligent understanding.

The five hindrances of craving, aversion, restlessness, sloth and torpor and doubt would no longer obscure the mind. We would have made use of our precious birth.

As I write this month’s blog I can’t but help think about the tragedy in America. It is so sad. A precious life wasted, many precious lives lost. What happened to that poor kid James Holmes for him to be caught up in a delusion and use his intellect to massacre innocent people? Why did he waste his precious birth?

We live in a world today where our children are indoctrinated by greed, hatred and delusion. Just watch the video games that are marketed to youth. Kids are rewarded, given points for killing someone. Young people I have worked with, have told me that: ‘video games are screwing up some of their friends’.

We have to wake up to reality. We are nurturing a generation of young people who have different values than their parents. Video games are just one example where we are teaching young people about violence uncritically.

We have to take responsibility. It’s not just about our birth. It is about the precious birth of generations to come. In living our lives wisely we will help those born after us to realize their full potential.

How are you making the most of your precious birth?

Next month a reflection on the first reminder.

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Inquiry and naming: Practices to dispel the trance

hypnotic swirl on an ipad screen

Sometimes, when our carefully constructed lives seem to be falling apart – when we get a divorce, lose a business, or are laid off, for example – we can torture and berate ourselves with stories about how we’re failures, what we could have done better, how no one cares about us. Yet, this response of course only digs us deeper into what I call “the trance of unworthiness.”

Distracted by our judgments, we are unable to recognize the raw pain of our emotions. In order to begin the process of waking up, we need to deepen our attention and touch our real experience.

One tool of mindfulness that can cut through our numbing trance is inquiry. As we ask ourselves questions about our experience, our attention gets engaged. We might begin by scanning our body, noticing what we are feeling, especially in the throat, chest, abdomen and stomach, and then asking “What wants my attention right now?” or “What is asking for acceptance?” Then we attend with genuine interest and care, listening to our heart, body and mind.

Inquiry is not a kind of analytic digging—we are not trying to figure out “Why do I feel this sadness?” This would only stir up more thoughts. In contrast to the approach of Western psychology, in which we might delve into further stories in order to understand what caused a current situation, the intention of inquiry is to awaken to our experience exactly as it is in this present moment. While inquiry may expose judgments and thoughts about what we feel is wrong, it focuses on our immediate feelings and sensations.

It’s important to approach inquiry with a genuine attitude of unconditional friendliness. If I were to ask myself what wants attention with even the slightest aversion, I would only deepen my self-judgment. It may take some practice to learn how to question ourselves with the same kindness and care we would show to a troubled friend.

Naming or noting is another tool of traditional mindfulness practice that we can apply when we’re lost. Mental noting, like inquiry, helps us recognize with care and gentleness the passing flow of thoughts, feelings and sensations. If I am feeling anxious and disconnected before giving a talk, for example, I often pause, ask myself what is happening or what wants my attention. With a soft mental whisper I’ll name what I’m aware of: “afraid, afraid, tight, tight.” If I notice myself anxiously assuming that my talk will be boring and fall flat, I simply continue naming: “story about blowing it, fear of rejection,” then, “judging, judging.” If instead of noting I try to ignore this undercurrent of fear, I carry it into my talk and end up speaking in an unnatural and insincere way. The simple action of having named the anxiety building before my talk opens my awareness. Anxiety may still be present, but the care and wakefulness I cultivate through noting allows me to feel more at home with myself.

Like inquiry, noting is an opportunity to communicate unconditional friendliness to our inner life. If fear arises and we pounce on it with a name, “Fear! Gotcha!” we’re only creating more tension. Naming an experience is not an attempt to nail a unpleasant experience or make it go away. Rather, it is a soft and gentle way of saying, “I see you, fear, anger, etc.” This attitude of Radical Acceptance makes it safe for the frightened and vulnerable parts of our being to let themselves be known.

The practices of inquiry and noting are actually ways to wake us up to the fact that we are suffering. Caught up in our stories, we can effectively deny the truth of our experience. I sometimes spend days being impatient and judgmental towards myself before I stop and pay attention to the feelings and beliefs that have been disconnecting me from my heart. When I do pause and look at what’s happening, I realize that I’ve been caught up in the suffering of anxiety and self-doubt.

I have worked with many clients and students who reach a critical gateway when they finally register just how much pain they are in. This juncture is very different from feeling self-pity or complaining about our lives. It is different from focusing on how many problems we have. Rather, seeing and feeling the degree of suffering we are living with reconnects us to our heart.

Recognizing that we are suffering is freeing—self-judgment falls away and we can regard ourselves with kindness. When we offer to ourselves the same quality of unconditional friendliness that we would offer to a friend, we stop denying our suffering. And, most importantly, as we figuratively sit beside ourselves and inquire, listen and name our experience, we can begin to open our heart in tenderness for the suffering before us.

From Radical Acceptance (2003)

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Give your head a rest from thinking

Head of reclining BUddha

“Rest your weary head.” The traditional saying that’s this week’s practice has been sinking in for me lately. Thoughts have been swirling around like a sandstorm about work, things I’ve been reading, household tasks, finances, concerns about people, a yard that needs mowing, loose ends, projects, etc. etc. The other day I told my wife: “I’m thinking about too many things.” Know the feeling?

By “head” I mean the cognitive aspects of experience such as planning, analyzing, obsessing, considering, worrying, making little speeches inside, going back over situations or conversations, and trying to figure things out. “Weary” means being fatigued due to continued exertion or endurance, sometimes also with a sense of being dismayed, even depressed; its roots as a word have to do with the effects of a long journey. Basically, your tank is running low.

See also:

When your thought processes are tired, it doesn’t feel good. You’re not relaxed, and probably stressed, which will gradually wear down your body and mood. You’re more likely to make a mistake or a bad decision: studies show that experts have less brain activity than novices when performing tasks; their thoughts are not darting about in unproductive directions. When the mind is ruminating away like the proverbial hamster on a treadmill, the emotional content is usually negative – hassles, threats, issues, problems, and conflicts – and that’s not good for you. Nor is it good for others for you to be preoccupied, tense, or simply fried.

On the other hand, when you rest that busy mind, you stop wearing it out plus you start refueling and repairing it. The roots of the word “rest” come from places to take a break on a journey; it’s natural and necessary to rest when you’re weary.

How?

Routinely check in with yourself and ask: What am I thinking about? Is this productive? Do I want to keep thinking about this?

Give your mind little breaks. Look up into the corner of the room. Exhale; this engages the calming and restorative parasympathetic wing of the nervous system to slow your heartrate; the longer the exhalation, the more parasympathetic activation. Bring awareness into the body, whether it’s sensing the breath or paying attention to the movements of walking or reaching for a cup. Set aside a dozen seconds to follow a few breaths. Pull out of thought and, as Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, come to your senses.

Step back and take a bird’s-eye view of wherever you are, as if you were looking down on it from a few hundred feet above. Try to see yourself in a more impersonal way, as a part of a larger stream of circumstances and events. This will tend to activate circuits on the sides of your brain that are associated with spacious mindful awareness, coming into the present, letting go of inner speech, and less burdensome sense of me-myself-and-I.

Above all, recognize that, if you’re like me and I think most people, so much of what we twirl around with in the mind is, frankly, a waste of time. It doesn’t solve a problem, prevent a bad thing from happening, or bring us to peace with others. And it’s deeply unnatural. As we evolved, our ancestors probably experienced more physical but less mental fatigue than most people today in the developed nations. Consequently, our bodies are adapted to weariness – but our minds are not. For a brief time – finals week, an intense month at work, a demanding year with a new baby – OK, sometimes we just have to crank the mind up into overdrive and tough it out. But as a way of life, it’s nuts.

We have to take a stand against the crazy mental busyness that has become the new normal. We’re bombarded with things to think about all day long, flooded with words and images to process, and forced to juggle unprecedented complexities. Our minds are being hauled along behind a culture without a speed limit – but the human body and brain does have a limit, a natural carrying capacity, and when we exceed it there’s always a price. It’s like being trapped in rush hour your whole life. Each time you know this, each time you pull out of the mental traffic, it’s an act of freedom and kindness and wisdom.

And then when you reenter the stream of thought, you’ll be a lot a clearer, happier, and more effective.

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Meditation hindrances and how to work with them

Buddha statue overlooking mountains in Himachal Pradesh

I remember my first weekend retreat at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in the summer of 1993. I took the weekend “off” from family and work obligations to learn how to meditate and take an Introduction to Buddhism class. My first meditation experience in the Meditation Hall at Aryaloka was blissful – even the outdoor birdsong quieted and the stillness was palpable.

During that first meditation class, I was excited to learn the list of hindrances to meditation: sensual desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and anxiety and skeptical doubt. I could relate to that list because I experienced those hindrances off the cushion too, to varying degrees, and regularly.

Having the list of hindrances was helpful because when I mediated and watched the antics of my mind, I had a way of working in meditation to move beyond them… sometimes.

The hindrances distract our minds with mundane thoughts that can, and often do, become obsessive. If we are obsessing about mundane issues, we are distracted from our spiritual work and spiritual progress.

Let’s explore the hindrances:

1. Sensual desire (kamacchanda)

Our meditations often reveal what we desire and crave. We sit down to meditate, to still the mind and find calm and tranquility and we start thinking about a person we are attracted to, or the aroma of the bread baking in the oven in our kitchen, or the concert we have tickets for – you know what’s on your list.

When we compulsively crave sensual pleasures (sex, food etc.) we are alienated from the depth of the here and now and from those people, places, thoughts and activities that are in the present moment. So there is nothing wrong with sensual pleasure, but when it becomes compulsive we distract ourselves from being present to the moment, being present to our lives.

When we become aware of  sensual desire we can bring our awareness back to the focus of the meditation. We can look at what we desire and see through our projections and unrealistic expectations. We can look at what discomfort might be beneath the compulsive desire. For instance, when we are distracted by thinking about someone we are attracted to, we may be distracting ourselves from looking at something that is troubling us in our relationships, or disappointment in not achieving a goal, or something we are concerned about. We might ask ourselves “What am I distracting myself from?”

Guarding the doors of the senses is a way of working with sense desire. This involves recognizing what situations, images and thoughts create sensual desire and avoiding them. For instance, when on a retreat or when meditating in a group, avoiding conversations just before the meditation.

2. Ill-will (byapada)

Ill will, or aversion, like sensual desire, obstructs our ability to be mindful and free and alienates us from kindness. We feel constricted and reactive rather than open-hearted and expansive.

Ill will can be sparked by:

  • remembering what we heard a friend say about us that was hurtful
  • going over an angry interchange with a relative
  • wishing we had something that someone else has (a material possession, a relationship, confidence, teaching ability etc.).

We can work with this hindrance by questioning the ill will, noticing the effects on our bodies, how it affects our energy and what it might be covering up such as frustrated ambition, fear, embarrassment or protection from feeling disappointment.

When we are aware of ill will, being attentive to it and stopping ourselves from fanning its flames will help it to dissolve and build confidence in our ability to be present and mindful.

When working with ill will, I realized I have sometimes reacted to someone or a situation, and come to see that the ill will was centered in my own story line or way of interpreting someone’s action or comment. Working with ill will offers the opportunity to have compassion toward myself and other people.

Practicing and cultivating loving kindness, empathy, equanimity and meditating on karma are good antidotes for ill will.

3. Sloth and torpor (thina-middha)

Sloth is a lack of energy and alertness to keep interested in the focus of meditation. We feel drowsy and sleepy and it feels as though our vitality and effort are limited.

Torpor is a lack of mental energy. The mind is dull or easily drifts in thought. This hindrance may be a result of discouragement, frustration, boredom, indifference, hopelessness or resistance.

Sloth and torpor may be overcome by consciously arousing more energy by walking meditation; sitting up with a more erect, energized posture; opening the eyes; washing the face with cool water; opening a window or bringing curiosity and finding interest in the object of meditation.

Bringing curiosity to why we are feeling sloth and torpor, understanding how particular thoughts, beliefs, and evaluations feed into the hindrance can be helpful.

Being mindful of what we eat before meditation and how what we eat affects our energy in meditation, reflection on impermanence and the importance of practicing here and now, reflecting on a dharmic topic that inspires us are all ways to work with this hindrance.

4. Restlessness and worry, anxiety or remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca)

This hindrance manifests as being unable to settle and concentrate due to a physical feeling of wanting to move the body and is accompanied by memories and thoughts about things we are worried about or feel remorseful for.

We may feel agitated and restless, unsettled and uncomfortable. It takes courage, patience and discipline to stay with discomfort and explore our thoughts and actions to understand what triggers them (frustrated desire, pent-up aversion, fear and resentment, or dissatisfaction).

I have found reflection, writing in a journal and talking with spiritual friends helpful in working with this hindrance. Walking meditation, yoga and exercise are also helpful when dealing with restlessness and worry; and confession is beneficial when dealing with regret and remorse.

Remembering how it feels to be still and calm may help. Remembering to consciously breathe or focusing on the ongoing rhythm of breathing, can calm the body. The more attention that is given to breathing, the less attention is available to fuel the restlessness or worry.

Strong opinions about what is or is not supposed to be happening, judgments of what is “good and bad” seldom lead to calm. Attachment to a self-image can be agitating. It can be liberating to realize that we don’t have to believe every thought we have.

5. Skeptical doubt (vicikiccha)

This hindrance manifests as uncertainty about meditation (“Does meditation really work?”) and in one’s ability (“I’m not good at meditating.”) and culminates in a lack of confidence.

Some doubt inspires action and the impulse to understand, encourages deeper investigation and can be healthy.

Doubt that hinders meditation is a doubt in the practice, in the Dharmic teachings, in one’s teachers, and/or in oneself. When doubt involves uncertainty about the practice or the teachings, it is helpful to study and reflect on the Dharma itself.

Questioning deeply held beliefs, attending to unresolved feelings, challenging ingrained convictions about self-identity, remembering something that inspires us in the practice (such as a teaching, a person, or some experience you have had in the practice) can all help to dissipate doubt.

Working with the hindrances can help us to answer the following queries:

  • Where do I put my attention?
  • What thoughts and actions cause my mind to fixate its attention on what I want or don’t want?
  • How can I apply mindfulness rather than allowing this mental activity to continue?
  • How can I work with this impulse of preoccupation and obsessive thinking?
  • How can I bring curiosity and exploration, understanding, kindness and non-reactivity to my meditation practice?

Working with the hindrances can strengthen our faith, our firm conviction in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and remind us of why we meditate and practice ethics and how much we value our practice.

Faith gladdens the heart, clears away the hindrances and breathes life into our efforts to continue our path to freedom.

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Six ways to deal with anger

man standing in front of a bonfire, his silhouette surrounded by flames

I don’t know if anger, rage, and frustration are getting more common, but it certainly seems like they are.

As we find ourselves snarled in impossibly heavy traffic, overloaded with life’s complexities, dealing with technology that we think should work but sometimes doesn’t, and struggling to survive in a precarious and heartless economic system, it seems a lot of people live with hot coals of irritability burning inside them, and that these hot coals have more than ample opportunity to burst into the flames of anger, or to erupt as emotional explosions of rage.

Techniques from meditation can help us to damp down the flames of our ill will.

1. Stop, drop, and love

If you find yourself caught up in resentment and anger toward someone, the simple solution is just to stop whatever you’re doing and to start cultivating metta. This definitely works. In my own practice I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve gone from being irritated with someone to feeling appreciative of them — sometimes in the space of just a few minutes — when I’ve cultivated lovingkindness toward them. Many times, of course, the ill will is more entrenched, and the best I’ve been able to do is to soften the anger a little. But even that’s progress.

You can do this when you’re walking, talking, or driving. Just introduce a current of well-wishing: may you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering.

If anger arises in meditation, switch over to cultivating metta. Sometimes people think they “shouldn’t” stop the practice they’re doing, based perhaps on a desire to avoid the restlessness that comes from chopping and changing practices. And while changing practices just because your mind is flighty isn’t a good idea, in the case of anger arising, just let go of any notion that you “should” continue with the meditation you’ve been doing. Anger can be a very destructive emotion, and it’s wise to treat is as an emergency situation. So switch to cultivating lovingkindness.

This doesn’t necessarily mean doing the full five-stage metta bhavana practice. If you’re annoyed with someone, you can just call them to mind and wish them well. You can keep doing this for as long as necessary. You may find that after a few minutes you can return to the practice you were doing, or you may end up working on developing lovingkindness for the rest of the sit.

2. Adjust your attitude

The way we’re looking at the world can set us up for experiences of ill will. For example, when we’re expecting perfection, we’ll get frustrated, because perfection doesn’t exist. Most people who are habitually angry have something like this going on. We often expect perfection from ourselves, from others, and from our technology, which, when you think about it, is both unreasonable and a recipe for misery.

So you can look at your attitudes, and see if you’re inadvertently creating the conditions for irritability to arise. It’s useful to think in terms of accessing qualities playfulness and humor, which you can do via imagery or a memory of having those qualities.

2. Accentuate the positive

Also along the lines of how our views condition our emotions, when we’re angry with someone we generally focus only on their faults. If you remind yourself of positive things about the person you’re angry with, this helps undercut your irritation with them.

It can also be helpful to remind yourself that you have faults as well.

4. Guard the gates

Exposing ourselves to unpleasant stimuli also sets us up for experiences of ill will. Hanging out in internet forums where there’s a lot of negativity, or watching a lot of outraged discussion on television may make you more prone to ill will.

The Buddha called this practice “guarding the gates of the senses.” He compared it to posting guards at the gates of a great city. If you want a peaceful city, then keep vagabonds and ruffians out.

This reminds me of the computer programmers’ saying, “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” which means that if you put in nonsensical data, then your computer will output nonsensical data. In this case, it’s our minds that are the computers. We need to be aware of the fact that certain forms of input lead to the output of angry emotions. If you want to reduce the output of anger, then cut back on the input of anger-generating stimuli.

5. Summon a Super Hero

Superman or Batman won’t swoop down to save you from your anger, but calling to mind a patient friend can help you to act with greater forbearance. One of the problems we face is with having a limited menu of behavioral options to choose from. When you’re prone to anger, it’s because anger is just so damned easy to use as a tool. You’re in a frustrating situation, you reach into your behavioral toolbox, and anger leaps into your hand.

Thinking of how someone who is patient and kind might act actually enlarges the range of tools open to you, so that you don’t fly off the handle. A while back I read about an interesting study where some students were asked to think about a professor before taking an exam. Those students who thought about the professor actually performed better on the quiz!

6. Practice self-compassion

This last technique is the one I find to be the most powerful of all. When you get angry, you’re actually reacting to a sensation of discomfort. There are stages involved in getting angry. First we see, hear, think, or otherwise perceive something. Then our mind categorizes the perception as wrong, bad, threatening, or otherwise unacceptable. This produces an unpleasant feeling, which is often centered in the solar plexus. And that unpleasant feeling acts as a signal, triggering a response of anger. The anger itself is designed to scare away the thing we identify as being the threat to our well-being. This works great if you’re a alpha wolf who’s facing a rival for pack supremacy. Snarl just the right way and your rival will slink off, chastened. It works less well in intimate family relationships or at work, where anger creates bad feelings and resentment, or when you’re frustrated with a slow website, where anger accomplishes nothing useful at all.

The “gut feeling” part of this process is something we often don’t pay attention to, although we should. Our anger, frustration, or rage arises so quickly that we’re immediately caught up in angry thoughts and emotions, and usually we don’t really acknowledge that we’re in pain.

But I’ve found that if I pay attention to the fact that I’m in experiencing discomfort, then the whole superstructure of angry thinking and angry emotions simply collapses. The whole point of anger is to defend you from feelings of pain by removing their source (the angry wolf snarls at its rival, and the rival backs down). But if you mindfully and compassionately pay attention to your discomfort, then there’s no need to get angry. The pain is being dealt with creatively.

Having paid attention mindfully and compassionately to my discomfort, I find not only that my anger subsides entirely, but that I often feel compassion to anyone who may have done something I felt annoyed by — like my children clamoring for my attention when I’m busy, or a driver who’s cut me off.

As I pay attention to them, the embers of hurt remind me that just as I suffer and want to find happiness, so others suffer and want to find happiness. I find that the slow burn of hurt, while it lasts, becomes fuel for kindness, rather than for anger.

Anger is nothing more than a strategy for finding happiness in the midst of a challenging world, but it’s not a very effective strategy. Mindfulness and compassion work much, much better.

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Waking up from the hindrance of sloth and torpor

Sleepy dog

Have you noticed that half the time when you ask people how they are, they answer with “tired”? We all seem to be tired, and when we sit down to meditate we may find that we nod off or sit there in a rather dreamy and unfocused state.

This is sloth and torpor — one of the states of distraction that we call the Five Hindrances. The schema of the Five Hindrances is a diagnostic tool that, combined with traditional “antidotes,” can help us to engage creatively with our experience in order to become more joyful, calm, and focused.

Most of the specific antidotes to the hindrances that I’m learned have been shared by other practitioners, or come from the commentarial tradition, but sloth and torpor is one of the rare hindrances where detailed instructions have been preserved in the original scriptures.

In talking with one of his chief disciples, Moggallana, the Buddha gave a list of suggestions for dealing with tiredness:

“Whatever perception you have in mind when drowsiness descends on you, don’t attend to that perception, don’t pursue it. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

One of the main applications of this is that when you’re tired, you shouldn’t focus on sensations low in the body. Rather than paying attention to the movements of the abdomen, which will further encourage sleepiness, you should notice sensations that are higher up in the body, like the sensations of the breathing in the upper chest and head.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then recall to your awareness the Dhamma as you have heard & memorized it, re-examine it & ponder it over in your mind. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

Reflect on the Dhamma — the Buddhist teachings — helps to focus the mind, preventing it from drifting aimlessly. Also, the reminder of a “higher purpose” may have the effect of inspiring us and of arousing our energy and enthusiasm. You can run through a list such as the Four Noble Truths, of the Five Precepts, or the Eightfold Path, and give yourself an inner Dharma talk. You can even imagine that you’re explaining the teachings to a friend. A lot of people don’t have these lists memorized, which is a shame, and I’d highly recommend the practice of committing these teachings to memory. The effort really pays off in terms of mental clarity.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then repeat aloud in detail the Dhamma as you have heard & memorized it. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

So, this is the same advice, but here we’re talking out loud, which is further going to prevent us from falling asleep. For obvious reasons this method isn’t very appropriate when you’re meditating with others.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then pull both your earlobes and rub your limbs with your hands. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

So now we move on to physical stimulation, which gets the blood flowing, and which encourages the release of endorphins. The most useful form of stimulation I’ve found is yoga stretches — particularly when we stretch the hamstrings or hip muscles.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then get up from your seat and, after washing your eyes out with water, look around in all directions and upward to the major stars & constellations. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

Water in the face gives us a creative shock to the system.

This suggestion also takes us more in the direction of paying attention to light, which is the next piece of advice we’ll hear. Also the suggestion of raising the head to look up is significant. When we’re tired, we look down and the chin drops. When this happens, a chain reaction is kicked off: our experience is visually darker, our breathing shifts to the abdomen, and the center of our awareness typically moves downward in the body. All of these things heighten our sense of sleepiness. These effects can be noticeable with even a tiny movement downward of the chin. Raising the chin can cause mental stimulation.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then attend to the perception of light, resolve on the perception of daytime, [dwelling] by night as by day, and by day as by night. By means of an awareness thus open & unhampered, develop a brightened mind. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

If you have candles on your altar, then you can open your eyes and look at a candle. You can visualize light. You can imagine that you’re looking at a bright light. Or, if you relax and just notice your field of awareness, you may notice that some parts of your experience are brighter than others. You can pay attention to those in order to keep yourself alert. This can actually be a meditation in its own right.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then — percipient of what lies in front & behind — set a distance to meditate walking back & forth, your senses inwardly immersed, your mind not straying outwards. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

It’s hard to fall asleep while doing walking meditation.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then — reclining on your right side — take up the lion’s posture, one foot placed on top of the other, mindful, alert, with your mind set on getting up. As soon as you wake up, get up quickly, with the thought, ‘I won’t stay indulging in the pleasure of lying down, the pleasure of reclining, the pleasure of drowsiness.’ That is how you should train yourself.

Finally, the Buddha recognized that sometimes you just need to take a nap! The strategies above can help combat and even overcome tiredness, but in the end you’re fighting your physiology, and your physiological needs are going to triumph.

There are other techniques for dealing with the hindrance of sloth and torpor, but the Buddha’s advice to Moggallana is still very relevant and useful.

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Saying adios to doubt

In traditional Buddhist teaching, doubt is a hindrance to progress. Now the English word doubt can also mean something positive. It can refer to the kind of skeptical inquiry upon which rational thought, science, and even true spiritual practice are based. But the hindrance of doubt is not a helpful thing. While healthy skepticism is an essential part of a search for truth, the hindrance of doubt (vicikiccha) is an avoidance or even denial of the truth.

Doubt is a form of storytelling. It’s the lies we tell ourselves. So when we hit an obstacle and tell ourselves “I can’t do this” or “this is a stupid task anyway,” that’s doubt. When we tell ourselves “this always happens,” that’s doubt. When we’re feeling depressed and hopeless and think that things will never change, that’s doubt.

The root of the word vicikiccha is cikicchati, a verb meaning “reflecting, thinking over.” That sounds like a good thing, right? But then we add the prefix “vi-“ and we go from “thinking” to something more like “over-thinking,” or ruminating. That’s not so helpful. Doubt is a kind of cognitive distortion: an inability to see what’s really going on, and an inability to recognize our own potential.

When we’re in a state of doubt, we profoundly limit ourselves. We believe the stories we tell ourselves, and so we end up stuck. We lose touch with our memories and experience of change and growth and competence.

If we’re hit by doubt while writing, we say “I can’t write,” and forget about all the times that our writing has come fluently. (Writer’s block is a classic form of doubt).

When doubt hits us and we tell ourselves “nobody likes me, I’m always alone,” we don’t recognize or value the connections we have with others. We forget about all the friendships we’ve had in the past, or currently have.

We can become so invested in the doubt that we’ll concoct all kinds of stories to explain away evidence that contradicts our narrative of hopelessness. If someone says “Yes, but I love you and care for you” we might tell ourselves “they’re only saying that to make me feel better” or think that if they like us their friendship can’t be worth much. Isn’t it crazy?

So how can we deal with doubt? Here are a few tips:

1. Link unhappiness and inner enquiry

First we have to recognize that what we’re experiencing is doubt. And that’s not easy. We live inside a web of stories, and rarely question our interpretation of reality, assuming that our interpretation is reality. So here’s a suggestion: when you’re not feeling happy, take a look at what your mind is doing to cause your unhappiness. We feel down, and we check to see what thought-patterns and emotional habits are making us miserable. This healthy skepticism becomes a habit. Once this habit becomes established, it’s harder to stay in a state of doubt.

2. Don’t believe everything you think

We need then to question the thought patterns that are presenting themselves to us, and look for more creative responses. So if we find ourselves saying “This isn’t fair — life sucks” we can remind ourselves that life has ups and downs, and that just as the ups are impermanent, so are the downs. If we’re telling ourselves that we can’t write, and that everything that comes from our pen is trite, we can remind ourselves that that’s what editing’s for, or remind ourselves of past successes.

3. But don’t judge your doubt

It’s tempting to say “Oh, heck, I’m experiencing doubt. How stupid of me. I’m always doing that. I’m a terrible person.” Hey, wait a minute. Isn’t that just more doubt? Yup, unfortunately doubt has a way of hijacking the mind, so that recognizing doubt is just another excuse to experience more doubt.

So we also have to train ourselves to be nonjudgmental about our doubt. Doubt is just one of these things that happens. It’s no big deal. Just note the thoughts and let them go.

4. Give your doubt a name

Jack Kornfield suggeste that we give our inner critic a name. We can then listen to our doubts and then say, “OK, Betty. I’ll get back to you on that.”

It’s a great idea.

5. Align your spine

When we feel low, we actually physically get low, by slumping. When we slump we can’t breathe properly, and the brain runs at low efficiency, keeping us in a state of doubt.

So sit up! Upen your chest. And as we say in Britain, “Keep your pecker up.” (That always gets a smile from my American friends. Honestly, it means the same as “keep your chin up.”)

6. Connect with Awakening

Sometimes we can reach out to, and surrender to, our own potential Buddhahood. I often find the phrase, “All beings are, from the very beginning, Buddhas,” going through my head. It’s a way of reminding myself of my potential. Another way of doing the same thing is to call to mind a Buddha or Bodhisattava, like Tara or Avalokiteshvara. Surrendering ourselves to these figures (who are simply embodiments of our potential) is a way of embracing change — and change, fundamentally, is what doubt tries to deny. Doubt and an awareness of change cannot long coexist, and so calling our potential to mind is a way of saying “adios” to doubt.

7. Reflect

The traditional way to dispel doubt is to reflect on the Dharma (the path and teachings that help us reach enlightenment). I’ve always thought “Oh, yeah, right!” when it comes to the effectiveness of this kind of reflection. But a few weeks ago I was sleep-deprived and feeling low, and I found myself reflecting that all things arise from conditions (the traditional teaching of pratitya-samutpada, or conditioned co-arising) and found that within seconds, almost, my doubt was gone.

So the tips above constitute a kind of toolbox for dealing with doubt. They’ve worked for me, and I hope they work for you.

Do you have any tips of your own that you’d like to share? If so, take a moment to comment below.

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How to get into jhāna (or dhyāna, if you prefer Sanskrit)

Circle of sky seen through a round skylight. The skylight is surrounded by radiating wooden beams.

I’d like to offer you a simple, four-step approach to cultivating jhāna. With a little practice and refinement, this approach makes it much easier to access first jhāna. And since the way to the remaining three jhānas is through the first one, it’ll help you access jhāna more generally, although I have to say that most people need to have a fair amount of one level of absorption because they can go any deeper.

But hang on! I haven’t explained what jhāna is!

What Is Jhāna? (Or What Is Dhyāna, If You Prefer Sanskrit)

Sometimes in meditation we find ourselves effortlessly absorbed in our direct experience — that is, not in thinking (which is always thinking about experience), but in the reality of observing our sensory experience itself. There’s a definite shift into a stable and more enjoyable state of being.

When this state of absorption arises, our distracted thoughts are nowhere to be seen. The mind is calm. We feel alive and vital. We’re deeply happy. And this is a stable experience, not a momentary one. We stay like that, effortlessly, for quite some time. It might be that we feel that the meditation session isn’t long enough. We want to continue!

This experience is jhāna (Sanskrit: dhyāna). It’s a word that just means “meditation” or “absorption,” and it arises when the five hindrances of ill will, sense desire, restlessness and anxiety, sloth and torpor, and doubt have been dispelled. The turbulent emotions and random thoughts that normally fill our consciousness are gone, and we find that the mind is naturally joyful and focused.

There are four levels of jhāna, each one deeper, quieter, and more fulfilling than the one preceding it. Collectively they constitute sammā samādhi, or right concentration in the eightfold path.

Some Buddhist schools place little emphasis on the jhānas. Some teachers dismiss them altogether as non-Buddhist. Some teachers have even said that they’re dangerous distractions from the spiritual path, because we’ll supposedly get “attached” to the pleasure they bring. But any objective look at the earliest Buddhist teachings shows that in the early Buddhist tradition they were regarded as tremendously important, and as indispensable for enlightenment. The Buddha’s enlightenment happened immediately after he realized that jhāna was the path to liberation, and that he shouldn’t be afraid of the joy and pleasure it brought.

If we’re serious about freeing ourselves and others from suffering, we should become serious about deepening our experience of jhāna.

Distraction is common, real absorption is rare

A lot of the time in meditation we set off to follow the sensations of the breathing, but after some time we come to realize that we haven’t been paying attention to the breath at all. We realize that we’ve been caught up in some inner drama, or that we’ve been turning over thoughts in the mind. What were we thinking about, exactly? Often it’s hard to say. Our distractions are not only relentless, but they’re dream-like, and as we “awaken” into a more mindful state they often slip away from us, as our do dreams when we wake in the morning. We commit ourselves once more to mindfully observing our experience, but we get distracted again. The cycle continues.

But once in a while there comes, as I’ve described, that definite shift in the quality of our experience. There’s a change of gear.  Like a blessing, a natural joy and ease arrive.  A lot of people only ever experience this on a meditation retreat, doing a lot of practice. Even then, it can seem like a random visitation. For some it’ll happen off of retreat as well, but again it seems to strike randomly.

There are some people who have an aptitude for jhāna. They find that it arises easily. But often they can’t explain how it happens, or their explanations might not be helpful. Sometimes the best person to explain something to you is someone who has struggled to learn it, rather than someone who never had any difficulties and who therefore doesn’t know how to address them.

Jhāna Can Be Cultivated Systematically

I suggest that the main reason jhāna is so rare and seems to strike at random is that very few people are taught anything specific about how to set up the conditions for absorption to arise. Most people are not taught that jhāna arises from a set of skills and attitudes. And they’re not taught in a systematic way what those skills and attitudes are. All they’re taught is to meditate, and to a lot of it.

So (with some honorable exceptions) teachings around jhāna are often not very practical. They don’t give you a step-by-step guide. Most times when you encounter teachings on jhāna, they basically just repeat information from a sixth century practice manual by a monk called Buddhaghosa, who was a scholar and who probably never actually meditated himself. They often simply enumerate the “jhāna factors.” I call this form of teaching “warmed-over Buddhaghosa.” (It doesn’t help that Buddhaghosa doesn’t even get the jhāna factors right.)

So how can we be systematic about cultivating these deeper, stable states of meditative absorption? How can we move beyond having jhāna as an experience we sometimes stumble into accidentally, and make it more of a regular occurrence in our meditation?

Four Progressive Stages

Getting into jhāna is easier than you might think. I’m going to outline an approach that I’ve found to be useful in cultivating jhāna. I’m going to explain it in four progressive stages, and tell you about the skills involved in each of the stages.

The four progressive stages are:

  1. Calming the mind (cultivating calmness)
  2. Opening to the body’s aliveness (cultivating pīti)
  3. Enjoying present-moment awareness (cultivating joy)
  4. Bringing it all together (allowing calmness, aliveness, and joy to form a self-sustaining feedback loop)

Before we begin, I’m assuming that outside of your meditation practice you have trained yourself to be reasonably ethical. After all, you meditate with the same mind that you carry around in the rest of your life. If you’re running around all day being critical and angry, for example, then you’re unlikely to experience much joy in your meditation. So sort that out first.

My approach is based on an adaptation of the traditional list of jhāna factors that’s found in the suttas (early Buddhist scriptures). This is different from the list that Buddhaghosa describes.

Buddhaghosa described five jhana factors, but in the suttas (the Buddha’s discourses) we find that there are just four.

The Four Jhāna Factors

Quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful (mental) states, one enters and remains in the first jhāna, with 1) aliveness (pīti) and 2) happiness (sukha) born of seclusion, accompanied by 3) initial and 4) sustained thinking. This is the first jhāna.

Again, in the discourses there are four factors enumerated for first jhāna. A thousand years later, Buddhaghosa lists five, the extra one being one-pointedness. That’s not in the original teachings, and it turns out that Buddhaghosa’s view is unhelpful.

Here’s an explanation of the four factors.

First, there’s pīti, which is often translated as “rapture,” but which is better thought of as physical pleasure and energy. Pīti can manifest as a feeling of ease, warmth, and relaxation, as localized tingling, or as currents of energy flowing in the body. In everyday life, pīti is experienced when we’re startled, or when we listen to arousing music, or when we’re relaxing (e.g. when we’re having a massage). I call this aliveness.

The second factor is sukha. This is joy. While pīti is physical, sukha is emotional. It’s the emotion that arises when we’re free from the distractions and turbulence of the hindrances, and when the mind is undisturbed by the world around us. Joy is something we’ve all experienced outside of meditation, and probably in it as well..

The third and fourth jhāna factors are vitakka and vicāra, which are both forms of thought. In the first of the four jhānas, there is still some thinking going on. This is not “monkey-mind,” with our attention leaping from one thought to another on a whim, like a monkey swinging from branch to branch. You can’t experience both forms of thinking at the same time, so really there’s just one factor: thinking. But it’s not just any old thinking that goes on in jhāna. It’s different from the normal inner talk that we do so much of the time.

Thinking That Helps; Thinking That Doesn’t

Most of our thinking, including in meditation, is monkey-mind thinking. Monkey-mind thinking takes us away from our direct experience of the body, feelings, and mind. It inhibits us from becoming absorbed.

But we can also have thoughts in meditation that are helpful. At the very least they don’t take us away from our direct experience, but often they help us stay with our experience, and can even enhance our connection with our direct experience.

Vitakka is “initial thought,” and it’s when a thought simply pops — or is dropped — into the mind but doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t start off a train of random thoughts. Initial thoughts may pop into the mind, as when we think “Gosh, this meditation is going well” and we simply leave the thought there without pursuing it. Or we may introduce an initial thought into meditation, as when we drop in the words “May all beings be well” and simply notice what happens.

Vicāra is “sustained thought.” It is a mindful, connected train of thoughts. If we count our breaths in the mindfulness of breathing practice, this is a form of sustained thought — a series of connected thoughts.

One important thing to note about initial and sustained thought is first, that they’re the kind of thinking we can only do when the mind is calm. Otherwise monkey mind steps in.

Another important thing is that they are often forms of thinking that direct our attention toward our experience. To give you an example, let’s say you connect with your breathing, and with the out-breathing in particular. And then on every out-breath, or every other out-breath, you drop in the words, “Releasing, resting, revealing” — one word on an out-breath. And you keep on doing this for a while.

If you do this attentively, then the word “releasing” directs your attention toward the sensations of relaxation and letting go that take place as you exhale. “Resting” directs your attention toward the fact that the body is coming to rest as you breathe out, and that the mind too is calming and coming to rest. And “revealing” helps you appreciate whatever is arising, including pleasant sensations of energy and aliveness that arise as the body relaxes and the mind calms.

Do you see how this kind of self-talk can help you connect more deeply with your experience, as opposed to the normal monkey-mind drivel that hijacks our attention? This is thought, consciously applied as a tool to direct your attention toward your experience, and to help it stay there.

Anyway, those are the four jhāna factors that the Buddha taught. They’re the factors of first jhāna, which is the start of deeper absorption. Let’s just take first jhāna as our goal.

My method involves taking the four traditional jhāna factors not just as signs that we’ve arrived, but as things to be cultivated. There’s just one slight twist, which involves the thinking factors — vitakka and vicāra. First, we lump them together. Second, we’re not so much cultivating thinking (although we can certain do that by employing useful, helpful thinking). It’s more that we cultivate calmness. The two jhāna factors that are forms of thought only happen when the mind is calm.

So here’s the practical stuff.

1. First, Calm the Mind

In my approach to cultivating jhāna, I start with developing the calmness that supports initial and sustained thought. So the first thing we have to do is to calm the mind.

“Wait,” you might be thinking. “Calming the mind is hard!”

Actually, it’s not as hard as you might think.

There are many ways to radically calm the mind. Two key principles are “soft eyes” and “using thought to quiet thought.”

Soft Eyes

The most important thing to begin with is to let the eyes be soft, which means relaxing the muscles around the eyes, and letting the focus within the eyes be soft, so that the eyes are slightly unfocused. With the eyes slightly unfocused, you’ll notice that you can be aware of your entire visual field, effortlessly. You no longer focus narrowly. Your attention is more relaxed, open, and receptive.

Having soft eyes helps us with two things. First, it instantly calms the mind, so that the amount of thinking we do is drastically reduced. Second, it triggers a more open mode of inner attention. Often in meditation, people use their inner attention like a flashlight, narrowly focusing their attention. on just a few sensations With the eyes soft, our attention becomes more like a candle or an oil lamp. It’s less directional. It’s more open. You find you can effortlessly observe sensations arising all over the body, so that you are aware of the breathing in the entire body.

This is nothing like the idea of “one-pointedness” that we pick up from Buddhaghosa. Remember, he says that that’s a jhāna factor, although it isn’t.

Being aware of the whole body is very different from what most people do in their meditation. Typically, with their flashlight of inner attention, most meditators focus on one small part of the breathing, where there are just a few sensations. The mind gets bored with this very quickly, because it seems that not much is going on. Actually, a lot is going on, but you’re excluding it.

It’s much more effective instead to observe the breathing in the entire body. When we’re aware of the whole body breathing, there’s a lot for us to pay attention to. Our experience is rich, and this allows the mind to be fascinated. And that fascination and the mind being full of an awareness sensations leads to yet more calmness to arise.

You can read more about the practice of soft eyes in the flashlight and the candle.

Using Thought to Quiet Thought

We can even use initial and sustained thought (vittaka and vicāra) to help calm the mind. We introduce thinking that quiets thinking. I gave an example above when I talked about, “Releasing, resting, revealing.” We can also say (on different breaths), “Soft eyes, kind eyes, open field of attention, meeting everything with kindness.” In each case the words direct us toward our immediate experience, guiding us toward calmness, to the point where we can drop the words.

As the mind quiets, our thoughts can even act as mindfulness bells, calling us back to a more open and calm state of awareness.

2. Second, Connect With the Aliveness of the Body

As the mind calms, so do our emotions. Because we’re thinking less, we are stirring up less anxiety, aversion, self-doubt, and so on. Since those emotions cause physical tension, their disappearance leads to a sense of relaxation. In this way, as we become calmer and more at peace with ourselves the body begins to relax more deeply.

Moreover, we are observing the breathing in the entire body. We’re observing not just “the breath,” but “the breathing. The breath is the sensation of contact that air makes with the body as it flows through our airways. The breathing is much more than this. It is any and all sensation connected, however indirectly, with the process that causes air to flow in and out of the body. The breathing includes the breath, but it also includes sensations in the arms and hands, the legs and feet, in our hips and buttocks, in the shoulders, on the skin, amongst other things. The breathing involves the whole body.

Moreover, as we observe the breathing in the whole body we see that it takes the form of soft waves of movement and sensation sweeping through every joint, muscle, tissue, and organ in the body. We can sense a soft wave of letting go on the out-breathing. We can sense a soft wave of energizing on the in-breathing. We can sense the soft wave of the in-breathing turning into the soft wave of the out-breathing, and vice verse, in a constant process of change, moment by moment.

The aliveness of the body really begins to reveal itself if we’re observing not with a cold, clinical gaze, but with a warm, appreciative one. I call this combination of kindness and mindfulness, “kindfulness.” I often think of a technique that psychologists use to induce stress, which involves participants talking to an interview panel who show no approval or recognition, but who maintain strictly neutral facial expressions. This neutrality is perceived as hostile. I believe our bodies react in the same way. If we regard them neutrally, they are slow to relax. If we regard them with kindness, they respond positively. Love yourself, and your self will love you back. Observe the soft waves of the breathing with a kindly gaze, and you’ll start to feel all kinds of pleasurable tingling and energy.

This tingling energy may be located in certain sensitive parts of the body, like the hands, or it may flow with the breathing, or it may pervade the entire body. This “aliveness” is pīti, which some translators render as “rapture” or “joy.” I think “aliveness” is a much more down-to-earth and accurate term.

The fact that the body is giving rise to these fascinating and enjoyable sensations means that our attention is more likely to remain rooted in our present-moment experience. After all, it’s so rich, fascinating, and pleasant, why would be want to think about anything else? Well, we might at first get very excited by what’s going on, and start wondering if enlightenment is about to happen, and so on. But you get over that. On the whole, your mind is much more interested in the body than in thinking, and so the calmness you developed is consolidated further,

3.  Third, Develop Joy (Sukha) By Enjoying Your Experience

A certain kind of joy, pāmojja, often arises as the hindrances die away and the mind settles. Pāmojja is delight; joy; happiness. The way I understand pāmojja is that it’s the pleasurable relief we experience when something unpleasant ends. Think of when you get home from work, get into comfy clothes, and look forward to a restful evening. Ah! So nice!

Realizing that the hindrances have gone is a pleasant relief. We feel happy. Also nice! But this kind of joy is very conditional. It depends on something unpleasant having ended. That experience naturally fades away, and you can’t just repeat it over and over again. So we need to give rise to a different kind of joy: sukha.

  • Enjoy the aliveness of the body. Sukha (stable joy) can be encouraged simply by paying attention to the pleasurable aliveness of in the body, and by enjoying it. To en-joy means to give rise to joy. And we give rise to joy by recognizing what’s wholesome and by appreciating it.
  • Smile. We can also encourage the arising of joy by something as simple as smiling. Your mind takes smiling as a sign that all is well. Smiling creates joy. Smiling offers reassurance to your being, allowing it to relax.
  • Have kind eyes. Joy also arises from  lovingkindness. I talked earlier about having a kindly gaze. That attitude of self-kindness not only helps the body relax, but it helps gladden the mind.
  • Appreciate impermanence. Appreciating the present moment as something miraculous and unrepeatable is another factor that gives rise to joy. (There’s nothing like taking our experience for granted for killing joy). Appreciate that this moment you’re having will never return. You only have one shot at appreciating it, and then it’s gone. Adopt that attitude, and each moment becomes something precious and wonderful. And knowing that makes us happy.

The more we have the habits in our everyday lives of being kind and of being appreciative, the easier it is to bring those qualities in to our meditation.

In summary, to be joyful: appreciate aliveness and anything else that’s wholesome; smile; be kind; be appreciative; and recognize that your experience is a miracle.

One more thing that gives rise to joy: don’t try to give rise to joy. This sounds paradoxical, and in a way it is. If you try to be joyful, grasping often arises. So just focus on appreciating the present moment lovingly, and let joy take care of itself.

With a calm mind, pleasure and energy in the body, and a mind imbued with joy, jhāna begins to flow naturally. At this point we’re not simply observing the sensations of the breath, but noticing the breath accompanied by the experience of aliveness and joy.

Our awareness senses the whole body breathing. And our awareness if permeated by aliveness and joy, and so aliveness and joy permeate the entire body.

4. Fourth, Bringing It All Together

I call calmness, aliveness, and joy the “jhāna foundations” to distinguish them from the scriptural “jhāna factors.”

We’re in jhāna when calmness, aliveness, and joy are well-established. That is, the mind is stable enough that we’re able to stay with our meditation practice quite effortlessly, our experience of the body is pleasurable, and we’re happy. But this is only jhāna when it’s a stable experience.

Sometimes it’s not. It’s possible to have very brief experiences of the three foundations coming together. We might think jhāna has arrived, but a minute later it’s “de-cohered.” One of two of the jhāna foundations are still present, but the three aren’t all working together in a sustained way.

At any point in your meditation you can assess the balance of calmness, aliveness, and joy. (You can even give each factor a score out of ten.) If one or more of these factors is less developed than the others, you have a clear sense of what you need to be working on in order to bring jhāna about. Just look at the steps I recommend above under the headings for developing calmness, aliveness, and joy. Those are what you need to focus on in order to balance up the three jhāna foundations.

But what can really  help the three foundations of calmness, aliveness, and joy settle into a stable experience is finding a lightly held focal point that ties everything together. What I usually go for is the sensation at the rims of the nostrils.

Note that this isn’t one-pointed awareness. You’re not trying to focus exclusively on the nostrils. Instead, it’s a lightly held focal point in the midst of a wider context of a whole-body awareness of the breathing, including calm, aliveness, and joy.

Imagine you’re looking at the sun setting over the ocean. The sun is your lightly held focal point. But the lovely thing about the experience is how the light of the setting sun affects the sky, the ocean, and the other elements of the wider landscape. You’re not trying to focus exclusively on the sun. The sun ties everything together.

Similarly, the lightly held focal point of the rims of the nostrils — clear and vivid — ties together the experience of calm, aliveness, and joy as you observe the whole body breathing.

At this point, jhāna is more likely to become stable. The three foundations feed into and support each other. Calmness helps you to access the body. Your awareness of the body’s aliveness helps you to stay calm, because it absorbs the mind. Calmness is enjoyable — it releases joy. Joy helps the mind to stay calm, because the mind is happy and doesn’t have any need to go elsewhere. The body’s aliveness is enjoyable — it releases joy. Joy helps the body to relax, and so the body remains fully alive.

We have a series of interacting positive feedback loops, which is why this experience of calmness, aliveness, and joy becomes stable enough to last for twenty, forty minutes, or more. This is jhāna.

With this systematic approach, jhāna ceases to be an accident and becomes the natural consequence of your practice.

One More Thing

We’re back to paradox here.

At all times, let go of the idea of “attaining” jhāna. The idea of attaining it easily becomes grasping, and grasping destabilizes the mind and kills jhāna.

So we simply notice and enjoy each moment, and let it take us where it will. Do notice whether or not you seem to be moving in the direction of greater calmness, aliveness, and joy, but without having an “are we there yet attitude.” Yes, you are “there.” You’re in the only there that matters: the present moment as it unfolds beautifully to reveal what it contains. Just be present with the unfolding.

Take care of the present moment, and the present moment will take care of you.

The most direct route to jhāna is not to try to get into jhāna.

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Becoming doubtful of doubt

Some recent and ongoing research sheds light on how the experience of depression arises, and also squares with the Buddhist teaching on the hindrance of doubt (vicikicchā).

Buddhist meditation traditions speak of five hindrances to meditation. No, this isn’t things like throbbing knees or the neighbor playing his stereo too loud. The hindrances are five mental states or activities that “hijack” the mind and make it hard, if not impossible, for us to stay focused in meditation. The central one of these hindrances is doubt.

In English we use the word doubt to mean many things. We can talk about doubt in terms of a willingness to question, and a desire to seek the truth without taking ideas on board too quickly. You might be skeptical, for example, that there are in fact five hindrances to meditation, and want to know more about them. You might want to test out in your experience whether this model is valid and useful. And those are very useful responses. That’s part of the meaning of the English word doubt, but in Pali, the word vicikicchā is much more specific. It refers to a lack of confidence and clarity.

Doubt as a hindrance involves, on an emotional level, a collapse in trust. We lack confidence in ourselves, or we lack confidence in the practice we’re doing, or we lack confidence in others and in whether they have anything to offer us. At its mildest doubt can simply be a form of disgruntlement, disengagement, or confusion, but at its most severe it can be a crushing burden of depression.

Doubt has a more cognitive aspect as well. Accompanying the confused, critical, and sometimes depressed emotions are various kinds of disordered thinking. For example, we may be having a hard time with a task we’re working on — whether it’s meditation or something at work — and we generalize this into statements about ourselves (“I can’t do this … I’m not getting anywhere”) or about the task (“Meditation is stupid … this is pointless”) or about the world generally (“This isn’t fair … life sucks”).

Part of the cognitive distortion is that we’re temporarily unable to remember any counter-examples — times that we succeeded and when the task went well, and times when we experienced obstacles and difficulties and overcame them. We think of ourselves as trapped, and stuck, and can’t imagine any creative way out of our situation. The hindrance of doubt hijacks the mind — both our emotions and our thoughts — and leaves us feeling trapped.

The other day I was talking to a meditation student who is writing a novel, and he talked about the difficulty of actually finishing his writing. Being on the verge of completing a project, or being on the verge of a breakthrough, can often trigger doubt. Say the book isn’t popular; how are we going to deal with that? Say it is popular; we’re then faced with the problem of adjusting to a new self-view, and the dread of having other people’s expectations of future success to live up to. Sometimes it seems best just to delay completion.

The research I mentioned earlier, which is described in a New York Times article, illuminates the connection between the emotional aspect of doubt (at its most extreme, depression) and the cognitive.

People were given words, like “rejection” or “loved” and were asked to come up with one specific memory connected with the word. The word specific here meant an event that lasted less than one day.

For “rejected,” one participant answered, “A few weeks ago, I had a meeting with my boss, and my ideas were rejected.” Another said, “My brothers are always talking about going on holiday without me.”

The second answer was wrong — it is not specific, and it refers to something that took place on several occasions.

You can see how the second response is a generalization. It’s highly unlikely that the brothers in question were literally “always” talking about going on holiday without the participant who wrote that comment. Sometimes people will take one or two examples that happened on specific occasions, and generalize them into an “always.” Sometimes counter-examples will be ignored: the time the writer was invited to go on vacation with his or her brothers but wasn’t able to go, or chose not to go for some reason. Sometimes the generalization in these cases is built on a misunderstanding: the intent wasn’t to exclude, perhaps, but the joint holiday was based on an activity that the brothers shared (like rock-climbing) and that the writer didn’t. With doubt, all the nuance gets squeezed out of the experience, and we’re left with a tight, hard statement of hopelessness expressing doubt in the brothers (“they don’t care about me”) and oneself (“I’m not likable enough to be invited”) and even the world (“Nobody likes me”).

These over-general memories seem to be connected with the arising of depression and related conditions:

Scientists at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, assessed 46 firefighters during their initial training and again four years later, when all had experienced traumatic events like seeing comrades injured or killed. Those who could not recall the past in specific detail during the first assessment were much likelier to have developed the disorder by the later one.

Interestingly, Dr. Mark Williams, who is well-known for his research into how meditation can help with depression, has

induced an overgeneral style in subjects by coaching them to recall types of events (“when I drive to work”) rather than specific occasions (“when I drove to work last Saturday”). He found they were suddenly less able to solve problems, suggesting that overgeneral memory is capable of producing one symptom of depression.

Doubt is treatable. My advice to students when doubt arises in meditation is first to deal with their posture. When we’re feeling depressed the body usually slumps and the head drops, and this posture reinforces the feelings of depression. When we straighten up the body it’s harder to feel depressed. Remembering how the body feels when we’re full of confidence can help us change our posture and empower us by bringing confidence into our present-moment experience.

The next thing I advise is to cultivate a healthy distrust of our own stories. Just because we think something doesn’t mean it’s true. If we recognize the signs of vicikicchā — in the form of over-generalized thoughts and stories that disempower us — we can step back from them and not take them so seriously. Jack Kornfield has suggested giving this inner doubter a name. When you hear the nagging voice of doubt you can say something like “Thanks for your input, Betty. I’ll get back to you on that.”

I also suggest seeking a more balanced perspective by seeking the truth. “My brothers are always planning to go on vacation without me.” Really? How often? Twice? Three times? Is that really “always.” Is it a bad thing if they don’t invite me on a climbing trip given that I don’t climb? Have I ever invited them to go away with me? We need to be doubtful of our doubt.

“Meditation just doesn’t work?” Wait, is that true? Are there counter-examples? Well, I guess there are actually lots of times I’ve been on retreat and felt amazing afterward…

I’d expect that this research on depression and over-generalizing will end up by recognizing that depression is just the extreme end of a spectrum of doubt that starts with a mild lack of confidence, and that patterns of over-general thinking are the mechanism that get us from feeling just a bit “down” to a full-blown depressive attitude.

There’s good news in the article regarding how to circumvent this slide:

Williams has found that specificity can be increased with training in mindfulness, a form of meditation increasingly popular in combating some types of depression. Subjects are taught to focus on moment-to-moment experiences and to accept their negative thoughts rather than trying to avoid them. It may help by making people more tolerant of negative memories and short-circuit the impulse to escape them, which can lead to overgenerality.

We’re also told that:

Spanish researchers have reported that aging patients showed fewer symptoms of depression and hopelessness after they practiced techniques for retrieving detailed memories.

This is good news for depression sufferers, but it also shows other people how to maintain robust mental health: be specific in your recollections so that you don’t “talk yourself” into a depressed state of mind.

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The Guardian newspaper’s guide to meditation

Last weekend the British Guardian newspaper published a guide to meditation. Here are extracts, as well as links to the full articles…

1. How to meditate: An introduction

Rates of depression and anxiety are rising in the modern world. Andrew Oswald, a professor at Warwick University who studies wellbeing, recently told me that mental health indicators nearly always point down. “Things are not going completely well in western society,” he said. Proposed remedies are numerous. And one that is garnering growing attention is meditation, and mindfulness meditation in particular.

The aim is simple: to pay attention – be “mindful”. Typically, a teacher will ask you to sit upright, in an alert position. Then, they will encourage you to focus on something straightforward, like the in- and out-flow of breath. The aim is to nurture a curiosity about these sensations – not to explain them, but to know them. There are other techniques as well. Walking meditation is one, when you pay attention to the soles of your feet. That too carries a symbolic resonance: if breath is to do with life, feet are a focus for being grounded in reality.

Read the rest of this article…

It’s a way of concentrating on the here and now, thereby becoming more aware of how the here and now is affecting you. It doesn’t aim directly at the dispersal of stresses and strains. In fact, it is very hard to develop the concentration necessary to follow your breath, even for a few seconds. What you see is your mind racing from this memory to that moment. But that’s the trick: to observe, and to learn to change the way you relate to the inner maelstrom. Therein lies the route to better mental health.

Mindfulness, then, is not about ecstatic states, as if the marks of success are oceanic experiences or yogic flying. It’s mostly pretty humdrum. Moreover, it is not a fast track to blissful happiness. It can, in fact, be quite unsettling, as works with painful experiences, to understand them better and thereby get to the root of problems.

Research into the benefits of mindfulness seems to support its claims. People prone to depression, say, are less likely to have depressive episodes if they practice meditation. Stress goes down. But it’s more like going on a journey than taking a pill. Though meditation techniques can be learned quickly, it’s no instant remedy and requires discipline. That said, many who attend lessons or go on retreats find immediate benefits – which is not so surprising, given that in a world of no stillness, even a little calm goes a long way.

Part of the appeal of mindfulness is that it doesn’t come loaded with theological assumptions. You can do it without being a Buddhist, though Buddhist assumptions do underpin it. The most obvious is the concept of dukkha – which can be translated as suffering, dissatisfaction or discontent. It’s meant in a very broad sense, everything from deep psychological wounding to the faintest perturbations that trouble daily life. The Buddha’s discovery, when he was enlightened, was that life is characterised by such suffering. But there is a path to follow, along which suffering will cease. Meditation is a key part of it. Mindfulness eases the habit of clinging to things, even big things like life itself. When the clinging ceases, the suffering ceases too.

Other traditions take a subtly different view. Christianity, for example, teaches that the fundamental characteristic of life is not suffering, but the quest for love. It’s what Saint Augustine had in mind when he diagnosed that to be human is to have a “restless heart”. He argued that the restlessness propels you to discover the source of life, which lies outside of yourself, in God.

A secular take on suffering might see things differently again – as a kind of alert system, telling you that something is wrong with the world. The way to respond is not to detach yourself, but to address the causes. It’s this notion of easing suffering that inspires everyone from doctors to political reformers.

Buddhism has strands that engage in social action too. As for seeking God, there are many non-Buddhist theists who practice mindfulness as a useful technique. This supports the case that you don’t have to be a Buddhist to engage in mindfulness, particularly when it is offered as a practice aimed at caring for yourself. Then, it’s about knowing yourself better, something recognised as a crucial part of living well across a wide range of traditions. It’s striking that today we often don’t take the time to do so. Hence, perhaps, many of the ills of the western world.

But mindfulness says: make the time to step back, and here’s a way to do it. It encourages you to be more aware of life, and promises that mindfulness is a source of insight and hope.

Mark Vernon is the author of The Good Life (Hodder); markvernon.com

 

2. How to meditate: Overcoming potential obstacles

Everyone who learns to meditate encounters obstacles. Here are some of the most common ones and a few tips on how to deal with them

Feeling bored

Everyone gets bored meditating at some time or another – hardly surprising given our busy, adrenaline-filled lives. The main thing is to see boredom for what it is. If you get too caught up in it, it’s easy to lose interest in meditating. But if you use the meditation to explore the boredom and find out what’s really going on, things will start to get interesting again.

Feeling sleepy

We’re all a bit tired on some level – no wonder it’s so easy to drift off when you meditate. That’s fine, but make sure you’ve got your timer set to wake you up! If it happens a lot, try a different time of day, or sit up a little straighter.

Feeling scared

The mind can be a dark and scary place sometimes. Sitting down with difficult thoughts and feelings can sometimes feel too much to cope with. But as long as all that stuff remains unacknowledged, it just sits there in the background. Allowing it to come to the surface is the first part of letting go of it and moving on.

Read the rest of this article…

Feeling unsure

“Is this technique working? Am I doing it right? Maybe I should just …” Doubt inevitably creeps in sometimes. What often happens though is that we buy into the doubt. We forget that no matter what the thoughts are, they are just thoughts. The point is to realise when you’ve been distracted – no matter what the content of the thoughts – and to gently return your attention to the object of meditation.

Feeling restless

You’ll be relieved to know pretty much everyone feels restless at first. Usually this is because there’s a bit too much effort going into trying to be still. If you need to adjust your posture or have a scratch, feel free, but try not to move around too much, as it’s hard for the mind to settle.

Feeling sad

The idea of meditation is to settle into a deep, fundamental sense of “okayness”. But you’re not doing something wrong if you’re not jumping out of your skin with glee. Sadness is a natural human emotion and it is not uncommon to shed a tear while meditating. In fact there is almost something pleasant about it – perhaps a feeling of letting go of something.

Feeling lonely

This constant distraction of “stuff to do” often stops us seeing how we really feel. When you stop and meditate – even for just a short while – it can come to the surface. A feeling of loneliness is one of the most common, even when we’re not alone. Just give it the space it needs and observe it: where do you feel it, what is the sensation?

Feeling angry

Call it impatience, frustration, irritation or even rage, it’s all the same thing really – just at different intensities. Anger isn’t a very positive emotion, so it tends to get suppressed – but the more firmly we push it down, the more insistently it springs back up. So, as much as possible, allow anger to be present. Give it the space and time it needs to unravel and dissipate.

Feeling desire

Much like anger, desire comes in many different forms. It can be anything from that quiet nagging voice in the back of your mind, to a screaming “I must have it now” mentality, for anything, or, for that matter, anyone. Remember that desire is the mind attempting to flee the here and now. But as long as we are on the run from that, we’ll never have any peace. So, just let desire have its moment in the sun, but without acting on it.

 

3. How to meditate: The three parts of meditation

There are three traditional aspects to meditation: approach, practice and integration. Andy Puddicombe of Headspace breaks it down…

Approach

Approach is about how you view both the contents of your mind and the technique. Get this right and your meditation will fly; get it wrong and it could seem like an endless struggle.

It’s difficult not to expect the perfect result first time around – that’s just how we seem to be programmed these days. But the reality is that meditation takes a little practice – like learning any new skill.

First, accept that your mind isn’t going to stop whirring just because you want it to – and that’s not the point, anyway. The point is to develop a new relationship with your thoughts and feelings that allows positive feelings to simply unfold.

It’s easy to be sceptical too – “of course it won’t work for me”. When it’s done in the right way, meditation works for everyone. If you’re cynical, fine – but do try it anyway. Wouldn’t it be nice to be wrong about this?

Read the rest of this article…

Aside from unrealistic expectations, the biggest obstacle for most people is trying too hard. This is one place in your life where you truly don’t have to strive. In fact, applying loads of effort is counterproductive. You’re free to just see what happens – isn’t that a relief?

Practice

Practice is the bit you probably already think of as meditation, the part where you sit down and concentrate on a technique. You will find our practical, proven technique on the following pages.

Integration

Integration is where you incorporate the calm and clarity you develop during your meditation with the rest of your life. So, what does it mean to be present and in the moment? If you can do it sitting on a chair, then why not when eating your food, or drinking a cup of tea, or even walking down the street?

It doesn’t mean walking down the street with your eyes closed. It simply means bringing the same feeling of being present, focused and aware of the act of walking down the road.

So, rather than daydreaming about the holiday you’d love or the new health regime you’re about to start, be present and aware, noticing the physical sensations, the sounds, the smells and the sights around you.

When you have a moment during your day, stop to check in with how you’re feeling, physically, emotionally, and mentally. It’s like drawing a dot-to-dot picture. By filling your day with these small points of awareness, you effortlessly create a joined-up (in this case, calmer, more peaceful, and more focused) bigger picture.

 

4. Meditation centres around the UK

Amaravati Buddhist Monastery

A fully functioning Thai-style monastic community in Cheshire. A good choice if you want an authentic Buddhist experience with a genuine temple.

amaravati.org

Be Mindful

A campaign run by the Mental Health Foundation to allow people to experience the health benefits of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Courses nationwide. Completely secular and science-based.

bemindful.co.uk

Dhamma Dipa Vipassana Meditation Centre

Rigorous 10-day meditation courses in Hereford, based on Burmese Buddhism. Courses are run on a donation-only basis.

01989 730234; dipa.dhamma.org

Dhanakosa Centre

This converted farm in the Scottish Highlands offers a range of activities including meditation, yoga, hill walking, alternative health and arts. Buddhist but open to all.

01877 384213; dhanakosa.com

Read the rest of this article…

Gaia House A range of courses and long–term retreats in Newton Abbot, Devon. Simple, Buddhist but not religious.

gaiahouse.co.uk

Headspace Runs one-day introductory events on meditation worldwide, with extensive online support.

020-7744 5232; getsomeheadspace.com

London Insight Meditation

Mini retreats held at various locations in London for people with busy lives.

londoninsight.org

London Meditation

Teaches mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy (MCBT) which combines CBT with meditation. Courses held in Camden Town.

020-7424 9027; london-meditation.co.uk

Maenllwyld Retreat Centre

Silent retreats at this Chinese Zen centre in rural Wales. Facilities are basic, but tasty, organic, vegetarian food is provided.

westernchanfellowship.org

Meditation Foundation

Evidence-based, secular system endorsed by the Department of Health. Main centre in Wales, with courses nationwide.

meditationfoundation.org

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

This clinically tested, completely secular system was founded by a psychiatrist. Courses in Covent Garden, London.

mbsr.co.uk

Samye Ling

A magnificent “Little Tibet” in rural Scotland. All are welcome for a range of classes. Expect chanting and robes.

01387 373232; samyeling.org

Sharpham Trust

A Devon-based centre devoted to Buddhist meditation, the arts and natural living.

01803 732542; sharphamtrust.org

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