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Meditation: easy or hard? Ten observations

wildmind meditation newsPeter Navratil, Huffington Post: I have read a quite a few blogs and articles on meditation recently, and I get a bit confused at why so many people describe their daily practice as a painful process. Some detailing a daily ritual that sounds like torture.

Then I remind myself to think back to when I first started or attempted to meditate. Yes it was mostly frustrating. I did experience aches and pains in my body which tended to dominate the process along with many random thoughts.

At about the same time I did a series of courses where I studied the Yoga Sutras. It …

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You need more than a book to learn loving-kindness

Kira M. Newman, GGSC: A new study suggests that experience trumps intellectual knowledge when it comes to fostering compassion.

If a visitor from another planet arrived on Earth and asked you about the meaning of love, would you point him to Greater Good‘s articles on the subject? Or would you try to do some intergalactic matchmaking?

This question speaks to the eternal debate between book knowledge and street smarts, theory and practice, knowing intellectually vs. knowing experientially.

Now, scholars from the University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, and Michigan State University have addressed …

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The progress question: like any artistic endeavor, meditation is a matter of practice

wildmind meditation newsKen McLeod, Tricycle: “I’ve been meditating for some time, but my mind seems just as chaotic and confused as when I started. Am I doing something wrong?”

Almost everyone who practices meditation has similar concerns, no matter how long they’ve been doing it—whether three weeks, three years, or three decades. When students confront me with the progress question, I just try to redirect their attention. I’ve found that the best thing is for them to just keep practicing.

We call meditation “practice” for a reason …

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Why mindfulness is just the beginning

wildmind meditation newsDavid Mochel, The Huffington Post UK: Huffington Post, Forbes, New York Times, Bloomberg News, The New Yorker, The Guardian, Business Insider — articles on mindfulness are everywhere these days. It is difficult to avoid some mention of this ancient practice in the media. While it is most directly linked with Buddhism, the practice of using your attention on purpose and accepting external and internal events has been taught by the Stoics of Greece, as well as contemplatives from Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and many other faiths. The body of scientific evidence pointing to the physiological, psychological, and social benefits of this practice is large and …

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Kindness to you is kindness to me; kindness to me is kindness to you

PartnershipI usually describe a practice as something to do: get on your own side, see the being behind the eyes, take in the good, etc. This practice is different: it’s something to recognize. From this recognition, appropriate action will follow. Let me explain.

Some years ago I was invited to give a keynote at a conference with the largest audience I’d ever faced. It was a big step up for me. Legendary psychologists were giving the other talks, and I feared I wouldn’t measure up. I was nervous. Real nervous.

I sat in the back waiting my turn, worrying about how people would see me. I thought about how to look impressive and get approval. My mind fixed on me, me, me. I was miserable.

Then I began reading an interview with the Dalai Lama. He spoke about the happiness in wishing others well. A wave of relief and calming swept through me as I recognized that the kindest thing I could do for myself was to stop obsessing about “me” and instead try to be helpful to others.

So I gave my talk, and stayed focused on what could be useful to people rather than how I was coming across. I felt much more relaxed and at peace – and received a standing ovation. I laughed to myself at the ironies: to get approval, stop seeking it; to take care of yourself, take care of others.

This principle holds in everyday life, not just in conferences. If you get a sense of other people and find compassion for them, you’ll feel better yourself. In a relationship, one of the best ways to get your own needs met is to take maximum reasonable responsibility (these words are carefully chosen) for meeting the needs of the other person. Besides being benevolent – which feels good in its own right – it’s your best odds strategy for getting treated better by others. This approach is the opposite of being a doormat; it puts you in a stronger position.

Flip it the other way, and it is also true: kindness to yourself is kindness to others. As your own well-being increases, you’re more able and likely to be patient, supportive, forgiving, and loving. To take care of them, you’ve got to take care of yourself; otherwise you start running on empty. As you grow happiness and other inner strengths inside yourself, you’ve got more to offer to others.

Kindness to you is kindness to me; kindness to me is kindness to you. It’s a genuine – and beautiful – two-way street.

The kindness to others and to yourself that I’m talking about here is authentic and proportionate, not overblown or inappropriate.

In ordinary situations, take a moment here and there to recognize that if you open to appropriate compassion, decency, tolerance, respect, support, friendliness, or even love for others . . . . it’s good for you as well.

See the consequences of little things. For example, earlier today, in an airport, I saw a bag on the ground and didn’t know if it had been left by someone. Thinking about this practice, it was natural for there to be some friendliness in my face when I asked the man in front of me if it was his bag. He was startled at first and it seemed like he felt criticized, then he looked more closely at me, relaxed a bit, and said that the bag was his friend’s. His response to my friendliness made me feel at ease instead of awkward or tense.

Imagine what the other person’s concerns or wants might be, and do what you can – usually easily and naturally – to take them into account. Then see how this turns out for you. Probably better than it would have been.

Also see how taking care of yourself has good ripple effects for others. Deliberately do a small thing that feeds you – a little rest, some exercise, some time for yourself – and then notice how this affects your relationships. Notice how healthy boundaries in relationships helps prevent you from getting used up or angry and eventually needing to withdraw.

In effect, you are running little experiments and letting the results really sink in. That’s the important part: letting it really land inside you that we are deeply connected with each other. Helping others helps you; helping yourself helps others. Similarly, harming others harms you; harming yourself harms others.

It’s as if we are connected in a vast web. For better or worse, what you do to others ripples back to you; what you do to yourself ripples out to others.

Recognizing this in your belly and bones will change your life for the better. And change the lives of others for the better as well.

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Ten tips for setting up a meditation practice

The benefits of meditation come with regular practice, and that means making it part of your life. That’s one of the great challenges of learning meditation, so here are ten tips for establishing a meditation practice.

1. Get some instruction

You can learn the techniques of meditation from books and CDs: there are some good ones around (check out our shop). There are also meditation apps. But it helps a lot to learn from a live class if you can make it to one. Take a course – or go to a class where you can ask questions about the issues. In time, it helps to have friends or teachers who are more experienced meditators than you are.

2. Settle on a practice that suits you

On an meditation course there are three main practices – the mindfulness of breathing, the body scan and mindful movement, and there are many others out there. It’s worth experimenting a bit and then settling on the practice, or combination of practices, that work for you.

3. Find a regular time for practice

You might start off thinking you’ll just try fitting meditation into your day somehow or other, but establishing a practice means finding a time that works for you. For many people, first thing in the morning before the day starts up is a good time; others prefer the evening. There are pros and cons with either so you’ll need to experiment.

4. Set up a meditation place

You can meditate anywhere, but if you sit down amid clutter it has an effect. So set aside a space that evokes the feeling of meditation. Some flowers, a candle or an image on a table can be enough to encourage the feeling that you’re leaving aside the usual preoccupations. It also helps to set aside the cushions or chair that need for meditation, and it’s worth thinking about getting some meditation cushions or a stool.

5. Talk to your family or housemates

To avoid people barging in or turning up the music just as you start to get settled, talk to the people you live with and let them know what you are doing. Don’t worry if they thing you’re weird: if they notice you’re calmer and happier they’ll soon change.

6. Meditate with others

It’s hard to keep anything going on your own, at least to start with. We all need encouragement and guidance. Many people find a setting where they can meditate with others: Buddhist centres, sitting groups, and even virtual settings, like a videoconference or app.

7. Go on retreat

Retreats are a chance to get away from all the things that usually fill up our lives. They vary in length: you can find day retreats or residential retreats for a weekend or longer. Just being quiet and meditating several times a day lets everything settle down so your experience can go deeper. On an intensive retreat you don’t do much apart from meditate, but there are less demanding options as well.

8. Take your practice off the cushion

If you think of meditation as something that only happens in the formal practice time, it will be hard to maintain. So look for ways to keep the thread of mindfulness and meditation alive through the day. The Three Minute Breathing Space gives you time to stop and connect with mindfulness, and you can find many more, informal ways to do the same.

9. Reflect on your values

Most of us get enthusiastic, every so often, about a certain kind of exercise or studying a particular subject. But, looking back, we only maintain a few of these. They are the ones that touch on the values at the core of our lives. If you can make the connection between something that is a deep-seated drive like helping others or understanding the truth, or a pressing concern like not getting depressed or being more effective as a parent, then you’re much more likely to be able to sustain it.

10. Be patient … and persistent

Establishing a regular meditation practice is a long-term project. You may miss days, get discouraged or just forget about meditation for a while. The key thing is to keep going. If you force yourself to meditate when you really don’t feel like it, you’ll probably have a reaction to the whole idea; but if you wait until you do feel like it before you pick your practice up again, it may never happen. But with time, you figure out ways to make your practice happen.

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Mysticism: where the dharma rubber hits the road

Mount Saint Helens, Washington State, USA

In Sunada’s view, mysticism isn’t about indulging in out-of-body experiences as a way of escaping the world. It’s about meeting the world head-on and learning directly from it. It’s about as practical as it gets.

If you’ve been reading my blog articles for a while, you may have gathered by now that I’m a rather down-to-earth sort of practitioner, with a keen interest in how meditation and Buddhist practice interplays with the practical aspects of our daily lives. So when I heard that this month’s topic was Mysticism, well, my first impulse was to take a pass. How does Mysticism relate to everyday life? Like Bodhipaksa (as he mentions in his related article), my first stop was a dictionary. And I was somewhat surprised by what I found. It gave the following definition:

Mysticism: a doctrine of an immediate spiritual intuition of truths believed to transcend ordinary understanding.

With this definition in hand, I’ve changed my view of what mysticism is all about. It’s actually a central part of Buddhist practice, and very much a practical matter. It’s our experience of spiritual intuition that moves the teachings from the realm of intellectual thoughts and concepts into one of personally meaningful truths that inform how we live our lives.

One of those experiences happened to me in 1995 during a vacation to the state of Washington, and a visit to Mount St. Helens. St. Helens had erupted catastrophically fifteen years earlier, causing the most destructive volcanic event in all of US history. After several weeks of rumbling earthquakes and steam-venting, it finally in May of 1980 erupted so violently that its entire north face blew off. Hot gases and ash spewed outward for miles in diameter, instantly roasting and flattening everything in their path.

My husband and I hiked to the peak of a nearby ridge where we came upon an unobstructed panoramic view of massive destruction on a scale beyond belief. As far as I could see, everything was dead and ash-covered. From where we stood, what I knew had once been a dense forest of 40-foot pine trees appeared as though someone had thrown down millions of charred toothpicks. Bare blackened sticks were all that remained — all lying on the ground. But strangely, they were all neatly pointing in the same outward direction from the epicenter of the blast. It was a terrible but beautiful and awesome sight.

Mysticism is a central part of Buddhist practice, and very much a practical matter.

I have no idea how long I stood there taking in that vista. In my stunned silence, time had stopped. In one sense, I felt incredibly small and insignificant in the face of such vast power and devastation. But at the same time, I also felt empowered by its greatness. In an odd way that I can’t explain even now, I felt like I was a part of this greatness, that somehow its magnificence was something that was very much alive and part of me. It was my first intuitive inkling of life as something universal. I wasn’t a separate and independent being, but part of something much greater that incorporated the earth and sky as much as my own puny body.

These kinds of encounters can happen at any moment, in the most ordinary of circumstances. It can happen when talking with a close friend, when a shared moment seems to dissolve all boundaries between us. Or when reading a moving novel, or listening to evocative music, or seeing a work of art that touches us – when we get a glimpse into something in a way that we can’t put into words, but it hits home deeply within ourselves. We’re taken out of our small self-centered viewpoint and see something bigger, something beyond, something universal. I’m sure many of us have had experiences of this sort at one time or another. We may not know what to make of the experience as it’s happening. It may take years or decades for it to mature into something we can even begin to talk about. But something inside gets stirred.

I wasn’t a separate and independent being, but part of something much greater.

I know that Buddhism appeals to many people, myself included, because its teachings are rational and for the most part built upon observable phenomena. But to leave it at that would be to categorize Buddhism as a philosophy or an intellectual pursuit – which falls far short of its true significance.

To truly take up the practice of the dharma is to open ourselves up to the invitation of those intuitive experiences. We can’t make them happen, of course. But we can stay open and receptive, keep a stance of curiosity and wonder, and refrain from our habitual ways of sizing up situations and overlaying them with expectations or fears. As we practice this more and more, our skills at observing and perceiving become clearer and more refined. And that in turn allows us to see more deeply for ourselves the truth behind the Buddha’s words. We begin to change as well, as we become wiser in our ways of responding to our experiences, and that inspires us to go further still. And the cycle continues upward. This is true practice of the dharma.

So, mysticism is not about going into weird trances or out-of-body experiences as a way of escaping from our world. Far from it! It’s really a way of delving more and more deeply in the world, meeting it head-on, and learning from the school of hard knocks, as the saying goes. It’s about learning and growing from life itself. I can’t think of anything more practical than that.

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