mindfulness

Mindfulness is the name given to the activity of observing our experience without judgement. You’ll find here a vast collection of articles and news stories that explain various aspects of mindfulness — including its benefits for our physical and mental health, how to practice it, and how it relates to other aspects of spiritual practice.

“This is where peace is found”

Anyone who has meditated knows that over and over again we turn the mind toward the sensations of the breathing, to building kindness, or to some other object of meditation, and over and over again we find ourselves distracted by some random train of thought.

Distractions are seductive, but make us unhappy

Our thoughts are strangely seductive. And yet they rarely make us happy. In fact research shows that distracted thinking is a source of suffering. We’re much happier when we are mindfully attentive to our experience.

The Buddha in fact classified our distracted thoughts into five categories: longing for pleasant experiences, ill will, worrying, avoidance, and doubting ourselves. All five of these hindrances, as they’re called cause unhappiness.

So why do we keep getting drawn towards doing something that makes us unhappy?

Why are we so drawn to distractedness?

Early Buddhist teachings talk about a number of “cognitive distortions” (vipallasas), one of which is seeing things that cause suffering as sources of happiness. And that’s what’s going on here. The mind assumes that if we long for pleasure, pleasure will happen, that if we hate what we don’t like, it’ll go away, that if we worry about things, this will fix them, that if we avoid things we don’t like, they’ll go away, and that if we doubt ourselves and make ourselves miserable, someone will come and tell us everything’s OK.

So on a certain, very deep, level, we’re convinced that distractedness is where happiness is found. Even though it isn’t.

Being mindful of the body is the way to happiness

Where happiness does lie is in mindful attention — mindfully attending to the physical sensations of the body, to feelings, to thoughts, and to how all of these things affect each other in ways that either contribute or detract from our wellbeing.

Simply observing the breathing and other sensations in the body, patiently returning to it over and over when we get distracted, brings peace. This is the basis of meditation.

It’s in the body that peace lies. That’s where we find happiness.

A practice for retraining the mind

So as a practice, I suggest the following.

First, let the eyes be soft. Let the muscles around the eyes be relaxed. Let the eyes be focused softly.

Then, begin to connect with the sensations of the body, feeling the movements of the breathing as soft waves sweeping through the body.

As distractions arise, and you begin to extract yourself from them, see if you can have a sense of distracting thoughts being in one direction, and the body in another direction.

On each out-breath, remind yourself that the sensations of the body are where you want your attention to be by saying something like the following:

  • This [the body] is where happiness is found.
  • This is where peace is found.
  • This is where patience is found.
  • This is where joy is found.
  • This is where calm is found.
  • This is where ease is found.
  • This is where security is found.
  • This is where confidence is found.
  • This is where contentment is found.
  • This is where love is found.
  • This is where awakening is found.

As each breath sweeps downward through, say one of the phrases above, or something like them. You can make up your own phrases. You can repeat phrases, but see if you can mix them up a bit in order that the practice doesn’t become mechanical.

How this works

Essentially all positive qualities are supported by mindfulness rooted in the body, so you can just let various qualities come to mind and remind yourself that it’s through awareness of the body that they will arise.

Let the words accompany the breathing, strengthening your intention to notice and appreciate the body mindfully.

In the short term, the repeated reminders to observe the body will help to keep your mind on track. There’s less opportunity for distraction to arise and take over your mind.

In the long term, you might find that you start to realize that the body — rather than distractions — is home. It’s where growth happens. It’s where you want to keep turning your attention. It’s where you want to be. And your attention will naturally gravitate there.

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Why it matters if you can feel your heartbeat

If you close your eyes and become aware of your body, can you detect your heartbeat — without touching your chest or checking your pulse?

Now, can you do it with your eyes open?

This is a quick measure of your ability to practice “interoception.”

What Is Interoception?

Interoception is the ability to sense your internal states — sensations arising from your inner organs, muscles, and so on. This includes an awareness of the heart.

Many people find it hard to detect their heartbeat at all, or can only do it with difficulty. Their interoceptive powers aren’t well developed. For others, detecting the heartbeat is easy. They have a higher level of interoceptive ability.

Interoception is a word that not a lot of people know. I’ve used the word a lot in my teaching since I first encountered it a few years ago, and there’s almost always someone in the class who hasn’t come across it before.

You’re probably going to hear it a lot more in the future, because it’s become obvious that there are drawbacks to having poor interoception.

Not being able to sense the body’s inner states leads to poor emotional regulation. Imagine you were driving a car with no fuel gauge. You’d probably keep running out of fuel, because vital information about the state of your vehicle wasn’t available to you.

Similarly, if you can’t detect the signals your body is giving you until they’re very strong, you can’t regulate your emotions very well. By the time you’re aware that you’re anxious, for example, you’re already really anxious. Being able to detect those signals sooner means you’re able to decide earlier to do something to help stay calm.

Interoception and Depression

Low interoceptive ability is related to depression. In a study, women who suffered from depression (but not anxiety), showed lower ability on the heartbeat test than a control group did.

Also, the worse their ability to detect the heart, the less positive feelings they reported experiencing in their lives.

Interoception and Poor Decision-Making

And this had an interesting knock-on effect. Low interoceptive awareness is also correlated with difficulty in making decisions. The reason for this is that decision-making is not a purely logical process. Logic can tell us that two slices of chocolate cake is more than one slice of chocolate cake, but not whether we prefer one or two slices. We make decisions largely on the basis of how we feel about things. If we can’t detect our feelings, then we can’t easily make decisions. In fact if we can’t feel our feelings, then we might well be more prone to making bad decisions — e.g. trusting someone who’s untrustworthy, or choosing a job that’s likely to make us unhappy.

Interoception and Anxiety

My partner is prone to anxiety, and when I asked her to do the heartbeat detection test, she wasn’t sure if she could feel her heart at all. I don’t know if there’s research supporting this, but I suspect that certain people can only feel their heartbeat when they’re already anxious, and because they’re not used to being able to detect the heart under normal circumstances, feeling their heart beat in an exaggerated way is taken as a sign that something is really, really wrong — which precipitates yet more anxiety.

She may be atypical, though: people who suffer from anxiety disorder typically are more aware than average of interoceptive signals from the body. What may be going wrong is that those signals (increased rate and strength of the heartbeat, intestinal queasiness, and so on) are misread, and taken as a sign (again) that something abnormal is happening. It’s possible, in fact, to become anxious about being anxious.

Meditators are Better at Interoception

Meditation, in the Buddhist tradition at least, emphasizes awareness of the body, which means paying attention to the body’s sensations. Many meditators, myself included, will report that training in meditation has helped to sensitize them to the body.

For myself, this has been like going from a black-and-white line drawing of the body to a full-color image. Any time I bring my attention to the body now I experience currents of energy, tingling, and pleasure—which is called pīti in Pāli and prīti in Sanskrit. That’s very different from how my body used to be experienced. But that’s anecdotal evidence.

Dancers Versus Meditators

In one study I’ve long found fascinating, in a study in 2010, published in Emotion, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, explained how they showed short, emotive, film clips to experienced meditators (their average time practicing was seven years), professional dancers, and a control group. They measured the physiological responses of all these people, and also asked the study participants to indicate their ongoing feeling state (from very negative, through neutral, to very positive) using a dial.

The aim of the study was to assess to what degree the self-reported experience of the members of each of the three groups matched (or was “coherent” with) their physiological states.

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It turned out that the meditators had the highest degree of coherence (that is, their self-reported feelings matched what was going on in their bodies), with the dancers being intermediate, and the control group having the lowest coherence.

Additionally, when it came to self-reported visceral awareness (how well they could feel their feelings), the meditators reported the highest levels, the dancers were intermediary, and the controls reported the lowest levels.

So it does seem that meditation training does improve internal awareness, which is what you might expect. Of course it could be that people with greater visceral awareness are more likely to be drawn to meditation for some reason, so the researchers looked to see if there was a correlation between length of practice and body awareness. They didn’t find any significant correlation, but then the sample size was too small for them to draw any definite conclusions.

Interoception Can Be Learned

More recently (2021), in a study published in The Lancet, researchers explained the effects of giving six sessions of interoception training to autistic adults with persistent anxiety symptoms. People with autism tend not to be good at interoceptive tasks. For example they’re not good at counting their heartbeats. At the same time they tend to over-emphasize the internal sensations they do experience. In other words, they’re over-reacting to signals from the body.

The researchers hoped that their training would help people with autism to perform better on heartbeat detection tasks, and that this would in turn help increase their ability to interpret and regulate interoceptive signals.

Amazingly, three months after the intervention, 31 percent of the participants no longer had an anxiety disorder.

So not only can interoception be learned, but doing so can have profound effects on people’s well-being.

Meditation for Interoception

Many approaches to mindfulness of breathing meditation tend to focus narrowly on the breath – that is, the sensations of air touching the passages as it moves in and out of the body. This helps with learning interoception in only a very limited way.

My own approach has been increasingly to encourage an awareness of the movements and sensations of the breathing in the whole body.

The meditation practice below, which accompanies my book, “This Difficult Thing of Being Human,” helps you to sense the entire body breathing — including subtler sensations you might habitually ignore. Please try it, and see how you get on.

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Forgiveness and the myth of time

We all have a tendency to beat ourselves up over things we did wrong in the past, or that we think that we did wrong. And so we all need to forgive ourselves.

When we don’t forgive ourselves we often wish we could change the past. We replay past events over and over again, sometimes reliving events as they actually happened and blaming ourselves, and sometimes imagining that things went a different way. Then we end up regretting that this alternative reality didn’t actually happen.

And I think there’s a kind of myth about time that’s worth examining.

The Idea, “I Should Have Done Better”

I want to approach this myth from a direction that might seem a bit unusual. I’m going to start with talking about golf. Don’t worry if you’re not a sports fan. I’m not a sports fan! I don’t even play golf. So, no golf experience is necessary. But I think we can all imagine playing golf or practicing some other skill.

For now,  just imagine that you’re a pretty good golf player. You’ve lined yourself up to take a short putt — something you’ve done many times before. You almost always get the ball in the hole with such shots because you’re a good golfer. But on this particular occasion, for whatever reason, the ball does not go in the hole. Perhaps you get close. But, as they say, no cigar.

Now, in sinking a putt we’re dealing with an enormous number of variables. Every time you make the same movement with your body it’s slightly different. However much you practice, there’s an unavoidable imprecision in your body movements and therefore in the movement of your putter. There are other conditions that you can’t control — deformations of the putting green, how wet or dry the grass is , how hard or soft the ground is, changing wind conditions, how focused you are, whether you’re feeling stressed, for example. Those are just some of the variables involved in making a putt.

So you missed the putt for whatever reason. Maybe you would sink it 99 percent of the time, but this is one of the one percent times. And you can say to yourself, “Damn, I should have got that putt!” and you might feel really angry with yourself. You might get really down on yourself and be very critical about yourself, but the thing is you missed the putt.

And you keep thinking, “If I could do it again, I’d do it differently.” The thought obsesses you.

Could You Have Acted Differently?

Now, you don’t have the ability to go back in time and step back into the exactly same circumstances and conditions. In fact if you literally did go back in time and were in exactly the same place, and exactly the same situation, under exactly the same conditions, what would happen? You would miss the putt again, because the conditions that existed at that time were the conditions that existed at that time!

Now you might think, “Yes, but if I could go back in time I’d have the knowledge that I was about to miss the putt, and I’d do things differently.” But then you’re not in exactly the same conditions. You’re in a different set of conditions. And that, in a world where we are unable to project our present-moment consciousness back into the past, is a set of conditions that can never have existed.

So the the idea that you you should have sunk the putt is an abstraction. it’s referring to a different kind of world than the world that we actually live in.

Applying This to Non-Sports Things

So let’s apply this reflection to other things in our lives.

Let’s say you lost your temper with someone, and you said some things that were unpleasant. And afterwards you regret that, which is fine by the way, since regret is perfectly natural and ethical thing to do. We can regret something without beating ourselves us. It’s beating ourselves up that is the problem.

But the thing is, if you look back at that particular event, if you could see all of the conditions that were pertaining at that particular time—your expectations, and your stress levels, and all the different things that you were juggling in your mind at that particular point, and your physiological states, depending on how tired you were what your blood sugar level was, and so on—if you could see all of those conditions you would realize that it was inevitable in that moment that you were going to lose your temper.

You were doing the best you could with the resources that were available to you.  In fact, you did the only thing that you could with the resources available to you. Now, you can say, “Well, if I’d had a bit more mindfulness then I could have acted better.” But in that moment you didn’t have more mindfulness! You had as much mindfulness as you had! The idea that you could have done something differently is again a kind of an abstraction. It assumes that our present-moment state of mind can somehow affect our past state of mind, which is of course not possible.

Solutions Are In the Present, Not the Past

The myth about time that we need to see through is that the solution to painful regrets lies in the past. It doesn’t. The solution to our suffering lies right here, in the present.

The important thing is now. The regret you have about past unskillful actions is happening now. The learning you’re having, drawn from the lessons of the past., is happening now. The intention to act differently in the future is happening now.

And those things are happening now. So, in the present moment:

  • Let the past be the past.
  • Regret what you did wrong, which is just another way of saying “realize that what you did wrong was wrong.”
  • Accept that you did the best you could with the resources available.
  • Learn from your past mistakes.
  • Intend to act differently in the future.

You can of course opt to use the present moment for beating yourself up, but self-punishment, calling yourself names, telling yourself you’re a bad person, and so on are all unskillful, unhelpful, and painful ways of acting. They’re a waste of this precious moment we have in the present to act in ways that promote our long-term happiness and well-being.

This Isn’t Determinism

Now, it might sound like I’m being deterministic—that we have no choice and therefore no responsibility. That’s not what I’m saying, as I’ll explain

The ability to choose courses of action, including the choice not to do something that hurts us and other people, is always potentially available to us, but practically speaking it often isn’t, because we frequently lack mindfulness. Without mindfulness, it’s as if our lives are predetermined by conditions. When we have mindfulness, life becomes more creative. We begin to be able to make choices that prevent suffering happen to ourselves or others.

Normally we’re not very mindful. I remember reading about a study once that showed that what we do and say is something like 80 percent predictable. Normally our habits simply roll on, without much mindful intervention.

An Analogy for Mindfulness, and Its Lack

Imagine a heavy ball rolling down a slope toward something precious, like a kitten. The ball is going to hit the kitten (which is, for the sake of argument, too young to move out of the way). That’s life without mindfulness. Our habitual impulses roll on, like heavy balls on a slope. Sometimes bad things happen as a result.

Now, imagine there’s someone observing the ball rolling down the slope. They see what’s about to happen, and with the touch of their hand the ball is diverted on a different course and the kitten remains untouched. That’s life with mindfulness (or with sufficient mindfulness to take action, which is the important thing).

It’s just an analogy. Don’t overthink it!

In any given moment of life, you either have enough mindfulness to act skillfully, or you don’t. When there’s no mindfulness present, it’s like there’s no one there to nudge the heavy ball.

And any moment in the past when you acted badly was a moment when you didn’t have sufficient mindfulness or wisdom to do otherwise.

Mindfulness = Wiggle Room

Mindfulness gives us wiggle-room. And if we want to live happier lives, and to have fewer regrets, then we should make it a goal to develop more mindfulness. Because more mindfulness gives us more wiggle-room.

With the little bit of mindfulness we have at present, we recognize that life has more potential for happiness when we’re mindful. So we set up conditions so that we can develop even more mindfulness. We meditate, for example. Or we commit ourselves to living according to ethical principles, like Buddhism’s five precepts. Or we join a community of other people who also intend to cultivate mindfulness. Or we go on a retreat where we can intensively train in mindfulness. Or we study by reading books and listening to talks on mindfulness so that we understand better what it is we’re trying to achieve. Or we create mindfulness triggers for ourselves. Or, all of the above.

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And right now, in the present moment, as we look back on things that we regret doing (or not doing) we recognize that self-blame is a painful waste of time. We recognize the value of accepting that we did what we did, and we did the best we could with the resources available to us at that time, and we in fact couldn’t have done otherwise. And in this present moment we can ask how we might act differently in the future.

The key to forgiveness is seeing that the solution to our present suffering is not in the past. It’s here, now. You can’t go back and change the past. But you can bring about change right now. And that’s going to benefit you—and other people—in the future.

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Mindfulness, step by step

Almost anything we do can offer us an opportunity to practice mindfulness. The most mundane activities, such as unloading the dishwasher, driving, or grocery shopping, can become part of our spiritual practice.

Walking as a Practice

Walking is one ordinary activity that we can transform into a vehicle for being more mindful. One of the benefits of mindful walking is that the body is easier to sense when it’s in movement. In sitting meditation a lot of people initially find it difficult to be aware of physical sensations. When we’re walking, the sensations are far more obvious. This means that walking can be a powerful anchor for our attention.

The Irish poet John O’Donahue wrote:

It is a strange and magical fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you. It is an immense privilege, and it is incredible that humans manage to forget the miracle of being here.

Walking is something we take for granted, and we may assume that although we can walk to interesting places, the act of walking itself is inherently uninteresting. Yet the simple act of walking can be a rich and fulfilling experience. In relating to ordinary activities with mindfulness, we may find that they’re not so mundane after all. We begin to see everyday existence as a miracle. Ordinary movements can become a dance, everyday sounds become music, the uninteresting can become fascinating.

Mindful Walking Versus Walking Meditation

In many traditions there is a walking meditation practice in which we pace back and forth at an incredibly slow pace. In this form of meditation it might take several minutes to cover a distance that we would normally traverse in a few seconds. What I’m suggesting here is something different: focusing mindfully on the physical sensations that arise as we’re walking to the mailbox, or to the bus stop, or train station, or taking a stroll in the park, or in fact any other time we’re walking in daily life.

The practice

You can pause for a moment before you start walking, and simply experience what it’s like to stand, noticing the weight of the body pressing into the earth.

The Eyes

Let the eyes be soft and be attentive to the whole of your visual field.

In order to maintain your mindfulness as you walk, I’d suggest not letting your gaze wander any more than is necessary for safety. So avoid things like looking in shop windows or letting your gaze track people’s movements. Just let your eyes look straight ahead, and perhaps slightly downward.

The Pace

Your walk itself should be natural, although perhaps just a little slower than usual. When you walk at the same pace as you usually do, your mind will do the same things it usually does. In other words you’ll get distracted. Slowing your walk a fraction helps you to be less habitual.

The Anchor

The core of mindful walking practice is observing the sensations in the body. A good place to start is with the alternating pattern of the feet making and breaking contact with the earth. This is simple, concrete, and easy to notice. Those rhythmic sensations can be your anchor—they’re what you turn your attention back toward whenever you realize you’ve become distracted.

Walking Into Mindfulness

From there, you can start to become aware of the rest of the body. Start with the lower legs, where you can notice the tightening and release of the muscles. Notice also sensations such as the touch of your clothing against your skin and the vibration of the feet touching the ground rippling up through your flesh, bones, and joints.

You can notice sensations and movements in the thighs, the hips, and the pelvis. You can notice the spine, the belly, the chest. Notice all the movements of the breathing, and how it naturally fits in with the rhythm of the walking. You can notice the shoulders moving, the arms swinging, the way the head moves, and so on.

You’ll find that with the eyes soft and your field of attention open and receptive it’s possible to notice how each sensation of the walking is coordinated with all the others. The whole of our walking, from our breathing to the sensation of air flowing over the hands as they swing at the end of our arms, form one process—an elegant and fascinating dance, as we walk into mindfulness, step by step.

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Becoming more mindful of our feelings

The “first foundation” of mindfulness is the body, which involves being aware of the physical sensations of the body, the body’s posture, how we move, and so on. The second foundation is “feelings.” Feelings are internally generated pleasant and unpleasant sensations that arise in the body. This isn’t so much sensations like the physical pain that comes from an aching back (although that’s included). More important are the the pleasant or unpleasant sensations that arise, mainly around the heart and gut, which are produced by the brain, through the action of hormones and the vagus nerve. These pleasant and unpleasant sensations tell us whether we like or dislike something, or whether some experience is a potential threat or benefit.

They’re important because much of what goes on in the third foundation of mindfulness—the mind itself—results as a result of reactions to our feelings. Since what the mind does either creates more suffering, or relieves us of suffering, it’s crucial for us to learn to be more mindful and accepting of feelings.

Many of us, myself included, started off our practice being rather vague about what feelings actually are, or how we might go about observing them. I don’t recall ever having been given much guidance in that regard, and when I first tried to be mindful of my feelings often found myself confused about what exactly I was looking for. But feelings are very ordinary. They’re arising in our experience all the time.

So help you practice being mindful of your feelings, I’d like to offer a “Look and Feel Exercise,” which might take you five to ten minutes:

Look and Feel Exercise

Wherever you are now, just let yourself relax. Let the eyes soften a little. Spend a minute or so becoming more aware of sensations arising in the body, including the sensations of the breathing.

Now, begin to let your gaze slowly roam around, alighting on various objects. As you do this, notice any sensations that arise in the body, and especially in the heart or solar plexus. At the most basic level there will be certain things that you don’t like to see and that are unpleasant, some that you find pleasant, and some that your attention skips right over because you have no feelings about them.

Some things your gaze settles on may give rise to unpleasant feelings. You might be aware of a pile of unpaid bills, or a cobweb, or something that’s in need of repair. Where does unpleasantness manifest itself? Perhaps some of it takes the form of tension in certain muscles. Often it’s experienced as a tightening or twisting sensation in the gut, a sense of tension or tingling around the diaphragm, or as a sinking feeling around the heart. Notice those feelings as objects of attention. Stand back and observe them with interest.

Some things your gaze settles on may evoke pleasant feelings. If you’re outdoors this might be a tree, flowers, or a dog playing. If you’re indoors this might be a painting, photograph, or furnishings. How do you know you find these things pleasant? Where are those pleasant feelings? What are they like? Do they feel like softness, or warmth, or openness? Again, notice them with curiosity and interest.

Now, was there anything your gaze skipped over? Perhaps a bare patch of wall or floor, or a door? Probably your attention wasn’t drawn to those things because no feelings were evoked as they entered your gaze. Return to them now, and see whether they remain neutral, or whether feelings do in fact arise as you attend to them.

Lastly, bring your attention to the colors of things. Certain colors may evoke pleasurable or unpleasurable responses, but each color produces a different response: a red cushion produces a different effect from a blue one, although it’s hard to describe the difference.

Patterns and textures also evoke feelings. A patterned rug leads to different feelings compared to a wooden floor or plain carpet, even when both are experienced as pleasant.

Try this “Look and Feel” exercise several times, in different environments: at home, at work, outdoors, while walking or driving. Aim to notice feelings coming into being and passing away as your attention moves from one thing to another. As best you can, observe these feelings without reacting to them, just allowing them to be present. When we’re observing mindfully in this way, the mind doesn’t react to our feelings, and we experience a greater sense of peace.

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The miracle of being here

The main quality we’re cultivating when we meditate is mindfulness. Mindfulness is just another word for observing. To observe our experience we have to be present with it. Part of the mind has to be standing back a little from what it’s observing. So in a way, mindfulness is very simple. But it can take us a long way—to acceptance, living with self-compassion, and an appreciation that every moment of life is a miracle.

Where we start

Usually we start by paying attention to the body, observing the physical sensations that are arising there. We are not thinking about the body. We’re not visualizing the body. We’re simply observing the body’s sensations, paying attention to them in a relaxed way.

In particular we notice the sensations of the breathing. These are the most dynamic and obvious part of our experience of the body. We can notice the sensations of air flowing in and out of the body, the rise and fall of the chest and the belly, and even the ever-changing contact our skin makes with our clothing. But we may well notice other things as well—the sound of a passing truck, a breeze, our buttocks touching our seat. This is fine. We’re not trying to exclude anything.

Practicing acceptance

The mind will still create thoughts, and from time to time some of those thoughts will be compelling enough that we shift our attention fully or partly from our direct sensory experience, and back into the world of mental experience. We find ourselves planning some task, remembering and rerunning in our mind a conversation, or fretting about whether we’re doing the meditation practice properly. This is natural, and it’s not something we can stop from happening. But whenever we realize that we’ve been caught up in compelling trains of thought, we let go of them and return our attention to the body, the breathing, and anything else that presents itself to our senses.

Practicing self-compassion

Relative newcomers in particular tend to become disappointed and frustrated with the amount of thinking that’s going on. But accepting that it’s normal for us to become distracted is a self-compassionate act that helps us to be patient and accepting. We’re not failing when we get distracted; we’re just being human. Every time we realize we’ve been distracted is an opportunity to be kind to ourselves. It’s an opportunity to bring our attention gently back to the breathing again. Sometimes I suggest to meditation students that they be gentle in the way that they would if they were returning a baby kitten to its mother when it has strayed from the nest. Our distractions give us an opportunity to practice self-compassion.

In fact we have an opportunity to practice self-kindness and self-compassion just in the way we’re sitting. One way we can be unkind to ourselves is to hold the body in a tense and rigid way, or in a posture that we’re not able to sustain without discomfort arising. Often, for example, people will want to sit in a cross-legged posture even though they aren’t flexible enough to do this comfortably. But we don’t need to impress anyone, and there’s no one “perfect” posture that we have to sit in. We want to be comfortable.

At the same time we don’t want to slump, in the way we do when we’re relaxing in an arm-chair. Slumping compresses the chest in a way that makes it hard for us to breath effectively. And poor breathing causes the brain to be poorly oxygenated and makes is hard for us to be attentive. So, look for a posture that feels both relaxed and upright. One simple thing that sums this up nicely is the idea of sitting with a sense of dignity.

Lying down is another posture that makes is hard for us to be mindful. We’re likely to find that this makes the mind drowsy at best, and at worst it’ll send us to sleep. If you have some kind of injury that makes sitting upright impossible, then by all means meditate lying down. The sleepiness is something you’ll just have to learn to work with.

Seeing the miracle

As the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donahue said, “It is a strange and magical fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you. It is an immense privilege, and it is incredible that humans manage to forget the miracle of being here.”

Mindfulness helps us to appreciate the simple miracle of being here. It helps us to become a kind and compassionate presence for ourselves. And this is something we do not just in meditation, but in every area of our lives.

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Practicing in balance

Photo by Jordan Steranka on Unsplash

There’s an unfortunate tendency these days to see mindfulness as being the only quality we need to develop in meditation, and that everything else follows automatically. But that’s not how practice works, or how it’s traditionally been taught.

Just the other week I had a conversation with someone who seemed rather proud that the only form of meditation practice he did was mindfulness of breathing. He saw this as being a complete and sufficient practice unto itself.

The problem was that his personality seemed very lopsided. He was very austere and emotionally dry. In our conversation there was no emotional give and take, and when I talked about a personal matter that was troubling me his responses totally missed the mark. It was like we were talking two different languages that, rather confusingly, used the same words to mean very different things. It was very perplexing. Although I think he wanted to be able to respond empathetically, he didn’t seem to be able to actually do so.

What was lacking was the balancing factor of kindness and compassion. There is a whole set of meditation practices to do with things like kindness, compassion, appreciation, and reverence. And those practices are important; they are not optional extras but part of Buddhism’s core curriculum.

Now some people are naturally warmer and more emotional than others. They may have very well-developed connections of love and affection in their lives. There may be a lack of balance in their practice, but it doesn’t become a big problem like it does with the person I just talked about. They may not even notice the lack of balance, in fact. But they’re not tapping into their full potential.

Now, mindfulness meditation can be taught with an emphasis on warmth and kindness. I do this myself, and call kindness plus mindfulness “kindfulness.” It’s possible for us to bring quite a bit of kindness into our experience this way. But even if we do, there is still an imbalance. We’re still not developing our full potential as compassionate human beings.

Mindfulness is wonderful. It allows us to see how the mind functions. So it lets us see how anger manifests, for example. And it gives us an opportunity to change the way the mind works. So when we observe that anger is making life unpleasant, we can choose to let go of angry thoughts. We might also realize that we have reserves of kindness and compassion available that we can tap into. And so, when we’re mindful, we may find that we’re also, quite spontaneously, a bit kinder and more compassionate.

But traditionally, kindness and compassion are not just faculties we can tap into, but faculties we can develop, strengthen, and deepen.

In the past we might have just thought of kindness and compassion as rather mysterious “things” inside us. But now we can see that they actually involve specific parts of the brain. Those parts of the brain, like any others, actually grow as we exercise them, in the same way as muscles grow when we use them. And the parts of the brain that are active when we’re compassionate are not the same parts that are active when we’re simply being mindful, so they aren’t exercised automatically as we practice mindfulness.

And this is why there are specific meditation practices to help us cultivate kindness and compassion. They use very specific mental muscles.

If we never did any leg exercises at the gym but only worked on our arms, we’d probably find that our legs did get a bit fitter. After all, if you’re standing and you’re holding weights in your hands your legs are doing some work. But that’s not the same as doing a leg workout. If you only worked out your arms, your legs would end up underdeveloped. This is what can happen with our emotions.

This is why in my own teaching, and in the teaching tradition I was trained in, both mindfulness of breathing and lovingkindness practices were stressed equally. I was always encouraged to alternate these practices and to give them equal weight. In fact, as one of those people who was not naturally very emotional and with a tendency to negativity, I was encouraged at times to put more emphasis on lovingkindness practice. I needed to restore a balance that was missing.

And so that’s how I still teach. When I introduce people to meditation I introduce both mindfulness and lovingkindness practices. And I encourage my meditation students to, where possible, alternate these two approaches to meditation. Mindfulness and lovingkindness practices need equal attention so that we can become not just exceptionally mindful and aware individuals, but exceptionally empathetic and compassionate as well.

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When your meditation practice does itself

Sometimes I compare the mind to a cat. Just as it’s in a cat’s nature to wander, it’s in the mind’s nature to wander. But just as it’s in a cat’s nature to come home, it’s also the mind’s nature to come home — to come home to mindfulness.

In a couple of days I have an online meditation course starting that explores a practice called “Just Sitting.” In a way this is different from other meditation practices such as mindful breathing meditation or where we cultivate kindness or compassion. There’s no specific aim in the Just Sitting practice. Strictly speaking we’re not even trying to be mindful!

This might make this form of meditation seem pointless. After all, if you’ve meditated at all you’re probably very aware of how much the mind wanders and how much work seems to be involved in bringing your attention back to your object of attention, whether that’s the sensations of the breathing or a person you’re cultivating kindness for. You may wonder: if you don’t make an effort to be mindful, wouldn’t you just sit there in a distracted state and end up wasting your time?

It’s not like that at all!

Of course, as with any meditation practice, when you’re Just Sitting there are times when mindfulness is just absent and the mind wanders. But the interesting thing is that the mind always finds its own way home.

You’ve probably noticed many times how although your intention may be to remain mindful of the breathing, for example, your mind gets distracted without you deciding that it’s going to go wandering. Unmindfulness just happens. You don’t have to decide that’s what your mind is going to do.

But have you ever noticed that your mind always brings itself back to mindful awareness again? For every time that distraction happens, there is a time that mindfulness happens. It’s a one-to-one correspondence. And you never “decide” to come back to mindful awareness, do you? Mindfulness just happens. You don’t have to decide that’s what your mind is going to do. One moment you’re daydreaming and the next you’re aware that the daydream has ended, you have mindful awareness, and you return to your original intention. Your mind knows how to do this, and you have nothing to do with it!

Often when the mind has come home like this, we feel disappointed that it’s been wandering, or we feel it’s time to knuckle down and get back to practicing again. But neither of these things is very helpful.

If your cat was to walk through the door after an absence and you were to yell at it or try to force it to sit in one place it would probably head straight out of the door again.

If you were to welcome your cat home warmly and give it time and space to settle in, it would eventually find a place to sit quietly and be at peace. So what if your attitude was to warmly welcome when the mind has — quite spontaneously and with no effort on your part — found its way home again? What if you were to feel a sense of gratitude, and happiness, and even wonder? Perhaps your mind, just like a home-coming cat, would settle down more quickly?

At first we’ll probably think about welcoming the mind home as something we do in meditation. But in time we may come to appreciate that warmth and appreciation too are qualities that spontaneously arise. Just as our attention spontaneously comes home, so warmth and appreciation spontaneously appear to welcome it. And we find that there’s now less sense of us actually having to do anything in meditation. Meditation is no longer work. Our meditation practice is doing itself. The mind has come home, and is at peace.

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“Turn toward the fire, and enter, confident.” Dante Alighieri

Today I’m going to talk about pain and how meditation can help you deal with it. You may not be experiencing pain today, but it’s something that happens to us all, and hopefully there will be something here that you find useful. Also what I’m going to say applies not just to physical but to emotional pain (hurt, anxiety, loneliness, etc.) so it’s relevant to everyone.

In the midst of pain there is magic. If you find this puzzling, let me tell you how I know this and how you can see it for yourself.

I started having migraines when I was perhaps 13 years old. When I first tried meditating with migraines it did not help. As soon as I took my awareness to the nausea it would become more intense. And there was no way on earth I wanted to turn toward the headaches. I just wanted them to go away.

It turned out, though, that being mindful of less extreme forms of discomfort, like an aching back, hunger, an itch, or even emotional forms of pain, such as sadness or grief was a useful way to train for more extreme pain. It became more natural to turn toward what is painful rather than to turn away. I found that much of the pain that is involved in such experiences is actually caused by my resistance. When we tense up physically or emotionally around pain, it gets more intense.

Part of the practice of investigating pain was to see that it wasn’t a unitary phenomenon. We can use the single word “pain” to refer to, say, a sore back, but that doesn’t capture the richness and complexity of the experience. When I looked closely, I found that the pain was composed of a number of interwoven sensations. There might be heat, pressure, tingling, pulsing, throbbing, stabbing, and so on. One or another of these might be the most prominent part of the pain at any given time. Each of them changed, moment by moment. Pain stopped seeming so solid. In fact even the individual interwoven sensations I’ve mentioned stopped seeming solid, and instead had the appearance of twinkling points of sensation suspended in space. Sometimes, in turning my attention toward pain, I’d find that there was no pain to be found.

I’ve noticed the same in other arenas in life. I often edit my own meditation recordings, and sometimes I’ll have to remove a click that’s in the middle of a sound, like the AH sound in the word “relaxed.” And I noticed that when I zoom in really close to a sound like AH — down at the level of fractions of a hundredth of a second — there’s no AH to be heard. This morning, at the end of my meditation, I was looking at a white candle, and I couldn’t see any white. There were infinite shades of browns and yellows, but no white. So, sometimes when you look close enough at a thing, it has a completely different appearance from when it’s viewed from further away or with less attention.

So a few days ago I woke up with a migraine. I observed that there were many sensations in the body that were unrelated to the migraine at all. When we fixate on pain we miss those. I found that my calf muscles in particular were full of pleasurable tingling energy, and the more I paid attention to everything that was not the migraine, the more intense and widespread those sensations became. And then turning toward the pain and the nausea, everything very quickly took on that now familiar sense of transparency. Around 15 minutes into the meditation my tummy started rumbling, which is always a sign that the migraine is on the way out, since my entire digestive tract shuts down during a migraine. At that point the migraine wasn’t entirely gone, but it was quite manageable and I was able to get up and go about my day.

I don’t want to give the impression that I have this sorted out. Sometimes pain sneaks up on me and I forget to be mindful of it. And there are some forms of emotional discomfort that I have most definitely not learned to embrace in awareness, and that I react to strongly. I’m still working with all this and trying to learn to do it better.

But I’d strongly suggest, if you have problems with pain (and you all will at some point) that you practice turning toward smaller discomforts as a way of training yourself to be mindful and equanimous with difficult experiences. Over time I hope you’ll find, as I have, that in the midst of pain there is magic.

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Emily Dickinson: “The brain is wider than the sky…”

The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.
— Emily Dickinson

Dickinson’s poem, “The Brain is Wider Than the Sky” suggests that because the brain contains the perception of the sky (and more besides) it must in some sense be larger than the sky. This might seem like no more than an interesting thought — the kind of thing you momentarily appreciate as a quote on Facebook before forwarding it to your friends and moving on to the next cute cat video.

But this is the kind of thing that becomes very profound when you choose to sit with it in meditation. I started to experiment with a practice strikingly similar to Dickinson’s verse back in the 1990s when I lived in the city center of Glasgow, in Scotland. I lived on a busy shopping street in a tenement building that had a bar and a restaurant on the ground floor. Being four floors up did little to remove us from the noise. There was a constant roar from cars, buses, and delivery vehicles, the sounds of conversations and (especially at night as the bars came out) fights. Passing airplanes and the sounds of emergency vehicle sirens weren’t rare, either.

At first this noise used to interfere with my meditation, but gradually it became my meditation. I learned that it was fruitless to try to push these sounds away, and that instead it was best to notice them as sensations, just like any other sensation. The noise of traffic was really no different from the movements of my breathing; it was all just sensory data. The noise was only a problem when I tried to fight with it.

What I did was simply to attend to whatever sounds were around me. Instead of trying to push them away I allowed them to be there. They became, along with the breathing or the act of well-wishing, my object of attention in meditation.

The result of doing this was a sense of expansiveness. The sounds that reached my ears came from a vast expanse around me. In fact, including passing aircraft, my sphere of attention might be miles in diameter. It felt that my mind was expanding to fill the space around me. It no longer seemed that mind my was a thing inside my head, receiving signals that traveled to it along nerves, but that my awareness was a vast space in which the phenomena it detected arose. My mind (and therefore my brain) encompassed the sky.

This changed my whole meditation practice. For one thing, I did a lot less thinking than I usually did. My mind spontaneously became much quieter. For another thing, when thoughts did arise they were just one very small part of my field of attention. They were less likely to catch my attention, and simply rose and passed away, without my getting caught up in them.

This was probably the single most revolutionary development in my meditation practice — one that provided an approach I’m still working within.

Later in the poem Dickinson says “The brain is just the weight of God.” This very bold comparison provides another connection with meditation. The expansiveness that I’ve been talking about is very helpful in meditations to do with cultivating kindness and compassion. These forms of meditation are known in Buddhism as the “brahma viharas” — literally “the abode of God.” Our narrow sense of self begins to break down, and we realize that the wellbeing of others is just as important as our own. Developing a sense of spacious awareness in meditation makes it easier for an expansive sense of care and concern for all beings to arise.

So I’d suggest that you experiment with expansiveness in your own meditation practice. It’s not hard. After setting up your posture, first, just allow your eyes to relax behind your closed eyelids. Then become aware of the space — and any sounds it contains — in front, behind, to the sides, and above and below you. Let your mind rest into that sense of spacious awareness. And then see where it takes you.

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