Positive Psychology

The art of self-forgiveness

Everyone messes up. Me, you, the neighbors, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, King David, the Buddha, everybody.

It’s important to acknowledge mistakes, feel appropriate remorse, and learn from them so they don’t happen again. But most people keep beating themselves up way past the point of usefulness: they’re unfairly self-critical.

Inside the mind are many sub-personalities. For example, one part of me might set the alarm clock for 6 am to get up and exercise . . . and then when it goes off, another part of me could grumble: “Who set the darn clock?” More broadly, there is a kind of inner critic and inner protector inside each of us. For most people, that inner critic is continually yammering away, looking for something, anything, to find fault with. It magnifies small failings into big ones, punishes you over and over for things long past, ignores the larger context, and doesn’t credit you for your efforts to make amends.

Therefore, you really need your inner protector to stick up for you: to put your weaknesses and misdeeds in perspective, to highlight your many good qualities surrounding your lapses, to encourage you to keep getting back on the high road even if you’ve gone down the low one, and – frankly – to tell that inner critic to Shut Up.

With the support of your inner protector, you can see your faults clearly with fearing that will drag you into a pit of feeling awful, clean up whatever mess you’ve made as best you can, and move on. The only wholesome purpose of guilt, shame, or remorse is learning – not punishment! – so that you don’t mess up in that way again. Anything past the point of learning is just needless suffering. Plus excessive guilt, etc., actually gets in the way of you contributing to others and helping make this world a better place, by undermining your energy, mood, confidence, and sense of worth.

Seeing faults clearly, taking responsibility for them with remorse and making amends, and then coming to peace about them: this is what I mean by forgiving yourself.

How?

Start by picking something relatively small that you’re still being hard on yourself about, and then try one or more of the methods below. I’ve spelled them out in detail since that’s often useful, but you could do the gist of these methods in a few minutes or less.

Then if you like, work up to more significant issues.

Here we go:

  • Start by getting in touch, as best you can, with the feeling of being cared about by some being: a friend or mate, spiritual being, pet, or person from your childhood. Open to the sense that aspects of this being, including the caring for you, have been taken into your own mind as parts of your inner protector.
  • Staying with feeling cared about, list some of your many good qualities. You could ask the protector what it knows about you. These are facts, not flattery, and you don’t need a halo to have good qualities like patience, determination, fairness, or kindness.
  • If you yelled at a child, lied at work, partied too hard, let a friend down, cheated on a partner, or were secretly glad about someone’s downfall – whateverit was – acknowledge the facts: what happened, what was in your mind at the time, the relevant context and history, and the results for yourself and others. Notice any facts that are hard to face – like the look in a child’s eyes when you yelled at her – and be especially open to them; they’re the ones that are keeping you stuck. It is always the truth that sets us free.
  • Sort what happened into three piles: moral faults, unskillfulness, and everything else. Moral faults deserve proportionate guilt, remorse, or shame, but unskillfulness calls for correction, no more. (This point is very important.) You could ask others what they think about this sorting (and about other points below) – include those you may have wronged – but you alone get to decide what’s right. For example, if you gossiped about someone and embellished a mistake he made, you might decide that the lie in your exaggeration is a moral fault deserving a wince of remorse, but that casual gossip (which most of us do, at one time or another) is simply unskillful and should be corrected (i.e., never done again) without self-flagellation.
  • In an honest way, take responsibility for your moral fault(s) and unskillfulness. Say in your mind or out loud (or write): I am responsible for ______ , _______ , and _______ . Let yourself feel it. Then add to yourself: But I am NOT responsible for ______ , _______ , and _______ . For example, you are not responsible for the misinterpretations or over-reactions of others. Let the relief of what you are NOT responsible for sink in.
  • Acknowledge what you have already done to learn from this experience, and to repair things and make amends. Let this sink in. Appreciate yourself. Next, decide what if anything remains to be done – inside your own heart or out there in the world – and then do it. Let it sink in that you’re doing it, and appreciate yourself for this, too.
  • Now check in with your inner protector: is there anything else you should face or do? Listen to that “still quiet voice of conscience,” so different from the pounding scorn of the critic. If you truly know that something remains, then take care of it. But otherwise, know in your heart that what needed learning has been learned, and that what needed doing has been done.
  • And now actively forgive yourself. Say in your mind, out loud, in writing, or perhaps to others statements like: I forgive myself for ______ , _______ , and _______ . I have taken responsibility and done what I could to make things better. You could also ask the inner protector to forgive you, or others out in the world, including maybe the person you wronged.
  • You may need to go through one or more the steps above again and again to truly forgive yourself, and that’s alright. Allow the experience of being forgiven to take some time to sink in. Help it sink in by opening up to it in your body and heart, and by reflecting on how it will help others for you to stop beating yourself up.

May you be at peace.

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Bringing accountability to your practice

An older girl helping a younger girl with her reading.

I’m just getting over a bad habit relating to meditation that’s plagued me for over thirty years.

It was reading a blog post on developing good writing habits that helped me. The idea came from Brett Cooper who, like me, found that he tended to write in fits and starts, with long periods of non-writing, followed by spurts of intense production.

Two ideas came to his rescue. The first was that he realized he needed to establish “a small, non-threatening daily writing habit,” and that a goal of 100 words a day was innocuous enough to be doable.

The second idea was the realization that he needed accountability. Left to our own devices, it can be all too easy to let ourselves off too easily. So he found a friend who agreed to be his “100 words accountability partner.” The partner doesn’t have to comment on the writing or even read it. She just has to give Brett a hard time if she doesn’t receive at least 100 words of writing each day.

As it happens I had my writers’ group meeting the day after reading Brett’s article, and so I proposed that I undertook the same two practices. So two of the people in my group agreed to be my accountability partner, and I theirs. Now each of us is emailing the other two at least 100 words a day.

It’s worked great. 100 words is such a non-intimidating target that I find it easy to sit down to write, and I inevitably end up writing well over 100 words. At this rate I’ll be adding a chapter to my novel every two weeks or so. And this is after several months of producing nothing. It’s a big turn-around.

Now, when it comes to meditation, I’ve been meditating daily for a long time. I’ve hardly missed a day in the last two years or so. But my sits have at times become very short — sometimes just five or ten sleepy minutes at the end of the day. And although it’s better to do five or ten sleepy minutes than to do nothing, that’s far from ideal. Five minutes was supposed to be an emergency provision for those days when I genuinely didn’t have time for a longer sit, but it threatened to become my default. It’s as if I hit 100 words and then stopped in mid-sentence.

The bit that was missing from my meditation practice was accountability. This is where my long-standing bad meditation habit comes in; I’ve always resisted accountability.

I’ve often resisted meditating with others, or following set schedules, or even using apps like the Insight Timer, which announces to other app users how much meditation you’ve done. I think the reason I’ve resisted these things is that I’ve wanted to be sure that my desire to meditate was coming from me, and not from a desire to fit in, or to gain acceptance from others, or to show off. And while it’s good to want to meditate because it’s what I really want to do, I think that habit has long outlived its usefulness. It’s led to what’s almost a kind of secretiveness about how much meditation I’m doing, and that’s not good. Bad habits flourish in the dark.

So I decided that as well as my commitment to daily meditation practice (with an emergency fall-back position of five minutes a day) I needed a commitment to sharing what I do, so that I hold myself accountable. So on Wildmind’s community on Google+, I’ve been sharing how long I’ve been sitting, and what I’ve been doing.

This has already made a difference. When I meditate in the evening, which is often the first opportunity I have to meditate, I’m sitting earlier rather than later, when I’m often tired. I’m sitting for longer. And I’m being more mindful of the effort I make in my practice.

And the great thing is that I still have the feeling that I’m doing all this for me, not to please other people, so that fear has gone. I’m glad to have left that old habit in the past, where it belongs.

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The Dhammapada: “one of the greatest psychological works ever written”

Dhammapada Fronsdal

The Dhammapada, translated by Gil Fronsdal. Available from Amazon.

Jonathan Haidt, who studies morality and emotion, at the NYU-Stern School of Business, discusses the Buddhist classic, The Dhammapada, on Five Books:

The Dhammapada is one of the greatest psychological works ever written, and certainly one of the greatest before 1900. It is masterful in its understanding of the nature of consciousness, and in particular the way we are always striving and never satisfied. You can turn to it – and people have turned to it throughout the ages – at times of trouble, at times of disappointment, at times of loss, and it takes you out of yourself. It shows you that your problems, your feelings, are just timeless manifestations of the human condition. It also gives specific recommendations for how to deal with those problems, which is to let go, to accept, and to work on yourself. So I think this is a kind of tonic that we ambitious Westerners often need to hear.

Is there a specific saying that you particularly like?

There are two big ideas that I found especially useful when I wrote The Happiness Hypothesis. One is an idea common to most great intellectual traditions. The quote is: ‘All that we are arises with our thoughts, with our thoughts we make the world.’ It’s not unique to Buddha, but it is one of the earliest statements of that idea, that we need to focus on changing our thoughts, rather than making the world conform to our wishes.

The other big idea is that the mind is like a rider on an elephant. Buddha uses this metaphor: ‘My own mind used to wander wherever pleasure or desire or lust led it, but now I have it tamed, I guide it, as the keeper guides the wild elephant.’ That’s the most important idea in The Happiness Hypothesis – I just adapted the metaphor slightly. What modern psychology shows us is that our minds are like a small rider on the back of an elephant: the rider doesn’t have that much control even though he thinks that he does.

And once you accept that you are much closer to understanding happiness?

Exactly, because it helps explain why you can’t just resolve to be happy. You can’t just resolve to quit drinking, you can’t resolve to stop and smell the flowers – because the rider does the resolving but it’s the elephant that does the behaving. Once you understand the limitations of your psychology and how hard it is to change yourself, you become much more tolerant of others, because you realise how difficult it is to change anyone…

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Cultivate goodwill

As the most social and loving species on the planet, we have the wonderful ability and inclination to connect with others, be empathic, cooperate, care, and love. On the other hand, we also have the capacity and inclination to be fearfully aggressive toward any individual or group we regard as “them.” (In my book – Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom – I develop this idea further, including how to stimulate and strengthen the neural circuits of self-control, empathy, and compassion.)

To tame the wolf of hate, it’s important to get a handle on “ill will” – irritated, resentful, and angry feelings and intentions toward others. While it may seem justified in the moment, ill will harms you probably more than it harms others. In another metaphor, having ill will toward others is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.

Avoiding ill will does not mean passivity, allowing yourself or others to be exploited, staying silent in the face of injustice, etc. There is plenty of room for speaking truth to power and effective action without succumbing to ill will. Think of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or the Dalai Lama as examples. In fact, with a clear mind and a peaceful heart, your actions are likely to be more effective.

Ill will creates negative, vicious cycles. But that means that good will can create positive cycles. Plus good will cultivates wholesome qualities in you.

How?

Cultivate Positive Emotions
In general, really nourish and develop positive emotions such as happiness, contentment, and peacefulness. For example, look for things to be happy about, and take in the good whenever possible. Positive feelings calm the body, quiet the mind, create a buffer against stress, and foster supportive relationships – all of which reduce ill will.

Practice Noncontention
Don’t argue unless you have to. Inside your own mind, try not to get swirled along by the mind-streams of other people. Reflect on the neurological turbulence underlying their thoughts: the incredibly complicated, dynamic, and largely arbitrary churning of momentary neural assemblies into coherence and then chaos. Getting upset about somebody’s thoughts is like getting upset about spray from a waterfall. Try to decouple your thoughts from the other person’s. Tell yourself: She’s over there and I’m over here. Her mind is separate from my mind.

Be Careful About Attributing Intentions
Be cautious about attributing intentions to other people. Prefrontal theory-of-mind networks attribute intentions routinely, but they are often wrong. Most of the time you are just a bit player in other people’s dramas; they are not targeting you in particular.

Bring Compassion to Yourself
As soon as you feel mistreated, bring compassion to yourself – this is urgent care for the heart. Try putting your hand on your cheek or heart to stimulate the embodied experience of receiving compassion.

Meet Mistreatment with Loving Kindness
Traditionally, loving-kindness is considered the direct antidote to ill will, so resolve to meet mistreatment with loving-kindness. No matter what. A famous sutra in Buddhism sets a high standard: “Even if bandits were to sever you savagely limb by limb with a two-handled saw… you should train thus: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected, and we shall utter no evil words; we shall abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of loving-kindness, without inner hate’” (Nanamoli and Bodhi 1995, 223).

Personally, I’m not there yet, but if it’s possible to stay loving while being horribly mistreated – and from some of the accounts of people in awful circumstances, it clearly is – then we should be able to rise up in lesser situations, like getting cut off in traffic or being put down yet again by a teenager.

Communicate
To the extent that it’s useful, speak your truth and stick up for yourself with skillful assertiveness. Your ill will is telling you something. The art is to understand its message – perhaps that another person is not a true friend, or that you need to be clearer about your boundaries – without being swept away by anger.

Put Things in Perspective
Put whatever happened in perspective. The effects of most events fade with time. They’re also part of a larger whole, the great majority of which is usually fine.

Practice Generosity
Use things that aggravate you as a way to practice generosity. Consider letting people have what they took: their victory, their bit of money or time, their one-upping. Be generous with forbearance and patience.

Cultivate Positive Qualities
Cultivate positive qualities like kindness, compassion, empathy, and calm. Nourish your own good will.

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Bothered by negative thoughts? Just throw them away

If you want to get rid of unwanted, negative thoughts, try just ripping them up and tossing them in the trash. In a new study, researchers found that when people wrote down their thoughts on a piece of paper and then threw the paper away, they mentally discarded the thoughts as well. On the other hand, people were more likely to use their thoughts when making judgments if they first wrote them down on a piece of paper and tucked the paper in a pocket to protect it. “However you tag your thoughts — as trash or as worthy of protection — seems to make a difference in how you use those thoughts,” said Richard Petty, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University. Some types of psychological therapy use variations of this concept by trying to get patients to discard their negative thoughts. But Petty said this is the first study he is aware of that has validated that approach. “At some level, it can sound silly. But we found that it really works — by physically throwing away or protecting your thoughts, you influence how you end up using those thoughts. Merely imagining engaging in these actions has no effect.” The findings suggest that people can treat their thoughts as material, concrete objects, Petty said. That is evident in the language we use.

“We talk about our thoughts as if we can visualize them. We hold our thoughts. We take stances on issues, we lean this way or that way. This all makes our thoughts more real to us.” Petty conducted the research with Pablo Briñol, Margarita Gascó and Javier Horcajo, all of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain. The results are published online in the journal Psychological Science and will appear in a future print edition. For the study, the researchers conducted three related experiments. In the first experiment, 83 Spanish high school students participated in a study they were told was about body image. Each participant was told to write down either positive or negative thoughts about his or her body during a three-minute period. All the participants were asked to look back at the thoughts they wrote. Researchers told half of the students to contemplate their thoughts and then throw them in the trash can located in the room, “because their thoughts did not have to remain with them.” The other half were told to contemplate their thoughts and check for any grammar or spelling mistakes. The participants then rated their attitudes about their own bodies on three 9-point scales (bad-good, unattractive-attractive, like-dislike). Results showed that for those who kept their thoughts and checked them for mistakes, it mattered whether they generated positive or negative thoughts about their bodies. As would be expected, participants who wrote positive thoughts had more positive attitudes toward their bodies a few minutes later than did those who wrote negative thoughts. However, those who threw their thoughts away showed no difference in how they rated their bodies, regardless of whether they wrote positive or negative thoughts. “When they threw their thoughts away, they didn’t consider them anymore, whether they were positive or negative,” Petty said. In a second study, 284 students participated in a similar experiment, except this time they were asked to write negative or positive thoughts about something most people believe is good: the Mediterranean diet (the diet emphasizes high consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes and unrefined cereals, with olive oil as the basic fat). In this case, some threw the thoughts away, some left them on their desk, and some were told to put the paper in their pocket, wallet or purse and keep it with them. All participants were then asked to rate their attitudes toward the diet and intentions to use the diet for themselves. As in the first study, those who kept the list of thoughts at their desk were more influenced by them when evaluating the diet than were those who threw them away. However, those who protected their thoughts by putting them in a pocket or purse were even more influenced than those who kept the thoughts on their desk. In other words, those who wrote positive thoughts about the Mediterranean diet and put those thoughts in their pocket rated the diet more favorably than those who wrote positive thoughts and simply kept those thoughts on their desk. And, those who wrote negative thoughts and put them in their pocket rated the diet more negatively than those who kept their thoughts on the desk. “This suggests you can magnify your thoughts, and make them more important to you, by keeping them with you in your wallet or purse,” Petty said. But how important is the physical action of throwing these thoughts away or keeping them in your pocket? To find out, the researchers conducted a third experiment using computers. In this case, 78 Spanish college students wrote their thoughts in a computer word-processing document. Some later used a mouse to drag the file into the computer recycle bin, while others moved the file to a storage disk. Just as in the previous studies, participants made less use of negative thoughts that they had trashed — by dragging them to the recycle bin — than did those who saved the thoughts by transferring them to a disk. In one other condition, some participants were told to simply imagine dragging their negative thoughts to the recycle bin or saving them to a disk. But that had no effect on their later judgments. “The more convinced the person is that the thoughts are really gone, the better,” Petty said. “Just imagining that you throw them away doesn’t seem to work. “Of course, even if you throw the thoughts in a garbage can or put them in the recycle bin on the computer, they are not really gone — you can regenerate them. But the representations of those thoughts are gone, at least temporarily, and it seems to make it easier to not think about them.” Petty said the researchers plan to see if this technique could work to help people who have recurrent negative thoughts that are intrusive and bothersome, such as thoughts about the death of a loved one. “It is often difficult to get rid of these thoughts. We want to find out if there is a way to keep those thoughts from coming back, at least for longer periods of time.” The study was supported by grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation and the equivalent agency in Spain.

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On thanks-giving

It’s Thanksgiving in the US, and so I thought it would be a good idea to highlight some of the articles we’ve published about gratitude: the science and spirituality of gratitude, how to cultivate it, and how cultivating it can benefit you. But before we do, I’d like to thank the many kind people who have contributed their talents to Wildmind’s website over the years, as well as all the readers (1.5 million of you this year!) who are what it’s really all about.

Rick Hanson PhD

Nov 05, 2012

Waking up to the positive

Waking up is like the sun rising. At first it’s mostly dark, as glimmers of consciousness begin to light the shadows. Emerging into full wakefulness, the fogs and veils dissolve and the whole plain of your mind comes into view. It’s quiet: a restedness in the body, sleepy still, not yet much internal verbal chatter. There’s an intimacy with yourself, abiding as the core of your be-ing.

During these first few minutes, your mind and brain are very receptive to influence. If, hypothetically, a loud alarm suddenly began clanging, you’d probably feel rattled for hours; on the other hand, if someone you love suddenly began telling you how much he …

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Tara Brach

Sep 21, 2012

Beyond the “defended self”

During the years right after college, I was the director of a yoga studio at the ashram where I was living near Boston. One day, at a time when we were behind in promoting our major event of the year, which featured a number of well-known teachers, the head of our local community arrived late to our weekly staff meeting, visibly upset. I asked him what was wrong.

In a barely controlled voice, he thrust in front of me a flyer I’d created for the event. “Just take a look at this.” Immediately, I saw the typo in bold print—it was the wrong date. My heart sank: …

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Bodhipaksa

Feb 19, 2012

10 things science (and Buddhism) says will make you happy

I’m a science geek as well as a Buddhist geek, and recently when I was leading a retreat on how to bring more joy into our lives I found myself making a lot of references to an article published in Yes magazine, which touched on ten things that have been shown by science to make us happier. It seemed natural to draw upon the article because so much of the research that was described resonated with Buddhist teachings.

So I thought it would be interesting to take the main points of the article and flesh them out with a little Buddhism.

1. Be generous
“Make altruism and giving part of

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Bodhipaksa

Jan 14, 2012

Five ways to increase your joy

Joy (sukha in Pali) should be our natural state of being. Unfortunately, though, we’ve been brought up in a society that emphasizes wanting things and having things as the primary path to happiness. Wanting things actually destroys joy, while having things brings only a short-term burst of pleasure that fades quickly.

In fact, thinking that joy depends on things outside of ourselves is a trap. It makes it harder for us to experience real happiness. True happiness comes from our attitude toward things, not from things themselves.

Despite its seeming elusiveness, it’s possible for us to spend much of our time in a state of joy, and here are …

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Rick Hanson PhD

Nov 28, 2011

A living web of gratitude

What do you feel when someone thanks you for something? For a comment in a meeting, a task done at home, an extra step taken, an encouraging word.

You probably feel seen, appreciated, that you matter to the other person. Maybe a little startled, maybe wondering if you really deserve it, but also glad. Personally, this is how it is for me.

Turning it around, when you say “thank you” to someone, it’s a small moment with big ripples: a confirmation of a deep and wonderful truth, that we all depend on each other, that we are all joined – across dinner tables and across the world – in …

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Bodhipaksa

Nov 21, 2011

How to feel gratitude

Our minds have an inherent tendency toward finding fault. In psychology, this is called negativity bias. As psychologist and regular Wildmind contributor Rick Hanson, PhD, has pointed out, this results from our evolutionary heritage:

Imagine being a hominid in Africa a million years ago, living in a small band. To pass on your genes, you’ve got to find food, have sex, and cooperate with others to help the band’s children (particularly yours) to have children of their own: these are big carrots in the Serengeti. Additionally, you’ve got to hide from predators, steer clear of Alpha males and females looking for trouble, and not let other hunter-gatherer …

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Bodhipaksa

Aug 20, 2011

The power of appreciation

It’s all too easy to focus on what’s wrong in our lives, and to overlook what’s positive. It seems almost that we’re pre-programmed to respond strongly to the things that threaten us, while things that are of benefit end up being taken for granted. There are certainly people who are continually acknowledging the positive, but they’re comparatively rare, and I’m not one of them!

And yet one thing that’s been demonstrated in studies is that appreciation makes us happy. There’s a well-known article in Yes Magazine, from a few years back, that discusses this. Two pieces of advice they give from the science of happiness are:

Savor Everyday Moments
Pause now and then …

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Vajradevi

May 31, 2011

“Beyond Happiness” by Ezra Bayda

Ezra Bayda is a Zen teacher and former student of Charlotte Joko Beck. He has written four other books, including At Home in the Muddy Water: a Guide to Finding Peace within Everyday Chaos. With his wife, Elizabeth Hamilton, he runs the San Diego Zen Centre, which, as their web-site says, is not affiliated with any particular religious denomination. This is a book that doesn’t talk much about Buddhism and has only a handful of references to the Buddha and his teachings. So is it “secular Buddhism,” with a watered down yet more widely palatable message promising that happiness is easily within our grasp, or something more?

Title: Beyond Happiness
Author: Ezra …

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Saddhamala

Feb 05, 2011

Is there a link between gratitude and happiness?

Thank You text on green blackboard with copy spaceResearch suggests that people who feel gratitude benefit in the following ways:

1. happier
2. less depressed
3. less stressed
4. more satisfied with their lives and social relationships
5. aware of their purpose in life
6. self confident
7. positive
8. able to cope with the difficulties in positive ways
9. more likely to seek support from other people, and
10. able to learn and grow from their experiences.

It has been said that gratitude is strongly linked with mental health. Several times in my life I have kept a gratitude journal, in which I have …

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Waking up to the positive

Waking up is like the sun rising. At first it’s mostly dark, as glimmers of consciousness begin to light the shadows. Emerging into full wakefulness, the fogs and veils dissolve and the whole plain of your mind comes into view. It’s quiet: a restedness in the body, sleepy still, not yet much internal verbal chatter. There’s an intimacy with yourself, abiding as the core of your be-ing.

During these first few minutes, your mind and brain are very receptive to influence. If, hypothetically, a loud alarm suddenly began clanging, you’d probably feel rattled for hours; on the other hand, if someone you love suddenly began telling you how much he or she cared about you, you’d probably feel good for hours.

So, at this delicate and lovely time in the morning, why not influence your mind and brain yourself?

There is a traditional saying that the mind takes its shape from whatever it rests upon. For better or worse. Instead of resting it upon planning, worrying, or stressing about your day, how about taking a little time to receive and embrace something more positive? Which would set up your whole day for the better – especially if you are prone, as many are, to anxiety or the blues in the morning.

Then as your day unfolds, from time to time, you could return to the feelings and intentions you established when you first awoke – to replenish yourself in a quick pit stop on the road of life.

How?

This practice is really natural and simple: on first waking, rest your mind upon one or more things that are good for you.

For example, you could relax into your body, feeling the truth that you are actually alright right now. Or you could open to gratitude. Or bring to mind someone you care about – perhaps sleeping beside you – and soften into love.

You could be aware of a deep purpose, or aspiration, or guiding light. Give yourself over to this calling, letting it carry you along. This is a personally important practice for me. Another one I do is to find refuge in things that support me. For example, classic refuges are a teacher, a body of teachings, or the community of the taught; people also take refuge in mindfulness, the power of reason, practice, inner light, the fact of connection, or their sense of something Divine. Take a moment to get a feeling for each refuge and let it sink in.

Or consider our three fundamental needs, loosely linked to the three-stage evolution (to simplify: reptile, mammal, primate/human) of the brain: avoid harms, approach rewards, and attach to others. When we experience that these needs are met, the brain naturally defaults to its home base, its Responsive mode, in which the body refuels and repairs itself, and the mind dwells in a basic sense of peace, happiness, and love (in terms of our needs to avoid, approach, and attach).

Since “neurons that fire together, wire together,” time spent in the Responsive mode gradually strengthens its neural substrates – like deepening the keel of a boat so you can sail through life without its winds knocking you over. And what better time when the mind/brain is like a sponge, during the first minutes after waking? So I’ll often try to find a sense of peace (relaxed, safe, not at war with anything or anyone), happiness (there is enough, fortunate, contented), and love (feeling cared about, compassionate, and kind) – and once found, let these sink in.

These early moments are precious, open with possibility, graced by stillness, sacred. They are a gift. May we receive them.

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Becoming a rock-solid regular meditator: an update

relief statue of buddha meditating, flanked by attendants

Six weeks ago I wrote a post about an attempt I was making to make my meditation practice into a “without fail” daily practice. I’ve tended to skip days here and there, and really wanted to become a rock-solid regular meditator.

The particular approach I was taking hinged on the key element of self-definition. We all carry views about ourselves. These views are often not consciously articulated, but they run very deep and shape our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions.

What I decided to do was to consciously take on the task of redefining myself as a daily (no exceptions!) meditator, by repeating to myself phrases like “I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s who I am.”

The results have been good! With one slip-up (I’ll come to that later) I’ve meditated every day for over two months. I’ve averaged 40 minutes of meditation a day. Some days I’ve managed to meditate twice. My “standard” meditation is 40 minutes, but on a couple of days I’ve only managed 30 minutes and on a couple of very busy days I’ve only managed 15. (Pedantry alert: A couple means “two” by the way. I’m puzzled by how many people think that “a couple” is “a few.” Think of “the happy couple” getting married — that’s two people, not three or four! End pedantry alert)

So it’s gone well. There’s just been that one day that didn’t work out. What’s that about?

Well, dear reader, I forgot! I’d been reciting my affirmation several times a day, sometimes at the start or end of meditation, or when I was lying in bed, but basically whenever the thought popped into my head. Then I was meditating absolutely every day, and after two months or so of this i started to repeat the affirmation less and less often. I guess I thought that I was doing it, so I didn’t need to tell myself to do it. This wasn’t a conscious choice — it just happened. But it turns out that this was a mistake.

Last Saturday I had a crazy busy day where I was looking after the children from first thing in the morning until getting them to bed, with about 90 minutes off during the day, in which space of time I had to get ready for a halloween costume party that I was taking the kids to. I could have meditated during that time, but I was focused on trying to get a work project ready and getting my costume ready (I went as a zombie). And I forgot. I could have meditated after the kids were in bed, but again I forgot.

So there’s a lesson here. I need my “mantra”!

Another lesson is not to let a failure to achieve “perfection” become an excuse to give up. It wasn’t until I woke up the next morning that I realized I hadn’t meditated the previous day. And to be honest I felt a bit sick, and very disappointed. After all, there was no way to go back in time; no way to restore my track record to its 100% success rate. And a part of me thought, “That’s it, you’ve blown it,” but I decided not to take that voice, or the disappointment, seriously. I fell off the horse; it’s time to get back on. My failure to remember to meditate is just a reminder: I need my mantra! So I’m back to reminding myself, daily: “I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s who I am.”

Despite this minor failure, so far this has been, I think, a very successful way of developing an unshakable habit of meditating daily.

I’m obviously not quite there yet, but it seems obvious I’m making progress. Now I’ve had longer periods of meditating without missing a day, but I don’t think those experiences changed my self-view. I think I saw myself as someone who happened to be having a run of “good luck” with his meditation practice. I don’t think that fundamentally I saw myself as “a person who meditates every day.” And that’s who I want to be.

Because the benefits have been very tangible. I feel happier with myself, having a “no days off” regular meditation practice. And the effects of meditating daily have been excellent. I’m just happier, and at times almost immune from stress, even under very challenging circumstances. It’s almost as if the effects of meditating daily are cumulative, in a way that they’re not when I have days off. So I’m going to keep going with my experiment. Hopefully one day I really will see myself, on a deep level, as someone who meditates, without fail, every day, and I really will be able to let go of that mantra. I won’t need to tell myself I’m a person who meditates every day without fail, because I’ll be that person.

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Learning to focus on the positive

There are always things that are getting worse. For example, over the past year, you probably know someone who has become unemployed or ill or both, and there’s more carbon in the atmosphere inexorably heating up the planet.

But if you don’t recognize what’s improving in your own life, then you feel stagnant, or declining. This breeds what researchers call “learned helplessness” – a dangerously slippery slope: in the original experiments on dogs, whose motivational neural systems are like our own in important ways, it was very easy to train them in helplessness but very, very hard to teach them later that they could actually walk a few steps to escape from painful electric shock.

If you don’t recognize what’s getting better in the people around you, then you’ll continue to feel disappointed – and they’ll continue to feel criticized, not seen, and “why bother.”

If you don’t see the positive trends in our world over the past several decades – such as the end of the Cold War, improved medical care and access to information, and a growing middle class in many third world countries – then you’ll get swallowed up by all the bad news, and give up trying to make this world better.

It’s not that you’re supposed to look through rose-colored glasses. The point is to see life as it is – including the ways it’s improving.

How?

Be aware of little ways you move forward each day. Like getting to the bottom of a sink of dishes or to the end of a stack of emails. Knowing a little more when you go to bed than you did when you woke up. Earning a day’s wages, or a thank you, or a nod of respect.

Then consider a longer timeframe: How have you moved forward over the past twelve months? What have you grown, built, learned? What problematic things have you dropped?

See some of the many ways that your material circumstances are better than they were a year ago (no matter if they have worsened in other ways). Notice any shrubs that have grown, fences mended, new clothes acquired, more earning power, improved net worth.

See how things have improved in your relationships. With whom do you feel friendlier or closer or more trusting today than a year ago? And what’s gotten better in a different sense: stepping back from people who don’t treat you that well?

Recognize the sincere intentions, good efforts, and growing abilities in children you raise or teach, and in the people with whom you live and work.

Consider our sweet, soft planet. Given your values, what’s gotten better over the past 20 years? 50? 100? 1000? 10,000 years? Sure, we face unprecedented challenges. But all the major problems our ancestors had to solve were by definition unprecedented when they first appeared!

Would you rather deal with our global issues today . . . or – looking farther and farther back in time – with the threat of thermonuclear war between America and the Soviet Union; with Dickensian levels of poverty and misery throughout the 19th century; with millennia of feudal lords, widespread slavery, and the abuse of women and children reaching back to the development of agriculture 10,000 years ago; or with pervasive hunger and pain and violence in hunter-gatherer bands in which, as Thomas Hobbes put it, life was usually “nasty, brutish, and short”?

Personally, I’m tired of the widespread meme – “in these dark times” – however it gets expressed. It’s ignorant, defeatist, and often used to further an agenda. Every time in human history has been dark in some regards – and bright in many others. In a hundred ways, daily life is better for the average person worldwide than it’s ever been.

We’ve got our work cut out for us. But to keep going we need to feel we’re making headway. Take heart: zigging and zagging, three steps forward and two steps back, slowly but surely we can and will make our world a better place.

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Becoming a rock-solid regular meditator

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

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

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

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

Is this familiar to you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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