kindness

Keeping the mind on track

If you’re familiar with the way I teach meditation you’ll know that for many years one of the key things I’ve emphasized is having soft eyes.

“Soft eyes” means three things: letting the muscles around the eyes be relaxed; letting the focus within the eyes be soft; and being effortlessly receptive to whatever is arising in the entire visual field.

If we do those three things then the mind tends to become much quieter than usual, the body starts to relax, and the breathing starts to slow and deepen, so that it moves more into the belly.

And when we then turn our attention inward, to what’s arising in the body, then we’ll find that we can be aware of sensations arising from all over the body. The movements and ever-changing sensations of the breathing can be experienced all over the body. And the breathing then becomes a rich experience, so that the mind becomes calmer and remains that way for much longer than usual.

So this is a very easy way for us to take our meditation practice deeper. Rather than struggling, day after day, trying to fight through our distractedness in order to find a few moments of calm and concentration, we find that we can become calmer anytime, almost instantly.

And this usually works for me.

But sometimes it doesn’t! This is especially the case when I’m chronically tired, which has been happening over the last month or two. (Short version of the story: a new puppy we’ve adopted needs to go out to pee more than once during the night, and this is eating into the time I’d normally be asleep.)

So what to do?

What I’ve found helpful is to use a few phrases to help keep my mind on track.

  • “Soft eyes.” This is my reminder to let the eyes be soft. I say it just before I exhale.
  • “Body alive.” At the start of the next out-breath I’ll say this to myself, and as I breathe out I’ll notice the movements and sensations of the breathing, and particularly the warm, tingling sensations of my muscles as they relax. After saying the phrase I might simply observe the body for two to three breaths. Then I’ll say:
  • “Kind eyes.” This is my reminder to keep a sense of kindness and tenderness in the eyes. I say it just before I breathe out again. (If this practice of loving eyes isn’t something you’ve come across before, you might want to practice recalling what it’s like to look — at a beloved child, a pet, a lover, a friend, and so on — with love. Just notice the qualities of warmth and tenderness that arise in and around the eyes.)
  • “Meeting everything with tenderness.” As I exhale, I follow the sensations and movements of the breathing through the whole body, regarding everything that arises with kindness. Again I might continue to observe the body with kindness for two or three breaths, before once more starting the cycle of the phrases once again.

Distracted thinking directs our attention away from our immediate experience of the body, and into the world of imagination. The kind of thinking I’ve described in the list above instead directs our attention away from the would of the imagination and toward our immediate experience.

The timing of the phrases is crucial, and it’s something you’ll have to work out for yourself. If you repeat a phrase before every breath you’ll probably feel stifled, and your mind will feel too busy. You need to allow time for actually connecting with your experience, which means simply observing the sensations of the breathing rippling though the body — without you saying anything to yourself. So after saying the phrases “body alive” and “meeting everything with tenderness” you’ll find it helps to just stay with your experience of the breathing for something like two to three breaths, and maybe more.

How long is a matter of practicality. If you start to get distracted again, you need to tighten up the spacing of the phrases, leaving fewer breaths between them. If you feel things are going well, and you aren’t getting distracted, you might want to space the phrases out a bit more.

If things seem to be going really well, and you’re staying with the body without getting distracted, you might want to experiment with dropping the phrases “body alive” and “meeting everything with tenderness.” Just say “eyes soft” and “eyes kind” with a few “silent” breaths in between. How many is a practical matter—what works for you?

If you fall into a pattern of just repeating the phrases regularly in a mechanical way, you’ll find that it doesn’t work for long. Anything you do mechanically, you do unmindfully, and you’ll become distracted. So changing the frequency of the phrases and seeing what effect they have will help keep you alert, focused, and calm.

As part of this process of shaking things up, you can even change the order of the phrases. Sometimes I’ll say:

  • Soft eyes
  • Kind eyes
  • Body alive
  • Meeting everything with kindness

Again, I’ll play around with the number of “silent” breaths between these phrases to see what works best in keeping the mind quiet.

This practice is something I’ve integrating into my jhana teaching and practice. (See the “Letting Go Into Joy” course if you’re not familiar with what jhana is. But briefly, it’s the experience of meditative absorption.) In the first level of jhana there can be thinking present, and this seems to be one of the forms of thinking that is compatible with first jhana — thinking that directs us toward a deeper experience of the body.

Please do play around with these tools and let me know how it works for you.

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Sitting With Bodhi II

I invite you to join a new format of course that I pioneered a few weeks ago. It’s a different kind of meditation course with a new format.

It’s called Sitting With Bodhi.

The second series starts tomorrow, and the focus is on lovingkindness — although I prefer to call it simply “kindness.” It’s all about being more accepting and less harsh toward yourself and others.

It consists of 28 guided meditations which are 10 minutes long but open-ended; they get you started and then invite you to continue with the practice for as long as you want.

And you can work through these entirely at your own pace. Thanks to some kind of internet magic that I don’t pretend to understand, the next email isn’t sent out until the day after you’ve played the meditation in the previous one. So you don’t end up in that situation where you miss a couple of days and then despair because you realize you can’t catch up. Here the material is delivered completely at your pace.

And there are no readings at all! It’s just pure meditation.

I did a survey during the first course and 92% of respondents said they’d want to continue. And they offered comments like these:

  • “I learned more in the first 10 meditations than in the last 6 months. So many new ways to explore. My sitting is now so much interesting, with focus…i am excited about each sitting….i have one comment….Thank you Bodhi!”
  • “Starting with an intention of at least 10mins a day makes it easy to sit, and then sit for longer.”
  • “The meditations have helped my practice become more consistent, thank you.”
  • “I’m really enjoying the meditations. Thank you Bodhi for all your gentle guidance.”
  • “Thank you!! For all the work you’ve put into this. This course and knowing a new meditation will arrive each day has got me to my cushion again daily, which is such a relief and a joy.”

There’s an online discussion group for support, and I’ll also be doing two live online meditation sessions. If you can’t make it to those they’ll be recorded and archived for you.

Click here to find out a bit more or enroll.

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This simple tweak to the way you write emails might change your entire day

How many emails do you write in the average day? I just did a quick count and yesterday alone it was 64! Many of the messages I write are business emails and don’t have a salutation or valediction, plunging straight into the message. But some of them start with “Dear (whoever)” or “Hi!” and end with a sign-off.

I usually end those kinds of emails with “Metta, Bodhipaksa.” Metta is the Buddhist word for kindness. It’s often translated as “lovingkindness,” although I think the word kindness works much better, mainly because it’s familiar and experiential.

So I was responding to someone who said he couldn’t attend a gathering today because of work, and I was signing off with “Metta, Bodhipaksa” when it occurred to me that I could actually connect with warmth and kindness toward the person I was writing with.

Normally those sign-offs are just a formality. I don’t really think about what I’m saying.

So instead of doing that I just paused for a few seconds and called to mind the person I was writing to. I simply remembered that he was a feeling human being, that he had joys and sorrows just as I do, and that those feelings are as important to him as mine are to me. A sense of warmth and kindness naturally arose as I did this. I still feel different, perhaps half an hour after writing doing this exercise, which literally took just a few seconds.

Incidentally, this is how I teach people the practice of cultivating metta/kindness — the meditation practice we call “metta bhavana” (bhavana just means cultivation). You don’t need to “try to be nice” (yuck!) or try to make anything happen. Kindness just arises naturally when we empathize with the facts that others feel, and that their feelings are as important to them as ours are to us.

So there’s a new practice for me; I’m going to pause every time I write, “With metta, Bodhipaksa” and empathize with the person I’m writing to.

I can’t believe it took 36 years of meditating to come up with that one…

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Be lived by love

Feeling both the world and myself these days, one phrase keeps calling: lived by love.
Explicitly, this means coming from love in a broad sense, from compassion, good intentions, self-control, warmth, finding what’s to like, caring, connecting, and kindness.

Implicitly, and more fundamentally, this practice means a relaxed opening into the love—in a very very broad sense—that is the actual nature of everything. Moment by moment, the world and the mind reliably carry you along.

This isn’t airy-fairy, it’s real. Our physical selves are woven in the tapestry of materiality, whose particles and energies never fail. The supplies—the light and air, the furniture and flowers—that are present this instant are here, available, whatever the future may hold. So too is the caring and goodwill that others have for you, and the momentum of your own accomplishments, and the healthy workings of your body. Meanwhile, your mind goes on being, while dependably weaving this thought, this sound, this moment of consciousness.

It’s hard to sustain a felt knowing of this nature of everything. The brain evolved to keep our ancestors afraid to keep them alive. But if you look, and look again, you can see directly that right now, and in every now you’re alive, you’re cradled by the world and the mind like a child carried to bed by her mother. This cradling is a kind of love, and when you trust it enough to soften and fall back into it, there’s an untangling of the knots of fear and separation. Then comes both an undoing of the craving that drives suffering and harm, and a freeing and fueling love living through you and as you out into the world.

Imagine a single day in which you were often—not continuously, not perfectly—lived by love. When I try this myself, the events of the day don’t change much—but my experience of them, and their effects, improve dramatically. Consider this as a practice for a day, a week—or the year altogether.

More widely, imagine a world in which many people, enough people—known and unknown, the low and the mighty—were lived by love. As our world teeters on the edge of a sword—and could tip either into realistic prosperity, justice, and peace, or into growing resource wars, despotism, or fundamentalism—it seems to me that it’s not just possible for a critical mass of human hearts to be lived by love. It’s necessary.

How? The essence of this practice is a yielding into all that lives you. This is a paradigm shift from the typical top-down, subtly contracted, moving-out-from-a-unified-center-of-view-and-action way of operating … to a relaxed receptive abiding, feeling supported by the ocean of causes creating each momentary wave of awareness. Then on this basis, there is an encouraging of love in all its forms to flow through you. The suggestions that follow are different ways to do this, and you can also find your own.

Soften and open in the heart. Notice that you are alright right now: listen to your body telling your brain that you are basically OK. Feel the fullness that is already here, all the perceptions and thoughts and feelings pop-pop-popping in this moment of consciousness. Feel the buoying currents of nature and life, waves of gifts from over 3 billion years of evolution on our blue and green pebble. Look around and see objects, including your own hands and body, and consider the unfailing generosity of the material realm, blossoming for over 12 billion years from a seed of light.

Be aware of the warmth and good will from others toward you. Sense your connecting to others, how you are supported by a net of relationships. They don’t have to be perfect. Some people do care about you. You are almost certainly loved.

Feel carried by consciousness, the effortless knowing of perception and thought. When stress, worry, pressure, or pain appear in the mind, see that the fabric of this suffering—the underlying operating of the mind—is itself fine, is always already fine.

Again and again making this little but profound shift, this giving over to the carrying cradling of mind and matter, you can afford to let your own love flow freely. Bring this down to earth: if you lived from love in your first encounter with another person today, how would you be, what would you do, how would you speak? What would a week, a year, be like in which you lived by love? How about trying this? Who knows, if enough people share in this practice, the world could become a much better place.

Let love’s currents glide you home.

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Four cast-iron benefits of mindfulness

Many thousands of studies demonstrating the benefits of mindfulness have now been published, to the point where mindfulness can almost seem like a miracle cure. The problem is that not all of these studies were conducted well enough to be taken seriously.

Daniel Goleman (author of “Emotional Intelligence”) and University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson combed through thousands of studies and found that only one percent of them match the current gold standards for medical research. While we could rightly despair at the poor methodology of the 99 percent, we could instead focus on the four strongly confirmed findings that Goleman and Davidson have identified in the studies conducted using the soundest protocols.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review Goleman outlined those four confirmed benefits, which are: stronger focus, staying calmer under stress, better memory, and kindness. No doubt because he was writing for HBR, Goleman wrote about mindfulness mainly in terms of a tool for creating better workers for corporations — for example parsing kindness as “good corporate citizenship.” So I’d like to take those four benefits and write about them in a less corporate way, looking at how they can benefit us spiritually.

Stronger focus

People who practice mindfulness regularly experience less mind-wandering and distractibility.

Why is this important, and how can it benefit you? Mindfulness improves our filters. It helps us to identify when the mind is wandering in ways that are unhelpful for us, and to bring our attention back to our present-moment experience. Much of the time when the mind is wandering it’s engaged in what the Buddhist meditation tradition calls the “five hindrances” — craving, getting angry, worrying, low energy states of avoidance, and doubting. These hindrances diminish our sense of well-being and cause toxic effects in our interpersonal relationships and in our lives generally.

Reduced mind-wandering goes hand-in-hand with improved executive function, or self-control. Neurologically, what is happening is that the brain’s prefrontal cortex is learning to regulate and damp down activity in the amygdala, which triggers disruptive emotions like anger or anxiety. When we are mindful it’s easier for us to avoid things like addictive activities and needless conflict because we’re able to monitor the mind, spot the early stages of these activities beginning to kick in, and choose other ways of being.

Mindfulness, in other words, gives us greater mental freedom, which in turn brings us greater happiness and more harmony in our lives.

Staying calmer under stress

Since the prefrontal cortex regulates the amygdala more effectively when we’re mindful, mindfulness reduces stress.

This tends to make for better decision-making. When the amygdala is firing strongly it suppresses activity in the prefrontal cortex, which means that we don’t think clearly and make bad decisions. We might, for example, feel panicky about opening bills, stash them out of sight, and thereby increase the number of problems we have. Mindfulness helps us to think more clearly.

Mindfulness also improves our inter-personal relationships. When the amygdala is over-active, it’s constantly looking for potential threats, for example by worrying that someone doesn’t like us or is intending to insult us. Rather than waste energy reacting to “threats” that may not even exist we can just get on with building productive, sustaining, and nourishing connections with others.

This in turn leads to us having a better support network, so that we’re better able to deal with other stresses in our lives.

Better memory

Those who practice mindfulness show a stronger short-term memory (or working memory). For example, the graduate school entrance exams of college students who were taught to be more mindful scores showed increases of 16 percent.

The purpose of working memory is to keep relevant information in conscious awareness while it’s needed. The better our working memory, the more information can be stored there without data loss. On a very practical level, with a poor working memory it’s hard to remember a seven digit phone number long enough to dial it — intrusive thoughts or the inability to screen out other information disrupt our ability to keep the number in mind. Things like performing mental arithmetic depend highly on working memory as well, which partly explains the 16 percent boost that mindful students saw on their Graduate Record Exam scores.

But the benefits of better working memory are more profound than that. An improved working memory allows us to keep ethical principles and guidelines in mind as we go about life. Often the problem with being mindful or kind is that we just forget. So we might have an intention to be less reactive with our spouse, children, or colleagues, but find that this intention fades from the mind in the midst of our interactions. This is a failure of memory, and comes about because we’re not able to consciously keep our long-term goals in mind (such as “be more kind”) while attending to short-term ones, such as responding to what someone just said.

When we’re working on becoming better people — kinder, more compassionate, more honest, more courageous — we need to be able to keep those long-term aims in mind. This is what Buddhist psychology calls “sampajañña” — or continuity of purpose. Long-term change is difficult without this quality.

Kindness

Goleman presents this in terms of mindful people making “good corporate citizens,” which is an angle that I find rather jarring — as if the point of mindfulness practice is to fit in so that we can make more money for corporations.

He does also point out that mindfulness practice leads to “more activity in brain circuits for caring, increased generosity, and a greater likelihood of helping someone in need.”

In other words, mindfulness makes us kinder and more compassionate. This has benefits that go well beyond making more money for businesses. It creates more harmonious families and communities, and helps people who are struggling. In short, mindfulness can help us create a better world — something that’s desperately needed in these challenging times.

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The mind knows its own way home

cat looking through hole in wooden door

When we’re first learning to meditate, one of the things we have to get used to is that the mind wanders much more than we might expect.

We discover, perhaps, that we can’t go more than two or three breaths without the mind latching on to some thought that’s appeared and going for a long trek through our memories, fantasies, expectations about the future, and so on.

At first this might be frustrating. We get annoyed with ourselves, or with our minds, for being so distractible. We perhaps blame ourselves, and suspect that we’re not cut out for meditation, or worse at it than other people. Meditation seems a bit like hard work.

We learn, though, that this level of distraction is common. In fact, research shows that while doing activities with low objective demands on our attention (things like showering, waiting for an appointment, or driving a route we know well) we might expect to be distracted up to 80 percent of the time. And meditation is in this category: there is no compelling external task for us to be engaged with.

It’s not a personal flaw that results in our distractibility, but the way the nervous system has evolved. The mind likes having input. In the absence of stimulation, the mind will create stimulation for itself, in the form of memories, fantasizing, etc.

We learn to be more patient, and to simply let go of distracted thinking when we realize it’s been arising. We stop reacting so much. Distractedness becomes just a fact — something neutral that we don’t place any negative value upon.

But I think we can do better than that. Even though we may no longer react emotionally when we realize we’ve been distracted, we may still carry around a chronic sense that our minds aren’t “good enough.” That they have this regrettable tendency, this bad habit, of going off wandering.

We don’t ask our minds to get distracted. We don’t decide to get lost in thought. That’s out of our control. And I think that on some level we often find it uncomfortable to have “a mind that has a mind of its own.”

Here’s the thing, though. Every time the mind goes wandering, it comes back home again. Sure, we don’t ask our minds to go wandering. It just happens. But we also don’t ask our minds to come home to mindful awareness again. That just happens too!

Think about it. How do you come back to mindful awareness after a period of distraction? You don’t really know, do you? It just happens. One minute you’re on automatic pilot, lost in a daydream, with no awareness of where you really are and no ability to choose what you’re doing. You’re not even capable of deciding to be mindful again. Then the next minute you’re back in mindful awareness, knowing that you’re sitting on your meditation cushion, free to choose what you pay attention to and how you’re going to pay attention to it, free to choose to be kinder and more patient with yourself.

Your attention simply returns to mindfulness, over and over again. And you don’t have to make this happen. It happens all on its own. Isn’t that encouraging? Your mind knows its own way home. It will always come home to mindful attention. Focus on that automatic success, not on the supposed “failure” of the mind’s wandering.

Maybe we could think of the mind as being like a cat. It likes to go roaming, but it also likes to come home. What kind of welcome do you give it when it walks back through the door again? Maybe you don’t get annoyed. Maybe you just treat the return home as a neutral event. But how would it be if you were to give the house cat of your mind a warm reception when it comes home again? Do you think it would feel more at home, more welcomed? Do you think it might be more inclined to stick around?

Give it a try. When you find yourself emerging from a period of distractedness, welcome your attention back home again. Regard it with affection. Let it feel the warmth of your heart. Let it know it’s valued, cherished. Maybe, just maybe, your attention will feel like sticking around more, instead of wandering so much. And maybe your meditation will feel less like hard work and more like an act of love.

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A new book: ‘The Mindful Nurse’

Mary O’Connor, Hearts in Healthcare: Mention compassion and what words spring to mind? Thoughtfulness, decency, kindness, a caring nature and a willingness to help others.

We usually think of compassion in terms of other people and rarely apply it to ourselves. Yet self compassion is important for our emotional wellbeing and growth.

It involves demonstrating the same qualities of caring, kindness and understanding to ourselves when we are having a difficult time, not judging ourselves harshly for any perceived shortcomings or when we make mistakes, comforting and caring for ourselves and, most of all …

Read the original article »

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Why teaching kindness in schools is essential to reduce bullying

Lisa Currie, Edutopia: Phrases like “random acts of kindness” and “pay it forward” have become popular terms in modern society. This could perhaps be best explained by those who have identified a deficiency in their lives that can only be fulfilled by altruism.

It seems there are good reasons why we can’t get enough of those addictive, feel-good emotions, as scientific studies prove there are many physical, emotional, and mental health benefits associated with kindness.

As minds and bodies grow, it’s abundantly clear that children require a healthy dose …

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Practicing mindfulness through kindness and compassion

Deniz Ahmadinia, NAMI: Between recent world events and the upcoming presidential election, there has been much discussion around themes of hate, racism, bigotry and differences among people. While we may see the occasional story of kindness, the notion of being compassionate is all too often drowned out in our society.

We hold all these misconceptions about what it is to be compassionate and kind, including that it makes us weak, that it’s a form of self-pity, that it’s indulgent, and that it gets in the way of success. Our competitive, tech-driven, busy …

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Bodhipaksa is teaching in Australia, March 2017!

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Rainbow at Vijayaloka

Rainbow at Vijayaloka

Bodhipaksa is teaching in Australia in 2017! He’s been invited by the Sydney Buddhist Centre to lead a week-long retreat on lovingkindness and the other three “divine abidings” at Vijayaloka Buddhist Retreat Centre, at Minto, just one hour from the centre of Sydney, on a plot of largely pristine bushland above the upper reaches of the Georges River.

This week-long retreat is an opportunity to enjoy my innovative and even provocative take on the “divine abidings” or Brahma Viharas — four inspiring and transformative practices that progressively expand our sphere of concern to include all beings.

The divine abidings are a path to insight, blending compassion and wisdom.

On this retreat we will delve progressively deeper into the divine abidings, developing an unselfish concern as deep as the world itself: a love that leads ourselves and others toward awakening.

These teachings have grown out of over 30 years of practicing these meditations, and of helping literally thousands of people to explore them. The retreat is suitable for people who already have some meditation experience. It’s not an event for complete beginners.

  • Metta is kindness, or an empathic recognition that just as we desire happiness, other beings desire happiness; therefore we wish for the wellbeing of others.
  • Karuna, or compassion, is the desire that beings be free from suffering so that they may experience happiness.
  • Mudita, or joyful appreciation, is far more than “being happy because others are happy.” It begins by recognizing that true happiness does not arise randomly, but as the result of skillful actions. Therefore we rejoice in the good we see in ourselves and the world, and encourage its development, living as much as possible from a basis of gratitude and appreciation.
  • Upekkha is often translated as equanimity, or balance. But it goes much deeper. The root meaning of upekkha is “to watch intimately.” It begins with the recognition that the deepest and truest form of happiness is the peace that arises from spiritual awakening; therefore if we truly want beings to be happy we should rejoice in and encourage the cultivation of insight in ourselves and others.

In cultivating upekkha we must look deeply into the hearts of beings and recognize their need for awakening. And we must look deeply into the nature of reality itself, so that we know what awakening is, and can help others to attain it. Upekkha, in its essence, is identical to “The Great Compassion” (Maha-Karuna) of the Mahayana, that seeks the enlightenment of all beings.

The divine abidings, ultimately, are a love as deep as life itself.

The retreat runs from Friday, 3 March until Friday, 10 March, 2017.

Click here to register for Bodhipaksa’s retreat in Australia.

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