The Eightfold Path: A Tool for Living at a Time of Crisis

I was in the thick of putting together my online course, “Love Your Enemies,” when the coronavirus crisis became serious. As a result I’ve felt a little late in responding to what’s going on right now. I plan to start a new course this month called something like “Meditating In a Crisis.” But today I want to share just a few thoughts on that topic, using the Buddha’s Eightfold Path as a framework.

If you’re not familiar with the eightfold path, it’s a comprehensive system of practices that help us move from ignorance to Awakening, from suffering to peace.

The path is not eightfold in the sense that it’s eight stages to be followed, one after another. The eight components of the path can all be practiced in every moment of our lives. You could think of the path being eightfold in that it’s composed of eight lanes — a kind of highway to Awakening. Or if you prefer an image on a less industrial scale, you could think of it as being like a brick path, eight bricks wide. With every step you practice all eight factors of the path. Or you could think of the path as being like a rainbow, except with eight “colors” rather than the standard seven. Or you could think of it as resembling a cord woven from eight threads.

I hope to show you that the eightfold path is a practical teaching, and that it’s flexible and capable of being applied in contemporary circumstances.

Right View (Samma Ditthi)

In this model of practice, we start with examining our views. Views are core beliefs. They’re the basic assumptions we make about life. Some views we have contribute to our long-term happiness and wellbeing, but some detract from it.

Usually we don’t just go looking for unhelpful views. We find ourselves suffering, and then we look inside ourselves to see what we’re doing to cause that suffering.

A lot of us, for example, carry around assumptions like “Bad things shouldn’t happen to me.” And so when a major disruption like coronavirus comes along, it seems unfair and unjust. After all, we’ve just been trying to get on with life, which is difficult enough as it is. And now this? Views such as this, which  encourage us to have self-pity, aren’t going to help us. Closer to what the Buddha would have described as a Right View is the common saying, “Shit happens.” Things change. They sometimes change in unwelcome ways. And we just have to work with that and make the best of it.

Another view, “This kind of thing always happens to me!” is also unhelpful. It’s a maladaptive attempt to find solace in a sense of “specialness,” as if we’ve been singled out by the universe for mistreatment. The thing is that this epidemic isn’t about us individually. It’s a crisis that affects many people, and no matter how it’s affecting us, there are others who are worse off. Focusing narrowly on ourselves isn’t helpful. In fact it makes us miserable.

So it’s helpful for us to become aware of the views we have around the coronavirus pandemic, so that we can let go of those that are unhelpful, and embrace those that are more in line with reality and that help us be at peace.

So, shit happens. That’s true, and it might be helpful to adopt it as a view. But other views, such as “Every difficulty is a spiritual opportunity” can be helpful as well. As the title of one of my other posts says, “All people and all circumstances are my allies.” Including this one.

Right Intention (Samma Sankappa)

Samma sankappa is also sometimes translated as “right resolve,”  “right attitude,” and even as “right emotion.”)  We’re talking about our emotional interaction with the world, and whether they help or hinder our wellbeing

I mentioned above that some views support attitudes of self pity.  The emotion or attitude of self-pity isn’t, of course, helpful. Panic isn’t helpful. Despondency isn’t helpful. These things tend to happen automatically. But since those reactions cause us suffering, what’s being suggested is that we find other ways to respond. Healthier ways.

What’s healthier? Self-compassion helps because it provides us with an inner source of support, encouragement, and comfort as we face difficulties. Compassion for others helps us because it takes the focus off of us personally, and helps us see that we’re all in it together, albeit to varying degrees.

Right Speech (Samma Vaca)

The Buddhist scriptures define right speech like this: “Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter; that is right speech.” They also describe right speech positively, as holding to the truth, bringing people together in concord, as being kind and polite, and as pointing people toward the goal of liberation, or awakening.

So every time we remind ourselves to be compassionate to ourselves and others, we can take that attitude into the way we communicate. Other people, whether we’re separated from them or confined indoors with them, need our support and reassurance. They need our encouragement. Once we’ve shown compassion to ourselves, we can offer supportive, appreciative, kindly words to others. We can express appreciation to those who are doing the crucial work of helping others.

Although it’s not traditionally included in discussions of right speech, we can be mindful of the kinds of speech we expose ourselves to — especially news media that all too often are calculated to provoke anxiety in order to keep us hooked, and social media, which often expose us to inflammatory or false information. You might want to unplug from those, even if just for a couple of days, to see what effect that has on you.

Right Action (Samma Kammanta)

“Action” here is what we intentionally do. Right action is action that benefits, rather than harms ourselves, and others in the long-term. Traditionally this is seen in terms of not physically harming, not taking from others what isn’t freely given, and not engaging in inappropriate sex.

In terms of our current crisis, we can take care to physically distance ourselves from others, to keep our shopping trips to a minimum, to make sure we don’t take from the shelves more than we really need so that others too can meet their own needs, and so on. We can do all of those things in a spirit of care and compassion. We can also act compassionately by (safely) checking up on friends and neighbors, and especially on those that are vulnerable.

Right Livelihood (Samma Ajiva)

Traditionally, right livelihood means doing work that, at a minimum, doesn’t cause harm. Ideally our livelihood would involve work that’s materially, emotionally, and spiritually beneficial to others.

Many of us aren’t working right now, of course. But we could regard “work” here as what we do with our time. Right livelihood could include taking care of ourselves — for example by exercising as best we can, and making good use of our time, so that we’re learning and growing. It’s been great to see so many people making use of opportunities to practice online. And maybe there are household tasks you can do — getting rid of clutter, doing some gardening, and so on. Those things can leave us feeling much better and create a sense of normality.

Right Effort (Samma Vayama)

“Right effort” brings us back to what’s going on inside ourselves. Traditionally it’s the work we do to prevent the arising of unskillful states of mind, and to generate skillful states.

Right speech concerns what we say to others, but a lot of our communication is internal — it’s self-talk. So we can observe our thoughts, and when we find that they’re making us stressed and unhappy we can drop them and turn our attention back to our breathing, and our bodily sensations more generally. And perhaps we can find more helpful ways of talking to ourselves: “In this moment, I’m OK.” “May I be well and happy, and at ease.” “Today I am grateful for this, this, and this.”

Right effort doesn’t just cover inner speech, though. It’s the ongoing effort to extract the mind from anxiety, anger, craving, doubt, and avoidance, as well as the effort to cultivate kindness, compassion, patience, courage, and so on.

At a time of crisis, worry is one of our “go to” unskillful states. It’s important to recognize that worry isn’t “bad.” It’s just unhelpful. Focusing on things that might go wrong in the future doesn’t solve anything and in fact it makes us unhappy right now. Our inner work involves recognizing that worry has arisen. It involves letting go of worrying thoughts, and coming back to our immediate sensory experience. And it also involves finding ways to bring more helpful mental states into being.

Even if we drop our catastrophizing thoughts, we’ll find that feelings of anxiety persist. If you’re familiar with my teachings on self-compassion, you’ll know that I encourage people to regard anxiety as communications from a part of you that is suffering. And our right effort here is to connect with our innate kindness and to offer support for that struggling part of us. Having done that, we are more at peace, and we’re freer to offer kindness and compassion to others.

Right Mindfulness (Samma Sati)

To do any of the above, we need to have mindfulness. We need to have the ability to observe our minds, to see how we’re thinking and what our attitudes are. We need to see what effect those thoughts and attitudes have on how we’re feeling, and on how others feel, and so on.

And so in every one of the factors of the path that I have mentioned so far, we practice mindfulness. In fact it’s helpful if we cultivate an attitude of mindfulness all the time, or at least as much as possible, by coming back to the sensations of the body and to what we’re perceiving in the world, being aware of our movements, observing our feelings and attitudes, and so on.

This is probably the single most important thing we can do for ourselves in a crisis. We can stay grounded in sensory reality and stop ourselves from being pulled into the world of catastrophizing. We train ourselves to recognize when we are getting sucked into anxious thinking and to instead come back to our actual present-moment experience.

Right Concentration (Samma Samadhi)

Samadhi is usually translated as concentration. It doesn’t necessarily mean concentration in the sense of narrowly focused attention, though. It really means having continuity of awareness. To practice any of the factors of the path requires concentration. When our attention is all over the place, jumping from object to object, it’s hard to cultivate skillful states of mind. We might for example start off intending to cultivate kindness, and find that a moment later we’re daydreaming. So we need to train ourselves to stay on track, at least for long enough to bring about change in our habits.

The ultimate benefit of concentration, the Buddha said, is that it helps us to observe and appreciate the arising and passing of things. Once we realize that anxiety arises and passes away, and that in fact it’s arisen and passed away tens of thousands of times before in our lives, we start to take it less seriously. One of our big fears when we’re anxious is that we’re going to be stuck that way. But it always passes.

And in fact, as we focus more closely on anxiety and see that it’s just a sensation, arising and passing away in every moment, we realize that in a sense there’s nothing real there. Anxiety is like a flickering movie show — a magical display that entrances the mind. And once we start to realize how we’ve been repeatedly fooled by this movie show, we start to become immune to its enchantments.

Three Core Factors

Three of the factors — view, effort, and mindfulness — have a special place in the eightfold path. As the Buddha put it, “These three things keep running and circling around [each of the factors of the path], namely: right view, right effort, and right mindfulness.”

When we’re cultivating or practicing each of the factors of the path we need to understand that there’s a benefit in doing so. We need to have a view that it’s beneficial to be ethical, mindful, and so on. So, right view is always involved in practice.

We need to have the mindfulness to recognize whether what’s going on, or what we’re doing, is skillful or unskillful, helpful or unhelpful, leading to peace or leading to suffering. Mindfulness is always involved in practice.

And we need to put effort in to letting go of unskillful habits and to cultivating skillful ones. Effort is involved in all practice.

So these three factors—view, effort, and mindfulness—are involved in every moment of practice.

So, I hope you can see how a traditional teaching like the eightfold path has very direct relevance to our practice in a crisis such as the one we face today. Hopefully I can go into this in even more depth in the course I’m planning to put together.


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Lovingkindness: the missing link

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Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on UnsplashSomeone wrote the other day saying that she’d had a hard time forgiving a colleague at work who had reflexly shot down her very excellent ideas. Apparently this colleague does this a lot. It’s just a habit with her.

My correspondent found her colleague’s actions very hurtful. She struggled with resentment for several days as she worked on practicing forgiveness and on cultivating metta. (Metta is “lovingkindness,” or simply kindness). Eventually she was successful, and she managed to forgive her critic. So that’s excellent! Practice works!

The thing is it took her a long time to find her way back to peace. And I think her story highlights something that’s missing from many people’s practice of metta. It’s the missing link in our practice of lovingkindness.

I sometimes worry about sounding like a broken record, but I find that one key thing when we’re hurt is to practice kindness and compassion toward ourselves. I’ve written in a number of places about how we can do this, for example in Self-compassion: lovingkindness squared and The power of self-kindness. You can also check out my book on self-compassion, “This Difficult Thing of Being Human.”

When this colleague reacted to my correspondent, this caused pain. Whenever she felt resentful afterward, that also caused her pain. Trying to wish another person well while we’re not responding compassionately to our own pain tends not to be very effective. (I’m not saying this to blame anyone — this is a very common oversight in our lovingkindness practice. It’s something we all do.)

Resentment is our pain’s way of trying to protect itself. It’s like a kind of bristly, spiky forcefield that we erect around our hearts. If we recognize our own pain and send it our love and reassurance, then we’re “protecting” the heart in a different way. We protect it by offering it love, and by surrounding it with love. It becomes much easier to direct this love toward the person that hurt us. It becomes much easier for us to let go of our resentments. The forgiveness can happen much more quickly. Sometimes it takes minutes or even seconds rather than days.

When we ignore our pain in favor of directing well-wishing to the other person, we’re not being very compassionate to ourselves. In fact we’re unintentionally being cruel. To see this more clearly, imagine yourself walking past a friend who is obviously in distress, without really acknowledging them. You’d be taking a person who’s in pain, and adding to their pain by not being concerned and compassionate.

Now the part of you that’s hurting has exactly the same response. When you ignore it and focus on someone else instead, the hurt deepens. And so your hurt continues to try to protect itself. It continues to erect this spiky forcefield or resentment. And the more you feel this resentment, the more you’re likely to work harder at cultivating compassion for the person who hurt you. And so we stay stuck, until eventually a current of genuine kindness appears, the dynamic changes, we let go of some of our resentment, and your heart feels safe again.

So when we’re trying on the one hand to cultivate kindness to another person, while also (accidentally) cultivating unkindness toward ourselves, it can take us so long to let go of our reactions.

I never used to quite believe the teaching that we have to be kind toward ourselves before we can be kind to others, but the longer I practice the more I see that it’s true.

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Love isn’t what you look for; it’s how you look

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In one of my early experiences of lovingkindness meditation (metta bhavana), a teacher told me to look for feelings of love in my heart, and then to spread that love to other people. I duly searched my heart, seeking feelings of love. But I couldn’t find any! There was nothing there. Zilch. Nada!

This experience was very distressing. Since I couldn’t find love in my heart, I wasn’t able to do the rest of the practice. After all, how can you share something with other people if you don’t have it to give?

And because I couldn’t do the practice, I had plenty of time to reflect on what it meant that I couldn’t find any love in my heart. Presumably, since this was how the practice was done, there was something wrong with me. I must be defective. This thought was very unpleasant. I found it rather upsetting, in fact.

The Downward Spiral

Now I had some strongly unpleasant feelings to be aware of during this practice that (apparently) I couldn’t do. I took those feelings as confirmation that there was something wrong with me, and began to sink into despair and depression.

Fortunately the teacher eventually rang the bell. I started to feel better once the meditation was over.

I thought it was just me who had had this experience, but a few months later a friend was talking about the problems of doing lovingkindness meditation, and he described exactly the same thing that I’ve just talked about — a downward spiral of negativity triggered by the suggestion that he look for love in his heart.

Even by the time my friend shared his own experience, I’d figured out that what worked best for me was to observe my heart, accept whatever was there, whether it was pleasant or unpleasant, or even if there were no feelings there at all, and then to wish myself (and then others) well.

Love Is Not a Feeling

Later still I realized that the practice was simply about kindness. It’s about being kind to ourselves, and then extending that kindness to others. And kindness is not a feeling. Kindness is an intention. It starts with empathetically recognizing that we are feeling beings who desire happiness, peace, and wellbeing. Having seen that truth, kindness wishes that those beings be well.

Just think about that right now. Consider that you yourself are a feeling being, and recognize that your feelings are important to you. You’d rather be happy than suffer. You’d rather be at peace than troubled. You’d rather have a sense of wellbeing than be sick or sad.

And then call one other person to mind — someone you know. They, too, feel.  Their feelings are as real and vivid to them as yours are to you. They, just like you, feel happy. Just like you they suffer. and, just like you, they prefer happiness over suffering.

When you consider the reality of someone’s feelings in that way, you probably don’t want to do anything that would harm them. You probably want to support their wellbeing and act in ways that make them feel valued. In other words you want to be kind to them.

So that’s what kindness is: a desire to actively support someone’s wellbeing.

Now there may be feelings associated with your kindness. Sometimes you’ll experience a sense of warmth, openness, or tenderness in the heart, for example. But those feelings just accompany your kindness. They aren’t themselves kindness.

Love Is in How You Look…

Some years back I picked up a practice from the American Zen teacher teacher Jan Chozen Bays. She called it “Loving Eyes.”

She reminds us that we all know how to look with love. It’s easy to recall or imagine looking lovingly at a cute kitten or puppy, a beloved child, or even a romantic partner. When we do this an attitude of care, openness, tenderness, and love easily arises. Kindness arises. And accompanying those attitudes there are usually feelings as well. We find that we can turn our attention to the world or to ourselves, and continue to experience that kindness in relation to the new object.

So we’re looking with love or kindness, whether that’s a literal looking involving the eyes, or a metaphorical looking in involving our inner gaze as we bring our kindly attention toward our own being or to people we think about.

This act of looking is, as I’ve mentioned, accompanied by feelings — the pleasant feelings of kindness. It happens quite naturally and easily, and just in case you find it doesn’t work for you, don’t worry, for it gets easier with practice.

…Not What You’re Looking For

So it seems that for me and for most people, lovingkindness practice works best if we don’t look for feelings down in the heart, but if we look with kindness. Whatever feelings may be present in the heart, we can regard them kindly. If we’re feeling sad, we can regard the sadness with kindness and love. If we’re feeling neutral, we can regard the blankness with love. It really doesn’t matter what’s in the heart.

So I’d like to leave you with this simple suggestion: Love isn’t what you look for; it’s how you look.

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Just turn away… (the Social Media Sutra, part 3)

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In a series of posts I’m explaining, using teachings from the early Buddhist teachings, how we can free ourselves from addiction to social media. These teachings are found in the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, which outlines five strategies for overcoming compelling trains of thought and the urges that accompany them.

In the first talk we looked at the tool of turning our attention to something skillful. In the second talk we looked at the tool of seeing the drawbacks of obsession.

One thing I should point out is that the Buddha’s advice is to work through these tools in order. If redirecting the mind to what’s positive doesn’t work for us, then we try seeing the drawbacks of addiction. And if that doesn’t work, we try the next tool, which is where we simply “ignore and forget” whatever it is we’re obsessed by. That’s the tool we’re exploring today.

The Buddha’s Advice

The discourse is very brief where it comes to this tool. It just says that if, in the mind of a practitioner:

bad, unskillful thoughts connected with desire, hate, and delusion keep coming up they should ignore and forget about them.

You might well be thinking, “easier said than done”!

The Illustration

The illustration of this principle isn’t very helpful either!

Suppose there was a person with good eyesight, and some undesirable sights came into their range of vision. They’d just close their eyes or look away.

That probably sounds almost simplistic. As we look into it, however, I think you’ll see that it’s actually very practical and useful advice.

Two Directions for Practice

We’re going to look at this in two areas. First we’ll look at the sphere of external activity. We’ll look at how we can literally ignore and look away from social media by changing our habits.

Next, when we’ll look at the sphere of internal activity — how we relate to our experience. And in this second sphere I think there are some deep implications for how we habitually use our attention.

A very simple shift in the way we notice our experience can have a powerfully transforming effect on our level of wellbeing.

The First Principle of “Ignoring”: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

So first, here’s some very practical advice for managing your attention.

Let’s say, for example, that you wanted to lose weight, but had a problem with eating potato chips. If you have a big bag of them in the house, you’re much more likely to end up pigging out. So it’s helpful if you can’t physically see the foods that you crave. To some extent it’s literally true that “out of sight is out of mind” — something this example illustrates. And when you’re in the supermarket, don’t walk down the chip aisle. Turn away when you walk by it.

Now the same principle applies to our online addictions. Our main route into these nowadays is through those magic glass rectangles that we use to watch TV shows, to get travel directions, to play games, do our banking, look for a mate, do work, text-message our friends and family — and, of course, browse social media.

These devices are so useful that we carry them with us everywhere. This means that we’re always in the presence of temptation.

So it’s useful to have your phone out of sight and out of mind, at least some of the time.

Create Space Between You and Your Phone

One of the best things you can do for yourself is not to have your phone at your bedside at night. If that’s where you charge your phone then your addiction is going to be the first thing you feed when you wake up. Your phone is going to be there first thing in the morning, or even if you wake up in the middle of the night. So try charging your phone at the other end of the house.

You might be saying, “But I need my phone beside me at night so that I know what time it is!”

If that’s the case, let me remind you of an ancient technology called the “alarm clock.” As with a phone, you can program an alarm clock to wake you up. But you can’t read Facebook on an alarm clock.

When you charge your phone in another room, you’ll wake up and not have instant access to the internet. That gives you an opportunity to start your day free from addiction. And the way we start the day often conditions how we live during the rest of the day.

One further step regarding phones is to turn them off when we charge them overnight. We’re naturally lazy! The fact that your phone takes a minute or so to boot up takes advantage of that laziness. It creates a bit of a barrier between you and the internet. And that barrier makes it easier for you to avoid addiction. Out of sight, out of mind.

Learning to Read Again

I find that when I charge my phone in the living room, I’m more likely to meditate or to read a Dharma book first thing in the morning, rather than reading the news or seeing what’s going on on Twitter. This is a great way to start the day.

I find that reading a book first thing in the morning is much healthier than going online. I think most of us have had the experience of finding it harder to read books because we’ve spent so much time reading short posts and articles online. Reading books helps train the mind to become absorbed and develop concentration. And books — physical ones, anyway — don’t have hyperlinks. I prefer to read paper books for that reason. Additionally Dharma books (or any kind of personal development book) nourish the mind in ways that rarely happens online.

Create Rituals of Internet-Free Time

You can create other opportunities to have phone — and internet — free time. When you’re having a meal with family or friends you can mute your phone or put it somewhere out of sight. I’ve heard of people putting their phones in a pile on the table in a restaurant, and if anyone touches their phone during the meal they have to pay for everyone’s food. I think that’s a great idea.

Meditation retreats are also an excellent opportunity to relearn that we don’t need to be online to be happy — and in fact that we’re happier when we’re offline, and present with our direct experience. On some retreats you have to hand in your phone for the duration. But if that doesn’t happen you can leave your phone in your car, or switched off and at the bottom of your suitcase. You could even put your phone in a sealed envelope, which creates an extra barrier in case you get tempted to switch it on. And you could write some kind of encouraging message on the outside of the envelope, like “simplicity and presence.“

So these are all very simple and practical ways we can, in the words of the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, “look away” from our phones or “have our eyes closed” to them.

So this is all to do with the outside world.

But I said that there is something we can do internally that helps us to avoid getting caught up in and driven by thoughts about our addictions — that sudden desire to pick up our phone and go online. This is a deeper level of practice, and what I’m going to tell you might even change the way you meditate.

The Inner Work of “Ignoring” Social Media

What I’d like to explain is that there are two ways that we can pay attention with the eyes. The first is where we’re aware of and concentrated on the focal point of our visual field. This is our normal way of seeing, and you’re probably doing that right now. You’re probably mainly aware of the screen in front of you, or of me, or my face, or even just part of my face. Often when we’re listening to someone we focus on the triangle made by the eyes and the mouth. This way of seeing is like a flashlight. It’s a narrow beam of attention. It focuses on what seems most vital, but it also misses a lot.

The other way of seeing is where we’re aware of the whole of our visual field. We don’t do this by moving the eyes around. We simply let the muscles around the eyes relax, and let the focus in the eyes be soft. Try doing that right now.

Once we’ve done that we find that we can be aware, in a very relaxed way, of everything that’s arising visually, from the very soft focus at the center of our visual field, right up to the corners of our eyes. This way of seeing is like a lamp. It illuminates many things. It’s less directional and more open than a flashlight.

So if you’re doing that right now, you can still be aware of the screen in front of you, letting it be a soft focal point, but you can also be aware of everything around the screen.

This is a way of seeing that encourage you to play with. You probably can’t read while seeing in this way, but try doing it while you’re walking, or having a conversation with someone.

Often when we relax the eyes in this way, we find that the body starts to relax and the mind starts to calm.

Two Ways of Observing Internally

Interestingly, the way we use the eyes affects the way we perceive internally as well.

So in meditation, when the eyes are tight and narrowly focused, then our inner field of attention is also narrow. When the eyes are tight we can only be aware of a small range of internal sensations.

Maybe we notice just one small part of the breathing, for example. And the problem is that we get bored because we’re not giving the mind much to be aware of. And then along comes a thought. Maybe it’s an emotionally loaded one. What happens? The flashlight beam of our attention shifts to the thought, and the story it contains. Now we’re completely lost in a distracted train of thought. And our meditation can go on like this for a long time. We alternate shining the flashlight of our attention on a small range of bodily sensations, and then shift to distracted thoughts. And this switch keeps happening.

But when the eyes are soft, our attention is like a gently glowing lamp. We’re able to be aware of many sensations in the body. We can be aware of the breathing in the whole body, for example. So now there’s a lot for us to be aware of, and the mind is more nourished.

And when a thought arises, it’s now just one small part of a vast, open field of attention. And because of that the thought can simply pass through the mind. We don’t resist it. We’re not drawn into it. We just don’t pay any particular attention to it.

So this brings us back to the topic of ignoring and forgetting about compelling thoughts.

Letting Urges Arise and Pass Away

We can maintain a soft gaze, an open gaze, during ordinary activities. And when a thought or an urge comes up — like “I need to check Facebook RIGHT NOW” — it’s easier just to let that thought arise and pass away without our acting on it. Or if we’re already in the throes of online activity, and we realize it’s not good for us, we can soften the eyes, and it becomes easier to let go of our compulsion to stay engaged online. It becomes easier to step away from the screen or put down our phone.

This is very similar to what some people call “urge surfing.” The idea here is that, like waves, urges build up and pass away. When an urge is building the mind often assumes that it’s going to get stronger and stronger until it overwhelms us, but that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s the assumption that we’ll inevitably capitulate to the urge that causes us to capitulate to the urge. If we simply keep observing the urge building, we’ll find that it peaks and then starts to die down again. So you might be working, and the urge to go onto social media rises, and you just watch until it passes away, and then you get absorbed in your work again. Adopting an open gaze (with the consequent open and expansive field of inner attention) will help us as we do this.

So this idea of ignoring and forgetting about unskillful thoughts and urges might seem simplistic and even a bit lame, but it’s actually very deep.


So what have we learned today? We’ve seen that we can reduce our chances of distracting ourselves with social media if we:

  • Make it harder to access our phones,
  • Make sure that they’re not right by us when we wake up,
  • Switch them off overnight so that there’s more of a barrier to accessing the internet, and
  • Evolve rituals where we eat meals or spend time with friends and family undisturbed by our technology.

In short, we can strategically create oases of addiction-free sensory reality.

And we’ve seen that a slight shift in the way we relate to our eyes can create a sense of mental space in which thoughts can arise and pass away without our getting caught up in them. We literally can simply ignore and forget about the thoughts and impulses that keep us hooked on social media. We can surf our urges, knowing that they’re impermanent, and that they arise and pass away on their own.  In all these ways we can begin to let go free ourselves from addictive patterns of thought and behavior.

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Please note that this initiative does not include access to Bodhipaksa’s Bodhi Mind app for iPhone, which requires a separate subscription.

You can cancel your membership at any time.

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Help during the holiday season

Struggling over the holiday period? Or are you just struggling period? Recovery doesn’t have to be a struggle. So why do so many of us struggle?

  • Have you reached out for help?
  • Have you reached out for help again when you didn’t get the help you needed?
  • Have you been to a recovery meeting? 12 Steps, SMART Recovery, Refuge Recovery, 8 Step Recovery? There is so much out there to choose from.
  • Are you being honest?
  • Or are you in DENIAL (Don’t Even Notice I am Lying ?)

No need to be on your own and isolate on Xmas day, Come and join me in a Xmas day 8 Step Recovery meeting 12:30pm Eastern Time, 5:30pm UK time.

And if Xmas day isn’t enough, or you are wanting new tools to help you in 2020, join me in the online 28-day Mindfulness-Based Addiction Recovery Course beginning January 20th. This course is hosted by Wildmind and has been accredited by the British Association of Mindfulness BAMBA. Details here

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Pivot toward the skillful (the Social Media Sutra, part 2)

on practice

In a series of posts (here’s a link to Part 1) I’m explaining, using teachings from the early Buddhist teachings, how we can free ourselves from our addiction to social media. These teachings are found in the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, which outlines five strategies for overcoming compelling trains of thought and the urges that accompany them.

“Vitakkasanthana Sutta” literally means “the Discourse on Quieting Thinking,” but I’m going to call it “the Social Media Sutra.” I do this mainly because it’s a more convenient and catchy monicker than a literal translation is, but also because it reminds us that these teachings can be directly applied in this important aspect of our lives.

By our being “addicted” to social media, I mean that we use them compulsively despite their having harmful consequences for ourselves and others. That’s the classic definition of an addiction. When we’re addicted we repeatedly do something that harms us, but feel out of control and have great difficulty stopping ourselves from giving in to our urges.

Often there are secondary consequences of addictions: for example, we may feel ashamed of our “weakness” and become secretive about our activities. Attempting to cut back on social media use may lead to strong anxiety. And we might, in indulging in social media, also become addicted to anger and outrage. This can, for many people, be the most important and troubling part of social media addiction.

The Social Media Sutra offers us five tools to overcome compelling urges. This first of these is described in the following way:

Take a practitioner who is focusing on some object in meditation that gives rise to bad, unskillful thoughts connected with desire, hate, and delusion. That practitioner should focus on some other object in meditation connected with the skillful. As they do so, those bad thoughts — imbued with desire, aversion, or delusion — are given up and come to an end.

And then the Buddha offers an illustration: “It’s like a deft carpenter or their apprentice who’d knock out or extract a large peg with a finer peg.”

Although this is talking about meditation it directly relates to our online activities as well.

It’s not that social media and so on are inherently bad, but that our minds often turn to them in an addictive way. And we could include here not just Facebook, Twitter, and so on, but other online activities that can be compelling, from reading news articles to playing games.

What’s being suggested is that we switch from an unhelpful (“unskillful”) urge to some more helpful (“skillful”) way of behaving. This is based on a basic principle of Dharma practice, which is that mindfulness gives us choice. Mindfulness allows us stand back and observe what’s going on within us. It allows us to see that some choices we make will make us happier and others unhappier.

It isn’t always comfortable when we become mindful. We see things going on — like addiction or anger — that make our lives miserable. And we can end up blaming ourselves. But one of the first things we need to do is to stop blaming ourselves in response to our addictions. Blaming ourselves is just us responding to unskillfulness with further unskillfulness.

Having a tendency to be addicted isn’t something to take personally. It’s not weakness. It’s just causes and conditions unfolding in our lives. So we drop the blame.

To apply the teaching of pivoting to the skillful, first, with mindfulness, recognize that you’re doing something that’s making you unhappy. You’re causing yourself to suffer.

Now, become aware of what kind of unhelpful mental habit has arisen. What’s the unskillful activity that you need to switch from?

Three forms of unskillful activity

In my experience the three most common forms are: craving stimulation, craving attention, and becoming angry. Let’s deal with those one at a time.

1. Craving Stimulation

Our addiction might take the form of craving continual input. We just don’t want to stop browsing. We feel anxious if there isn’t a constant flow of information coming at us.

If you’re craving stimulation, take a mindful break. Notice physical sensations in the body, feelings, sensory reality of your surroundings. This is a different kind of stimulation — a more wholesome and grounding kind of input for the mind. And while online stimulation can never truly satisfy us, being mindfully aware of the richness of our experience does leave us feeling more fulfilled.

So here you’re switching your mind from mindless stimulation to mindful appreciation of your direct experience.

You can learn to trust that this moment is enough. You can be content right now.

2. Craving Attention

Another component of addiction is the craving for acknowledgement. We might crave the reassurance we get when people “like” or comment on our posts. If people don’t do those things, we’re hurt or disappointed.

Now, if you’re craving attention, then you probably aren’t feeling good about yourself. There’s probably an underlying sense that you don’t matter, which is why you’re dependent on seeking reassurance from other people. You’re probably not valuing yourself, or giving yourself appreciation. You may even be putting yourself down.

So to switch to a skillful alternative to craving attention, you can give yourself some love, compassion, and appreciation. You can place your hand on your heart and say to yourself, “It’s OK. I’m here for you. You matter, and I care about you. I will take care of you. Let yourself feel this love.”

You can learn to trust that you are enough.

3. Getting Angry

And yet another common form of unskillfulness bound up with social media is “outrage addiction.” We become dependent on the feelings we get from being self-righteously angry.

We might, out of anger, say things calculated to hurt people, or block them so that we don’t have to face up to our own reactions to them.

When you get angry,  you probably don’t have enough kindness and empathy toward others. When you’re seeing others acting or speaking in ways that disturb you, you react with ill will. Maybe you speak or write unkindly. Maybe you hurl insults.

Switching to a more skillful way of relating means bringing more empathy and compassion into the present moment. So, first, recognize that if you’re angry or outraged, you’re suffering. So once again, place a hand on your heart and offer yourself some kindness. “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at peace.” Breathe.

And then remind yourself that the person you’re angry with is a feeling being, just as you are. They feel happiness, just as you do. They suffer, just as you do. They prefer happiness rather than suffering, just as you do. And then, having connected empathetically in this way, perhaps you’ll find that you naturally relate and communicate in a more empathetic, kinder way.

You can learn to trust the power of connection, empathy, and kindness.

The Image

Just a word about the image the Buddha used to illustrate this tool or pivoting to the skillful. He said that switching our focus to a skillful object is like using a small peg to knock out a larger peg. I remember doing this to remove a pedal from my bike, using a hammer and a nail punch to remove the cotter pin holding the pedal onto the crankshaft.

Note that you’re using a small pin to knock out a larger one. Although you might think that the forces of addiction and anger are powerful, and your mindfulness and compassion are weak, it’s good to remember that your mindfulness or compassion, even though they may seem feeble, just need to be used in a directed way.

And remember that when a carpenter uses one pin to remove another, it doesn’t take just one blow of the hammer. It takes repetition. So don’t be discouraged if it takes time to change your habits. Just keep working at it.


So what we’ve learned here is that the first tool for dealing with unhelpful behaviors and mental habits around social media is to switch our attention to an object connected with the skillful — bringing skillfulness into our present moment experience.

When you’re craving stimulation, you can learn to trust the present moment.

When you’re craving attention, you can learn to trust that you are enough. That you matter. That you can support yourself.

When you’re angry, you can learn to trust in the power of connecting empathetically first with yourself, and then with others.

And in this kind of way, you can switch from unhealthy ways of relating to social media, to having a healthier relationship with them.

One last thing. I’ve said a lot about trust. Trusting the present moment. Trusting that you matter. Trusting in the power of empathetic connection.

Trust the Dharma

Another thing you can trust is the Dharma: trust your practice. Sometimes when I catch myself tempted to mindlessly pick up my phone so that I can check Twitter or read some news articles online, I say to myself “Trust the Dharma.”

So I’ll pick up my phone in order to mindlessly go online, I’ll remind myself, “Trust the Dharma,” and then I can gently put the phone back down again.

This phrase is just a reminder to myself of everything I’ve said above about the potential and the power of making mindful choices. “Trust the Dharma” means trust that there is a something better than craving. It means trusting in your ability to let go of painful habits. It means trusting that true contentment is possible, and that we don’t need any special conditions for contentment to arise: just be present with your experience, and everything will sort itself out.

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Overcoming social media addiction (the Social Media Sutra, part 1)

on practice
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Photo by Marc Schaefer on Unsplash

Recently I recorded a series of four talks for “Tricycle” magazine, discussing how tools from the Buddhist tradition can help us to overcome our addiction to social media. The talks won’t appear online until January next year but in the meantime I thought I’d turn my notes into a series of articles — probably six in total. I’ll go beyond what I said in those talks because of course as soon as you give a talk you realize all the things you could have said but didn’t!

First, though, what do I mean by social media addiction? I don’t mean simply enjoying using social media. I mean addiction in the sense of the compulsive use of social media despite it having harmful consequences for ourselves and others. Compulsion means that we feel out of control: have great difficulty stopping ourselves. Compulsion means that the thought of quitting may lead to powerfully unpleasant feelings. Usually compulsion leads to shame, and we become dishonest about just how addicted we are.

I’m going to use the term “social media” in a rather broad way. I don’t just mean social media sites like Facebook or Twitter. What I say may well have relevance for those who find themselves hooked on online games, or even who find themselves compulsively checking the news.

I put my hand up as being a social media addict. Because of the way I teach, I spend a lot of time online, and so I’ve had to deal with getting sucked into social media. And of course like most people I carry a so-called “phone” around with me, although it’s a device that I hardly ever use for making phone calls on. Instead it’s a kind of glass doorway that leads to a world of endless distraction.

So, spending a lot of time online, and carrying around a device that allowed me to do that any time I wanted, I’d often find myself spending way too much time on the internet. My work would suffer, and sometimes I’d stay up too late, reading fascinating articles, usually about science and psychology. What I was reading was good, but I just couldn’t stop, and I’d end up depriving myself of sleep.

Sometimes there were “bonus” problems—for example when I’d get involved in online disputes. Those would not only give rise to anger, but would sometimes leave me feeling quite anxious, so that my heart would pound when I was logging in to my social media accounts. Or I’d find that I would crave attention. I found myself logging in, anxious about whether my posts had been “liked” or shared. All of these are, of course, forms of suffering.

I don’t much like suffering, so the question naturally arose for me, “How can my Buddhist practice help me with addiction to online activities?”

I’d like to share some of the tools I’ve found useful, in case you have similar patterns of getting hooked online.

The Buddha of course didn’t say anything about the internet or social media, but he did have a lot to say about dealing with and overcoming compelling patterns of thought and behavior. There’s one discourse, or sutta, in particular that I think gives a good overview of the richness of the tools that he offered us. It’s called the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, which could literally be translated as the “Discourse on Quieting Thinking.”

Vitakka means “thinking” and santhana literally means a resting place, and by extension means “end, stopping, cessation.”

Thinking here doesn’t mean just the inner sound of us talking to ourselves, or even imagined imagery. It includes the urges that are entangled with those thoughts. In fact, sometimes you’ll find yourself acting on an urge without having any verbal thought at all. You just find yourself picking up your phone and opening a social media app. There isn’t necessarily any inner talk accompanying those actions.

So, fundamentally, this discourse is about letting go of unhelpful urges, or unhelpful habits.

The Vitakkasanthana talks about quieting these urges in the context of meditation, but the principles it outlines can be used in any context in our lives, including when we’re on social media. In a way you could think of the Vitakkasanthana Sutta as the Social Media Sutra.

The discourse offers five tools, and it’s suggested that you start with the first one, and then if that doesn’t work you give the next one a try, and so on. To give you an overview of the five tools, they are:

  1. Switching our attention from unskillful or unhelpful patterns or activity to more skillful or helpful patterns.
  2. Examining the drawbacks of your unhealthy urges, especially as contrasted with healthier ones.
  3. Simply ignoring or turning away from our unskillful urges, not making any effort to get rid of them, but also not acting on them or allowing our attention to be drawn into them.
  4. Becoming aware of the causes and conditions that are bringing our unhelpful urges into being, so that we can prevent them arising in the first place.
  5. Using sheer willpower to overcome our addictive urges. This can actually be much more subtle than it sounds!

For each tool there’s an illustration. Some of those are engaging and instructive, although some others aren’t so immediately helpful.

I didn’t sit down with the Vitakkasanthana Sutta in hand and try to figure out how to apply it to social media; instead I needed to talk about the various ways that I’ve worked with addictive behaviors, and it occurred to me that the five tools the Buddha offered provided a handy framework for doing so.

The five approaches above provide us with an impressive collection of tools for overcoming addictive behaviors, as well as the anger, anxiety, and so on that accompany them. I’ll be going through each in turn, telling you what the Buddha said (including the illustrations he gave), and making the tools practical.

That’s it for today. I hope you’ll enjoy this series of blog posts. If you want to make sure you don’t miss any, I’d suggest subscribing to Wildmind’s newsletter.

In the meantime, I’d suggest that you notice any addictive patterns of behavior around your social media use. In what ways does it lead to suffering? In what ways does your compulsion manifest? What happens if you give up social media for a day, or two days, or a week?


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Everything you ever wanted to know about Wildmind’s initiative, but were afraid to ask


I’ve been asked the same questions over and over again about Wildmind’s new meditation initiative, and so I thought I’d put all the questions and answers in one place.

What is the Initiative?

Wildmind is a community-supported meditation initiative. Almost 750 supporters sponsor our “community shares,” which gives Wildmind financial stability so that we can focus on teaching. In return, our initiative gives our sponsors access to a wide range of meditation materials and membership of a community of practitioners.

What are the benefits?

As a sponsor, you’ll receive:

  • Access to my online courses. This includes those I’ve developed in the past and any new courses I develop in the future through Wildmind. There are currently more than 30 of them.
  • A monthly newsletter that’s just for sponsors.
  • A monthly guided meditation download.
  • An exclusive monthly article on our blog that isn’t accessible to regular blog visitors.
  • Membership of an online community of meditation practitioners from around the world, in a special community website.
  • Access to community meditation sessions on Zoom.
  • If you’re on our mailing list, no more promotional emails about the Initiative!

What’s a Community Share?

By sponsoring a share you’re making a monthly contribution to Wildmind. It’s not the same as buying a share in a company, where you own part of the company. It’s a share in Wildmind’s output, similar to how with community-supported agriculture you purchase a share of a farm’s output.

How much are community shares?

One share is just $6 a month. For as long as you continue to sponsor at least one share, you’ll benefit from our initiative.

Is there any benefit to sponsoring more than one share?

Yes and no! The average person sponsors two shares, but several people have sponsored five or ten, and one person sponsors 20 shares.

We don’t offer different levels of benefits to people who sponsor multiple shares. But knowing that you’re helping to support your meditation teacher is something that will, I hope, bring you some happiness. Karma (depending on your definition of that word) is real!

How do I pay?

Most sponsors use PayPal, which is very simple to use. You can subscribe here.

Can I use a credit or debit card instead?

Yes! We prefer PayPal, but if you’d rather use a card we’re happy to accommodate you. Just download this form, complete it, and return it to us.

How do I access the benefits?

As a sponsor, you’ll receive a monthly Community Newsletter. That newsletter contains links to meditation courses, a guided meditation download, and an exclusive article, which is on our blog but only available to subscribers.

Is there any extra cost for the courses?

No, there aren’t any extra charges for the courses or anything else.

How can you make all those benefits available for as little as $6 a month?

We’ve chosen to be supported by lots of people paying a relatively small amount each month. This provides us enough to cover our costs, while making our meditation teaching available to as many people as possible.

Do I get access to all the courses as soon as I sign up?

What we do is make two to three courses available each month. You can do more than once course at a time, but I’d recommend doing only one. Meditation is about quality, not quantity. It’s not possible to make all the courses available at the same time because each includes an element of personal guidance.

Can I cancel anytime I want?

Of course! If you subscribe using PayPal you can simply log in to your account and cancel any time you want. Or you can write to us and we’ll take care of that for you.

I live outside the US. Are there foreign currency conversion fees?

With a credit or debit card there may be a foreign transaction fee. Check with your bank! With PayPal there are no extra fees.

Is the Bodhi Mind App included?

The Bodhi Mind app, which is for iPhone only, gives access to a large library of my guided meditations. It’s only available through the iTunes app store, and at the moment it isn’t included in the initiative. If you’re interested in this app, you can download it here.

How do I become a sponsor?

You can subscribe by PayPal using this form:

Choose your number of shares
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If you’d prefer not to use PayPal, you can download a credit card billing authorization form. You can complete this on-screen, then print, sign, and return it to us by mail or email.


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Poison in the sugar-bowl

on practice

Many, many years ago, when I was in my twenties, I was at the apartment of a newly divorced woman I’d just started dating when her ex dropped by unexpectedly. Awkward! Especially since she had just popped out of the house and wouldn’t be back for a few minutes!

Trying to be a good host, I offered him a cup of coffee. He accepted. I imagine he was grateful that we could diffuse this tense situation through a little social ritual.

He asked for sugar with his coffee, and I wasn’t familiar with where it was kept. But after a little searching I found a sugar-bowl and, as requested, measured out two heaped spoonfuls into his mug. He took one sip and his face contorted into a look us disgust. It turned out that the “sugar” I’d given him was actually salt! Now, having apparently tried to poison my girlfriend’s ex, I felt really awkward! I was convinced he’d think I’d done this deliberately.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that it’s possible to confuse two things in a way that has unpleasant results. And this happens with spiritual practice even more than it does with unlabelled bowls of white granular substances.

The Buddha once talked about wrongly understanding the teachings as being like grabbing a snake by the wrong end. If you need to pick up a snake, you want to take a firm hold of it just behind the head. Grab it by the tail and it’s going to loop around and bite you.

So what kinds of snake do people grab by the wrong end? (Or to put it another way, what kinds of salt are people putting in their coffee thinking it’s sugar?) Here are just four.

1. Misapplied Non-Attachment

Non-attachment means being aware of your own clinging and desires (e.g. wanting to have things your own way) and letting go of them. In our daily lives we can practice non-attachment in many ways: for example letting go of your compulsion to speak about yourself and choosing instead to listen empathetically to another person.

Non-attachment doesn’t mean “not caring,” or emotional detachment, which is how some people think about it. Equating non-attachment with not caring is usually self-serving. The environment? Well, everything’s impermanent anyway, so what does it matter if species go extinct and people’s crops are ruined by drought?

True non-attachment helps us to see our emotional avoidance strategies, and to set them aside so that we can truly care. Genuine compassion, caring about others’ suffering just as we care about out own, is a form of non-attachment.

2. Fake Patience

Maybe you stay with a partner who’s unsupportive, or you have a friend who talks nonstop and won’t let you get a word in sideways. And you never challenge them, because you’re practicing “patience.” After all, haven’t we had it drummed into us that we can’t make the world into a perfect place, and that it’s up to us to change.

But the thing is that that partner’s unsupportiveness isn’t making them happy, and neither is the friend’s logorrhea. Quite possibly neither of them wants to be asked to change (generally we don’t like change), but both of them would be more fulfilled if they did.

Sometimes you’re doing both yourself and others a favor if you’re more demanding and less “accepting” and “patient.”

3. Spurious Kindness

Lots of people are caring and compassionate when it comes to others, but are harsh and critical when it comes to themselves. And yet Buddhist teachings say that we can’t really have kindness and compassion for others unless we relate to ourselves kindly and compassionately first. What’s going on?

At one time I assumed that the Buddhist tradition was wrong on this point, but as I learned more about practicing empathy I realized that the traditional teaching fits my experience. I realized that a lot of the time when I thought I was being compassionate toward others I was either being “nice” to them because I wanted them to like me, or I was being “good” so that I could feel good about myself. And both of those things arose out of me not liking myself and not being kind to myself.

As I learned to have more self-empathy, I found that this empathy, and the compassion that arose from it, naturally flowed toward others. What do you know? The tradition seems to be right, and a lot of what I had thought to be kindness wasn’t really kindness at all.

4. Misunderstood Karma

The teaching of karma (which, incidentally, is not as large a part of the Buddha’s overall teaching as most people seem to think) was really meant as something we applied to ourselves. You want to be happy? Look at what you’re doing, since it can either create ease or suffering, peace or turmoil.

Later Buddhists were less interested in Buddhist as a form of practical psychology and more interested in Buddhism as a theory that explained everything — something that the Buddha himself would have found utterly alien.

One of the consequences of this is that Buddhists often misuse the teaching of karma in order to validate their judgements of others: People are suffering? Well, they must have done something to deserve it. And so why should I feel compassion for them? If we really understood karma in this situation we’d be looking at our own reaction to others’ suffering, would realize that judging others is something that creates pain for us, and would find instead a more compassionate way to relate.

These are just a few of the ways that we misuse Buddhist teachings in ways that cause suffering for ourselves and others. It’s important to grab a snake at the right end. It’s important to make sure that what you’re putting in your mug is really sugar.

If you would like to support Wildmind in producing articles like this, and get access to dozens of online meditation courses, please look into becoming a sponsor for as little as $6 a month.

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