grasping

Try gentler, not harder

black and white image of a samurai warrior lunging with a sword

There’s an old story that goes something like this. A young man wants to learn to be an expert swordsman. So he travels far to seek out a famous teacher who lives in a remote place in the mountains. After much difficulty he tracks down the sword master and begs to be accepted as a student. To his joy, the master agrees to take him on.

“How long will it take for me to become as good a swordsman as you?” the student asks.

“Perhaps fifteen years,” replies the master.

The student is dismayed at this prospect. “How long if I try really hard?” he asks.

The master scratches his chin as he ponders, and then finally says, “I suppose, if you try really hard, it might take you … twenty years.”

The point of the story is that for some things, the harder you try, the more you get in your own way. Meditation is very much like that.

“Trying hard” inevitably involves an element of grasping. But meditation is about letting go of grasping. It’s about being, accepting, and opening up. Yes, within that context there can be a sense that we’re working in our meditation practice. But it’s important to establish a sense of openness, receptivity, and acceptance before we begin working, so that that work is not imbued with grasping but is instead more of matter of paying attention gently and kindly.

For me this all starts with the eyes.

The striving, grasping mind leads to a tight, narrow gaze. I imagine this is because striving requires us to focus narrowly on a single thing that we either want to have or want to avoid. When we narrowly focus our gaze we become physically tense, and the mind goes into overdrive. It’s not a pleasant way to exist.

Letting the eyes soften — letting the focus within the eyes be gentler and letting the muscles around the eyes relax — triggers a state of relaxation. This relaxed gaze is familiar to us from when we stare into space. That’s something we do when we feel safe and relaxed, and there’s no need to be hyper-aware of danger.

As soon as the eyes soften in this way the mind calms, our thoughts slow down, and the body begins to relax. The breathing slows and deepens.

This is what I always do when I start meditating.

One thing that happens when the eyes soften is that our gaze is no longer narrowly focused, and we’re able to take in the whole of our visual field. This happens quite naturally and effortlessly.

And this immediately translates to our inner field of attention being open and receptive, and able to take in the whole of the body (and other inner sensations) at once. This too happens naturally and effortlessly.

Now we can sense the movements of the breathing in the whole body, offering us a rich sensory experience that helps us remain in mindfulness.

So while we might start off thinking that we need to do a lot of work in order to calm the mind , we discover that all we have to do is let the eyes soften. And then it’s a question of letting our inner field of awareness connect with the body. And then with gentleness, kindness, and curiosity, we remain mindful of the whole body breathing. Often at this point our thoughts are few and far between. Mostly they arise and pass away without distracting us. And when our thoughts do draw us in, it’s easier to let go of them; we just let the eyes soften again.

If we tried through “trying harder” to achieve this depth of mindfulness it might take many hours, and probably even then only on a retreat. Making a lot of effort in meditation creates mental turbulence, distraction, and resistance. Think about what it’s like to try to grab a slippery bar of soap you’ve dropped in the bath. If you lunge after it you push it away. It’s very similar in meditation. If we want to achieve something, we need to let it happen, not make it happen.

By doing the opposite of trying hard, we can get much further.

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Hold your wants lightly

Getting caught up in wanting – wanting both to get what’s pleasant and to avoid what’s unpleasant – is a major source of suffering and harm for oneself and others.

First, a lot of what we want to get comes with a big price tag – such as that second cupcake, constant stimulation via TV and websites, lashing out in anger, intoxication, over-working, or manipulating others to get approval or love. On a larger scale, the consumer-based lifestyle widespread in Western nations leads them to eat up – often literally – a huge portion of the world’s resources.

Similarly, much of what we want to avoid – like the discomfort of speaking out, some kinds of psychological or spiritual growth, standing up for others, exercising, being emotionally vulnerable, or really going after one’s dreams – would actually be really good for oneself and others.

Second, some wants are certainly wholesome, such as wishing that you and others are safe, healthy, happy, and living with ease; it’s natural to want to give and receive love, to express yourself creatively, to be OK financially, to be treated with respect, to make a big contribution, or to rise high in your career. And many things in life are pleasurable – some of my personal favorites are morning coffee with my wife, walking in wilderness, watching the SF Giants win the World Series last year, seeing kids flourish, writing these JOTs, and laughing with friends at dinner.

But even with wholesome wants and pleasures, trouble comes when we get driven about them – grasping after them, insisting that they continue, craving and clinging, taking it personally when there’s a hitch, getting pushy, or staying in a tunnel with no cheese. The art is to pursue wholesome desires with enthusiasm, discipline, and skill without getting all hot and bothered about them – and to enjoy life’s pleasures without getting attached to them.

For even the most enjoyable and fulfilling experiences always end. You are routinely separated from things you enjoy. And someday that separation will be permanent. Friends drift away, children leave home, careers end, and eventually your own final breath comes and goes. Everything that begins must also cease. Everything that comes together must also disperse.

Given this truth, grabbing after or clutching onto the things we want is hopeless and painful. To use an analogy from the Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah: if getting upset about something unpleasant is like being bitten by a snake, grasping for what’s pleasant is like grabbing the snake’s tail; sooner or later, it will still bite you.

Therefore, holding wants lightly is helpful in everyday life, bringing you more ease and less trouble from your desires, and creating less trouble for others – even across the world. And if you take it all the way to its end, holding wants lightly is a powerful vehicle for liberation from all of the suffering rooted in desire.

How?

For starters, be aware of wanting inside your own mind. Try to notice:

  • The ways in which desiring itself feels subtly tense or uncomfortable.
  • The emotional pain of not getting what you want. Including disappointment, frustration, discouragement-perhaps even hopelessness or despair.
  • The frequent discrepancy between the rewards you expected to get from a want, and what it actually feels like to fulfill it.

Similarly, notice that the anticipated pain from the things you want to avoid – especially things that would be good for you to open to or go after – is usually worse than the discomfort you actually feel. In effect, your brain is routinely lying to you, promising more pleasure and more pain than you will actually experience. The reason is that the pleasure and pain circuits of the brain are ancient and primitive, and they manipulated our ancestors to do things for their survival by overselling them about apparent opportunities and over-frightening them about apparent risks.

  • The costs of pursuing the things you want, and the costs of trying to avoid some of the actually beneficial things you don’t want. What is the cost/benefit ratio, really?
  • The ways that every pleasant experience must inevitably change and end.

Next, imagine you are observing your wants from a great distance, like seeing them from on top of a mountain as if they are down in a valley below. Let them and go like clouds in the vast sky of awareness. They are just one more mental content, like sensations, thoughts, or memories. Don’t give them special status. They are just wants. You don’t need to act on them. Usually, they’ll just pass away after awhile.

Then, on paper or in your mind, make a list of problematic wants:

  • Things you’ve wanted to get but are either not good for you or others, or come with too high a price.
  • Things you’ve wanted to avoid, but are actually good for you and others.

Live with this list. Stare at it. Listen to what it says to you. Perhaps talk about it with others (maybe a therapist). Then make a plan for what you are committing to do about it. Honor this plan; if possible, tell others about it.

Also list wholesome wants that you would like to pursue more. (Some of these may be suggested implicitly by the list above of what you’ve wanted to avoid.) Hang out with this list for awhile, perhaps discussing it with others. Then make a sincere plan for what you are committing to do about it. Your wholesome wants will help crowd out the unwholesome ones.

I know what I am suggesting here about these two lists is a big deal, much easier said than done. I’ve been grappling lately with a couple of my own items on these lists, and it’s not easy. But we can be aware of our issues forever – even mindfully aware! – while still never doing anything about them.

After you’ve stared at the garden for awhile … it’s time to pull weeds and plant flowers.

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Barbara Sher: “We are like violins. We can be used for doorstops, or we can make music.”

Guitar lying on grass. A posy of small blue flowers has been stuck into the sound hole.

We all want to be happy, but often we’re not. Bodhipaksa argues that this is because of the way we treat ourselves as a thing that lacks happiness, and happiness as a thing to be grasped.

In a parable in the Buddhist teachings, a king hears the sound of a lute for the first time and asks to see what produced such sweet music. A lute is produced, but the king is not satisfied. He wants to know where the music is. His ministers say,

“This lute, sire, is made of numerous components, a great many components. It’s through the activity of numerous components that it sounds: that is, in dependence on the body, the skin, the neck, the frame, the strings, the bridge, and the appropriate human effort. Thus it is that this lute — made of numerous components, a great many components — sounds through the activity of numerous components.”

Similarly, the Buddha points out, an accomplished practitioner investigates the body and mind and finds that “thoughts of ‘me’ or ‘mine’ or ‘I am’ do not occur.” There’s no suggestion in the Buddha’s metaphor that there is no self to be found. Instead, we simply let go of any identification with the body or mind as being the self. We stop clinging to any sense of the self being static, separate, or definable in any way. We cease thinking about “me” or “mine” or “I am,” and this thinking has ceased because we have ceased emotionally clinging to any idea of ourselves.

The self is an activity. It’s a process. It’s a verb.

In this analogy, the “self” is the functioning of the body and mind, and is therefore not a “thing.” The self is a process arising out of the functioning of both body and mind. Of course we can’t locate the self in any component of the body. Nor is the self identified with the mind or any component of the mind. The self cannot be reduced to any component or collection of components, any more than the sound of the lute can be found in any one component of the lute or in the entire, assembled lute.

The self is an activity. It’s a process. It’s a verb. As such, it’s not a noun or a “thing.” A process by definition cannot be a thing that we can grasp onto. A self that is a process is not the kind of self that can be static and unchanging. A self that is a process is not the kind of self that exists separately. Be definition, this kind of self arises from a myriad of things that are not the self.

See also:

Also, one of the components that makes the sound of the lute possible is “appropriate human effort.” The lute in itself is not an instrument unless it’s in human hands. Without interaction with a human being it simply is a collection of glue, catgut, and various pieces of wood. Without interaction the lute is close to being an assemblage of nouns. The lute has to be in relation to something else before the sound can happen. Thus the idea of a separate self is challenged.

If the self, in the analogy, is the sound of the lute, then the self can only exist in relation to something else. In this case the self only exists in interaction with the world and with other selves. There is no such thing as a self in isolation. The self is therefore something inherently dynamic, interactive, and relational.

The secret of happiness is to think less in terms of getting and having, and more in terms of noticing and appreciating.

What does this mean for us in our daily lives? A lot of the time we’re caught up in thoughts about ourselves. We think constantly about whether people like us, whether we’re happy, what we can do to get more recognition. This constant self-reference is meant to ease our suffering, but actually it’s the cause of our suffering. When we let go of this kind of self-referential thinking we discover that it was the act of craving happiness that was making us suffer.

There’s nothing wrong of course with wanting to be happy. The whole Buddhist path, after all, is an attempt to get away from suffering and to reach a state of peace. It’s the way that we relate to happiness that’s the problem. We treat ourselves as a object. We see ourselves, moreover, as an object lacking happiness, as defective. We see happiness as something external that we have to “get,” and so happiness is treated as an object too. Happiness is seen as being like a “component” that we can add to our defective selves. But happiness isn’t something to be grasped. It’s not in fact a thing at all.

In the parable the king thinks of the sound of the lute as being a thing, and he expects to be able to find it by dissecting the instrument. He wants to grasp the music. He’s in a state of craving. What he doesn’t appreciate is that the music arises from the quality of the relationships between the various parts of the lute, the musician, and the listener.

Happiness arises from the quality of our relationships. Happiness isn’t a “thing” to be grasped, but the quality of experience that arises when we cease grasping. As selves that exist only in relationship, it’s the quality of our relationships — the way we relate — that determines the quality of our being, and thus our happiness. The more we grasp (even after happiness) the less happy we’ll be. The more attention to the present moment, ease, acceptance, and love that we bring into our experience, the happier we’ll be.

The secret of happiness is to think less in terms of getting and having, and more in terms of noticing and appreciating.

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Goals in the spiritual life

Lotus bud reaching upward for the light

Are spiritual goals dangerous triggers for grasping and selfish desire? Do we need to let go of goals in order to be truly free and happy? Sunada doesn’t think so. She argues that it’s not the goals themselves that are the problem, but how we approach them.

Try not. Do or do not, there is no try.
— Yoda

We all come to the spiritual life with some sort of goal in mind. Like wanting a calmer mind, less anxiety, a kinder heart – in short, to become a better person. Yes, spiritual practice can bring us all these things, and they’re entirely valid reasons for starting down that road.

But at some point we hit a wall. What happens is that TRYING to achieve these things only gets us so far. At some point, we find ourselves with the exact opposite of what we wanted – a lot of self-doubt and frustration.

 I don’t think there’s anything wrong with goals. After all, the Buddha never would have gotten enlightened if he hadn’t single-mindedly worked toward it.

I’ve often had people ask me whether I think they should let go of their goals – that maybe it’s a sort of grasping that has no place in the spiritual life. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with goals. After all, the Buddha never would have gotten enlightened if he hadn’t single-mindedly worked toward it. So then how do we navigate this process that seems so elusive?

The wise quote I bring in here is not from the Buddha, but a different wise man — er, creature — Yoda. When I first heard Yoda’s advice to Luke Skywalker 30 years ago, I thought it sounded like the ultimate parody of Zen-like wisdom. I couldn’t make any sense of it. But now many years later, I’ve discovered that it’s quite profoundly true. Yoda was a pretty wise being!

This is what happened. From very early on, I kept up a regular practice of the Metta Bhavana meditation (the development of loving–kindness). Even though I had a lot of difficulty with it, I did it because I was pretty sure it would help me to open up a heart that had shut down through years of depression. Besides, I had a sort of bulldog-ish attitude that if I kept at it, something would eventually break through.

Any time we try to reach for a goal that we think is “out there,” we’re trying to create something out of nothing, forcing something. So it feels … out of reach.

And boy, did I struggle. My teachers would talk of feeling a warmth in my heart area, recalling kind thoughts and images, and wishing people well. But I sat there feeling blank and gray. Nothing. When the gentle approach didn’t work, I tried MAKING myself feel happier by sheer force of will. Not much success there either. It was all too forced and artificial, and I’d feel thrown right back to where I started.

I’ve since learned that this is a fairly common experience with the Metta Bhavana practice, so I now know it wasn’t just me! But everyone encouraged me to keep trying, that something would happen eventually.

And something did happen. It’s not that I changed in any objective way. Instead, it was my perspective that shifted. I started seeing my “problem” in a completely different way, and then it grew to no longer be a problem.

See also:

The shift began with my decision to start every meditation session with an extensive period of a body scan (focusing on successive areas of my body to help bring my awareness to myself and the present moment). I also imagined what it feels like to come home from a long day at work and to relax — to sink into my favorite easy chair, feel proud of what I’ve accomplished today, knowing that I’ve done all I can — and now it was time to let go to the “ahhh….” feeling.

What doing this allowed me to experience, quite viscerally, was a sense of physical contentment in the here and now. In that moment, I was perfectly happy being just as I was. I didn’t need anything else to make me feel complete. It was the simple joy of being present. It didn’t mean I had gotten rid of my problems, and I was still the same imperfect person I always was. But in that moment, none of those things were weighing on me. I was content, plain and simple.

..when we find something real in our present experience that’s a small seed of what we want to become, and connect with it in an authentic way, then it’s no longer a question of trying or reaching … In Yoda’s words, we “do” it naturally and effortlessly.

Once I contacted that very real, very authentic feeling of contentment, it was an easy step to move into the Metta Bhavana practice. For the first stage, I imagined myself wrapped in warm blankets of kindness, which made it easy to feel warm emotions toward myself. As long as I stayed connected with a genuine feeling of contentment and pleasure, moving toward each successive stage of the Metta practice came much more easily. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If I’m feeling positive about myself, and in touch with my own happiness, my good mood naturally spawns kind feelings toward others. It’s pretty elementary and obvious, now that I think about it.

On days that I was not feeling so good – feeling angry or depressed, for example – this technique worked just as well. I usually couldn’t make myself feel any better, but that was OK. By starting with a foundation of relaxation and physical contentment, I found I could lift myself out of my “poor me” self-absorption. I was able to wrap myself in sympathy and acceptance of how I was, even though I couldn’t change the ugly mood. So it was this kindly self-acceptance that I touched in that moment that I used as the foundation of my metta practice.

This experience helped me to understand that metta is a quality I always have within me, and it had nothing do to with how I’m feeling at the moment. Metta is not the opposite of anger or depression. Metta is an attitude of patient acceptance toward whatever is there – good, bad, or anything in between. It’s always accessible to me, as long as I care to notice it and call it up.

As I reflect on my experience with the Metta practice, I see lots of parallels to the whole idea of personal development off the cushion as well. Any time we try to reach for a goal that we think is “out there,” we’re trying to create something out of nothing, forcing something. So it always feels like a reach, or perhaps even out of reach. This is what I assume Yoda meant by “trying.”

If we take the Buddha’s teachings to heart — that all beings have the potential for enlightenment — then we all have the seeds of wisdom, compassion, and other every other conceivable positive quality within us.

But when we find something real in our present experience that’s a small seed of what we want to become, and connect with it in an authentic way, then it’s no longer a question of trying or reaching. By simply turning our kind attention to its presence, it begins to grow on its own. We don’t have to “try” anything. In Yoda’s words, we “do” it naturally and effortlessly. We don’t grasp for something distant and off in the future. We appreciate and cultivate something joyful that we already have, and can readily touch.

Now I bet there are doubters out there among you that are wondering whether you have any inkling of the qualities you wish you had. If we take the Buddha’s teachings to heart — that all beings have the potential for enlightenment — then we all have the seeds of wisdom, compassion, and other every other conceivable positive quality within us. It’s only our own self-doubt that keeps us from seeing them.

So if you’ve been trying to become a better person in some way, stop trying. Instead, look for all the ways that you already have those qualities in some small, nascent form. Trust that they are there, and think of ways to encourage those qualities to blossom. For example, if we want to become kinder, it’s important that we feel good physically – that we eat well, get enough sleep and rest, and have time to laugh and enjoy ourselves. We need to be kind to ourselves in the same way that we’d want to be kind to others, so that we begin to touch an authentic experience of our own kind heart. If we set these sorts of conditions, the kinder side of us can’t help but come out and grow stronger.

So the crux of the matter is in how we view our goals. Are we grasping for something off in the future in a way that denigrates our present experience and triggers a poverty mentality of lack, need, and desire? Or are we aspiring toward a higher ideal that’s on the same path we’re already on — while at the same time loving ourselves as we are now, and encouraging ourselves to feel whole, warm, abundant and blessed? It’s that switch in our state of mind that makes all the difference. That’s what sets the tone for what kind of future we create for ourselves.

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