judging

To motivate yourself to meditate, celebrate!

Although I’ve been meditating for over 30 years, I have to confess (and have done so often) that for most of that time my regularity was erratic. It’s only the last few years that I’ve been a rock-solid daily meditator. Unfortunately I don’t think any advice I was given (or gave, in classes I taught!) on meditating daily was of any use at all, and I had to figure out my motivation for myself.

Maybe that’s true for all of us, although it seems a lot of people have found my “I meditate every day” mantra useful.

A friend wrote to me and talked about a “good” meditation he’d had, and contrasted it with “bad” meditations. He himself put the words “good” and “bad” in scare quotes, which I think is great. It’s good not to take those labels seriously, and I think he was being appropriately skeptical about the validity of those terms.

But this prompted me to reflect (again) on how the whole vocabulary of “good” meditations is flawed. Don’t these labels largely come down to how we feel about what unfolded in our practice? Judgements like “good” and “bad” are largely just a reflection of what we feel.

My friend’s “good” meditation was one in which he experienced an unusual (for him) amount of continuity of awareness, without the mind zooming off into distractedness.

In terms of feelings, he was something like surprised, delighted, and excited because his meditation practice was unusually focused. I know that’s more verbose than saying it was a “good” meditation, but it’s accurate and descriptive. Saying the practice was “good” doesn’t strike me as a very useful adjective. What does it add? (I’m not criticizing my friend’s choice of vocabulary, incidentally. As I pointed how he was very clear that he was using “good” as a “quick and dirty” way of evaluating his practice).

By contrast, my own meditation this morning, because I was sleep-deprived, was mostly dreamy, with lots of distracted thinking. I may even have been asleep at times! But I felt pleased about my meditation, simply because I did it. Was that a “good” meditation? Not by most people’s evaluation, nor when weighed against my average experience. But does it matter? No. The meditation was what it was, and how I feel about it doesn’t make any difference to that fact.

However, that labels I apply to my meditation practice might make a difference to my future inclination to meditate. If I’d labelled it a “bad” meditation—which would mean, presumably, something like “I felt disappointed because my experience wasn’t what I wanted it to be”—then I’d be less inclined to continue meditating in the future.

Let’s say my friend had had exactly the same objective experience, with continuity of awareness for most of his meditation, but had felt neutral or even displeased by those events. It would be the same meditation, but he wouldn’t regard it as “good” and instead would see it as “so-so” or even “disappointing.” Seeing the practice in that way would away from the motivation to keep practicing in the future.

In a way I’ve chosen to be pleased at the very fact of having done my daily practice, and that encourages me to keep doing it daily. and in a way, having being pleased about my meditation as my default means that my daily meditation is always “good.” And so I want to keep doing it. What actually happens in my practice is secondary and doesn’t affect me being please by the fact of having done it. The length of time I’ve meditated is also secondary, and also doesn’t affect me feeling happy about having meditated.

When my mind becomes concentrated during a sit, or when joy or love arises, then I can be pleased by those occurrences as well. But they’re an added bonus, since I’ve already decided to feel pleased simply because I’ve meditated.

Keeping going is the most important thing, because meditation is practice. It’s the doing of it that’s important. You might not see any calmness or concentration or love manifesting in any given sit, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not benefitting.

Although I said that none of the advice I received about establishing a rock-solid daily meditation practice really helped, I hope the advice that we can choose to be pleased about the fact of meditating does help.

How how can we make the choice to be pleased about having meditated? To feel pleased about meditating, celebrate meditating.

  • Simply choose to pat yourself on the back for having sat. No matter how short the sit was, or what actually happened during the meditation, tell yourself you’ve done a good job for having sat. Use congratulatory language: “Yay, me! Good job! Well done! It’s great that I sat today!” Smile! Or you can simply thank yourself: “Thank you for meditating. I really appreciate you doing that.”
  • Although some of us have conditioning that makes us feel bad about self-congratulation, I think that nevertheless, even if our cultural conditioning makes us want to go, “Oh, really, it was nothing. I’ve had much better sits. I really should meditate for longer,” we do on some level also feel pleased when we hear deserved praise.
  • If your meditation practice is unusually calm, or concentrated, or loving, or compassionate, or joyful, or anything else that’s affirming and delightful, then allow yourself to be pleased about that too. But don’t let that take the place of being pleased about the fact of having meditated.
  • When we do something skillful we should allow ourselves to feel pleased by it, and we should choose to ignore the voices that downplay what we did.

In short: If you have pleasing experiences in meditation, then enjoy them. But choose to be pleased about the very fact of having meditated. This will help motivate you to keep on practicing.

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The trance of the “Unreal Other”

Two shadowy human figures on a road, looking like ghosts.

The truth is: without a genuine willingness to let in the suffering of others, our spiritual practice remains empty.

Father Theophane, a Christian mystic, writes about an incident that happened when he took some time off from his secular duties for spiritual renewal at a remote monastery. Having heard of a monk there who was widely respected for his wisdom, he sought him out. Theophane had been forewarned that this wise man gave advice only in the form of questions. Eager to receive his own special contemplation, Theophane approached the monk: “I am a parish priest and am here on retreat. Could you give me a question to meditate on?”

“Ah, yes.” The wise man answered. “My question for you is: What do they need?” A little disappointed, Theophane thanked him and went away. After a few hours of meditating on the question and feeling as if he were getting nowhere, he decided to go back to the teacher.

“Excuse me,” he began, “Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. Your question has been helpful, but I wasn’t so much interested in thinking about my apostolate during this retreat. Rather I wanted to think seriously about my own spiritual life. Could you give me a question for my own spiritual life?”

“Ah, I see,” answered the wise man. Then my question is, “What do they really need?”

Like so many of us, Father Theophane had assumed that true spiritual reflection focuses on our solitary self. But as the wise man reminded him, spiritual awakening is inextricably involved with others. As Theophane focused on the needs of those he had been given to serve, he would recognize their vulnerability and longing for love—and realize that their needs were no different than his own.

The question the wise man suggested was wonderfully crafted for awakening in Theophane the true spiritual depth that comes from paying close attention to other human beings.

See also:

Like Theophane, whenever we are caught in our own self-centered drama, everyone else becomes “other” to us, different and unreal. The world becomes a backdrop to our own special experience and everyone in it serves as supporting cast, some as adversaries, some as allies, most as simply irrelevant. Because involvement with our personal desires and concerns prevents us from paying close attention to anyone else, those around us—even family and friends—can become unreal, two-dimensional cardboard figures, not humans with wants and fears and throbbing hearts.

The more different someone seems from us, the more unreal they may feel to us. We can too easily ignore or dismiss people when they are of a different race or religion, when they come from a different socio-economic “class.” Assessing them as either superior or inferior, better or worse, important or unimportant, we distance ourselves.

Fixating on appearances—their looks, behavior, ways of speaking—we peg them as certain types. They are HIV positive or an alcoholic, a leftist or fundamentalist, a criminal or power-monger, a feminist or do-gooder. Sometimes our type-casting has more to do with temperament—the person is boring or narcissistic, needy or pushy, anxious or depressed. Whether extreme or subtle, typing others makes the real human invisible to our eyes and closes our heart.

Once someone is an unreal other, we lose sight of how they hurt. Because we don’t experience them as feeling beings, we not only ignore them, we can inflict pain on them without compunction. Not seeing that others are real leads to a father disowning his son for being gay, divorced parents using their children as weapons. All the enormous suffering of violence and war comes from our basic failure to see that others are real.

In teaching the compassion practices, I sometimes ask students to bring to mind someone they see regularly but are not personally involved with. Then I invite them to consider, “What does he or she need?” “What does this person fear?” “What is life like for this person?”

After one of these meditations, a student approached me to report that a wonderful thing had happened since she’d begun doing this practice. When seeing colleagues at work, neighbors walking their dogs, clerks at stores, she’d been saying in her mind, “You are real. You are real.”

Rather than being backdrops for her life, she was finding them come alive to her. She’d notice a gleam of curiosity in the eyes, a generous smile, an anxious grinding of teeth, a disappointed and resigned slope to the shoulders, the sorrow in a downcast look. If she stayed a moment longer, she could also feel their shyness, their awkwardness, or their fear. She told me, “The more real they are to me, the more real and warm and alive I feel. I feel a closeness in just being humans together. It doesn’t matter who they are … I feel like I can accept them as part of my world.”

When we stop to attend and see others as real, we uncover the hidden bond that exists between all beings. In her poem “Kindness,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes:

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

We are all journeying through the night with plans, breathing in and out this mysterious life. And, as my student discovered through her practice, the more we can learn to pay attention to others, and truly see them as “real,” just like us, the more we can allow the “tender gravity of kindness” to naturally awaken and bloom.

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Any meditation you can walk away from is a good meditation

chuck-yeager

Meditation’s not necessarily going to be easy or pleasant. You may find that you’re sitting with a chaotic mind, or that you’re falling asleep, or that you have physical discomfort. And there can be a tendency to label those times as “bad” meditations.

If that happens to you, I have two sayings that you might find useful:

  1. “Any meditation you can walk away from is a good meditation.”
  2. “The only bad meditation is the one you didn’t do.”

It’s the doing of the practice that’s the main thing; whether or not there was pleasure present isn’t that important.

Ironically, though, the less you worry about whether your meditation is pleasant or not and the more you just get on with doing it, the more likely it is that your meditation will be pleasurable. Life’s funny that way.

Just do it. It may not be easy, but it changes you in ways that make your life more meaningful, rich, connected, and (at times at least) joyful.

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Day 14 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

Stuart Valentine, who’s participating in the 100 Day Challenge, wrote about how fear of other’s judgements can stop us from getting started:

Being a born pessimist, one of the first things that occurred to me about the 100 Day Challenge was that if I did it, I would have to do it PERFECTLY. And this was clearly impossible, so there was no point trying.

‘Scoring’ just 99 out of 100 would be a disaster. I would feel irritated with myself, embarrassed, would have let myself and others down… and many other negative emotions I projected on to this ‘awful’ event.

If I ended on 90 out of 100, or heavens forbid 89 out of 100, then my life as I know it would be over, surely. Dharma ridicule would follow me the rest of my days. I could see it all in glorious detail.

If I missed a sitting early enough into the 100 days, I might even have to give up straight away! Why continue, now that perfection is out of reach?

Clearly, I concluded, the best option was to not start in the first place.

Despite knowing intellectually that this was a very shoddy way of thinking, I couldn’t shake the emotional conviction of it. So I took to the cushion to thrash it out. One order of mindfulness of body please.

Clearly there was a huge amount of negativity in all this, and unskillful thinking, But I also realised this sort of ‘all or nothing’ mentality is something I’ve been guilty of more times than I can count, almost always to negative or even disastrous effect.

Meditating revealed to me the aversion to making a ‘mistake’, the egotistical craving for the ‘glory’ of having done 100 out of 100 sittings, and the fierce aversion to the pictures I painted in my mind’s eye about how other people would look down on me for missing even a single sitting. I could feel it not just in the intensity and unpleasant nature of the thoughts which kept obsessively cycling round and round, but more importantly in the unpleasant bodily sensations that came with those emotions.100 day meditation challenge 014

Mindfulness of those body sensations gradually took the sting out of them as equanimity slowly won the battle, and the emotions slowly subsided. Sanity was slowly restored.

I could now see the sense in just trying every day, and not being too attached to success or failure to sit that day – just like when doing mindfulness one should keep persistently trying to be mindful, but should try not to be frustrated or demotivated when our mind wanders. The analogy struck me powerfully.

What came through most clearly was that my biggest fear by far was what others would think. I was telling myself all sorts of crazy stories about how ‘everyone’ would think less of me if I missed even one sitting. These stories had a life of their own, and I had so much aversion to them that my constant reactivity kept feeding them, much like a hurricane gets stronger and stronger as it crosses rough warm seas.

I decided to take the plunge, and to face it head on, with as much equanimity as I could manage. Don’t run, don’t suppress, don’t ignore, don’t fight – accept it. Accept the maelstrom, the sensations, the negativity. Accept, let go, equanimity, don’t give up, don’t give up…… deep breath, don’t give up!

It wasn’t fun, but it slowly worked, over the course of several sittings. The calm after the storm is always beautiful. For now at least, I can face the prospect of missing a sitting with something like a genuinely balanced mind.

No doubt the aversion to making a mistake will return. Old habits die hard. But next time it does, I’ll be better prepared.

And I have a quiet confidence that next time it will be that little bit weaker, too. Progress… however small, I’ll take it! Maybe the ratchet away from suffering just got moved another notch.

If nothing else, working through all this has gotten me to 10 sits out of 100! And the reduction in tension and stress from weakening these negative ways of looking at the situation means that I am now less likely to miss a sitting.

But if I do miss one, or WHEN I do, I think i’ll be able to take it my stride, and not let it stop me completing as many of the rest as I can.

Thank you for sharing your wise advice, Stuart!

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Day 11 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 011It astonishes me how much time I spend making judgements about people, but the truly surprising thing is that although it makes me feel bad, I keep doing it. And it leads to unfortunate interactions with people which ends up causing them suffering too.

One thing that protects us against this kind of self-imposed suffering is lovingkindness (metta) practice. Lovingkindness is an important complement to mindfulness practice.

To cultivate metta we can do something as simple as repeat to ourselves, “May you be well; may you be happy” as we see others. We can do this while walking or driving, for example.

We can take a more reflective approach to cultivating lovingkindness. I often consider the truth of the following statements:

  • I want to be happy;
  • I don’t want to suffer;
  • I often find happiness elusive;
  • I find suffering hard to avoid.

I drop these thoughts in one at a time, giving myself time to feel their reality on an emotional level. And then I allow the part of me that wants me to be happy to wish myself well — basically allowing a sympathetic attitude toward myself to emerge. Somehow recollecting that it’s a difficult thing to live a human life allows me to be more tender, and to be more caring and appreciative of myself.

Then I can apply the same thoughts to another person: This person wants to be happy; he/she doesn’t want to suffer; he/she often finds happiness elusive; he/she finds suffering hard to avoid. I find that quite naturally I want to “root for” this person as they do this difficult thing of living a human life. I want them to be happy.

This might sound a bit complex, but it isn’t really. The important thing is to give yourself time to let the thoughts have some emotional reality. With a little practice these reflections can be done in a few seconds, and having been thought about in a conscious way, they can then remain in the back of our minds, having a positive effect on our attitudes to others without needing to be consciously articulated.

This is something that I do at the start of each stage of my lovingkindness (metta) meditations. It’s also something I do during my daily activities. It makes lovingkindness practice much more real and effective for me.

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Mindfulness and wise discrimination

man standing at a fork in the path

You can’t read much about the important quality of mindfulness without learning that it involves being nonjudgmental – that it involves setting aside discrimination and simply accepting our experience.

For example, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s informal definition of mindfulness (from Wherever You Go, There You Are) reads: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

I use that kind of language myself sometimes, but I also notice that it’s subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, misleading.

Certainly, mindfulness has a quality of equanimity about it. Equanimity is a quality of calmness and composure. To give a negative example, I was recently leading a retreat, and in one meditation session two people ended up sitting just outside the window of the meditation room, having a conversation. I found it very hard not to get annoyed, and to imagine having words with the talkers. So, initially there was something that was unpleasant (noise when I expected quiet) but I reacted to that noise and ended up adding even more pain. The pain I caused myself by brooding over the incident as it happened, ended up causing me far more pain.

I also, fortunately, had more successful meditations where I could sit with physical discomfort, and even the sound of a garbage truck arriving and emptying a dumpster, with not a ripple of reaction crossing my mind. The physical pain, or the sound of the truck, were simply things to notice. Equanimity, which is an important component of mindfulness, is a spacious quality that allows our sense of discomfort to exist without repressing or denying it. It also prevents us from adding to that hurt.

Acceptance is a perfectly good word for describing this quality of equanimity.

But I can’t help feeling that it’s going too far to say that mindfulness doesn’t involve judgment. Certainly, in the spirit of equanimity, we don’t look at our experience and give ourselves a hard time over it. So when we get distracted in meditation are not meant to be mentally beating ourselves up and telling ourselves what a bad meditator we are.

But mindfulness, when it’s fully developed, includes an element of wise discrimination. Accompanying mindfulness is a sense of whether a particular experience we are having is one that we want to put more energy into, or one we want to stand back from and allow to fade away.

In one of the early teachings of the Buddhist tradition we read:

One tries to abandon wrong view & to enter into right view: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong view & to enter & remain in right view: This is one’s right mindfulness.

Implicit in this is that we recognize when a view (loosely speaking, an idea, a viewpoint, or a thought) is valid or not valid, helpful or not helpful, true or untrue, conducing to pain or to freedom from pain.

Again, this doesn’t mean that we beat ourselves up when we recognize that our thinking is distorted. Beating ourselves up is one of those things we can recognize as unwise, because it leads to suffering.

Mindfulness has a kind of critical edge to it. It’s discriminating. It recognizes the quality of any given experience that we’re having.

Mindfulness recognizes patterns. It can recognize that this particular kind of thinking (angry thinking, “woe is me” thinking) causes suffering, and that that particular mental state (kindness, patience, equanimity) leads to our feeling greater peace and well-being. And so we wisely choose where to put our energy.

Mindfulness is therefore also not entirely about “being in the moment.” Mindfulness is certainly paying attention to what’s going on right now, but it’s also recognizing how “right now” has arisen from “just a moment ago,” and how “right now” is going to affect “just a minute from now.” Mindfulness includes an awareness of process.

So it’s not a question of mindfulness being undiscriminating and non-judgmental in a straightforward way. It’s a question of mindfulness making wise and kind discriminations. Mindfulness makes wise discriminations because it intelligently senses what makes us unhappy and what brings us peace. It makes kind discriminations because in a state of mindfulness we refrain from responding to our experience with anger and frustration.

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Ask Auntie Suvanna: Connection before correction

Poster for Tod Browning's 1932 movie, Freaks

I am a Buddhist working in rehab, which is a very Christian environment, so I was happy to discover a co-worker sporting Buddhist memorabilia at her work site. I wanted to have a friendship with this woman because I believed we might have a lot in common, at least spiritually. However, all my attempts to get to know more about her have been thwarted.

When I ask her about herself she changes the subject or says let’s talk about that sometime… then we never do. She never reveals anything. Most of my co-workers don’t like her and the patients complain about her. They say she doesn’t listen and is not empathetic. One day she misinterpreted an innocent comment I made about her being new and inexperienced. She mentioned it to a coworker, completely distorting what I said. When I confronted her she wouldn’t answer me and just stopped talking. I’m starting to think she’s a bit of a freak and I don’t know if I should pursue this. Have any ideas?

Desperately Seeking Sanity

Dear Desperately,

 …rather than being concerned with being right (or with showing how wrong the other person is) we shift the priority to finding a deeper understanding of the situation

In order firstly to determine whether or not this woman is a freak, I watched the definitive 1932 film “Freaks,” in which a gorgeous trapeze artist called Cleopatra becomes the lover of the strongman Hercules, but pretends to love the rich German midget Hans, who is in love with her. When The Living Torso, The Pinhead, and another German midget ask Cleopatra to spare Hans from the deception, the fact that Hans is an heir of a great fortune is leaked… But I won’t reveal any more. Apparently the bearded lady hated the film and ended up regretting her participation. I regret that the lady lived long before the appearance of my column on body hair. At any rate it’s clear at this point that your ersatz Buddhist friend at work is not a freak.

Still, you could rethink your approach. Consider the fact that almost all of us want to be seen as competent and can find it painful when we feel we are not. Many people will react badly to being referred to as new and inexperienced even if — perhaps especially if — they are. One of the slogans I like from Nonviolent Communication is “Connection before Correction.” This means that rather than being concerned with being right (or with showing how wrong the other person is) we shift the priority to finding a deeper understanding of the situation. Specifically, trying to see what is behind the words. Certainly she was upset by your comment. So rather than confronting her, you could see that she was upset and respond to that, or just tell her what you meant.

But that particular situation has already passed. At the end of the day she may not want to be your friend; you may not want her as a friend. But you can try being kind and see what happens.

Love,
Auntie Suvanna

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