anicca (impermanence)

Mindfulness practice is good medicine

wildmind meditation newsMack Paul, The Norman Transcript: Buddhism is not a religion in the usual sense. There is not a God to believe in.

Some Buddhists believe in reincarnation and karma although neither are central to the faith. The Buddha said that he taught one thing only, “suffering and the end of suffering.”

Buddhist practice developed from their observation that human existence is characterized by the experience, dissatisfaction, impermanence and a shifting sense of self that is unsatisfactory and impermanent. This makes for a potentially bleak view of the human condition.

We want to believe in progress. We want to believe that if we get …

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Personalities are not fixed, and that’s great news

Children's yoga. The little boy does exercise.A mountaineering friend of mine used to remark that when he’d meet a rock or other obstruction while coming down a mountain, and was faced with choices — go left, or right? — each choice would lead to other, different, choices. In this way, two different decisions early on — although seemingly insignificant — could result in profoundly different outcomes.

Views we hold can be like that as well. A view like “personalities are fixed” leads to very different results compared to a view like “personalities are fluid.”

A new study illustrates how easily views about our personalities can be changed, and how powerful the effect of changing them can be.

David Scott Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin, working with a graduate student from Emory University, Adriana Sum Miu, wondered whether the belief that people’s personalities are malleable would have an impact on bullied teens, perhaps reducing their levels of hopelessness, despair, and depression.

Yeager observed, “When teens are excluded or bullied it can be reasonable to wonder if they are ‘losers’ or ‘not likable,'” and he wondered whether teaching teens that people can change would reduce those thoughts, and if so, could it even prevent overall symptoms of depression?

At the start of a school year, roughly 600 ninth grade children were assigned to an intervention group or to a control group. Neither the children nor the teachers and staff at the three schools involved were aware of the purpose of the exercise, so that their attitudes wouldn’t differentially affect either group.

The intervention group read a passage about how personalities are subject to change, and how being bullied is not the result of a personality defect. It was also emphasized that bullies are not inherently “bad.” There was reinforcement in the form of information about brain plasticity (the idea that our brains, and thus our skills, attitudes, and behaviors can change and evolve). Endorsements from older students were given, and the group members were asked to write an account of how personalities can change.

The control group did similar exercises, focusing not on personality but on athletic ability.

Nine months later, the symptoms of clinical depression, including negative mood, feelings of ineffectiveness, and low self-esteem, had risen by 39% in the control group, while there was no increase in the intervention group. This was true even for students who had been bullied.

This change is rather stunning, given that the intervention was very brief, taking place in a normal class period. There was no counseling given, and the exercise used only computer and pen-and-paper activities. I’d estimate that achieving the same outcome, on that scale, through individual guidance and counseling would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The message being taught is very in line with Buddhist teachings on anatta (lack of fixed self). One of the things that Buddhism teaches us is that our mental habits are just that — they are habits, and subject to change, given the right circumstances.

You can read more about the study at the Association for Psychological Science website.

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Let go…

I’ve done a lot of rock climbing, so I know firsthand the importance sometimes of not letting go! This applies to other things as well: keeping hold of a child’s hand while crossing the street, staying true to your ethics in a tricky situation, or sustaining attention to your breath while meditating.

On the other hand, think of all the stuff – both physical and nonphysical – we cling to that creates problems for us and others: clutter in the home, “shoulds,” rigid opinions, resentments, regrets, status, guilt, resistance to the facts on the ground, needing to be one-up with others, the past, people who are gone, bad habits, hopeless guests, unrewarding relationships, and so on.

Letting go can mean several things: releasing pain; dropping thoughts, words, and deeds that cause suffering and harm; yielding rather than breaking; surrendering to the way it is, like it or not; allowing each moment to pass away without trying to hold on to it; accepting the permanently impermanent nature of existence; and relaxing the sense of self and opening out into the wider world.

Living in this way is relaxing, decreases hassles and conflicts, reduces stress, improves mood and well-being, and grounds you in reality as it is. And it’s a key element, if you like, of spiritual practice. To quote Ajahn Chah, a major Buddhist teacher who lived in Thailand:

If you let go a little, you will have a little happiness.
If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of happiness.
If you let go completely, you will be completely happy.

How?

Appreciate the wisdom of letting go, and notice any resistance to it: perhaps it seems weak to you, foolish, or against the culture of your gender or personal background. For example, I remember talking with my friend John years ago about a woman he’d been pursuing who’d made it clear she wasn’t interested, and he felt frustrated and hurt. I said maybe he should surrender and move on – to which John replied fiercely, “I don’t do surrender.” It took him a while to get past his belief that surrender – acceptance, letting go – meant you were wimping out. (All ended happily with us getting drunk together and him throwing up on my shoe – which I then had to surrender to!) It takes strength to let go, and fortitude, character, and insight. When you let go, you’re like a supple and resilient willow tree that bends before the storm, still here in the morning – rather than a stiff oak that ends up broken and toppled over.

Be aware of the letting go that happens naturally all day long such as, releasing objects from your hands, hanging up the phone, pushing send on an e-mail, moving from one thought or feeling to another in your mind, saying bye to a friend, shifting plans, using the bathroom, changing a TV channel, or emptying the trash. Notice that letting go is all right, that you keep on going, that it’s necessary and beneficial. Become more comfortable with letting go.

Consciously let go of tension in your body. Exhale long and slowly, activating the relaxing parasympathetic nervous system. Let go of holding in your belly, shoulders, jaws, and eyes.

Clear out possessions you don’t use or need. Let in how great it feels to finally have some room in your closet, drawers, or garage.

Pick a dumb idea you’ve held on to way too long – one for me would be that I have to do things perfectly or there’ll be a disaster. Practice dropping this idea and replacing it with better ones (like for me: “Nobody is perfect and that’s okay”).

Pick a grievance, grudge, or resentment – and resolve to move on. This does not necessarily mean letting other people off the moral hook, just that you are letting yourself off the hot plate of staying upset about whatever happened. If feelings such as hurt still come up about the issue, be aware of them, be kind to yourself about them, and then gently encourage them out the door.

Letting go of painful emotions is a big subject, with lots of resources for you in books such as Focusing, by Eugene Gendlin, or What We May Be, by Piero Ferrucci. Here’s a summary of methods I like: relax your body; imagine that the feelings are flowing out of you like water; vent in a letter you’ll never send, or out loud someplace appropriate; get things off your chest with a good friend; take in positive feelings to soothe and gradually replace the painful ones.
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In general, let things be pleasant without grasping after them; let things be unpleasant without resisting them; let things be neutral without prodding them to get pleasant. Letting go undoes the craving and clinging that lead to suffering and harm.

Let go of who you used to be. Let yourself learn, grow, and therefore change.

Let go of each moment as it disappears beneath your feet. It’s gone as soon as you’re aware of it, like a snowflake melting as soon as you see its shape. You can afford to abide as letting go because of the miracle – which no scientist fully understands – that the next moment continually emerges as the previous one vanishes, all within the infinitely tiny duration of Now.

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“To be creative means to consider the whole process of life as a process of birth.” Eric Fromm

Eric Fromm

For social psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, creativity wasn’t necessarily about bringing something — a poem, a symphony, a sculpture — into being. For him, creativity was an attitude.

And so he said, “To be creative means to consider the whole process of life as a process of birth, and not to take any stage of life as a final stage.”

Creativity for him was the ability first to be aware, and then to respond. In this sense, creativity may produce works of art that can be viewed in a gallery, but it is also just as much a way of living. Creativity may produce not only art but a life lived with awareness, a life imbued with meaning, a life lived well. Creativity is about allowing life to come into being — fully.

When I sat down to write this post just a few minutes ago, I looked at this quote, which I had chosen last week, and felt an inner heaviness. “I have nothing to say” was my thought. My impulse was to head to the internet to find something “easier” to write about — something that would unleash an instant torrent of thoughts. Fromm’s words had looked appealing last week, but today they evoked nothing but fear.

I was experiencing resistance. I was experiencing doubt. But to be creative is “not to take any stage of life as a final stage.” Resistance and doubt are not final stages. They are not substantive. They are not fixed or solid. They’re like fog born over a lake in the hours before dawn, destined to dissipate as the sun rises. If we react to doubt, though, we take it to be something solid, something to be feared and to escape from. But it’s only a delusion that it’s solid.

So this is the awareness I bring to meet my resistance: Here you are. I find you unpleasant to be with, but although I fear you I will turn toward you. I will bring the sun of my awareness to meet you, and watch you dissipate.

And another birth happens. As doubt dissolves away, words appear, and confidence is born.

When we take the birth of something we find uncomfortable, like doubt and resistance, as being “final,” we make a judgement about ourselves (“I can’t do this; I have nothing to say; I’d better not do anything or people will think it sucks”). We run from the unpleasant, since we have deemed ourselves incapable of enduring it. We seek an easy escape from our pain. We cease to live creatively and responsively. And in doing so we give life to our doubts, making them appear more solid and substantive than they actually are. The judgements we make become our self-view (“I’m not the creative type”). We fix ourselves. We take ourselves as something final. We fail to act responsively. We fail to truly live.

To be creative is to live. It’s to live fully. The Buddha said that only those who are aware are truly alive. He said that those who lack awareness are like the dead. In the zombie-like state in which most of us spend the majority of our lives, we are not mindful, and so instead of responding we merely react. Rather than living as fully aware and responsive beings, a bundle of habits stumbles through a simulacrum of life.

Mindfulness allows us not so much to live life without fear, but to see our fears (and that which we fear) as just one more part of the process of life; as just one more impermanent arising; as the fog before the dawn.

Mindfulness opens the way for us to view everything we experience in this way. Our very sense of self may dissolve away. It’s not that we entirely lose our sense of self, but that we stop seeing our self as composed of anything substantive. Our “self” is not a final stage. It’s something in process. It’s composed of change. We see, in a way, that our “self” isn’t a “self.” It is nothing but moments of birth and death.

Mindfulness brings understanding, or wisdom. And with this wisdom we recognize which of the processes unfolding within us are life-denying, born of fear. Fear itself has this life-denying quality, as do grasping, hatred, resistance, and aversion. These qualities are manifestations of our inability to see all experiences as transitory and evanescent events. They represent our false belief that some stages are final. And we respond not by fleeing from these inhibiting and life-denying processes, but by turning toward them with mindfulness, seeing them as impermanent and insubstantial, and seeing through them.

When we respond in this way, creativity is already emerging. We are already living with awareness and living with wisdom. And increasingly, creativity is not something that we do. It’s something that happens of its own accord. It is life, living through us, unchecked, unfettered, and free.

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The three marks of human existence

When we turn our life over to the Dharma, we surrender to the teachings of the Buddha. What are those teachings? There are many, and I encourage you to explore and see what resonates for you. They are all doorways onto the path of liberation, freedom and a new understanding of happiness.

Perhaps one of the most accessible teachings is the three Laksanas (The three marks of human existence.) In brief;

Dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) – suffering comes up time and time and again in the Buddhist teachings, it is the back bone of the Four Noble truths – a teaching that connects all Buddhist traditions. The Buddha taught: (1) that there is suffering, (2) a path that leads to more suffering (3) the end of suffering (4) there is a way out of suffering.

‘The Buddha was asked, what is the difference between how an ordinary person and a wise person responds to pain? He replied with the analogy of the two darts. All of us experience pain – whether that is physical pain like catching your finger in the door or mental pain such as when someone rejects you. This is the first dart, which we could call primary suffering.

An ordinary person then gets caught up in trying to push away or avoid the pain; in blaming themselves or others, or feeling self-pity. This has the effect of making matters worse: the second dart, which we can call secondary suffering. A wise person just has the first dart. They don’t get stuck in avoidance or obsessing about the pain. Instead they mindfully accept it for what it is, without making it worse with secondary suffering.’ Eight Step Recovery – Using the Buddhas Teachings to Overcome Addiction, publication date 2014.

What is suffering?
Papanca – Proliferation of thought
Identifying with thought
Listening and believing the stories we tell ourselves
Identifying with pain

Anicca (impermanence)– Everything changes. You can’t get more radical than that. It means if you have an addiction you can change. It means if you keep on relapsing you can change. If we surrender to change we will find the teachings of the Buddha working in our life. Because everything is changing all the time, so if we resist change, it will bring about suffering. If we go with the flow – Higher Power will manifest as peace, as equilibrium and as calm in our life.

What is impermanence?
All conditioned existence is in constant state of flux
It is the cycle of birth and rebirth
It is the experience of loss
It is ageing, sickness and death

Anatta (Not self/or the illusion of self )- There is no separate self. It has been said that ‘consciousness is all there is and we are that.’ We think there is a separate self, because we have created a story about who we are. When we have suffered from addiction there will be many stories that we have created, and others too would have created stories about us. But these stories are not us. We think they are us, because we have strongly identified about all the things that have been said about us or what we tell ourselves. Recognizing the illusion of a separate self will inevitably help with the cessation of suffering. The many selves we can create, can keep us incarcerated in our minds. For as long as we believe in all the stories we tell ourselves there will be suffering. The things we experiences through the senses are not I, or mine, or yours, as soon as we think they are I, or mine or yours, unhappiness will rise. The separate self that we create can begin to dissolve when we sit directly with our experience, suffering will begin to loosen it’s grip. When we stop identifying with thoughts which create the illusion of self, the sensations of desire and craving will begin to loosen.

What is not self/the illusion of self ?

You can not intellectualize this. You can only experience it. Because there is nothing for the mind to take hold of. We can begin to experience no self if we have the courage to let go of our suffering. The courage to let go of proliferation of thought. No self is the absence of self. But what is no self?

“Be crumbled. So wild flowers will come up where you are.’ Rumi
‘Saying goodbye to your ‘I’ and hello to freedom.’ tinybuddha.com
‘Nothing to gain and everything to lose’ Tejananda

If we can begin to experience the three marks of existence in our lives, we will begin to find a new happiness and freedom. A start can be stop believing the mental noise in your minds. There are many other teachings from the Buddha that will liberate us. Take a look on the wildmind site and you will find many.

A reflection

Let go of the past and of the future. Just sit in the present, with out labeling the sensations of the body or the mind. And what are these sensations? Thoughts, feelings, judgements, interpretations. And in that experience it may be possible to let go of the illusion that we have created, that we hold on to, that we believe in. Just sit or lie down in the present moment of experience, and let go of thinking you are in control and see what flows.

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Cultivate only the path to peace

100 Days of Lovingkindness

The Buddha was a man on a mission, and very single-minded. He said over and over again that his only interest was in addressing suffering:

Both formerly and now, it is only dukkha that I describe, and the cessation of dukkha.

This word “dukkha” is often rendered as “suffering.” I have no real problem with that translation. It’s accurate. But many people have problems with the word “suffering.” As a friend and I were discussing just the other night, many people don’t recognize the suffering they experience as suffering, and so they don’t think that dukkha applies to them. Often people think of suffering as actual physical pain, or severe deprivation such as starvation, homelessness, or being in a war-zone. All those things are of course dukkha, but so are many others, some of which people might be reluctant to apply the label suffering to.

Often people don’t even see that they’re suffering; they’re blind to their pain. They so take it for granted that life is hard, or think that people and things around them are awkward and frustrating, and they don’t even give the difficulties they face a second thought.

The Buddha commented on this reluctance or blindness to dukkha:

“What others speak of as happiness,
That the noble ones say is suffering.”

We often think we’re OK, but actually we’re living at a sub-optimal level — far below our potential.

For example, any kind of craving is dukkha, whether or not we want to recognize this. Even “pleasant” cravings like longing for a tasty treat, or longing for a new electronic toy are forms of dukkha. Look underneath the excitement of the wanting, and there’s a void that we’re trying to fill. Beneath the wanting is a want.

Anger is dukkha, even when we enjoy getting angry. Frustration is dukkha. Irritability is dukkha. Resenting someone is dukkha. Worrying what someone thinks about you is dukkha. Hoping that the traffic light will stay on green is suffering. Wishing that the driver in front of you would go a little faster is dukkha.

We actually experience dukkha dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times a day. Dukkha is not an uncommon experience that only visits us on rare occasions. It’s woven throughout our experience and often goes unnoticed or unrecognized.

So some translators render dukkha as “unsatisfactoriness,” some as “stress,” some as “unease,” some as “anguish.” The root of the word is obscure, but it may come from dus-stha “unsteady, disquieted.” There’s no word that’s quite adequate. Personally, I find “suffering” to be fine; I just have a very broad understanding of what suffering is in my life.

So the Buddha taught about suffering. He taught about the ways in which we cause ourselves suffering, and the different ways in which we suffer, often without realizing it. And he taught about the cessation of suffering. He taught how to end suffering by attaining awakening.

But what are we left with when suffering has ceased? What is the opposite of suffering?

I suspect most people would think of “happiness” as the opposite of suffering, but “happiness” isn’t quite right. Happiness is not what Buddhist practice aims at. The goal of Buddhism, which is the spiritual awakening of bodhi, isn’t really happiness. I think of it more as “peace.” Think of the goal as the opposite of “unsteady” or “disquieted” — it’s steady, at peace, settled, quieted, calm, untroubled. Happiness may accompany this peace at some times, and not at others. It’s the peace that’s fundamental.

In the Dhammapada, the Dhamma is is said to be the path to peace:

Cultivate only the path to peace, Nibbana, as made known by the Sugata [Buddha].

And the Buddha is described as being supremely at peace:

Serene and inspiring serene confidence, calming, his senses at peace, his mind at peace, having attained the utmost tranquility and poise.

In our lives we’re often seeking happiness in some way or another. And a common assumption is that happiness comes from having pleasurable experiences. Buddhism points out, though, that there’s so much change and instability in the world and in our own beings that we can never guarantee ourselves a constant stream of pleasurable experiences, and so we can never find true happiness that way.

True happiness — or rather peace — comes not from having pleasant experiences, but from changing our relationship with our experience, whether it’s pleasurable or unpleasurable. It’s when we can completely accept pleasure and pain without responding either with craving or aversion that we find ourselves at peace. So this insight changes everything. Most of our pleasure seeking, most of our pursuit of happiness, is actually causing us more dukkha, because we’re aiming to keep at bay unpleasant experiences and hold onto pleasant ones. And both of these aims are impossible, fruitless, and frustrating — dukkha, in short.

Peace and joy come not from the experiences we have, but from how we relate to those experiences. Our experiences are inherently unsatisfactory (another meaning of dukkha), and we need to stop chasing after them or resisting them.

It’s only learning to accept impermanence, and developing the ability to bear with our experiences non-reactively, that will bring peace.

So we need to remind ourselves of this all the time, so that we can find peace. And we also need to bear in mind, as we’re interacting people or cultivating metta, karuna, mudita, or upekkha for others that they too are often trapped in cognitive distortions — seeking happiness but not knowing how to create it; trying to avoid suffering and yet creating suffering inadvertently. And in the upekkha bhavana we can look out into the world and be aware of beings striving, blindly, for happiness. And we can wish that beings (ourselves included) develop the clarity and wisdom to be able to create peace — genuine peace — the peace that comes from awakening.

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Five remembrances for deep peace (Day 90)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

In learning to experience deep peace in the face of impermanence, we need to consider not just our inner experience, as I did yesterday, but our very lives, and the lives of those around us. Life is short; we all face loss.

These things aren’t really different from what I was discussing yesterday, since it’s our inner feelings about changes in the world that we largely have to deal with, but the same situations can be looked at from different perspectives. When we’re actually experiencing loss, instability, and change, we can work on accepting the the feelings that arise with equanimity. But we can also prepare ourselves philosophically for painful changes that may happen in the future by reflecting on their inevitability. And this is a technique that the Buddha encouraged.

In the Pāli canon there is a set of five remembrances that help us to recollect that change, loss, and death are not unusual events, but are woven into the very fabric of existence.

These remembrances are:

  1. I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid ageing.
  2. I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness.
  3. I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death.
  4. I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.
  5. I am the owner of my actions, heir of my actions, actions are the womb (from which I have sprung), actions are my relations, actions are my protection. Whatever actions I do, good or bad, of these I shall become their heir.

These five reflections are then placed in a more universal context, so that the first one, for example, becomes:

I am not the only one who is subject to old age, not exempt from old age. All beings that come and go, that pass away and undergo rebirth, are subject to old age; none are exempt from old age.

All five reflections are seen in this universal light; all beings are subject not only to old age, but to illness, death, and to separation. And all beings are owners of their actions (karma).

And these, the Buddha said, are remembrances “that should often be reflected upon by a woman or a man, by a householder or one gone forth.” In other words we should all be thinking about this — frequently.

If we do, it does a number of things.

  • We’re better prepared for change that might otherwise throw us off-balance. When we’re forewarned, change is disarmed.
  • We take change less personally. Often even getting old is taken as a personal affront: as if it’s an error. Surely this wasn’t supposed to happen! But of course it’s a universal fact. When we’re young we may look at the elderly and feel a degree of contempt, as if their age was a sign they’d failed. Actually, the fact they’re around is a sign they’ve succeeded, in a way; as they say, getting old is no fun, but it beats the alternative.
  • We realize we’re not being singled out. Everyone experiences loss. Everyone gets sick. Everyone is going to end up dying. These things are not some judgement the universe is meting out on us as some kind of punishment. All things are of the nature to decay and pass away.
  • We feel more sympathy for others. We’re all in it together. Just as I age and grow sick, so do others. The elderly and the chronically sick are simply experiencing now what I am going to experience in the future. Since we’re all equal in this regard, I don’t have to psychically distance myself from others’ suffering. Having compassion for them now, I’m more likely to be able to accept my own suffering when old age, sickness and death strike.
  • We’re challenged to take responsibility. The Buddha’s saying: “Life is short: you’re responsible for what you do with it. Now what?” When we consider our own mortality, life becomes more precious, and it becomes more important to live meaningfully and with compassion.

As a result of all this reflection, our minds become more deeply imbued with peace. We live in peace, able to be equanimous in the face of difficulties. But this is all upekkha in a more everyday sense of “bearing difficulty non-reactively,” which is not upekkha as a brahmavihara. Where upekkha as a brahmavihara steps in is where we compassionately and lovingly wish that all beings come to terms with impermanence, that all beings be able to develop calm, and peace, that all beings awaken from the dream that impermanence bypass us.

This is the dream of denial and delusion and clinging:

To beings subject to aging there comes the desire: ‘O might we not be subject to aging, and aging not come to us…’ To beings subject to disease there comes the desire: ‘O might we not be subject to disease and disease not come to us…’ To beings subject to death there comes the desire: ‘O might we not be subject to death and death not come to us…’

Resisting impermanence in this way simply increases our suffering. Not only do we have to face loss and change, but we have to face the disappointment of our clinging coming to nothing. Accepting impermanence helps us to experience peace; and when we wish that others too accept impermanence and experience peace, that is the brahmavihara of upekkha.

May all beings be free from delusion and clinging. May all beings accept impermanence. May all beings awaken. May all beings live in peace.

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

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There’s nothing to hold onto; there’s nothing to do any holding on. (day 89)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

I’ve been explaining how the practice of upekkha bhavana isn’t really about equanimity, and how upekkha itself isn’t really equanimity, but the desire that beings experience peace. It’s the desire that we and others experience the profound peace of enlightenment or awakening (bodhi).

In the upekkha bhavana — and in other ways in our lives — we cultivate peace through developing insight. And then we wish that others attain that peace. Now it doesn’t matter if we’ve not actually experienced the peace of awakening ourselves; we can still know that it’s a beneficial and desirable state for others, and develop the desire that they find the peace of awakening.

There are actually many angles on developing insight and the peace it brings. The main approach is to observe the impermanence of our experiences. And so I’m going to talk about how we can do this, beginning with the body.

We tend to assume that the body we inhabit, or the body that we are, or the body that we have (our perspective changes moment to moment) is something quite permanent and stable. Sure, we know it changes, but we tend to assume that the changes are quite superficial; the body moves, gets fatter, gets thinner, gets sick, gets better, but there’s some underlying stability and continuity.

But if you let go of your ideas and assumptions about the body, you’ll start to see something quite different. If you let your eyes close, and let an awareness of sensations that are arising in the body become more prominent in your mind, there might at first be a hang-over of that assumption of permanence. There’s the pressure of your bottom on your seat. There are your hands resting on your lap. There is your tongue in contact with your teeth. There are the sensations of the breathing.

But take any one of these sensations, and you’ll see that it’s changing, moment by moment. Take your breathing: you notice an in breath, and then an out breath. The in breath has a beginning. At one point the in breath didn’t exist. Then it started, at some point that it’s hard to define exactly. And it continued for a while, and then it ceased, again often at a point that’s hard to define, and then there was no more in breath. So the in breath was an impermanent experience. And then the same happens with the out breath It didn’t exist, it began, it continued, it ceased, it was no more. It was impermanent.

But then you can zoom in a bit more, and start paying attention to each moment of the in breath or out breath. Because you’ve been assuming that there was this “thing” called an in or out breath that came into being and then existed for a while. But when you look closely and see what’s happening in this moment, and this moment, and this moment, you recognize that each moment is a new constellation of experiences. Each moment is something new. Each moment is a birth and a death. The thing that you called an in breath or an out breath was not a thing at all, but a series of ever-changing moments.

And you can do the same with any other part of your body — say your hands. And you assumed that there was some “thing” there that you call your hands. But when you look closely you’ll start to see that there’s just this same moment-by-moment eternal newness. “The hands” dissolve into a tingling, buzzing, ever-changing cloud of sensations.

The sensation that you thought of as “the pressure of your bottom on your seat”? It’s the same. There’s nothing more substantial than the weight of your body resting on a solid surface, but actually it’s not at all substantial. The pressure, when you look at it closely, changes in every moment. Sensations of pain are just the same as this. We take them to be real; “There’s an ache in my knee.” But as you closely watch the sensation of pain, you discover that it’s actually many sensations: pulsing, throbbing, pressure, heat, cold, stabbing, tightness. And each of these sensations comes and goes in every moment.

As you continue doing this, the entire body can start to dissolve. We can lose that assumption of solidity that we habitually carry around (our assumptions, too, as impermanent). The body seems more like a cloud of sensations in space. We can start to realize that we don’t have a body, but merely experience sensations that arise and pass away.

We can apply this with sensations arising from the outside world: the light coming through your closed eyelids creates an ever-changing kaleidoscope of red, blue, green, yellow speckles, dancing in your visual field. Sounds: that hum of the refrigerator is not just impermanent because it starts and stops, but because in every moment it is a new sound. Waves of pressure are rising and falling in the air hitting your ear-drum. Sound can only be heard because it changes moment by monent.

And you can notice the same with feelings. You label something “anxiety” but it’s not just sitting there like an unchanging lump of solid matter. It’s not even one things, but is composed of buzzing and trembling and fluttering and pounding.

Thoughts? Where’s the thought you had a moment ago? The same thought may seem to come back over and over again, but it’s a different thought with every appearance. And each thought, however much we like it or dislike it, vanishes all on its own, without our needing to do anything. We watch all this closely.

Even your awareness itself is changing all the time. One moment you’re aware of the pain in your knee, and the next your attention has flipped into noticing the sound of a barking dog, and then it’s back to your breathing. Your mindfulness is there; then you have no mindfulness, and you’d distracted by some thought.

There’s nothing that isn’t constantly changing.

That fear you have that something will change? That fear appears and vanishes, and while it existed it was always changing. The fear you have that something won’t change? That’s changing too, moment by moment. It’s not even there while it’s there.

And so there’s nothing to fear. There’s nothing to gain; nothing to lose. There’s nothing to hold onto; there’s nothing to do any holding on.

“Monks, suppose that a large mass of foam were floating down this Ganges River, and a man with good eyesight were to see it, observe it, and appropriately examine it. To him — seeing it, observing it, and appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in a mass of foam? In the same way, a monk sees, observes, and appropriately examines any form that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near. To him — seeing it, observing it, and appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in form?”

There’s a vast space of consciousness, and in that space experiences arise and pass. And the more you let go of trying to hold on to anything that’s arising and passing (the trying will change!) the more peace you’ll experience. This peace is the result of the “close watching” of upekkha.

And when you turn your mind to others, watching them closely with the love and the compassion and the rejoicing in the good that you’ve cultivated in the other brahma vihara practices, you’ll want them to experience that peace too.

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“There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control.” Marcus Aurelius (Day 80)

Marcus Aurelius

“There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control,” wrote Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations. “These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.”

I’ve described even-minded love (upekkha) as being love with insight. One thing that allows our love to be even-minded, or equanimous, is insight into impermanence.

Even-mindedness is a quality that accompanies all of the other brahmaviharas, which are the four qualities of lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna), joyful appreciation (mudita), and even-minded love (upekkha) itself. We need to have even-mindedness accompanying these other states because loving-kindness, compassion, and joyful appreciation each involve desires. Metta is a desire that beings be happy; compassion that they escape suffering; and mudita that they continue to experience the joy and peace that comes from the good qualities they embody.

And the problem is that the things we want aren’t necessarily going to happen, or if they do they won’t last. We can wish that beings be well, but they’re going to experience distress, sickness, and loss. We can wish that beings be free from suffering, but their suffering isn’t necessarily going to end. And we can wish that they continue to enjoy the benefits of their skillful qualities, but it’s not guaranteed that either the skillful attributes nor the peace and joy that spring from them will endure.

In the brahmavihara meditations, we desire particular outcomes, and yet the things we wish for can never last. And so, in order that we ourselves be at peace, we need to appreciate impermanence.

In order to strengthen our even-mindedness, we can cultivate lovingkindness while bearing in mind that although we wish happiness for beings, they’re not necessarily going to find it, and when they do it’s not going to last. We can bear in mind their sufferings and develop compassion, wishing that they be free from suffering, and at the same time remember that any freedom from suffering that they experience will be temporary. And we can rejoice in their good qualities and the peace and joy flowing from those qualities, and remember that any peace they may experience is a phenomenon, like every other experience, that arises and passes away.

Non-equanimity is like sitting on the shore, watching waves rising and falling and cheering when the waves rise, mourning when they fall. With equanimity we recognize that the waves are not under our control. They rise, they fall; we watch, with love.

The “love” part of this is important. It’s easy to be fooled by words like equanimity and even-mindedness into thinking that upekkha is an emotionless, detached quality. Rather, it’s a form of love. It’s well-wishing. In upekkha we sincerely love beings and desire that they be well and that they be free from suffering, but we also accept that happiness and suffering are impermanent experiences that arise and fall outside of our control.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t act on our love, or that acting is pointless. We act with kindness; we seek to relieve compassion where we can; we encourage and rejoice in the good we see in others. But we don’t get attached to outcomes. When we do get attached to things turning out in a particular way, we may initially wish beings well or wish to relieve their suffering, but we soon become frustrated or despondent. We try to help them and perhaps they don’t want to be helped, and our love turns to aversion. Or we don’t have the skill to assist them, and we feel dejected. We act compassionately to help one person, and recognize that there’s an immeasurable amount of suffering in the world, and our efforts are just a drop in the ocean, and we feel depressed and hopeless.

This is why equanimity is necessary, and why it pervades the other three brahmaviharas. But it’s also cultivated as a quality of even-minded love in its own right, as the fulfillment of love.

In the formal practice, we develop a state of loving equanimity toward ourselves, by wishing ourselves well while bearing in mind that the joy and sorrow we experience is impermanent, and by simply accepting any pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral experiences that may arise.

Then we do the same with a neutral person (someone who we neither like nor dislike), then with a person we find difficult, then with a friend. Finally we expand our awareness into the world around us, where happiness and unhappiness rise and fall like waves on the ocean, and we wish all beings well while accepting the impermanence of their joys and sorrows.

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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Even-mindedness and the two arrows (Day 79)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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

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

There’s:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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