With no effort or practice whatsoever, Enlightenment is here

In all sects of Buddhism, meditation is a prevalent practice,  but Buddhist teachers from different sects use different language to teach meditation.

There are meditations that focus on awareness and insight; meditations that focus on our breath, our body, our feelings, our minds and our mental qualities; and meditations for developing loving kindness within our minds and hearts.

It is easy, when learning a form of meditation, to just focus on the form and then judge whether or not we are doing it “right”.

There is freedom from this judging and striving in Dzogchen practice. Dilgo Khentse Rinpoche (1910-1991), one of the great luminaries of Tibetan Buddhism in the twentieth century,  was a highly realized and accomplished master dedicated to the transmission and preservation of Tibet’s spiritual legacy and a principle teacher of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Here is a list of some of the teachings on meditation from Dilgo Khentse Rinpoche:

  • “In meditation we can see through the illusion of past, present and future – the past is only an unreliable memory held in the present. The future is only a projection of our present conceptions. The present itself vanishes as soon as we try to grasp it.
  • We should free ourselves from our memories and preconceptions of meditation. Each moment of meditation is unique and full of potential.
  • Simply meditating in the moment, with our whole being, free from hesitation, boredom or excitement is Enlightenment.
  • Everything is naturally perfect just as it is,  we are naturally perfect as we are, a symbol of Enlightenment.
  • Everything and everyone is constantly changing, nothing is permanent. When we want things or people to remain the same, we suffer. When we want something different from what we have, we suffer.
  • With no effort or practice whatsoever, enlightenment is already here – it is not something or somewhere outside of ourselves. Striving for Enlightenment obstructs our free flow of energy.
  • The everyday practice of Dzogchen is just everyday life itself. Each moment is a moment that can be a moment of mindfulness, gratitude and meditation… there is no need to behave in any special way or attempt to attain anything above and beyond who we already are.
  • When meditating, we should feel it to be as natural as eating and breathing… we should realize that meditation transcends effort, practice, aims, goals and the duality of liberation and captivity. Our practice should be without effort, without strain, without attempts to control or force and without trying to become ‘peaceful’.
  • Therefore we should be natural and spontaneous, accepting and learning from everything.”

There is an expression in Dozgchen, emaho, which means each and every moment provides an opportunity to be kind, generous, honest, mindful, grateful and loving.  Emaho!

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“The Brightened Mind,” by Ajahn Sumano Bhikkhu

The Brightened Mind, Ajahn Sumano

Ajahn Sumano is a Chicagoan who worked in the corporate world before becoming a Buddhist monk and living in a cave in Thailand for 15 years, intensively practicing meditation. You’d therefore expect him to have a deep understanding of meditation, and The Brightened Mind suggests he has.

Unfortunately, just as Sumano had to go through his corporate phase before he hit his meditative years, so do we. Almost the whole first half of the book has a “marketing” feel to, it where you’re constantly told about the benefits meditation will bring, without any meditation actually being taught.

Title: The Brightened Mind
Author: Ajahn Sumano Bhikkhu
Publisher: Quest Books
ISBN: 978-0-8356-0899-2
Available from: Quest Books,, and

The meditation instruction, when it comes, isn’t extensive, but it’s full of precious nuggets of spiritual gold. I’d almost suggest skipping over the first half of the book just to get to this material.

Actually, the meditation teaching doesn’t start in a very promising way. The first direction is “put your mind at ease.” That’s a good aim, although of course it’s one that is easier said than done, and Sumano doesn’t tell us how to accomplish it. Having (somehow) put the mind at ease, we then focus on some neutral object such as the breath, and “just stay with what’s happening right in the moment.” This is a very important suggestion, of course. Then Sumano suggests “holding one inhalation for as long as you can” and tells us that you will “immediately feel the presence of serenity and peace.” I’m unclear what he means by holding the breath for as long as possible. Surely he doesn’t mean that we should hold the breath until we almost pass out? That would seem to lead anywhere but serenity and peace. So up to this point I was becoming increasingly skeptical that I was going to get anything from The Brightened Mind — but then I turned the page and hit the mother-lode.

The second half of The Brightened Mind is solid gold. Sumano’s strength is in emphasizing the “naturalness” of meditation. The second meditation exercise begins with the suggestion, “Allow your eyelids to close gently and begin to think ‘soft.’ That means relaxing the mind and smiling within.” This is beautifully put, and a valuable reminder that meditation can be something we let happen rather than make happen. We don’t try to “do something,” the Ajahn reminds us, but rather meditation is ultimately “a way of undoing and letting go into the smile.” From this point on the instructions are precise and emphasize a profound letting go: “You can just allow gravity to relax the body from the top of the head all the way down to the soles of the feet … when the body has opened and extended fully, the mind will follow and respond accordingly.”

Ajahn Sumano suggests using the evocative power of words, and he says something that I’ve said many times myself: “Every word has power. Every word, even if we do not speak it but simply think of it, emits a vibration in our mind.” And so we breathe in words such as “calm,” “clear,” and (intriguingly) “beyond,” allowing them to work their spells. Sumano explains that we “breathe in” a word by “mentally inclining toward it with a silent whisper as we inhale.” Beautifully put.

The next section, which I thought was highly effective, involves taking meditation into our daily life. Say we are a student listening to a lecture. Sumano suggests that we pay minute detail to everything the lecturer does: every movement, every gesture, the tone of voice, etc. We do this with a “fascinated scrutiny that measures the present moment accurately and precisely.” The net effect of this is that the mind becomes “sensitive, sharp, and focused.” If I may interject an element of my own teaching here, I emphasize a similar quality of total attention in sitting meditation. I find that by paying attention to many sensations simultaneously, in a wide-open field of awareness, there is simply no room for inner chatter (see Meditation and Mental Bandwidth). The effect of that is to bring us rapidly to a state of calmness and happiness. We also become more intimate with and closer to our experience, because as soon as we start to talk to ourselves about our experience we erect a barrier. As Sumano puts it, “In relaxing into this awareness, you are learning how to link the outside world with the inner world.” We are, in fact developing (although Sumano never mentions this term) a non-dual awareness that can lead (and again Sumano doesn’t use this terminology) to what are often called the “formless absorptions.”

In this chapter Sumano also suggests that the attitude with which we approach our lives should be a “resolve to do well in everything we do.” I often find that Buddhists lack this resolve, and are content to just bumble along in an almost haphazard way, with their email inboxes overflowing with hundreds or even thousands of messages, and their minds full of unhelpful stories whose validity and ethical skillfulness they never question. A commitment to excellence is essential. Once we have that resolve, Sumano tells us, “the mind will gather focus and stability and launch itself into the process without conscious effort from you.” That is profoundly true.

Working in this way (letting meditation happen, paying total attention, committing ourselves to excellence) leads to concentration and, eventually, to insight. “This present-moment focus is the key to penetrating the understanding of anything and everything.” What would that look like? “In this state of deep concentration, the contents of the mind (objects, moods, thoughts, memories, feelings, etc.) take on a light and translucent quality, allowing us to investigate these elements without getting stuck in any of them.” And so we begin to realize that we are not our experience.

“With this discerning detachment, we can see [these experiences] for what they are: ever-changing energy patterns that don’t belong to anyone and are not ours to keep.” We thus come to weaken and eventually lose the sense of having a self.

The remainder of the book consists of a summary of the benefits of practice, some reflections on the ultimate goal of practice (enlightenment), and a number of short reflections on lovingkindness, an awareness of impermanence (the better to have a sense of urgency about our practice), and on the value of spiritual friendship (giving it as well as receiving it!). This is all valuable material, although Sumano is pretty much dropping spiritual wisdom into your mind at this point, and leaving you to engage with it. This is fair enough. He’s already given us the tools by which we can radically transform our approach to such material. The extraordinary thing is the very compact way in which he’s done this, by simplifying his presentation of the spiritual path down to those three key activities of letting meditation happen, paying total attention, and committing ourselves to excellence.

Although I think the first half of the book should have been dramatically cut (and I wonder if some editor insisted that the core text on meditation needed to be fleshed out with some “spiritual marketing” to extol the virtues of the goodies to come) the pith instructions themselves are excellent, and I’d highly recommend Sumano’s spiritual manual.

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Paul Klee: “Everything vanishes around me, and works are born as if out of the void”

Paul Klee, 1927, photo by Hugo Erfurth

Paul Klee, the famous Swiss/German expressionist painter, may seem to be making an almost mystical claim here — that creativity comes from beyond the conscious mind. I think you’d be right in assuming that creative impulses come from unconscious parts of the mind, but not that this is an exclusively mystical state. In fact, all action ultimately has this quality of coming from “beyond,” but we simply fail to notice this most of the time, because we’re in the grip of the illusion that the conscious mind is “us,” that it owns our actions, and that it’s in control.

When I speak, I’m often aware that my words come from what Klee calls “the void.” Words appear as if from nowhere, without conscious intervention. It’s not that my conscious mind is in some way “queueing up” words internally so that I can deliver them a few moments later. Now I used to assume that that’s exactly what did happen, but more and more I’ve realize that that assumption arose because of the conscious mind’s ongoing habit of plagiarism. Let me explain what I mean, using some examples that I cite in my recent book, Living as a River.

Everything vanishes around me, and works are born as if out of the void … My hand has become the obedient instrument of a remote will.

Back in the 1970s, a researcher called Ben Libet asked people to flex their wrist at random times of their own choosing. They were to flex the wrist the very moment that the impulse to do so arose. At the same time, he monitored their brains, and found that the motor cortex of the brain (the part that controls movement) fizzed and popped with electrical activity a full half second before the subjects moved their wrists. That meant that Libet knew, half a second before the subjects did, that they were going to flex their wrists. Now the subjects thought that they were making these movements at exactly the time the impulse arose. But what seems to have gone on is that the conscious mind claimed responsibility for an action that had been initiated outside of consciousness.

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Libet’s findings were controversial, because they seem to undermine our notion of free will. Some said that his equipment was simply picking up on static in the brain. So, fast-forward to today, and to Berlin, Germany, where John-Dylan Haynes, at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience, used much more sensitive functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to do a similar experiment. fMRI is able to observe, in real time, activity deep in the brain. This time, Haynes asked subjects to randomly press a button either with their right or left hands. And this time, Haynes found that he could predict, six seconds before the subjects were conscious of the desire to act, which button they would press. That’s astonishing, if you think about it. Haynes can tell, six seconds before you do, what you’re going to do. In this experiment, as in life, the conscious mind thinks it’s just made a decision, when in fact it’s more like it’s just become aware of a decision having been made elsewhere, and has claimed responsibility for it.

Now this is all really weird. In fact I’m reminded of a time I had a young man, who I suspect suffered from schizophrenia, come to a meditation class. I was talking to him just before he left the class, and in mid-conversation a house-fly buzzed in between us and smacked into the class door we were standing beside. “I did that,” he said, in an effort to convince me that he not only was sane, but had special powers. Now to you or me, this young man’s inability to distinguish between his own intentions and outside actions is a sign of mental illness. He saw the fly thud against the glass and thought he’d made that event happen. But Libet and Haynes have shown that we ourselves do something similar all the time. Our conscious minds observe an action taking place, and immediately say “I did that.” It’s not that different from what the young man with schizophrenia did. The conscious mind it is a plagiarist, claiming authorship of actions it’s not actually responsible for.

Our sense of self is, in fact, largely to do with this false sense of ownership. We observe thoughts, emotions, and actions emerge into consciousness, and immediately assume, “I did that.” But in the meditation practice I explore in Living as a River — The Six Element Practice — we counteract this tendency to “possess” our actions by noting thoughts, feelings, etc as they pass through the mind, and by repeating “This is not me, this is not mine, I am not this” as we note each one. Eventually, the sense of ownership begins to fade away — or suddenly vanishes. The conscious mind ceases to plagiarize, and we find ourselves simply witnessing our experience coming into being.

This isn’t to say that we don’t have free will, incidentally. It’s just that free will is not something that’s entirely the result of conscious activity. When you “consciously” decide to do something, you are actually making a choice, it’s just that your conscious mind doesn’t seem to do much more than observe the event taking place and claim responsibility for it. If that.

So all the time, our thoughts, emotions, and actions are arising from “the void.” But Klee is talking about the special case where we notice that this is what’s happening, and when we’ve let go of the act of clinging to, and identifying with, our own actions. This is quite a special state. It’s a state of effortless creativity, because there’s nothing standing between your creative energies and their expression. And the plagiaristic conscious mind frequently gets in the way.

Everyone who has experience of writing knows the sheer terror of the blank sheet of paper (or screen). The conscious mind looks at the pristine field in front of it and simply can’t come up with anything that’s good enough to commit to writing. Any thought that emerges is judged to be unsuitable — as a reflection of our own inadequacy. The thing is that the conscious mind is trying to create, which is something it’s incapable of doing. It’s actually standing between our creative energies and their expression. What we need to do, in order to let our creative energies flow freely, is to get ourselves (or the conscious mind) out of the way. We need to set aside judgement, and to allow the conscious mind to have the role only of being an observer, allowing the “remote will” to express itself. Many writing coaches use this approach to “unblock” creativity, for example by setting rules that say that you have to write for a set period of time, without going back and editing.

Through meditation we train ourselves to do something similar. In life we end up proliferating thoughts, so that the mind is jammed with inner talk. In such a state there’s no way for creative impulses to express themselves, because the mind’s “bandwidth” is already being fully used. If a creative impulse were to try to communicate itself, it would get a metaphorical “busy signal.” In meditation we learn to let go of unnecessary thoughts (and 99% of them are not necessary) and this creates a “space” in the mind, opening up channels of communication with our deeper, and more creative impulses.

How does this manifest in real life? It shows up as more authentic, wise, and compassionate communication. Instead of second-guessing ourselves, constantly worrying about what people think of us, we can simply respond to others on a human level. We find that we’re more intuitive. That we’re more playful. That we’re more insightful. We get the conscious mind out of the way, and find we can be more ourselves.

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The ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ phenomenon

When the film Four Weddings and a Funeral came out in 1994, I was irritated by the film’s ‘token’ inclusion of a deaf character and two gay men. A lesbian friend was less judgemental. She was just thrilled that a mainstream film featured a gay relationship.

Reading Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-seller, and seeing the film adaptation starring Julia Roberts, I think I know how my friend felt. The ideas are flawed, but to see Buddhism portrayed positively in popular culture is a delight.

The story – if you don’t know it – is of a thirty-something woman, unsatisfied with her affluent New York life, who goes travelling for a year in search of self-fulfilment. Her quest is successful: she stuffs herself with pizza and pasta in Italy, experiences a spiritual epiphany at an ashram in India and meets the love of her life in Indonesia. Then she writes a best selling book about the whole adventure and earns a small fortune. I came, I saw, I conquered.

And as Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, ‘aye, there’s the rub.’ Reviewers have criticised both film and book for their ‘rich girl goes shopping’ tone. Not so offensive as regards pizza and pasta perhaps, but less credible when it comes to spiritual enlightenment and finding the love of one’s life.

Besides, can the quest be genuine when Elizabeth Gilbert is doing it partly for material gain? Can it be genuine if squeezed into a twelve-month space, not to mention a book that has to have a beginning, middle and end? When we see Julia Roberts in character on the bathroom floor sobbing over how her life doesn’t fulfil her, should we be sympathising, or saying ‘get over yourself’ and saving our concern for the earthquake victims of Haiti? Furthermore, most of us aren’t able to leave hearth and home to go ‘find’ ourselves. Does that mean there’s no hope?

These questions pop up uncomfortably again and again as one reads, or watches Eat, Pray, Love, to the extent that the book (very well written) and the film (a visual feast) both become something of a guilty pleasure.

But it would be a mistake to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The film, and to a greater extent, the book, have merit.

There’s a tradition known as New Journalism, which started in the 1960’s when New York Times journalists decided that to write about something properly, you had to experience it. They went to Vietnam, lived with Hell’s Angels or shadowed rock stars for months in order to get that all-important inside view. And they wrote about their findings in the first person. The ‘I’ viewpoint entered mainstream journalism.

Elizabeth Gilbert is writing in that tradition. We may carp at the circumstance of her quest but it is courageous – she leaves the familiar behind in an attempt to open herself to experience – and as such, it’s a metaphor for all our quests. She may be writing primarily about herself, but she offers that self up as the everyman/woman self of the privileged Westerner on its relentless search for happiness. This comes over more clearly in the book than in the film, in the searing honesty of the line-by-line writing. The book is less simplistic, containing complicated episodes that the film omits. And Gilbert’s unflinching self-analysis has chimed with many readers, perhaps because she articulates Western malaise so well. We have so much: why are we still unhappy?

A friend of mine claimed recently that he’d like to read a novel that wasn’t written by a writer. He was distrusting the craft of story, with its the inevitable distortions. And yet, as Pablo Picasso said, ‘Art is the lie that tells the truth.’ We have to bear in mind that Eat, Pray, Love is essentially an art form: a story, not a description of reality.

A spiritual epiphany doesn’t happen on demand, in an ‘it’s Tuesday, so it must be enlightenment’ way. A few months meditating in an ashram and learning from spiritual teachers doesn’t guarantee anything. But it might act as a springboard. Spiritual insights do happen, and although in reality you can probably have them without leaving your own home, if we view Gilbert’s quest in the spirit of story and of metaphor, where one thing stands for another, we may be able to see her work in a more generous light.

Having said all that, the story would undoubtedly have been more interesting if she had returned home overweight, broke and having discovered that the love of her life was a serial womaniser – and still had taken it all on the chin, with equanimity. That would have been an epiphany worth witnessing.

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Born to be free

rebel buddhaDzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, author of Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom, explains that our innate drive for freedom can be expressed either destructively or creatively.

Rebel Buddha is an exploration of what it means to be free and how it is that we can become free. Although we may vote for the head of our government, marry for love, and worship the divine or mundane powers of our choice, most of us don’t really feel free in our day-to-day lives. When we talk about freedom, we’re also talking about its opposite — bondage, lack of independence, being subject to the control of something or someone outside ourselves. No one likes it, and when we find ourselves in that situation, we quickly start trying to figure out a way around it. Any restriction on our “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” arouses fierce resistance. When our happiness and freedom are at stake, we become capable of transforming ourselves into rebels.

Title: Rebel Buddha
Author: Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-874-5
Available from: Shambhala,, and

There’s something of a rebellious streak in all of us. Usually it’s dormant, but sometimes it’s provoked into expression. If nurtured and guided with wisdom and compassion, it can be a positive force that frees us from fear and ignorance. If it manifests neurotically, however, full of resentment, anger, and self-interest, then it can turn into a destructive force that harms oneself as much as it does others. When confronted with a threat to our freedom or independence and that rebellious streak surfaces, we can choose how to react and channel that energy. It can become part of a contemplative process that leads to insight. Sometimes that insight comes quickly, but it can also take years.

According to the Buddha, our freedom is never in question. We are born free. The true nature of the mind is enlightened wisdom and compassion. Our minds are always brilliantly awake and aware. Nevertheless, we’re often plagued by painful thoughts and the emotional unrest that goes with them. We live in states of confusion and fear from which we see no escape. Our problem is that we don’t see who we truly are at the deepest level. We don’t recognize the power of our enlightened nature. We trust the reality we see before our eyes and accept its validity until something comes along — an illness, accident, or disappointment — to disillusion us. Then we might be ready to question our beliefs and start searching for a more meaningful and lasting truth. Once we take that step, we’re starting off on the road to freedom.

On this road, what we free ourselves from is illusion, and what frees us from illusion is the discovery of truth. To make that discovery, we need to enlist the powerful intelligence of our own awake mind and turn it toward our goal of exposing, opposing, and overcoming deception. That is the essence and mission of “rebel buddha”: to free us from the illusions we create by ourselves, about ourselves, and those that masquerade as reality in our cultural and religious institutions.

We start by looking at the dramas in our life, not with our ordinary eyes, but with the eyes of dharma. What is drama and what is dharma? I guess you could say drama is illusion that acts like truth, and dharma is truth itself—the way things are, the basic state of reality that does not change from day to day according to fashion or one’s mood or agenda. To change dharma into drama, all you need are the elements of any good play: emotion, conflict, and action—a sense that something urgent and meaningful is happening to the characters involved. Our personal dramas may begin with the ‘facts’ about who we are and what we are doing, but, fueled by our emotions and concepts, they can quickly evolve into pure imagination and become as difficult to decipher as the storylines of our dreams. Then our sense of reality becomes further and further removed from basic reality itself. We lose track of who we really are. We have no means of telling fact from fiction, or developing the self-knowledge or wisdom that can free us from our illusions.

The Rebel Buddha North American Tour, featuring Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and other leading voices in Western Buddhism, kicks off on November 14 in New York, NY at The Cooper Union’s Great Hall. The Tour will continue to Halifax, Toronto, and Boulder, and will conclude in Seattle.

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Want to get enlightened? Here are some tips.

Last night I taught the first night of a class on achieving Insight through meditation.

This being the first night there was a bit more talking than there will be in the rest of the four-week course, so I thought I’d record the talk, in which I discuss why we should think more about getting Enlightened, what holds us back, and what we need to do to set up conditions for Insight arising.

I also recorded the guided meditation that I led.

By the way, I had a cold, so there’s some coughing, hacking, and nose-blowing!

Both the talk and the meditation are unedited, and the sound quality isn’t great.

Here’s the talk, which is 41 minutes long:

The meditation was in three parts:

1. A brief mindfulness of breathing
2. A brief period of lovingkindness
3. A reflection on the Earth Element

Here’s the meditation, which is 45 minutes long. All three parts are included in this recording.

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Nine ways that a meditating brain creates better relationships

Psychology Today: It’s never too late to have a brain that’s wired as if it had a happy childhood

Therapists get this question a lot: “Okay, so now that I understand how my history made me a mess when it comes to relationships, what now? It’s not like I can go back in time and change my childhood.”

The “what now” is that there’s increasing evidence that the simple practice of mindfulness meditation can re-wire your brain. In key areas, you can literally change and grow neural connections which support finding and creating better relationships. And in nine different ways, your brain can become more like those who grew up knowing how to love and be loved in healthy, sustainable ways.

As a psychologist helping others find their way to greater emotional well-being, I find that the most compelling benefits of a regular mindfulness meditation practice are a set of nine documented results. (I mentioned them in my previous post, Mindfulness Meditation + Neuroscience = Healthier Relationships.) I’ve seen the results confirmed through my psychology practice, in myself, and in the lives of my friends and colleagues.

At least seven of these nine benefits bear a remarkable resemblance to the characteristics of people who grew up with healthy, attuned attachments. Childhood attachment experiences have a huge impact on how we are wired for relationships, throughout our lives.

So, if we can change our brain to work more like those people with healthy attachment histories, we too can have a brain that’s wired as if it had a happy childhood.


When I first learned about these from Dan Siegel, MD, I was stunned that something as simple as mindfulness meditation could make such inroads with the challenges of finding and creating healthy relationships. Take a look at these benefits:

1. Better management of your body’s reactions.

Stress and anger lose their grip on your body more quickly and easily. When you get home from a hard day at work, you aren’t still carrying the pent-up tension and frustration in your body, and so you won’t be driven towards an angry reaction to your partner’s benign comment.

In a way, it’s like re-setting your body’s “alarm” button when it’s gotten stuck in the “ON” position. Vital to your relationships is your ability to (a) recognize that that’s what’s going on, (b) understand what is happening in your brain and body that is keeping you there, and (c) un-stick that alarm button.

2. Emotional resiliency.

Being able to correct or repair unpleasant moods more quickly, without just sweeping them under the rug of resentments, frees you up to be less stressed by emotional upset, and more available to the next good thing.

Regulating your emotions doesn’t mean ignoring them, denying them, or cramming them deep inside (they eventually erupt anyway, but in festered form). The trick is to be able to get yourself back to baseline with relative ease and efficiency.

3. Better, more “tuned in” communication.

Research on attachment and healthy brain development shows that having someone be attuned to you — they listen and “get” you without distortion, and respond in a way which is actually contingent upon you instead of just their own inner stuff — is one of the chief ways that your brain gets organized for well-being.

That’s true in childhood, and we’re now learning that it’s also true for adults. Mindfulness meditation helps you to be a more attuned communicator. Even better, new evidence suggests that the more you practice this kind of “attuned” communication, the more likely that your significant other will get better at it, as well. (More on that in another post.)

4. Response flexibility.

We often have a fairly limited repertoire of how we respond to those situations that just “set us off.” Some people always blame and yell when they feel ashamed; others cry whenever receiving criticism, even if it is constructive and positive.

The habits of our nervous system can seem like electrical surges, leaving us vulnerable to making a real mess when we don’t mean to. Having an emotional circuit breaker makes a real difference — creating the space for you to have a more mindful, conscious response. Mindfulness meditation, by beefing up areas which essentially buy us a tiny bit more time before we respond in a knee-jerk way, improves response flexibility.

5. Improved empathy.

There are some common misconceptions about empathy. Being empathic isn’t about being a doormat, or mind-reader. It’s also not about fear (I need to read this person really well so he doesn’t get angry and hit me).

Being able to “get” and understand another person’s state of mind is essential for healthy relationships, but being able to do so without losing your awareness of your own state of mind is vitally important. Getting your brain to let you perceive someone else, without your protective gear and lenses, and without getting lost in their “stuff,” is something that mindfulness meditation does extremely well.

6. Improved insight (self-knowing).

Getting to know yourself in a real way, and within a coherent framework (How did I get here?), results in being far less vulnerable to getting lost when it comes to being in relationship with others.

When we meditate regularly, we’re practicing our ability to notice what our brain is up to — what the thoughts are, what the feelings are. We become increasingly able to tell the difference between those momentary and ever-changing events, and who we really are.

Through meditation practice, the brain gets re-wired and “remembers,” more often and more easily, who you really are – not just your thoughts and feelings, so they don’t carry you away.

7. Better modulation of fear.

If you’re able to be more comfortable with things which once scared you (He’s going to leave me; I’m not enough for her), and not as reactive to emotional fear, you change your entire experience of being in an adult-to-adult relationship with others.

It’s important in relationships to have ready access to being able to soothe yourself when you’re afraid, so that your reactions and interactions aren’t overrun by your fight-flight-freeze response. There is compelling research on the brain mechanisms underlying the flexible control of fear, and those are remarkably similar to the brain areas which change in response to mindfulness meditation.

8. Enhanced intuition.

There’s actually increasing neurochemical and cellular evidence of a sort of second brain in our gut (okay, viscera). Most of us are familiar with having some kind of “gut feeling,” usually in response to something that has our attention. But what about all of those times when we’re an auto-pilot, or distracted? Is the information in our gut turned “off’?

Hardly. Our viscera, and the rest of our body — our muscles, eyes, ears, skin, and so on — are telling us something. Most of the time, we ignore these messages, but the mindfulness practice of being more aware of what your body is telling you enhances the ability to be attuned to yourself, and what you unconsciously know — what we can refer to as “intuition.”

Becoming emotionally “smarter” — by using the extra information from your non-brain parts — enhances your ability to be in mindfully aware, conscious relationships with yourself and with others.

9. Increased morality.

In addition to healthier, happier relationships with your partner and circle of friends, is there anything that comes from the first eight benefits?

The research on mindfulness shows that when people learn to meditate and practice regularly, their perceptions of their place in the world begins to shift — something corroborated by family members. They become more broadly compassionate, more likely to act on their highest principles, and demonstrate greater interest in the social good – what can very reasonably seen as living with higher morals. It’s like having a healthier relationship with your whole community, not just the people closest to you.

An impressive list! It does take practice — and the practice is simple, but not easy. (Of course, with all of these benefits, there may be some other personal work to be done, if deeper unresolved issues are involved — meditation alone doesn’t mean you’re off the hook for dealing with old wounds and their influences on you.)

The good news is that some of the research shows that you can see changes with as little as twenty minutes of practice a day (and some experts say that you can benefit with even less than that – the trick is to be sure it is a regular, daily practice). I invite you to give it a try.

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John Dewey: “The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action.”

John Dewey

Dewey’s saying echoes Buddhist notions of impermanence and not-self. Bodhipaksa points out that the Buddhist position is not merely descriptive of how things are. Rather it amounts to a technology of happiness — a set of perspectives and tools that allows us to create more deeply fulfilling lives.

One of the most crippling — and often unacknowledged — beliefs we can have is that the self is something fixed and unchanging. When we have the idea that our personalities are set like words carved in stone the possibility of change is closed off to us.

A mountaineering friend of mine once commented that when coming down a hill you were faced with innumerable choices about whether to go to the left or right of a particular rock. The very first choice you make conditions all the others, but every single choice you make shapes the route of descent. Depending on the choices you make, you can end up where you wanted to be, or miles away from there. You can end up safe, or you can end up in grave danger.

Choices that in themselves may not amount to much cumulatively create very different experiences of life.

I see this principle in action in my own life all the time. I’m always making choices that in themselves may not seem to amount to much, but which cumulatively create very different experiences of life.

Now often when people talk about choices they think about the big things in life, like choosing a job or a life partner. Or often people think about trivial things like which breakfast cereal they’re going to have. But the choices I’m talking about making are generally not huge. Usually they are tiny decisions about things, like how I’m going to respond to a particular thought that has popped into my head. That thought that’s critical of a co-worker, will I spin it into a story about his failings, or will I just let it go? That fearful thought that tells me the article I’m writing isn’t going to be interesting, am I going to believe those doubts or will I let them pass by and throw myself into the act of creation? These aren’t major life-style choices, although they do matter. They affect my moment-by-moment sense of well-being, and they affect whether my life feels like play or like drudgery.

It’s because paying attention to these choices makes a difference to my well-being that they’re important. There are some choices we make — which cereal we’re having for breakfast, whether to wear the gray or the black socks — that really have no significant effect on our lives, although sometimes we put a lot of energy into such decisions, perhaps to divert ourselves from more important issues.

Just as with coming down a mountain, the accumulation of small decisions can lead us to very different places. When my two-year-old has a tantrum, do I lose my temper with her and try to use aggressive control to force her to do what I want, or can I find a more gentle and compassionate response that gives her reassurance and models a more mature form of self-control? What happens in those moments where we are faced with a screaming toddler turn out very differently depending on what mental habits we’ve developed.

Over the course of a lifetime, we can radically reshape ourselves

Over the course of a lifetime, we can radically reshape ourselves. I’ve seen people go from being crippled with anxiety to being confident leaders. I’ve seen people go from being prickly and aggressive to being friendly and loving. You might think a lifetime is a long time for change to come about. Surely there’s a faster way? Some new therapy or psychological tool that can bring about change in a weekend? It’s true that sometimes we can change rapidly — I’ve known some people to go from “difficult” to “mellow” in just a few weeks of meditation — but while that can happen the greater danger is that we’ll spend our entire lives looking for a quick fix rather than changing ourselves in a slow and steady way. Looking for quick change we end up making no change.

To be able to make the choices that allow for growth, that allow for the creation of a more meaningful and satisfying life, we need to have mindfulness. Without mindfulness we’re largely unaware that there even are choices to be made. Without mindfulness we simply respond habitually to our lives and there’s no possibility of change. We need to be able to stand back from ourselves, pause, and consider what’s the best way to respond.

We also need a degree of insight. Insight’s nothing magical — it comes from observing ourselves and realizing, for example, that losing our temper generally makes things worse, while being patient generally makes things better. Insight can also come from listening to other people who have made a bit more progress in working with themselves than we ourselves have done. At the very least we need to have a general sense of how we can tell the difference between impulses that are likely to create unhappiness and those are are going to lead to well-being and harmony.

We can come to the realization that the self is not a thing but a process…

We need patience as well. We all work within limitations. We may have strongly developed habits of unhelpful behaviors that have taken years to build up. We’re not going to be able to change those habits overnight. But we don’t have to. In going down the mountain we don’t leap from the summit down to the base; instead we simply take each rock as it appears in front of us, and decide whether we’re going to go to the left or the right. And we do that over and over again. Sometimes — often even — we’ll make the wrong choice, or fail to make a choice at all. But there will be plenty of other rocks for us to maneuver around. If I lose my temper I then have the opportunity to respond to that situation creatively — for example by letting go of my pride, by apologizing, by making amends, and by resolving to be more aware in the future.

All this amounts to what we could call a “technology of happiness” — a set of tools that allows us to transform our lives, moment by moment, into something creative, joyful, and filled with meaning.

Eventually we can come to the realization that the self is not a thing but a process, or rather a parallel series of interconnected processes. When we look at ourselves we don’t see a “thing” that needs to be changes, but multiple interwoven streams of matter, sensation, emotion, thought, and habit — each of which is already and always changing. We can realize that the problem is not bringing about change, but lies in shaping the direction of change. This is a liberating realization. Not only do we experience a sense of freedom from the idea of a fixed self, but we realize that there is nothing holding us back from further change — and there never was.

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“Self, meditating,” by Robert Wright

New York Times: This Friday I’m heading up to rural Massachusetts in hopes of getting born again — again.

Six years ago, in the same locale, I attended my first and only silent meditation retreat. It was just about the most amazing experience of my life. Certainly it seemed more dramatic than my very first born-again experience — my response to a southern Baptist altar call as a child, which I wrote about in this space last month.

I came away from that week feeling I had found a new kind of happiness, deeper than the kind I’d always pursued. I also came away a better person — just ask my wife. (And neither of those things lasted — just ask my wife.)

So with the retreat approaching, I should be as eager as a kid on Christmas Eve, right? Well, no. Meditation retreats — at this place, at least — are no picnic. You don’t follow your bliss. You learn not to follow your bliss, to let your bliss follow you. And you learn this arduously. If at the end you feel like you’re leaving Shangri-La, that’s because the beginning felt like Guantanamo.

We spent 5.5 hours per day in sitting meditation, 5.5 hours per day in walking meditation. By day three I was feeling achy, far from nirvana and really, really sick of the place.

I was sick of my 5 a.m. “yogi job” (vacuuming), I was sick of the bland vegetarian food, and I wasn’t especially fond of all those Buddhists with those self-satisfied looks on their faces, walking around serenely like they knew something I didn’t know (which, it turns out, they did).

Yes, the payoff was huge. But it’s unlikely to be as big this time around. It’s famously hard to replicate the rapture of your first meditation retreat. Last time, during the first half of the week, my apparently prescient unconscious mind kept filling my head with that old song by Foreigner, “It feels like the first time, like it never will again.” I’ve never especially liked that song, and during those first few days it joined the list of things I hated.

What I hated above all was that I wasn’t succeeding as a meditator. Now, as the two leaders of this retreat were known to point out, you’re not supposed to think of “succeeding” at meditating. And you’re not supposed to blame yourself for failing. And blah, blah, blah.

Well, they were right: To “succeed” I really did have to quit pursuing success, and quit blaming myself for failing. And some other things had to go right.

And what was “success” like? Well, to start at the less spiritual, more sensual end: By the time I left, eating the food I’d initially disdained ranked up there with above-average sex. I’m not exaggerating by much. When I first got there, I didn’t understand why some people were closing their eyes while eating. By the end of the retreat, I was closing mine. The better to focus on the source of my ecstasy. I wasn’t just living in the moment — I was luxuriating in it.

Also, my view of weeds changed. There’s a kind of weed that I had spent years killing, sometimes manually, sometimes with chemicals. On a walk one day I looked down at one of those weeds and it looked as beautiful as any other plant. Why, I wondered, had I bought into the “weed” label? Why had I so harshly judged an innocent plant?

If this sounds crazy to you, you should hear how crazy it sounds to me. I’m not the weed-hugging type, I assure you.

And as long as we’re on the subject of crazy, there was my moment of bonding with a lizard. I looked at this lizard and watched it react to local stimuli and thought: I’m in the same boat as that lizard — born without asking to be born, trying to make sense of things, and far from getting the whole picture.

I mean, sure, I know more than the lizard — like the fact that I exist and the fact that I evolved by natural selection. But my knowledge is, like the lizard’s, hemmed in by the fact that my brain is a product of evolution, designed to perform mundane tasks, to react to local stimuli, not to understand the true nature of things. And — here’s the crazy part — I kind of loved that lizard. A little bit, for a little while.

Whether I had made major moral progress by learning to empathize with a lizard, let alone a weed, is open to debate. The more important part of my expanding circle of affinity involved people — specifically, my fellow meditators.

At the beginning of the retreat, looking around the meditation hall, I had sized people up, making lots of little judgments, sometimes negative, on the basis of no good evidence. (Re: guy wearing Juilliard t-shirt and exhibiting mild symptoms of theatricality: Well, aren’t we special?) By the end of the retreat I was less inclined toward judgment, especially the harsh kind. And days after the retreat, while riding the monorail to the Newark airport I found myself doing something I never do — striking up a conversation with strangers. Nice strangers!

My various epiphanies may sound trite, like a caricature of pop-Buddhist enlightenment. And, presented in snapshot form, that’s what I’m afraid they’re destined to sound like. All I can say is that there is a bigger philosophical picture that these snapshots are part of, and that I had made some progress in apprehending it by the end of the retreat.

The “apprehension” isn’t just intellectual. This retreat was in the Vipassana tradition, which emphasizes gaining insight into the way your mind works. Vipassana has a reputation for being one of the more intellectual Buddhist traditions, but, even so, part of the idea is to gain that insight in a way that isn’t entirely intellectual. Or, at least, in a way that is sometimes hard to describe.

On Thursday night, the fifth night of the retreat, about 30 minutes into a meditation session, I had an experience that falls into that category, so I won’t try to describe it. I’ll just say that it involved seeing the structure of my mind — experiencing the structure of my mind — in a new way, and in a way that had great meaning for me. And, happily, this experience was accompanied by a stunningly powerful blast of bliss. All told, I don’t think I’ve ever had a more dramatic moment.

This retreat is coming at a good time for me. In June I published a book that I’ve been feverishly promoting. Publishing and promoting a book can bring out the non-Buddhist in a person. For example, when book reviewers make judgments about your book, you may make judgments about the reviewers — ungenerous judgments, even.

Also, you’re inclined to pursue the fruits of your activity — like book sales — rather than just experience the activity. Checking your Amazon ranking every 7 minutes would qualify as what Buddhists call “attachment.” And attachment is bad. (Oops: I just made a judgment about attachment.)

In fact, in general I’ve been living like someone who hasn’t been meditating with much regularity or dedication, who has strayed from the straight and narrow. It’s time to start anew.

At the end of my first retreat, still reeling from that Thursday-night experience, I told one of the meditation teachers about it. He nodded casually, as if the insight I’d had was one of the standard stops on the path to enlightenment — but far from the end of the path. Through truly intensive meditation, he said, the transformation of your view of your mind — and your view of your mind’s relationship to reality, and your view of reality itself — can go much deeper than I’d gone.

That would be interesting! But this week I’d settle for half as deep.

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of “The Moral Animal,” “Nonzero” and, most recently, “The Evolution of God.”

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The Centrality of Impermanence

flowing waterIf there is just one thing you should learn about this world, anicca is it. It may be an exaggeration to say that anicca, or impermanence, is the core of the Buddha’s teaching, but when we look closely at this single idea, the whole of the Buddha’s teaching begins to open up.

In Buddhism, impermanence is one of the three “marks” of existence, along with dukkha and anattā, or unsatisfactoriness and no-self. Together, these three marks form the core of a Buddhist conception of reality. Understanding this reality is often described as tantamount to awakening.

Indeed, in Vipassanā meditation we are taught to note, or to simply direct the mind to “see” these three marks in all of our experience. To fully see these marks in a way that is unshakable, in a way that you simply cannot forget, such that your every experience of the world resonates: “anicca, anattā, dukkha” is to be awakened. This is no easy task of course, requiring perhaps lifetimes of effort. But this insight alone is enough to cut the roots of ignorance that tie us to cycle after cycle of repeated suffering.

As if to emphasize the centrality of insight into the three marks, the Buddhist Jātakas (birth-stories) describe numerous beings who gained awakening through the realization of these three marks without hearing any teachings from a sammā-sambuddha, or fully and perfectly awakened one. These beings became known as pacceka-buddhas, or solitary awakened ones, because they neither followed another Buddha’s teachings nor taught others what they had discovered. So even from the early Buddhist texts we are taught that one can become awakened without following any “Buddhist” path per se, by simply gaining insight into the three marks of existence.

 With insight into impermanence the very foundations of our suffering crumble  

So why is impermanence in particular so important? Because, as Ñanamoli Bhikkhu points out in his Buddhist Dictionary, ”It is from this all-embracing fact of impermanence that the other two universal characteristics, suffering dukkha and no-self anattā, are derived.” This may be helpful because so much is said and written by contemporary Buddhists about dukkha and anattā in isolation from the more fundamental fact of anicca. And many discussions on these topics, including my own at times, quickly spin off into abstraction, technical details, and heady philosophy.

And yet in the actual practice of meditation the “mark” that is most easily experienced is that of impermanence. With a stilled mind everything is experienced rising and falling. All is impermanent, from the pain in one’s knee: dancing, throbbing, pulsing, fading – to thoughts and ideas: arising as if from the clear sky and fading again into it without a trace, leaving behind pure clarity (or just more thoughts!). Watching this flow, the apparent “solidity” underlying our typical samsāric experience begins to crumble. If you’re anything like me, that solidity comes back a few minutes after most meditations, but experience of anicca is now undeniable.

With insight into impermanence the very foundations of our suffering and sense of a permanent, unchanging self crumble. Obviously, if all is flow and change, then this goes for our “self” too. Our suffering is a result of thirsting after and clinging to bits of the world that we wrongly believe will give us lasting happiness. Realizing anicca, our grip on all of this is loosened. This was described to me once by the young daughter of one of my friends in grad school. “We learn to hold that which we love not like this,” she said, holding out a closed fist in front of her, “but like this,” and she turned her hand over, slowly extending her fingers.

 …insight dissolves the very linchpin of samsāra  

To work at stilling the mind to directly perceive anicca is to traverse a path to openness, acceptance, and a welcoming attitude toward life.

This work may be done in many ways. Calming meditation, such as mindfulness of breathing certainly forms the most widely taught foundation. Further techniques are numerous and are best pursued with the assistance of a teacher. The best known route in the West is the “path of wisdom,” which directs the student’s stilled mind directly at anicca. However, this path is not for everyone. Buddhaghosa, in his Visuddhimagga, describes how the “path of faith” works in Buddhism, drawing the practitioner by the heart, not so much the head, into direct confrontation with the changing nature of all experience. Peter Harvey discusses the rise of the early “Cult of Relics” in stating that, “Buddha-relics can be seen to remind devotees both of the impermanence of the Buddha and his entry to the deathless (nirvāṇa); they are a presence that reminds them of the absent Buddha…”

Thus we see that it might not be such an exaggeration to call insight into anicca the central goal of Buddhist practice, whether it is through the path of wisdom or the path of faith. We can trace the route back from suffering, through clinging and our mistaken notions of a permanent, unchanging self and lasting happiness in things of this world, to this one fundamental aspect of experience as it truly is. When we truly “get” impermanence, the cycle of ignorance and what follows begins to unravel. We might say that this insight dissolves the very linchpin of samsāra.

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