online meditation courses

Tonglen: a practice of compassion for self and other

In response to the coronavirus crisis, I put together a free course on how we can find calmness and balance when things around us are falling apart. It consisted of 28 guided meditations, accompanied by just a few written words for context. The materials were delivered by email.

I also recorded a compassion practice to help us remain open to the suffering within and around us.

This practice of “Tonglen” — “giving and receiving” — is a form of lovingkindness or compassion meditation from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It includes a reminder for us to bring compassion to our own suffering, and so it’s also a self-compassion practice.

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Seven tips on making meditation a daily habit

You can know all about the benefits of meditation. You can know that it’s good for your mental health, offers protection against depression and anxiety, makes you happier, boosts your intelligence, slows aging in the brain, and even makes you physically healthier. You can know all this, and still find it hard to set up a daily meditation practice. You might find that you meditate for a few days, but then miss a day or two, or even find that weeks have gone by and you’ve hardly meditated at all.

Not meditating is a habit. It’s your default. It’s a habit you’ve had for most of your life. And it’s a powerful habit. Meditating regularly is a new habit, and it’s competing with the older and more established one. This means that for most people, setting up a daily meditation practice is hard. But there are things we can do that make it easier. So here are seven tips for setting up a rock-solid daily meditation habit. (If you’re interested, these tips come from my online course, “Get Your Sit Together,” which will help you become a daily meditator.)

1. Lower the Bar

One of the most common mistakes people make in trying to set up a daily meditation habit is to aim too high. They think that a “proper” meditation should be something like 20, or 30, or 40 minutes in length. And while it’s wonderful to have aspirations to sit for that length of time, it’s almost inevitable when there will be days when that won’t happen because you’re just too damned busy. By all means, aim to sit for as long as you want, but if you don’t want to end up skipping days (and then slipping back into the easy and established habit of not meditating at all), then accept that it’s OK to meditate for as little as five minutes a day.

You can even forget about sitting for 20 or 40 minutes, and just make that your aim: you’ll sit every day, even if it’s just five minutes. Five minutes is not hard to manage. And once you’ve set up your daily habit, it’s not hard to extend the length of time you meditate for.

2. Don’t use calendar days

When you think about meditating daily, you probably think in terms of meditating within each 24-hour period that runs from midnight to midnight. But it’s much more helpful to think in terms of your days starting when you wake up and ending when you go to sleep again. That way, when you have a crazy day of running around, and you don’t even get home until midnight, you can have a quick sit and you’ve still meditated that day.

3. Keep a visual reminder

Eventually a daily habit becomes something you just do. You don’t need to put “brush teeth” in your planner. You just do it. That’s the eventual aim with your meditation practice. But at the start of establishing a new habit you need reminders. Those reminders have to be prominent, so that you actually see them. A simple calendar—preferably a paper rather than an electronic one—makes an ideal reminder, especially when it’s in a high traffic area in your house, like the refrigerator door. Why paper? It’s just there, in plain view. You don’t have to make any effort to see it. You don’t have to pick up a phone or open a computer. You don’t have to remember to open an app. Those things are barriers, and you don’t want barriers. There are enough of those things in our lives. With a paper calendar on the fridge door, you’ll see the reminder just by living in your house.

A calendar is also a way of reinforcing that you’re making progress. Put a large check-mark on each day you meditate. Check-marks are visually more positive than X’s. If you have a green marker pen then that’s even better. Green is the color of success! As you complete days of meditation, you’ll start forming a chain of check marks, which is very encouraging. You won’t want to break the chain!

4. Use a mantra

No, I’m not talking about chanting “Om.” If we have a history of falling away from our meditation practice, one of the things that can happen is that we develop a self-image along the lines of “someone who can’t meditate regularly.” That happened to me. I saw other people who were able to meditate daily, apparently with no difficulties. But no matter how I tried, I’d miss a day here or there, or sometimes not meditate for days at a time.

So I developed the mantra, “I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am.” I would say this to myself even during my meditation practice. I’d repeat it in the shower, while walking, while driving my car, before going to sleep and on waking in the morning. Of course you actually have to meditate as well! But the mantra starts changing your self-view. And in time you simply don’t want to miss a day, because you see yourself as someone who meditates every day, and you’ll make every effort to get your butt on your cushion.

5. Use guided meditations

If it helps, use guided meditations. Setting up a new habit of meditating daily involves a fair amount of work, so let someone else do the work of guiding you. Even for experienced meditators, listening to a good guided meditation can help you develop new skills, and embrace new perspectives. For beginning meditators, guided meditations can make the difference between having a sit you feel happy about versus one where you spend almost all your time in distraction.

6. Don’t worry about the quality

A sit is a sit. We’d all like to have every meditation be calm and blissful, but realistically you’re going to be distracted a lot of the time. The thing is, though, that even the distracted meditations are helpful. So just do it. Any sit you do is a good sit, and the only bad sits are the ones you don’t do.

7. Congratulate yourself!

In developing a habit, there has to be a reward. You have to feel better about doing the thing than doing some alternative. Even in brushing your your teeth in the morning you get the reward of having a nice minty flavor in your mouth and you get rid of any night-time odors. That feels good. You’d feel worse if you didn’t do it.

Meditation can be inherently rewarding, but it can also be a struggle. And there are plenty of other things you could do instead that give instant rewards, like checking Facebook or reading an interesting article on the web. In the face of that kind of competition it becomes almost essential to consciously reward yourself, and probably the best way of doing that is to congratulate yourself. So at the end of your meditation, give yourself a clear, verbal message of congratulations: “Yay me!” Try standing up and raising your arms in salute, like a running crossing the finish line. This brings about pleasant physiological and psychological effects: in other words it makes you feel good!

Then, check off your calendar. Feel good about putting a big, bold check mark on today’s box. And feel good at watching the chain getting longer! The more you associate pleasant feelings with your meditation practice, the more you’ll feel you want to do it. Rewards are motivating.

So, those are just seven things you can do to help support you as you set up a daily meditation habit that can improve your life in all the ways I mentioned in the opening paragraph. There are many more tips on offer in my 28-day online course, “Get Your Sit Together,” which starts on January 1st. Click here to check it out!

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From the burden of illusion to the joy of freedom

Photo by Josh Boot @joshboot, Unsplash, photo-1482164565953-04b62dcac1cd

I’m going to say something about the arising of insight that I’ve never heard any teacher say before, yet which I think is crucially important if you’re at all interested in where Buddhist meditation can take you.

But first I’ll have to offer you just a little background.

Traditionally, Buddhist meditation has been seen in terms of two different approaches: tranquility (or concentration) and insight.

Tranquility involves calming the mind, steadying the mind, and cultivating peace joy. The experience that arises is called jhana, or absorption. The vast majority of references to meditation in the Buddhist scriptures are about this approach to meditation. The Buddha in fact described it as “the path to Awakening.”

Insight involves looking closely at our experience in order, ultimately, to see that we have no substantial, permanent self.

Tranquility and insight are never described as being two different types of meditation, but as two synergistic approaches to meditation. They are meant to be developed together. They complement and support each other.

The relationship between them is usually said to be that we need to learn to steady the mind through developing tranquility so that it can then closely observe the nature of our experience through insight practice. An analogy would be that the light from an ordinary flashlight can’t cut steel. There’s enough power there but it’s not focused enough; the light waves are scattered and out of phase with each other, so that they cancel each other out. But turn the light into a laser — that is, take the same amount of light, line up all the waves so that they’re in phase and pointing in the same direction — and it now can penetrate metal. Tranquility, or concentration, is said to steady and focus in the mind in a similar way, so that it can cut through delusion.

This is the explanation that I’d like to challenge. I don’t think it’s wrong. It’s just missing something crucial.

What’s the missing element? It’s that tranquility is itself a way of completely changing the way we relate to our being. Absorption is in a sense a form of insight practice.

Here’s how.

In developing tranquility we’re learning to experience jhana (absorption). We learn to calm the mind so that we are no longer caught up in stories and are free to pay close attention to the body, its feelings, and the qualities of our emotional experience.

And what do we find?

We find that we experience the body less and less as a solid object. In fact we find no solidity. Instead we experience the body in terms of energy: a pleasurable tingling aliveness. Even what you would expect to be the most substantial physical experiences, like the contact the knees make with the floor, dissolve into twinkling pinpoints of sensation, constantly changing, vanishing as soon as they arise.

As we go deeper into absorption we “tune out” the body and become more fascinated by joy. Virtually everything else vanishes. In ordinary life we might be able to describe where joy is in elation to the body — it’s often centered on the heart, for example — but when joy becomes our whole experience we can’t even do that. Joy becomes everything. Joy is of course a very intangible quality, but it’s also changing moment by moment by moment. So our whole experience becomes one of constant change.

As we practice absorption our whole experience moves from the very ordinary sense we have of the body being a solid object, to experiencing ourselves as nothing an ever-changing, evanescent, flickering, constellation of physical and emotional sensation.

And then the question comes up: Where in this is there, or could there be, a stable, permanent self? Of course, such a thing is impossible. And at some point — BOOM! — our belief in such a self vanishes.

The normal sense we have of having a solid body is revealed to be a mental construction — part of our delusion of a solid self.

So this, I believe, is the main way that concentration and absorption aid the arising of insight. Yes, it’s got a little to do with us developing our ability to focus. But that’s only a small part of the story. The main benefit of absorption is that it dissolves away the solid self we assumed we always had, and reveals nothing but glittering points of sensation suspended in space.

In this disappearance we don’t actually lose anything except a burdensome illusion. And we’re left with a joyful sense of freedom.

In a few days I’m leading a 50-day online course that will lead you, step-by-step, into the experience of jhana or absorption. Jhana is not some mystical state that can only be experienced by elite meditators. Once you know how, jhana can arise quite naturally and easily. It’s just a question of knowing the steps. I invite you to join me on this exploration of absorption.

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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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“Looking In, Looking Out: Exploring Art, World, and Self”

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Paintings by Lena Levin

I’m really looking forward to co-leading “Looking In, Looking Out: Exploring Art, World, and Self” — a course on art and meditation — with the very talented artist and teacher, Lena Levin. The course starts Feb 1.

A couple of years ago I took an online course with Lena and was impressed by how skillfully she was able to teach us to see in new ways. It was quite mind-blowing to see the extent to which what we see isn’t what’s there, but our mind’s approximation of what’s there. I felt, in some ways, that I was seeing for the first time. Also I was struck by the parallels between the techniques she taught and various approaches to meditation that I’ve explored over the years, although those are more to do with how we “see” the body — not literally but in terms of how the body is perceived internally.

In Lena’s portion of the course we’ll be looking with Lena at eight paintings, literally learning to see them — and by extension the world — in fresh ways. And in my meditations I’ll be doing the same, but with ourselves — and, again, by extension the world.

If you feel interested in learning more, click here.

I’ve put together a little promo video for this course. It’s a new departure for me, and this one’s a little basic. But I hope you enjoy it!

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Interview: hear Vidyamala discuss “Mindfulness for Women”

Vidyamala’s online course — Mindfulness for Women: Declutter Your Mind, Simplify Your Life, Find Time to ‘Be’ — starts today on Wildmind. This course will help you to:

  • Dwell in your body with more peace, self-love and ease
  • Relate to your thoughts and emotions in a more creative and helpful way
  • Love yourself and others with compassion and a sense of deep connection
  • Transform your relationships with others and the world around you
  • Become a force for good in the world breath by breath, moment by moment.
  • Change your mind to change your world.

Vidyamala learned to meditate in 1985 and has been a dedicated practitioner since that time. In 1995 she was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order and in 2001 founded Breathworks, an organization offering mindfulness and compassion to people suffering from pain, illness and stress.

Last year she was interviewed on Breakfast with Brian Kelly on New Zealand’s The Coast Radio station. You can listen to the interview below.

If you’re interested in the Mindfulness for Women online course, you can read more or enroll here.

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Mindfulness for Women: Claire’s diary

Vidyamala Burch

Vidyamala’s course, “Mindfulness for Women,” starts March 1, 2017

The Mindfulness for Women online course, starting March 1 on Wildmind, is based on the book I co-wrote with Journalist Claire Irvin. Claire hadn’t meditated before we worked on this project so she gamely kept a diary of her efforts which are accessible, often hilarious, and moving. Here’s her diary of her first attempt to meditate:

Claire’s Diary Week One: Body Scan

It’s 9.30 on a dark early-spring evening. My husband Stuart is away and I’ve finally got Amelie, six, to go to bed (she will take any opportunity to delay bedtime, and an absent parent is as good an excuse as any). On a normal weekday I’d be starting to think about bed myself (early bedtimes are the only way I cope with the hectic pace of my life), but tonight I’m a bit wired, and also secretly relishing the quiet in the house. I think guiltily of my promise to Vidyamala to start my mindfulness journey, but quickly push the thought away. I sit down in front of the TV and am suddenly filled with resolve (plus, I won’t lie, there’s nothing on telly and the idea of lying down is very appealing). I decamp upstairs to my bed and press play on my meditation recording, and Vidyamala’s calm, gently lilting voice fills the room.

 

I immediately feel myself relax. This isn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be . . . I listen for a few more seconds and then get distracted by a noise in the garden. It’s a cat, by the sounds of it, climbing up the side of the shed. I resist the urge to get up and look. But it makes me wonder if I’ve locked up properly outside, and it’s a couple of moments before I can pull myself back to the meditation.

 

I cringe a bit at the mention of my belly. I hate this word and, like many women, hate focusing on my tummy at all. But as I feel my breath echo in my pelvic floor and my lower back, I begin to feel like a star pupil. I can do this! To say I’m pleased with myself is an understatement. I hear another noise outside, in the front this time, and I tense up again and wonder what it is.

 

Vidyamala is now asking me to relax my face. Oops! My face is very tense. Like, really tense. I relax it: my jaw, my teeth, the set of my mouth. As soon as I relax one part of it, another tenses up again. I get distracted thinking about the irony of having to work harder at being relaxed. I make myself laugh, then realise I’ve missed the next few moments of the meditation. Must do better next time.

 

Afterwards, I decide I should go to bed. I notice how much more relaxed I am. Despite Stuart being away, which normally makes me edgy, I sleep like a baby.

Click here to register for the Mindfulness for Women online course, starting March 1.

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2017: A Year of Conscious Living

Did you find 2016 challenging? Meditating can help 2017 be less stressful!

Registration is now open for all of Wildmind’s online meditation events for 2017.

We’re calling this program our Year of Conscious Living, and we’re bringing you a larger range of events than ever before.

Our course schedule includes events for all levels of practice, whether you’re a beginner interested in learning basic techniques or a more experienced meditator interested in cultivating deep meditative states and insight. You’re free to pick and choose which events you participate in.

Since our courses are online, they’re incredibly convenient! No need to travel; you can learn to meditate in your own home, or wherever you happen to be!

We start the year on January 1, with two courses.

  • Change Your Mind is an introduction to meditation, which will guide you, step-by-step, through two fundamental meditation practices, to help you let go of stress and to find more joy and appreciation in your life. It’s ideal for complete beginners to meditation, or if you haven’t meditated in a while and need to go over the basics again.
  • Get Your Sit Together is aimed at people who already know how to meditate, but who have trouble meditating regularly. If you resist meditating, or if life just keeps getting in the way of your good intentions, then this is the course for you!

Click here to check out our full program for 2017!

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Why your New Year’s meditation resolutions fail, and how to make them stick

At this time of year you may well be making a New Year’s resolution to meditate every day.

I used to make resolutions too! Usually these attempts were rather feeble, and sometimes I wouldn’t even be half-way through January before I’d realize I’d already missed a couple of days of meditation. In fact days might have gone by and I hadn’t even thought of meditating.

This kind of thing sets up a sense of failure, which undermines our self-confidence and makes us more likely to fail at other things as well.

The main problem I had was that these resolutions weren’t resolutions at all. That is, they weren’t things I was resolved on; they weren’t courses of action I had “firmly decided” to do. I’d just had the idea that I wanted to do these things, but I hadn’t created a plan and I wasn’t doing the things that were necessary for my resolutions to turn into reality.

So we need to do the right things and set up the right conditions if we’re going to change.

A resolution is fine as it goes. It’s just that it doesn’t go very far! Here’s the kind of thing you’ll need to do if you want to go all the way.

  • Pick a goal, and make it a reasonable one. Start small. If you’re going to meditate daily, it’s better to aim for five minute a day and succeed, rather than go for 40 minutes and fail. You can always increase the time once you have your new habit established.
  • Be specific. Think about where, when, and how you’re going to meditate. Are you going to meditate at home? In the morning or at night? With or without a guided meditation? Plan it.
  • Think of what might have to change. You may have time in the morning to meditate, but you spend that time on social media. So maybe you need to turn your phone off at night so that you’re less likely to check Facebook first thing in the morning. Or maybe you need to set a firm time for stopping your TV watching at night and sit before bed — or meditate before you start watching TV in the first place.
  • What are you going to do if something crops up and thwarts your plan? What if you sleep in? When will you meditate then? Planning for contingencies doubles your chance of success.
  • How are you going to remind yourself of your goal? A resolution you don’t remember isn’t going to have any effect on your life, except to make you feel guilty once you do (eventually) remember it. Notes and alarms can help. So will having a regular place to meditate, where you keep your meditation cushion, and perhaps candles and incense as well.
  • Track your progress. Something as simple as a calendar that you put X’s in on days you’ve meditated can be a great visual support.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist. If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Giving up because you’ve missed a day or meditation is a waste of all the successful effort you’ve put in to your habit. If you fall of the horse, get straight back on! Meditating daily isn’t about trying to impress anyone. It’s about developing a habit that’ll help you be happier and healthier.
  • Work with others. You can have a meditation buddy, or join a meditation challenge and become part of a whole community of people working at setting up the habit of daily meditation.
  • Celebrate! We tend to focus more on our perceived failures (“I only meditated for five minutes today”) than on our successes (“I meditated today! Good for me!”) I strongly suggest that people allow themselves to feel celebratory before, during, and after every meditation. Become your own cheerleader!

There’s a lot more to establishing a positive habit than just saying you’re going to do it. What you need is to spend some time (and it needn’t take long) making a plan, and setting up supportive conditions.

If you’d like help with setting up a regular meditation practice, we’re here for you! We have a year-round program of meditation events that will help you sustain and deepen your practice, as well as a community of meditators who can offer you support and encouragement. Do feel free to join us in Wildmind’s meditation community.

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Why meditation is for people who “can’t meditate”

Are you one of those people who think, “Oh, I could never meditate. My mind’s too busy!”?

I’m here to tell you that having a busy mind is the very best reason to meditate, not a reason to avoid it! After all we start going to the gym because we’re out of shape, not because we’re already fit. Meditating helps our busy minds become calmer.

Of course, just as when you start going to the gym the first thing you notice is how out of condition you are, it’s often a shock when we first meditate to discover just how unruly our minds are. But that’s OK. That’s something we just learn to accept.

As we meditate, we start to recognize that it’s OK to have a lot of thinking going on. We learn that when we try to fight with or repress our thinking, it just makes us tense, and gives us a sense of failure. A lot of what we do in meditation involves paying attention to our breathing. Of course we quickly lose our focus and get distracted, but whenever we catch ourselves having got caught up in a train of thought, we let go of the thinking and return to the breathing again. We learn to see this as a process: follow the breathing, get distracted, return to the breathing. Rinse and repeat.

Those moments when we notice that we’ve been distracted and return to the breathing are very important. Our first instinct may be to curse ourselves — “Aargh! I’ve been distracted again!” — but what’s really going on is something worth celebrating: you’ve returned to mindful awareness. You’ve come home. So you can remind yourself to appreciate these little successes. This helps you to feel good about meditating. In a way, the more you get distracted, the more opportunities you have to feel good about coming back to the breathing again!

Something I want to stress is that a very ordinary but very amazing thing has happened when you realize you’ve been distracted. Your consciousness has changed its state in a subtle but quite radical way.

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When you were caught up in a train of thought you had no choice, no free will, no mindful awareness. You hadn’t decided to think about whatever was on your mind. You weren’t aware you were doing it. You had no ability to disengage from the thoughts. You were on automatic pilot. You were in a trance-like state.

This kind of distracted thinking is rather like dreaming. It was only when you “woke up” and mindful awareness, for whatever reason, re-emerged, that you realized that you were caught up in a story-line and were able to make a conscious choice to let go of it. In that moment of awakening from the daydream, you became free.

People think that meditation is some kind of trance. But it’s the opposite. It’s waking up from the trance of distracted thinking.

The moment you step back into mindful awareness, you move from being a kind of automaton to being more fully human. You’re free to choose where to direct your mind. You’re free to return your attention to your breathing rather than to engage in distracted thinking that, for the most part, makes you angry, tense, anxious, or depressed.

You became capable of taking responsibility for your own mind and even your own destiny.

You’re also free to change the emotional quality of your mind. You can choose not to be impatient, and to accept that it’s OK that you were distracted. You can choose to be kind to yourself, and to be kind to your mind, returning your attention to the breathing with patience and gentleness, as you might return a baby bird to its nest.

Choosing to go back to the breathing, rather than to be distracted, changes the mind in the long-term. Choosing to be patient and kind with ourselves also changes the mind long-term. We become calmer. We become kinder. We become better able to deal with life’s difficulties.

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