useful meditation phrases

“Trust in the Dharma”

At one of the online meditation sessions the other day we were talking about the powerful attraction of social media. Many people find the lure of social media to be so strong that it’s virtually an addiction. And in fact the designers of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like have invested massive amounts of money into finding ways to keep us hooked.

Research shows that social media make us unhappy and that we’re more content without them. Yet we still keep picking up our phones. Social media sucks us in because of our insatiable attraction for novelty. They suck us in because people “liking” or commenting on what we’ve shared gives us a sense of validation . And it’s hard to leave, because there’s always one more thing we can look at and interact with. The hope that this one more thing might be more interesting than what we’ve just seen is what keeps us on the hook.

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And this constant manipulation of our attention has a bad effect on us. We find ourselves no longer able to abide moments when there’s nothing to do, no information to scroll through. I see people in the supermarket check-out lines and virtually every single one of them is staring at a screen. I see people waiting at a drive-through coffee shop, and virtually every one of them is glued to their phone. Even while we’re brushing our teeth or using the toilet, we feel bored and find ourselves picking up our phones. Apparently daydreaming is a lost art.

We get so accustomed to consuming information in small bursts that many people report they can no longer focus well enough to read a book. This is especially hard when we’re reading on an electronic device, where the sirens digitally calling to us are just a click or swipe of the screen away. Concentration is a lost art too.

How can we learn to say no?

I’ve pretty much quit social media now (I have a Twitter account I don’t use and I have a business Facebook account but don’t use a personal account). But back in the days when I struggled with social media addiction I found a very simple and powerful tool that helped me to put my phone down and stop Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey from manipulating my attention.

It’s just three words: “Trust the Dharma.”

Those words have resonance and meaning for me that perhaps they don’t have for you, so let me unpack this.

“Trust the Dharma”

The “Dharma” is a word that can mean “teachings” — in this case the Buddha’s teachings. It can mean “truth.” It can mean “principle.” The Buddha recognized that his own formulations were just an illustration of general principles that lead us from suffering to finding peace and fulfillment. Those general principles are Dharma. When his aunt, who was a nun, wanted a brief teaching before going off on a solitary retreat, he said to her:

When you see that certain things
lead to contentment, not to craving;
to being free, not to being fettered;
to letting go of things, not accumulating them;
to having fewer desires, not more;
to contentment, not discontent;
to seclusion, not socializing;
to energy, not laziness;
to being easy to be with, not to being hard to be with,
You can with certainty hold, ‘These things are
the Dharma, the training, and the Teacher’s instructions.’

Reminding ourselves of spiritual principles

A simple moment of mindfulness helps us move toward calmness. Paying attention to just one breath helps to calm the mind a little. A single kind thought helps us to be more at peace with ourselves and others. Observing a feeling without judgement creates a sacred pause in which wisdom can arise. These are principles that we can trust.

And so in saying to myself, “Trust the Dharma” I’m reminding myself of those principles.

I’m saying to myself:

  • “Trust yourself. You’re OK without looking at your phone.”
  • “Trust that you’re happier without Facebook right now.”
  • “Trust that this moment, if observed and accepted, holds everything you need in order to be fulfilled and at peace.”

All this, and much more, is contained in those three simple words, “Trust the Dharma.”

Evolution versus the Dharma

We need to remind ourselves of these spiritual principles because we so easily forget them. Our evolutionary history has equipped us with principles that are totally in contradiction to Dharma. Primitive parts of the brain operate on the principle that we need to constantly worry in order to be safe, that we should look after ourselves at the expense of others, and that attack is the best form of defense. Less primitive, but still ancient, parts of the brain tell us that belonging to and being accepted by a tribe is the key to happiness, even if this means joining in with their hatred for other tribes and subjugating our own individuality in order to fit in. They tell us that more is better, and that we should therefore scroll, scroll, scroll our way down those screens, until we find satisfaction.

The pressing urgency of all those genetically scripted imperatives can swamp our awareness of those Dharmic principles. So we need to keep reminding ourselves that they exist. And because Dharmic principles and the programming we’ve inherited often conflict, we have to remind ourselves to trust them. We need to keep reminding ourselves to “trust the Dharma.” Trusting the Dharma is something we have to learn, slowly, over years and decades.

Boredom is the trigger

This phrase, “Trust the Dharma” is triggered by that familiar sense that I’m restless, and afraid of being bored, and therefore want to pick up my phone. And every single time that happens I feel a sense of confidence and calm descend upon me. I trust that mindfully paying attention to my present-moment experience is going to be enough. I trust that standing in line at the supermarket checkout, without touching my phone, is going to be pleasurable. I trust that simply breathing, simply noticing what thoughts and feelings are arising, simply turning my mind to kindness will lead me to calm, joy, and kindness.

It works for me, every single time.

I wonder how it will work for you?

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The most important thing right now, is right now

tree blossoms

The problem with distractions is that they’re compelling. They make us think that they’re important. They draw us into their stories. It’s as if they’re saying, “This is what you need to be thinking about right now.”

And so, over and over, we end up immersed in stories driven by anxiety, anger, desire, and self-doubt.

These distractions come from relatively primitive parts of our programming, which evolved as protective mechanisms. As mammals who suffered from predation, we needed to be anxious and alert for potential physical threats to our wellbeing. When such threats became actual—a stranger approaching our camp, for example—we might respond with displays of anger in order to invoke respect or fear in the other party. Living in an environment where resources were scarce, our sensory desires motivated us to seek and hold on to food and other essentials. Self-doubt promoted caution, so that we didn’t recklessly put ourselves in danger, and also helped us fit into a hierarchical social group where not everyone could be the leader.

Although we still do face threats, uncertainties, scarcity, and so on, for the most part the kinds of mental states I’ve been describing don’t really help us in modern life. In fact they hinder us in many ways, and rather than protect us they mostly cause us to suffer. The circuitry in our brains connected with these states is still there and keeps looking for things to get anxious, angry, greedy, or doubtful about. Sometimes that circuitry gets out of control and has a destructive effect on our lives, as with stress, social anxiety, and depression.

Even outside of pathological conditions, though, these mental states diminish our wellbeing. We’re always happier when we’re mindfully attentive to whatever we’re doing, even if it’s just our breathing, than when the mind is off wandering.

The thing, then, is how do we convince ourselves that our distractions are not actually important for our happiness, and that mindfulness is what’s truly important?

The Buddhist tradition offers lots of ways to do this, including reflecting on the drawbacks of our distractions (“Anxiety doesn’t solve my problems, it just makes it harder to tackle them”). But one of my favorite approaches is to drop in a gentle reminder that it’s valuable to disengage from distracted thinking—that it’s important to be mindful.

In the past I’ve used the phrase “But right now … right now.” I’ve also used “It can wait.” I’ve found them both to be very useful.

My current phrase is, “The most important thing right now, is right now.” This is a simple reminder of priorities. In a sense there’s nothing “wrong” with anxiety, doubt, and so on. Having those things show up isn’t a sign of failure. It’s not a weakness. It’s not a sign that you’re a bad person. They’re simply part of your old programming, and tend not to make you happy or bring you a sense of contentment. Instead, they stir us up emotionally and create worlds of pain. What is a higher priority, what is important for us to do, is to be mindful of our present-moment experience.

The second “right now” in “The most important thing right now, is right now” is pointing to everything that’s arising in our direct sensory experience. Sounds, light, the body, our feelings are all arising right now. Paying attention to those in a mindful way allows the mind to calm, our body to let go of tensions, and our emotions to come to rest in a sense of contentment, or even joy.

This “mantra” suggests exploration. What is “right now?” That’s for us to find out, through mindful exploration.

So as you find yourself coming out of a period of distracted thinking in your meditation, and re-emerging in a more mindful state, try dropping in the phrase “The most important thing right now, is right now,” and let it direct your attention to what’s truly important, which is your immediate sensory reality.

One student, Zia, wrote to me to let me know how the words had changed as she practiced with them:

Over several days, the reminder “The most important thing right now, is right now” has morphed in my mind into “All that matters right now is right now”. At some times, it further morphs into “ALL that matters right now is right now”. The capital “ALL” brings more of a sense of the vastness, the divinity, that is contained in the present moment and that becomes more accessible through attention.

This is a beautiful reminder that we can treat phrases like these as living things that you’re inviting to share your life, rather than objects that you keep around. Let them adapt, grow, and evolve.

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Lovingkindness meditation, using natural language

girl hand giving flowers

When I was first taught the metta bhavana (“development of lovingkindness”) practice, back in the early 1980s, I was encouraged to use these three phrases: “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be free from suffering” (altered to “may you…” or “may all beings…” in the other stages of the practice).

I was told that the exact words weren’t important, and that you could use your own phrases if you wanted. But none of the teachers who led the classes I went to ever offered any alternatives, which sent out a message saying that these were the “proper” and “authorized” ones.

But they worked! I remember the first time that I noticed the metta practice making a substantial difference to my emotional states. I was in a car, outside of Glasgow Veterinary School at the end of the day, waiting with two of my room-mates for one other person to show up so that we could go home. I guess I was probably tired after a full day of classes, and I was certainly grumpy.

The two girls, who were in the front seats, were chattering away about all kinds of things that I found rather trivial. They were just having fun and bonding, really, but I couldn’t appreciate that. I remember that at one point I was listening to them discuss what kinds of neckties their fathers wore, and I found myself in a really foul mood. Didn’t they have anything more meaningful to discuss!

Fortunately I remembered the metta bhavana practice, which I’d learned just a couple of weeks before. Didn’t that have something to do with overcoming ill will? So I began to repeat: “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be free from suffering.” I didn’t have any expectation that this would actually do anything, but I gave it my best shot.

After maybe just three or four minutes of this, I noticed a really weird thing. Somehow, while I’d been reciting those three phrases, over and over, I’d moved from being miserable to being happy! I hadn’t even noticed it happening. Holy incense sticks, Batman! This lovingkindness meditation thing works!

When I began to teach, I’d do what I’d been taught: tell people the phrases, let them know that they could change them if they wanted, and then use only those phrases, as if to suggest that this was the “real” way to do the practice.

Only a few years ago, as I taught compassion meditation more, I shook up the lovingkindness phrases a bit. Since compassion is about relieving suffering, I reckoned that “May I be free from suffering” was more of a compassion statement, and so I started to say (and teach!) “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be feel at ease.” Even more recently, I’ve sometimes said “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be kind to myself and others.” That change is because I think it’s important to encourage not just happiness and well-being, but kindness itself. After all, that’s what the practice is about!

More recently still, I’ve made a more radical change. I still use the standard phrases, but I offer rather different ways of communicating kindness. The “May I be..” format seems a bit stilted, and although it works, I think it’s rather a slow method, because the mind treats rote phrases as less meaningful than natural language, and learns to ignore it.

So now I’m encouraging people to use more natural forms of inner speech. I keep this fluid, because it’s a form of communication, and communication is more effective when there’s some spontaneity in it. So I’ll tend to use phrases like:

  • I love you, and I want you to be happy.
  • I just want you to know that your wellbeing is important to me; I hope you feel happy today!
  • I care about you, and I wish you well.
  • Remember to be kind to yourself. It’s hard to be happy when you give yourself a hard time. You deserve happiness.
  • I know life’s hard sometimes, but I’m here for you.
  • May your life be full of ease and joy!
  • I love you, and I’m here to give you support and encouragement.
  • It might be hard to believe this sometimes, but everything’s going to be OK.

In the other stages I’ll use similar phrases. Often I’ll tailor the message specifically for the person I’m thinking about. So for a friend, I’ll wish him freedom from the financial stress I know he’s under, or wish him well in dealing with a difficult family issue.

Using more natural language like this is a more effective way for me to communicate with myself, and to wish others well. Even when I find myself reusing these phrases, I have more of a feeling that I’m speaking from the heart, and what I’m saying seems more effective. A kind and compassionate part of me is communicating to other, perhaps more anxious unhappy, parts of me in a very natural way. It feels more alive and genuine.

Why not give this a try, see how it goes, and let me know in the comments below?

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A “mantra” for the in-breath: “Energize, inspire, enjoy”

Person's head against a dark background. The space around him seems to be filled with bubbles of light.

Recently I offered a mantra that can accompany the out-breathing: Release, Rest, Reveal. These words encourage us, respectively, to let go of unnecessary tensions in the body, to let go of unnecessary mental effort, and to be open and receptive to whatever is arising in our experience.

I’d like now to offer a corresponding mantra for the in-breathing: Energize, Inspire, Enjoy. As with the previous mantra, each of the words has a specific function.

“Energize” connects us with the natural energy of the in-breath. Inhalation is dominated by the sympathetic nervous system, which isn’t always about “fight or flight” but is involved in any physical or emotional arousal. It’s no coincidence that we take a sudden in-breath when we’re startled, and the sympathetic nervous system is activated.

In our normal (non-startled!) breathing pattern, the sympathetic nervous system is active. Each time we inhale there is a subtle but noticeable sense of energy. The body becomes oxygenated and the heart beats a little faster. The body becomes more open and upright, and is more ready to act.

Also see:

Saying the word “energize” as we inhale is a way of encouraging us to notice the gentle but arousing physical effects of the in-breath.

Saying “Inspire,” connects us with the same physiological processes, but it directs our attention more to the qualities of the mind and how they change as we breathe in. Just as the body becomes more alert and energetic on the in-breath, so does the mind. There’s a subtle but perceptible increase in our alertness, and the mind becomes brighter.

The word “Enjoy,” as you might expect, reminds us to appreciate any pleasure and happiness that are arising in our experience. This brings together everything: the out-breathing and the in-breathing; the body and the mind. Relaxing on the out-breath can be very enjoyable; so can feeling the energy of the in-breath. Resting the mind can be delightful; so can feeling the mind becoming brighter. Saying “Enjoy” as we breathe in encourages us to appreciate what’s positive in our experience. It encourages us to let happiness arise in response to the simple act of noticing the rhythm of our breathing.

Don’t try to do anything as you say these words. Don’t try to make anything happen. Just say the words, and let them have an effect.

Paying attention only to the out-breathing is calming, but in the long-term it tends to make us dull and sleepy. Paying attention only to the in-breathing is energizing, but we can easily become over-excited and distracted.

These are three things the in-breath shows us: Energy in the body. Inspiration in the mind. Joy in the heart.

So if you’re going to use these two sets of mantras, use them skillfully. You may want to start a meditation with the mantras of the out-breath—especially if you need to calm the mind—and then move on to the mantras of the in-breath. But since this latter practice can lead to excitability, there will come a point when we need to drop the mantras and focus just on the breathing, and when we need to focus on the continuity of the breathing process—sensing it as an unbroken stream of sensations—without particular emphasis on either the breathing-out or the breathing-in.

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A “mantra” for the out-breath: “Release, rest, reveal”

Person sitting in front of a huge waterfall

Here’s a meditation tip for you to try. It came to me when I was on retreat a couple of weeks ago. One morning, on the first meditation of the day, I found that my mind was all over the place.

I really needed to calm down my racing thoughts, but I had a hunch that the more I “tried” to do something about them, the more I was going to create more disturbance. In Buddhism we sometimes talk about this as being the task of “catching a feather on a fan,” because more effort equals more disturbance, while a gentle and sensitive effort will get the job done.

As I paid attention to the sense of my body letting go on each out-breath, I heard three words accompanying the exhalations. Breathing out, I’d hear “Release.” Breathing out, I’d hear “Rest.” Breathing out, I’d hear “Reveal.”

Also see:

Each of the words had a different effect. “Release” would direct my mind to the sense of natural relaxation that takes place every time we breathe out. Focusing like this on the physical release that takes place when we exhale helps the body to relax more deeply.

The word “rest” encouraged my mind to let go. As I breathed out, my mind settled into a natural sense of ease, non-striving, kindness, and acceptance.

As I hears the word “reveal,” I experienced a sense of openness to whatever was arising in that moment, whether in the mind or the body. There was a gentle sense of attentiveness and mindfulness — a balance of receptivity and active observation.

These three words, cycling though my mind, gave me a series of little reminders, each as long as an out-breath: let go in the body; let go in the mind; notice and accept whatever’s arising.

Very quickly, my thoughts slowed down. That process started almost the moment that I started saying these three words.

After a little while I found I didn’t need to “hear” the words as thoughts. I could let the mind be silent. My thoughts had substantially died away, and yet even without the verbal reminder, on successive out-breaths I was still relaxing, resting the mind, and allowing my experience to reveal itself to me. And whenever my thoughts started to reappear, I was free to reintroduce the thoughts once more.

Do feel free to try this, and even to adapt it to your own needs. See what doesn’t work, and what does. Meditation is “open source,” and you can adapt it in the light of your own experience.

These are the three things the out-breath teaches us: Releasing all that’s unhelpful. Resting in calmness. Revealing the rich simplicity of our experience.

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Becoming a rock-solid regular meditator

Two carved stone Buddha statues, one standing, one lying down

I really admire those few people I know who can honestly say they’ve been meditating for 10 or 20 years, and that they’ve never missed a day. I’ve been meditating for 30 years, but I’ve never been able to attain that kind of regularity. Sure, I’ve had periods of months at a time when I’ve never missed a day, but eventually I get tripped up and start missing days here and there. It doesn’t help that I have two young kids and that my sleep is often interrupted.

In some ways this irregularity might not matter. I’ve made progress. I’m kinder than I used to be. I’ve experienced all kinds of meditative states, including the jhānas and (so-called) formless jhānas. Heck, I’ve even had some powerful insights. But in some ways it definitely does matter. When I go through a period of meditating every day without fail, I find that my meditation practice really takes off. When I miss days here and there the quality of my meditation practice deteriorates. I lose momentum, and meditation seems more like maintenance than construction. Worse, the quality of my life suffers.

See also:

I suspect that the difference between people who meditate without fail and those who don’t (or can’t) is that the former see meditating daily as part of who they are. It’s just what they do. They don’t have to think about it, because it’s part of their identity. Those who struggle with meditating daily see that kind of rock-solid daily practice as something they need to achieve. And there’s a sense of doubt about this: “Will I ever get there?” And this doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because doubting you’ll ever sit every day without fail makes it less likely that you will.

How long do you have to sit anyway, before you develop this rock-solid confidence? This sense that “yes, meditating daily is just what I do. It’s part of who I am”? I’ve gone for months without missing a day, and then I have a late night and an early start the next day, and I’m back to being a non-regular meditator.

Is this familiar to you?

Recently I’ve been using an affirmation to help me get past this stumbling-block of doubt. It’s been helping me, and it may help you, too.

So here it is. Try repeating to yourself: “I meditate every day. It’s just who I am. It’s what I do.”

It’s pretty simple. I’ve been dropping this thought into my mind throughout the day. I did it while walking to work today. I even did it during my meditation, because I think that thoughts deliberately introduced into a still (well, relatively still) mind have more effect. Say these words as you lie in bed, before you go to sleep. Write them down, or stick a note to your computer monitor or on your car dashboard to remind you to call them to mind.

I feel a sense of confidence as I say these words. I can feel my sense of who I am changing.

I’ve been finding that by repeating that affirmation I’m building in to my sense of self the expectation that I’ll meditate daily. It therefore isn’t an “extra” to be fitted in. It’s part of how I see myself.

It’s definitely helping. I’m not promising that this will work, but you can regard it as an experiment. Maybe it’ll help you, too.

Wildmind is a Community-Supported  Meditation Initiative. Bodhipaksa is supported by numerous sponsors who generously donate each month to help him explore and teach meditation. Wildmind’s sponsors get access to an online community and to a large number of  meditation courses Bodhipaksa has developed over the years. Click here to check out the Meditation Initiative.

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“It can wait.” A mantra for the 21st century

Buddha meditating lying on one side

You’re in the middle of a conversation with a friend, and your phone rings. You stop mid-sentence and suddenly you’re caught up in a phone call. You don’t even think about whether or not to pick up the call. It just happens.

You’re in the car and you hear the ping of a text message arriving. What do you do? Many people succumb to temptation and read the message and — worse — reply to it. (You can recognize those people; they’re the ones in front of you, swerving out of their lane without even realizing it.) Even if you try to ignore the incoming message, you can feel its emotional pull, as if your phone is an emotional black hole, drawing your attention inexorably toward it.

These distractions are hard to resist. How can we reclaim our attention in this world of email alerts, text message alerts, phone calls, IM alerts, and Facebook notifications?

See also:

I’ve found one simple way of regaining control of my attention. It’s a simple phrase: “It can wait.” I didn’t make this phrase up. I borrowed it from a public service advertisement designed to combat distracted driving. I found it simple and powerful.

And I use it in my daily activities. When I feel the urge to look at my phone while I’m driving, even if it’s just to remind myself of the name of the song that’s playing, I say “It can wait.” This simple phrase makes it easy for me to keep my attention where it belongs — on driving safely.

“It can wait” is a reminder of what’s important. The text message, email, or phone call will still be there when I arrive at my destination. I can deal with it then. Right now what’s important is getting to my destination safely. (In theory the song is still there, but in practice I’ll forget to do the detective work necessary to figure out what the track was. Which just goes to show how important it was in the first place to have that information!)

“It can wait” is a tool I also use in my meditation practice.

Sometimes when I’m meditating I find myself getting caught up in some train of thought. Sometimes those thoughts are compulsive. Right now I’ve just moved into a new office and we’re making some changes at work, so I find myself planning how we’re going to use the space, how we can set up better organizational systems etc. It’s all creative stuff. But it’s not what I want to be doing in my meditation practice. So I say, “It can wait.” And again, I find it relatively easy to let go of the train of thought. Sometimes it’ll come back a few times, but I keep saying “It can wait” and the planning part of my mind eventually gets the message.

“It can wait” becomes a powerful statement of affirmation in the importance of the present moment. I find myself planning? “It can wait.” Right now I’m just going to be with my present moment experience. I’ll find happiness by surrendering to the present moment, not by arranging the future in my mind.

So I offer this to you as a practice that I’ve found to be simply and effective. When you need to be focused on the present moment and an emotional black hole appears and tries to steal your attention, just say “It can wait” and embrace the present moment in mindful awareness.

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