Jon Kabat-Zinn

“The future is no more uncertain than the present.” Walt Whitman

If you’re a long-time visitor to this site you may have wondered why there are fewer posts here than their used to be. It’s not that I’ve semi-retired, or anything like that. In fact I’m busier than ever with my teaching work, but most of it is seen only by people who sponsor Wildmind, and thus support me to teach meditation. If you’re interested in supporting my exploration and teaching of meditation, please check out Wildmind’s meditation initiative.

Whitman appears to have been obsessed with the concept of karma. Perhaps that’s not surprising, given that he was influenced by Transcendentalism.

In the “Song of Prudence,” for example, he wrote:

All that a person does, says, thinks, is of consequence,
Not a move can a man or woman make, that affects him or her in
a day, month, any part of the direct lifetime, or the hour
of death,
But the same affects him or her onward afterward through the
indirect lifetime.

His embrace of the principle of karma is something I might write about at another time. Today I’d like to go in a different direction.

When Whitman (in a poem called, “The Future”) wrote the line, “The future is no more uncertain than the present”  he was expressing confidence that the future would be an improvement on the present, because “we all are onward, onward, speeding slowly, surely bettering, / The world, the human race, the soul.”

I read the line “The future is no more uncertain than the present” differently from how Whitman intended it, however.

I interpreted the quote to mean that the present isn’t as certain as we think it is. This isn’t what Whitman himself meant, but it’s where my mind went.

We’re used to the idea that the future is unpredictable and unknowable, while we think we know what’s going on right now. But what if our certainty is misplaced and we’re getting it all wrong?

One of my meditation students, for example, has been sharing how she’s learning to see through the delusion that other people make us feel and act in certain ways: He’s making me anxious; she’s making me angry. Those statements are so certain, suggesting that we know what’s going on in the present moment. But they’re false certainties.

Our feelings arise within us. They’re our creations. Our responses — anger, depression, happiness — also arise within us. They too are our creations. Yet most of the time we forget that. He’s driving me crazy; she makes me happy.

All those certainties about the present. All wrong.

Which brings up the question, what else are we getting wrong about the present?

Often, for example, we focus on what’s going wrong in life, and on the things people are doing that we don’t like, and we ignore all the things that are going right. The car needs repairs again and realize we’ve run out of milk for our coffee, and we think, “What a day! Nothing is going right!”

But we’re ignoring the amazing fact that we have a car and someone to repair it, and that we have coffee, and a mug, and water, and electricity to heat it up. When we focus on what’s going wrong, we’re convinced that life is horrible. The present seems so certain. But when we focus on what’s going right, we feel blessed.

What else in this present moment are we certain about, but getting wrong? According to the Buddha, just about everything.

He talked about four kinds of cognitive distortions (Pali, vipallāsā; Sanskrit, viparyāsā) that affect how we understand the world:

Perceiving impermanence as permanence,
suffering as happiness,
not-self as self,
and ugliness as beauty—
sentient beings are ruined by wrong view,
deranged, out of their mind.

Right now, the one of these that most interests me is when we imagine things that are sources of suffering to be sources of happiness. Take any kind of addiction, if you want an extreme example. When we’re in the throes of addiction, over and over again we see the thing we crave as being a source of happiness and an escape from suffering. This of course is a cognitive distortion, and we have things upside down and backside foremost.

The reverse is also a vipallāsa: seeing sources of happiness as sources of suffering. An example I often think of is the reaction I get from some people when I tell them I’m going on a retreat with lots of silence and no access to TV. For many the very thought of that is painful. And yet the simplicity of such a retreat is positively joyous.

So we can have all these fixed certainties about what things are like in the present, but it turns out that those certainties are wrong. Once we’ve seen that pattern repeat itself a few times it seems wise to start regarding the present as being as uncertain as the future. We could call this “intellectual humility,” or “receptivity,” or even “courage” — because that’s what it takes to let go of potentially false certainties in order to open ourselves to perceiving things as they are, not as we believe them to be.

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Meditating with pets

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I have a daily Zoom meditation group as part of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative, and there are often a few pets in evidence. In fact one day someone commented that it must be “Take Your Dog to Meditation Day.”

In some ways pets are natural meditators. I’ve had a few cats in my life, and currently have a couple of dogs, and their ability to “just sit” and to be in the moment puts mine to shame.

At the same time, sometimes when we’re trying to meditate they want to get involved in ways that are distracting, and so that’s the topic I’d like to address today.

I stress I’m talking about cats and dogs here. And since I currently have two dogs and haven’t had a cat in a long time it’s almost inevitable that I’ll be talking mostly about dogs. Hopefully you’ll be able to adapt what I say here to your particular circumstances.

Preparing for Meditation

Even before I meditate, I’ll separate my dogs from each other. When they play together it’s a very noisy affair. There’s lots of running around, wrestling, and growling. I don’t want that going on when I meditate. We have baby gates in the house, so I can have one dog in the room with me, and the other one in the next room. Because the one in the next room (that’s Suki) can see through the barrier, there’s no anxiety. I’m right there.

If the dogs seem to be restless as I’m preparing to meditate, I’ll often give them something by way of a distraction. Suki is still teething, and so I’ll make sure she has a teething toy; it’s kind of distracting to realize during a meditation that your dog is destroying the kitchen cabinets. And sometimes I’ll give them each a “Kong” (a thick rubber cone) filled with frozen peanut butter. That keeps them busy for a good few minutes while I settle in to meditation, and after they’ve done with their treats they usually settle down as well.

My dogs also tend to be very quiet when they’re in their crates, so I’ve sometimes taken that approach during meditation. But not everyone has crates for their pets, and I imagine not all pets are quiet when they’re crated.

Be Empathetic

Next, if their human sitting still with their eyes closed isn’t something they’ve been exposed to before, your pet may be confused by you meditating. My experience has been that they get used to it in time, although you may have to work with them until they do. And maybe they never will.

A cat of mine called Piglit used to be very curious when I meditated. Sometimes she’d just come and sit beside me with her eyes closed, looking for all the world like she was joining in with me. Other times she’d bat at me with a paw, trying to get my attention. One of my dogs, Luna, does this as well. In fact sometimes she’ll stare at me and bark. It’s hard to ignore.

When this happens I think it’s best to be empathetic. This can be a confusing situation for your animal. Ignoring them can make them even more confused. Often they need attention.

And they’re individuals, so forcing them to do something isn’t very kind. Don’t feel that your dog “should” quietly sit as you meditate. Why should they? You need to work with them on their own terms.

Make Contact

Today, during an online sit, I opened my eyes to see one of the participants sitting cross-legged between her two Labrador retrievers. She was holding one dog’s paw, and had a hand resting on the neck of the other. In order to get her attention they’d started barking during the meditation, and this was her way of calming them down. Given this small degree of contact, both dogs were perfectly happy and relaxed, and were just lying quietly beside her.

Most pets love touch, so simply reaching a hand out to them and making contact, or let them make contact with me, if sometimes enough to calm them.

If you have to stroke your pet in order to help them settle, that’s fine. A lot of people think this would be a distraction, but you can pet your animal mindfully and with kindness, so that it becomes part of the meditation.

If I’m stroking my pet I do it in time with the breathing. Find your own (and your pet’s) pace. Let the meditating and the petting be one single experience. Be mindful of the movements of the arm and of the sensations of contact, and of how these things synchronize with the movements of the breathing.

Luna, who stays in the room with me, is small, so if she’s really persistent in trying to get my attention I’ll often pick her up (if she’ll let me) and sit her on my lap. (Suki’s too large for that.) That makes it easier to pet her and show her reassurance. She rarely stays on my lap for more than 15 minutes, and then she’ll jump back onto the floor. I’m happy to let her go. That’s what she wants to do.

Practice Lovingkindness

Often I’ll include Luna in my lovingkindness (metta) meditation. My favored way of cultivating metta — which I just think of as “kindness” — is to remember what it’s like to look with loving eyes. I’ll remember times I’ve watched my kids sleeping, for example. As soon as I do this, I feel a sense of warmth, tenderness, and softness around my eyes. And then as I turn my attention toward my own body, and Luna sitting on my lap, those same qualities are brought into the way I’m regarding the two of us.

With my eyes soft, relaxed, and kind, I’m able to embrace myself and my dog in a single field of loving awareness. There’s no question of this being a distraction. When I’d doing this I’m very concretely cultivating metta (kindness) for myself and another living being. We are, experientially, one body, not two.

When Luna is on my lap, she’s usually very happy to have her back stroked or her tummy tickled. (Until she decides she’s had enough and goes away.) Sometimes though she wants to lick my face. So I’ll just accept that as part of my meditation practice. I’m accepting kindness, which is an important practice in its own right. Usually she doesn’t do it for long.

Practice Compassionate Reassurance

Sometimes my dogs bark while I’m meditating. A neighbor might be taking their dog out, or a delivery worker might be dropping something off. And the dogs see it as their responsibility to defend the house. When Luna (my first dog) started doing this, I was a bit annoyed at first. I wanted to yell at her to get her to shut up. Then I saw her hackles were up and realized that she was physiologically and emotionally aroused. She was experiencing anger, and possibly fear as well. Her territory was under threat, and she was trying to ward off this menace and to alert me to danger.

So it became obvious that what she needed was reassurance. So when she’s barking like this (and I’m not meditating) I’ll go through to her, pet her to calm her down, and emphasize that the person or dog outside is a “friend.” (I’m training her to recognize that as a reassurance word.)

In meditation I don’t get up and pet the dogs, but —without moving — I do talk to them reassuringly. I’ll say things like, “It’s just a friend, Luna (or Suki)! Thank you for protecting the house. Good girl. It’s just a friend, though. You’re OK. You’re OK.” (“You’re OK” is another phrase I’m training the dogs to recognize as reassuring. I reckon that if they associate “You’re OK” with the experience of calming down, those words will start to be effective even without physical contact.)

Again, you might think that this is a distraction from the meditation, but I see it as part of the meditation. If I was dealing with a knot of anxiety in meditation, I’d talk to it in a similar reassuring way: “It’s OK. I’m here for you. I know this is scary, but we’re safe right now. I love you and I want you to be happy.”

It’s the same principle here, except that the knot of anxiety is in my dog’s belly rather than mine. All suffering deserves to be met with compassion. My dogs’ barking is a sign of their suffering. Therefore I respond compassionately.

Of course you have the option simply to let your dogs bark. After all, it’s an impermanent phenomenon and will therefore come and go. But I live in an apartment building and I think it would be a bit obnoxious to let my dogs disturb other people. And unrestrained barking isn’t a habit I want to encourage.

Practice Patience and Insight

Although I’ve said that sometimes your dogs need reassurance and comfort, sometimes they don’t! Or at least sometimes it’s better just to let them quiet down on their own, and maybe give them just minimal attention or no attention.

This morning while I was sitting, Suki started whining in the kitchen. I decided just to let her work through her emotions on her own. It isn’t really in my or the dogs’ long-term best interests if I jump up and attend to them every time they whine. After all, they whine every single time I leave the house, and I don’t respond by staying permanently at home. That the dogs are sometimes unhappy is something I just have to learn to tolerate. So be patient. They’ll be OK.

And bear in mind the insight that things are impermanent. “Things” here include my dogs’ feelings. They may be unhappy for a minute, but they’ll calm down and be at peace. Your feelings are impermanent too. It may be unpleasant to hear your dog crying, but it won’t go on forever.

It’s a judgement call to decide whether to intervene or not. Everyone is different, and all animals are different. I bear in mind, “Is this for our [i.e. mine and the dogs’] long-term happiness and well-being.”

So these are the kinds of situations I sometimes encounter meditating with dogs in the house, and some of the ways I respond to them.

Now bear in mind that my dog is not your dog, and that my dog is definitely not your cat or your African Grey parrot! So what works for me might not work for you.

In fact I’m sure some of you have evolved your own ways of meditating with pets. Perhaps you could share them in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

 

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“Grammar for a Full Life,” by Lawrence Weinstein

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Perhaps because of unhappy memories from school, many of us tend to think of grammar books as dry-as-dust bore-a-thons obsessing about distinctions (“that” versus “which,” “affect” versus “effect”) that are hard to grasp and slip from our minds almost as soon as we’ve finished reading about them.

This is despite the welcome arrival of entertaining and accessible best-selling grammar books such as Lynne Truss’s “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves,” and Benjamin Dryer’s “Dryer’s English.” We can now add to the list of entertaining and accessible books on grammar Lawrence Weinstein’s “Grammar for a Full Life.”

Weinstein taught writing at Harvard University from 1973 to 1983, during which time he co-founded Harvard’s Writing Center. He then joined the English Department of Bentley University, where he became the director of Bentley’s Expository Writing Program. He’s also a playwright who has had two full-length plays professionally produced. His personality comes through in his writing as warm, empathetic, and unusually curious about the effect that our words have on ourselves and others.

And that is where the concept of grammar for a full life comes in. I would describe Weinstein’s book’s topic as being, surprisingly enough, grammar and spirituality. More broadly it’s about language, and how it can help or hinder our abilities to live mindfully, to communicate kindly and empathetically, to have an appropriate sense of modesty, and to be free from the limitations that our own and others’ perceptions of us can impose.

This book is, as they say, right up my alley. I write books and articles, and how to use words to effectively persuade or move an audience is important to me. But even more importantly I often lead meditations, and when I’m doing that I have to be aware of whether or not my use of language helps people to relax and to be present, calm, and curious about what’s going on within them. “Grammar for a Full Life” is very much about those topics. How can our language help us to be more present, calm, and curious with regard to our lives? How can it help us communicate with others in a way that helps them feel truly heard and that helps them too to be more present, calm, and curious?

Weinstein’s book isn’t just about writing, but about speaking as well. In fact many of his examples refer to conversations rather than the written word. And beyond that, even, his book is about how different ways of thinking affect us. Much of our thinking, after all, is verbal, and so naturally involves grammar. Our thought, and the speech and writing that springs from it, can help us to be closed or curious. It can help us to be rigid or relaxed, “hyper” or calm, depressed or optimistic, aware of ourselves as fixed or as evolving.

So stimulating was “Grammar for a Full Life” that the moment I finished it I sat down and wrote an entire article (Love, Grammar, and Magic) based on ideas from just one chapter — “The Active-Passive Hybrid No. 1.” The title from the book might sound dry but the chapter itself is rich, fascinating, and even magical. I could probably several articles based on thoughts sparked off by each chapter. This is a rich book.

There are too many gems in the book for me to give you more than a very general sense of its contents, but one other example that stuck with me is a “grammatical stratagem” (as Weinstein calls it) for stripping away “second-hand thought” and getting in touch with a sense of how we really think and feel about something. Simply beginning a response with some form of words like “To be honest with you…” or “I have to say…” or “I wish I could agree with you, but…” we can dig down to find our own voice, and lose some of our fears of expressing ourselves authentically and of bucking convention.

This is a book I highly recommend. The chapters are short, accessible, and every one of them is thought-provoking. I enjoyed my first reading of it, and as soon as it was over I found myself wanting to go through it again. And I’m sure I will.

“Grammar For a Full Life” is available from Amazon or, even better, an independent bookstore near you.

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Love, grammar, and magic

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I’ve just finished reading Lawrence Weinstein’s book, “Grammar for a Full Life,” which I intend to write a review of later this week. (Spoiler: I’ll be recommending the book highly.) “Grammar for a Full Life” is a book on a topic that you might consider unusual—essentially it’s on the spirituality of grammar.

You might wonder what grammar and spirituality might have to do with each other. A lot, as it happens, but I’ll say more about that in the actual review. Right now I’d like to give a flavor of that connection by providing you with an example based on the book. It’s an example that starts off in the normal territory of grammar (which we often think of, I believe, as worthy but dull). But then it leads us into the territory of magic, and to a way of thinking about what we’re doing in meditation that has the potential to make our practice more vibrant and meaningful.

(Bear in mind that I’m condensing and simplifying, although hopefully not too grossly distorting, what Weinstein says.)

First the ordinary grammar: You’re probably familiar with the distinction between the use of the “active voice” and the “passive voice” in writing. The active voice is represented in a sentence such as, “I drove the car.” The “I” in the sentence is the doer—the one that actively drives. The car is the thing that “I” drove.

A passive-voice version of the same sentence would be “The car was driven.” Here there’s no active agent. Or at least the one who’s doing the driving is left unnamed and unexplained.

Because it neglects to mention who the “doer” is, passive voice is a construction favored by those who want to avoid taking responsibility. A politician says “Mistakes were made” because that construction leaves who actually made the mistakes (often themselves) unnamed. They give the impression that “responsibility has been taken” (another passive construction) but they themselves don’t take any responsibility. Similarly, when I point to a broken vase and ask my children what happened, they’ll usually say “It broke.” Perhaps my children are destined for careers in politics.

Weinstein points out that switching from using the passive to the active voice can be empowering, reminding us that we have agency. To take one of his examples, if someone asks you why you’ve been holding a phone to your ear without saying anything for a long time, you might say, “I’m being kept on hold.” This way of speaking (and thinking) reveals and reinforces a sense of helpless passivity. If you were to say something like “I’m waiting to talk to my bank” you’re framing yourself as an active agent—someone who is choosing to wait. It’s more likely, Weinstein points out, that using more active language will give you more of a sense of freedom—the freedom to hang up and call back later, for example. Using the active voice encourages us to take responsibility and to remind ourselves that we “remain the makers of our fate,” as Weinstein puts it.

Yet the passive voice, Weinstein also says, can express a form of “creative passivity” as well. The active voice can lead to us being effortful to such an extent that we get in our own way. Weinstein gives the example of his early attempts to sing being marred by having too much tension in his vocal apparatus. A skilled teacher later helped him to let go, so that his voice could flow, effortlessly, from him.

The active voice can also feed into our ego, while the passive voice can be expressive of modesty and of an awareness of interdependence. The woman who says, “I won the Oscar for best actress,” is suggesting that her talent and hard work alone were responsible for her success, Weinstein points out. On the other hand the woman who says “I was awarded the Oscar for best actress” is admitting that other factors are involved in this success. Luck can certainly be one of those factors (some actors are discovered while waiting tables—how fortunate for the actor that the director sat in that particular restaurant or cafe and not in the one down the road!). Perhaps people on the judging panel happen to know and like them. Perhaps other, better, performances weren’t brought to the judges’ attention. She has also been trained, coached, and advised by many people, who also contributed to her performance. The passive voice—”I was awarded the Oscar…”—can help us to recognize this complexity and also help move the “self” from the center of the story.

Additionally, the passive voice very accurately expresses how creation happens. Fiction writers talk about how their characters behave in ways that are unexpected to them and experience themselves as the passive recipients of their characters’ dramas. Painters feel inspiration flowing through them, and so on. The passive voice expresses the reality of what takes place when we create. (And not just when we create: my article on non-self, The boys in the basement, the empty room, and the plagiarist, explains how the sense we have that we own our actions is in fact an illusion.)

But what of love and magic? The title of this little essay promises to say something about those topics as well.

First, grammar and magic are related. There’s an old Scots word for a magical spell: a glammer. Glammer made its way into English as “glamour,” which is the spell cast on us by beauty. Glammer was originally an alteration of “grammar,” which is from the Greek grammatikē tekhnē, meaning “the art of letters.” Magic used signs, symbols, and letters to conjure up desired results. Grammar is from the same Greek root, and it does the same thing: letters and symbols are used in certain ways to transmit a desired meaning (a pattern of thought, an understanding) from one mind to another, in a form of telepathy. Although Weinstein doesn’t say this in his book, grammar is magic.

Next, Weinstein also talks about a form of sentence that is neither passive nor active (or is both), and which brings us into the realm of the magical. And that grammatical form is one that’s commonly used in meditation.

In a chapter subtitled “Blessing,” Weinstein calls this the “active-passive hybrid.” The formula for this hybrid, which is rare in English, is the one that “begins with the auxiliary subjunctive verb may.” For example, “May your spirits lift.”

Who is the one who takes action here? The speaker is not saying “I raise your spirits” or even “I hope your spirits lift.” It is some unnamed force that will do the lifting. So this may seem like a passive construction. But at the same time the speaker is making an invocation. The form of words suggests that they have the power to invoke and direct the forces that can affect how another person feels. And so it also seems active. Perhaps it’s both, or neither.

As Weinstein says,

Insofar as I can tell, the blessing formula using may does several things at once.

  • it associates the speaker with a certain wish or vision, which she names;
  • it implicitly acknowledges that she, all by herself, doesn’t have sufficient power to bring the wished-for outcome to pass; and
  • it invites the people, forces, or divinities whose help is required for that outcome to come into play.

Now this “blessing formula,” although I’ve never called it that, and so I thank Weinstein for the term, is common in lovingkindness and compassion meditation. We might use any of the following phrases in this type of practice:

  • May I be well
  • May you be at peace
  • May we be free from suffering
  • May you be kind to yourselves and others

Those of us who do this kind of meditation are so used to that particular form of words that we don’t even think about it. But perhaps thinking about it would enrich our practice?

So I’d like you to imagine, as you’re reciting phrases of that sort—phrases of blessing—that you are becoming a channel for unknown forces that are indeed capable of bringing about wellness, peace, freedom from suffering, and an all-pervasive attitude of kindness. These unknown forces may reside in the entire universe, or in the earth beneath you, the heavens above you, or deep inside you. But consider that in saying “May you be at peace” you are inviting them to flow through you.

In passive voice terms, love is flowing through you. But there is also an active component. You are willing or inviting the forces of love to arise. You are willingly becoming a conduit. But you are not a passive conduit. You are bestowing these blessings upon the world, or upon particular individuals.

I say “imagine this,” but really I mean, “feel this.” Really I mean, “experience this.” Really I mean, “Let this happen.”

How enriching this is, not to limply and half-heartedly be reciting phrases, but to open ourselves up to love, to be a conduit for it, allowing it to affect our entire world. You have receptivity but also agency. You have power but also the humility to know that the power isn’t really yours.

The practices of lovingkindness and compassion are included in a set called the “brahma-viharas,” or the “divine abidings.” The name suggests our dwelling in a beautiful but potent, almost god-like, state of love. But it could also suggest a beautiful but potent state of love dwelling in (or flowing through) us.

So I recommend that you let yourself (another passive-active construction we often use in meditation instruction) adopt this perspective: that in lovingkindness and compassion practice you are inviting blessings to well up inside of you, and that those blessings are then, through you, bestowing themselves upon the world.

Once you’re aware of grammar as magic, of grammar as glammer, your meditation can become magic rather than a mere formal exercise in training the mind.

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. It is supported by, at present, over 600 people who donate an amount every month and who receive numerous benefits in return. Click here to learn more about the meditation initiative.

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Try gentler, not harder

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

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

“Perhaps fifteen years,” replies the master.

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

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

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

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

For me this all starts with the eyes.

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

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

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

This is what I always do when I start meditating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eleanor Roosevelt: “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Eleanor Roosevelt is often credited with saying “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” As a bit of a quotation snob, I feel compelled to point out that there’s no evidence she actually used those words. She did however express the core idea that feeling snubbed is something we do to ourselves.

Whether she said this or not, it’s certainly true that a lot of the time we make ourselves unhappy by making ourselves feel inferior to others. And this usually involves taking things personally.

Taking things personally means that we see things as being about us when they’re really about the other person.

Reacting to Being Snubbed

One time when I worked in Community Education in Scotland I was heading to a training course with Kate, a colleague of mine. Neither of us drove, so we took the train, which involved a bit of walking at the other end. As it happened, we weren’t entirely sure where we were heading, and so Kate suggested that I ask a pedestrian who was walking on the other side of the road. I dashed across and started following him.

As I got closer I said “Excuse me.” The pedestrian ignored me and kept on walking. I said “Excuse me!” again, but this time louder. Again he ignored me. By this time I was starting to get mad. How rude, I thought,  to ignore someone in this way! How dare he ignore me? Who does this guy think he is!

I actually had to catch up with the man before I could get him to pay attention to me. At which point I discovered he was completely deaf! It turned out that he was very friendly, and he gave us directions the building where the training course was being held. I felt very embarrassed at having taken another person’s disability personally.

I assumed that this man’s lack of response was an act of rudeness he was directing specifically at me. But it wasn’t about me at all. His not acknowledging my hails was simply because he couldn’t hear me.

Not Reacting to Being Snubbed

In a contrasting example, the other day as I left the building where I live, a woman was heading in the opposite direction. I said “Good morning” to her as I passed. All I got in response was a startled gaze.

Now I could have taken this personally. And in fact I could sense that part of me wanted to. But I very quickly realized that she probably didn’t reply because I hadn’t greeted her until I was right in front of her. Quite possibly she was distracted and didn’t hear me. Or maybe she was startled and didn’t have time to reply before I’d gone by. Perhaps she was trying to work out if she was supposed to know me.

This brings us to the practice of “don’t-know mind.” Don’t know mind is when we accept that we don’t know something, and we don’t rush to create a story that will fill the void.

I simply don’t know what was going on with the woman who didn’t say hello to me. But there’s no reason for me to make up a story that her behavior was about me personally. Her behavior was to do with what was going on in her life. It wasn’t about me at all.

It’s About Them, Not You

Even if someone directs anger or criticism against you, you don’t have to take it personally. The other person may be having a bad day or a bad week.  Perhaps they are having a bad life!  It may be that you’re just the person who happened to be near them when they had an outburst.

So just reminding yourself, “It’s about them, not about me,” can help you to take things less personally. You can say those words to yourself when you realize you’re freaking out and becoming reactive. The words “It’s not personal” can also help.

Victims of Our Own Thoughts

Often, when someone treats us in a way we don’t like, we run through a very rapid set of thoughts, something like this:

  • That person treated me rudely.
  • Therefore they don’t respect me.
  • Therefore they don’t think I’m worthy of respect.
  • Therefore they think I’m worthless.
  • Therefore I don’t matter to others.

And so you feel unhappy, because believing you don’t matter is unpleasant.

Displacing Reactive Thoughts With Compassion

One thing to consider when someone behaves like this is that they are suffering. This is a constant factor in all bad behavior. If the other person is suffering, and doesn’t have the self-compassion or mindfulness to deal with that, then they’ll tend to act out in ways that hurt others.

By considering that the other person is suffering we’re directing our attention away from our own self-preoccupation. There’s less mental processing power available for us to run through our usual self-punishing thinking — the chain of rapid-fire thoughts like those I outlines above, that end with us feeling miserable.

I mentioned that when someone didn’t reply to my “Good morning,” I could sense my reactive thought-patterns waiting to be activated. But in this case they stayed dormant, and so I didn’t cause myself unnecessary suffering. The reason was that I had diverted my attention to what was going on with her; I considered the possibility that she was suffering, because I had startled or confused her. Because that’s the direction my thoughts went in, they weren’t able to go in the direction of taking things personally.

Mindfulness, empathy and compassion, then, help us to stop taking things personally so that we can stop freaking out and instead be calmer and happier.

This post is adapted from materials in Wildmind’s online course, “How to Stop Freaking Out.” You can learn more about how to access our courses here.

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Try this simple technique to dispel anxiety

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Being mindful of the body is powerful tool for grounding us and calming us down. Paying attention to the physical sensations and movements of the body diverts our attention away from the ruminative thoughts that cause stress. And this in turn allows our emotions to settle so that we become calmer and more at ease. An added bonus is that practicing mindfulness in this way brings about long-term changes in the brain. These changes make us less emotionally reactive so that we have less of a tendency to freak out.

But our body itself has a more direct and immediate effect on our emotions. The very way that we hold the body — the posture we adopt — changes how we feel. The effects of this are measurable. They can be seen in terms of the underlying hormones that give rise to our feelings. They can also be seen in terms of the way we act.

In a study published in 2014 by the University of Auckland, New Zealand, individuals with mild to moderate depression were assigned either to a group where they were asked to sit up straight, or where they just sat normally. The “straight sitters” were asked to straighten their backs and level their shoulders. They were also asked to stretch the tops of their heads toward the ceiling while drawing their shoulder blades down and together.

Researchers asked both groups to do a stressful task: to give a speech for five minutes, while being judged. Those who sat up straight while doing this task used more words in total than the control group, suggesting that they were more energized and had a better mood. They also used the word “I” much less than the other group, suggesting that they had become less self-focused and self-conscious.

Other research shows that when we sit up straight, we are more likely to remember positive memories or to have positive thoughts. A slumped posture, on the other hand, leads to depressive thoughts and memories arising.

In a 2010 study at Columbia and Harvard universities, researchers asked study participants either to adopt a dominant, high power stance (sitting or standing straight, expanding the body, and spreading the limbs) or a submissive posture (involving the opposite). The power posers experienced elevations in testosterone (which contributes to feelings of confidence), and decreases in cortisol (which is a stress hormone). Low-power posers exhibited the opposite pattern.

When the two groups were subsequently asked to play a low-risk gambling game, the high power group were more confident, as shown by their being more likely to take a chance on winning.

Finally, reinforcing how crucial posture is in our lives, Adam D. Galinsky and Li Huang of Northwestern University ran a series of studies on posture. These showed that posture was in fact a major predictor of whether people feel powerful or take action. It was more powerful than either putting people in positions of power or asking them to recall feeling powerful.

This is all excellent news, because our posture is something that’s easy to change. You can do it right now. In fact, I’d suggest that for the next three minutes you do a standing meditation in which you adopt a Superman or Wonder Woman pose, as illustrated below. (Knee-high boots are optional!)

You can also try sitting in a power pose. Sit erect, with your head held high, and with your limbs taking up space around you. Watch out for a tendency to slouch, since this contributes to feelings of fatigue, despondency, and powerlessness. These feelings can cause our thoughts and feelings to spiral out of control.

Keep coming back to your posture during the day. Do this while you’re sitting or standing at work or at home, when you’re driving, and when you’re walking. Think of what it’s like to sit, stand, or walk with confidence. And notice the effect that this has on how you feel. And several times a day, for at least three minutes, adopt a “power pose.”

For a few people, the experience of adopting a more confident posture can at first evoke a feeling of anxiety. It’s as if they’re thinking, “Who am I to show confidence?” If this happens to you, recognize that this is a temporary state of affairs. Remember that the physiological changes you’re creating will soon bring a sense of strength and confidence.

This article is adapted from material for Wildmind’s online course, “Stop Freaking Out.” This, like our other courses, is available free of charge to supporters of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative. You can click here to learn more about this initiative.

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Abiding in Peace, Here and Now

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  • When? Saturday and Sunday June 13 and 14, 9am-12pm (Pacific time) both days.
  • Where? On Zoom (link will be sent after registration).
  • How much? By donation.

In follow-up to his transformative retreat in April, Bodhipaksa will introduce further radical yet simple approaches to meditation that allow experiences of peace, joy, and calmness to unfold effortlessly within us.

These tools are accessible regardless of whether or not you attended his first retreat.

As well as new meditation skills, you’ll come away with an understanding of the significance of dhyana (meditative absorption) in the Buddha’s path to Awakening, and especially how it leads to insight. And crucially, you’ll come away with a deeper appreciation of how peace and joy can be found in every moment.

Register Online

If you would like to attend this online class, please register through the San Francisco website at the link below by Thursday June 11. You’ll receive a Zoom link by the end of Friday June 12.

REGISTER HERE

About the Teacher

Bodhipaksha has taught meditation around the world and online for many years. He is also the author of several books, most recently This Difficult Thing of Being Human: The Art of Self-Compassion, and the founder of Wildmind Meditation<.

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Old teaching, new perspectives

Way back in my teens I read a book called “From Primitives to Zen,” which was a compendium of texts from the world’s religious traditions, compiled by Mircea Eliade. If you haven’t heard of Eliade, he was a well-known and influential Romanian historian of religion who was Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. His book provided one of my earliest exposures to the Buddha’s teachings, since one whole section comprised extracts of the early Buddhist scriptures.

Buddhism, I quickly discovered, liked lists. The reason for this is that Buddhism arose at a time when nothing sacred was written down. The safest place for the preservation of important information was, people believed, in the human mind. In India at that time paper was unknown, and special leaves were used as a writing material. Probably only relatively ephemeral information, such as brief notes and business sales receipts, was written down.

The Four Right Efforts

Some of these lists baffled me (the fault was with me, not them) but some of them stood out as models of clear thinking. One such teaching was the “four right efforts,” which is actually one item in a longer list, the eightfold path. Here’s a translation of the Buddha’s exposition on right effort:

And what, monks, is right effort? Here, monks, (1) a monk generates desire for the nonarising of unarisen evil unwholesome states; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives. (2) He generates desire for the abandoning of arisen evil unwholesome states…. (3) He generates desire for the arising of unarisen wholesome states…. (4) He generates desire for the maintenance of arisen wholesome states, for their nondecay, increase, expansion, and fulfilment by development; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives. This is called right effort.

So we:

  1. Prevent unskillful (unhelpful) mental states from arising.
  2. Abandon unskillful states if they already exist.
  3. Bring into being new skillful states.
  4. Further develop skillful states that have already arisen.

It is very neat and logical, isn’t it? And it’s practical, too. These four right effects are the core of what spiritual practice consists of. In virtually any moment we have the opportunity to “nudge” the mind in one direction or another. And the reason we do this of course is because it helps us to free the mind from suffering and makes us happier.

The Power of Appreciation

At it happens, I was thinking about another practice the other day — mudita, which I prefer to translate as “joyful appreciation,” and saw a connection between that and the four right efforts.

Most teachers explain mudita in terms of “being happy about someone else’s happiness” or “sympathetic joy.” Originally, though, it seems to have been “joy at appreciating the virtue of others.” Mudita is appreciation, admiration, and gratitude.

One of the wonderful things about appreciation, admiration, and gratitude is that they are very encouraging attitudes. If we express appreciation when someone has done something we admire, then we make it more likely that they’ll do that thing again. And if we admire a good quality in another person, then we’re more likely to develop it ourselves.

Anyway, I was thinking about mudita, and realized that although we usually think of the four right efforts in terms of what we do with our own mental states, we could also apply them to how we relate to other people’s mental states. After all, one of the things about Buddhist practice is that it lessens our emphasis on ourselves, and increases our concern for others.

Turning the Four Right Efforts Toward Others

So how might the four right efforts work as applied to others?

  1. We’d be concerned not to encourage the arising of unskillful states in others. Rather than just be concerned about whether our unskillful states — for example, hatred or craving — will hurt us, we can be aware that our behaviors set an example for others. If we are negative on social media, for example, then we encourage others to act likewise. Mental states are contagious.
  2. We’d be concerned to help others free themselves from unskillful states of mind. Ordinarily, if someone is in a bad mood, what do we do? Roll our eyes? Avoid them? Get snippy right back at them? If we have compassionate concern for them, then we’ll be concerned not just about how they’re behaving and how it affects us, but also about the suffering they’re causing themselves. So we might show them empathy, for example, and ask them what’s going on to cause their unhappiness.
  3. How can we bring skillful states into being within others? Remembering that states of mind are contagious, we can affect others through our example. If we’re kind, that encourages kindness in others. I remember reading about an experiment where a very negative person — someone who complained about everything and everyone — was put in a room with a highly trained Buddhist monk. In time the negative person started being more at ease and ended up, despite himself, feeling happy. Here again we come to mudita, which involves seeing and rejoicing in others’ good qualities. If we give someone positive feedback when we see even a glimmer of some skillful quality in them, we encourage them to focus on, value, and develop that quality.
  4. The kind of appreciation I’ve just discussed will also help someone to grow and develop skillful qualities once they’ve arisen. What springs to mind for me here are spiritual friendship, since encouraging someone to turn their skillful states into steady habits is something that takes consistent contact over a long period of time, and the kind of easy and frank communication that comes from really knowing and trusting someone.

“Taking Care of Others, I Take Care of Myself”

I thought it interesting that I’d never before thought in terms of turning the four right efforts outwards. I’m imagine I’m not the first person to think of this, but I don’t remember them ever being presented in this way.

The emphasis I’m putting here on being a friend and exemplar to others fits very well with many other teachings from the scriptures. For example, the Buddha tells the housholder Sig?laka that he can recognize a good friend because “They keep you from doing bad. They support you in doing good. They teach you what you do not know. They explain the path to heaven [i.e the path of ethical conduct].”

And in one of my favorite teachings, the Buddha explains to two acrobatic performers, whose safety depends on them taking care of each other, “Taking care of myself, I take care of others. Taking care of others, I take care of myself.” When we work directly on our own unskillful states, eliminating the negative and accentuating the positive, this benefits others, since we’re kinder and easier to be with. When we help others, this benefits us, since being connected to others through kindness, compassion, and appreciation is deeply fulfilling and brings us peace and joy.

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Tonglen: a practice of compassion for self and other

In response to the current coronavirus crisis, I’m putting together a FREE course on how we can find calmness and balance when things around us are falling apart. It’ll start on April 10, and will consist of 28 guided meditations, accompanied by just a few written words for context. The materials are delivered by email.

Click here to enroll in the free course.

I’ve also created a compassion practice to help us remain open to the suffering within and around us.

This practice of “Tonglen” — “giving and receiving” — is a form of lovingkindness or compassion meditation from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It includes a reminder for us to bring compassion to our own suffering, and so it’s also a self-compassion practice.

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