psychology and meditation

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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Relaxing is stressful for some

Tia Ghose, LiveScience: Deep breaths, yoga, a lazy day at the beach: While some may find those activities soothing, their mere mention can set other people’s nerves on edge.

Now, a new method may help therapists measure just how much relaxing stresses people out. The new tool, which will be presented Saturday (Nov. 16) at the annual convention of the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, should help therapists know when to say “breathe in…” and when to steer clear of relaxation techniques.

“For a lot of different anxiety disorders, we use relaxation as a treatment,” said Christina Lumberto, a psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Cincinnati. “But for the people who don’t like that, it’s not a helpful treatment.”

In the 1980s, psychologists first noticed that some people doing relaxation exercises would actually get quite anxious.

“At first, you do see decreased heart rate, decreased breathing, things that indicate relaxation,” Lumberto told LiveScience. “After they have achieved a relaxed state, all of a sudden everything just spikes back up.”

Because so many modern anxiety treatments use mind-body relaxation techniques such as meditation, Lumberto and her colleagues wanted to identify patients for whom these techniques might backfire. [7 Reasons You Should Meditate]

They created a 21-point questionnaire and tested it on 300 undergraduate students. The survey asks people to rate, on a scale of 0 to 5, how much they agree with statements like, “It scares me when my breathing becomes deeper;” and, “I hate getting massages because of the feeling it creates when my muscles relax.”

The questionnaire captures the myriad reasons why people might have trouble winding down, from feeling lazy to an intense fear of being out of control.

“Some people don’t like to relax because of the physical changes, the sensations of their muscles relaxing,” she said. “Other people will say they don’t like relaxing because they’re actually worried about whether or not they’re relaxing correctly.”

People who fear calming techniques may be more sensitive to changes in their normal physical state, such as changes in heart rate or blood pressure, regardless of whether they’re due to relaxation or to anxiety, Lumberto said.

The relaxation-phobic tend to be more anxious in general, she said. (Oddly, those who fear relaxation are also more prone to asthma, Lumberto’s past research has found.)

Instead of diving into meditation, the relaxation-averse may need to dip their toes in first, using a technique called exposure therapy, which is more commonly used to conquer fears of wide-open spaces or spider phobia, she said.

Of course, just because you dislike yoga or lounging on the beach doesn’t mean you have a problem.

“The point where it becomes problematic is if it really gets in the way of living your life,” Lumberto said.

Read the original article »

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University of Texas psychology professor spreads meditation techniques, medical benefits

Hannah Smothers, Daily Texan: There is a calming stillness that resonates throughout the third floor of the Sarah M. and Charles E. Seay Building. Aside from the occasional drumming of footsteps or the rare interruption of a ringing telephone, the halls and rooms are devoid of sound.

Such tranquility isn’t necessarily out of character for a psychology clinic, but the peacefulness can also be attributed to one of its staff members.

Dr. David Collins, administrative associate for the Department of Psychology, has two master’s degrees in religious studies and a doctorate in clinical psychology, but he considers his practice of meditation as his …

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The opportunity of “the magic quarter-second”

In her book My Stroke of Insight, brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor explains that the natural life span of an emotion—the average time it takes for it to move through the nervous system and body—is only a minute and a half, a mere ninety seconds. After that, we need thoughts to keep the emotion rolling. So, if we wonder why we lock into painful emotional states like anxiety, depression, or rage, we need look no further than our own endless stream of inner dialogue.

Modern neuroscience has discovered a fundamental truth: Neurons that fire together, wire together. When we rehearse a looping set of thoughts and emotions, we create deeply grooved patterns of emotional reactivity. This means that the more you think and rethink about certain experiences, the stronger the memory and the more easily activated the related feelings become.

For example, if a young girl asks her father for help and he either ignores her or reacts with irritation, the emotional pain of rejection may become linked with any number of thoughts or beliefs: “I’m not loved,” “I’m not worth helping,” “I’m weak for wanting help,” “It’s dangerous to ask for help,” “He’s bad. I hate him.”

The more the child gets this response from either parent—or even imagines getting this response—the more the impulse to ask for help becomes paired with the belief that she will be refused and the accompanying feelings (fear or hurt, anger or shame). Years later, she may hesitate to ask for help at all. Or, if she does ask, and the other person so much as pauses or looks distracted, the old feelings instantly take over: She downplays her needs, apologizes, or becomes enraged.

Unless we learn to recognize and interrupt our compulsive thinking, these ingrained emotional and behavioral patterns continue to strengthen over time. Fortunately, it’s possible to break out of this patterning.

Researcher Benjamin Libet discovered that the part of the brain responsible for movement activates a quarter-second before we become aware of our intention to move. There is then another quarter-second before the movement begins. What does this mean? First, it casts an interesting light on what we call “free will”—before we make a conscious decision, our brain has already set the gears in motion! But secondly, it offers us an opportunity.

Say you’ve been obsessing about having a cigarette. During the space between impulse (“I need to smoke a cigarette”) and action (reaching for the pack), there is room for choice. Author Tara Bennett-Goleman named this space “the magic quarter-second.” Mindfulness enables us to take advantage of it. 

By catching our thoughts in the magic quarter-second, we’re able to act from a wiser place, interrupting the circling of compulsive thinking that fuels anxiety and other painful emotions. For instance, if our child asks us to play a game and we automatically think “I’m too busy,” we might pause and choose to spend some time with her. If we’ve been caught up in composing an angry e-mail, we might pause and decide not to press the send button.

The Buddha taught that to be free—not identified with or possessed by thoughts or feelings—we need to investigate each and every part of our experience with an intimate and mindful attention. The first step is pausing, making use of the magic quarter second, and the second, choosing to be present with our moment –to- moment experience.  We need to recognize the fear-based thoughts and the tension in our bodies with an accepting, curious and kind attention. The fruit of this presence is a capacity to release habitual reactivity, respond to our life circumstances with a wise heart and step out of the grip of oppressive emotions.

Adapted from True Refuge.

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The quintessential leanings of the heart

I did my Ph.D. dissertation by videotaping 20 mother-toddler pairs and analyzing what happened when the mom offered an alternative to a problematic want (“not the chainsaw, sweetie, how about this red truck”). Hundreds of bleary eyed hours later, I found that offering alternatives reduced child negative emotion and increased cooperation with the parent.

Pretty interesting (at least to me, both as a new parent and as someone desperate to finish grad school). And there’s an even deeper lesson. Kids – and adults, too – obviously want to get what they want from others. But more fundamentally, we want to know that others understand our wants – and even more fundamentally, that they want to.

Consider any significant relationship: someone at work, or a friend, or a family member. How does it feel when they misinterpret what you want? Or worse, when they could care less about understanding what you want?

Ouch.

When you recognize the deeper wants of others, they feel seen and are less likely to be reactive. Plus you’ve gained lots of valuable information. And it becomes easier to ask them to do the same for you.

This approach also gradually reveals the profound desires at the center of being. Each person must come to know these in his or her own way. These quintessential leanings of the heart are beyond language. Diffidently and with respect, I could offer three words – fingers pointing at the moon but the not moon itself – that are suggestive: to be conscious, free, and loving.

For you, what are the deepest wants of all?

How?

With a friend or a stranger, look deeper, behind the eyes, beneath the surface. You might sense a wish for pleasure, a commitment to others, a priority on security, a delight in life, a valuing of autonomy, or a need for love.

Look down into your own core of being and into its longings, and you’ll find many of the same wishes. They’re just as powerful and precious to the other person as they are to you.

Deep down, most wants are positive. The means to these ends may be misguided, but the fundamental ends themselves are usually good ones. Typically, even horrible behaviors are misguided efforts to gain positive things like pleasure, independence, recognition, control, or justice. Of course, this is not to justify these actions in any way. But grounding oneself in the truth, the whole truth, means seeing the whole picture, including the good intentions poignantly producing bad behavior.

Try applying this truth to yourself, regarding some act you regret. What positive aims did the act serve? What’s it like to recognize this? For me, opening to see the good aims underlying bad acts actually softens my defensiveness and helps move me to appropriate remorse, and to greater resolve to find better ways to pursue those aims. It also cuts through harsh self-criticism and encourages self-compassion.

Then, during an interaction with someone who is difficult for you – or while reflecting about the relationship as a whole – try to see the deeper wants in the other person, behind the acts of thought, word, or deed that have bothered or hurt you. (I suggest you don’t do this if you tend to blame yourself when others mistreat you.) You may not like how the other person is pursuing the deep want, but at least you can align with that want – all deep wants are positive – and if you like, try to figure out less harmful ways to fulfill it.

Last, on the fly or at particularly quiet moments, open to listen to the soft murmurs of your own most fundamental wants. In what ways are you sincerely trying to fulfill them?

Also: are there any of your deepest wants that it feels right to do more for? What would that look like, concretely, in everyday life?

Imagine your deepest wants like a soft warm current at your back, gently and powerfully carrying you forward along the long road ahead. How would this feel?

Where would this road lead?

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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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Four ways to show love

In several places in the Pali canon, the Buddha praised loving families. For example:

To support mother and father,
to cherish wife and children,
and to be engaged in peaceful occupation
— this is the greatest blessing.

And this:

Husband and wife, both of them
having conviction,
being responsive,
being restrained,
living by the Dhamma,
addressing each other
with loving words:
they benefit in manifold ways.
To them comes bliss.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal emphasizes the importance of affection in relationships, and the advice comes, poignantly, from people who have undergone divorce, as related in psychologist Terri Orbuch’s book, Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship.

In particular there are four components of affection that divorced people said were important:

  1. How often the spouse showed love.
  2. How often the spouse made them feel good about the kind of person they are.
  3. How often the spouse made them feel good about having their own ideas and ways of doing things.
  4. How often the spouse made life interesting or exciting.

The first of these, “showing love” includes “compliments, cuddling and kissing, hand-holding, saying ‘I love you,’ and emotional support.”

It’s the last three that are perhaps least obvious. It’s not hard to remember that a kiss or a hug communicates love, but helping someone feel good about the person they are is a very special and beautiful thing. And it’s something we might be inclined to forget.

One word of caution: when we see lists like this one of the first things we often do is to measure our significant other up against the criteria. This is not only unhelpful, it’s potentially disastrous. We need to focus on ourselves first. How do we measure up? What do we need to do more of, in order to be a more affectionate partner?

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Drop the “shoulds”

One time I watched a three-year-old at her birthday party. Her friends were there from preschool, and she received lots of presents. The cake came out, she admired the pink frosting rose at its center, and everyone sang. One of the moms cut pieces and without thinking sliced right through the rose – a disaster for this little girl. “I shoulda had the rose!” she yelled. “I shoulda shoulda SHOULDA had the rose!” Nothing could calm her down, not even pushing the two pieces of cake together to look like a whole rose. Nothing else mattered, not the friends, not the presents, not the day as a whole: she was insistent, something MUST happen. She had, just HAD to get the whole rose.

It’s natural to move toward what feels good and away from what doesn’t, natural as well to have values, principles, and morals. But when these healthy inclinations become internal rules – “shoulds,” “musts,” and “gottas” – then there is a big problem. We feel driven, righteous, or like a failure. And we create issues for others – even a whole birthday party.

At bottom, “shoulds” are not about events. They’re about what you want to experience (especially emotions and sensations) if your demands on reality are met, or what you fear you’ll experience if they’re not.

Whether your “shoulds” are shaped by neural programs laid down when dinosaurs ruled the earth, or when you were in grade school, they often operate unconsciously or barely semi-consciously – all the more powerfully for lurking in the shadows.

Plus, in a deep sense, your “shoulds” control you. (I’m not talking here about healthy principles and desires, which you’re more able to reflect about and influence.)

Imagine what it would be like to drop your “shoulds” in an upsetting situation or relationship.

What’s this feel like? Probably relaxing, easing, and freeing.

You can and will continue to pursue wholesome aims in wholesome ways. But this time no longer chained to “shoulds.”

How?

As you explore the suggestions below, keep in mind that you can still behave ethically and assert yourself appropriately. Not one word in this JOT is about harming yourself or others, or being a doormat.

Bring to mind some situation or relationship that’s bothering you. Find a central “should” in your reactions to it, like “that can’t happen,” or “this must happen,” or “they can’t treat me this way,” or “I couldn’t stand ____ ,” or “you must ____ .” Notice that the “should” is a statement about reality, the way it is.

Then, facing this “should,” ask yourself a question: “Is it really true?” Let the answer reverberate inside you.

You could find that in fact the “should” is not true. Good things we “must” have – even a pink rose made of sugar and butter – often fail to arrive. And bad things that “must” not happen often do.

I don’t mean that we ought to let others off the moral hook or give up on making the world better. I mean that when we face reality in all its messy streaming complexity, we see that it exists independent of our rules, always wiggling free of the abstractions we try to impose upon it. This recognition of truth pulls you out of conceptualizing into direct experiencing, into being with “the thing-in-itself.” Which feels clear, peaceful, and free.

Consider again the situation or relationship that bothers you, and this time try to find an even deeper “should” that’s related to an experience you “must” have or avoid, such as “I’ll be so embarrassed if I have to give a talk,” or “I can’t stand to be alone,” or “I must feel successful.” Then, facing this “should,” ask yourself a question: “Is it really true?”

You’ll probably find that you could indeed bear the worst possible experience that would come if your “should” were violated. I’m not trying to minimize or dismiss how awful it might feel. But the adamancy, the insistence, built into a “should” is usually not true: you would live through the experience and get to the other side – and eventually other, better experiences would come to you. Most of us are so much more resilient, so much more capable, so much more surrounded by good things to draw upon, so much more contributing and loving than we think we are!

Also, consider the situation or relationship through the eyes of the others involved. Ask yourself if the things you think are imperatives, mandates, rules, necessities, etc. are like that for others. Probably not. And flip it around: what “shoulds” are alive in the minds of others . . . that you are violating. Yikes! When I think about this applied to situations I get cranky about, it’s very humbling.

A final thought: dropping the “shoulds” exposes you to a sense of vulnerability to life and the difficult feelings that come with it – and that can be hard. We use “shoulds” to try to hold at bay the pain and loss we all do or will inevitably face in full measure (some of course more than others). Yet the pain and loss that do come will come regardless of our “musts” and “can’ts” – which only delude us into thinking that this tissue of rules will somehow hold back life’s tide.

Paradoxically, by opening to this tide as it runs in your life – a deeper truer reality than can ever be contained by the nets of thought – you both reduce the uncomfortable friction imposed by “shoulds” upon those currents and increase your sense of opening out into and being lifted and carried by life’s beautiful stream.

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Let it R.A.I.N.

Rain on a window, with out-of-focus car lights behind.

When you’re young, the territory of the psyche is like a vast estate, with rolling hills, forests and plains, swamps and meadows. So many things can be experienced, expressed, wanted, and loved.

But as life goes along, most people pull back from major parts of their psyche. Perhaps a swamp of sadness was painful, or fumes of toxic wishes were alarming, or jumping exuberantly in a meadow of joy irritated a parent into a scolding. Or maybe you saw someone else get in trouble for feeling, saying, or doing something and you resolved, consciously or unconsciously, to Stay Away From That Place Forever.

In whatever way it happens, most of us end up by mid-adulthood living in the gate house, venturing out a bit, but lacking much sense of the whole estate, the great endowment of the whole psyche. Emotions are shut down, energetic and erotic wellsprings of vitality are capped, deep longings are set aside, sub-personalities are shackled and silenced, old pain and troubles are buried, the roots of reactions – hurt, anger, feelings of inadequacy – are veiled so we can’t get at them, and we live at odds with both Nature and our own nature.

Sure, the processes of the psyche need some regulation. Not all thoughts should be spoken, and not all desires should be acted upon! But if you suppress, disown, push away, recoil from, or deny major parts of yourself, then you feel cut off, alienated from yourself, lacking vital information about what is really going on inside, no longer at home in your own skin or your own mind – which feels bad, lowers effectiveness at home and work, fuels interpersonal issues, and contributes to health problems.

So what can we do? How can we reclaim, use, enjoy, and be at peace with our whole estate – without being overwhelmed by its occasional swamps and fumes?

This is where R.A.I.N. comes in.

How?

R.A.I.N. is an acronym developed by Michelle McDonald, a senior mindfulness teacher, to summarize a powerful way to expand self-awareness. (I’ve adapted it a bit below, and any flaws in the adaptation are my own, not Michelle’s.)

R = Recognize: Notice that you are experiencing something, such as irritation at the tone of voice used by your partner, child, or co-worker. Step back into observation rather than reaction. Without getting into story, simply name what is present, such as “annoyance,” “thoughts of being mistreated,” “body firing up,” “hurt,” “wanting to cry.”

A = Accept (Allow): Acknowledge that your experience is what it is, even if it’s unpleasant. Be with it without attempting to change it. Try to have self-compassion instead of self-criticism. Don’t add to the difficulty by being hard on yourself.

I = Investigate (Inquire): Try to find an attitude of interest, curiosity, and openness. Not detached intellectual analysis but a gently engaged exploration, often with a sense of tenderness or friendliness toward what it finds. Open to other aspects of the experience, such as softer feelings of hurt under the brittle armor of anger. It’s OK for your inquiry to be guided by a bit of insight into your own history and personality, but try to stay close to the raw experience and out of psychoanalyzing yourself.

N = Not-identify (Not-self): Have a feeling/thought/etc., instead of being it. Disentangle yourself from the various parts of the experience, knowing that they are small, fleeting aspects of the totality you are. See the streaming nature of sights, sounds, thoughts, and other contents of mind, arising and passing away due mainly to causes that have nothing to do with you, that are impersonal. Feel the contraction, stress, and pain that comes from claiming any part of this stream as “I,” or “me,” or “mine” – and sense the spaciousness and peace that comes when experiences simply flow.

* * *

R.A.I.N. and related practices of spacious awareness are fundamental to mental health, and always worth doing in their own right. Additionally, sometimes they alone enable painful or challenging contents of mind to dissipate and pass away.

But often it is not enough to simply be with the mind, even in as profound a way as R.A.I.N. Then we need to work with the mind, by reducing what’s negative and increasing what’s positive. (It’s also necessary to work with the mind to build up the inner resources needed to be with it; being with and working with the mind are not at odds with each other as some say, but in fact support each other.)

And whatever ways we work with the garden of the mind – pulling weeds and planting flowers – will be more successful after it R.A.I.N.s.

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From drama to Dharma

I come from a long line of drama queens. My family could create drama out of going to the supermarket. They also drank a lot which enhanced this tendency.

Let’s face it, many of us who have staggered about in the realm of addictive or blow-your-mind substances, have a predisposition towards catastrophizing. Something in us enjoys creating volcanic eruptions out of molehills. Even many of us who have heroically extricated ourselves from substance misuse or abuse have failed to let go the accompanying tendency to see the world in terms of flash crashes, trench warfare, bubonic plague, and other extreme events.

Even though we may be consciously inclined towards the Middle Path and serenity, our unconscious minds hurtle us relentlessly into series upon series of melodramas.

Melodrama, a theatrical term, derives from the Greek word melo, which means music. In theatre, emotions are exaggerated and the storyline is full of exciting events. Many of us would secretly delight in a sound-track to accompany our life performances.

Drama addicts tend to exaggerate, embroider and amplify events in order to draw attention to themselves and/or their world. Sometimes there is a desire to shock, whether by acting out or in telling the story of someone else’s drama.

In the grip of a melodrama the breath becomes shallow, adrenalin kicks in, and the drama addict feels energized and alive. So it can be a challenge for many addicts to stick with meditation. The lurking core belief is that without drama, life would be boring; without telling stories of dramatic events, you would be boring.

Rollercoaster emotions may initially feel energizing but eventually they deplete us. Too much adrenaline and cortisol flooding the system eventually creates a worn out, flat and bored organism.

If we are able to actually identify that we are addicted to drama, meditating regularly may be able to help us move away from our own TV soap opera.

A good strategy in addressing addiction to drama is to reduce our expectations. Conscious and sub-conscious expectations can and do create a world of hurt. When I wait for the bus, I expect it to appear. When it does not appear, a melodramatic reaction arises. Behaving in an overdramatic manner each time an expectation is thwarted adds nothing constructive. Eliminating the expectation and relaxing into what actually is can liberate us from the tyranny of self.

When we behave as fixed entities complete with desires that must be satiated right here, right now, we see the world in terms of what we can extract from it physically, mentally and emotionally. When we crave less and demand less, we find we can love more and accept more. We move from the realm of frustrated hungry ghosts to the realm of equanimity. Appreciating what we have instead of clamouring for what we want, we can abide in plenty, well-being, kindness and beauty.

When we have fewer expectations, melodramas are less frequent. We find we are more able to allow things to be the way they are without needing to adjust or control outcomes.

Meditation sharpens our sense of interconnectedness and process. It helps us move from chipped mug half-empty to exquisite goblet half-full – a necessary step if we are to survive as a species.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote:

In fact the whole antithesis between self and the rest of the world, which is implied in the doctrine of self-denial, disappears as soon as we have any genuine interest in persons or things outside ourselves. Through such interests a man comes to feel himself part of the stream of life, not a hard separate entity like a billiard-ball, which can have no relation with other such entities except that of collocation. All unhappiness depends upon some kind of disintegration or lack or integration; there is disintegration within the self through lack of co-ordination between the conscious and the unconscious mind; there is lack of integration between the self and society where the two are not knit together by the force of objective interests and affections. The happy man is the man who does not suffer from either of these failures of unity, whose personality is neither divided against itself nor pitted against the world. Such a man feels himself a citizen of the universe, enjoying freely the spectacle that it offers and the joys that it affords, untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not really separate from those who will come after him. It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found.

Meditation helps to bring the drama addict into the generally drama-free reality of the present moment. Reality reflects back to us that despite our out-of-control emotions and thoughts we are, in that very moment, clothed, fed, and sheltered and not at risk of war, famine or any other impending apocalypse.

When we sit with our present experience, whatever that may be, without judgment or commentary, and become aware on the level of sensation just what is going on emotionally, we may find that, maybe for the first time ever, we are actually capable of resting in great, natural peace. If we are able to stop our incessant, blind attraction to danger and chaos, even for a moment, we may experience, from the depths of our being, pure, unadulterated relief.

We may lurch back into old autopilot habits of over-dramatizing, but we have briefly experienced another way, which is not boring or grey after all, but deeply restful and nourishing. All we need to do is make a new habit, one of commitment, to going back to that place on a daily basis.

We may not feel like doing this. We may be tired, angry, distracted, hungry, lonely or stressed. But we don’t have to believe every emotion or thought that we have. As with NA/AA meetings, we just show up. As we sit, day in and day out, steadfast as the rising and the setting sun, we gradually develop discriminating wisdom which helps us to decide which emotions and thoughts are in our own best interest and which are not. Mastery of the mind entails rejecting those thoughts not in alignment with our values. We can also identify emotions and thoughts that help in strengthening our purpose.

Serenity is the opposite of melodrama, and the dualistic nature of our universe whispers to us that the kernel of the one lies dormant in the other. All we need to do is incubate serenity by carefully laying it under our meditation cushion before we sit and trusting that our minds will gradually incline towards peace.

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