playfulness

Let your distractions be your teachers

Once, many years ago, I was meditating—or at least I was supposed to be—and I found myself wondering what the Pali for “Palm Pilot” would be.

I had one of these electronic devices in front of me (if you’re not familiar with this ancient technology, think of it as being a very primitive iPod Touch) because I was leading a retreat and had been reading notes from it. I recognized that this train of thought was a hindrance, and as I wondered why it was happening it occurred to me that it was an expression of playfulness. Could it be, I inquired, that my meditation had been lacking in playfulness? Had it been a bit dry and willful? Looking back, I found that this was in fact the case. So for the rest of the sit I allowed myself to to feel playful, regarding the flow of the breathing as being like the movement of a swing on which I was sitting, or the surge of waves on a beach.

The hindrances—our distractions—have a lot to teach us. It’s understandable to think they are “bad” or are our enemies, but this attitude leads to inner tension and mental turbulence. The hindrances are not in fact “bad.” What they are is ineffective strategies for finding happiness. Each hindrance starts with some kind of dissatisfaction, and on some level we assume that the hindrances will help us deal with that dissatisfaction. If we pay attention to what’s driving the hindrances, we can often learn a lot about what our unmet needs are.

Each of the hindrances is trying to do something for us. Each is a strategy, attempting to fulfill a particular need. The principle problem with the hindrances is that they just don’t work. They don’t bring us happiness. Instead, they add to our suffering. The needs underlying our hindrances are perfectly valid and healthy.

Recognizing that each hindrance is trying to fulfill an unmet need can open up the way to finding a healthier and more effective way of fulfilling that need. To do this we need to relax with ourselves, become more aware of the need underlying the hindrance, and then let that need suggest a way of finding fulfillment. Here’s some guidance about how all that can work.

Sense desire…

Sense desire is often triggered by a lack of pleasure or happiness. In an attempt to fill this unmet need, we crave pleasant experiences, but such grasping doesn’t change our underlying sense of emptiness, and when our pleasures end we’re plunged once again into a state of dissatisfaction.

Other times sense desire is a response to fear: we have pleasure and fear losing it, and so we cling tightly to the experience in order to hold onto it. However it’s simply not possible to hold on to pleasure, since it’s in the nature of all experiences to arise and pass away. The hindrance of craving merely creates more suffering, even though its aim is to bring completion and happiness.

…and what you can learn from it

If sense desire is alerting you that your needs for pleasure and happiness are not being met, then in response to those unmet needs, rather than fantasizing, you may be able to relax into your present-moment experience and soften the body. Sense desire teaches us that we are out of touch with ourselves. You may be able to allow pleasure to arise through attending to the natural energy and rhythm of the breathing, and noticing the effect these have on various parts of the body. You may be able to relax your attitude, and allow yourself to be more light, playful, and appreciative.

Ill will…

Ill will is usually sparked off by the presence of an unpleasant feeling. If we’re imagining having an argument with someone, we probably assume that this will stop the other person from behaving in ways that we don’t like, or will make them stay away from us so that we won’t be bothered by them any more. Ill will promises to remove our difficulties from our lives, but of course it merely creates new conflicts.

…and what you can learn from it

Ill will teaches us that there is something painful in us that needs acceptance and reassurance. Ill will is usually defensive, and it may be telling us we have unmet needs for security, reassurance, or self-comfort. Can you find these through acceptance of the painful feelings underlying ill will, and by showing them compassion?

Worry…

Worrying starts with an initial experience of anxiety. Worry is an attempt to “fix” the problem that has led to our anxiety. When we worry, we keep up a stream of thoughts that attempt to anticipate and rehash every detail about the situation that’s making us anxious. But this worry, as we know, merely perpetuates and intensifies our sense of insecurity.

…and what you can learn from it

Worry teaches us that we do not trust ourselves to deal with a difficult situation. I think of it as showing us our unmet needs for confidence and trust. When we’re worrying we don’t trust our fundamental ability to deal with life’s events. So, instead of worrying, can you find confidence from within, by trusting that whatever happens, difficult situations will arise and pass away? Perhaps we can trust that in the end our problems solve themselves. As Julian of Norwich heard in a vision, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Sloth and torpor…

Sloth, or laziness, is often a response to the presence of dread—that sinking feeling we have when faced with some experience we don’t think we can cope with. Sloth is like worry combined with aversion. It’s an avoidance strategy, where we turn away from difficulties because we fear them. We assume that if we just ignore the thing we dread, it’ll go away. Unfortunately, that rarely happens!

…and what you can learn from it

Sloth may likewise show us that we have a need for courage, a need to recognize our own strength, a need for acceptance. We may have resistance to meditating, for example, and find that just by turning toward our resistance we’ll find confidence. If we reflect on how good we’ll feel once we have this unpleasant experience behind us, then we may inspire ourselves to act. As Marianne Williamson observed, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” We’re always capable of far more than we think we are.

Tiredness, which is more of a physiological lack of energy, may teaching us that we need to take better care of ourselves. Perhaps we can begin doing this in the moment we become aware we’re tired, by practicing forgiveness, and by accepting our need to rest.

Doubt…

Dread or anxiety may also underlie the hindrance of doubt. If sloth is worry combined with aversion, doubt is worry combined with self-aversion.

Our doubts are thoughts that attempt to validate our desire to turn away from challenging experiences. We tell ourselves that this is something we’re not capable of confronting. We may reinforce a painful and limiting view about ourselves, such as “No one likes me,” because we hope that in being pitiful we’ll get sympathy from others. Doubt doesn’t really protect us from anything. Usually the pain it causes is far worse than the discomfort of facing a challenging situation.

…and what you can learn from it

Doubt may reveal to us that we have an unmet need for clarity. Even getting clear about that need is a start! In fact simply identifying that we’re experiencing doubt can bring enough clarity to help free us from it entirely.

Doubt may also, like sloth, reveal a need for confidence. Being able to step back from our doubt in order to name it can help connect us with our inner strength.

These are just suggestions, though. Our hindrances can point to many forms of unmet need. In order to divine these needs we have to accept the presence of the hindrance without fear or aversion, creating a “sacred pause.” Having created this space, the unexpressed need can come into consciousness directly, rather than appearing wearing the guise of a hindrance. We see the need itself, rather than its expression as a strategy. And then, having met the need face to face, as it were, we can allow it to suggest to us a more effective way that it can be fulfilled. Hindrances, observed mindfully, point us toward our needs.

Our hindrances, if we allow them, will tell us how to find happiness.

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A cure for earworms in meditation

earworms

Earworms are those tunes that get stuck in your head. Sometimes you’ll be meditating and have a favorite song stuck on replay. Sometimes it’s a song you hate. Either way, earworms aren’t very helpful to our meditation practice. In fact they can be so persistent that they drive us nuts!

Over the years I’ve tried a whole bunch of techniques to try to get rid of ear-worms. I’ve tried just listening to the song, accepting its presence and using it as an object of meditation, but songs can be intoxicating and I’ve found that I don’t develop much mindfulness and end up rocking out.

Sometimes I’ve listened to the lyrics closely to see if they’re trying to teach me anything, and from time to time I’ve been surprised to find that in some way I hadn’t expected the words of the song are deeply meaningful for me at that moment. That hasn’t necessarily made the song go away, but it’s given me something to reflect on.

I’ve tried imagining that I have a volume control in my head. I visualize turning this slowly from 10 down to 0. As I do so, I hear the song fade out. But then a few moments later I hear it fading back in again.

Finally I came up with an effective approach to earworms. It’s really simple: listen. Really listen.

Listen very attentively to the sounds around you. Include them in your meditation practice. In fact paying mindful attention to them becomes your meditation practice. Sounds make as good an object of meditation as anything else, so doing this isn’t a “distraction” from meditation but going deeper into meditation.

See also:

Listen in all directions at once. Listen to sounds in front of you and behind you, to the left and right, above and below. Let your auditory attention feel like it’s being stretched in every direction at once.

Allow all sounds to enter your awareness, rather than focusing on one individual sound, or moving from one sound to another.

Listen 100%.

The thing is that you can’t listen to the external world in this way and also listen to yourself singing internally. When you’re completely listening to the sounds around you, you can’t create an earworm. Listen intensely enough, and your mind becomes silent.

Whenever your attention begins to drift from the sounds outside, you’ll start to notice the earworm again. Now this might seem like a bad thing, but it’s actually wonderful, because now you have a built-in mindfulness meter! When the earworm appears, it’s letting you know that your mindfulness has slipped a little. So now the earworm is actually helping you to meditate, and instead of seeing it as annoying you can now be grateful toward it.

A sense of playfulness around this whole thing is important. Don’t see it as a test: you can’t fail. See it as just a game, so that you enjoy both the times you are able to pay attention to sounds, and the times that the earworm comes along and gently reminds you to come back to mindful awareness.

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The breathing as an adventure of discovery

Diver swimming down into the dark ocean

One of my Skype workshop participants recently wrote with a request for advice, which (slightly edited) was as follows:

I am aware during my meditations that sometimes my awareness of the breath is quite superficial, distant and coarse. And I suspect that part of the reason for this distance is that my brain filters out the finer physical details of the experience, and just works with the coarse-grained concept of the breath – which is basically a fixed construct in memory rather than a direct experience of change happening now. I’d appreciate any tips on how to deal with it.

Here’s my reply (also slightly edited to include one point I forgot to mention, and polished up a little).

I think what you’re describing is very common. In fact I think it’s what almost everyone does, and what I’ve done a lot of the time over the years. In certain sense it may not matter too much, as long as you’re still keeping up the good fight by letting go of hindrance-driven thinking and coming back to the breath, or at least a token representation of it. It quiets the mind, and brings happiness.

But in the long run I don’t think it’s very satisfying to meditate in this way, and I’ve found that it’s useful to develop a sense of curiosity about where the sensations of the breathing ends.

You can start from where you normally pay attention to the breathing in a token manner, and then ask, what’s just outside that experience?

You might start by noticing the movements of the muscles on the abdomen, but then you notice that there are sensations within the abdomen as well — the movement of the diaphragm, the changing sense of pressure in the internal organs. And then there are sensations on the skin, constantly changing as the contact with your clothing changes.

And then the abdomen isn’t just the front of your body! You start to notice what’s at the edge of what you’ve been focusing on, and you realize that you can feel the movements of the muscles and the sensations of the skin on the sides of the body. And on the lower back; the entire lower back is moving as you breathe in and out.

And to you can do the same with the chest. You can move from feeling the sensations of the ribs on the front of the body rising and falling, to sensing the entire ribcage expanding and contracting, not just on the front of the body but on the side and the back. And you can notice the skin on those areas, too. You can feel the chest move against the arms, which are often lying against the chest wall. And there’s all that skin, moving against your clothing – the temperature, the sense of touch…

Then as the chest is rising and falling, so are the shoulders. Can you notice them, internally and externally? Can you feel the sensations inside the shoulder-joint itself? Can you feel the arms move slightly as you breath in, as the shoulders rise and fall, and as the ribcage moves them? Can you feel anything in the hands? The fingers?

The whole spine is moving.

You can keep doing this through the whole body — the neck, the head, the hips, the legs, the feet.

And I haven’t mentioned the internal sensations of the air touching the inside of the passageways! Where do they end? There’s no sharp edge to those sensations, and you can notice them “blurring out” into your body.

So there’s a huge amount there to pay attention to. You can in fact end up experiencing the breathing everywhere. The whole body can feel like it’s involved in the breathing process, which on some level it is.

Of course noticing all this isn’t what we usually do. What we typically do is pick some token sensation and try to pay attention to that. It’s coarse and very, very selective. And it becomes a habit to notice just that sensation, and to ignore everything else. We convince ourselves we’re paying attention to “the breathing” when it’s more like “a bit of the breathing connected with the muscles on the front of the abdomen,” or “one small aspect of the breath moving through the pharynx.”

We notice so little of the breathing process that the mind’s actually bored, and we find that lots of thoughts are arising to fill the vacuum in our experience.

But if we start exploring what’s around those token sensations, with a sense of curiosity and openness, then we’re starting to pay attention to “the breathing” and not just a token representation of it. And as we notice more of the breathing, then the mind’s less bored. It’s actually quite interested! And often our attention is so full of the sensations of the breathing that there’s no room in there for thinking, and the mind becomes quiet.

It’s worth emphasizing as well that this exploration needs to be done in a spirit almost of playfulness and wonder. It’s not a checklist — yeah, been there, done that. It’s OK to take my suggestions as “things to look for” but I’d suggest you don’t take it as an exhaustive list, because it isn’t. If you for look just what I’ve suggested, then you’ll miss stuff that’s going on, I’m sure. I’m probably missing a lot. You’ll probably miss important stuff if you follow me too closely, and not have the thrill of discovery. But it’s handy to have some suggestions for where to start looking.

Anyway, that’s my suggestion for breaking out of having a token representation of the breathing, so that there’s more of an open sense of mindfulness and even of adventure. You’re leaving the familiar and rather dull territory of the known, and pushing out into the wide ocean of experience.

I’ve been finding this a rewarding thing to do. It might be what you need as well.

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G.K. Chesterton: “The true object of all human life is play.”

G.K. Chesterton

The bodhisattva moves through life elegantly, “in the zone” and in a state of playful “flow,” and he can do this because he has abandoned any clinging to the idea of self. “Let go of your sense of self; you have nothing to lose but your suffering,” Bodhipaksa tells us.

I think Chesterton was absolutely right when he said that the object of life is play. The best kind of life we can live, I believe, is one in which we love, laugh, and learn: one in which we can be serious without being down, and can laugh irreverently at life’s difficulties without being facetious or trivializing them.

One problem is that we sometimes get into a habit of deferring happiness. We know we’re overdoing things now, taking life way too seriously and failing to nourish ourselves. We know that our needs aren’t being met. We’re aware that we’re stressed. That we’re over-working and spiritually under-nourished. But we live in hope that in six months, or next year, or after this big project is over, we’ll be able to start enjoying life. But we’ve been through this before, and we forget that six months, or a year ago, or before the last big project, we thought exactly the same thing. And here we are. And life’s still hard.

Because we think it’s “over there” we don’t try to create heaven here

Chesterton seems to fall into this way of thinking as well. In the full quotation he adds, after “The true object of all human life is play” the words, “Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.” Even if he’s being metaphorical, the metaphor serves to distance us from happiness. Here we are on earth, with all our worldly cares. Heaven is somewhere over the horizon, and because we think it’s “over there” we don’t try to create heaven here.

Buddhist language sometimes can be interpreted in the same way. We talk about the life of frustration, stress, and suffering as being samsara. The literal meaning of samsara, “the faring on” suggests a long, hard slog. And then there’s nirvana, which is the “extinction” of delusion and suffering (although not, as some people used to argue, individual existence).

Also see:

Nirvana, as the end of suffering, is the beginning of an unshakable state of peace; a joyful equanimity; a wise, compassionate, and serene way of being. It’s rather like earth and heaven, and often I hear people talk about the two as being separate places.

Other Buddhist metaphors reinforce that notion; we talk about practice as being “a path” and what does a path do but lead from one place to another place. And if there are two places they must be separate, and they may even be separated by a great distance. Some Buddhist schools (mainly now extinct, interestingly enough) used to see nirvana as being immeasurably far off, and only attainable after millions of lifetime of practice. While that may have emphasized how amazing enlightenment is, it also made it hard to take it seriously as a realistic goal.

Nirvana is ‘arriving’

But earth and heaven are not places separated in space. It’s not that samsara is one place and nirvana is another. There’s only one reality, and we can see it in different ways. We can look at the world we live in with a mind that’s always seeking — always “faring on” through experiences, never really resting in the present moment, never really appreciating what’s going on right now, but always hoping that things are going to be better later on. We’re always thinking about what we’re going to do next, but when we get to that next thing we’ll be thinking of what’s coming after that. There’s always the promise of fulfillment, but it never quite arrives because we’ve not arrived. That is samsara.

And nirvana? That’s the same world — the world of children and commuting and deadlines and international conflicts — but seen with a different attitude. Nirvana is “arriving.” It’s letting go of the “faring on” attitude. It’s letting go of looking for fulfillment just over the horizon, and realizing that fulfillment is possible right here, right now.

Spatially, samsara and nirvana are the same place, but mentally they’re very different. When we talk about “the path”, we’re talking purely metaphorically. We’re not fundamentally talking about getting away from our current lives, but about changing our relationship to our current lives.

Samsara and nirvana are the same reality seem through different mental lenses

Sometimes, to be true, there are times when we do have to move on from a job, a relationship, a place, in order to find happiness. Sometimes the particular circumstances we find ourselves in are so difficult that we really need to get out. But in the end we realize that we take ourselves with us. We carry our own attitudes along with us wherever we go, and it’s all too often those attitudes that get us into difficult circumstances in the first place. Eventually we have to let go of the idea that happiness will come from getting circumstances in the outside world right, and accept that happiness will come by getting our attitude to life right.

As Sunada points out in her post, Playing our way through life, the life of the bodhisattva — the person who is “arriving” in life rather than “faring on” — is characterized by play, or līla. Līla means not just play, but grace, beauty, elegance, and loveliness. The idea is a life where we deal with difficulties gracefully, where our attitude is beautiful, where find elegant solutions to problems, where we appreciate the loveliness in others.

Another aspect of līla is “mere appearance, semblance, pretence, [and] disguise.” This doesn’t mean that spiritually advanced Buddhists are running around in disguise! It suggests that the bodhisattva is living in the world in a different way from the rest of us. Samsara and nirvana, remember, are the same reality seem through different mental lenses. The bodhisattva is living in the same world as we are, but isn’t confined by the same self-imposed limitations and assumptions. Crucially, the bodhisattva is aware that protecting our “selves” is the worst thing that we can do for ourselves. Let me give an analogy to explain.

Let go of your sense of self; you have nothing to lose but your suffering.

Imagine a basketball player “in the zone” or in a state of “flow.” There’s no thought of “Oh, here I am, and I have the ball, and there’s the opposition, and there’s the hoop, and I have to get past all those guys and score.” Instead, what you have is the complete absence of any sense of self and other. There’s simply a playful and spontaneous response to circumstances. He’s flowing around the court in a state of līla, with grace, beauty, elegance, and loveliness. Now consider the basketball player who does think all those things: he’s dead on the court. He’s wooden, because he’s either afraid or trying too hard for results. He’s paralyzed by his own self-consciousness and his awareness of others as obstacles who might stop him getting what he wants.

Bodhisattvas are very like that, but in terms of life as a whole rather than just what goes on on a basketball court. There’s freedom from the idea of there being beings to help, which is how the bodhisattva can help them. He can also help them because he has no idea that he is helping other beings — he just responds spontaneously, in the zone, in a state of flow.

Two different attitudes within one reality. It’s up to us to choose. And we can make remarkable changes in our attitude in the space of a moment. When we let go of our mental rigidity, relax, and create a mental space for creativity to appear, we can very quickly find a sense of play, of līla, bubbling up from within. Let go of your sense of self; you have nothing to lose but your suffering.

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Playing our way through life

Girl playing, blowing bubbles

Many people think of play as a fringe benefit of life. Work comes first. Play is an “extra” that we reward ourselves with only after finishing our work. But Sunada sees it differently. On the one hand, play has a generative quality that can help us navigate successfully through life. But even more so, she sees it as an essential way of expressing life itself.

I recently listened to a fascinating podcast on National Public Radio’s show called Speaking of Faith. It REALLY made me rethink all my ideas about play! It was an interview with Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder and president of the National Institute for Play — a non-profit that sponsors research on the role of play in the development of human potential.

Play may be purposeless, but that doesn’t make it pointless.

According to Brown, “When one really doesn’t play at all or very little in adulthood, there are consequences: rigidities, depression, no irony — things that are pretty important, that enable us to cope in a world of many demands.” He suggests that play helps us learn empathy, trust, and problem solving, and also enables us to develop our talents and character over our entire lifespan.

Play as a positive approach to life issues

Play may be purposeless, but that doesn’t make it pointless. Play has a generative quality to it. It brings out our sense of curiosity and imagination, and allows us to explore unfamiliar territory in an open-minded, open-hearted way. It’s free of judgment, or the need to perform or be perfect. “Mistakes” and “wrong turns” are a natural part of the process. It also reframes notions of work and effort, and allows us to explore and learn in a joyful way.

These ideas can have some big implications for how we go about navigating and creating in our own lives. Think about it. When we’re faced with something new and unfamiliar – fearful even – which approach seems more likely to elicit a helpful and creative response: one filled with methodical problem-solving, fretful worrying, and willful effort, or one filled with a more open sense of imaginative curiosity? A friend of mine recently told me of a quote (unfortunately she couldn’t remember the author) that goes: “Adults typically only use their imaginations to worry.” What a waste is that?

What I’m talking about here is a state of mind – more about HOW we do things than WHAT we do.

Some people might at this point object by saying that their problems are very complicated and risky, and couldn’t possibly be resolved just by playing through them. But what I’m talking about here is a state of mind – more about HOW we do things than WHAT we do. From a Buddhist perspective, it’s our mental state as we go about doing things that determines the nature of what happens in our future. We certainly do need to analyze and plan our way through things. But rather than seeing them as problems, how can we view them with an attitude of openness and curiosity rather than constriction and timidity?

As a life coach, I often hear clients tell me they feel stuck with their problems because they don’t know what to do next. The way they say “I don’t know” has a tone of resignation and shutting down. Rather than throwing up the proverbial stop sign, what if we looked at the situation more like being on vacation in a new, exotic place? We might have no idea what to do or where to go, but there’s a sense of wanting to find out, and being willing to try things. Wouldn’t we do things very differently if we approached the “I don’t know” situations of life in that sort of way?

The spiritual dimension of play

In his interview, Dr. Brown also talked about a more profound, spiritual side of play. In one segment of the show he says:

“I was watching a pride of lions and two sub-adult female lionesses got up, looked at each other — and there’s a picture of this in the National Geographic magazine, what looked from a distance kind of like a fight, but it was a ballet. And while I was watching this, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that this is — I’m almost brought to tears talking about it now — that this is divine.”

It turns out that this idea of a spiritual dimension in play is part of the Buddhist world as well. In the Mahayana tradition there is the figure of the bodhisattva – an enlightened being who takes on a human birth for the sole purpose of benefiting others. An essential quality of a bodhisattva is lila – Sanskrit for “play.” Far from being serious-minded martyrs, bodhisattvas joyfully play at everything they do. My own teacher, Sangharakshita, says, “One can regard this as a spontaneous overflowing of [their] inner realization, which transcends the immediate situation.1

My interpretation is that the play of the lionesses and bodhisattvas are essential expressions of life itself. There’s nothing frivolous about it. It’s not some nice “extra”. When they play, they are in effect saying “I am alive. I am here. In this moment, I am expressing my innermost nature.” It’s like saying “yes” to life, opening up to it in a full-bodied, wholehearted way.

When seen in this light, play isn’t something we relegate to our spare time, if and when we happen to have some. It’s an entire attitude toward life that ideally permeates everything we do. Life isn’t about problems to be solved, or to-do lists to be slogged through. It’s is something to be met full-on – lived and played in with 100% of our being.


1. From The Bodhisattva Ideal by Sangharakshita. Birmingham, UK: 1999, Windhorse Publications, p 139.

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