goals

Why it’s important to meditate every day

Buddha meditating

I used to envy people who were able to meditate every day, because it was something I struggled with. Certain people just didn’t have a problem with meditating daily, but I found it hard.

I’d have successful runs of a few weeks, and then I’d end up not meditating one day. And that perceived failure led to me missing more days, on the dubious assumption that if I couldn’t do something perfectly there was no point even trying.

Eventually I did manage to become one of the people I used to envy, able to meditate every day. I’ve shared how I achieved that here in this blog and also in a course I created, called “Get Your Sit Together.”

Also see:

But you may wonder, why even try to meditate every day? You may experience benefits from sporadic meditation and not see the importance of becoming what I call a “rock-solid daily meditator.”

So I’d like to share some of the reasons I think it’s important.

Putting First Things First

Meditation is one of the most important things I do in my life. It changes everything. The mindfulness that I develop, the kindness that I develop in my meditation practice, the insights that I have from my practice, all change my life in many, many ways that make me happier and also make me a better person to be around.

And that for me is a very important motivation. I want to be a better person to be around and have a more positive influence on people around about me and not to be an asshole because that can happen.

The things that squeezed meditation out of my schedule were always less important in the great scheme of things. Spending time on social media, or watching TV, or working are just not important enough that we should allow them to stop us meditating regularly. No one on their death bed is going to think, “I’m glad I spent so much time at the office,” or “Looking back, I’m most proud of binge-watching Supernatural.”

Even things like family and intimate relationships shouldn’t get in the way. I’m not saying those things are unimportant. They’re very important. But the quality of those human relationships is going to be better if we have a regular meditation practice. Meditation gives us an opportunity to be better human beings: better parents, better partners, better friends and mentors. So it’s worth taking time out for practice.

Going Deeper In Our Practice

If we practice anything regularly, with the conscious intent to get better at it, then we’re more likely to see progress. It doesn’t matter whether that’s tennis, or cooking, or meditation. If we’re prepared to learn from what doesn’t work so well and what works better, then we’ll see progress. And seeing progress is encouraging.

My meditation practice doesn’t get steadily deeper and deeper. It’s more like a long, winding path with highs and lows. But on the whole it’s more inclined to be creative and enjoyable and transformative if I’m doing it regularly.

Experiencing the Benefits of Practice.

Meditation has lots of benefits.  It has social benefits, emotional benefits, and health benefits. Consistency allows us to experience those benefits more consistently. We’ll be healthier and happier if we keep our practice regular.

It’s just like if you only went to the gym or a yoga class once in a while rather than having a regular schedule; you’ll see some benefits, but not as much as you could.

Not Letting Fear Rule Your Life.

In the days when I found myself unable to motivate myself to meditate and got caught up in other things, it was often about avoidance of feelings. There was often some kind of restlessness or dissatisfaction within myself and I did not want to sit down and face that.

So there was fear involved in avoiding meditation.

Now, I don’t want my life to be dominated by fear. I don’t want my life to be manipulated by my fears. I feel good when I overcome my fears, when I face them squarely and overcome them. I feel more in control of my life. I feel more fearless.

Feeling Better About Yourself

When you see yourself as the kind of person who can’t meditate every day, you don’t feel good about yourself. It seems that other people have will-power, and you don’t. You’re lacking.

It turns out that will-power isn’t what we need in order to meditate every day. It’s about intelligently using strategies to make it easier to sit than to do something else. It literally can get to the point where it feels unthinkable to miss a day. You probably feel that way about brushing your teeth. if it can feel that way for that activity, it can be that way for meditation as well.

And once you do manage to sit every day, you feel good about yourself. You shed that view of being “lacking” and defective. You feel strong and confident.

Instead of believing you’re the kind of person who can’t meditate every day, you know that you do meditate every day. It’s just what you do. It’s part of who you are.

I feel good when I’m meditating every day. I feel good being faithful to my practice. I feel good being faithful to myself, being faithful to my intention to keep practicing.

So those are some of the reasons why I find it helpful to meditate every day. And I enjoy sharing with others how to bring that about.

Read More

Made a New Year’s resolution to meditate daily? Here’s how to make it happen

Illustration of a New Year's resolution list, with one item on it: "Quit making New Year's resolutions."

It’s early January, and many people who made New Year’s resolutions are already going “Oops!” as they realize they’ve already missed a morning at the gym, binged on something unhealthy, or forgotten to meditate.

It’s very hard to change habits.

The habit I’m most interested in is daily meditation, which is something I nailed a long time ago. Mostly my interest is in helping other people to establish that habit. It’s something I struggled with for many years, until finally I had a breakthrough. I’ve shared that breakthrough with many people, and it’s helped them too.

The breakthrough doesn’t consist of just one thing. In fact the breakthrough involves recognizing that there is no one thing that will get you to the point where you’re what I call a Rock-Solid Daily Meditator. What we need is to build up an interlocking suite of tools and strategies that support daily meditation.

Also see:

None of those tools and strategies relies on willpower. In fact, willpower is fairly useless. One study showed that a six-week training course in self-control failed to help participants to change any habits whatsoever in their lives. Even worse, participants noted that the main side-effect of the training was that they felt emotionally drained. Researchers have also found that people who are good at resisting temptations are those who don’t feel tempted in the first place, meaning that they don’t even need self-control. For example, those who apparently have good self-control tend to avoid putting themselves into positions where they need to resist temptation. Rather than walk past the donut shop and end up battling themselves, they simply walk down a different street. They put the alarm clock on the other side of the room so that they aren’t tempted to stay in bed.

The theory behind willpower is that you can change a habit based on wanting it to change. If you can just wish it hard enough, then it will be so.

The Buddha offered a hilarious illustration of the absurdity of this proposition:

Suppose a man were to throw a large boulder into a deep lake of water, and a great crowd of people, gathering and congregating, would pray, praise, and circumambulate with their hands palm-to-palm over the heart [saying,] ‘Rise up, O boulder! Come floating up, O boulder! Come float to the shore, O boulder!’ What do you think: would that boulder — because of the prayers, praise, and circumambulation of that great crowd of people — rise up, come floating up, or come float to the shore?

Well, I think it’s hilarious!

What the Buddha points out is that if you want something to happen, it’s not enough just to want it. You have to do the things that support that thing happening.

So here are some of the key points that I teach people who want to meditate daily.

Set easily attainable goals

You go to a meditation class and do 30- or 40-minute meditations. And the teacher tells you that you should practice every day. So you try to fit a 30- or 40-minute meditation into your already busy lifestyle and find — surprise, surprise — that it’s hard to do this.

Yes, some people are able to carve out that amount of time each day for a new habit, but most people can’t. And it’s not because of a lack of willpower, any more than not being able to get your size 8 feet into a pair of size 6 shoes is because of a lack of willpower. You’re simply trying something that’s almost impossible.

So instead, aim to sit for just five minutes every day.

Yes, it’s not a lot of time. But that’s the point. Everyone has five minutes to spare every day. If you’re pressed, you can head to the bathroom at work and meditate in a stall. You can meditate for five minutes after you’ve finished reading your child to sleep. You can meditate in the car when you arrive at work, or meditate on the bus or train.

I’m not saying that five minutes is enough. Sure, it can be enough to bring about a little more calm, but it probably isn’t going to change your entire day.

But what it does do is to help you create and sustain a powerful habit. Because once you’re meditating for five minutes a day, you find that it’s not that hard to increase it to eight minutes, ten minutes, fifteen, twenty … and now you’re doing something that really can change your whole day, and even your whole life.

Hack the meaning of the word “day”

A day, for the purposes of meditating daily, is not the 24 hours between one midnight and the next (a “clock day”), but is the time between waking and going back to sleep again (an “organic day”).

This gets us around the problem of going to bed after midnight and realizing that you haven’t sat yet. If you’re counting by clock days, you’re screwed. If you’re on organic days, you can pull off a quick five minute sit and you’re still on track.

Plan

All the above is vital, but even more vital is that you actually do need to have the intention to meditate daily. I don’t mean simply having a vague thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if I meditated every day, instead of just every now and then.” I mean “It would be good to meditate every day; how can I make that happen?”

So we’re back to doing the things that support the habit of daily meditation, rather than trying to “wish” it into existence.

To meditate daily requires planning. Planning makes manifest your intention. It takes the idea or desire, and brings it into the world as an actual thing.

So you need to plan. When are you going to meditate? For how long? How are you going to time it? Are you going to use a guided meditation? Are you going to do it with someone, even if they’re not physically present with you, but instead you’re on a Zoom call or phone call with them?

If you don’t plan, but hope that you’ll somehow fit your five minutes in sometime, you’ll fail. You’ll forget. You’ve don’t have even a wish at that point, never mind an intention.

Beware of the inner voice that says, “I don’t like planning. I want to be spontaneous!” That’s the part of you that doesn’t want to meditate speaking. It wants you to spontaneously do something other than meditate.

So be clear in your planning.

Plan again

Planning is great. But there’s a saying along the lines of “You make plans, and the universe laughs.”

Events are going to crop up that get in the way of your meditation. You’ve decided to sit before you leave for work, and one of your kids gets sick, or there’s a work emergency that means you have to leave early, or your alarm doesn’t go off, or someone knocks on the door asking you to support some cause or other. The permutations are endless.

Research shows that people who have a Plan B are vastly more likely to stick at their habits. They anticipate what they will do if Plan A is frustrated. They have a backup plan that’s just as specific as Plan A was.

One implication of this is that if your Plan A is to meditate just before going to sleep, then you can’t have a plan B. So that tells you that planning to meditate last thing at night is okay as a standby in emergencies, but it’s not good for a regular practice.

Hack your sense of self

Once you have a few consecutive days of meditation under your belt, you can bring on the most powerful strategy I know of for supporting a daily meditation practice. It’s a simple mantra, to be repeated frequently:

“I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am.”

What this does is change your sense of who you are.

If you’ve tried and failed to set up a daily meditation practice before, you build into your sense of self the idea, “I am the kind of person who can’t keep up a daily meditation practice. I lack the willpower.”

This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe you can’t meditate daily, you won’t. You’ll hit one of those times when you don’t really feel like meditating, and because you think of yourself as someone who can’t meditate every day and doesn’t meditate every day, you’ll cave and end up missing a sit.

When you repeatedly say “I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am,” this too becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You hit the same crisis point where you really don’t feel like meditating, but you say to yourself, “Snap out of it! I meditate every day. It’s just what I do.” And you sit.

It’s this tool more than any other that’s kept me meditating daily. And I know that some of my students have found themselves meditating for several thousand straight days as a result.

But prepare for slip-ups

I felt terrible the first time that I missed a day after many months of meditating consistently. I felt like I’d failed. Like I should give up.

With me it was the result of being very busy with work and having two young kids to take care of. I was so frazzled that I forgot to create a Plan B, went to bed without even realizing I hadn’t sat, and work up the next morning feeling the way I would if I’d accidentally driven over a beloved pet.

Fortunately I pulled myself together and kept going, although I know others haven’t.

I think of missing a day as a slip-up, not a failure.

I think of missing a day as an opportunity to learn. Have I been forgetting my mantra? Have I forgotten to plan? To have a Plan B? If a day were to come up again that was as crazy as that one, how would I do things differently?

Other strategies

I have a ton more strategies, but I can’t cram them into one already very long blog post.

If you want to learn more, I have a Get Your Sit Together online course running at present, which you’re free to join. I also have a four-week live Get Your Sit Together course through the New York Insight Meditation Center coming up (it’s on Zoom), and you can register for that through their website. Both of these include community support, and if I’d had time to write about one more strategy above, it would have been the power of friendship and community.

Read More

“It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.” Antoine de Saint Exupéry

“It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.”
Antoine de Saint Exupéry

When he wrote these words the legendary aviator and author of the children’s classic, The Little Prince, was talking about the evolution of flying machines, but they apply equally to meditation.

One of the traditional terms for meditation is “bhāvanā” which means “cultivation,” “producing,” or “developing.” We use that term when we talk about lovingkindness meditation, for example: mettā bhāvanā. And this can give us the impression that meditation is something we do. But essentially meditation is about not doing. It’s about letting go of all effort that interferes with our well-being and that hinders our being in harmony with ourselves and others.

Where we’re headed in meditation — our “goal” if you want to use that language — is a state of natural ease and awareness. Resting in natural ease and awareness is not something you can “do.” It’s something that emerges as we let go of unnecessary effort. By way of an everyday analogy, sometimes when we’re tense we unconsciously make a fist. The muscles in our hands tighten, and so our hands ball up. Tightening your muscles is doing something. It’s an example of unnecessary effort. What we call “relaxing” isn’t doing something. It happens when we cease to do something that isn’t necessary and isn’t helpful. When our hand is not doing anything it is naturally open and relaxed.

Meditation involves ceasing to do things that aren’t necessary or helpful. It’s about becoming naturally open and relaxed.

Every time we let go of distracted thinking and let our awareness settle down into the body, we’re letting go of unnecessary activity that makes us unhappy. That’s what distracted thinking is: unnecessary activity that makes us unhappy.

When we let go of unnecessary thinking, we start to become happier. Happiness isn’t something we do. It’s something that starts to happen naturally when we stop pummeling the nervous system with thoughts of worrying, wanting, disliking, and doubting. When the nervous system is at rest — when we’re at peace with ourselves — we feel happy and balanced.

We often talk in terms of “bringing our awareness back” to the breathing or to the body, but actually our awareness has never left the breathing or the body. Our nervous system doesn’t stop functioning when we’re not paying attention to something. So even if we aren’t consciously aware of the body or the breathing, nerves are still carrying sensations up to the brain. This is happening in every moment. We’re never really bringing our attention back anywhere: we’re simply letting go of focusing unnecessarily on something else. As soon as you start to let go of unnecessarily and unhelpfully focusing on your thinking, sensations from the body (which are always there) are noticed. Your attention brings itself back to the body, by no longer excluding it from conscious awareness.

As we spend more time in the body, pleasant feelings of relaxation and aliveness begin to emerge. Again, this isn’t something that we do. It’s something that simply arises as the body responds to being noticed, and as we stop flooding it with stress hormones.

I’m not making the argument that we shouldn’t ever do anything in meditation. For a long time it’s inevitable that we’re going to have a feeling we’re doing something. There are times we might want to direct our thoughts — for example when we’re cultivating compassion and we direct the mind toward suffering, or when we’re cultivating appreciation and turn the mind toward things that are good.

But the more there’s a quality of allowing, the more alive and vital our meditation practice is likely to be. Allowing brings with it openness and receptivity, and those things enrich our experience; sensations and connections we hadn’t noticed before become evident, and there’s a sense of joyful discovery. The more we think in terms of “doing,” the narrower our focus becomes. And this kills joy.

So I suggest that you think less in terms of doing and more in terms of letting go and allowing. Think less in terms of “meditating” and more in terms of simply sitting and allowing what is unnecessary and unhelpful to fall away, revealing joy, beauty, and presence. And as we allow this to continue, day after day, moment after moment, we let go of everything that diminishes our wellbeing, until there is nothing more to remove.

Read More

Four crucial things to consider if you have goals in your spiritual practice

man silhouetted in the fog

I see a lot of confusion about whether it’s OK to have goals in spiritual practice, and in meditation in particular. A lot of people think it’s wrong to have goals, and think of being goal-oriented as a peculiarly western phenomenon. I disagree on both counts.

The Buddha was supremely goal-oriented, and he encouraged us to be likewise. His last words were “Strive conscientiously.”

He opens one sutta with the words, “And how, monks, does a monk cultivate the heart’s release by loving-kindness? What is its goal, its excellence, its fruit and its outcome?” In a conversation with a monk he says “It’s good that you understand that I have taught the Dhamma with total liberation [parinibbana] through lack of clinging as its goal [attha], for I have taught the Dhamma with total liberation through lack of clinging as its goal.”

There’s a lot more like that! The Buddha taught us to have goals and to pursue them, so I don’t think this is a western phenomenon by any means.

The question is whether or not there are attitudes of grasping, aversion, or delusion involved in our desire to pursue goals.

With grasping we want to be there now!

With aversion we can’t stand being where we are now, or we’re angry with ourselves or our practice because we’re not where we want to be.

With delusion we think that we can achieve peace and calm by using means that destroy peace and calm—for example if we just try hard enough to change, or give ourselves a hard enough time, or just want to change enough—then it’ll happen. Or our goals may be unrealistic—setting a goal of having zero distractions in meditation is just not going to work. It’s like setting the goal of churning water in order to produce butter.

Approaching our practice through craving, aversion, or delusion make us unhappy. But we don’t have to relate to our practice in this way.

Here are four crucial things to consider if we want to relate healthily to goals:

  1. Are we able to accept where we currently are as we work toward our goals?
  2. Are we able to move toward our goals in a spirit of patience, kindness, and even playfulness?
  3. Are we able to have a goal without being disappointed that we’re not there yet?
  4. Are our goals realistic?

So if you’re cultivating lovingkindness, then (obviously, I think) you have a goal of becoming kinder. If you’re practicing mindfulness of breathing, then you have the goal of being mindful of the breathing, or you may even have very specific goals, such as staying with the experience of the breathing for ten full breaths. These things are fine, as long as we’re approaching them in the right way.

Of course it’s not possible for us to instantly banish craving, aversion, and delusion from our lives! This means that we’ll inevitably find that we do bring these things into the pursuit of our goals. And that’s something we just need to accept. That’s just where we are. That’s just where we’re starting from. Accepting that, we can let go of just a little of our grasping, a little of our aversion, a little of our delusion—and in this way make progress.

Read More

The bud dreaming the flower

Dream-like close-up of white rose, seen from above

Last weekend I taught meditation on a workshop along with another teacher who talked about the importance of goals as part of one’s spiritual path. This is something I often talked about in the past, although it hasn’t been a prominent part of my teaching recently. I think the last time I wrote about it was in my 2010 book, Living as a River.

My own presentation at the weekend was on mindfulness, appreciation, and gratitude: being in and valuing the present moment.

These two themes — having goals and appreciating the present moment — might seem contradictory, and it was interesting to explore how they’re actually not, but instead are (or can be) complementary.

One exercise I’ve done myself and which I recommend others to do is this: Imagine it’s 10 or 15 years in the future. You walk into a large room, and to your surprise it’s full of friends, relatives, colleagues, and members of your spiritual community. They’re all there for you. One by one people stand up and talk about you. They talk about the positive influence you’ve had on their lives. They rejoice in the qualities they admire in you. They celebrate your accomplishments.

See also:

I suggest to my meditation students that, having done this reflective exercise, they write down the main points of what they’ve heard.

What’s happening when you do this exercise is that you’re getting in touch with your deeper values and aspirations. It’s easier to do this than when you simply sit down and ask the question, “What are my values and aspirations,” because when you do that you’re speaking in your own voice—the voice of your everyday ego, riddled through with doubt, pride, and fear. In hearing others’ voices you bypass the ego and hear a more direct and unfiltered account of what you most value. In fact, what you hear from these “others” is often surprising!

I call this “The bud dreaming the flower.” The bud looks deeply into its nature and sees its own potential. This is the resolution of the apparent paradox of having goals and ideals (which inevitably involve the future) while being completely in the moment. When you do an exercise like the one I’ve suggested, you’re seeing yourself more truly than when you’re simply mindful of who you are right now. This is because “who you are right now” is not something static. It’s a process.

There is no being, only becoming.

You’re always changing. Who you currently are is only a snapshot of an ever-unfolding and ever-changing process. You’re an arrow in flight, completing the long arc from birth to death. Being aware of what’s arising for you right now is like taking a still photograph of one moment from the long curve of your life.

It seems as if a bud need do nothing in order to transform into the flower, but that’s because we don’t see the immense effort that goes into its growth. The bud’s growth is not conscious, however.

Our own growth will often not take place unless we consciously become aware of our potential, unless we consciously work at overcoming the fears and doubts that hold us back, and unless we consciously apply ourselves in our lives. This deeper form of mindfulness is called sampajañña, or “mindfulness of purpose.”

The bud, dreaming the flower, comes to know itself more fully. It comes to see itself not as a static “thing” but as an ever-unfolding process. It comes to see itself in terms of its potential. Having seen this potential, its life becomes more conscious. When decisions are made—whether large or small—they become tools for steering oneself toward our potential future self. Every action becomes, potentially at least, a small step toward the full flower of our potential.

This awareness of our potential is an important practice in Buddhism. It’s why Buddhists commonly chant the refuges and precepts before a period of practice, paying homage to our potential and to the practices that enable us to manifest it. It’s why Buddhists visualize Buddhas and bodhisattvas (this is called “Buddhanusati”), and chant mantras—these are ways, once again, to dream the flower, seeing our own potential enlightened selves.

Read More

How firmly should you pursue your intentions?

Man surfing

How firmly do you pursue your intentions? Neither too tight nor too loose a rein.

As with the balance of the capital city and the provinces, it’s worth considering what your tendencies are and if there is an imbalance. For example, some of us hold onto our goals to a fault (myself, ahem) going down with the ship – pull up! It’s a trap!! – while others give up way too soon or don’t take their own needs and wants seriously enough.

From the Buddhist perspective, the path that leads to the greatest well-being and goodness for oneself and others steers clear of over-striving on the one hand – clinging is, after all, the primary engine of suffering – yet is also guided by Right Intention and other wholesome aims.

Also see:

The importance of this side of the balance – of perseverance guided by goodness – is seen in one of my favorite phrases of the Buddha. Appearing in many places in the Pali Canon, indicating its importance, it describes worthy practitioners as “ardent, resolute, diligent, and mindful.” All these speak to a real dedication.

In my experience, more people err on the side of being flabby or fearful in their resolutions, and not enough of an ally to themselves, than err on the side of being obsessively driven toward important goals. And of course, within the same person, there may be goals that he or she is too lax about as well as goals that he or she is too obsessive about.

You could reflect on how you might come to better balance for yourself with regard to your strength of resolution. Consider both the goals you could be too driven about . . . . and the goals you could be too lax about.

Read More

Expressing your intentions

Canadian Geese Flying in V FormationOnce your intentions are clear, the next question is: How to express them?

There are many ways, including:

  • As thoughts in your mind
  • As an image
  • In writing
  • As a collage with words and images
  • Through physical expression, posture, movement, dance
  • As a sense of being

When you think intentions, you know them to yourself. Putting them in explicit words is usually helps create real clarity in your mind. Some intentions co-exist as equally vital, but many times it’s important to establish what your top priorities are. It’s kind of like filling a bucket: you want to get the big rocks in first, then the pebbles, and last the sand. Your most important aims are the big rocks, and if you take care of them, everything else usually works out just fine.

The nonverbal expression of intentions is through imagery. For all the emphasis in education and in our culture on language – certainly an important tool – it’s good to keep in mind that most of the brain, and most of our mental processes (especially unconscious ones) have nothing to do with language at all. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words, and pictures in your mind of your intentions – including both the path toward them and their fulfillment – are very, very valuable.

You can also write out your intentions, perhaps informally – as in a to-do list – or formally, as affirmations. These are complete sentences, positively stated, with the result already existing in the present. Like this: “I am healthy, happy, and whole.” “My family is full of love and harmony.” “I am completing my college education.” “My wife loves me.”

Collages are another powerful way to express your intentions. I have collages on the wall of my office at home that were made several years ago yet they still speak to me; I look at them, and know what I’m supposed to do.

Or you could move your body as an expression of your intention, letting it move through you as you walk or dance or whatever.

Last and definitely not least, you could get the feeling of the intention in your body, and rest in that sense of being. For example, if your intention is to be loving, rest in the sense of being loving. If it is to be highly focused and productive, get a sense of being that way, and then abide there. Be the goal you are aiming for.

Read More

Four ways to shake up your meditation practice

4 ways to shake up your meditation practiceLast month I wrote about how sometimes your meditation practice may seem to be going nowhere, and how that’s OK. It’s the “seems” that’s important, because sometimes you just can’t see the change that’s taking place, slowly and gradually, in your brain and mind. Connections can be growing, or strengthening in the brain, and you can be completely unaware of that until perhaps some tipping point is reached and you notice that you act differently, or feel differently, or see things differently.

But there are also times that you might want to shake things up. Here are four things you can do to stop your practice becoming stale.

Go deeper
You probably get habitual in your meditation. When you’re doing the mindfulness of breathing you probably pay attention to pretty much the same set of sensations every time, and call that “the breathing” or “the breath.” But we can shake that up and go deeper. Ask yourself, what is the breathing? Where do the sensations of “breathing” end and the sensations of “not-breathing” begin (that is, parts of the body that are not involved in breathing)? Elsewhere I’ve suggested ways to go deeper in that practice.

help support wildmind

If you benefit from my work, please consider supporting Wildmind. Click here to make a one-time or recurring donation.

Similarly in lovingkindness practice you probably get habitual. Maybe it works for you and you get a warm glow of kindness. But perhaps you need to look more closely at what you do, and what you allow into awareness and exclude from awareness. Perhaps there are parts of yourself you leave out (parts of your body you don’t pay attention to) or perhaps there are aspects of other people that you haven’t considered (it’s life-changing to realize that everyone is basically seeking happiness, and finding happiness elusive, for example). So you can look for parts of the body that you’ve ignored, and pay attention to the feelings that arise there. You can let a fuller awareness of others enter your mind by cultivating a sense of curiosity about them. Or maybe you’re busy doing the practice, but you don’t pay much attention to the feeling tone of how you do the practice. Can you soften? Become kinder? If you do, everything else will change.

Find your “cutting edge”
Right now I’m paying particular attention to the factors that give rise to jhāna, which is a deeply enjoyable and focused state of “flow” in meditation. I’m paying attention to cultivating the factors that lead to this flow state, and I’m paying attention to different transitions in my experience once the flow state is established. At other times I’ve really paid attention to the impermanence of each sensation, and really focused, moment by moment, on my constantly changing experience. I like to have a “cutting edge” in my practice, something I’m specifically working on.

What are you working on? Do you have any goals in meditation? Having goals doesn’t mean grasping after results, or rejecting your present experience. It simply means having a sense of the direction which you’re gently heading. For many people this is hard to understand, because they habitually grasp after attaining goals, but the apparent paradox of having goals yet being in the moment is worth exploring.

See the big picture
What’s your overall purpose in meditating? Is it to de-stress? Is it to be happier? Is it to be a better person so that you cause less suffering to others? Those are all excellent purposes, but they’re not enough. If you want to de-stress you’re trying to reduce suffering, and there is, according to the Buddhist tradition, an end-point where suffering is eliminated. If you want to be happier, there’s an ultimate state of peace that can be attained, which makes every other state of happiness look unsatisfactory in comparison. That state of peace, that end of suffering, is called bodhi, awakening, or enlightenment. If you want to cause less suffering to others … well, you get my point.

There’s no point grasping after awakening. If you grasp, you’ll just suffer more. But how about if you entered every meditation with the sense that you’re heading, ultimately, toward a radical shift in consciousness in which there is no grasping, no hatred — in which there’s deep peace, clarity, and compassion. And the attainment of this state may be, for all you know, just at the end of the next breath. Awakening has a habit of appearing unexpectedly. Often it’s come to people when they’ve been profoundly depressed, even suicidal. So see if you can have a sense that something mysterious and amazing is just a hair’s-breadth away. Let there be a sense of openness and wonder in your practice of meditation.

Do more
Sometimes you need to just do a lot more meditation. You need to get on retreat. This can be challenging, but that’s the point! If your meditation practice is a bit boring, you can probably handle that if you’re sitting for 30 minutes a day. But if you’re sitting for six hours? Or eight hours? You’ll probably get to the point fairly soon where you realize that you have to make a change. It’s either that or go crazy. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a breakthrough in your practice before you get to the stage of feeling like your head will explode (note: that has never actually happened to anyone in the entire 2,500 year history of Buddhist meditation), but sometimes you have to experience a crisis before you have that breakthrough. It’s tough to experience, but in the end it’s worth it.

Lastly, how do you know when you should just accept that your practice seems to be going nowhere, and when you should shake things up?

The things I’ve talked about above are things I think you’ve been doing all the time. I think if we all did these things — go for depth in our practice with an attitude of openness and curiosity; had a clear sense of something that we’re working on; keep in mind that enlightenment is what we’re working toward and that it may happen in any moment; and periodically do more intense periods of practice — then we wouldn’t have a sense of our meditation being stuck in a rut. Instead it would be a fresh and exciting thing to get on the cushion. So do these things first, and if you still feel stuck in a rut, then just be stuck. Accept your stuckness, and just keep doing the practice.

Read More

Find your own way

The human body has about 100 trillion cells (plus another ten quadrillion microscopic critters hitching a ride, most of them beneficial or harmless). Each one of your cells has aims – goals, in a sense – controlled by its DNA: cells conduct processes aimed at particular functions, like building bones or gobbling up harmful invaders. Cells also work together in larger and larger assemblies in pursuit of broader goals, such as the 100 billion neurons in your brain that run the nervous system, which as a whole is itself the master regulator of the body.

In effect, there are layers, hierarchies, of goals in the body – and a similar architecture of aims in the mind. For example, operating right now is the goal of moving your eyes over these words, which serves the goal of understanding them, which serves larger goals such as desires to learn new things, new skills, and to be truly happy.

In short, whether in the body or the mind, there is no life without goals. Trying to “transcend” goals is itself a goal. The only question is: Are your goals good ones? In other words, do they lead to happiness and benefits for you and others rather than suffering and harms?

To choose good goals we must balance the influences of the world and the murmurings of the heart. Some counsel from others is good; I wish I’d listened to my parents’ advice to start saving in my 20’s (rather than in my 50’s when I finally got around to it).

But often we get nudged, cowed, persuaded, bullied, seduced, enveloped, swept along, or otherwise drawn into values, priorities, gender or culture roles, perspectives on life, assumptions, addictions, career choices, marriages, spiritual practices or orientations, etc. etc. etc. that in ways large or small are not really, not deeply, right for us. And sometimes we are an active participant in this process. For example, it was a combination of external hype and internal laziness that led me to try to take a shortcut in my early 30’s with my training as a psychologist, which then cost me a couple years of effort to get back on the right path.

In effect, a thousand little threads tug at us this way and that, many of them originating from within, internalized voices and faces from the past and “shoulds” and “musts” from the present. When these threads pull you from your true course – the one that is authentic, at the intersection of your talents and joys and values, appropriate to your temperament and nature, and filled with heart – you end up feeling sidetracked, caught in a backwater, unfulfilled, unused, adrift, trapped, even alienated from your own life. Do you have any sense of this, yourself?

So it’s important to find your own way.

As a frame, know that you can follow your course while also fulfilling your responsibilities. With intention and practice, an inner freedom is available while being externally engaged. You make these responsibilities part of your course, an honorable expression of it, informed by it, an opportunity for growth in your own way.

Consider how you are not living your own life as much as you could. In relationships, do you make more room for the other person’s needs than your own? What aren’t you saying? Whose shoulds or plans or taboos are you living out? (Especially the ones from childhood.) How might you be conforming, even in subtle ways, to scripts or teachings or group-think or cultural programs?

When you get those other voices out of your head, what’s left that’s true? What silence might be speaking to you?

Take a look at parts of your life, such as family or career or a particular relationship. Have you drifted from your own truth in any of these situations? What specific course corrections could you make? What would help you stick with them?

Open to guidance outside the box. Draw on (for most people) the right side of your brain for images of your current path and where it could be better to go. Listen to your heart: What in your life is truly working for you that you could strengthen, and what is calling to you to lean more toward? Step out of your normal routine for an hour or longer: go for a long drive or walk, take a workshop, spend a day with a dear friend – and look at your life from a bird’s-eye view, with a sense of possibility and freedom: Alright, no praise or blame, but where to head from here?

The shift in course could be tiny. It could be simply a matter of adjusting an attitude, or spending 20 minutes a day in a new way. But extended forward over the rest of your life, and meanwhile knowing in your heart that it is true for you, will make all the difference in the world.

We make a life a minute at a time. In this minute, you can lean as much as possible toward your own true way.

As they say in Tibet, if you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.

Read More

Relax, you’ve arrived

We spend so much of our time trying to get somewhere.

Part of this comes from our biological nature. To survive, animals – including us – have to be goal-directed, leaning into the future.

It’s certainly healthy to pursue wholesome aims, like paying the rent on time, raising children well, healing old pain, or improving education.

But it’s also important to see how this focus on the future – on endless striving, on getting the next task done, on climbing the next mountain – can get confused and stressful.

It’s confused because the brain:

  • Overestimates both the pleasure of future gains and the pain of future losses. (This evolved to motivate our ancient ancestors to chase carrots hard and really dodge sticks.)
  • Makes the future seem like a real thing when in fact it doesn’t actually exist and never will. There is only now, forever and always.
  • Overlooks or minimizes the alrightness of this moment – including the many things already resolved or accomplished – in order to keep you looking for the next threat or opportunity. (For more on how the brain makes us stressed and fearful, see Buddha’s Brain.)

Further, this pursuit of the next thing is confused because the mind tends to transfer unfulfilled needs from childhood into the present, such as to be safe, worthy, attractive, successful, or loved. These longings often take on a life of their own – even after the original issues have been largely or even wholly resolved. Then we’re like the proverbial donkey trying to get a carrot held out in front of it on a pole: no matter how long we chase it, it’s always still ahead, never attained. For example, for years I pursued achievement due to underlying feelings of inadequacy; how many accomplishments does a person need to feel like a worthwhile person?

Besides being confused and confusing, striving is stressful. You’ve got to fire up, activating the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system and its related stress hormones. There’s a sense of pressure, of worry about a future that’s inherently uncertain, of entrapment on a neverending treadmill. There’s a lack of soothing and balance that would come from recognizing the truth of things:

You’ve actually already arrived.

How?

Recognize the simple fact that you got here, in this place, and now, in this moment. It may not be perfect. But think of the many things you have certainly done to come here. At a minimum, you survived high school! You’ve taken many steps, solved many problems, put many tasks and challenges behind you.

The word, “arrive,” comes from roots that mean “to reach the shore.” Once you land, of course, life is not over, since the next moment will be a new arrival. But sinking into the sense of having arrived, of having crossed the finish line of this moment, is calming, happy, and deserved. And knowing you’ve arrived, you now are more able to turn your attention toward being of true service to others.

To deepen the sense of arrival, help yourself relax into this moment. From time to time, you could softly say in your mind: arriving . . . arrived . . . arriving . . .

Draw on your body to strengthen this experience. Let each breath land in your awareness: arriving . . . arrived . . . arriving . . . Be aware of the bite landing in the mouth, the meal consumed, the body fed. As you walk, notice that, with each step, you have reached another place. Know that your hand has reached a cup, that the eye has received a sunset, that the smile of a friend has landed in your heart.

Consider old longings, old drives, that truly may be fulfilled, at least to a reasonable extent. (And if not fulfilled, maybe it’s time to let something go and move on.) Can you lighten up about these? Or can you accept that you have arrived at a place this moment that contains unfulfilled goals and unmet needs? It’s still an arrival. Plus it’s a “shore” that probably has many good things about it no matter what’s still undone.

In the deepest sense, reflect on the fact that each moment arrives complete in itself. Each wave lands on the shore of Now – complete in its own right.

Arriving . . . arrived . . . arriving . . . Arrived.

Read More
Menu

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Explore the benefits of becoming a supporter.

X